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Put no effort into teaching (and other advice Janice Fischer ignored)

A geneticist and award-winning teacher on the resurgence of teaching at research universities, how students have changed since she’s been in the business, and the joys of repetition

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“I got my Ph.D. at Harvard,” says Janice Fischer, “and at that time we were told as [teaching assistants] — basically verbatim — to put no effort into teaching, that we should put all our effort into research, that teaching wasn’t important. I don’t think this is something that was unique to Harvard; it was unique to the culture of high-level science. There were teachers, and there were doers.”

That attitude being endemic in research universities, she found it at UT too when she arrived to teach molecular genetics in the early 1990s. “It was very clear that the only way I was going to get tenure was to have a stellar lab and lots of grants and publish lots of papers and have lots of Ph.D. students.” Of teaching expectations, she says, “I had to show up for my classes and not be a complete embarrassment.”

Well, so much for that low bar. This year, Fischer was one of two UT Austin professors honored with a Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.I was shocked when I was nominated,” says the self-deprecating Fischer. “When the President’s Office told me I was one of the two applicants being put forward by UT Austin, I thought, ‘No way.’ Did no one else bother filling out the paperwork?”

Happily, the attitude toward teaching has shifted dramatically. “I’ve been here a long time (29 years), and it’s in about the last 15 years that it’s changed: Yeah, you have to have a fantastic lab, but you have to teach well, too. Even for people to talk about teaching — that almost never happened the first 10 years I was here! So this is a really good thing. Undergraduates are not just annoyances or test-tube washers for your lab — they’re actually why we’re here!”

Fischer sees three interrelated forces at play in this “thought revolution” around teaching. The first was students questioning the necessity of college at all. This question, by the way, is one she believes not enough families ask. “People don’t need to go to college,” she says plainly. “My husband’s a building contractor, and he told me that we should both be electricians or plumbers. They make tons more money than either of us do, and there’s a shortage of them because people feel like they have to go to college when they really don’t. People who don’t want to be scientists or doctors don’t need to learn calculus, and they can be happy contributors to society. We still don’t emphasize that enough,” she says.

This questioning, however, resulted in some overdue soul searching by research universities about their value proposition to undergraduates. “They were afraid for their future,” she says of universities, and that fear might have forced a rethinking of who got promoted and why.

Third, she points to the increased emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. “We have a really broad, diverse student body here, and there’s a lot of emphasis on using teaching methods that speak to all the students. That’s a good thing.”

This renewed emphasis on teaching emerged right as she had decided to focus on teaching for her own reasons. But because of her conditioning, she says, “I was afraid I might lose my job because I was hired to be 90% research. I taught one class a year. That’s what all the faculty who are very research-active in my department do, and that could be a graduate class like it was for me for nine years. I never saw an undergraduate outside my lab for nine years.”

But as her daughter entered college, Fischer had an epiphany about teaching: She could not maintain the research activity she was accustomed to and be the kind of teacher she wanted her own daughter to have. So in 2014, she closed her lab, having supervised 13 Ph.D. students, and focused on 1.) teaching undergraduates and 2.) rewriting the textbook her students used. Some faculty members can teach well and do research well, she says, but she could not.

Born in Queens and reared in the New Jersey suburbs of Manhattan, Fischer was the middle child of a civil engineer father and homemaker mother. She started college already into medical school at Albany Medical College but quickly realized she was with the wrong crowd. She says she was a “very young 19,” introverted and insecure, and she needed a more mainstream college experience. “What kind of kid in 1978 signs up for a six-year medical school program?!”

“I pretty much knew when I took genetics in college, this is it.” She stayed at the university but switched her degree plans. Just as she graduated, technology and the understanding of recombinant DNA touched off a genetics revolution. “I was just sucked in,” she recalls. “I really wanted to play with genes.”

Like many genetics researchers, her work subjected fruit flies to mutagens that would change their genomes. Then she would look at their descendants for particular aberrations suggesting a gene had been tampered with. “We were studying very basic questions in cell and developmental biology: How do the cells in the fruit fly eye know to make an eye? How did they know where to go and what to do? How does a hand get made? How do you make forms? How do all the cells in your body know to do that?” The answer, she says, is that every cell learns its position in the field, and because it knows where it is, it knows what to do. “It’s all about the cells talking to each other through proteins on their surfaces,” so-called cell-to-cell signaling pathways.

The work of geneticists has implications for virtually every disease. When these molecules go awry, diseases arise. “Genes that mutate and cause cancer — many of them are related to cell communication because that’s how cells know, ‘Oh, I’m a kidney cell. We better stay here. I better not go off into the bloodstream and get into the brain!’”

The study of genetics suits her personality in many respects, but two in particular: crafting and repetition. She says that when she was a girl, if you gave her a box of magic markers, a ball of wool or some knitting needles, “I was in heaven.” She once sewed all her own clothes, and when she lived downtown in an old craftsman-style house, “Every cabinet and every window had stained glass,” like the window she made that sits behind her desk. “I get carried away,” she says with a laugh. She still knits, and she says, “Recently, I’ve been making these necklaces that look like real snake skins out of teeny-weeny little beads.”

How does this relate to science? “I loved growing the flies because that’s a craft — it really is. Getting flies with all kinds of crazy mutations to grow properly — there’s an art to it, and I’ve been doing it for decades so I’m really good at it.”

I loved growing the flies because that's a craft — it really is. Getting flies with all kinds of crazy mutations to grow properly — there's an art to it.

Janice Fischer

This dovetails with her penchant for repetitive actions, as with her intricate bead necklaces that require doing the same thing over and over again. “Any scientist who does molecular biology, or probably anything, has to be willing to do the same thing over and over again to get it right,” she says.

Is there a parallel between beadwork and manipulating genomes? Perhaps. And interestingly, love of repetition might be in her own genes. “My daughter (an MFA student at Illinois) is an artist, and a lot of her work looks biological. She told me that her art is all about obsession: It’s a lot of teeny little things, and doing the same thing over and over and over again.

“But the fact that I like to do the same thing over and over again is also a bit of a defect in me as a scientist,” she says. If an outcome leads to something she is unfamiliar with, she forges ahead, but she is uncomfortable. “Because I enjoy getting really good at things by repetition, I know how much it takes for me to feel I really know how to do something. I have to have a really strong feel for it, and that comes with time. It can take ages to feel like I can do it well, so it’s really difficult for me to do new things sometimes because I wouldn’t trust that I was doing it right.”

So how did she fare with online teaching, given her trepidation about wading into new things? “Ah! That was not a problem,” she says. In fact, she was the only professor in the College of Natural Sciences already teaching online with Zoom when COVID-19 forced everyone else into that modality. She had been teaching night school through University Extension for some years when, in 2018, she moved from her home near campus to Johnson City. She asked to teach the night class online and was allowed to try. With help from University Extension, she learned Zoom.

In mid-March 2020, “You can imagine how popular I was with all my colleagues, because they had a week.” It turned into two weeks, but Fischer had spent months learning Zoom. During those two weeks, she wrote an 11-page Zoom manual for her colleagues, told them how to divide their students into breakout rooms, and gave them a template info sheet to give students the first day of class. Her effort helped keep one of UT’s largest colleges on mission during chaotic times.

“She was very adept at using the online environment, for teaching, office hours, and exams,” remembers former student Jennifer Bratton. “I do not feel like my learning was impacted at all by the transition to online learning because all the effort Dr. Fischer made to make sure it wasn’t.”

Since closing her lab, she gets her repetition fix another way, one that helps students. “As soon as I went back to teaching undergraduates, I discovered that the textbook I was using had become horrible. That’s how I became an author on the book. That’s my obsession now. I rewrite the book all the time.” She rewrites it every three years, as is the norm for science textbooks. “So now I’m in heaven. I’m doing the same thing over and over again until it’s good!”

Then too, teaching itself is a form of repetition in which practice can lead toward perfection. Fischer has been teaching Genetics, BIO 325, mostly to pre-med sophomores, six times a year for many years. “I’ve done my 10,000 hours,” she says, referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” “so my class is pretty good,” she says matter-of-factly.

The assessment is shared by students. “Dr. Fischer’s genetics course was unlike any STEM course I had taken at UT,” wrote Hrishabh “Roosh” Ranjit Bhosale in support of her award nomination. “Her passion for learning, her excitement, and her personable character were evident even in a virtual environment. I’m convinced that her deeply rooted love for genetics allowed her to structure her class in a way that promotes group work, collaboration, and problem-solving in an engaging, exciting format.”

From left to right: A sample of questions that guide class discussion in Fischer's undergraduate genetics course

Asked if she has noted trends in her students over these three decades, she says, “I just find that kids are getting nicer and nicer. When we were young, it was OK to make fun of people because they were fat or looked funny or this, that, or the other thing. It’s not OK now, and isn’t that a wonderful thing?

“They were brought up in this environment where it’s not OK to bully people who are different. It’s not OK to make fun of people because they’re gay or short. So, it’s really easy for me to shock them!” she says with a laugh. “It’s easy for me to make some stupid joke and make them all gasp. As polarized as we are in this country politically, the young people are nice. That’s the story that gives me hope.”

At the same time, something worries her. “They get astounded when you ask them to read anything. They want everything on a screen. Everything has to be a video. Everything has to be game-show-ized, and you can’t learn the sorts of things I want them to learn that way. You need a pencil and a paper to solve problems and to think. I’m trying to teach them how to think, and it’s very mathy. I suppose you could gamify it, but that’s not deep thinking. It’s not the kind of learning I want them to do.” She pauses, searching her assumptions. “Maybe I’m projecting the way I learn things onto them, but I really do think some of it is the subject matter, and there are going to be things that they can’t learn that way.”

She says some of this is just a generational change due to technology. “But some of this might be bad, it might be a superficial understanding, and I’m working against that. I worry about them a little bit because of that. The idea that asking you to read something is a bizarre request in a college class — I just find it a little scary. I don’t want to be an old fuddy-duddy,” she says. “If now people are learning just as well or better with different tools, then I better get on the stick! But I don’t see it.”

Her passion for learning, her excitement, and her personable character were evident even in a virtual environment.

Hrishabh “Roosh” Ranjit Bhosale

And learning is not just the job of Fischer’s students; Fischer herself is learning all the time. At the moment, she says, “I’m on this crusade to teach myself certain kinds of math — probability and statistics. I know enough to teach my class, but I want to know it better.”

One thing she particularly loves about her class is having undergraduate teaching assistants who are previous students. “I have a whole army of them helping me in class, and they stay with me for many semesters. We get to know each other and I’m able to give them bad advice about what to do with their lives! Become a plumber! Forget this doctor stuff!” she jokes.

But most ignore that advice just as roundly as she ignored the advice to put no effort into teaching. “I regularly get emails from students in medical school that say, ‘Dr. Fischer, I was just thinking about you. I just took genetics, and it was so easy — I already knew it all!’ That makes me feel really good.”