Statement of teaching philosophy
Shishir Nagaraja January 11, 2008
The fundamental role of a teacher is to nurture creativity. A teacher also acts as a guide in the learning process. This is the leading principle of my teaching philosophy. In several years of teaching, I have found that most students have an excellent intuitive grasp of the subject, but are routinely unaware of this. It is amazing to see how motivated such students become when they can apply their intuition to the problems in the subject. My focus therefore is to create an environment where students feel free to explore the subject matter from various angles to develop ideas, deﬁnitions, models, applications and case studies. To this end, creating a strong basic theoretical foundation is critical. Mathematical tools provide a means to synthesize and analyze methodologies and phenomena, which all students should master. It is equally important to develop their abilities in using the basic theory in creating relevant practical knowledge in the current state of the world, either in the industry or in an academic career. My ﬁrst experience as a teacher in a semi-formal role was with a small group of underperforming students during my years at Bangalore University. Within a few supervision lessons, I understood that this group of bright individuals found textbook based coverage of the subject matter both boring and diﬃcult to follow. Exposure to experiences such as these inspired me to adopt a teaching methodology which encourages students to apply themselves creatively in the learning process. Students like lessons that stimulate their curiosity and make their time spent on the course worthwhile. I do this by engaging the students in a number of ways. For example, I have often used teaching aids that help my students visualize a theorem and help them construct a proof. When teaching random variables, a part of my approach is to have students use a statistical package such as R to generate and visualize various distributions. This also works very well as a theoretical lesson in that the students are required to prove that an algorithm works as well as a practical lesson that allows them to test theoretical analysis using simulation. Such exercises rapidly build conﬁdence and motivate the students to seek wider sources of information. Reading academic papers, is in fact, a vital skill in itself. Another aspect I emphasize in undergraduate teaching is practice. Just as endurance skills are important in sports, regular practice by periodically applying newly obtained knowledge, is crucial to eﬀective learning. I apply this in my teaching by creating carefully chosen peer groups where students work on practical and creative exercises to test their abilities. A group session of problem-solving is not only good practice but the peer competition is also an active driving force in homework exercises and class tests where students are required to demonstrate their existing knowledge by applying it and synthesizing solutions to new questions. Group problem solving sessions are also eﬀective at the postgraduate level. It is very important to understand that some students are more focused on (say) the models and 1
methodology used in problem solving, while others are more interested in motivating the problem well and emphasizing the applicability of the results. A teacher who is conscious of this helps provide a balanced focus and encourages wider participation from the members of the discussion group. Yet another aspect of teaching is supervising research students. Since most new PhD students have had no prior research experience, I would encourage them to follow a fairly structured approach especially during the ﬁrst year of research. The most crucial requirement is building up any missing foundational skills and a ﬁrm grounding in basic mathematical tools and techniques. Additionally, I would also advise a number of good practices to my students from my own experience, of which I oﬀer two examples: Writing an extended abstract for each paper that the student reads and maintaining a well organized bibliography of relevant papers. This is useful to the student when producing a literature survey as well as in tracking research eﬀort. In addition, the research community beneﬁts from a well-categorized and current bibliography. Yet another learning method that boosts long term research productivity is maintaining a ﬁle of research ideas, which is a record of all ideas generated while researching any topic. Writing fresh ideas immediately helps crystallize them and also acts as a record of various future lines of investigation that can be pursued. Additionally, I also encourage students to produce working prototypes of their conceptions rather than merely stopping at the theoretical stage. In my own research, I have found this to be an excellent learning method that helps in maturing ideas and ultimately in writing high quality papers. Publishing a peer-reviewed paper within the ﬁrst year of research is also important, as it boosts student conﬁdence and opens up avenues of collaboration with other members in the community. While there is no set recipe for guiding research students, using active and creative methods prepares them well for a career in either the academia or the industry. Crucially, they must acquire the ability to evaluate ideas, both their own and those of others; such abilities can be acquired through a diverse set of experiences that provide students with the necessary mix of skills, intuition and conﬁdence, of which, actively seeking and networking with relevant research groups; staying on top of current literature ; participating in informal and formal peer reviews of research work; and regularly presenting work in academic forums are a few. Most importantly, I want my students to understand how to conduct research in any topic on any subject, to constantly learn and continuously write. Apart from this, there are long-term strategic aspects: After the dot-com bubble burst, the average number of applicants to read electronics and computer science has been falling in the UK and North America. This is an important issue, as a smaller number of undergraduate students implies a smaller number of PhD students. As the Computer Laboratory’s nominee to the Research Councils UK funded Researcher in Residence (RinR) program, I conducted a day workshop at two schools in Cambridgeshire for students at the higher secondary level. The goal of the activities was to stimulate interest in computer security and computer science research, and to communicate a positive and upbeat message about a career in computer science. A related issue is the lack of female researchers, especially in computer security. I believe that steps to correct the gender imbalance will lead to a substantial overall improvement in security research. Further, as students passing out of research and teaching programs are going to live and work across cultures, it is important to provide them with adequate opportunities in recognizing that talent can come from anywhere across the world.