Joel Carlin: I’m a Gustie and This is How I Teach

Posted on October 20th, 2015 by

CarlinHeadshotCartoonFishJoel Carlin

Associate Professor in Biology and Co-chair (Student affairs) in Environmental Studies

What classes do you regularly teach?

FTS100 First Term Seminar: Pirates, Explorers, and Sea Monsters
BIO101 Principles of Biology
BIO102 Organismal Biology
BIO383 Aquatic Biology
BIO385 Evolutionary Biology

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?

Don’t teach your subject, because it’s too broad to be covered in one semester. Instead, teach three or four simple ideas, using the class subject to illustrate these. For instance, in Bio101 Principles I am supposed to review all of biology in a dozen weeks – truly, an impossible task. So instead, I simply teach a few concepts like “There is unity in diversity” or “Random chance is a powerful force.”

DSCN1929Tell us about your favorite topic or course to teach.

I love teaching anything about the ocean, from its molecules to its literature. But I also love discussing the biological underpinnings of human sexuality, gender, and judgements about what is or is not ‘attractive.’

Describe a favorite in-class activity or assignment.

There are so many! At the introductory level, I ask students to use their knowledge of
biochemistry to compare two recipes. They re-read the instructions as biochemical reactions (when the injerra bread recipe warns you to not stir too much, you are limiting the number of protein-protein bonds to keep the product soft).

At the more advanced level, I have my biology majors work with the different types of commercial marine fishing gear. Since the actual gear costs tens of thousands of dollars and is large enough to engulf Christ Chapel, they use glue guns to make models from monofilament line, popsicle sticks, nylons, etc. Then I have them try their gear with live goldfish in an inflatable kiddie-pool. (The goldfish are not so much in danger as they are annoyed.)

What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?DSCN1862

I appreciate graphics and repetition. But I also try to incorporate formalized logic, writing, and practice with computation. I believe that if there was a single magic technique, we would all be doing that by now. So instead, I try to provide a buffet and ask my students to do whatever they need to have a well-balanced mental diet.Tell us something that you’ve learned about yourself from teaching.

No matter how old you get, it is still easy to slip into the assumption that others have spent their lives in a similar way to yours. My students are, first and foremost, humans with as varied, tragic, comic, and inspiring lives as true community can be. And I keep learning to not be surprised at what they can be, do, or become.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.

Multifaceted, Rigorous, Responsive

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?

The smarter you are, the simpler your words.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had.

In my first year here, getting lost while driving students on a field trip. Pointing and saying “And to your right, notice this restored prairie … um … again.”

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What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

Usually they are surprised to learn that I (or ANY of their faculty) have lived a highly varied life. I have been a shipwelder, I studied therapeutic massage, I hosted a rap show on college radio. All the Gustavus staff and faculty have life experiences that would surprise the students, I think.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

The Little Prince by Antoine St.-Exupery, and Commodore Hornblower by CS Forester.

Who would you like to fill out this survey next?

Betsy Byers, Marian Frazier

The How I Teach series asks Gustavus faculty members to share their thoughts on assignments, course activities, and teaching in general. Most Tuesdays a new Gustavus faculty member will be featured. If you have someone you want to see featured, let us know. Also, we’d love it if you’d answer the questions yourself and send those along with a few pictures to


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