Kevin Sun

My Teaching on Purpose Fellowship application

January 9, 2022

Last month, I applied to the Teaching on Purpose fellowship program at Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics. The main part of the application required answering three prompts. Since my application was successful, I thought it was decent, and my website can definitely use more content, I'll share my responses below.

What do you find most rewarding about teaching undergraduates? If you have not had the opportunity to teach undergraduates yet, what would you most look forward to? (200 words max)

It's cliché, but I think it's also the foundational goal of teaching: I find it rewarding when I observe signs of learning. I've seen these signs in a variety of settings (e.g., on exams, during recitations), but they most often appear as "aha moments" at my office hours. It's even more rewarding when students ask a great follow-up question, because this assures me that they've genuinely acquired a new level of understanding (and aren't just faking it so that we can move on to the next question). The most rewarding situation is when they voluntarily teach their peers, because this simultaneously strengthens their own understanding, my confidence that they've learned, and the vitality of the classroom atmosphere.

Observing signs of learning is also rewarding in the long term. Undergraduates typically leave school not long after taking my class. Many, I hope, will have impactful careers and fulfilling lives. I'd like to think that my course played a beneficial role, even if its contribution isn't easily measurable, by fostering their intellectual curiosity and building their confidence in problem solving. These outcomes are correlated with signs of learning, which is why I find it rewarding to observe them.

Why are you interested in the Teaching on Purpose Fellowship program? (200 words max)

In my field of computer science (CS), I feel that many students' primary motivation is to find a job that's not necessarily engaging and fulfilling, but rather, one that is comfortable and pays well. While this is a fine pursuit for many (and I do not presume to have the authority to dictate my students' lives), I often wonder if a little more soul-searching would be useful. Perhaps I'm projecting my own insecurities, but still, I feel that CS students generally aren't as interested in the "big questions" as, say, undergraduates who study English or philosophy. Participating in the Teaching on Purpose fellowship will give me the space and structure to think about these questions myself, before I potentially impart any ideas to my students.

One specific topic that I'd love to explore is the role of college and other educational institutions in the context of the software industry. Given their high cost, how should colleges adapt and market themselves? What can an individual instructor (e.g., myself) even do? How is the landscape of higher education changing? These interests of mine are closely aligned with the Teaching on Purpose fellowship, which is why I'm interested in it.

If you could develop your own course on any topic, what would you love to teach? Write a brief course description. (150 words max)

In recent years, a pandemic and an election are just two topics that have generated enormous societal impact and public discussion. I'd love to develop a course that teaches such topics in a hands-on way that goes beyond standard media coverage.

Overall, the goal of the course is to expose students to a variety of interdisciplinary concepts, applied to hugely consequential issues. In one assignment, students could write code that performs statistical analyses of public health data. In another, they'd write mathematical proofs about voting mechanisms, or solve an economic optimization problem. In yet another, they could draw parallels regarding political corruption between different countries via politics, literature, and history.

It might sound like I want everyone to become an expert at everything, which is obviously impossible. But if the course can be a tide that raises all boats, then I think it's worth giving it a shot.