Don’t go into the light!

Last term was the worst I’ve ever had as a teacher. I taught too much – took on extra classes for extra pay because money’s so tight. It’s probably obvious that teaching too much meant I couldn’t be as good a teacher as I should to all those students. It’s also paradoxical, though, since – I guess – it’s my job to teach people, and the more kids I teach, the more I’m serving my community. An additional sweet/sour irony was that I was teaching two of my favorite classes… molecular structure and fermentation! So I should’ve been having the time of my life.

Now, before the eye-rolling starts, let me be clear: yes, I have the best job in the world, as I’ve stated before. I teach what I want, how I want, and when I’m not teaching I have this great lab to tinker around in. But last term I was a collapsing star, more and more task-mass piling into an ever-shrinking volume, until I folded in on myself, a black hole of productivity. Nobody got enough of my time… not students, not colleagues, not family, not me.

Here I’m tempted to enter a digressive loop on the counterproductivity of tying ourselves into knots for money, but I will spare you. Suffice it to say that, in future, any such knot-tying will require much more significant dollar amounts than the peanuts I’ve scrambled after heretofore… are you listening Hollywood?

Instead, it’s traditional for me to ruminate on teaching at the beginning of a new term, and I’m considering this term to be especially new… I must break entirely from practices that’ve become stale, shake off habits that disrupt my tranquility, or at least my enjoyment of the perfect job. I’m looking at my earliest semesters for inspiration…

When I began teaching, I was a postdoc at UC Santa Barbara. CSU Channel Islands wanted me to create their biochemistry curriculum, but they wanted me full time. I suspected that taking a full time lecturing position was… hm… a professional cul-de-sac, let us say, so I negotiated a deal whereby I took the full-time position, and my postdoc advisor bought back half my time. Thanks, Kevin: one of the many great things you’ve done for me.

It was a beautiful time. I was still producing science at a reasonable rate, maintaining those hard-won bona fides (such as they were). But I was learning to teach, too. Also I got married to a beautiful and talented woman, so that throws a golden glow over it all. But back then I really did enjoy everything I did. Looking back at the teaching, I’m not sure I was a very creative instructor, and in the years since I’ve tried to be much more intentional and structured in the way that I push students to become their own guides – but I really did love it. The problem was mission creep.

I think my excitement and enthusiasm mostly carried the day, back then. I spent so long preparing my material, immersing myself in my subject… and it was all time spent lovingly (as demonstrated by this illustration I made, explaining the hydrophobic effect). As a postdoc, a ferocious focus is required, and the knowledge gleaned is deep, but often narrow. Creating a biochemistry class from scratch, on the other hand, meant I had to climb up out of the trench and open my mind to so much more science. It was pure pleasure… opioids washing over the mu receptors of the geek mind… I think that feeling must be what the rest of the human race gets by sitting around watching other people play sports.


And when it came time for class, there was really no crossing of boundaries. After all, what do geeks like to do besides pursue their passion? …talk to other people about their passion, of course. I suppose I was reflexively reaching for my own undergraduate learning model… but more because it seemed so obvious, a stylus worn to my own hand, than for any reason of rational pedagogy. And so I met with the students, and enthused about our subject, and I didn’t think much or care much about Assessment.

And it seemed to work, which is why I’m reflecting on it now. I felt real joy in the classroom, and my students… not all, but most … responded. We were all excited about proteins and the molecular basis of life, together. And many of that first crop or two I’m still in touch with… more of them went on to actually become practicing, investigative scientists than any subsequent group of kids. Not that all those futures were my doing, but we were on the same wavelength.

Now, 13 years on, I do still feel the love, a little yellow candle guttering somewhere deep inside me. But my practice has become so cluttered with objectives, measureables, and rubrics… podcasts, wikis, blogs, and googledocs… For all that they facilitate educational opportunities, these tools and metrics can be a cowl, too. They just accrete and accrete and hide the light. They’ve left my lamp hidden under a bushel… it’s an ‘innovation’ bushel, it’s an administrative bushel, and it’s a huge suffocating bushel.

In short, I spend too much time serving masters that are not my passion. I don’t know how this happened; the gears of the educational machine turn in small increments. At a university there are various pressures that shape the way one works… “we need you to assess this General Education outcome” “we expect such-and-such grade distribution.” This semester, my guiding light is my love, not any of that other stuff. So what do I love?

I love the dance of DNA and protein and water. I love learning about life at its smallest, densest, most alien scale. I love understanding how the order of life comes together from chaos and dust. I hope the kids love molecules as much as I do, that some of this pixie dust gets sprinkled on them. I am convinced that, if it does, the students’ own excitement will propel them through the door into the life of the mind, irrespective of their rank in the performance scale du jour.


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