After the kids went to sleep, I had to record audio for a couple of tutorial videos I made to open my class this term. I’m teaching Computer Applications in Chemistry. Two sections, once a week, 3 hours each. Why am I teaching that? I scroll through my grad school chums’ teaching pages… they’re teaching biochemistry, or seminar, maybe gen chem, maybe a lab here or there, maybe physical biochemistry if they’re lucky. So what the hell am I doing? How did this happen? Here’s the answer: my chair said, “What do you want to teach next term?” I said, “What do you need me to teach?” Voilà. I guess that’s just the kind of guy I am. Instead of circling the wagons around the class I’ll run always and forever, I’m game. Or stupid. Or super excitable!
So, I take on this class, and I’m thinking… oh, man, yeah, we’ll do simulations, we’ll do molecular dynamics, sure… but we’ve got to do more. These chemistry kids, they don’t know from programming – oops, “coding” – so I’ve got to take this one chance to wrest the rudder of their lives from the “I don’t really know much about computers” tack, put them on the “I can do that” course.
But hang on, you say. This is a 300-level class. It’s the confluence of the transfers and the lifers. They’re walking in with a huge range of skills… some can’t use Excel… how you gonna make them programmers – ah, crap… “coders” – in a one unit class?
I’ll get to that later in the semester… spoiler alert, we’re going to build an instrument and construct an interface using Python. For now, though, yeah… the class has to slog through the core stuff that no human can seem to escape. And much as I’d like to say, “You guys don’t need Excel!” the fact is, they probably do. Heading out into entry-level chemistry jobs, they’re going to have to be fluent in Excel. And they’re going to have to make posters and presentations with PowerPoint. Better make sure they do it right; that is, the Blake way.
This week, though, we’re starting with even more fundamental building blocks. Citation management.
So were doing “Google Scholar… my best paper has 111 citations. Yay!” Nice example!
We’re doing “What’s an .ris file?”
We’re doing “Upload all the citations you found into Endnoteweb and start organizing them in Word.”
We’re doing “But be ready to switch to Mendeley once you leave campus, because nobody’s going to buy you Endnote in that $22K/yr job waiting for you.” But maybe they’ll never have to cite anything again. Don’t get distracted.
Or, really, “Go big and use BibTex. That’ll impress the shit out of them.”
Because part of my strategy for the tool-deluge that’s about to swamp my kids was articulated beautifully by Douglas Adams: DON’T PANIC And don’t get comfortable using that one tool, either; you must be comfortable with tools. All of them. Or at least get comfortable with the confusion and fear that comes with anything new. That should be the familiar feeling. Before long confusion will be pinging your reward centers just like, well, whatever pings your reward centers!
At least it does for me. Perhaps I agreed to take the class because it’s kind of a fractal of my life modus. I personally improvise with the tools that are to hand, regardless of the problem. That means I’ve got to be able to pick up any tool. So, yeah, I’ll teach a class that forces students to handle as many tools as I can throw at them in 16 weeks. That means I get to switch to something new, exercise different muscles, see what I can come up with for them. And the students learn to do the same. No longer will they wait for the termites to emerge, one at a time, from the nest. No: they shall know the secret of the twig, and dip into the well of termites!
I will fix them. No longer will they be Mac people, or Windows people; they shall be Computer People. And they shall rule… with Computers! For Computers are tools! Freaking hyperdimensional Swiss Army knives! And tools are for building stuff! Let’s see what they can build!