Everyday Days of an Instructor

As an instructor I find that there are good days – days when my students remind me of why I selected my profession, and there are also bad days when small collections of specific students make me really frustrated. Most days, however, are just days where all of us are just trying to get through life. The measure of a career is ticked away in these more average days. The quality of these everyday days varies from place to place, and opinions of quality vary as one person’s pleasure is someone else’s terror. To find happiness, we must each tune our location to the lifestyle that makes us happiest on so called normal days.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work a lot of different places. The universities I’ve haunted have ranged from the Big Ten (MSU), to the Ivy League (MIT and Harvard), to the Big 12 (UT), to the unheard of (SAO), to a small state school (SIUE). My students faces have ranged in age from the 10-year old prodigy learning college-level astrophysics to the late 50s chinese immigrant working through freshmen physics toward a dreamed of PhD. The students I have worked with have ranged from students so smart and together that they can run 1500 person programs without traumatizing their grades, to students who are just trying to figure out how to just get through their next homework set. To me, the measure of my career is counted not in the number geniuses I can help loose onto the world, but rather it is counted in the number of students for whom I can make just one idea click and who I can help find their dream that they want to make reality.

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Education: Some Assembly Required

Education: Some Assembly Required

While I was at Michigan State University, we had a change of president. The new guy in charge (at that time – it’s changed again since then) was M. Peter McPherson (and, as he would tell you, McPherson rhymes with person). He came from a business background, and under his guidance, students became consumers and professors became the provider of a specific good – an education. This idea of education being something that can be purchased pre-supposed that a student’s learning is directly correlated to the professor’s teaching. This is a model that doesn’t work real well. Learning is actually a collaborative journey, and like with any collaboration, success depends on what all members bring to the table. As a student, I saw the “student as a consumer” model as broken, but also as justification for expressing teenage indignation at any faculty member who wasted my time on stupid assignments or in teaching me things the US education system expects people to know by 8th grade. I also understood, however, that when I decided not to go to class, I was totally on my own in earning my desired A. I was a consumer, and it was their job not to waste my time. However, if I decided not to RTFM (or at least my textbook), when things blew up, it wasn’t their fault.

Today, that sense of student responsiblity in learning has diminished as consumerism has grown.

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‘Cause Knowledge is Power

It is a slow science news week, and sitting here at home I’m realizing I haven’t the foggiest idea how to get my e-journal fix via SIUE without being at an SIUE IP address. I’d like to riffle through Science or Nature from my sofa. I’d like to think there is a way to do it. I’m not certain however, and after reading through the SIUE website, I’m mostly just confused. Luckily, I know that I do have access to information somehow, it just may not involve being on my sofa while I read. No matter what, I am lucky. Not everyone has access to Science.

Limited access to information (and the decision to actually access that information) acts in many ways to divide our society. It takes money to get the cable and satellite news feeds. Prolonged access to online content – the type of access needed to hunt down links and read background material – takes money or the right job. Knowing how to access information takes education, which is another way of separating the haves from the have-nots. And sorting through digital, video, and audio content takes that most precious resource of all: time. It takes effort to be informed, and one must choose to know what is going on.

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Up, Up and Away

Up, Up and Away

Pencil RocketThere are certain days as a teacher when you know you have done your job right. For me, one of those days was today. One of the classes I teach is “Space Physics.” In this 3 credit class, my students and I go on a tour de force of the history of spacecraft and exploration of our solar system. At the beginning of the semester, none of my six students had ever watched a space shuttle launch on TV, and their interest in the class existed, but let’s just say they didn’t seem eager and excited to learn as much as they could. But today, the last day of the semester, I saw that all this had changed. These were excited students, ready to take what they had learned and run (or rather fly) with it as far as they could. For some of them, that distance was a few hundred feet straight up.

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