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.
As an instructor there are certain moments when I know that something has clicked – that moment when I know my students don’t just know the route material from memorization, but that they actually get it. Last Thursday I had one of those magical everyday days when my students just seemed to keep going click around me. In physics, I had just finished covering the theory of capacitors. My plan was to get to class 10 minutes early, set up equipment, and during class let my students play with electronics kits containing batteries, capacitors, and light bulbs. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the group that had the room before me kept going and going and going, such that I didn’t get started setting up my laptop until class was officially already 3 minutes in. Frazzled and frustrated, I drew a quick circuit on the board – battery to light bulb to capacitor, all in series – and asked them to build it while I tried to setup. After about a minute people started complaining that their batteries were all dead or getting dead fast. Their light bulbs were fading away and blinking out. Then, one of the students asks, “Hey, Dr. G? Is it just that the capacitor is charging up and cutting the circuit?” Click. The student got it. The connection locked into place between theory and reality. We unclicked the batteries and the students all clicked in as their light bulbs flashed on before fading away again as we got down to work.
Later, the same day, that same good everyday Thursday, the air was crystal clear and not too cold, and I decided astronomy would be outside under open skies. We were discussing the colors of stars and I plotted a path around the sky and though the spectral types. As a class, we went out and visually walked from the Orion Nebula and it binocular ready white hot O stars to Rigel’s regal blue B-ness, and then dropped down with the dogs and observed Sirius’s A-type teal color and F-type Procyon’s puky-yellow disposition. From there we turned to Capella and discovered tue yellow in its G-type Sun-colored goodness. With two types left, we turned back toward Orion and Taurus, and saw Aldebaran, the orange K-type eye of the bull, and Betelgeuse, the blood red M-type shoulder of the hunter. We were guided on out journey by planispheres, and my students went click click click as they found their own way from object to object. And in the end, we turned north and walked our way hand-over-hand from the horizon to the north star and they giggled – click click click – as they found that astronomy worked. Four hands up and straight on ’til morning, the North Star does sit where science says it should sit.
That was a day. Just a day. It was one for which I could easily articulate the moments that mattered. Other days are harder to explain. There are the moments when I completely lose my class (we all have those) and am able to figure out why they’re lost from the questions they ask and then click them back into understanding the lesson. There are moments when a students stops to talk to me about how to get where they want in life and I can just point them to a website that helps them click pieces of potential into motion forward. And there are just the simple moments, like plotting to launch rockets when the weather turns warm.
Moments like these that add up into everyday days can’t be found everywhere. Days like this are why I am here.