So what am I doing here?

From what I’d come to refer as the ell-jay, April 26 2002 edition. A very vivid early statement-of-intent. Without giving up too much, I’ve kept up with that student off and on, and to say that she’s successful as a professional is very much an understatement.

Linkrot deleted because 16-year-old writing, but a couple of links still work.

Every now and again, one needs to figure out what one is doing with their life.

I’m a teacher. The job title says “professor”, the PhD says “biophysics“, but sod all that. I’m a teacher, with a particular interest in science, and an even more specific interest in physics (and maybe chemistry if we decide that I need to turn tables at some point), but a teacher nonetheless.

I had one student in here a couple of days back trying desperately to understand RL circuits for an exam that day, and making apologies here and there because the exam she’s desperately studying for isn’t my exam, but she’s gotten no satisfaction or understanding from her professor of record. (No offense to that professor of record intended; sometimes learning styles and teaching styles don’t match up.) And my take is, apologies aren’t necessary as long as you understand that, as far as helping you get ready for an exam, I’m not going to be much good at helping there; but when you’re ready to understand how the inductor actually works, and how it fits in with a circuit that gets driven by alternating current, I can talk about that all week.

(When it comes to solving differential equations, though, I’m pretty useless. I need to get way better at my DE than I am right now.)

The student pulled her highest exam grade of the term; bully for her and stuff. That wasn’t the surprising thing, she’s dang smart and just hasn’t had occasion to learn the stuff, for the usual complex myriad of reasons. The surprising thing was the 12-pack of Code Red and the bag of sweet stuff she delivered as appreciation. “But you didn’t have to do that,” I protested wildly. “I wanted to,” she said. “You helped so much.”

Well, dammit, that’s why I’m here.

Teaching is what I do; it’s who I am; it’s what my vocation is. For some people, this gig is nothing more sophisticated than a job, the thing they do that pays the bills. For me, I borrow Ludlow Porch‘s line about being on the radio: “If anybody ever found out I’d do this for free, I’d be in Big Trouble.”

So I react with a great deal with horror and shock, as a natural reaction, every time somebody tells me what a great job I do around here and stuff. Well, duh. This is the thing I feel like I’m good at, in some measure. If I’m not doing this well, then there goes a fair majority of my reason for being.

(Tangent: I’ve thought about this a great deal; one could say that my shrug and “look, I’m just doing what I do” is a mock-humility thing, and I could see the argument. But it’s not. If somebody told me that I wrote well or that I did a protein preparation well or put together a good Magic deck, then I could react with some measure of pride; that’s not stuff I feel like I’m naturally good at. Then again, I did do a reading in church for Palm Sunday that got rave reviews from everybody and I shrugged that off too (prompting a brilliant comment from a guy I really ought to get to know better: “Look, Chuck, nobody’s saying you wrote the Scripture, they’re just saying you read it well…”) so there might be something to the idea after all. Anyway.)

What I’m finding remarkable, as I’m learning what it is to live out on a day-to-day basis being a teacher, is just how much I find myself caring about my students. And that shouldn’t surprise me, because I’ve almost cared more than the average guy; I still marvel at the shocked reactions of students in the recitations I taught at Ohio State who said “oh my God, you actually learned my name?” because the teachers on a big campus like that simply didn’t do such things. But even that wasn’t all that intense of a relationship except in rare circumstances, because those students I only saw in a class once a week, for ten weeks in a quarter. Here, it’s 15 weeks in a semester, and these students I see in class three times a week – and many of ’em live on campus besides.

And man, it gets intense. It’s not one of those rare circumstances of having a student once in one course, and then a couple of years later having them again in a second like it was at OSU. I start a physics sequence in the spring, and then many of those same students I’ll have in the second course in the fall…and a couple of non-major students I’ve had now three semesters running. And others, because of their proximity to me, just kind of hang around and ask more questions even though they don’t have me for class anymore, which is fine. If you hit it off with a student at one point, that relationship can plow all kinds of depths over the two-to-three semesters the relationship can go on. And the caring can go very deep indeed, particularly if the students opens himself up to it and engages me right back.

At some point on here I’m going to address how I get along (or don’t get along) with my fellow faculty members on this campus. Right now, suffice it to say that (and let’s call a spade a spade here) my best friends on this campus are much more likely to be my students than a fellow faculty member. This bothers me on some levels, but the one thing that it does do is motivate me (since I do have a good deal of knowledge about physics, the sciences, the academic path, such as that) to provide as much help as I can for them, because I care for them that deeply and I want to see them do the best they can for themselves. And if they haven’t gotten what they need out of this whole academic experience, I want to make sure that they do.

I started writing this journal entry nearly 72 hours ago, and have worked on it off and on while grading exam papers and sorting grades in preparation for finals-week. Like grading, I’m behind in getting it posted. Go fig.

3 thoughts on “So what am I doing here?”

  1. I share your reaction of reacting with shock and horror for being praised for a job well done, especially when it seems like no big deal. It makes me think the same “well, duh” that you mentioned. I’m doing my job – I’m already thanked by getting paid to do what I enjoy, I don’t need, nor want, any special recognition.

    Thank you for sharing your well thought out and personal opinions and ideas. Always entertaining to read.

    1. I’m glad the “subscribers” are enjoying me digging out my old archives. :)

      I’ve learned to accept the thank-yous better now and I did then, but I’ve become more convinced in my gut of the who-I-am instinct, and I think more driven to keep improving what I put in front of students. I’m a good ways into this career and I KNOW I still don’t have it right. And I’m pushing nobody harder in the pursuit of getting it right than myself.

      Because I know how high the stakes are getting in my line of work, and no matter how good I get, I’m not guaranteed another chance. Pretty much ever.

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