On being a freshman from…somewhere

We’re three weeks into the new semester, and both of my 4-credit-hour lab science classes have probably gotten to know me better than they’d like. We’ve run an exam in both of them, a second exam in #chem101tc is much closer than that crew would like for it to be, both classes have started to get around the equipment in their labs, and people who really don’t need to be worried about their grades are starting to worry about their grades.

However, I still don’t know my class in our freshman orientation structure – the Tusculum Experience – nearly as well as I’d like.

Part of that is simply the schedule. It’s a weird schedule, so for those outside of Tusculum looking over my shoulder, let me fill you in: I see the two lab science classes all day long, twice a week, for eight weeks. There are two lab sessions scheduled per week, as opposed to one a week in a conventional semester schedule. At the end of the eight weeks we end the block and we run a second eight-week block with different two-day-a-week classes for the rest of the fall. The Tusculum Experience class I only see one afternoon a week, in a one-credit-hour setup, but I’ll see them over the full 16 weeks of the fall.

So the Tusculum Experience class and I just haven’t gotten the time together, and I haven’t gotten used to making sure they get the sequence of assignments they need, and making other arrangements, and Wednesday afternoons can just get awkward y’all.

The thing that makes our experience common are the readings, an online book called Voices of Tusculum that the good English professor Michael Bodary arranged and got assembled for us.[1] And I’ve been reading and reflecting on the class assignments out of that book as I’ve gotten my fall started.

Three of these essays, one of which has been assigned in the first three weeks of the class, are by my colleagues, two of whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well (by Jonita Ashley, currently Acting Dean of Students, and Kim Carter, who is the campus EPA Coordinator, Chemical Hygiene Officer and laboratory coordinator) and one of whom I haven’t gotten to know so well yet (David Smith, the Director of Student Support Services). And it occurs to me, reading all of these, that all these people have something in common that I don’t:

They’re all from around here. And they’re working not-at-all-far from where they grew up and where they started college.

I’ve joked – a lot – that my career is Hank Snow’s classic country song “I’ve Been Everywhere”. But it’s true. And it’s been a laundry list all over the land east of the Mississippi. I went to school, and then I did a postdoctoral research appointment at a university, and then I’ve taken teaching jobs at all kinds of places. Hey, this is the list, from high school to now:

Hilliard Middle/Senior High School (Hilliard, Florida)
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Indiana)
The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
University of Alabama-Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama)
Middle Georgia College (Cochran, Georgia)
Shorter College (Rome, Georgia)
Virginia Intermont College (Bristol, Virginia)
Tennessee Technological University (Cookeville, Tennessee)
Tusculum College (Greeneville, Tennessee)

That’s a list, y’all.

And it was a pretty natural list. I grew up in Hilliard, Florida, but my mother was raised in Coweta County, Georgia and her family settled all over the Atlanta area. My father was raised in Berea, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, and my grandfather actually graduated with his Doctor of Dental Science from Ohio State, almost exactly sixty years before I got my Ph.D. from Ohio State. My uncle on Dad’s side went to Texas, and there are Pearsons in Ohio, Texas, and Florida – with others scattered about.

I love the Central Appalachians, and I moved to Tusculum very deliberately to return to this area. But I’m not from here. And what’s more, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with being from somewhere. Even that small town in Florida where I grew up was one that had a lot of families that spent their entire lives there. Even spending sixteen years of my life there, I never completely belonged, because I had a father who the Federal Government brought in to work at that air traffic control center in town.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing. It’s a thing. It’s a thing that has made leaving a lot easier, in my life, than it would be for a lot of others. And it’s made my emotions about places are lot more even-keeled than they otherwise would be (even though I can be a super-emotional man). But I see a lot of the lifelong relationships that people have in a small town, and the depth of investment, and I feel like I’ve missed something that is exceptionally special there.

It’s a thing I don’t think I know about a lot of my freshmen yet. I still remember the first Physical Science student who followed me – and I saw he was from Ware County, Georgia and hey I know where you’re from, man, and it ain’t near here! But that’s a reality of being at a place that recruits for the sports.

I wasn’t in for the sports. I just wasn’t connected to that small town, once upon a time, and that school in Indiana that wanted me around was all kinds of appealing (and I was choosing between the school in Indiana and – alternate history alert – the school in New Mexico. I wanted out of North Florida, y’all.) There was difficulty and awkwardness of all of a sudden being in this place where I knew nobody and it felt like they were all from more sophisticated places than Hilliard, Florida (they weren’t, but it felt like they were) and all kinds of adaptation was involved.

I think I’m going to keep telling that story as this fall goes forward, and I get to know a group of freshmen who are going through a version of what I went through, and what Dr. Ashley and Ms. Carter and Dr. Smith went through.

But right now, I want to know where are the freshmen of this place are from. Are they dealing with the challenges of all the family and friends being close enough to want you at home, or the challenges of having all your family and friends so far away?

Do they hope to have a list of places as long as mine is – or maybe even longer, or maybe from places farther afield than just “east of the Mississippi” – or do they hope to just have a short list of places around East Tennessee?

Part of the joy of doing what I do for a living is I get to hear these voices. Not polished voices, and not experienced voices. But voices with experiences of their own, and stories of their own to tell. I will never tire of hearing the stories.

[1] Y’know, I promised Bodary a chapter for this Voices of Tusculum thing. I think he’s still a bit salty at me that I didn’t deliver. Next year, man…
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How a molecular biophysicist gets hyped for a solar eclipse

(1) Not well. Not well at all. I’m only posting one pre-eclipse post, and it’s less than 24 hours until peak eclipse in Greeneville, Tennessee.

(2) Of course, I might not even be making this post at all if I wasn’t teaching a physical science course to non-majors, and if I wasn’t making some early ideas on astronomy wasn’t a key part of the thing. Shout-out to #nsci105. I don’t even know if the youth says “shout-out” anymore.

(3) Of course, I kind of wanted to make such an eclipse post to be some sort of hot take about the pointlessness of eclipse glasses, and Lifehacker just straight-up stole that hot take from me.

I was in middle school the last time a major solar eclipse passed over my hometown. Some teachers supplied us with glasses and others helped us build viewers from cereal boxes, and we went outside for the big moment. It was okay, I guess. But when I got home, my mother told me how she saw the eclipse.

She told me that she stepped outside with her co-workers, and ended up sitting by a tree. And she noticed the shadow of its leaves on the ground. Everywhere there was a little gap between the leaves, each spot of light was in the same crescent shape as the eclipsed sun.

Curses to Gizmodo Media! Curses to them!

But dang it, everybody’s going to be having video of the Sun before the event happens in Tennessee AND after the event happens in Tennessee. There is one moon. There is one sun.

There are a ton of different trees around, and a ton of different shadow patterns possible. Diffraction of light with such a faraway light source that is being obstructed so completely will make for some wild shadows.

And uniqueness in the shadows EVERYWHERE.

Get you some pinhole camera action going and have some fun.

My favorite guide to pinhole camera construction is Emily Lakdawalla’s blogging for the Planetary Society, and CaLisa Lee’s video does the job super well too. Yeah, it’s targeted for kids. But I’ll do the same stuff too.

There are other sources for eclipse projection from the American Astronomical Society, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and good friends at the Upper Cumberland Regional Science Initiative. The Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post wrote about this, too.

(Late addition: the alpha physics blogger, Chad Orzel of Union College in New York, also wrote a low-tech pinhole camera optics explainer. I’ll always link when Orzel explains something, even if I have to edit the post after the fact to do it.)

I’ve been joking that I’m going to go without eclipse glasses; that’s a lie, I’ll totally have a pair on me. But I am going to have a ton of small cards for pinhole cameras, and I’m going to have at least one surface for watching the shadows come through them.

(4) In addition, NASA has a little smartphone app I’m just learning about called Globe Explorer (part of “an international citizen science initiative to understand our global environment”), and they’re wanting data tomorrow during the eclipse. It can be as simple as taking pictures of clouds to recording reliable temperatures. But it’s accessible to all. If the idea of being a citizen data-recorder appeals to you, download the thing and join in.

(5) I’m not trying to get on the road and travel through eclipse traffic (however eclipse traffic proves to be) while my teaching load is slightly nutty. I’m staying in Greeneville, even though I’m not going to get 100% totality. I have dear friends at Pellissippi State (one dean in particular) who will be Tailgating in Totality, and my old colleagues at Tennessee Tech are throwing a full Totality Awesome Eclipse Fest. (Click through that page and you can see explanations from my department chair at Tech, Steve Robinson, who’s way better explaining this stuff than I am.)

I’m disappointing all my friends equally by staying put, which is maximum fairness for all concerned.

(6) But I am the Eclipse Expert for the Tusculum event (sponsored by the United Way of Greene County, thanks you guys) at Pioneer Stadium, starting at 2:00 PM. And, if NBC News is to be believed…

…I am personally contributing to, and even leading, a mass loss of productivity at Tusculum College.

If you’re in the neighborhood (and not driving pell-mell to reach totality), come be unproductive with me.

eclipse_at_tusculum