Saturday, January 15, 2011

Yes, this.

Sometimes you're reminded of what you need to be reminded of. While surfing around this morning, I fetched up on Professor Mondo's latest post.

He and I are, in some ways, in similar circumstances. When I go to the "big" conferences and talk with people from Research I schools, I detect almost a note of...pity?... in their voices. Pity that I don't have the fancy jazzy lab equipment, and an army of techs, and a multimillion dollar grant. And that my teaching load usually hovers somewhere around 4/3 plus summer teaching.

But you know what? I don't want them to pity me. It's a giant PITA writing those multimillion-dollar grants, and even IF you get one, then you have the headaches inherent to dealing with them. And I'd rather, to be quite honest, be the person out in the field taking vegetation measurements, or the person in the lab analyzing soil, than to be the person sitting in my office telling the army of techs what to do. I'd rather DO than MANAGE. I'd rather have one or two research students I can work closely with, people I can chat with about other stuff as we drive to and from the lab site, people I can joke with as we wait for analyses to run in lab, rather than be the "big boss" for an anonymous group.

(And I have enough of the Little Red Hen in my psychological make-up to get VERY FRUSTRATED during the times when I do have a tech or two, to find that (a) one of the techs has got a DUI and can't drive to campus, so I can't count on them or (b) one of the techs is chronically late or (c) one of the techs really DOESN'T know how to do one of the lab procedures they must do, and they are too embarrassed to tell me, so they bollix it up. I'd rather be the one making the mistakes and having to fix them, than to deal with other people's mistakes).

And also, there are sometimes chances to enlighten students. Perhaps more at a Mondoville or at my little campus than there would be on a fancy, expensive, high-endowment school. Our students often are starting further behind the students who go to the big prestigious name schools in the state - they went to small rural schools where there just wasn't as much on offer, or the teachers weren't as great as the teachers at the Arts and Sciences academies in the big cities, or they're someone coming back to finish a degree after a few years in the workforce.

But when people start from "farther back," you sometimes are lucky to get to see them make huge progress.

And if you're lucky, you get a chance to inspire someone. And it's those things that I find myself clinging to during the difficult times - the rare instances when I know I made a difference in someone's life.

I had a student - who is now employed in a fairly high-responsibility position in a conservation NGO - write me a note after my class, telling me that the way I treated her (she was a non-traditional student and was going through a divorce at the time) gave her the confidence that she COULD earn a degree and do something with her life. That my influence was what encouraged her to keep going.

And another student, one who told me as we were out driving around doing research, that she hadn't really known what to do with her life before, that all she saw the girls in her hometown do were "get married and have babies, and not necessarily in that order," that now she saw what she wanted to do with her life. And she graduated, and works for one of the Federal agencies.

And the guy who came back from graduate school and thanked me for being such a "hardass" in my stats class, because his first-semester stats class was "easy" thanks to it.

And the occasional student who decides to major in biology after taking my non-majors class; the person who goes from Undecided to planning a career, due in part (I hope) to my influence.

I'm not saying these things to paint myself as a great teacher or anything: at best, I'm probably kind of average. But it's a reminder that where ever you are, no matter how small, how "backwater" some people may think it is, you can have a positive influence.

And for me, those notes and comments are things I treasure. I keep the note from the first student I referred to in my desk drawer and look at it periodically when I get down on myself, to remind myself that once in a while I do something right and it helps someone.

And I think that's maybe the best we can hope for in this life: to once in a while get the opportunity to help someone else, and we're either smart enough to see it, or lucky enough to do it without knowing.

1 comment:

profmondo said...

Thanks for the link, and consider yourself blogrolled. It's like the bit from Man for All Seasons, where a young man complains that, even if he's a good teacher, who will know? More replies, "You. Your students. God. Not a bad audience, that."

Of course, the erstwhile teacher betrays More and leads to the great man's execution, so maybe that's not the best example...