Sunday, May 5, 2013

Is There a Golden Age of Teaching? Ruminations on Moving and Great Students

It's a busy week to say the least. There was the hectic rush through finals and the posting of grades, and the deadline, only three days later, of having an entire Science Building packed and ready to move to another building. That's happening tomorrow. I am happy to say I had a lot of help from more than a dozen students who helped us get everything into the moving boxes.

Sifting through the detritus of twenty-five years of community college teaching is bound to reveal a few surprises, and I wasn't disappointed. Forgive me if I ruminate a little on what's gone on through those many years. To start with, I have a messy office. Not the messiest, it only achieved honorary mention the last time anyone judged. But more than messy enough.

I'll leave the reasons to the psychologists, about whether this is revealing something chaotic in the organization of my mind, but I can say that as messy as it always has been, I've always known where to find the items I was looking for (I only found two misplaced ungraded papers, for instance). I prefer to think that my office is messy because I subscribe to a corollary to the Peter Principle. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the principle states that in a hierarchical organization, people rise to the level of their own incompetence. This means that as long as you are successful at what you do, you get promoted, until you reach a position where you are incapable of successfully executing your duties. Since you are no longer successful, you receive no more promotions, and everyone above you and below is unhappy and dissatisfied with you.
There are only a few ways to escape the trap of the Peter Principle, and one of them is to get to a position where you are happy and don't want further promotions, so you find a way to be incompetent in insignificant ways so you can't be promoted, but can remain happy and successful at what you are doing. Hence, I maintain an office that would be unacceptable as a dean's office, but is tolerable in a professor.  And no one has ever asked me to be a dean (probably for many reasons).

Join me on a tour through the office that is soon to be stripped clean of twenty-five years of memories and experiences. The new office is very nice, with a view out the windows and clean walls, and directives about how and where we are to put our personal items on the walls. It will never be quite the cubbyhole I finished cleaning up today....
For me, a desk was never a place where work was accomplished, except for the writing that took place on the computer. For a geologist, a desk is a collecting place for the specimens of significant events and localities, much like the point bar on the inside of a river meander. What deskcrops are found up there? Beautiful crystals of azurite, topaz, quartz, calcite, rhodochrosite, and garnet. Fossils of ammonites, trilobites, eurypterids, and Green River fish. Samples of serpentinite, orbicular granite, xenoliths, and Mariposa slate. Some of them I found. Some were given to me. A few were in the school collection long before I came here.

The walls are covered with drawings by my son (the ammonites), a 40 year old painting of the Sierra Nevada done by a dear family friend when I graduated from high school, pictures of the family, and some of my accomplished students, and a Murphy's Law poster that I found when I started here in 1988. It went onto the wall back then and has always been a cherished message to meditate on (the favorites: "If everything seems to be going well, you obviously don't know what's going on" and "Nature always sides with the hidden flaw"). There is a sign of my Star Trek geekiness (hanging over the monitor). There's a shot of me standing next to a lava flow on the Big Island.
 On the wall by the door is a tsunami warning poster from Washington, a 1912 vintage geologic map of the Owens Valley and southern Sierra Nevada, some political stuff, and a couple of those certificates of appreciation that sometimes come one's way.

My office and adjacent lab preparation area were always a little cramped because the building's reinforcement columns had to go right through them. They made great bulletin boards and memory walls. For instance, in my office, the column supports pictures, signs from field trip vans (the "Chicks of Death"), drawings by associates (that beautiful chalk rendition of Half Dome), pictures of my kids (at all stages of their lives from childhood to their current business cards), the most outrageous of the creation science papers that crossed my desk, and a torn up picture of George Bush composed of the pixels of soldiers who died in Iraq. I had that picture on the outside of my door for the duration of the war, and it prompted a great many angry responses, including the vandalism that hung there until this week. And comics. Lots of comics with a geological theme.
The column in the lab prep area was reserved for pictures of favorite moments with my students. There is a shot of me trying to lecture while a deer was making faces behind me, a fist pump after something good happened at a gas station in Grand Tetons (I don't remember what), and the incredible Walter's Wiggles on the way up Angels Landing in Zion Canyon.
The other side has pics of sunsets, cool rock discoveries, makeshift comics, and antics with a fake hand that we enjoyed putting under boulders and the like. Pictures of shrines that developed in the back seat of vans during particularly long trips (the plastic rats were kind of creepy).
And then there is the chalkboard. I'm not sure how a chalkboard ended up in the lab prep area, but inscriptions soon appeared and were never erased. The "cake is a lie" was a relatively recent addition, but some of those lines are 15 years old.

The flood of memories got me thinking. Is there a golden age in the arc of one's teaching career? Is there a time when you've got just enough experience to be half decent at teaching, and still energetic enough to keep up with the demands? I could still recall some of my very first students, one of whom actually came back to help pack this week, and another who commented on my facebook page about watching my job interview lecture 25 years ago (she now teaches earth science in Nevada). I thought about our two year internment in a warehouse just off-campus while our building was seismically retrofitted. The students from those years formed the Geology Club, many became geologists, and some of them organized a dino-dig that resulted in the discovery of a rare Zephyrosaur in Montana in the late 1990s. There was a bunker mentality in that group that was marvelous to behold.

But thinking it through, I realized there are always some incredible students, there are always enthusiastic ones, and there are always those who you can't forget. There have been tough periods when budgets were slashed, and recessions caused big cutbacks. But the students have always been there, and they have always inspired me to do whatever I could to assist them in achieving their goals. I've had no end of frustrations with inconsistent and ever changing regulations sent to us from above, but I have never become tired of dealing with students, even the ones that I wanted to shake  and say "this is your big chance in life, and you are screwing it up for sheer laziness?".

This almost sounds like the ruminations of someone on the verge of retirement, but that isn't the case. This week I am literally beginning a new career, that of a professor teaching geology in a new building on a different campus in another part of the city. Everything will be different, but no less exciting. As long as I can come to school in the morning and teach with enthusiasm, I'll be here.

But it ain't gonna happen until all this crap gets moved from this building to the new Science Community Center on west campus...

Tomorrow will be an interesting day...
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