On teaching, failing, succeeding, and making your best better.

Christina, Deirdre, and I are leading a CM this semester about planning for next fall’s FHRCS classes.

Writing about things often helps me to understand them better. Thus, I want to clarify my own goals for this CM on my blog. They are personal goals–this CM will be focused almost entirely on our personal growth as teachers, presenters, and (maybe more importantly) friends, in our roles as FHRCS STAs.

I have taught FHRCS twice. The first time I was completely clueless–a junior roped into teaching FHRCS by an email from Michael Blackwell. I had never taught a class before and felt as if I was just fumbling through, making things up. I tried my very best. We did fun stuff and academic stuff. We covered the 11 ways to earn honors credit and reviewed COSPs and toured VBI. We ate dinner together a couple of times, went to the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market, and had interesting discussions in class. For my background and for my experience, I thought that I had done my very best to teach a good FHRCS class.

This fall, I taught FHRCS again. I was really excited, really ready to go. with the experience I had, I knew I could do a better job teach FHRCS than I had before. I covered the same topics, did most of the same field trips/activities, but simply felt as if I wasn’t investing enough in my FHRCS. I wasn’t connecting enough with them. Maybe my activities weren’t exciting enough, or perhaps the topics I covered were ones that my students had already heard from other sources. Maybe, as a senior, I was just becoming too far removed from the freshman experience or I was too busy to be sufficiently invested in each of my students.

Regardless, I felt a bit like a failure. I want to do my own best. When I was young, I was in 4H. The 4H motto is: Make the best better. This has always meant a lot to me.I try to do my best, always. I really care about the things I do. How, then, do I improve? Is doing your best good enough? Not always.

I want to be a better friend to the students in my FHRCS next year. I’m an awkward person: not very friendly or charming or outgoing. I am sometimes overly critical or judgmental (although, I try not to be). Connecting with people can be very difficult for me. I really want to connect with the students in my FHRCS. I want to make friends with them and I want them to be engaged in FHRCS and to think that FHRCS is fun.

Science Should Inspire Awe (also, a little bit of poetry)

Science. It isn’t about memorization, you guys. It’s about HOW F***ING AWESOME THE WORLD IS.

Often, I cannot believe how absolutely awesome life can be. I do not mean my life specifically, but life in general: how life runs and how exceptionally well it works. I am talking about metabolism (the process which turns food in to energy), meiosis (the process which allows sexual reproduction and genetic diversity), and protein synthesis (the process which makes or allows for the production of nearly all of the stuff we are made of).

More and more, my science classes simply seem to pound ideas into my head. Memorize and regurgitate, they say. Get a good grade on the exam and then forget the materiel. Science isn’t the study of what the world is made of; it’s a list of facts. If you know them all, you’ll get an A in the class. Then you can get into a good graduate school and then get a good job. You don’t need to understand how the world works or why it works that way.

I chose my two majors, biology and animal science, because more than anything, I want to know how everything works. I want to know about bacteria, about biomes, about placentas, about the cell cycle, about digestion, about everything else. I chose to take the senior-level biochemistry for majors (even though I knew I wouldn’t get an A in it) because I wanted to learn all of that information in as much depth as it is taught in in that course. I get to learn about proteins, about enzyme kinetics, about glycolysis. Science should be taught in such a way that more students retain a high level of wonder and awe.

Here’s this, for your perusal:

you shall above all things…
by e. e. cummings

you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young,whatever life you wear

it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance


Isn’t glycolysis awesome? Thanks to khan academy/google image search for this image.

My girls

…by which I mean, of course, my mares.

Mac is making tremendous amounts of progress. She is my favorite little horse.

I would love to see her (which here means: ride her) in English tack, with this trot. It’s going to have to happen soon  (just as soon as I’m brave enough to deal with her occasional pre-canter crow-hop in an English saddle). 

She also has a pretty solid jog. Here’s her lope! It’s not solid, but it is now on the correct lead, which is progress.

Here’s my quarter horse, Sirius, pretending that she is a well-broke western pleasure horse (she isn’t. She aspires to run barrels in the future). I really love this girl. This is after about 1.5 months off (I’ve been busy and putting all of my time in to Mac and my school work).

I like her because she can do that (above) and then turn around and do this:

And here I am with my very favorite girl (this is when we went to Kentucky together last year).


Poetry, again

Last year, I posted lots and lots of poems. They weren’t by me (I will neither confirm nor deny that I’ve tried to write actual poetry in my life, as either a confirmation or a denial would be somewhat embarrassing), but by other people. They were poems I love, poems that feel like they are about my life, poems I think others should read. I loved posting poetry, because then I got to read poetry sometimes, instead of studying science, which is what I usually do ALL THE TIME.

I’ve been trying to write actual posts this semester (out of some sort of sense of duty to the blogging initiative), but I really love this poem and I think everyone should read it. It reminds me of several of the people I love most in the world, most notably my mother and father. They both would save a tarantula from a swimming pool for no other reward than the flimsy (possibly non-existent) gratitude of a spider and the sense that they had saved a life.

Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy
By Thomas Lux

For some semitropical reason
when the rains fall
relentlessly they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise
bright and scary
arachnids. They can swim
a little, but not for long

and they can’t climb the ladder out.
They usually drown—but
if you want their favor,
if you believe there is justice,
a reward for not loving

the death of ugly
and even dangerous (the eel, hog snake,
rats) creatures, if

you believe these things, then
you would leave a lifebuoy
or two in your swimming pool at night.

And in the morning
you would haul ashore
the huddled, hairy survivors

and escort them
back to the bush, and know,
be assured that at least these saved,
as individuals, would not turn up

again someday
in your hat, drawer,
or the tangled underworld

of your socks, and that even—
when your belief in justice
merges with your belief in dreams—
they may tell the others

in a sign language
four times as subtle
and complicated as man’s

that you are good,
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

How to break out a horse and not die, part 2

In my last horse training post, I wrote about what huntseat riders call “backing” a horse–basically just getting on for the very first time. This takes some courage on the part of the trainer and quite a bit of judgement and commitment, but not a whole lot of skill. Today, I’m going to tell about the first few rides. These should be brief–no more than 10 minutes each–but after each one, the horse will have vastly more knowledge and experience than he had previously, so their importance should not be underestimated. These rides do require skill on the part of the rider, most important is perfect timing. When pressure is applied and when it is released makes all the difference.

As this point, you have a horse that is used to having a person on his back. However, he has absolutely no idea how to respond to any of the cues that are typically used.

I like to use a bosal (a bitless bridle) or even a halter for the first few rides, because it reminds the horse of what he already can respond to–a halter and a handler on the ground. He knows to stop with pressure on the halter and to turn with pressure on the halter, when his handler is on the ground. This should translate to a stop and steering (to some extent) while he has a rider on his back. Thus, your first big concern is getting going forward.

Mac, my little Quarter Horse girl from the previous post, and I had a bit of a tricky time with this part. She really likes to stand still and hang out. She was happy to walk forward with me on her back if she had a buddy (my mom) on the ground with whom she could walk, but was really reluctant to walk on her own. I turned her to get her going (any sort of motion is better than none) and praised her enthusiastically whenever she moved forward. I also used my legs as a cue to go forward–even though it wasn’t a cue she recognised yet I squeezed or kicked gently to get her moving and released pressure immediately when she did more forward.

This phase of horse training is by far the most difficult to describe. I do it almost entirely by feel and based upon my previous experience. It isn’t an endeavor that can be described verbally in a complete way. You’ve got to learn to do it by DOING it. It is almost like art, in a way. An artist cannot describe how he paints so perfectly and I can’t describe how I get a three-year-old horse to go.

Here we are. I’m teaching Mac to turn and walk forwards by very gently applying some let pressure and pulling her face in one direction.

How to break out a horse and not die, part 1

In college, some people go to bars for fun. Some people join sororities or clubs. Some people just study all the time. Some people join bible studies, or dance, or row crew. Some people run charity events. I, however, really like breaking horses.

I guess I ought to begin by explaining the term: “to break a horse.” Non-horse people seem to believe that this has something to do with breaking the horse’s spirit or his will. I do not know where the term originated, but now it simply means to to the first part of his training. Once a horse walks, trots, canters, stops, and picks up leads (this is a reference to the asymmetry of the canter–the horse must canter left and right), he is typically said to be broke or green broke. The term is NOT “broken” (even though that sounds more grammatically correct), because nothing about him is broken, he just knows more stuff.

Here I’m going to tell about breaking out a 3-year-old quarter horse mare: Mac. She’s pretty much the cutest. She’s dun (tan/gold with black mane and tail) (I’m going to try to add a picture of her at the end of this) and she’s super smart and willing to do what I ask.

I started working with Mac at the beginning of January, about twice a week. I started by introducing her to the saddle and working her on the ground (leading at the walk and trot, stopping and backing up). I didn’t know her before I started this training, so I was also getting a feel for her personality. It’s really important, when training horses, to know what kind of individual you are working with: is she brave? is she smart? is she cooperative? If the horse is none of those things, you’ll have a long, difficult road ahead. If you’ve got one of the three, you’ll be OK. And if you’ve got two, or even better, all three, you’re set forever. Of course, there are other quirks and personality traits as well. But, when trying to explain horse personalities to a person who has never been personally acquainted with a horse, those traits are the first that come to mind.

After Mac was used to the saddle and I had taught her to trot and back quietly when when I was leading her from the ground, I started getting her used to weight on her back. I leaned over the saddle like a dead body (legs on one side of the horse on a step stool, arms on the other, torso draped over her back, gradually putting more of my weight on her and less on my feet.

After these steps have been completed (and, depending on the trainer, sometimes many other steps), it’s time to get on. Once you’re on, you’re committed. You have one leg on each side. It’s hard to bail if things start going wrong. You and your horse, in my case cute little Mac, have to be ready. I took a deep breath and got, very gradually, on. She didn’t care at all. I sat on her for about half a minute, just enough time for her to think about the fact that I was there, but not enough time for her to get worried about it. Then I got off, told her what a good horse she was, and quit for the day.



Somewhere between barn work and lab work lies my future career. Somewhere between crunching data and training horses. Somewhere between pipetting all day and shoveling manure all day, because if you split your time between the two, you could stand them both.

I want to have a job for which I have calluses on my hands. I don’t feel human unless I have calluses on my hands.

I want to have a job for which I can spends days just reading and writing and learning and creating new knowledge. I don’t feel human without knowledge.

I want to know WHERE. Where is that balance? Can I came home sweaty and smelling like animals, with the cogs turning in my brain and new ideas surfacing? Can both exist in the same realm? And , if so, where?

Summer goals

I have multiple goals for the summer. I’m not really a goal-oriented person, but it’s still useful to keep tabs on the things one wants to achieve.

First and foremost, I want to do a good job at the lab in which I am working. I want to learn a lot, and hopefully to make progress on my research question. I want to master molecular genetics laboratory techniques and to determine whether molecular genetics is the field I want to pursue in graduate school.

I want to support myself. With the wage I’m earning, and taking into account rent and plane tickets, this will be a solid challenge, but I believe I can do it. I’m cooking for myself a lot and, honestly, prefer to eat cheap things like beans and lentils.

I want to become more well-read. I love to read, but I have little time for reading during the school year, because I spend so much time studying. Now, I have a full-time job, but it doesn’t follow me home. I have long evenings and nothing to do but read novels. I haven’t yet found a good source of books when mine runs out, but I currently have six unread books, so that will last me for a bit.

I want to study for the GRE (bletch). There is nothing more to say than that.

I want to explore St. Paul and Minneapolis to the best of my (car-less) ability. I don’t want to have to tell friends and collegues that I lived in the Twin Cities for the summer and never saw the Twin Cities. I want to explore both downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul and, mysteriously suggested by Dr. Papillon, dinkitown, whatever that is.

I want to plan out my FHRCS for this fall, with a general week-by-week outline, including most activities and assignments.

Finally, I want to research graduate programs and graduate fellowships, like Fullbright and Marshal. This is, perhaps, the most daunting of my goals, because I honestly do not yet know what I want to study in graduate school, and I have only about a year and some change to decide and apply (thank goodness I’m not applying this fall, like most of my peers).

I hope to update this blog regularly with reports on my progress towards these goals.

I’m an honors kid, and I don’t really care about grades

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m a good student.

For many people who live here, their high grades make a lot of sense in the context of their goals: pre-med, pre-vet, and pre-law students have to make top grades if they want to get into their respective professional schools. Others get good grades because they are competitive–they want to do their own best and do better than others.

I fall into neither of those categories. I’ve never been pre-med or pre-law and I was pre-vet for a while, before ditching it for something preferable (what? I’m not yet sure). Nor have I ever been competitive: I honestly do not care if others do better than I do.

Why, then, are my grades what they are?

I think that there are two reasons, probably equally compelling.

1. I care a lot. I care about everything. I care about small stupid mistakes I made years ago and about people I don’t know, and about dogs and fish and houses that belong to people I don’t know. I care about starving children in Africa and illiterate children in America and my wonderful, young, incomplete, imperfect, growing community. I worry too much and I care too much. I care about small details. And, as an extension of this, I care about my assignments. It’s not really that I want my assignments to be perfect. I simply set out to do a good and complete job. Messing up bothers me. My thoughts on school aren’t “YOU MUST BE PERFECT.” They are “Why wouldn’t you be as perfect as possible?” I was never socialized to perform poorly, so I don’t.

2. I want to LEARN. When I begin a class, I don’t think: “What do I have to do to get an A?” I think, instead, “How can I learn ALL this material in the time allotted?” I do not set out to get an A. I set out to learn the information. If I also get an A, that’s pretty cool. If I don’t get an A, I’m disappointed, not with my bad grade, but with the fact that I didn’t learn the materiel. Weirdly enough, this is somewhat true even in the classes I hate. I complain about physics, but I still want to learn all the information.

Honestly, I do not care much about my grades themselves. They are simply letters on a piece of paper. If I started getting straight Cs, the only thing that would disappoint me would be getting kicked out of honors (and possibly not getting into a decent grad school). However, if I started learning only 70% of the material in my classes, I would be driven insane. I care about learning everything in my classes. I don’t know if that distinction makes any sense to anyone except me.

If there were no extrinsic reward for getting good grades (honors, grad school, etc) I would still get good grades. If there were no exams, I would still go to class. The title of this blog,  then, may seem somewhat misleading, but to me it expresses a key distinction: learning and grades are NOT THE SAME THING. When good grades mean complete knowladge, I want to get good grades.

Call me insane, but this is how I was educated, kindergarten through high school. Education is voluntary, not compulsory, and I chose it. I want it.


PS. Obligatory tea report. We ate tea sandwiches and drank earl grey. The cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches were awesome. Then I put apple (intended to go with the chicken salad) on my sandwich with cream cheese, and that was awesome too. Rhit and Emily came (colloquium parasites), which was delightful.

Blogging about blogging, pt. 2

There are many bad things you could say about me: I’m too quiet, I’m too frank, I’m too shy, I’m too tall, I’m too worried. However, you can’t say I don’t try hard. I try hard at everything I do: school, friendship, work.

So, when I was presented with the blogging initiative, unenthusiastic as I was, I gave it my best try. I blogged MORE than the required amount. I followed the motherblog. I encouraged my FHRCS to blog. I didn’t find that I liked blogging any better, so I tried harder. I kept blogging about 3x/week. I kept reading the motherblog. I commented on other blogs. I went and got interviewed by about the blogging initiative.

I think I could honestly say that I gave the blogging initiative a very good effort (and a much better effort than many HRCuleans gave it). However, an entire semester has passed since I started blogging, and I still don’t like it. I don’t like reading other people’s blogs, either. I really only like reading blogs that belong to people I know, and I think it would be much more constructive to just talk to those people, rather than reading their meandering posts (Blogging isn’t conducive to good-quality writing. It’s conducive to meandering, thesis-less series of paragraphs).

Many students don’t like blogging, not just me. Students in the HRC don’t interact on the blogs or about the blogs. The blogging initiative ISN’T WORKING. It isn’t improving the community. If everyone in the HRC wanted to blog, the blogging initiative would be fantastic. There are about 320 brilliant minds in this building, and if they all wanted to blog, they would post fascinating things. However, they DON’T. They post kind of silly and meaningless things, trying to get to the required number of posts, so they can stop. I don’t mean to belittle the students who like blogging. The two dozen or so students who like the blogging initiative post marvelous things.

You can’t force learning. You can’t force creativity. You can’t force community to form around something. Learning happens when a person is interested. Creativity happens when a person is inspired. Community forms around common interests, values, and goals.

I think that the blogging initiative is trying to force those things, and I think it isn’t working.