Author Archives: John Sangster

Summer Days, Drifting Away

The semester has ended, and summer is upon us.  Last summer I poured myself into research, and worked seven days a week on data reduction in order to get three papers submitted for the August 1 deadline for the big conference in my field.  Only one paper was accepted, and it ended up being my hobby paper, entirely unrelated to my thesis.  I’m in a different mental place this year, and I plan to submit whatever gets done between now and then; it’s not worth burning myself out to accomplish more.

As part of my effort to re-center and reactivate myself I’ve decided to set aside Fridays to study away from the house and away from the lab.  I plan to work on developing the Achieve Academe thing (I really need to come up with better ways to describe it) that’s been started, flesh out my webpage, and do some reading.  I keep hearing other people talk about summer reading, and I want to jump on that band wagon, though I think people might not agree with my recreational reading choices.

First up on my list of summer books are the textbooks that are required reading for the coming school year.  Next year will be my last year of classes, and I’m splitting it evenly between statistics and engineering education.  Some of these books I’m more excited to read than others, but I think I’ll enjoy them all.

In addition to the required texts, I’ve added a few more to my reading list…

Transportation Statistics and Microsimulation, by Spiegelman, Park, and Rilett

If for some bizarre reason I finish all of the books on my plate, what else along this vein should I be reading? What are your favorite books on education?  What books have you read that changed the way you looked at the world?

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Grad School, instruction, reading, transportation

Summer Days, Drifting Away

The semester has ended, and summer is upon us.  Last summer I poured myself into research, and worked seven days a week on data reduction in order to get three papers submitted for the August 1 deadline for the big conference in my field.  Only one paper was accepted, and it ended up being my hobby paper, entirely unrelated to my thesis.  I’m in a different mental place this year, and I plan to submit whatever gets done between now and then; it’s not worth burning myself out to accomplish more.

As part of my effort to re-center and reactivate myself I’ve decided to set aside Fridays to study away from the house and away from the lab.  I plan to work on developing the Achieve Academe thing (I really need to come up with better ways to describe it) that’s been started, flesh out my webpage, and do some reading.  I keep hearing other people talk about summer reading, and I want to jump on that band wagon, though I think people might not agree with my recreational reading choices.

First up on my list of summer books are the textbooks that are required reading for the coming school year.  Next year will be my last year of classes, and I’m splitting it evenly between statistics and engineering education.  Some of these books I’m more excited to read than others, but I think I’ll enjoy them all.

In addition to the required texts, I’ve added a few more to my reading list…

Transportation Statistics and Microsimulation, by Spiegelman, Park, and Rilett

If for some bizarre reason I finish all of the books on my plate, what else along this vein should I be reading? What are your favorite books on education?  What books have you read that changed the way you looked at the world?

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Grad School, instruction, reading, transportation

Exposure, Disclosure, and Promotion

Recently in my course on Contemporary Pedagogy we had a guest speaker.  Jon Udell came in to talk to us about “web thinking” and his career working in a collaborative web environment.  In reading a bit of the prolific material that Mr. Udell … Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, Grad School, instruction, research, transportation, virginia tech, web presence

Exposure, Disclosure, and Promotion

Recently in my course on Contemporary Pedagogy we had a guest speaker.  Jon Udell came in to talk to us about “web thinking” and his career working in a collaborative web environment.  In reading a bit of the prolific material that Mr. Udell … Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, Grad School, instruction, research, transportation, virginia tech, web presence

Strengths and Weaknesses

I learned something today that simultaneously rocked my world and shored up the foundation of my self-understanding.

I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to spend more time in a classroom as the instructor instead of the student, so I was interested when I found out that the “Thrive” themed housing group for freshman at Virginia Tech was taking applications from upper classmen to be instructors.  Part of the Thrive community description says:

Thrive is a community in which residents can build confidence and form meaningful relationships with hall mates through a strengths-driven philosophy that helps students discover their inherent talents and then teaches them how to use those talents to benefit friendships, relationships, careers, and more!

This all sounds great to me, so I did some more digging.  One of the questions on the instructor application says “I am familiar with StrengthsQuestand/or I know my Top 5 talent themes?”  Well, I thought, what are my top five talent themes?  Then I discovered the Clifton StrenghtsFinder (or at least a reasonable approximation on a free website).  The result is what has caused all of this commotion.

My top strengths are:

Learner (100%) – Has a great desire to learn and wants to continually improve.

Intellection (100%) – Is characterized by intellectual activity.

Analytical (100%) – Searches for reasons and causes.

Input (100%) – Has a craving to know more.

Responsibility (92%) – Takes psychological ownership of what they say and do.

Relator (92%) – Enjoys close relationships with others.

Ideation (92%) – Is fascinated by ideas.

Restorative (92%) – Is adept at dealing with problems.

Belief (92%) – Has certain core values that are unchanging.

To me this is all well and good, and not just because I’m a data addict (Input).  After seven years in consulting I returned to grad school with an intent to never leave academia again, because on some level I recognized my need to be constantly learning and delving; I also recognized that I wasn’t going to find that along the career path I was on.  I appreciate that the test acknowledges my sense of responsibility for the things that I do, and it even knows that it’s important to me to feel close to others; yay test!  Now for the bad news, the test doesn’t just tell you just your strengths; it lists ALL of the categories, and tells you how well each one matches you…

My top weaknesses are: (drumroll please)

Inclusiveness (42%) – Is accepting of others.

Harmony (42%) – Looks for consensus.

Winning Others Over (50%) – Loves the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over.

Positivity (50%) – Has an enthusiasm that is contagious.

Context (67%) – Enjoys thinking about the past.

Individualization (67%) – Intrigued by the unique qualities of each person.

Fairness (67%) – Is keenly aware of the need to treat people the same.

Adaptability (67%) – Prefers to ‘go with the flow.’

I found this list to be extremely difficult to read; likely because my sense of responsibility makes me own up to the fact that to some extent this is all true.  When I come up against someone who has a strongly conflicting viewpoint from mine, I don’t look for consensus, and I don’t try to win them over, I just move on.  I am not able to bend my will to the will of others in order to ‘go with the flow,’ nor do I feel that everyone deserves to be treated the same regardless of how they behave.  A ten-minute multiple-choice test was able to identify the strengths and flaws in my personality that took me thirty years to come to terms with.

So what comes next?

Honestly I’m not sure that I want to “fix” my weak areas.  At the heart of the problem is that I feel so strongly about my core belief of learning is life / life is learning that I am often unable to relate to people who don’t incorporate wonder as part of their world-view.  I feel that, instead of being unaccepting of others, I am unaccepting of others who are close-minded.  Instead of winning others over to open mindedness, I’m more likely to just move on to the next person and hope they are different.  Instead of feeling like all people should be treated the same, I feel that people who don’t want to learn can be left to the lives they’re currently leading, and I’d rather go find a community where we can be inspired together.  I recognize that there are people in education who tirelessly work to engage every student in the material, but I unfortunately can’t count myself among them.  Perhaps it’s that 50% score in positivity that’s coming into play combined with the 92% score in responsibility; I believe that everyone is responsible for their own thoughts/actions, and I don’t believe that goodness comes naturally to every (adult) human being.  As I reflect on it, I’m a little bit amazed at how strongly I connect the ideas of “goodness” and “learner” in my mind.

So what about that freshman course I was going to apply to teach?  I think I’ll give it a pass, and let someone more qualified take it on.  I am confident that I’m the right choice to teach content-intense courses in my profession in a way that’s relatable to my students; showing them how it applies to their lives/career and getting them involved in the world of engineering knowledge.  However, I am not confident in my ability to help freshmen to create a community where they “build confidence and form meaningful relationships with their hall mates.”

Based on my experiences as a freshman in college I should perhaps be signing up to audit the course instead of teach it.  Maybe they could wheel me out on the first day of the lecture and I could explain to the students what the warning signs are of major depressive disorder; what it feels like to go from a 3.5 in your first semester to a 1.9 in the next (it would have been a 1.5 without that A in Poetry), and how it’s not healthy to drop down to 125 pounds when you’re 5’10” tall because you didn’t feel like eating.  Making sure that freshmen have a positive experience and that no-one drops through the cracks is something that’s near and dear to my heart; in part because no-one was there to catch me when I was falling.  Perhaps I have a way to go yet before I can summon up enough positivity to do it responsibly.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Grad School, instruction, strengths

Strengths and Weaknesses

I learned something today that simultaneously rocked my world and shored up the foundation of my self-understanding.

I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to spend more time in a classroom as the instructor instead of the student, so I was interested when I found out that the “Thrive” themed housing group for freshman at Virginia Tech was taking applications from upper classmen to be instructors.  Part of the Thrive community description says:

Thrive is a community in which residents can build confidence and form meaningful relationships with hall mates through a strengths-driven philosophy that helps students discover their inherent talents and then teaches them how to use those talents to benefit friendships, relationships, careers, and more!

This all sounds great to me, so I did some more digging.  One of the questions on the instructor application says “I am familiar with StrengthsQuestand/or I know my Top 5 talent themes?”  Well, I thought, what are my top five talent themes?  Then I discovered the Clifton StrenghtsFinder (or at least a reasonable approximation on a free website).  The result is what has caused all of this commotion.

My top strengths are:

Learner (100%) – Has a great desire to learn and wants to continually improve.

Intellection (100%) – Is characterized by intellectual activity.

Analytical (100%) – Searches for reasons and causes.

Input (100%) – Has a craving to know more.

Responsibility (92%) – Takes psychological ownership of what they say and do.

Relator (92%) – Enjoys close relationships with others.

Ideation (92%) – Is fascinated by ideas.

Restorative (92%) – Is adept at dealing with problems.

Belief (92%) – Has certain core values that are unchanging.

To me this is all well and good, and not just because I’m a data addict (Input).  After seven years in consulting I returned to grad school with an intent to never leave academia again, because on some level I recognized my need to be constantly learning and delving; I also recognized that I wasn’t going to find that along the career path I was on.  I appreciate that the test acknowledges my sense of responsibility for the things that I do, and it even knows that it’s important to me to feel close to others; yay test!  Now for the bad news, the test doesn’t just tell you just your strengths; it lists ALL of the categories, and tells you how well each one matches you…

My top weaknesses are: (drumroll please)

Inclusiveness (42%) – Is accepting of others.

Harmony (42%) – Looks for consensus.

Winning Others Over (50%) – Loves the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over.

Positivity (50%) – Has an enthusiasm that is contagious.

Context (67%) – Enjoys thinking about the past.

Individualization (67%) – Intrigued by the unique qualities of each person.

Fairness (67%) – Is keenly aware of the need to treat people the same.

Adaptability (67%) – Prefers to ‘go with the flow.’

I found this list to be extremely difficult to read; likely because my sense of responsibility makes me own up to the fact that to some extent this is all true.  When I come up against someone who has a strongly conflicting viewpoint from mine, I don’t look for consensus, and I don’t try to win them over, I just move on.  I am not able to bend my will to the will of others in order to ‘go with the flow,’ nor do I feel that everyone deserves to be treated the same regardless of how they behave.  A ten-minute multiple-choice test was able to identify the strengths and flaws in my personality that took me thirty years to come to terms with.

So what comes next?

Honestly I’m not sure that I want to “fix” my weak areas.  At the heart of the problem is that I feel so strongly about my core belief of learning is life / life is learning that I am often unable to relate to people who don’t incorporate wonder as part of their world-view.  I feel that, instead of being unaccepting of others, I am unaccepting of others who are close-minded.  Instead of winning others over to open mindedness, I’m more likely to just move on to the next person and hope they are different.  Instead of feeling like all people should be treated the same, I feel that people who don’t want to learn can be left to the lives they’re currently leading, and I’d rather go find a community where we can be inspired together.  I recognize that there are people in education who tirelessly work to engage every student in the material, but I unfortunately can’t count myself among them.  Perhaps it’s that 50% score in positivity that’s coming into play combined with the 92% score in responsibility; I believe that everyone is responsible for their own thoughts/actions, and I don’t believe that goodness comes naturally to every (adult) human being.  As I reflect on it, I’m a little bit amazed at how strongly I connect the ideas of “goodness” and “learner” in my mind.

So what about that freshman course I was going to apply to teach?  I think I’ll give it a pass, and let someone more qualified take it on.  I am confident that I’m the right choice to teach content-intense courses in my profession in a way that’s relatable to my students; showing them how it applies to their lives/career and getting them involved in the world of engineering knowledge.  However, I am not confident in my ability to help freshmen to create a community where they “build confidence and form meaningful relationships with their hall mates.”

Based on my experiences as a freshman in college I should perhaps be signing up to audit the course instead of teach it.  Maybe they could wheel me out on the first day of the lecture and I could explain to the students what the warning signs are of major depressive disorder; what it feels like to go from a 3.5 in your first semester to a 1.9 in the next (it would have been a 1.5 without that A in Poetry), and how it’s not healthy to drop down to 125 pounds when you’re 5’10” tall because you didn’t feel like eating.  Making sure that freshmen have a positive experience and that no-one drops through the cracks is something that’s near and dear to my heart; in part because no-one was there to catch me when I was falling.  Perhaps I have a way to go yet before I can summon up enough positivity to do it responsibly.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Grad School, instruction, strengths

How I Roll

I had the opportunity for my course in Communicating Science to give a five minute speech on my research/study topic.  The format for my speech was based on what I learned last fall when watching an introductory video about the center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook.  At one point in the video, Alan Alda is emphasizing the importance of making it more personal, and this stuck with me.  If you want to see the before/after speeches from Stonybrook, check out the video below.

So how did I apply these ideas and make my own research more personal?  The draft for the speech that I wrote is below, and it’s pretty close to the speech that I actually gave.  It was a unique experience for me delivering five minutes of material with no props, and I enjoyed the challenge!

~

Good evening, my name is John Sangster.  Whenever I attend a dinner party, or meet other parents on the playground, the conversation naturally winds its way around to the question of what I am studying.  There’s always a pause before I respond, because I know what’s going to happen.  So I steel myself for it, take a deep breath, and say “I’m studying transportation engineering, but basically I’m a traffic engineer.”  The pause that follows this is usually longer than the pause that I took before speaking.  Most of the time I’ll get a placating response like “oh, that’s nice” or “hmm, that must be interesting,” but occasionally will be a bit bolder and they’ll tell me what they’re really feeling.  If you think back to the last time you swore at someone, odds are good that you were in your car at the time.  People have a visceral reaction to traffic, and telling someone that you are pursuing traffic for your career is like telling them you’re studying to be a divorce lawyer; everyone knows it’s necessary, but everyone wishes it wasn’t.  Most often I hear that such and such an intersection doesn’t work well, or that travelling on such and such road hits every red light at a certain time in the morning and someone should really fix it.  Every once in a while I’ll talk with someone really bold who will say “so… can I blame YOU for roundabouts?!?”  This, I think, is the funniest of all the responses I get, because yeah, to some degree, you can blame me for roundabouts.

Now… because I want to teach in the future, I’ve been studying all facets of transportation, focusing most strongly on traffic, a strength of mine from my years as a consulting engineer.  The bread and butter of a consulting traffic engineer is the ever-present big box store.  Every time a development is proposed, the local town or county, whoever’s responsible for maintaining the roads, requires a nice big three-inch thick report called a Traffic Impact Analysis Study.  This report tells how many cars will come to the building and leave from it, where they’re all going, and most importantly, how that traffic will change the travel time on the roads.  The amount of increase in delay determines how much money a developer is forced to pay to help reconstruct roadways or add lanes at traffic signals to make it all work.  The thing is, at $115 an hour it takes an engineer a long time to make a three-inch thick report, and between big box stores, gas stations, donut shops, subdivisions, and doctor’s offices, there’s a lot of reports to be done.  This is the kind of stuff I teach my students about.

For my own research roundabouts are the thing.  Well, not just roundabouts, but all intersections that fall into this broad category called “alternative intersections.”  There’s about a half-dozen of these designs in use in some part of the country, and all of them are a bit screwier than the roundabout.  What they have in common is that they increase the amount of vehicles that can get through going straight, by inconveniencing the minor movements, like side streets and left-turning cars, rerouting them in a way that lets more through cars go.  A huge benefit of these designs is that increase the safety of the intersection by reducing the number of conflicting movements that could cause crashes.  The roundabout’s a lousy example of helping the through movement, but it’s a great example of reducing conflict.  Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents are head-on collisions where you make a left turn without seeing the opposing car coming at you and they smash right into your front, or you go through a green light minding your own business and having a nice day, and then someone runs a red light and slams into the side of you in a t-bone collision.  Roundabouts completely get rid of these kinds of conflicts, leaving only fender-bender types of crashes as cars come together at an angle.  BUT… you say… EVERYONE HATES ROUNDABOUTS.  Unfortunately, I agree with you, everyone does hate roundabouts, and in the places around the country where those other alternative designs have been built, everyone hates those too.  So the focus of my research is to figure out how to explain the benefits of these alternative designs to everyone.  I have to convince people within my own industry, and in the general public.  Because the truth is that these designs are safer, and they do work better.  Thank you.

~

What are your thoughts on the speech?  Does it engage you?  Does it stir up some emotion?  How can I improve it?  Feedback, as always, is appreciated!!

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, Grad School, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech, web presence

How I Roll

I had the opportunity for my course in Communicating Science to give a five minute speech on my research/study topic.  The format for my speech was based on what I learned last fall when watching an introductory video about the center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook.  At one point in the video, Alan Alda is emphasizing the importance of making it more personal, and this stuck with me.  If you want to see the before/after speeches from Stonybrook, check out the video below.

So how did I apply these ideas and make my own research more personal?  The draft for the speech that I wrote is below, and it’s pretty close to the speech that I actually gave.  It was a unique experience for me delivering five minutes of material with no props, and I enjoyed the challenge!

~

Good evening, my name is John Sangster.  Whenever I attend a dinner party, or meet other parents on the playground, the conversation naturally winds its way around to the question of what I am studying.  There’s always a pause before I respond, because I know what’s going to happen.  So I steel myself for it, take a deep breath, and say “I’m studying transportation engineering, but basically I’m a traffic engineer.”  The pause that follows this is usually longer than the pause that I took before speaking.  Most of the time I’ll get a placating response like “oh, that’s nice” or “hmm, that must be interesting,” but occasionally will be a bit bolder and they’ll tell me what they’re really feeling.  If you think back to the last time you swore at someone, odds are good that you were in your car at the time.  People have a visceral reaction to traffic, and telling someone that you are pursuing traffic for your career is like telling them you’re studying to be a divorce lawyer; everyone knows it’s necessary, but everyone wishes it wasn’t.  Most often I hear that such and such an intersection doesn’t work well, or that travelling on such and such road hits every red light at a certain time in the morning and someone should really fix it.  Every once in a while I’ll talk with someone really bold who will say “so… can I blame YOU for roundabouts?!?”  This, I think, is the funniest of all the responses I get, because yeah, to some degree, you can blame me for roundabouts.

Now… because I want to teach in the future, I’ve been studying all facets of transportation, focusing most strongly on traffic, a strength of mine from my years as a consulting engineer.  The bread and butter of a consulting traffic engineer is the ever-present big box store.  Every time a development is proposed, the local town or county, whoever’s responsible for maintaining the roads, requires a nice big three-inch thick report called a Traffic Impact Analysis Study.  This report tells how many cars will come to the building and leave from it, where they’re all going, and most importantly, how that traffic will change the travel time on the roads.  The amount of increase in delay determines how much money a developer is forced to pay to help reconstruct roadways or add lanes at traffic signals to make it all work.  The thing is, at $115 an hour it takes an engineer a long time to make a three-inch thick report, and between big box stores, gas stations, donut shops, subdivisions, and doctor’s offices, there’s a lot of reports to be done.  This is the kind of stuff I teach my students about.

For my own research roundabouts are the thing.  Well, not just roundabouts, but all intersections that fall into this broad category called “alternative intersections.”  There’s about a half-dozen of these designs in use in some part of the country, and all of them are a bit screwier than the roundabout.  What they have in common is that they increase the amount of vehicles that can get through going straight, by inconveniencing the minor movements, like side streets and left-turning cars, rerouting them in a way that lets more through cars go.  A huge benefit of these designs is that increase the safety of the intersection by reducing the number of conflicting movements that could cause crashes.  The roundabout’s a lousy example of helping the through movement, but it’s a great example of reducing conflict.  Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents are head-on collisions where you make a left turn without seeing the opposing car coming at you and they smash right into your front, or you go through a green light minding your own business and having a nice day, and then someone runs a red light and slams into the side of you in a t-bone collision.  Roundabouts completely get rid of these kinds of conflicts, leaving only fender-bender types of crashes as cars come together at an angle.  BUT… you say… EVERYONE HATES ROUNDABOUTS.  Unfortunately, I agree with you, everyone does hate roundabouts, and in the places around the country where those other alternative designs have been built, everyone hates those too.  So the focus of my research is to figure out how to explain the benefits of these alternative designs to everyone.  I have to convince people within my own industry, and in the general public.  Because the truth is that these designs are safer, and they do work better.  Thank you.

~

What are your thoughts on the speech?  Does it engage you?  Does it stir up some emotion?  How can I improve it?  Feedback, as always, is appreciated!!

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, Grad School, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech, web presence

Inspiration on Tap

I’m currently taking a course in Communicating Science, and as I sat down to write about it I thought I’d start off with a discussion on whether or not this course meets my needs.  On second thought though, I may be jumping the gun a little on that one.  My immediate goals for the course relate to my desperation to successfully pursue a job when all of this grad craziness is over, and to that end my desire is to make a good impression with search committees; this would involve discussing my research material informally with other professionals, discussing my material in a panel interview setting, and presenting my material to a large group of students in an engaging way.  Coming back to this write-up after a short break the goal already feels small and shallow, and I need to broaden my horizons.  Perhaps a better long term goal would be to develop my ability to inspire curiosity in others, regardless of the format of communication.  If you boil away all of the fear related to finances and responsibility to my family, it’s the desire to inspire curiosity that’s driving me to pursue a faculty position.

I recently heard a story that contrasted two dinner parties, one attended by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professors, and a second attended by celebrated performing artists.  The person telling the story had the pleasure of attending both dinners, as their career bridged both of those worlds.  The reflection from the storyteller was about how much more enjoyable the dinner had been with the first group, and how at first this had been surprising.  In retrospect the difference turned out to be independent of the two group’s respective areas of expertise, and was instead based on whether they were involved in learning and teaching.  The professors were, in general, more interested to learn anything and everything that came their way, which made for more interesting discussion.  Hearing the story brought on a flood of memories for me of conversations held with those who lacked curiosity.  For a while I’ve been observing that I never felt like I fit in outside of academia, and perhaps it can all be boiled down to people who view learning as a lifelong task, and those that don’t.  The desire to learn is such a fundamental component of my psyche that it becomes physically painful to spend time with people who are closed to new experiences and ideas.  As my brother-in-law would say, it makes my hair hurt.

So coming back to my purpose in the class… Yes it’s true that I need to make a positive impression on a search committee at some point in the near future, but once that’s done it’s completely done, and for the rest of my life my need will be to inspire curiosity.  The atmosphere in today’s classroom is not like it was in our grandparent’s time; a question posed to the class gets more blank stares and indifferent shrugs than eager responses.  It’s not the fault of the students alone; we’re all complicit in allowing mediocrity to be an acceptable state of being.  I remember a time in seventh grade (it took me longer to realize it than others) when I realized that it estranged me from my peers when I answered questions.  How many of us were forced to become underground learners as we made our way through school?  The most painful thing for me as a student was having patience when the teacher asked a question and no-one answered, because I knew that half a dozen people around me all knew the answer, and if they weren’t going to answer it then I shouldn’t either.  Hindsight being 20/20, I now see that keeping quiet didn’t actually change my standing with any of the popular kids, and that my happiest classroom experiences were when my excitement for a subject overruled my hesitation to express myself and I engaged.

Next to engaging my own kids in the wonder of the universe, I think my favorite activity is inspiring others, especially students, to actively engage and seek knowledge/wonder.  Curiosity is my anti-drug.  The light of understanding that shines in someone’s eyes when they have a new insight is ambrosia for my academic palate.  How then will I connect with the undercover learners in my own classroom, and convince them to show their true faces in front of their colleagues?  I’d like to learn to do this; we can all dream.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, family, Grad School, instruction, wonder

Inspiration on Tap

I’m currently taking a course in Communicating Science, and as I sat down to write about it I thought I’d start off with a discussion on whether or not this course meets my needs.  On second thought though, I may be jumping the gun a little on that one.  My immediate goals for the course relate to my desperation to successfully pursue a job when all of this grad craziness is over, and to that end my desire is to make a good impression with search committees; this would involve discussing my research material informally with other professionals, discussing my material in a panel interview setting, and presenting my material to a large group of students in an engaging way.  Coming back to this write-up after a short break the goal already feels small and shallow, and I need to broaden my horizons.  Perhaps a better long term goal would be to develop my ability to inspire curiosity in others, regardless of the format of communication.  If you boil away all of the fear related to finances and responsibility to my family, it’s the desire to inspire curiosity that’s driving me to pursue a faculty position.

I recently heard a story that contrasted two dinner parties, one attended by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professors, and a second attended by celebrated performing artists.  The person telling the story had the pleasure of attending both dinners, as their career bridged both of those worlds.  The reflection from the storyteller was about how much more enjoyable the dinner had been with the first group, and how at first this had been surprising.  In retrospect the difference turned out to be independent of the two group’s respective areas of expertise, and was instead based on whether they were involved in learning and teaching.  The professors were, in general, more interested to learn anything and everything that came their way, which made for more interesting discussion.  Hearing the story brought on a flood of memories for me of conversations held with those who lacked curiosity.  For a while I’ve been observing that I never felt like I fit in outside of academia, and perhaps it can all be boiled down to people who view learning as a lifelong task, and those that don’t.  The desire to learn is such a fundamental component of my psyche that it becomes physically painful to spend time with people who are closed to new experiences and ideas.  As my brother-in-law would say, it makes my hair hurt.

So coming back to my purpose in the class… Yes it’s true that I need to make a positive impression on a search committee at some point in the near future, but once that’s done it’s completely done, and for the rest of my life my need will be to inspire curiosity.  The atmosphere in today’s classroom is not like it was in our grandparent’s time; a question posed to the class gets more blank stares and indifferent shrugs than eager responses.  It’s not the fault of the students alone; we’re all complicit in allowing mediocrity to be an acceptable state of being.  I remember a time in seventh grade (it took me longer to realize it than others) when I realized that it estranged me from my peers when I answered questions.  How many of us were forced to become underground learners as we made our way through school?  The most painful thing for me as a student was having patience when the teacher asked a question and no-one answered, because I knew that half a dozen people around me all knew the answer, and if they weren’t going to answer it then I shouldn’t either.  Hindsight being 20/20, I now see that keeping quiet didn’t actually change my standing with any of the popular kids, and that my happiest classroom experiences were when my excitement for a subject overruled my hesitation to express myself and I engaged.

Next to engaging my own kids in the wonder of the universe, I think my favorite activity is inspiring others, especially students, to actively engage and seek knowledge/wonder.  Curiosity is my anti-drug.  The light of understanding that shines in someone’s eyes when they have a new insight is ambrosia for my academic palate.  How then will I connect with the undercover learners in my own classroom, and convince them to show their true faces in front of their colleagues?  I’d like to learn to do this; we can all dream.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, family, Grad School, instruction, wonder