Category Archives: communicating science

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.

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