Those Who Can…

Regular followers of this blog (if any) will have noticed that Winter/Spring 2012 has been pretty quiet on the outdoor adventure front.  Since I’m still sane, you know I’ve clearly been out and about here and there, but I’m certainly not up to my usual standard rate of outdoor adventure…. Well, y’see, that’s the thing.  Adventure is where you find it and where you find yourself.  I’ve been putting myself outside my comfort zone and finding adventure in other ways.  It hasn’t been al fresco, but it’s been an adventure non-the-less.

Last fall, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class at University of Colorado.  Really teach.  I’ve been a research ninja for many years, but have never done more than the occasional guest lecture and some one-on-one student mentoring and advising.  Since I’m nominally looking for a permanent position in academia (probably read “faculty”), having some instructor-of-record experience on my resume seemed like a good career move.

The class in question: “Modern Cosmology“, a 2000-level science distribution class for non-majors.  I am nominally a cosmologist, so this seemed like a good fit.  Cosmology is, literally, the study of everything, so we got to cover a lot of the really big, mind-blowing aspects of astrophysics: black holes, quasars, the Big Bang, all that stuff.  We even touched upon some of the deep philosophical aspects like “why are we here?” and “are we alone in the universe?“.  Even “is there a god?” (and that was a real barn-burner!).

This, it turns out, is a Really Big Deal.

The first lecture loomed in mid-January as a complete unknown.  I’ve never been in a class of more than about 30 people on either side of the desk, so the idea of standing in front of 70-some was pretty terrifying.  I prepared as thoroughly as possible, but it still didn’t seem like enough.  Oh, I wrote a syllabus and sketched out the schedule I hoped to achieve, but until that first class, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  Even once things settled down, there were weekly “I don’t know if I can do this!” moments.  Head down and soldier on.

After the initial terror subsided, things settled into a routine.  Even with two different sets of lecture notes to draw from, it was still a crushing amount of work; a typical 45-minute lecture took five to ten hours of preparation.  Each.  Three lectures a week for fifteen weeks.  Three midterms, six homework assignments, two independent research projects, a couple of in-class demonstrations, and one late-night final exam.  Perhaps more seasoned teachers can do it more efficiently or perhaps my PowerPoint production values are unusually high, but it took most evenings and at least half of one day each weekend to prep for lectures.

The Universe. Any questions?

The class was about half people with a science background and half not.  I lead them through a crash course in certain aspects of astronomy and physics.  I dragged them through single-class lectures on such diverse topics as quantum mechanics, general relativity, particle physics, and so forth just so they’d have some basis to understand the cooler aspects what happened at the beginning of time.

Then there was the math.  Full-on, hard-core cosmology is a pretty mathematical subject and most non-science undergrads have a deer-in-the-headlights reaction to even the simplest of equations.   A lot of the concepts we talked about (four-dimensional space time, black holes, dark matter, etc.) only really make sense mathematically; if you can visualize an eleven-dimensional spacetime manifolds without the math, there is something fundamentally odd about you!  Perhaps there’s a way to teach the details of cosmology without any math, but I couldn’t find it.  Thus, there was a lot of hand-holding and pep-talking as we dealt with some very watered down versions of the equations.  (For some perspective, I showed them the Einstein Field Equation which is some legitimately scary math, but that didn’t seem to comfort them very much.)  Still, I covered topics like spherical harmonics, Fourier analysis, and more as conceptually as possible and they mostly got it!

Despite the tremendous work-load, it was a fantastic experience, perhaps even transformative.  It was clear that about half the class was there because they wanted to have their minds blown.  Those who asked questions often asked really insightful, challenging questions.  A couple even asked me what they needed to do to switch to an astronomy major.  One student billed it as the most interesting, challenging class he’d taken in his entire career.  One student made a film about traveling through black holes.  I learned a lot as well, both about the details of teaching a college-level class as well as the finer points of cosmology.  These were discovering (oftentimes not long before lecture) that I didn’t actually understand what I thought I understood.

Teaching, in a nutshell

There were a few real unexpected joys.  In the interests of broad-mindedness, I mixed traditional sciency homework problems with essays and other “right-brain” things.

– I offered students a chance to write about the cosmography and cosmogony (structure and origin of the world) in a traditional culture.  As a result, I got a lot of essays on Mayan, Incan, Egyptian, Buddhist, and Norse mythology.  However, I also got two on the (very well developed) world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and one on the cosmology of the My Little Pony planet Equestria.

– There was an extra-credit question on the final exam challenging students to write a brief poem (haiku or limerick) about some aspect of the universe.  I’d hoped a few people would try it, but everyone, without exception, wrote down some bit of doggerel.  One of the most apt was “Quantum Mechanic? / Spacetime? Relativity? / Not an easy-A!”

Now that the semester is safely behind me, I can look back and reflect a bit.  I went in expecting a learning experience and a valuable addition to my CV.  What I got was a really rewarding, maybe even life-changing experience.  I would happily teach this class again (now that I’ve done the work to do it the first time) and it has broadened the range of jobs I plan on applying for next time around.

My profound thanks to my family, friends, and colleagues for putting up with a distracted, stressed me, and apologies to the same for not pulling my expected share of the weight.

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