Friday, June 22, 2007
Mostly, I'm trying not to feel ill. I'll be on vacation the next week, and unfortunately, I think I'll still be doing a little bit of work for my defense. Maybe our fellow houseguests will allow me a run through. I'm hoping I can relax a little and not stress out too much over the defense. It's hard to believe that in just over a week, it will be over.
Monday, June 18, 2007
College. Heading into college, I maintained equal interest in science and humanities. In fact, I'd scored exactly evenly on the SATs, which I've always found funny. I fully expected to major in English, but I still signed up for Intro to Biology, convinced by my mother because she said I was good at it and that I wanted to keep my options open. The Biology book was the biggest, heaviest book I owned. I think it cost close to $100, which was more than I'd ever paid for a book. I was at a small liberal arts college where one of the draws was small classes. My Biology class, however, had around 50 people in it. We sat in a lecture hall where the professor lectured on cell division and structure, drawing on the board and using overheads. I sat somewhere in the middle. When I went to read my first Biology assignment, I became completely frustrated. I could not really parse the book. It was written in English. There were words I understood, but when they were combined together, they suddenly made no sense. The lectures helped somewhat, but I was not inclined to listen. I wanted to talk or do something. Sitting for an hour and a half trying to make sense of something drove me crazy. I certainly didn't feel comfortable raising my hand. I was a freshman; I didn't know these people; and I certainly didn't want to look stupid.
I held out hope for lab. Here's where the action was. I'd been good at dissecting things, mating fruit flies, and identifying objects in a microscope. I showed up late for my first lab. Not that late, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, because I was lost. By the time I got there, everyone had partnered up, so I had no lab partner. The TA suggested I'd be fine on my own for this one and that we'd work something out next time. Our task for the day was to measure proteins in some oyster. First, we put the oyster in a mortar bowl and pounded it with a pestle to make it nearly liquid. As I began banging on my oyster, desperately looking around to make sure I was doing it right, I also began sneezing. I continued to sneeze every 10 minutes or so throughout the lab, the rest of which is a fog. I vaguely remember taking my oyster to be put in the centrifuge and I remember measuring things, but toward the end of the lab, I'd decided this was it, I was quitting.
After handing in my lab report, I walked down the hall to the professor's office, explaining that I wanted to drop the class. I believe I had a few not so stellar quiz grades under my belt at this point as well as the horrid lab experience. He asked me what I was planning to major in. English, I said. What are you doing in Biology, then? I shrugged. My mother talked me into it, I said. He quickly filled out the appropriate form and handed it to me without really looking at me.
Most of the people I knew who were taking science courses in college were doing so to become doctors. No one said, I want to become a biologist or a botanist or a physicist. Heck, I don't think I ever met a physics major. I was definitely not a careerist. My goal had always been to find a career that I enjoyed. Bonus if it paid well and/or made the world a better place. I explored eight different majors, meeting each time with various faculty advisers to sketch out a course plan: English, French, English plus French, French/International Studies, International Studies alone, Economics, Economics/English, Business/English. There were probably other combinations as well. I think my Econ professor would have loved to have me as an Econ major and I honestly think that would have been a good path for me except that most of the people who were taking Econ were doing so to become business majors and then to go on to get MBAs. Or there were a few who went on to do Accounting and become CPAs. I really enjoyed International Studies because it seemed to me to be academic study put to practical use. The people I knew in International Studies wanted to go work for the State Department or Amnesty International. The problems that needed to be addressed were complex and nuanced. That sounded interesting to me. But when I found myself in an upper level class reading the Monroe Doctrine, I concluded I could not continue.
So I gave up science and the social sciences and settled back into my original major, English. Creative Writing, actually. What I liked about Creative Writing was I could write about anything. If I was interested in something, I'd just go look it up and write something about it. There were no restrictions.
When I graduated from college, I was perfectly happy with my major. I'd gotten into a good grad program. I'd won awards for my writing. Life was good. It is only now that I look back and wonder what would have happened if I'd stuck out that Biology class or if I'd majored in Economics. What kind of career might I have pursued? Because I think I've always been looking for something with a scientific bent to it, a way of asking certain questions and of pursuing the answers to those questions. There's no doubt that I kind of took the easy path. When things got tough, I gave up. If I'd had more support through those tough points, I might have continued. Where that support was supposed to come from, I don't know. At some point, it has to come from within, but before you get to that point, it seems to me, you need someone to help you out a little, to encourage you, to make you feel confident even in those moments where you feel least confident. I certainly think the large class and the unfriendly lab atmosphere did not help me. I needed more attention, and there was no way I was going to get it without being more aggressive, something I wasn't trained to do. Someone might have told me to go get help from the professor, for example. But I wonder if the professor would have discouraged me. After all, I was an English major. My peers were certainly not going to encourage me. College for most of them was simply a rite of passage. It was a place to get away from the parents, drink, find a husband or wife, and get a ticket to a better lifestyle. If anything, they would encourage me to take easy classes so I could go out every night. My parents, too, encouraged me to have a balanced college life. It wasn't all about studying, they said. No one really pushed me. And I didn't have it in me yet to push myself. And so I tended toward the subjects I was good at naturally. I worked hard in college, but I could have worked harder. Things could have been different.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Here I was in Middle School, interested in math and science, loving some aspects of science, but pulled for who knows what reason to pursue writing instead. Middle school was a confusing time. There was puberty to contend with and then there were boys. My diary from those days is filled with entries where I am a) writing about who I like or don't like or b) writing about dealing with friendships. Negotiating the social terrain of middle school seemed to occupy a lot of my time. Which meant there wasn't a lot of time to think about science.
Negotiating the social scene just got worse in high school. There were even more factions to figure out. Boys became increasingly more important and, I started drinking. This combination of things did not help my grade situation, but it was cool for a writer. I started drinking very deliberately in an attempt not to be popular, oddly, but to separate myself from the popular crowd. They were all *too* good, so I thought drinking beer would make me *bad* and therefore differentiate me from them. Before I started drinking, I had a straight A average. I was tied with about 20 other people for the top spot. Somewhere around the second semester of my sophomore year, my grades slipped and I could no longer contend for the top position. In some ways, this took any pressure off of me to keep up the A average and so I kind quit caring about school.
Besides the drinking and social issues, math and science suddenly got a lot harder. I probably should have stuck with biology because I took two biology classes, one intro and one on genetics and loved both of the them, and did really well in both of them. I avoided physics because I was told the teacher didn't like girls. This is the only time ever that I experienced blatant sexism. In fact, two of my three science teachers in middle school were women and both teachers I had in high school were women. So I had role models. And they did encourage me. Just maybe not enough.
When I hit chemistry and trigonometry, things got rough. Coupled with my new "I'm too cool for school" attitude and the difficulty I had understanding basic concepts, I found myself seriously struggling. And I had never had to do that in my life. For a while, instead of just buckling down and figuring stuff out, I just let it slide. In chemistry, several of us were struggling, and a collection of people, more as a prank than as a real attempt to cheat, stole a test. I can't remember if I saw the test. It seems I didn't, because I recall getting a horrible grade on that test. The teacher found out and issued another test. I was so scared of the difficulty of that test that I did buckle down and study. After all, I'd done so poorly on the original that I was likely to do even worse on the new one. But I didn't. I actually got an A. Shockingly, this did not inspire me to study. I did not really put two and two together and realize that if I just studied a little harder, I might do fine. And no one else pointed that out to me either.
The same thing happened in math. I made it through trig in large part because I had a great teacher. I should have hung around him more. He used to tell me he thought I might be a genetic engineer, knowing that I was doing well in biology. Even when I wasn't doing well, he still encouraged me and didn't make me feel stupid if I didn't understand something. At the end of the year, I calculated (real world math!) what I needed to get on the final exam to get an A, a 98. In the past, this would have been no big deal, but I had missed some basic concepts and wasn't sure what to do. So I stopped by my teacher's office and explained to him where I was and that I needed help. And this, I will never forget. He didn't chastise me or tell me how disappointed he was that I hadn't kept up. Instead, he said that he felt like he had let me down. And then he spent almost two hours working with me, going over the basics I had missed and making sure I had understood them. At home, I spread out all my papers and did practice problems for two days straight. I had never studied so hard for anything in my life. I got a 98, giving me an A in the class.
In English, I wasn't struggling at all. I was breezing through. I was getting praise for my writing, both for my creative work and the analytical work I did. Before school, when I was hanging out with friends, they'd ask me if I'd written any poems or stories and I'd show them things I'd written and they tell me how good it was. My English teachers doted on me. And I loved that kind of attention. Once I got to calculus my senior year, and I had a teacher who wrote problems on the board and erased them at the same time and was really unfriendly, I had pretty much given up on math and science. It wasn't worth the struggle, I figured. And I wasn't getting as much attention for my work in math and science as I was for my work in English.
Also, I think I could see a career for myself if I pursued English. I was still hooked on becoming a writer of some kind, maybe a poet, but I was also considering novelist or journalist. Besides genetic engineer, no one really mentioned possible science careers. And since I wasn't doing so well in those subjects . . . No one really said that I didn't have to have perfect grades in an area to pursue it as a career option. I just figured you had to do whatever you were really, really good at.
So high school was certainly a point at which I could have been encouraged to consider a career in science. Perhaps if my other teachers, especially the two women science teachers, had pulled me aside at some point and said, you know you're pretty good at this stuff and maybe you should think about becoming a scientist. But there were other complex reasons for my not staying interested in science or math. They certainly weren't cool. As we progressed through high school, the "cool kids" were definitely not the ones excelling in math and science. There were one or two exceptions but still. And it's amazing how much we cared about that stuff--who was cool, who wasn't, who was dating whom, who was friends with whom. So much energy spent on things that just would not matter a year after we'd left high school. And I don't know how you counter that. And the subtle socialization about who pursued science and math. The boys I knew pursuing those areas wanted to become doctors or engineers. The girls? I didn't know. Mostly, even the smart girls I knew talked about dating and clothes. I had no idea what their intellectual interests might be. And this whole problem would continue in college. I just didn't hang around any girls who were studying science. In fact, I mostly hung around guys, and this, I think, caused some problems . . .
Thursday, June 14, 2007
What does all this have to do with my becoming or not becoming a scientist? Well, first of all, the story itself was kind of science-y. In fact, many of my stories were. I wrote about a planet beyond Pluto that was actually heated by a nearby star just hot enough to heat one side of Pluto enough to create a temperate climate that was then plunged into serious winter. But the people had learned to cope. Secondly, after the rejection, my confidence in my writing career pretty much plummeted. I wasn't completely devastated or anything. I just thought, okay, so I'm not that great at this. Let's see what else is out there.
And there were lots of other things I liked, one of them being Science. Mr. Redmond, the science teacher who broke the rejection to me, was a great teacher. Not only did he teach me about science, but he taught me how to take notes and do research, how to ask questions and do experiments. Starting in 6th grade, in fact, I have lots of memorable science moments. I remember distinctly learning about Mendel and genetics. I had to do a report on oil as an energy source (it was the 70s and we drew lots for which energy source to report on; I wanted solar). In 7th grade, I remember dissecting a squid (yes, PZ, a squid) and getting its backbone out in one piece. I carefully wrapped the squid backbone and an eyeball and the brain in a brown paper towel and carried it home. My dad proceeded to throw it away, thinking it was a wad of trash. Oh, the obstacles! But that was the year I went on a dissection rampage. I started dissecting things outside of class--crawfish, worms, frogs. Armed with lots of lysol and some curiosity, my friends and I took apart all kinds of creatures. I also collected rocks, labeling them all very carefully. In 8th grade, I had less of these moments, in part because my teacher sucked, but still I put together my science fair project on the science of wine, actually making my own batch of, I'm told, not very good wine.
Through the "gifted" program, I began taking computer science. I liked working with computers. I think there were about ten of us. I'm sure there was another girl, but I don't remember there being one. We mostly played computer games using a cassette player and a Tandy or on the brand new Apple IIe. Lemonade Stand anyone? But we also created flow charts and wrote programs in BASIC. I'll admit, I didn't love this part. It just wasn't very satisfying writing programs that did nothing more than write "Hello World" on the screen or calculate complex equations. We did have a way to make the computer talk and it was fun to make it say, "Fuck you" and "shit". No, we didn't have much supervision.
But I also returned to the idea of writing. In part, I was driven by competition. A new girl had moved to town and she was scary smart. She also had scary hair. But she had a nice rock collection and she'd written five books! Not published mind you, but still. And so, I went back to this idea of becoming a writer, holding that torch and ignoring the fact that I was good at science and good at math, and that there were a lot of things I liked about it.
To be continued . . .
1 Let's ignore the racism for a moment, because yes, there was a native assistant, Thursday, I think. And yes, it was somewhat misinformed.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
In the main chunk of the workshop, the "students" were supposed to work on their fall courses, try out a few things and ask questions of us, both technical and pedagogical. This part got a little bogged down with people wanting to import their old courses and not knowing how, but it wasn't too bad. We had some interesting one on one conversations about using discussion boards vs. blogs, the best way to collect and grade papers electronically and how to do peer review.
Then we came back to talk about how working in Blackboard for the last hour had gone, what issues were still outstanding, and more broadly, what they felt they got from the workshop. At one point during this last section, a faculty member (and this had actually been mentioned by several people there) said she didn't like the idea of students typing in little boxes and so she would rather have them type into Word and then cut and paste because typing in Word was a more formal process and so they'd do better work. I responded by saying that it was possible that 5 years from now we'd all be typing in boxes and so we needed to teach students to treat those little boxes as formal spaces when necessary.
I had made the point at the beginning of the workshop that the technology you use can shape the nature of the class, and (following Barbara Ganley), faculty should use the same technology they ask their students to use, so that they fully understand what they're asking they're students to do. I also suggested that students are not always ready to use technology in the ways faculty are asking them to and so, faculty need to model and teach and make their expectations clear. By the end, most of them got that. And there were several interesting points that they seemed to get through this process.
I think I got as much out of the workshop as they did. I'm used to, in my own teaching, and with the faculty I work with most frequently, being on the leading edge of technology. I have assumed that there are others that want to be on the leading edge but haven't made the time to get there yet. That assumption, I believe now, was wrong. A large number of faculty don't even know where the leading edge is. They haven't even heard of blogs or wikis. They don't know that Google has a word processor and spreadsheet program. They use their cell phones (if they have one) strictly for phone calls. They don't IM or Twitter or even know what those words mean except perhaps as a distant concept they've read about. Del.icio.us is an adjective. Realizing this was somewhat shocking, I'll admit. It's a bit disappointing. But I'm not completely discouraged. It just means I have a lot of work to do. And I think the way this workshop unfolded helped them begin to see the potential value of some of those leading edge tools, and that's the first step to getting them to use some of them in class.
We have two more of these workshops to conduct this summer. I'm very much looking forward to them and learning from them. I haven't yet figured out how to get people from where they are now to at least within shouting distance of the leading edge, but I'm working on it. Suggestions welcome.
Monday, June 11, 2007
There was such an expanse of plants and trees and sculpture, we were constantly stopping to look at different things, pointing out certain types of trees or flowers or ferns. In doing so, I was able to forget everything else that was going on. For a few hours, there was nothing in my head except deciding which way to go down the path and reading guides to plants and sculptures. It's been a very long time since that's happened. Almost always, something is looming in the back of my mind, trying to push forward through my attempts at relaxation. I'm reminded that I need to do more of this, that I need to get away from reminders of my anxieties. Too often, I am in places where thoughts of tasks to be completed are easily brought to mind. The arboretum was fully foreign to me. I'd never been there. There was no one I knew there to remind me of work. I need to seek out more places like this. I also enjoyed the relative quiet of the whole place and the smells of flowers and rotting wood. Mr. Geeky and both lamented that we didn't live among that kind of lushness anymore. Here, it's unaffordable or too far from work and school. We agreed that we might think about finding such a place later in our lives.
I think often, when I visit gardens, about the fleeting nature of life as depicted in the poems of the carpe diem poets. How apt was their comparison of our lives to those of flowers, whose blooms are so brief. I was lucky to catch many flowers in bloom, but already some flowers were past their prime and in a few weeks, more will be. By the end of the summer, a rare few will bloom in fall. Most will be withered and the leaves will fall, preparing the soil to start over again next year.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
GG: Mom, how do we elect the president?
Me: Well, you know when you go into that booth and vote for people?
Me: Well, whoever gets the most votes wins. We do that for all our elections. (I decide not to discuss the electoral college and other finer election details).
GG: You know what I think? I think the woman will get the most votes.
Me: (Thinking about the pros and cons of Hilary's canidacy): Why?
GG: Because, I think people are bored with having a man be president.
Monday, June 04, 2007
In a recent poll, parents ranked Internet safety above abuse as a major health concern. According to information I found here, about .00007% of all children using the Internet are abducted. Woah. Almost 4 times as many children are abducted by family members. But watch out for the Internet.
I think privacy concerns are probably more of concern to all of us, no matter what age. A lot of data about us is floating around out there and we are, most of us, trusting of those who have it. Identity theft is a concern, but I'm personally more concerned about the government or even a major corporation using the data immorally. But I'm not sure the government has the technological firepower to do much with the flood of information they have, but that's not to say that they won't someday. Still, I'm not going to be too paranoid about it, and of course, this kind of Internet safety isn't what the government had in mind when they declared June to be Internet safety month. After all, the government wouldn't hurt you (much).
So, I'm going to go skating along the Information superhighway. I'll have my seatbelt on, but I might go over the speed limit a bit. Be careful out there!
Friday, June 01, 2007
The general goal should always be, I believe, to help students learn x (whatever you want to define x as). X could be critical thinking or basic biology concepts or how to conduct an experiment or how to program in Java. Usually there's a y and a z too. The goal should not be to entertain students or to reach them as digital natives. This seems to be, however, some teacher's goals. I've had faculty say to me that they feel they should move into the 21st century and that's why they want to use PowerPoint or video. I can appreciate that using yellowed notes creates a presentation of self that might say "dinosaur" but one should not decide to use a tool just to appear "with it." Because it won't work. You won't appear "with it" necessarily and you may not reach your pedagogical goals.
And that's where this article by James Lang begins. I think I ultimately agree with him, but I also see that attitude creeping in of focusing too much on the technology as a way to reach digital natives rather than thinking about teaching (though he comes around to that). I don't have time to make a perfectly cogent argument, but here's the point where I most disagreed with him:
These two paragraphs focus on the kind of "magic" qualities of technologies, about the way computers can present content. And the second paragraph, especially, I find kind of crazy. No one, except maybe a few commercial educational software companies, has ever said that computer programs should be teaching careful reading skills. What most of us out here in the Web 2.0 world think about is not simulation programs or creating programs that supplant teachers, but about programs that enable collaboration both within a class and with experts outside a class. It's about students being able to ask questions of a cancer researcher about what cancer looks like at different stages and its effect on organs. Imagine that the researcher can watch as students work on real or simulated bodies. It's about the students being able to share their work with each other, to discuss what they're learning with each other. How do I teach careful reading skills with technology? By having students read, write on a blog, comment on other blogs and discuss it face to face in class. That way, they read more carefully to begin with. I can see very quickly where the difficult points are before class instead of being hit with it during discussion. And if, as Lang points out, Walter Ong is right about writing changing the way people think, then having students write before they get to class changes how they think about the reading.
Certainly technology has improved our ability to teach many subjects -- students studying anatomy can now work on virtual human bodies instead of dead cats, and that seems to me like an improvement. And the ability of computer programs to simulate and model chemical processes or economic theorems certainly surpasses what instructors used to be able to do with chalk, blackboards, and overhead projectors.
But can a computer program teach careful reading skills more effectively than a great teacher working with books, pencils, and a blackboard? Maybe a properly designed program could do it more effectively for some students, but probably not for all of them.
I think the rest of Lang's article is right on, focusing on reaching students with different learning styles and not making assumptions about their comfort level with technology.
As an aside, another post that got me thinking about these issues was this one about computer science at Digg (read the comments; I couldn't get to the original, but it's easy to tell what the gist was). I think it points to a real divide among students (and maybe faculty too) about what a college degree is for, an issue I know we're all familiar with. Students, by and large, see a degree as a ticket to a higher paying job. The rest of us see higher education as a way of creating thoughtful citizens. I think often that the ones in the latter camp see us technologists as being on the side of the students who feel that way (edited, because I know plenty of students who want to be thoughtful citizens and more by the end of college). Well, I'm here to say we're not and I think we'd all be better off if we realize we're on the same team.