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Let there be light August 1, 2013

Posted by markgeil in Academia, Philosophical musings.
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light switches

There are 12 light switches in the front of the lecture hall in which I taught this summer. They are rather Spartan, labeled with one of those clicky Dymo labelers like I had when I was a kid. But they’ve become metaphorical for me in a cheesy kind of way. Every Tuesday and Thursday for seven weeks I’ve turned them on, thinking about the so-called “light of knowledge” I have hoped to impart to these students.

Light is a powerful word. Darkness is the place of the unknown, where things are hidden that are probably scary. Light is revelation. In the light, our path is clear. The darkness, as Sting wrote in an old Police song, “makes me fumble for a key to a door that’s wide open.”

I have been teaching undergraduates for 16 years, long enough to become jaded and cynical. Though I am sometimes cynical I have lofty hopes for my students, every semester. I hope to inform their future careers, to get them to view the world a little differently, and, from the Pollyanna stronghold that lives in me, fighting the cynical self, I want them to enjoy learning, just for learning’s sake.

This summer’s class was Biomechanics. I told the students early on that they probably have an intuitive thinking about the subject, based on how it looks like the world works. So did Aristotle. But in the case of the laws that govern motion, at least, Aristotle was wrong. I told my students that I wanted them to stop thinking like Aristotle and start thinking like Newton. Along the way, some did. There were even singular moments of epiphany when a certain student would finally grasp a concept, when they seemed to enjoy learning.

Today I gave the final exam. I turned the lights on, distributed the exams, and took my lofty perch in front of the 70 seats. About an hour in, a few questions came, as they sometimes do. And I became disappointed, as I sometimes do. Seven weeks, and all those lectures and homeworks and review sessions and I still have students who don’t know the difference between mass and force. They leave me, unchanged, and I become cynical again. Two and a half hours after I had turned those 12 switches on, I turned them off again, frowning at the dark unknown.

Walking back to my office, I pondered blame. What could I have done differently to reach those students who learned so little? Or was it their fault for barely trying? Then I thought of myself as a learner instead of a teacher. I thought of all the lessons God wants to show me and the ways He wants to illuminate my darkness. He has beauty to show me, and mystery, and wonder. And I sit at the feet of the perfect teacher and I barely even try.

In a roundabout way, I’m inspired by my students’ failures. Certainly, I try to improve as a teacher. But I’m also motivated to learn! I want my own singular moments of epiphany in the lessons around me. I want to be changed. I want the light switches to stay on.

Fall semester is only two weeks away. Another 70 students await, for undergraduate biomechanics. And I will turn the lights on.

A Scientist Scoffs at “Scientific Fact” April 28, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Academia, Philosophical musings.
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I am grading final papers in one of my classes. So far, they’re pretty good, although I still see some of the superfluous absolutes that seem to pop up in student papers. I’ll see a statement like, “Robinson et al. (2009) proved that collateral ligament injury is caused by…” and out comes the red pen. I’ll cross out the word “proved” and replace it with a more benign word, like “demonstrated”. Scientific theories and experiments are what they are: limited ideas or demonstrations of a principle in a given context. That’s why I’m amused when a body like the National Academy of Sciences declares that a theory like evolution has been studied enough that we might as well call it fact. That’s also why I chuckle at the following from the most recent Time magazine:

When a scientific principle is common knowledge even in grammar schools, you know it’s long since crossed the line from theory to established fact. That’s the case with dinosaur extinction. Some 65 million years ago – as we’ve all come to know – an asteroid struck the Earth, sending up a cloud that blocked the sun and cooled the planet. That, in turn, wiped out the dinosaurs and made way for the rise of the mammals. The suddenness with which so many species vanished after the 65-million-year mark always suggested a single cataclysmic event, and the 1978 discovery of a 112-mi., 65-million-year-old crater off the Yucatán peninsula near the town of Chicxulub seemed to seal the deal.

Now, however, a new study in the Journal of the Geological Society throws all of that into question.

The title of the article is, “Maybe an Asteroid Didn’t Kill the Dinosaurs.” My translation: “Maybe we don’t know jack.” Just because we study something a lot, and talk about it a lot, our theories will still be theories, and our proofs of theories will be proven in the limited context of the experiment offering “proof”. Meanwhile, God is God and I am not, and He knows how wrong we are about some of our scientific “fact”.

Red-Ink Disillusionment November 11, 2008

Posted by markgeil in Academia, Bible.
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I’ve just finished grading a big stack of exams. There is always a bit of joy associated with the completion of a task like that, with watching the stack get smaller and smaller until every last paper is covered in red ink. However, today it’s that last part – the red ink – that’s left me a little bummed. I have a batch of students in this one class this semester who just aren’t getting it. I led the last five classes asking the definition of a certain concept in biomechanics, Moment of Inertia. It’s a pretty hard concept, but we went over and over it, and it’s in their book, and I even told the students that they would have to write the definition on the exam. Alas, lots of red ink. It wasn’t just that question. So many completely blank spaces after so many questions leave me doubting myself. Are they just not studying, not trying, or am I doing something wrong? That class is this afternoon, and we’re going to have a heart-to-heart chat, as much as one can have a heart-to-heart chat with 49 students.

It is said that Jesus, being fully human and fully God, can identify with all our trials. This isn’t a very grandiose or even burdensome trial, but I did get a chuckle today when I read from John that, indeed, Jesus could identify with even this little bout of red-ink-disillusionment. Here’s what I read:

Jesus: “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.”

Phillip answers, probably enthusiastically, “Lord, show us the Father, and that’s enough for us.”

Jesus, perhaps somehow aware at that very moment of what these words would mean to me thousands of years later , replies: “Have I been among you all this time without your knowing Me, Phillip? The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me?” (John 14:7-10a)

Now, please understand that I don’t try to somehow equate myself with the Messiah in this example, nor do I compare our trials, nor even consider that I’m the tiniest bit as great a teacher as the Master. I’m just gratified, in a lighthearted way, that He was indeed fully human, and that we might have shared a small shred of emotion.

Maybe I’ll start my heart-to-heart chat with the students this afternoon like this: “Have I been among you all this time without your knowing the Moment of Inertia?”