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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.