It’s been an eclectic week.
When I was 8 years old my friend and I played “everything job.” Not wanting to be limited to one form of role playing or one purpose of our bikes, we imagined that the office, the shade between two towering Douglas Fir trees, was a computerized center for dispensing information and telling us what the world needed that particular morning. We were James Bond meets Luke Skywalker meets the local firefighter. We never imagined that the world needed an accountant or salesman or professor. We always imagined that the really useful careers involved exploration or heroics. The gravel driveway was a landing strip and a river and a metropolitan street; the surroundings beyond were jungle and deserted ghost towns and deep space.
Today, I don’t need a landing strip (though you’d be surprised what I imagine, still, riding my bike) and heroics are mostly limited to helping someone see the geometry in their theoretical inclined plane. Still, there are some “everything job” kinds of similarities.
Three weeks into the semester, classes are fine. I’m giving feedback on students’ proposed research questions, explaining about how to control some variables, make an outcome more measurable, and that I think it’s a waste of beer to pour it on a plant. It keeps me on my cognitive toes. I have a new prep in a class in a new classroom. More toes to be kept upon, but good. Bouncing from a 100 to a 300 to a 400 level course through any given Tuesday or Thursday is exhausting, but the classes are good. I just need to keep pace and fend off exhaustion.
Other things, besides classes, occupy me. In the past week especially it’s been like my days of pretending to be doing the everything job. A week ago I met with a ninth grader with magnets — always dangerous — in my office to discuss science fair. His mother had to drive him here. There were some subtleties I helped him work through, like violations of conservation of energy. He thought this sounded magical.
A few nights later I was playing with kids at a school, and we made giant bubbles and resonated tubes and made whirlpools. (Favorite line: “Tornadoes are my favorite!!” from a 9-year-old boy; “And who wouldn’t feel the same, except maybe a resident of a trailer park in Kansas?” I suggested.) Earlier that day I was in a meeting planning our lab curriculum. And before that I was in a meeting planning for evaluating our teaching curriculum. And before that I was talking to Stacy about our entire outreach program, and how was our weekend, and comparing the quality of cheese on our respective cold pizzas.
Just days before I received an email from someone I haven’t seen in over a year. She was a graduate student when I last talked to her, and she sat down with me for advice about jobs and faculty positions. “You gave me sound advice on how to pursue my desired faculty position, which is basically the job you have but in biology,” she reminded me. Now, she’s starting a new line as a faculty member in a position that’s similar to mine, and she told me, “I’m writing just to let you know that I see your work — both in teaching and research — as a model for what I aspire to do.” This was flattering, and terrifying. I’m more comfortable with telling a ninth grader about conservation of energy. But, apparently on that one day doing my everything job I pushed a different button.
A few days after that, In a fourth grade classroom on the other end of the spectrum of my life, I dropped in on Christina, one of our favorite local teachers. After walking in and finding a quiet place in the back corner of the room, she came to ask me if I’d like to hang out for just a few minutes before we talked through lunch, as her students were studiously doing math. Aside from gentle murmurs in isolation, the room was quiet. “Or, you can help with math,” she told me.
“Really? I’d love to!” I traded places with her and got to sit and the center of a semicircular table where four students were working, borrowing and carrying from long lines of digits. I started looking at the etching of pencil lead and making suggestions occasionally, but mostly just watching. As Christina walked around the room and helped other students, I heard her respond to a question, first telling someone my name and then saying that “He’s a professor” at the university up the street. There was a moment of awe — more than what I get in my own office, at least — followed by her telling the students, “so he’s very good at math.” And that was my ticket to acceptance into their culture. I was there to share some of my sweet arithmetic skills.
But then just the other day came another note through another email from another favorite teacher, this one in Texas. She’s been to a string of our conferences, and since then she’s started to implement new endeavors in working with her own co-teachers. The email she sent wasn’t to me, but to the National Science Foundation, and she wanted someone (or at least some inbox in some government computer) to know “The impact this conference has made on my teaching, and on my interest in improving my school and my district, has surpassed any other professional development by miles (including national conferences like [XXXX]).” Jesus. She continued:
I hope you realize the domino effect the … conference has had on teachers and science educators throughout the country. One small annual conference has created a national community of science educators devoted to changing and improving the way science is taught, and this community is actively networking and growing organically.
I’ve read this and the rest of the email a few more times since. I’m proud, but in a wary way I can’t quite explain. It makes me almost disappointed that we’re taking the year off from hosting the conference . . . almost. It will be better in the long run this way. And there are research projects I need to critique, and the other new job in which I’m planning campus activities and discussions and programs.* There are new ideas and starts for outreach programs, the reason I was visiting a fourth grade class in the first place, and there are those classes to teach. It really is an “everything job.” When I was eight I suppose I was just sustaining my youth, staving off old age and stagnation in a career that would be narrow in scope, predictable in its routine. Maybe I still am.
* Just realized that a fun typo makes this word “prograsm,” which looks wrong, but more exciting than the traditional “programs”.