Thursday, May 04, 2006

the best of you

Comments on my last post have inspired a new one. It seems I'm far from being the only person who feels the same way, that pressures push us to go for the grades instead of the knowledge.

Tiesha said "My priorities are usually staying in the program with the required B or higher and hope I learn something in the process. It's disappointing. "

Tiesha is a nursing graduate student (right?). Her program has very similar guidelines to my own, and I'm sure to many other graduate programs. B average or higher. In her case it sounds like even a single B- in a class is enough to get you booted. When I was doing coursework I had to keep my GPA above a 3.0. I think I did get a B- in...something. I also got plenty of As in other things.

In my case, that GPA requirement wasn't a lot of pressure for me. Two years doesn't give you a lot of room to pull a GPA up, but even as an undergrad my lowest semester was a 2.95, and that was with an F. (Thank you, organic chemistry). I went directly from undergrad into grad school and I still had my undergrad mentality. Just chew through it, spit out the answers on the test and move on. Pass go, collect $200. Don't get me wrong, I have learned a LOT here. But I could have learned much more, or learned it in better detail.

But it was Abel's comment that inspired the title of this entry "The question is are you/they/me truly capable of more or are we really doing our best? What is it you see in your students that our teachers might have seen in each of us?"

Tough question. I've asked myself many many many times why I always feel like I'm not doing enough. Why do I feel like I should be getting more accomplished? Can I actually get more accomplished? Or is this really my best effort and I only feel like I should be doing more?

I love the teaching. I want my students to succeed. I also want them to think I know what the hell I'm doing, which means I'd better have a solid grasp on the week's material. I put a lot of time into going over the lab each week and figuring out where tricky concepts are, looking up the answers I don't know, so that I can be prepared to answer my students. I give them review sheets almost every week, some made up and saved by other TAs, others made by hand when I didn't like what we had available. In this arena I feel that I'm doing my best, and yet I still think I could improve on my planning slightly. In this arena, I get instant feedback on my efforts. I think that helps motivate me.

Research I have a love/hate relationship with. I like figuring out the "big picture" stuff. I think I will love writing up my first paper. The day-to-day monotony of bench work and measurements gets to me quite often however. Before I started teaching and had my research time drastically cut, I would take frequent breaks to surf the internet and such. The whole time I'd be thinking "but I could be working..." and yet I really didn't feel like doing another DNA prep, or collecting seeds etc. Even with this, where I feel my real motivation issues lie, I have improved. I set time-limits for my slacking off and then force myself to go get work done. I make to-do lists. I'm improving, but I still feel that I could do better. Perhaps I'm already at my best effort level. Who knows?

What do I see in my students that my teachers may have seen? A generally good attitude about learning, a drive to to "well" in school, a vague but noticeable undercurrent of intelligence. These are the students for whom I know this material could be very easy. The class is all memorization and recognition of different organs and tissues. If they would spend just a few minutes in lab each week actually studying the material, just a few minutes!, they would understand it better. But they'd rather talk about their other classes to their (smart) friends and halfheartedly look at the lab demos.

I hated Plant Anatomy when I took it. HATE. It was minutiae to the nth degree with six hours of lab each week. Six hours of very carefully making wet mounts and drawing the resulting images in the lab book. I called it the "drawing circles" lab, because just about every plant cell is circular. I actually did more of the lab work than most people. I made sure I got through everything. But I wasn't interested in it, so my effort to actually learn anything was minimal. It would not have required much effort to get an A, but I honestly didn't care. I got a B in the end. And promptly forgot most of the material.

Abel also asked if I'm perceiving true apathy or rather just a preference to worry about other things: other classes, friends, that party over the weekend. I think it's a little of both. To this day I am adamant about having a "real life" and not turning into a lab hermit. I think my bright students who aren't trying very hard probably care about other classes more, probably would rather be out with friends than in lab, but know that they should be in lab, so they attend. In undergrad I had a very hard time studying or doing homework because there was always something going on that I'd rather be doing. Getting friends together to study/do homework was one solution, because then you're productive AND social.

I think there's a good reason why "non-tradional" older students get more out of college. They come in to learn and understand. "Normal" college students are there because...they're expected to go and a college degree (usually) helps one attain a job. They want the diploma, not the knowledge. In that sense, I probably should have waited a year or two before getting into grad school. But I was afraid I'd never go back, so I guess I'll just have to try and learn something the rest of the time I'm here.


At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so glad I waited for grad school. I know I would not have done nearly as well as a traditional student. The grades are a lot of pressure, but I also know my resources as an adult and seek out learning opportunities to apply those grades to.
Nice post

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

Wow, what great insights - it's easy for me to ask the question but I really appreciate the thought you put into considering the answer for yourself and for your students.

I've thought more about my comments and came to another conclusion: it all depends on what "doing your best" really means, to you and to others who evaluate you. Grad school is the time for mastering the grunt work of experimentation and putting it all together in a cohesive story. As you move on, you'll need the experimental skills to help your people troubleshoot (it gets hard to do this when you are not in the lab), but most of your job will be to put the big picture together in manuscripts, grant applications, reviews, and lectures (as you are beginning to do through this TA experience).

My own surfing and "recreational" reading still usually involves something useful that, if it doesn't make me a better scientist, still at least makes me a better and more educated citizen, conversationalist, musician, etc. The pain of grad school is that you are so heavily defined by what you are in lab. I'm an okay scientist, but I prefer to be better known as a good father, husband, and mentor. Still, if I don't get my next grant it will be hard to do all three!

And I most certainly agree that non-traditional-aged students are far better prepared. Not only are they generally more motivated to learn and understand, they are usually paying for college entirely by themselves and many have more relevant life experiences than the average 22-year-old that form a framework for integrating the need and importance of learning certain topics that may seem to be minutiae on the surface.

Keep up the great writing and reflection. I promise to get around to a link-love post sometime this weekend. Your blog is a joy to read!

At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honeybee, I thought you might like my latest post. There's always a place to implement what we learn (once we get the grades!)


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