Monday, May 24, 2010

Bracing for summer

Spring is here, and I am busy trying to get myself ready for teaching introductory biology during the first summer session. This is a five week class, and it’s supposed to provide the students with a sound introduction to biology—the “origins and essence of life,” according to the title. The pedagogical feasibility of doing this is debatable. Right now I’m working on the syllabus, and the job is to try to eliminate everything that is not absolutely essential.

The task reminds me of the fable of the king who demanded from his sages a complete history of the world; they labored mightily and produced a brilliant 24 volume comprehensive chronicle, with analysis and explication. The king was a busy man, as kings are wont to be, and said he didn’t have time to read it. So, he demanded a shorter version, and the sages produced a single, condensed volume. This was still too much of a demand on the royal calendar, so he sent the sages away with the demand for an even more condensed and instructive account. The result was a single sentence: this, too, shall pass.

I don’t have to go quite that far in boiling things down, but I would say that I am leaving out a lot, and every slice of the editorial knife makes me wince. It comes down to a pretty similar conclusion: Given that life replicates itself in a universe where the second law of thermodynamics obtains, this, too, shall evolve.

There’s other headaches, and leading the pack is the new website that the university is insisting that I absolutely must use. I am not sure who designs these things. The previous website appears to have been designed by goatherds or HVAC technicians—but certainly not by anybody who ever had anything to do with college educaction. The new website manages to simultaneously be completely different, and yet exactly as user-hostile. Perhaps it was designed by a smithy.

Bonus academic link: Does teaching matter at (American) research universities? Given my personal experience, I would have to say that it is not the top of the list. There are many reasons to attend a big university, and good educations are possible at both, but if you want uniformly good teaching, go to a small liberal-arts college.

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