Thursday, July 29, 2010

Applause! Applause!

Yesterday was the last lecture for my introductory biology class. I finished the day’s instruction (the topic was Eukaryotic cells), and because time was short I finished with a very short exhortation. Nothing near as eloquent as Darwin’s “Tangled bank”, but a short reminder about why biology is so rewarding to study and how they hopefully now have a foundation for their further explorations. The lecture ended, and the class applauded.

This is a curious tradition. It’s odd enough in the concert hall. The conductor Leopold Stokowski (the guy who shakes Mickey Mouse’s hand in “Fantasia”) once chided an audience for applauding between movements: “I have been considering this matter of applause, a relic from the Dark Ages, a survival of customs at some rite or ceremonial dance in primitive times… When you see a beautiful painting you do not applaud. When you stand before a statue, whether you like it or not, you neither applaud nor hiss.” Applause seems even more out of place in the lecture hall. I’ve seen it here at Davis in all the classes I’ve taught, but I don’t recall ever seeing it anywhere else in any of my university experience. Despite the incongruity, I appreciate it. Who doesn’t appreciate some sort of acknowledgement, no matter how pro forma, and I'm certainly not getting that much love from my employer. But it reminds me of how much what I do as a teacher is performance. As a lecturer I cultivate performance skill as well as my knowledge of the subject. When the class ends with applause, I feel that the students are honoring something secondary—the performance aspect of my work—rather than the primary aspect, the learning. I’d happily take stony silence at the end of the lecture in exchange for a class in which every student scored 100% on the final.

This being summer session, an entire quarter has been wedged into five weeks. Quarters are short enough that they feel rushed, so a five week quarter is just absurd. This frenzy of living life at double speed has inevitably affected my ability to do anything else. The garden is run to weeds, I have touched neither the violin that I am building nor the one that I play, and I haven’t seriously played the piano in weeks. Naturally, there’s been less activity here in the wunderkammer. However, things should soon improve all over.

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