The Three-Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: University Press of New England
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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As per the title of the opening essay of this collection, I teach at a small, impoverished, careworn college. This signifies two things: one, that we are a threat to nobody and therefore are pretty much left alone to do what we do best (teach); and two, that open admissions is a necessity if we are to survive as an institution....
My Small, Impoverished, Careworn College
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My school was once a military base, and this shows in the austere, blocky architecture of its widely spaced buildings. Spring and summer add a gloss of green to the desolation, but fall and especially winter are almost unbearably bleak. Think Murmansk, the industrial New Jersey waterfront (minus the water), or Chernobyl (without the glow)....
What Happens if You Step on It?
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Every teacher has “times.”
Times when he is not sure he is getting through.
Times when students repeatedly ask the same question because no one is listening.
Times when the students don’t seem to be learning concepts that are eminently learnable....
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Somewhere along the line, during my college teaching career, an assumption (or directive) arose in American society that everyone should—must—go to college. The results have been, in a word, mixed. This prescription often yields nothing but misery for people who became convinced by the “everyone in the college...
The Hoary Head is a Crown of Glory
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It was the first day of the new semester. I was introducing the course material to the fifteen students in my marine biology class when I noticed her standing on the threshold, her books clutched to her breast like a nervous schoolgirl. Only this student was squat and gray-haired. “Can I help you?” I paused to ask....
Following the Dead (or, why attendance matters)
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Invariably, it is the question that punctuates my first lecture of the semester. Like a noxious bubble of methane rising—inexorably— through that initial swamp of student anxiety as they try to size up both me and my biology course, it voices itself with all the tension and anticipation of Oliver Twist requesting that...
What I Say and What They Hear
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“I have a sin of fear,” wrote the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne regarding his unsteady faith in God. I also have a sin of fear, but it is a far more mundane one: that I will see the contents of one of my student’s notebooks....
The Impossible Dream
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I went to an all-boys prep school, where the assumption was that all its graduates would go on to college. There was no vocational or technical track. When I entered as a fourteen-year-old freshman in 1968 (two years before the Beatles broke up, alas), the teachers wasted no time in orienting us to our objective: in...
The Death of Fiction
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I have never understood why students feel obligated to concoct fantastic stories regarding absences, missed tests and assignments, and the inability to meet deadlines. Do they fear my reaction if they were simply to say, “I’m sorry I was absent. Can I give you the assignment today?”...
Our Common Tongue
Whoa Is the State of English
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Perhaps it is the influence of e‑mail, with its compression of language and penchant for abbreviation. Perhaps it is laziness. Perhaps it is the educational system itself, its ranks becoming increasingly filled with teachers who came of age in an era where appropriate English usage was deemphasized. Maybe it’s a little...
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It’s hard to imagine a time when information was not transmitted electronically. Charles Dickens, for example, serialized his novels in British magazines, which were then shipped by freighter to America. That part of the process alone took several weeks. A story is told of the final installment of his novel...
The Written Word
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I once heard a story about the time, during the Civil War, that a distraught mother went to the White House to beseech Abraham Lincoln to help her discern the fate of her son, a teenage foot soldier, from whom she hadn’t heard in months. Lincoln immediately dispatched an officer, who located the boy on one of...
Why E-mail is not Writing
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I remember once reading an article in a newspaper or magazine in which the writer rejoiced that American students, long lamented for their deteriorating writing skills, were now welling with promise because of e‑mail. “It’s a new literary renaissance,” the writer gushed....
I Write, Therefore I'm Right
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Nothing grants insight into a student’s understanding of a concept like asking him or her to write about it. During class, when I pause to ask, “Do you understand this?” the response is either a blank stare or a nod, both to me and the painfully slow-ticking clock on the wall. This ambiguous response tells...
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As a college professor, I am responsible for grading my students
at the end of the semester. What is less well known to
those outside the academy is that my students also have an opportunity
to grade me.
The grades handed out by the professor don’t explain anything: they’re just the cold calculus of A, B, C, D, or—gulp—F....
The Nutty Professor
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What has become of the eccentrics in the ranks of our professors? From time to time, when I run into a colleague from another institution, I ask if he or she knows of any such individuals. Almost always, the answer is either “no,” or a lengthy pause of consideration before offering up a...
A Seat at the Periodic Table
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Introductory biology texts traditionally begin with basic chemistry and from there move on to the cell and then to whole organisms, ending with ecology and evolution. There is some logic in this small-to-big approach, this crescendo of themes....
Atoms in Love
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The non-science-majors’ fear of science is legendary. When cornered into taking a science course, they invariably select biology, the “non-math” science. In my experience, rarely does anyone elect to take chemistry for the fun of it. And with good reason. Chemistry is perceived as complicated, abstract, and...
What Hath Darwin Wrought?
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Once, while reading the graffiti in a stall in the men’s room
at my college, I came across the following scrawl: DARWIN WAS WRONG!
I immediately realized that I had inspired this wisdom, as I had just that very morning broached the topic of evolution in my...
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There are biology students who don’t limit their objections to
the teaching of evolution. Sometimes they reject the whole kit
and caboodle of science.
Such was the case with Twyla. At first she seemed absolutely unremarkable, sitting in the back of the room, in the corner, reasonably...
The Dyspepsia of Intelligent Design
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The student was respectful, soft-spoken, and bright. After my first evolution lecture he approached my desk and laid a typewritten paper on it. “You might be interested in this,” he said. “It’s something my father wrote.” Then he left....
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When I was an undergraduate student in marine biology, doing a semester of coursework in the Virgin Islands (how one martyrs oneself for science), everyone in my class, as a sort of capstone project, had to plan, carry out, write up, and publicly...
The Three-Legged Woman and the Imp of the Paranormal
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In my course in introductory biology I include a few lectures on the structure of the atom as a basis for understanding the chemistry of living things. In an effort to convey how incredibly small these particles are, I point out that although the modern...
Let Us Praise the Bold Molds
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It’s that time of the semester again, the point in my college
biology course when I must scramble, in the dead of winter, to
grow fungi for my students.
To most, it’s not a very appealing notion; but to a biologist the fungi are as beautiful as they are intriguing....
A Season for Seaweeds
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In poetry, art, and song, the sea is celebrated as having unsurpassed beauty (“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”—Masefield); but, truth to tell, there is much in the ocean that is, at first blush, downright ugly—to the uninitiated....
Through a Lens. Brightly.
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The microscope has been extolled as the most important invention in the history of biology, and I don’t dispute this. Of the fourteen weekly laboratory exercises I schedule for my introductory biology course, the use of the microscope is the one I always look forward to with the greatest sense of anticipation, because...
The Bell Jar
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Once, years ago, when I was teaching a section in my human biology course on what is knowable and whether absolute knowledge is possible, I made reference to Einstein, who early on met with formidable skepticism about his theory of relativity. Then I cross-referenced Galileo, who suffered drastic consequences for...
How I Youtubed my Biology Course
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I’ve been a latecomer to many aspects of the electronic revolution. I was late getting into computers, late getting a high-speed connection, and late getting a cell phone. In this last matter, I bought the cheapest phone I could find, with the cheapest plan. I carried this phone for years, a thick, bulky thing with a bricksize....
How to Study
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Biology—or any science, for that matter—is a rich stew of the factual, the conceptual, and the theoretical. On the one hand, there is the immense overhead of terminology, discoveries, dates, and personalities. On the other are the intricate, and...
The Truth Is in the Tape
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Despite all my years of college teaching, and despite knowing that I should know better, I still harbor the illusion of being able to get through to all of my students. In fact, I once had a dream in which, on the last day of class, I wandered among the desks, dispensing...
Please Hold the Morphine
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A colleague of mine from a neighboring college once paid me a visit for the sole purpose of expressing his despondency over his inability to teach his students the metric system. “I can’t do it anymore,” he lamented. “I can’t even bring the words, ‘there are ten millimeters in a centimeter,’ to my lips.” But he stopped...
The Future is Now
The New Technology
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There he sat, lecture after lecture, dutifully tapping away on his laptop with the intensity and devotion of a scribe. But there was one thing I couldn’t figure out: if Justin was so assiduous about taking notes, why was he doing so poorly on his tests?...
The University of Tomorrow
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Of all people to ask to take a maiden voyage on the ship of new technology! I still drafted my tests with pen and paper. I owned a typewriter and had stockpiled enough ribbons to last until Armageddon. I corrected my students’ papers on cassette...
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Page Count: 228
Publication Year: 2010