AES Column “The Trailing Zone” by Victor M. Ugaz

A column highlighting broader perspectives and observations about science and the lives of those who pursue it.

Halfway There

Recently I accompanied my wife to her 25th high school reunion. I was a reluctant partner in this adventure because I didn‘t attend her high school and was therefore guaranteed to know virtually no one. Once there I naturally gravitated toward the other tag-along spouses and significant others, and soon found myself in a conversation with a guy who had one son already in college and another almost old enough to go. When I mentioned that I taught at Texas A&M, his response was not what I expected. He asked me a simple question: “Do you care?”

It seems his son just finished a difficult semester at another university. He had initially been doing well academically but now was struggling, and dad was considering whether the continued financial investment was going to be worthwhile. I was unprepared for this kind of question and didn‘t have a coherent response in mind. Having just finished the semester, I was still in a defensive mindset—the kind that occurs when I submit course grades, then brace for an influx of students looking for a few extra points to raise their grades. My initial answer was something along these lines, but not what he was looking for. He asked again: “Yes, but do you care?”

Now, I began to see different perspective. The parent‘s perspective, the story behind the face in class that is easy to forget (or to ignore). Of course I care, we all do, but the question made me realize how challenging it can be to show this side. Each time I teach a class I learn something new, and step by step my knowledge and mastery of the material grows. This passion for learning is one of the things that drives those of us who choose academic careers. But this same process can also widen the divide between teacher and student.

When I first began teaching nearly a decade ago, it was very easy for me to place myself in the seats of the students. I could even do this while lecturing. Seriously. I could be writing at the board and simultaneously be watching myself doing it, like a bizarre out of body experience. But now, I have to remind myself to do this. It has become challenging to remember that the students are seeing the material I am presenting for the first time... ever. Almost everything that I take for granted as common knowledge is new and strange to them. It‘s incredible how the long time and struggles I endured to learn these things are so easily forgotten. But the students are only beginning the journey. I tried to explain this, but I‘m not sure if my new friend was satisfied with my response.

Presentism refers to the process by which we tend to view past and future events through the lens of today. But as Daniel Gilbert points out in his book Stumbling on Happiness, the remarkable thing is not that this process occurs but that it happens so naturally we don‘t even realize it‘s going on. If I don‘t make a conscious effort to remember this perspective, it can lead to negative pre-conceptions about the students (why can‘t they get‘s so obvious?!?). It‘s exceedingly tempting to see the glass as half empty.

I thought about this a lot the next day during the drive home. “Do you care?” “Is the glass half empty or half full?” Maybe those aren‘t the right questions to ask. Perhaps it‘s more about being halfway there. Wherever “there” is will be different for each individual. It‘s not just about helping students get to a certain place. It‘s about helping them figure out where “there” is, and equipping them to fully reach that unique destination.

There are other realities of course, the world of metrics and numbers cannot be completely ignored (especially by those of us accustomed to the measurement-based language of science and engineering, which can at times be both illuminating and blinding). But thinking about the potential—what can be, as opposed to what is now—can help set a tone of possibility. Deep inside we all know this. We all care. But the presentism we are wired to embrace makes it incredibly easy to forget.

Victor M. Ugaz is Associate Professor and K. R. Hall Development Professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

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