Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Problem with Bad Teaching

I decided to take a course this semester in P. Chem. with Bioscience Applications.  It's an undergrad course, but I'm taking it for grad credit.  Now that I've been in the course for several weeks, I'm definitely regretting it.  The course material is extremely interesting, so much so that I took this course when it was in no way necessary for me to complete my Ph.D. program.  The trouble I'm having with this course is due to the professor.  I've been in collegiate and university courses for over a decade now and I am quite tempted to say that the professor of this course is one of the worst I've ever seen.

In my undergrad college there was a professor who was an old, conservative guy and who would openly discriminate women and ethnic groups in class.  He was the worst of the worst; my P. Chem. professor is only slightly offset from that ridiculousness.

The trouble I'm having is that my P. Chem. professor is a terrible teacher.  He is absolutely boring.  His voice is monotoned and he doesn't attempt at all to project his voice to the class.  He speaks into the whiteboard during class while writing down formula and running through his lecture notes.  Today in class he literally spoke softly to the board while writing notes for 25 minutes before turning to the class and asking a question (which after a long, awkward and uncomfortable moment of time, someone finally thought they knew what he was asking well enough to dare an answer).  The lectures that this professor is giving are drab and dull and mind-numbing.  I find myself trying to escape the mental-collapse of this course by reading journal articles and playing games on my iPad during class.  Normally, I am most definitely not a student who would use Facebook or avert my attention from a course, but I'm at the point now where I feel no need to cause myself such mental anguish when the professor lacks all enthusiasm and credibility.  

The professor of this course seems like a friendly person.  He may be a great researcher (I can't attest to that), but he is absolutely a terrible teacher.  So, here's my qualm with my situation: if someone sucks at teaching and is not making an attempt to improve themselves in that position, then they really shouldn't be entrusted with the position of teaching at all, especially in an academic setting.  The bigger problem I have is that this is not just "my situation" but one that effects the entire class now as well as every other class this guy has every taught.  Furthermore, such bad teaching creates an environment for other people to become bad teachers.

Not only does such bad teaching negatively effect the education of the students who are attending the course, but bad teaching, in and of itself, degrades the educational system as a whole.  This professor's bas teaching is an insult to the very nature of academic pursuit.  

At our university, we have FCQs (Faculty Course Questionnaires) which allow students to score and comment courses and instructors.  I refuse to even entertain some notion that this professor's FCQs have not shown his poor teaching ability.  Other students must have mentioned his lacking abilities as a speaker and educator in the past.  Indeed, many other students in the course appear to feel just as I do, since we commonly talk on the bus ride back to the main campus about how terrible each and every lecture has been.  Is it possible that the professor's department chair is just overlooking the FCQs?  Is the department chair incompetent in their position as an overseer for the professors?  Where along the line does the university choose to act to correct instances of poor performance in teaching?  And, a much larger question, why do we allow professors to have tenure if tenure itself allows them to perfomr poorly without being reprimanded or moved to a different position?  

Bad teaching must be fixed.  We should remove bad teachers from their position or penalize them until they are willing to improve.  Unfortunately, though, education is a business, and not an altogether well-run business at that.  I am ashamed of my university for permitting bad teaching to continue.  I wonder how many other students around the globe feel the same way.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Week Ahead

With all the turbulence of late in the flight path of my life, I figured it would be good to start structuring my time a little better to get my work done.

This week in the lab I will be looking to determine the state of the microbes living in my spring system, I will attempt to calibrate our voltammeter to do some work on manganese measurements for some groundwater samples, and I will be jumping back into some old data from some of my runs on the particle accelerators at Stanford and in Switzerland.  Should be a pretty fulfilling week.  I was sick all weekend and that seems to be persisting to some degree into this week, but I won't be allowing that to slow me down.  Hopefully, I will be rounding out my grad committee sometime this week as well.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wt % Oxides

Our students in Introductory Geochemistry had their first exam today. The class so far has covered introductory chemistry, cosmochemistry and the formation of the elements, the distribution of elements in the solar system and within the Earth over time, chemical analysis and how to work with data, and radioactivity and geochronology. They've also learned about the use of weight percent of oxides (wt % oxides) as a common way to express the amounts of certain rock-forming elements in a sample.

Anyone who knows something about geochemistry or analytical geology has probably heard of wt. % oxides as a means of depicting some geological data. In the early days of geochemistry, gravimetric techniques were utilized to measure the elemental makeup of certain minerals and rocks. One means of that was to burn everything in the presence of oxygen, thus removing any volatiles and oxidizing all the cations present in a sample to form oxides. For instance, in intro chemistry labs at my undergrad college the students would burn magnesium strips in crucibles in an aerobic environment and then would utilize measurements of mass before and after burning to determine the stoichiometry of the oxide of magnesium (just MgO in this case, so the moles of oxygen to magnesium after burning are 1:1). 

This use of wt. % oxides is how data has been presented for a long time in geochemistry. Now the convention continues, even though our methodologies and instrumentation for collecting the data have gotten much better. In fact, the wt. % oxides method of presenting data is just outdated and ridiculous to continue. 

We now know that the cations in minerals are not all in their oxidized form. Rocks aren't usually composed of mixtures of metal oxides. In fact, to even get wt. % oxides data these days, we get good abundance data or ratio data for an element and then create wt. % oxides data from those chemical analyses.  It makes no sense. None of our instruments are built to measure wt. % oxides in a material (since most of the rock-forming elements are not bound up as oxides). Instead, we now make out instruments take straightforward measurements of cations in a sample and then convert those data to wt. % oxides.

I've hopefully imparted upon my students the knowledge that it's good to know that these measurements are common so we must know how to work with them, but they are so archaic and pointless that we need to get geochemists to stop using them.

This quote from Joe Smyth, professor of mineralogy at CU, sums up my feelings on the issue:

This is an unfortunate relic of wet chemical analysis, but is so firmly entrenched in the science that it is important that you be able to manipulate these and convert them to atom ratios.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Catching Up While Losing My Way

This past week has been monumentously disastrous for my psyche in the short term, devastatingly hurtful for my best friend all around, and, yet, perhaps a good kick in the butt for me in the long run.  The beauty of making mistakes in life, regardless of the pain they cause, is that there is always some potential for making amends.  Those who know me personally most likely know the troubles I'm going through, most of which I quite obviously caused myself.  Those who don't know me personally may likely have at least seen the despair and sorrow carried in my face of late.  I've been thinking of ways to improve myself, to climb out of this hole I've dug myself into, and to do my best to make up for the hurt I've caused.  I think one day I'll look back at this time as a time when I used the best in me to fix the worst in me, but right now I'm still dealing with the latter more than I should like.