For all the years of training and preparations that we professors go through to get to where we are, it’s kind of crazy to think that we can, and often do, have first years that are so overwhelming and present with so many new challenges. I have been instructing undergraduates since I was one myself way back in 2008. I’ve run a wide range of labs…even created my own in-house manual for one class. I’ve guest lectured and served as a teaching assistant in both traditional classrooms and field settings. I’ve mentored students working on numerous research projects, many of which culminated in peer-reviewed scientific publications. I’ve chatted with students about career goals, personal and professional stresses that interfere with their educations, time management, and navigating the maze that is institutional bureaucracy. I’ve seen tears and angry outbursts and been called names and given scathing teaching evaluations, including reviews that attack my appearance or character rather than my actual teaching abilities. You develop a thick skin over time and learn how to sort the useful critiques from the bitter ones that often correlate with students who demonstrate the poorest performances in your classes.
Coming to CSC with these experiences made me feel prepared for the job even though the role and subject that I would be teaching was all shiny and new to me. Week one as an assistant professor went well. Week two and beyond has seen a barrage of disappointed faces, students trying not to cry as they ask for help, and some outright crying out of exasperation. Anatomy is hard. It’s a hard subject to learn and a hard subject to teach. To adapt an analogy from Dr. John Janovy who once gave a lecture titled, “Islands of Understanding in a Sea of Ignorance”, I would liken the content of an anatomy course to a sea of information. A vast, horizon of knowledge that seems stable but is really dynamic beneath the typically calm surface. You learn about your own anatomy throughout your life as small waves, gently break onto your little islands of understanding. I have a heart. It pumps blood throughout my body. I should make decisions that benefit this important organ….and so these islands of understanding are constructed one sand grain at a time.
Some students then are fortunate enough to take anatomy courses in high school, where they continue to build their islands popping up here and there and sprinkling the seascape with palm trees arising from solid foundations of what it means to be human. Fast forward to college where I am standing in a room full of students, many of whom have only a few sandbars on which to build. I’m talking to them about the intricacies of how our heart is constructed of chambers and valves and vessels going in all different directions before branching and branching and branching again into tiny streams feeding our muscles and internal organs.
This tsunami of anatomical data hits them unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. They stand in my carefully constructed ring of fire taking notes, asking questions, and spending hours studying to build their islands. These disjointed factoids poking out of the vastness with few connections to the greater land mass that we try to help our students build are small consolations given the tremendous efforts that students feel they are putting into the process.
So how do I help these students lay more of that earthen foundation? How do I help them form mountains on the open landscapes created from their prerequisites? How do we as educators build land bridges across those islands so that students can see the broader relevance of synthesizing their knowledge? How do we motivate students to explore new regions and build their own continents of knowledge autonomously? How do we help them use the sea to their advantage rather than drowning in it?
I don’t have the answers yet, but I think the important piece is for us to continue to ask questions…to continue to provide the raw materials necessary for students to make sense of and properly utilize the resources at their disposal. I can’t make the subject of anatomy easier. I won’t insult the intelligence of my students by dumbing the content down and leaving them under-prepared for professional programs beyond their time here at CSC. However, through all the tears, breakdowns, existential crises, and defensive reactions to their grades and to my expectations for them, I hope that they see that I am doing my best to throw out life preservers attached to ropes secured to my own island. From here, they must make the choice whether or not to grab on and pull themselves to safety.