Monday, December 17, 2007

I'm Done.....

At last this is the last day of the semester sections, and it was a very hard day. It was very hard for two reasons: the first is that I had to explain to the students a chapter that's heavy with conceptual theories that don't fit in with the common way people think; that is "The basis and dimension of a vector space and the vector spaces of a matrix." The second reason is that I had to do something I really hate in the section; that is stopping the section after a stupid comment made by a student and not finishing the last part. I'll not talk about the first reason because of its abstract nature, but the second reason is what really upset me. I always make excuses for students who are late, who want to freshen up after a previous section, and who are bored because they don't want to attend and are forced to because of the mandatory attendance policy. But the end of the semester is a critical time; professors are finishing up and stressing advanced chapters in the curricula, and students are recapping the previous subjects and raising questions. In general, the stress is escalating in volume. This last section combined all that; a dense and extensive chapter with lots of advanced concepts, and students who want to ask a lot of questions. I have to stress a fact here which is most of the students really don't care, even if they study hard, they don't care about science. The only interest for this majority is to pass the exams and score a high grade. They don't want to open the books and elaborate on their content, they don't want to search the web for additional material that may clarify things a little bit or even give novel ideas to do things. This means that no matter how many times I stress that they have to return to the textbook to find satisfying explanations, they don't listen, they want me to summarize the ideas and present them off-the-shelf for them to use ONLY for the exams. It's a rare sight to me to find a student who's interested in the mechanics of a subject outside the scope of the lecture.
Any way, this is what happened: I'm in the middle of the extensive section, trying my best to help them understand, and as soon as I finish a subject and move to the next, they start complaining and wanting me to stop, I say that this part is the last part of the section so please be patient, and one of the students say: "Heeeeeeeeeey" as in "Hurray". Sometimes the smallest things break you, and this audible "hey" broke me. Here I am, preparing for this section for two weeks now, trying to understand and find a way for them to understand, and this is the last they will see of me, and they need it bad, and all I hear is "hey"! I went blank then, I said in a calm voice: "I want whoever said this "hey" to get out of the section" Nobody moved, I said it again and still nobody moved. At last, I said something I never said before and have no intention to say again: "either this person gets out or I will not finish the last part and you study it on your own!!!!" Everyone freaked and they started objecting, for the first time I stood my grounds and insisted. I waited five minutes and when still nobody got out I took off.
There are two contradicting points I can make here: the first one is that it's completely normal for university students to study on their own and understand things, I did nothing wrong, just what every professor and lecturer can do every once in a while to stimulate the students to establish knowledge for themselves. The second point, though, is that I've been avoiding all my life the notion of being "unjust" to anyone, and I developed a technique of "putting myself in the shoes of others and understanding - rather than judging - their actions, however they may seem stupid, challenging, or irrational". I felt that today I was unjust to the students who wanted to understand, and even to the students who wanted to "pass with a good grade and forget all about it after the exam."
What's done is done, that's right, and I can make some corrective actions to remedy the mishap, but I keep blaming myself for one single fact; I was unjust while all my life I hated the practice of injustice that others do. I hope I learn never to do injustice to anyone for the rest of my life.
The good side of all this hassle is actually two things: that was my last section for the semester, and what happened made most of the students say good things about my section. Appreciation is a wonder drug, really, and I hope it can make me (a) forget about the bad things that happened today, and (b) make me appreciate - rather than fear - the responsibility I hold for my students welfare, even if it's not for the ultimate reason of science and progress.

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