Wrapping up another semester: I think we need a bigger bow

Some days I start a blog post not knowing where I’m going or why I feel the irresistible urge to write. Perhaps I am lonely and hope someone will listen. Perhaps I am tired and hope someone will listen. Always we want someone to listen. But who can listen when nobody even makes eye contact anymore? The only way to reach deep into another human these days is to worm your way into their phone.

Hi. It’s me. In your phone.

Am I lonely? I don’t think so. Am I sad and tired? Yes. Absolutely. (Am I caffeinated, shopping, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, baking? Not yet, but I’m the mom, so that’s coming.)

It’s that time of year when the end of semester stress feels too steep to climb, when watching my students so sad and exhausted and stressed all seems too mean to be somehow linked to me, when I know the end is close, but I can’t see it because of the mile-high wall of work in the way. It’s that time of year when I’m impressed by all the science my hundreds of students have learned in fourteen weeks, and glad I was there to help them, all while I fight the urge to defend myself by insisting I’m just the messenger–I didn’t invent chemistry.

Really, I didn’t. It was here before humans. I just love it and want to share it. If I stood at the BiLo professing about nucleophilic attack or enol tautomerization, solubility rules and hydrogen bonding,  no one would listen, even if I swung a little bell and stood by a red bucket. But in college I have a captive audience and they even pay me (a little) to talk about what I love so much. So while I’m so happy with my job doing what I love, my students are struggling, just like all of us did when we were in college.

The pattern of a college semester is the same whether you are studying or teaching. There is an incessant pace to keep, much like being chased by a train, where slowing down is not an option and sleeping seems like a good way to get run over, so it’s avoided. There’s way too much to do in too little time, and thank God for football or none of us would ever stop working. My own stress is manageable because I’m stupendous at time management and organizing my days. My students’ stress is another animal. Some have never felt academic pressure. Some don’t study or pace themselves or plan their time or even think about next week until they crash into it. Others study constantly and never rest. They forget to eat and live on coffee. If each of my 350 students dumped a mole of their stress on me, I’d crumble or drown or ionize completely, depending on the weak intermolecular forces holding me together.

Here’s what’s coming: Long extra office hours that are never enough, snuck in while I try to meet my deadlines. Writing, proofreading, timing, copying exams and quizzes. Grading hundreds of quizzes. Review session. Two exams on a 13-hour day. About 15 hours of grading 2000 questions about mechanisms and organic reactions while teaching. Then, writing final exams while holding office hours and still teaching. Proctoring and grading final exams. Calculating and posting quiz averages and final grades. Then dozens of requests for a personal meeting to seek a higher (unearned) grade from dedicated students who think it “doesn’t hurt to ask” while each time I enforce my own syllabus and say “No” a little part of my soul disintegrates, and it does hurt.

The end is near, so I’ll take a moment (before planning the next semester) to remember the rosy beginning. The best life is an intelligent life. Never stop learning.


Dear fellow teachers (and your students)

As the next school year looms and I prepare to begin my 22nd year standing in front of a lecture hall full of one hundred (or more) eager and engaged students, happily professing about my favorite topics, I thought I’d prepare a pep talk for fellow teachers.

Then I thought I’d make another pep talk for future students.

And then I realized students and their teachers all need the same skill set, the same advice, to survive the demands of a semester.

Teachers, remember your students have many other courses, deadlines, labs, meetings, and responsibilities besides your homework. Be gentle: allow for a fumbled ball, a missed assignment, an absence. Consider excusing or dropping a low score. Consider it an outlier.

Students, remember your professors have many other courses to teach and lectures to prepare, hundreds of other students, meetings, committees, spouses, children, pets, and responsibilities besides grading your quiz. Be gentle: allow for an error during lecture, a math error in calculations, a typo in the grading spreadsheet. All of these things are fixable. Your professor is a human, just like you.

Students, learn efficiently. Go to class. Turn off your phone. Listen. Take notes. Ask questions. Keep a detailed personal calendar of deadlines and tests. Make a daily list of things to do. Prioritize. Study before you have to. Do the homework before the due date. Be responsible and in charge of your life. If fun doesn’t fit in for a few weeks or a month, remember the summer. Successful mastery of content in college courses requires a huge commitment of time and energy and dedication. As long as you’re a student, there will always be another summer.

Professors, teach efficiently. Go to class. Turn off your phone. Slow down. Write clearly. Ask for questions. Check for understanding. Keep a detailed personal calendar of deadlines and tests. Make a daily list of things to do. Prioritize. Post office hours. Open your door. Write assessments well before they’re needed so you can make them better. Be responsible and in charge of your life. Successful college instruction requires a huge commitment of time and energy and dedication. If fun doesn’t fit in for a few weeks or a month or the entire semester except on weekends in the football stadium, remember the summer. Oh, the beautiful summer.

Professors need patience. Your students don’t know much when you first meet. If you are patient, and give as much as you can to each who asks for help, all of them can do it.

Students need patience. With themselves. Learning is a layering process. Some concepts will take multiple attempts of study to comprehend. These multiple layers come in the form of reading, thinking, trying, listening in lecture (going to lecture), reading again, working problems, asking for help, failing and trying again. Freshmen are astounded by the levels of challenge that they face in their first semester. If you are patient, and give as much as you can to each of your courses, all of you can do it.

Students need stamina. There won’t be many breaks. Even the weekends will be filled with things to read and write and try and study. When you take a break due to illness or exhaustion, your courses will feel even more challenging when you return because the lectures continued in your absence. Stamina will get you through.

Teachers need stamina. There won’t be many breaks. Even the weekends will be filled with things to read and write and grade and prepare. When you take a break due to illness or exhaustion, your courses will feel even more challenging when you return because nobody continued your lectures in your absence. Now you are behind. The end of the semester will not be extended. You have to teach and grade and prepare even faster. Stamina (and coffee, chicken soup, candy bars, adult beverages) will get you through.

Professors, a sense of humor can help. Most students appreciate your attempt at humor. Even when they’re laughing at you, instead of with you, at least they’re laughing. Sacrifice yourself for their sake. They are surely in more pain than you are. Ignore the three who scowl and growl for fifteen weeks–nothing can make them smile and they’ll be annoyed that you tried. But for the rest, laughing in your lecture or in your office may be the only time they smile for weeks.

Students, a sense of humor will get you through it. Laughing releases good molecules into your tired brain. (Dr. Lanni can draw them for you.) Find a reason to laugh and someone to laugh with.

Students, find the courage to ask for help. There are office hours, and tutors (some free!), and organized study groups with university-paid peers. There are advisors and RAs. You are not alone.

Teachers, especially new ones, find the courage to ask for help. Experienced instructors have dealt with almost every unique situation you will face: crying students, crying and angry parents, huge stacks of papers to grade, lesson planning, cheating, lying, lying about cheating. Ask someone. If they don’t know, or are busy, ask someone else. You are not alone.

Students and professors, just remember everyone is doing the best they can. When they wish they’d done better, encourage them instead of making them feel worse than they already do. Respect each other, and we can all get through this, maybe laughing along the way, and reaching the impossible goals we all set for ourselves.

The best life is an intelligent one. Never stop learning.

I do think I’m funny (so you don’t have to)

_ _ _ _    _ _ _     _ _ _ _ _


To hydrolyze an acid chloride

To convert acetal back to carbonyl and alcohol

To grow a flower

To rinse shampoo out of your eyes

To clean chalk from your sleeves

To clear bird poop from your windshield

To brew coffee

To soothe a fish

To quench a thirst

To make 100 students grin

(and not care whether they’re laughing at you)

(or with you)

(because laughing is the point)

And then came smartphones

and we all got dumber.

When your great-grandmother was young, the telephone was invented. There were switchboards and operators, and when the phone rang, it was always answered, even though they never knew who it would be. That was part of the thrill.

When your grandmother was a young mom, all of her friends had a telephone in their kitchens. The telephone was screwed high on the wall so the kids couldn’t get to it, and had a long cord. Grandma (called Mommy back then) would chat away the morning, drinking coffee, maybe smoking a cigarette, with the kids playing at her feet while she washed the dishes. She loved this connection to her friends, mother, sisters and other housewives, and she knew all of their phone numbers by heart.

When your mother was young she might have had a princess phone in her bedroom, and maybe even a second line that only rang in her room. But more likely the phone in her room was connected to the one in the kitchen, so when she was talking to her boyfriend, she’d have to scream at her little brother when he picked up the kitchen phone to listen in.

By the time you came along, some people had car phones. Julia Roberts carried a cellular phone as big as a brick in movies. And when your older cousin learned to drive, your aunt bought a cell phone for her to carry, just for emergencies, so she could call her mom (who sat by the house phone waiting) when she arrived safe.

Recently, it seems every adult in the world got a cell phone. Some carry them in their pocket; most require one hand to hold it wherever they go. Most started texting within the last decade. The phones got smaller and smarter, and we learned to play games on them, and check our email, and avoid answering when it rings because we always know who is calling.

You do not remember the world without today’s phones, and likely can’t imagine a flip-phone, or figure out how to dial an old rotary phone. You used to dig your mom’s phone out of her purse and looked cute swiping the pictures, accidentally calling your grandmother, and once you called Jamaica. You had your own phone when you were eight because you begged, and did the thing all kids do: convinced your parents you were the only third-grader without one. They love you, and wanted you to be quiet so they could bend their neck to their own phones, so they got you one. You became peaceful and enjoyable in the car. You no longer poked your little sister and made her cry. You no longer spoke to your family.

Now you are in college. You walk across the gorgeous campus and don’t see it because you are looking down. You don’t make eye contact or acknowledge others. You are safe in your bubble. You never feel like you are alone because you can always take out your phone and look busy and important. You pick it up and check messages, tweets, instagram, facebook, snapchat, and even email a thousand times a day. You reach for it as soon as you wake up. You even keep it on your lap in class.

It’s ok. You’re an adult and you get to  decide how to use your time. But what will you tell your parents when your grades aren’t great? You’ll say you always go to class, but can you say you listen in class? Can you promise them their hard-earned tuition money, that they scraped together for fifteen years instead of buying shoes or taking a vacation, is appreciated so much that you leave your phone on silent, zipped up in your bag, for every second of lecture? Can you promise your grandfather who gave you the “family scholarship” and his old car, and pays your car insurance, that you are not wasting his generosity?

They used to say a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Today young people squander their entire lives, neck bent, fingers tap-tap-tapping away on an electronic gadget provided by a generous adult who loves them.


100 pounds of potatoes, please

My husband has tsked and shaken his head while averting his eyes from me enough times that I sometimes step back and reconsider appropriateness of my actions, sometimes even BEFORE I act. On occasion, like yesterday in the stupidmarket, I have even managed self-control all by myself.

However, yesterday it was very hard not to do this:

Imagine little me, tired from a long Monday workday, pushing my cart through the produce department, hungry. I snort, take out my dumbphone, and take a picture, presumably of the hexagonal close packing of the apples. Next, you see me loading the cart with the equivalent of about twenty-five bags of potatoes, but I do so one potato at a time because, well, that seems to be the “deal.”

With the cart loaded down with one hundred pounds of potatoes, I forgo the rest of my shopping list, dig behind the ripped seam in the bottom of my purse for loose change, align my body parallel to the floor to push the cart, and head to the cashier. One by one, I load my one hundred pounds of potatoes on the conveyor. They roll around and try to get away, but I corral them in like a juggling sheepdog.

The cashier and bagger are intrigued but too polite to ask. So I keep my face neutral, too. Until it happens.

“That’ll be 98 dollars. Cash or credit?” cashier asks.

I smile and say, “Cash. I only have four quarters, and you can toss my two pennies of change in your jar.” I hold out the quarters and say, ” There’s something wrong with your scale. It’s about 97 dollars over.”

The bagger has, by now, caught all of the potatoes and bagged them up in dozens of plastic bags.

The cashier says, “No, ma’am, it says 98 dollars.”

“Check it for me. How much did you charge me for the potatoes per pound?”

She looks under her glasses at the stub of the printed receipt, breathes through her nose, and finally reports, “98 cents.”

So I go for it. “The sign in produce over the potatoes says they’re a penny a pound.”

“No, ma’am, you must’ve read it wrong. It’s 98 cents a pound.”

“Nope. They’re on some kind of super sale. Look. I took a picture.” And I show her this.


Like I said, I pictured doing all of this. And then I visualized Mike shaking his head, blowing his breath out his nose, and saying, “Laur” in his two-syllable way, and it shook me back to reality. It’s a sad reality. But I acknowledge quite an assorted list of things I cannot change (my brother’s mind, dog walkers who refuse to pick up poop, drivers who hang in the left lane) so I threw up my hands and bought coffee instead.

But, people, please. Be careful with decimals. They matter. Misplaced, they are as bad as fake news, alternative facts, false advertising, and not laughing at Melissa McCarthy.