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.


we are small, but lucky

We are small and riding on a tiny world that spins in a little galaxy swirling in a huge universe.

We feel large, significant, important. We step on ants and spiders. We pull weeds. Our own needs and feelings feel paramount and relevant. We hold our opinions and attitudes like a shield, and wear our biases like armor. Then we look at the stars and know we are small.

We are lucky that the earth, a world that we do not own, supports our life form. The earth does not need us. Without it we could not live. The earth supplies every atom within us, and we’ll give back every atom when we cease to live. We are small.

If we live 100 years (a miniscule span of time repeated 40 million times since life began here) we are lucky, but still small.

If we truly support one leader in our lifetimes, we are unique and lucky, pompous and arrogant. We feel powerful, but we are still small.

If we consider carefully, even obsess, under microscopic scrutiny, the decisions and behaviors of others, were are forgetting to live our own lives and merely meddling in theirs.

If we judge each other by the beliefs in our hearts, by the level of melanin in our skin, or out of jealousy or greed, we are missing out on the best of human emotion; we are forgetting to laugh, to love, to see the incredible beauty of nature. We are wasting our lives.

We won’t get a mulligan, a do-over, a my bad, when we leave this life. So live your best life, be your best self, on this go around.

Notes from a dork

Recently, on the open interweb where students (who are protected by FERPA) feel the need to publicly rate their teachers (who need none, so seek no protection, and work insane hours for low pay because teaching is so much fun), I was described as “a little dorky.”

Me. Dorky. Really?

To investigate the accuracy of the statement, I looked up the current meaning of dorky and found this: socially inept, awkward, unfashionable.

Let me dissect this mush. I stand in front of 120 students at a time and talk for hours. Maybe that’s what socially inept means now–the willingness to make eye contact and speak. I do so in clothes I like, that are comfortable and likely unfashionable, but I don’t care what you wear, so I’m surprised you care what I do. Perhaps I should be more offended. Go ahead, you can be offended for me, but I’ve been at this for decades and have seen the cycle: Years after graduation, students grow up and regret their actions. Some even come by and apologize. They know not what they do when they are young and unemployed. Some do not think of their professors as fellow humans, though we perceive the best of our students as the great hope for the survival of humanity.

Anyway, this proud geek/nerd/scholar couldn’t stop at one source, so I continued on my quest and found another definition: stupidly foolish, inept, clueless.

Now wait a minute. What might I be clueless about? Atomic theory? Organic reactions and rates, oxidations, nucleophilic substitutions, kinetics, equilibria? Transition states, Newman projections, stereochemistry, molecular shapes, bond angles, hydrogen bonding? Ah, nope.

Maybe I’m clueless about things I don’t care about. In that case, clueless might be the perfect platform on which to choose how to live a life. But I plead not guilty to “stupidly foolish” and “inept.” Those words are my antitheses; I am smartly serious and quite ept.

And on to a third source, to satisfy the statistician in me: In slang, I found dork to mean nerd (guilty) and jerk (nope, not me. I’m nice. I care. I work hard. I show up. I’m honest. Maybe you’re just petrified of strong women. Try to outgrow that.)

So after some spreadsheet work with multiple scatterplots and best-line-fit analysis, I am self-diagnosed as 57.9% dork, which makes me maybe dork-ish. I’m also 50% Irish. 25% French. 25% mutt. 100% female. 98% stubborn. 32% angry. 84% content. 98% curious.

Don’t pin a label on me. It won’t stick. And I won’t do it to you.




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.

Please, brain, stop thinking for a few hours. Let me sleep. Thanks.

What wakes me up at 2 am? My brain. Actually, small molecules and synapses in my brain. Normal people (who are asleep right now) probably call them thoughts.

The old brain just can’t downshift. It won’t stop thinking. About everything.

Like when you type the word brain, you automatically add a g, because of the “in“.

Like my work-in-progress (aka my book)–how to distribute that section that Jim wants spread across the first 57 pages.

And the next book. The characters. The plot. The desire to write it (NOW) instead of finishing the other one, or sleeping like a normal person.

And I really need a good word for WordsWithFriends.

And more and more and more thoughts about. . .

The future and the past.

Decisions to be made and secrets to be hidden.

Sore knees.

Infinite hopes and worries.

Fear of war and incompetent leaders.

Need ice cream.

Must write a blog post.

Need to hush that barking dog, quacking duck, snoring man.

Must flip the hot pillow. Cover the cold feet

So thirsty. Must deal with opposite of thirst.

Must mentally compile tomorrow’s list.

Must worry about things I cannot control, so when they happen, I’m ready (but so sleepy).