Monday, June 21, 2010

The excitement of teaching a new course

I spent this past weekend playing ice hockey in a tournament in Wenatchee, Washington. Most people derive pleasure from activities in which they excel, but I love playing ice hockey even though I am not very good. In fact, I was the worst player on my team; but, I got to participate because I organized the team.

There is nothing more exhilarating than the feeling of the cool breeze rushing past my body as I am skating with full force to the puck. To the casual observer, I am sluggish and clumsy, but from my perspective, I glide gracefully through the air. My favorite place is in the eye of the storm, right in front of the opponents' net, with bodies flying and disembodied voices yelling in warning. The melee around me is hypnotic, making me feel serene and at peace. Some people meditate or do yoga to relieve stress, but for me, hockey is the best therapy. After a weekend of ice hockey, I am ready for anything, even travel - which I despise.

The ultimate complement to a scientist is to be invited to give a talk at another institution or a conference. Nothing beats talking about ones work, especially in front of an audience of eager listeners. But more importantly, meeting with other scientists is the ideal forum for exchanging ideas and regenerating the creative spirit. On the flip side, getting to a meeting requires travel, which I find extremely distressing. Weeks before an overseas trip, my early morning hours are fraught with intense anxiety, preventing sleep, followed by less-anxious daytime, but under a cloud of fatigue that prevents me from working efficiently. This snow-balling cycle of anxiety and exhaustion takes its physical toll.

My travels last year were particularly harrowing, but meeting with old colleagues and friends in beautiful settings to talk about life and science yielded great satisfaction. I spent a large chunk of the summer of 2009 in Belgium, collaborating with colleagues and giving talks. I started the summer by giving an invited talk in Brussels on "A Hierarchical Approach to Making a New Class of Ultra-Smart Morphing Materials,” at an international conference, New Molecular Materials for Advanced Optical Applications in a Changing World, which was sponsored by the Belgian Academy of Sciences.

Then I made my way to the 9th Mediterranean Topical Meeting on Novel Optical Materials and Applications in Cetraro, Italy, where I presented an invited talk on “Using liquid crystal elastomers to transmit and receive a force on a beam of light,” Returning back to Belgium, I gave a seminar at the University of Leuven, in a special series of talks called the INPAC Lectures on Trends in Nanosciences. I finished my tour in Europe by giving the opening keynote address on the topic “A birds-eye view of nonlinear-optical processes: unification through scale invariance,” at the International Symposium on Materials and Devices for Nonlinear Optics, ISOPL’5, on the scenic island of Ile de Porquerolles, France.

I planned to attend the whole meeting in France, arriving a couple hours before the start of the meeting and departing on the last day. A few days before the meeting (after I had booked my reservations), I learned that my talk would be the opening keynote address. The keynote address is typically much longer than an invited talk, so I expended some effort to to fill the additional time with what I considered to be interesting topics. I also tried to change my flight to arrive earlier in the day, but all the flights were full. So, I spent a couple of stressful hours making contingency plans in the event that the flight was late or the traffic prevented us from getting to the docks in time to catch the hourly boat to the island.

As is typical with travel, all the pieces did not fall into place. Our plane arrived at the Toulon Airport less than two hours before my talk. After waiting for over half an hour for our luggage, we took a 20 minute cab ride to the docks, only to have missed our boat. The next one was due to leave in half an hour, so we were forced to rent a water taxi that seats about 30. The captain, first mate, and her dog got my wife and me to the island in no time. More importantly, the James-Bond-like high-speed ride and the beautiful scenery had a wonderfully calming effect. From the docks, it was about a 1 km walk to the conference site (no cars are permitted on the island). I made it with 10 minutes to spare!

My summer ended with less excitement in San Diego, where I gave two invited talks at the SPIE meeting, chaired two sessions and was on two program committees. While in Pullman, I hosted three collaborators from Belgium: Prof. Koen Clays, Dr. Javier Perez-Moreno (a 2007 recipient of the joint Ph.D. degree between WSU and the University of Leuven, who is now on a postdoctoral fellowship in Leuven), and Inge Asselberghs. Several highly visible papers have resulted from this collaboration.

In September, I headed to Australia, China, and Chile to give invited talks on “Smart Morphing Materials”, “Using New Theories to Understand Light-Matter Interactions to Optimize Materials for Next Generation Technologies,” and “The Role of Polymers in Reversing the Arrow of Time.” My fall travel ended in October with a trip to Ohio where I gave a condensed matter seminar at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a colloquium at Kent State University

This six-month period of travel, while professionally rewarding, was physically exhausting. Almost a year after my marathon travels, I have yet to regain my equilibrium. This past May, I gave an invited talk at a meeting in France that was dedicated to the very distinguished Professor Joseph Zyss on the occasion of his 60th birth year. This interdisciplinary meeting was first rate, the attendees were all top notch, and the social activities elegant in the extreme.

Recovering from my trip to France and perseverating over my pending trips to San Diego and Budapest in July/August, the hockey tournament provided me with a wonderful break.

Ironically, even the tournament was a source of stress. Upon my return from France, I got a text message from a player asking me about the team roster. Only then did I recall that I had agreed to organize a team. I replied that I was working on a roster, but didn't mention that I had lined up only 3 players and a goalie; we needed at least 7 more players. Being a coed tournament, I needed to get a critical mass of women, so I sent out lots of emails. Unfortunately, one of the competing teams from our area had taken all the best players. Eventually, I formed a strong team, but short on superstars.

To our great satisfaction, we won all three games in the first round, even beating our stacked sister team, only to loose in the finals, placing us 2nd out of the 6 participating teams. That same weekend was our wedding anniversary, so my wife and I enjoyed the dining opportunities in the area.

So what does this long-winded entry have to do with teaching? I'll answer that question shortly. The premise of this blog is that thinking about physics and learning about the universe brings greater satisfaction to life than fame and fortune.

At this moment, I am in the middle of writing a proposal - a task that I find quite unappetizing. My docket is filled with papers to edit, manuscripts to write, writing assignments to correct, and budgets to balance. Extreme drudgery. But, as I sit at my my computer, I have noticed two fresh new books on my desk: one on Classical Mechanics and one on Statistical Mechanics. These will be the required textbooks that I will use in two graduate courses that I am slated to teach for the first time this fall and spring semester.

Preparing a new course is a herculean task. It takes me countless hours to solve all of the problems and to decide which ones are pedagogically suitable as assignments. At times, it may take hours or days for the concept on a single page to soak in. And even more work is required to make the material clear to the students. I find the process delightful.

As I thumb through the 500+ pages of each book, I thirst for the knowledge that they offer, and can't wait to immerse myself in the serene state of learning; and then returning to the real word to share my knowledge with others. The process of lecturing and interacting with students brings new insights, and often leads me into new research directions.

Teaching is an activity from which I derive the greatest satisfaction. The process of teaching more than compensates for all the day-to-day frustrations and drudgery. In what other venue can one ponder the deepest questions in a dialogue with others that share in the passion for understanding? When I emerge from 50-minutes of lecturing, all of my worldly concerns seem petty and trivial.

No comments:

Post a Comment