Friday, July 23, 2010

An overwhelming Friday

The summer is a wonderful season to get lots of work completed in preparation for the daily grind of the semester. But its duration is much too short to accomplish all that was intended at its start.

Papers take a back seat to teaching and service during the academic year, so writing manuscripts is one of my summer priorities. Unfortunately, I have more than half a dozen projects with results that need to be published. Even if I devoted the rest of the summer to writing papers, most would be left undone by the start of classes. Getting ready for a trip to present an invited talk in San Diego in a week and a Plenary talk in three weeks in Budapest is also occupying lots of time and energy. Coupled to daily visits to the lab and dealing with the constant challenges of building new experiments and fixing old ones, time is scare. I will be satisfied with the completion of two papers.

My afternoon rounds in the lab continue to be satisfying, with new results daily. In addition, I look forward to Xavi's 6 week visit, which starts next week. We have high expectations for cracking two problems that have been haunting us for many years. There are other problems, potentially with very significant consequences, which have been relegated to the back burner. Unfortunately, they may need to simmer for yet another year before I begin to work on them in earnest.

Being preoccupied with all these activities, I am concerned that I will be unprepared for the new class that I will be teaching this fall. Preparation for a graduate class suffers from a huge multiplier effect. A one hour lecture may take 15 hours of prep time. In addition to developing pedagogical strategies, I spend lots of time solving potential homework problems. It is hard to assess the pedagogical value of a problem unless one struggles through it from the perspective of a student. Problems that take lots of time due to their mathematical challenge are sometimes appropriate, especially if the mathematical technique is useful for a broad range of problems. On the other hand, mathematically simple problems with seeming paradoxes that result from misconceptions force the students out of their cognitive comfort zones. The struggle to conquer such problems leads to a deeper understating. One of the wonderful perks of my job is that I am continually intellectually stimulated and am always learning new things.

Often, I have not seen the material that I will be teaching since graduate school, so when preparing my lectures, I fall into the same traps and make the same blunders as the students. It takes lots of work to put the state of confusion behind me so that I can be in a position to teach the material. It is a great asset as a teacher to have had experienced the same difficulties that the students will experience. The most horrible teachers are the ones that cannot understand why the students are confused, and are therefore unable to be helpful.

I look forward to the weekend to get lots of work behind me. I will undoubtedly be disappointed with my progress, but the time we have is always insufficient for our plans. The summer is whizzing by, as is this weekend. I need to get back to work.

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