27 December 2007

Inspiration and Thermostat Wars

Posted by Jessica Ball

A question recently came up at a social gathering about educators who were personally inspiring or changed the course of one’s career. While awaiting my own turn to contribute to the discussion, I was struck by just how lucky I’ve been academically (I’ll skip over non-academic inspiring people for now, although there have been quite a few). I’ve had a steady stream of wonderful, encouraging people guiding me from elementary school onward, and almost all of them (save for perhaps one or two that I didn’t know particularly well, or only had for one class that I disliked for multiple reasons) have contributed in some positive way to the person I am now – academically or otherwise.

I initially supplied an amusing anecdote about the third-grade teacher who introduced us to the GT program by making us wear broccoli necklaces for the first week of school. (I don’t remember the exact purpose of this, other than some vague assumption that it was meant to help us develop thick skins and not worry about being “labeled” GT, but it certainly does stick in my memory. The teacher, by the way, was a great lady who I will forever be grateful to for getting me through the pain of learning long division.)

But my serious response had to be that my undergraduate advisor has probably had the most impact in my academic journey. When I was first assigned to him as a freshman, I was frankly terrified of interacting with professors. I didn’t know what to expect from a college setting, and I can conjure up a mental image of myself shaking in my shoes, overly formal, timid, etc etc. Because we didn’t know each other well, our first meetings were mostly to iron out my schedule – I’d make suggestions for classes, he’d approve, and that would be it. (This is generally what freshman advisors end up doing, as I understand it, and that was fine.) But seeing as he was a geology prof and I wanted to be a major, he took a much greater interest in me than I’d expected. (This was probably a good thing, as my first geology class was taught by a visiting prof who I later found out was not enthusiastically received by either the upper-level students or the faculty.)

The most important point of that freshman year was, I think, when he gave me an override to attend his 3 1/2 week summer field course. By the end of freshman year, I’d still only been able to take Intro Geo and Earth History, and I essentially knew nothing about mineralogy, structure, mapping, etc. I was the only freshman on the trip, and aside from enthusiasm my skill set was pretty sparse. And oh, did I struggle. The trip was a major crash course in mapping, mineral identification, navigation, structure, keeping a field book – everything. And there were times when I was so frustrated with my lack of ability that I wanted to cry – or kill my advisor, which he thankfully wasn’t too offended at.

But if I ever had any doubts that I wanted to be a geologist, they were gone within the first few days of that course. Wandering around the Colorado Plateau for nearly a month was one of the best experiences of my life, and one field trip stop actually led to my senior research and thesis. And – most important of all – I got to know my advisor not only as a professor but as a person. (There’s nothing like having a snowball fight on the continental divide or getting tackled down a sand dune to break down social barriers.)

And it kept going from there. I ended up taking many classes and field trips with my advisor, and working on his REU the summer of my senior year, and I can’t say I’ve regretted any of it. There were still times that I wanted to throttle him, but I can sincerely say that any pain I suffered as his advisee was for my own good and ended up teaching me something important or useful, even if I couldn’t see it clearly at the time. And it was his insistence that I do an honors thesis which led to the most exhilarating moment of my academic career and left me with a piece of work that I can proudly show to future employers and graduate committees, as well as a future of collaboration on a promising mapping project.

I’m of course grateful to my other undergraduate professors, who were an extraordinary group of people and whose guidance and knowledge I am extremely fortunate to have received. But my advisor deserves a special place in my acknowledgements (although undoubtedly I will be fuming at him for something again before too long). Ah, love/hate relationships.

In unrelated commentary, is it a natural state of affairs for there to be such polarization in regards to appropriate workplace temperatures? I’ve found that, where I work, one group would be perfectly happy to sit around with their windows open when it’s below fifty outside, while the other group would prefer not to have to wear gloves and scarves inside the building. (I am firmly in the group who doesn’t want the thermostat below 70. I like to be able to feel my extremities.) And, interestingly, the warm group tends to be women, while the cold group tends to be men. Is this a physiology thing, or a symptom of the fact that men are more likely to wear undershirts in addition to the whole suit and tie ensemble?

Of course it would also help to have a functioning furnace, which I suspect is not the case at this point, as the little weather station outside my office has not changed from 68 degrees despite the fact that the thermostat in my office is cranked to 80.