Astronomy was so bad, really, seriously, probably one of the worst experiences that I had as a student in college. I know there’s a kind of collegial professionalism that’s supposed to happen here (never critique another teacher in the trenches when you’re one of them), so ‘ll just give you one detail: on the day that we wrote our student evals, he collected them himself and waited in the room to read what each student had written before handing off the envelope to a volunteer.
So when a sub showed up to teach one of the classes, we were ecstatic.
While my only memories of the actual instructor of record usually involve him berating a student in front of the whole class, I remember the sub’s lesson vividly. At 10:05 sharp, she came out from behind the lectern, arms waving, and said, “Professor _____ asked me to cover binary star systems with you all today, but instead I think,” her eyes widened, “we will discover them.”
Yeah, total super nerd. And we loved it. Her enthusiasm was infectious. To this day, on most nights of the year, I can still point out Sirius, a set of two stars spinning around one another at nearly 60,000 km an hour. And get this, the smaller of the two, the white dwarf, is comprised of highly compressed carbon, which is, technically, a diamond… the size of the earth.
While I’m not sure I would ever say the same thing in my class, “Discover” would probably come out cheesy and inauthentic, the attitude has stuck with me.
Whatever the content might be in our classes, learning can feel like discovery. Thesis statements, PIE paragraphs, quote sandwiches – these are the elements of our written composition courses and if we’re not paying attention, we might forget their profound implications for rhetoric and the way human beings understand one another. One might be the billionth person reading centuries old math theorems, the Bechdel Test, or Newton’s Laws, but in the mind of the learner the feeling of coming upon these things can be as thrilling as if being the first to see them.
The two attitudes mark a different approach in both the teacher and the student. To see our course content as something which must be covered is to suggest that each lesson only functions as a means to the next, a gatekeeper – “Prove you memorized this thing, put it on a test, move on and repeat.” To discover is to be fascinated with the content for it’s own sake.
Victor Weissfopk supposedly said in his physics courses: “It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.”