Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why I teach....

There are many reasons why we do the things we do. The choice of one's career is typically not an actual choice more than an evolution of minor choices and mixed opportunities that lead one to where one winds up. I teach mathematics (among the many things I do here at Hopkins) because I really like it! It provides a sense of career fulfillment one usually has when one is markedly satisfied with their job choice. But why it brings this sense of fulfillment is a bit deeper. Just to try, I will throw an occasional post on this blog detailing why I love my job. Here is the first:

They say war is composed of seemingly endless hours of boredom and drudgery interspersed with occasional moments of pure and abject terror. A full appreciation as to why some people choose to fight wars (choose to reenlist during an active campaign and get back into the theater) can only come from an understanding of just what that adrenaline rush during the terror moments actually feels like.

When one is "doing" math research, one tends to struggle for long periods in an imagined world trying desperately to understand how the complicated parts of a seemingly beautiful structure work in a way that combines the imaginations of other mathematicians and the possibilities that are consistent with all other imagined structures. In this sense it is the purest of arts, as it only exists within the constructs of one's mind.

This usually leads to long periods of confusion and frustration interspersed with moments of total clarity. It is in these moments when something works out that one has a sense for something so much bigger than reality that the adrenaline rush hits and euphoria sets in. These moments and their constructions are filled with so much beauty to us, that we "know" exactly what Mozart or Monet must have felt. We live for these moments, and cannot wait to tell everyone else about them. (It is such a pity that these constructions are not so easily accessible outside of our small worlds!).

When I am teaching, I am describing, narrating, and constructing bits and pieces of an abstract (we say "formal") world that I see quite clearly to people who are trying to understand. I have many tools to help other people see more clearly. I use as many different perspectives as I can think of, look for visual clues in the looks of others to see if they are slowly comprehending, dig into details to find the keys to understanding. The act of teaching is just like the act of doing math research. How to give someone a fully see-able abstract object is not an easy task. But it is a puzzle that requires mathematics to solve (read: more abstract imaginative thinking).


every so often there is that moment; that single instant when after all of the description and frustration and time spent in trying to understand, the moment when full comprehension dawns. That moment when I have successfully handed over a fully developed complicated imagined object to someone else. There is that look the other person (a student, or a colleague) gets when they "see" it, when they get it, when they sense that they have grasped exactly what you are trying to hand to them. They see the beauty of it, and appreciate both the object itself as well as their accomplishment in being able to "see" it....

I teach for that moment. It does not matter how often it comes (although I strive for moments like that to come as often as possible), because when it does, nothing can top the sense of fulfillment it brings.

That sense of connection between student and teacher is totally 100% ethereal. And not only can it not be matched by ANY physical bond, it also leave a mark, which lingers in both parties for a long time.

This is why I teach....

No comments: