For various reasons, I recently spent a lot of time outside regularly scheduled class time with some of the undergrads in the class I've been teaching. Spending time with undergrads in close proximity to major end-of-term activities such as final exams might not sound enjoyable, and in fact in some cases it is not, but this particular time was fun because I have had a great group of students in my class this term. Sometimes these experiences can be one long "Do we have to know X" (for the test) type conversations, but in the best cases, such as this recent one, the students used the opportunity to ask things that went beyond what they learned in class. I was peppered with questions about how the class material relates to other classes and topics and life and the world and everything. It was very cool.
Providing optional outside-of-class time tends to attract students who are most enthusiastic about a class. Of course, some students can't participate because they have other commitments (work, family, sports). I make sure that those students have other options if they want or need to spend some extra review time with me before their exam. Perhaps it is unfair to provide an opportunity in which not everyone can participate, but so many students benefit from it and seem to enjoy it, that I can't imagine not providing this out-of-class time. I schedule the extra end-of-term time far in advance (in fact, it is on the syllabus), so most students have sufficient warning to adjust their schedule to participate if they wish.
During some of these out-of-class experiences, some students want to chat about topics other than the course material. These conversations range from the kind that convince them that I am from the outer solar system owing to my lack of knowledge of Mainstream Culture (TV, music, video games, sports..), to the intense kind about their hopes and dreams for the future.
For example, I ended up having a long conversation with one student who is a bit older than the others -- a student who already has a degree but ended up in an unsatisfying job and is now going to try again with another degree in a different field of science. I asked her how she had come to her decision to change fields and why she had chosen to switch from Science X to Science Y and how she managed to balance all this with raising her kids. It was fascinating.
This student told me that in her previous job, she sort of liked what she was doing, but she didn't love it. She met people who were truly passionate about their work, and she knew that she was missing something. She always wondered what could make her feel that way about her work, and eventually decided to go back to school and change careers entirely. She said to me "You obviously have it -- a passion for your work. It is obvious every day in class that you love what you are doing."
I don't know exactly what her antennae are picking up on. It's not as if I bound into the classroom every day and say "Hi Students! Let's talk about Cool Science Stuff again today, and by the way, I love my job!". I also don't slouch into class, sigh in a sad and hopeless way, and say "I guess we have to talk about some more of this Science Stuff again today, so let's just get it over with." I am glad, though, that somewhere in the large middle ground between being an in-your-face happy professor and a going-through-the-motions unhappy professor, I somehow convey to at least some of my students that I am passionate about my work.
This student wanted to know how I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. How did I know that this was the right field of science for me, that being a professor was the right job for me, and that being a professor at a research university was the best place for me to be? The answers are, respectively (1) see below; (2) luck, and (3) trial-and-error and luck.
The first question is the easiest to answer: I still remember flipping through a course listing during the fall term of my first year in college and coming across the listing for a certain Science Department. I was not planning to major in any science in college -- I was more interested, I thought, in ancient things (history, literature, languages, culture) -- and was just looking through the catalog to see what other courses I might take. When I came to the page for this particular Science Department, the mythical light bulb went off over my head. It is hard to explain how looking at the name of an academic department in a course catalog can be an intense experience, but it was for me. I went to the college bookstore and bought a textbook for the introductory course in that Science Department, and sat down and started reading it. There have been a few bumps and detours in the road between that moment and where I am now, but that was the start of it for me.
That's how I discovered that I loved this particular Science, but that light bulb flash did not, however, involve the further thought ".. and I want to be a professor at an R1 university." That came later -- much later -- in part by trial-and-error. My student seems to be on a trial-and-error kind of career path as well, although perhaps with more dramatic turns in the path. She says she thinks she has finally found it, though, and from what I can see, she has indeed. In her case, she is going to teach Science at the K-12 level, and it is quite thrilling for me to think that I have helped her in some way on her route to that goal.
In the day or two before this recent out-of-class experience, I must admit that I was feeling some regret for scheduling this time that I could be spending doing other things, none of which would involve students, but once the students showed up and we started chatting, it was great. Loving your job doesn't mean you love it every second and have a 100% optimistic attitude, but for me it means that I am very often reminded of why I love my job. Sometimes I am reminded by my research and sometimes I am reminded by my students, and that's probably why working at a place that lets me do both research and teaching is the best place for me, however it is that I got here.
8 months ago