Professor teach thyself

(An unpublished piece from 2006 for CBC Radio Commentary)

Last fall, for the first time since I started working in the University, I signed up to take an undergraduate course.

I was beginning a sabbatical and I thought a first-year class in some other discipline might make for a nice hobby alongside my regular research. Most of my undergraduate students take four or five courses a semester and manage to hold down jobs. With the study skills developed over a lifetime in Academia, I thought I would have no problem fitting in a single course alongside my paid work.
The semester began all right. I had a little trouble getting into class—it turns out enrolment for non-majors starts at 5 am and is over by 5:10. And the textbooks were expensive: mine ended up costing almost $200 by the time I left the store. But I soon started enjoying myself. My high school math came back quickly, and I aced the early problem sets. I was so pleased with my progress, in fact, that I ended up showing my first lab report to our University president when I ran into him in the hall one day after class.

The course was good for me professionally as well. As an undergraduate the first time round, I was pretty focussed. I majored in medieval English and took ancient languages to meet my breadth requirement. The last course I took with a lab was probably over 20 years ago in high school. It was good to watch somebody trained in a different discipline teach an introductory course. The basic pedagogical problems turned out to be for the most quite similar to those I face, and it was good to see what did and did not work from a students’ perspective.

The thing that most impressed me, however, was how hard today’s undergraduates work. As the semester went on, I found it very hard to keep up my grades while working full time. I have a renewed respect for my students who are able to balance the competing demands of three or more courses and work at one or two part-times jobs. With the mid-term looming and professional deadlines closing in, their professor ended up having to choose between work and school: I dropped Physics 1000 by the beginning of November.

Over the next couple of weeks, undergraduates begin the new semester at universities across Canada. Here’s a salute to their hard work—from a professor, and (for now) college drop-out.

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