February 2012

Next fall, I will enter a very interesting year in my academic career. I will not be teaching General Chemistry. This will be the first time in a number of years that I will not be discussing stoichiometry, and gas laws, and equilibrium with our incoming students, and I have very mixed feeling about that. It’s a function of a number of schedule quirks that are aligning at the same time, and I am adjusting my and other schedules to cover all of the classes we need to teach. Such are the duties of the Department Chair {although in my case, I’d like to change that name to the Department Sofa as it seems a more accurate visual description. Perhaps Department Chesterfield if I want to feel fancy.} Why does this decision weigh upon my soul so heavily? Well, you see…

The Good:

There are a number of positive aspects to stepping away from Gen Chem. Because I have taught the class many years in a row, it might be nice to get some distance, gain some perspective, and be able to come back fully charged. The classes I will teach next year instead of Gen Chem will be interesting and challenging, with general education courses and upper level chemistry courses balanced nicely over the year. It promises to be professionally and personally invigorating, and I expect to make some significant strides forward. I might even get a couple publications and/or grants put together. Yes, I’m dreaming big, but I’m at a stage in my career where I either have to commit to making a big splash or I have to slowly fade into obscurity. I’m choosing the big splash.

The Not So Good:

I struggle with this side because it may sound as if I am shamelessly and hopelessly vain. I am a good General Chemistry instructor. Given the choice, students at my institution will usually choose my class over the other instructors. This is not bragging, I have data. That’s not to say that I’m the best Gen Chem instructor anywhere, but in my tiny little pond, I’m the big fish. Gen Chem is a critical class for students; a good experience can energize them and propel them into a chemistry major; a bad experience will have them jumping ship to other majors faster than you can say gram-to-mole-conversion. If we want to recruit and retain chemistry majors, Gen Chem should have our very best instructors, and at my institution, that’s me.

The humble side of me is quick to say “You big dope, anyone can teach Gen Chem, you’re nothing special.” OK, maybe that’s not my humble side, maybe that’s my borderline self-destructive side. Can one be verbally abusive to oneself? Hmm… But back to the point, how special am I, really? It really does take a special personality to teach Gen Chem effectively, and I think I have some of that “specialness”, but others have it too. And let’s be honest, I’m going to be allowing some students to have a Gen Chem experience that might not be quite as good as it could possibly be, but it’s not like I’m dressing them up in a meat suit and throwing them out into the bitter winter night to a pack of hungry wolves.

The Peripheral:

OK, this part may definitely be vanity showing through. I have developed a bit of an online reputation for my General Chemistry work. When I am not teaching Gen Chem next year, I will lose momentum. I do not want to lose momentum. At the same time, academics take breaks and go on sabbaticals all the time. Maybe I will keep up my Gen Chem reputation by continuing to be active online even though I’m not teaching the course. That sounds like it would be extra work, and to some extent it would be, but it’s certainly worth the effort. Maintaining #GenChem2012 (and eventually #GenChem2013?) and http://msumgenchem.blogspot.com/ “on the side” will be an interesting challenge, although if I devote the 10-12 hours per week that I currently devote to teaching Gen Chem to polishing up and expanding my online presence, I should have a rather nice product at the end of the effort. Wait, I’m saying this as if I’m going on sabbatical, and I most certainly am not. I’ll have other classes and other responsibilities to occupy my time. Hmm, sounds like it’ll be a busy year; I should enjoy my “easy” semester right now…



I fear that I may be using Twitter incorrectly. I may even be violating their policies. Oh no. Here’s the problem: Whenever I carve a few minutes out of my day to check in, I usually have, oh, maybe 20-75 new tweets in my feed. I start at the bottom and skim through them, if someone has provided a link that I might find interesting, I’ll center-click to open the link in a new tab and continue through the list. Once I make it to the top of my feed, I click through the newly opened tabs and read the web pages. If the page is interesting enough, I’ll tweet it, either with the “tweet” option on the page itself or by composing a native tweet. As I was browsing over the weekend, I found that this might be a violation of Twitter policy because I’m not citing the person whose tweet alerted me to the content I am now tweeting. Hmm, that’s a bit of a dilemma. A few thoughts come to mind…

  1. Curation – I’m supportive of this idea, but I have to question some of the “curators”. There are a few people who I have followed who will have blitz attacks of literally dozens of tweets over the course of a few minutes. Do these curators actually read any of the content of the links they’re retweeting? I want to believe that they are, but there are some logistical issues with this. I know there are many people who can read faster than I can, but it just doesn’t seem possible that some people can read as fast as they tweet. If a curator isn’t actually reading the links that are being retweeted, it seems to me that this would be the equivalent of standing at a newsstand and yelling out the headlines at passersby without reading the articles. Should I recognize that? No, but where is the line between “real” curation and people who seem to screaming out headlines without much thought?
  2. Direct tweets from links – Many websites have those adorably handy little tweet buttons built in. I read a page that I find interesting, I click the tweet button, and there’s a nice little pre-formatted tweet that I can embellish with a bit of my own comment. If I’ve read the story myself and developed an opinion and understanding of it, should I acknowledge someone other than the site author/source?
  3. RT vs. MT vs. “favorite” – I thought I had the whole RT/MT thing figured out; RT is a retweet of someone else’s tweet, MT is a modified tweet where the original tweet has been changed. I usually find myself “MT-ing” when I add a comment that pushes my tweet above 140. But what about a “favorite”? How is a “favorite” different from a retweet, especially a retweet using the native “Retweet” command in Twitter? Retweets show up in my timeline/feed, favorites do not, so when I want something to very specifically appear in my feed (usually so I can find it later), I’ll tend to retweet. If I just want to give a little acknowledgment that “hey, that was kind of cute/funny/smart/interesting”, I’m more likely to “favorite”.

As I continue to build my identity as part of the Twitter community, I will doubtless refine my tweeting self. Will I always do it “right”? I don’t know. One of the nice things about many social networking sites is that there really isn’t a “right” or “wrong” as long as one is being polite and honest. If I’ve bend a few Twitter rules in the past, I apologize, it was not intentional. Will I do it again? I just might, but again, it won’t be a purposeful shunning of the community rules, it will be part of my never-ending trip along the learning curve.

I like to think of myself as a creative person. In my younger days, I did some writing; prose, poetry, humor, comedy. I believe that there is still a creative core inside of me, but it seems that the majority of my creative efforts are directed at my job teaching chemistry. I try to be creative and humorous in my classroom presentation, and I think I manage to do it as well as most chemistry professors. Over the past few years, I have felt the calling of that creative side and have attempted to engage it. That was one of the reasons for this blog. I have come to realize that, like anything worth doing, writing is something that I really need to schedule specific time for and set specific goals to reach. If I don’t, as with so many of the things I would consider past-times or hobbies or projects, I will let every available second of my time get sucked into the vacuum of “professor” and I will accomplish nothing.
That’s why I was excited to learn of the upcoming sci-fi writing contest at bigthink.com. The contest will announce a topic on a Friday morning and submissions are due by the end of the day on Sunday. My submission may end up being a complete load of rubbish, but the idea of sequestering myself for 2-3 days of nothing but creative writing is strangely exhilarating. If you’d like to join me, the Big Think, Short Fiction Contest (#1: Sci-Fi) begins on February 17th. It should be fun! Sci-fi is probably my go-to genre, but I’ll be looking forward to future versions of the contest as well.
Big Think Short Fiction Contest #1 – Sci-Fi