Monday, November 14, 2016

A template for talking to a class of science students during difficult times

Part I: What worked.

I studied engineering as an undergraduate in part because I thought I might want to be an astronaut. The day the Challenger space shuttle exploded shook me and my classmates. I remember walking into my intro to engineering class and the professor said not a word, no eye contact, just turned to the board and continued his lecture on force balance. I see —Engineers just keep their nose to the grindstone, and continue their work.

Fast forward fifteen years. I have just arrived at the synchrotron beamline having left my 2-year old back home with my husband. It is morning and we are doing safety training and preparing our experiments and someone comes and switches the TV monitors to the news. I watch a burning tower close to home and I watch as a second plane crashes into the tower. When I realize what is happening/what has happened, I crumble. I am comforted by the janitor as the scientists continue their work.

So I have learned that as scientists we keep our nose to the grindstone and what we have to offer as professionals is reason. Evidence based decision making. Data.

Last Wednesday I asked my dad: what do I say to my students today? Stick to the script, he said.

So I did. I ran from a meeting* to my class. The room—about 30 mineralogy students in the classroom—was buzzing.

What now?
What will happen to science funding?
What can I (as a student) do?
Why even study mineralogy?

I looked at their faces. I also noticed some key absences and made a mental note to follow up by email.
I don’t know.
It is now my job to advocate.
We’re here to practice scientific reason and evidence, but we also can guide ourselves by our compassion.
Today we will take temporary refuge in the tectosilicates. Think globally, act locally.

Part II: What didn’t work.

Over the last few years I have started asking a new question to family, friends, close colleagues: what is most important in the world right now: reason? or compassion?

Has it been a disservice, my training in reason but without a significant compassion component? Yes I think so. And I am now in a position to fix it! But how? Perhaps by bringing it out in the open? By talking?

The next day was lab time—and the TA and I decided to earmark some of the time for discussion.
We lay out our plans: Big things have happened in the world, and we want to give ourselves an opportunity to talk and share, because we are scientists and we are also people.

We acknowledged up front—listening/sharing is not a requirement. Please feel free to pull out your microscope/books/lab sheets and get to work.

There were 15 students in that room and 15 different experiences is a vast world of experience and thoughts and emotion. And I listened to the students and marveled at what a microcosm of the world even a group of 15 UCLA students can be. And there were two lab sections.

I saw warmth and sharing and caring but I also saw some crossed arms and angry eyes. Not all of us are suffering in the same way and not all of us are suffering.
And I am not trained in moderating an emotional discussion. I’m trained in math and science and engineering. I’m trained in reason, but I am not trained in combining reason and compassion. We closed the discussion, thanked the student, and got back to work. I reminded the students that I am always here to talk—about mineralogy or anything—and took my place at the back of the lab with my stack of papers to grade. Some students swung back to say hi, ask a question, tell me their stories. I checked in with others—did I make the right decision? The students are polite — I am in a position of power, even if invite my students to question my own choices with me.

I think it was a fumble, and I hope my choice did not cause students pain.

My job is to teach both reason and compassion to my science students. But in the context of being a science professor, perhaps compassion is this: gently guiding students to the discipline of learning/doing science. Reason is one of the foundations of hope. I must also welcome compassion to the table though: I’ll share with all the students my acknowledgement that not everyone is able to get back to work yet. Part of our job as scientists is to take care of ourselves first, so that we are able to do the sometimes hard work. And that I am here/there/everywhere for all my students for all the parts of being human and being a scientist.

*It was a luncheon where a spectrum of UCLA adults sat in the room and some of us cried. Turns out the woman sitting next to me and crying with me was the oral surgeon who pulled a few of my wisdom teeth a few years ago. Small world. And I now have a sister in blood, teeth, and tears.

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