Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Going Live

I taught my first summer class today.

It’s a fun class, one that I’ve taught many times. There’s three of us who teach the course – an interdisciplinary class on the atomic bomb – and the first day of class starts out with the usual rules and introductions before moving on to one of us introducing our subject. This year it’s the physicist. Some years I get to go first. The philosopher usually has to wait.

Last year we taught the class on Zoom, which was a feat of social engineering in many ways.

This year? We went live.

Today was the first time I set foot in an actual classroom with actual students since March 11, 2020. I had a class on March 13 that year but those students were hundreds of miles away. I’ve taught that class remotely since 2012 so by the time the pandemic hit I was well versed in that particular pedagogy. It’s not a bad way to teach – it has its drawbacks and its advantages – but there’s nothing like being in the room with your students.

My alarm went off at pre-pandemic time, another first. I put on my Teacher Uniform – khakis, button-down shirt, dark socks, black sneakers that look like actual shoes from a distance – which is a far cry from the Zoom Formal that I’ve been wearing for the last fifteen months. And I drove down to Home Campus.

It wasn’t all happy reunions and roses – back when we submitted this class in February we weren’t sure how the world would look so we agreed to teach it as a hybrid course – part in person, part remote – which as the most tech-savvy instructor in this bunch (and, for the record, I realize just how absurd that statement is but here we are anyway) I can tell you that hybrid is much harder than just doing it remotely. I spent an hour with the IT guy last week and then went in yesterday to make sure I could get it to work on my own, and then this morning nothing I’d done worked at all so I spent a frantic 45 minutes getting the tech to do what I wanted.

But class time rolled around and we were off.

I’ve missed being in a classroom with students. Remote teaching doesn’t have the same energy, and you miss a lot of the things that the students give you when you’re staring at them on a screen.

In accordance with Home Campus policy, vaccinated students don’t have to wear masks on campus while unvaccinated students do – and no, asking for their vaccination status does not violate HIPPA so don’t even start with that. Most of our students are in fact vaccinated, which speaks highly of their intelligence, though even some of those were more comfortable wearing their masks.

A good percentage of the students were my advisees and an equal percentage were the philosopher’s advisees, so we knew many of these students coming in – though some of them I’d never seen in person after a year of remote advising. They’re the ones who didn’t know I wear glasses, since I don’t do that when I’m reading or looking at a computer screen.


The class went well. They asked questions and seemed to enjoy the material. We got through everything we’d planned to get through. The hybrid part actually worked, much to my astonishment, as did the video that the physicist showed. And we get to do it again on Thursday.

It’s been a long time coming, and it’s good to be back.


Katherine McKay said...

That bomb class has legs! How long since the first time you guys taught it? I bet it was fun to actually see your students rather than an electronic version of them after all this time. Well done!

David said...

Thanks! This will be the 12th time we've taught it since 1998. A lot has changed since then! But it is definitely fun to see the students in person again. :)

LucyInDisguise said...

I find myself jealous of your students. That, too, is an odd feeling.

Want to learn me some bomb history. And the physics would probably be fun, too. I would just resort to arguing with or making fun of the philosopher, though.


David said...

Well, I hope they have enough of a good time and learn enough to justify your feeling, really.

The bomb is a fascinating thing. The main textbook we use is Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which is an older book but still one of the best one-volume histories of the subject. And Rhodes is a journalist, so it's not written in historianese - it's actually fun to read. He has his quirks (he's inordinately fond of Niels Bohr's personal philosophy, for example) but it's a good introduction to the subject and you can get it on Amazon for about $20.

I suspect the philosopher would welcome your arguments and could probably hold his own. He's had thirty years of classroom experience and is a professional arguer, after all. ;)

LucyInDisguise said...

The bomb is a fascinating thing. Yes, it is, Captain Obvious. ��

you can get it on Amazon for about $20. Used, Very Good condition, it was only $14.90 and will be delivered next week with two other books that have been sitting on my wish list for some longish but unspecified period of time.

Niels Bohr was a Dane, and is (celebrated?) (well recognized?) depicted on money and stamps in Denmark. My wife, who was raised and educated in the US public school system instantly recognized his name when I asked her about him. She doesn’t know anything about him beyond his name, but, well, that is, as they say, that. Not sure what your reference to his philosophy is about, his Wiki page as two vaguely worded paragraphs that offer now illumination on his philosophy beyond his being an atheist. Guess I’ll discover more by reading the book.

I suspect the philosopher would welcome your arguments and could probably hold his own. He's had thirty years of classroom experience …

Philosophers are, for me, an indecipherable lot. Individually, they are, almost to the individual, personable, pleasant, warm-hearted, and compassionate. As a group, they tend to be self-important and way too certain of the ground which they have chosen to defend, humorless, unable to detect when they are being ridiculed, and have a humongous blind spot right between their ears. Convincing them that they are defending the indefensible usually involves the use of high explosives. I don’t know where your associate falls on that rather broad and overly generalized spectrum.

… and is a professional arguer, after all. 

I, on the other hand, am a Professional Driver (which also means that I’m a Profession Asshole! Just ask anyone who gets stuck behind me going uphill in a one-lane construction zone). I am that guy who will take an opposing view just for the challenge of shaking a core belief. Unlike, physics, which relies on science, there are very few foundational truths in philosophy, which paints a rather large target for assholes like me to shoot at - I don’t have anything invested in my arguments, nothing to actually defend, nothing to lose, and, finally, since there’s no way to score (except, possibly, compliance with parliamentarian norms) there is no way to prove that I lost the debate.*

So, I win. QED.**

[insert overly large toothy smiley face emoji here]


* I’m going to nominate that as the single most convoluted run-on sentence I’ve ever posted here. I feel that I should actually check on that, however, I am unwilling to actually invest any time to do so. You are more than welcome to do so if you got nuthin' better to do. Good hobby subject and all like that ...
** Not at all certain that this is an appropriate use of ‘QED’, but I’m going to leave it there if only to prove an absolutely pointless point.

David said...

It's more or less where QED should go, so we'll call that a win. :)

Yeah, Bohr is a national hero in Denmark - a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who became an outspoken cultural figure after the war. His personal philosophy was something called "complementarity" which is an interesting idea that you can look up on your own or just read in the book, but Rhodes tends to approach it with a "when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail" level of enthusiasm.

Our philosopher is a good soul and fits your individual description, and I haven't noticed him falling into the trap of your collective description. Bear in mind that you would not be the first Professional Asshole who has taken this class (the subject matter does seem to attract them, alas) or other classes that he has taught (it's an occupational hazard), and the fact that there are no foundational truths can be used against you as much as for you by someone trained in argument. It would be an interesting discussion to sit in on, I'd imagine.

All I know is that the philosophical section of the class makes my head hurt and I'm always glad I chose to be a historian after doing those readings.

David said...

Check your email, Lucy.

LucyInDisguise said...

The whole 'QED' thing was on a whim and completely accidental.

Sitting in on anything that involves philosophers doing their thing will make anyone’s head hurt. And there are some foundational truths in philosophy, it's where they head off to from there that makes your eyes cross and vision blur.

It was a very long time ago, in a galaxy near the shores of the Great Lake Of Salt, but I once won a debate with a philosopher centered on, of all things, ‘The Viability of Religion as a Solution to Societal Ills.’ (I shit you not!) However, to be fair, I was up against an LDS Philosopher (Why did I capitalize that???) who was not playing with a full deck and didn’t have a good grasp on parliamentarian rules (which is why I threw that caveat in there). I won on points, not because I had the better argument. (50 some-odd years later, I could now mop the floor with his arguments so well that you could eat off of it without any fears)

Philosophy has a place in our Society. It helps sentient beings form a view of the world that helps (some of) us survive. (As for the rethuglicans, I have no idea where they’re coming from or going to - which has not one damn thing to do with the history of atomic weapons. Where was I? Oh, yeah …) I’ve been sitting here wondering why one-third of your team is a philosopher, and, while I’m certain that you have good reason to do so, I can’t figure out his role in teaching the ‘history’ of atomic weapons. The Physicist? Sure. I can see that (can’t follow the math past a certain point but if the instructor is any good you don’t need to to understand what is being taught) but philosophy has way so too many varied ways to run off the rails. If I squint really hard and look at it from a very narrow specific angle I can see room for the philosophy surrounding the use of and maintenance of atomic stockpiles, but treading down the road of inventing them in the first place would be fraught with nuclear landmines, and I can't imagine a philosopher not taking that detour. I'd love to sit in on the class - truly, I’m not just saying that as a conciliatory remark - I’m just not at all certain that I could keep my mouth shut if he heads off to somewhere that doesn’t make sense. Philosophically speaking. (I mean, heading off to McDonald's doesn't make sense but I would not have a problem with him heading over there for lunch)��

Hey! Maybe your associate could invent some ‘tool’ similar to ‘math’ so the rest of us could follow along with their thinking and give us a tool to point out any 3+7=13 errors that philosophers happen to make in their work? Now my head is starting to hurt.

[Insert an even larger and sillier smiley face emoji here]*

Lost the engine in my big truck. Waiting for the corporation to figure out how to fix this mess. Flying this computer for the next few days. Now would be a good time to seek cover.


*I’m well aware that an emoji like that doesn’t exist yet - but try to work with me here. BTW, Blogger failed to render the emojis in that last post, and I don’t think it will render this. >>> ������ <<< but I'm going to try anyway.

David said...

Well, Emojis 2, Blogger 0. Oh well. ;)

The class is an interdisciplinary class entitled The History, Science, and Ethics of the Atomic Bomb - basically we want people to understand not only the bomb but also how each of us approach it. To me as a historian, the bomb is a thing that happened at a given time. Things led up to it; things happened around it; things happened because of it. Those are the questions I ask. To the physicist, it's a device that converts one form of energy (the binding energy of the nucleus) into other forms of energy (heat, light, blast). So he deals with those questions. To the philosopher it's an ethical question - under what circumstances (if any) is it morally acceptable to use such a device? He deals a lot with ethics in general and Just War Theory in particular.

We focus on the three disciplines in the first part of the course - how they work, what questions they ask, what rules they follow. And we build up to the bomb - the advances in science, the historical developments, the moral theories. We look at the bomb in the second half. It all gets to the Debate, which everyone knows is coming.

It's a fun class.

There is a world of difference between a church philosopher and an academic philosopher, in my experience. Academic philosophers tend to be better trained in the rules and tactics of argument (though the Jesuits are hard to beat on that score).

Good luck with the engine!

I've got enough cover to get me through. ;)