Back to School

There’s a certain amount of personal irony that September’s Accretionary Wedge theme “Back to School” coincides with the first fall semester that I’m not going back to school in some capacity since I entered nursery school in the fall of 1973.

From the fall of 1973 through the spring of 2000 I was a student every semester. Nursery school, kindergarten, grade school, junior high, senior high, undergraduate, graduate school – 26 years of student-hood, every fall and every spring with only summers off (and a couple of those years in undergrad and graduate school there were even classes during the summer). Granted, after the first few years of grad school there were fewer scheduled classes and more focused research, but I remained an enrolled student throughout this span without a fall or spring semester off.

165-6541_IMGThe next phase of my academic career traces its roots to my time as an undergraduate where I first had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for labs and field camp. In graduate school I TAed regularly for my first four years and then in the spring of 1997 I had my first opportunity to serve as a part-time instructor. More instructor gigs kept me busy throughout the remainder of my graduate school days. Then, from the fall of 2000 thru the spring of 2011 I taught full teaching loads, initially in a one year sabbatical fill position, and then for a full decade as an assistant professor in two tenure-track jobs. If I had received tenure at either of those two positions no doubt I would still be teaching today. But alas, those tenure-track positions expected peer-reviewed published research in addition to teaching, and since my last peer-reviewed publications dated from my Ph.D. research, my academic career today serves as an exemplar of the latter alternative warned about in the axiom “Publish or Perish”.

So when this September rolled around this year I found myself in the unusual position of not heading “back to school” for the very first time I can recall. I still love teaching, and on one level or another I don’t think I’ll ever let that go. There’s no doubt in my mind that, even as I appreciate a break from the teaching routine that I had established over the past decade, I do miss all the joys of helping students discover and explore the fascinating subject of geology. However, I would be a liar if I said I miss grading and tenure files and committee meetings and a hundred other ancillary distractions that made up the life of a university faculty member. On the other hand, I also miss the paycheck.

So what advice do I have for students and teachers? Well, I’m probably not the best person to offer advice about the traditional academic experience. I learned a great deal in the academy and I don’t regret a minute of time I spent there. But my experience – and particularly my experience sharing my understanding of geology with the online world over the last decade and a half – has taught me that there’s more to teaching and learning than exists on a campus or in a classroom. Schools can be great places for formalized learning; the degrees and certifications offered to those who excel in such an environment provide the most widely recognized path to career success. And without a doubt schools and universities offer the most efficient existing structure for transferring wealth from those who want to learn to those who are fortunate enough to have earned a position teaching and researching there. But the academy is not the only place or pathway to learn about geology, or any other subject. There are other (and nonexclusive) means of learning and teaching, and the internet can be a valuable platform for enabling many of them. It is my goal to explore some of these possibilities in the months and years ahead. Stay tuned…

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