Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Accretionary Wedge #44: Most Important Teacher

On one hand, I seriously considered passing over this Accretionary Wedge, feeling that I didn't have anything interesting or unique to contribute.  On the other hand, I've been dreaming of opening a blog and contributing to the Accretionary Wedge for four or five years.  Fortunately, I changed my mind because the answer to the question of who or what my most important teacher was, geologically speaking, hit me like a bolt of lightning.  Unfortunately, the path to realizing that my goal in life is to be a geologist was more circuitous than my path to entering the Wedge.

From the time I entered college I suspected that my degree would be in a field of natural science.  My reasoning for this was very simple; I was intensely curious about a large number of fields, but many of the humanities could be studied quite thoroughly without obtaining a degree in the subject.  (Although there would be some trouble with jargon in certain journal papers that could be solved with a subject-related dictionary.)  Not so with the sciences.  Many of the concepts were simply incomprehensible without advanced education in mathematics, the knowledge of a professor, learning in the lab, or all of the above.  It went beyond mere jargon.

My next problem consisted of figuring out which science I would enter.  After all, I didn't want to spend my entire life doing something boring just because it happened to require specialized knowledge!  My first choice, due to my love of hiking, animals and the study of evolution, was biology.  Unfortunately, I was never able to complete a Bio 1 course (I tried twice) partly because my personal life was in shambles at the time and partly because I found the Bio 1 material so boring!  I was expecting to learn about evolution, zoology, any number of subjects...instead I found out that the first class was spent exclusively on studying rudimentary cell biology and biochemistry.  Other than a statement on an exam about evolution laying the groundwork for modern biology there was no discussion of larger issues.  I expected to learn about evolutionary patterns and the change in morphology of plants and animals (Bio 2 stuff) and instead found that I would be expected to spend three months on ribosomes, lipids, and the differences between an animal and plant cell wall. (Please do not misunderstand.  I realize that this information is valuable and must be taught as part of the core of a biology degree due to the widespread importance it has in many different fields of biology, I simply wish they would spread this material out between Bio 1 and Bio 2 and intersperse it with 'big things' to make it more palatable.)  It was at this point that I realized biology was not for me.

What about chemistry?  Well, I had taken high school chemistry and found it a bit boring. (No surprise when you consider that one of our first exams was to memorize the entire Periodic Table even though we had not learned enough about it to fully understand why it was so important!)  After taking a chemistry course with a terrible professor this bias was strengthened.  Chemistry was later redeemed when I took the course with a great professor, but I realized that I was more interested in the applications of chemistry to other sciences than I was in chemistry itself, so chemistry wasn't a good fit.

Physics?  Math had never been my strong suit, but the allure of the Ivory Tower and a career in cosmology (or maybe astronomy) drew me in.  To hell with my math deficiencies, I would practice and learn!  Unfortunately, I realized that -- like chemistry -- I prefer the applications of physics to the study of physics itself, and that I found the process of working through equations all day rather tedious.  I also realized, as a result of reading Desert Solitaire, that I didn't want to spend my entire career in an office.  I needed a job that involved being outside at least part of the time.  If I was a slightly different person living a slightly different life I'm certain that I could have had a happy life studying the sky, but in this life I couldn't help but turn earthward, much like Aristotle.

This brings us to what lead me to geology:  The introductory course!  In truth, though, it was the structure of the course that drew me in, and the pedagogical tradition that lead to intro geology courses (and intro geology textbooks) being structured the way they are.  The professor was a great teacher, well loved by students, and an all around great guy (How can you NOT love a professor who manages to work Simpsons references into geology lectures?) but he could only do so much if the course material itself was monotonous and uninteresting.  This course had everything I had ever desired and never been able to get from introductory courses in the other sciences.  It had VARIETY! 

It was a revelation to me to deal with a course where you weren't shoehorned into spending an entire course learning an over-simplified version of, say, mineralogy, and being denied access to information about stratigraphy, or volcanoes, or paleontology, or plate tectonics until the second introductory course, or until you started your advanced courses.  We had brief samplings of a bit of everything in geology, which allowed me to get a feel for the field and which parts of it clicked and didn't click with me.  And the stuff that was boring?  So what?  That material was going to consist of one or two lectures (or one or two labs) and take up a small portion of the exam.  The entire course wasn't composed of this material.  I am now and will forever be grateful to the intellectual tradition that allowed me to temporarily sate my curiosity about a field of science before getting to the 'good stuff' in the advanced courses.  I can say without hesitation that it changed my life in the best possible way.  I finally found an intellectual pursuit that I could stick with for the rest of my life.


  1. Howdy! Does the frequency of updates of your portal depend on specific things or you create blog articles when you have a specific mood or you create when you have time? Waiting forward to hear your answer.

  2. Thank you for your interest in my blog. :) My updates are largely based on my mood given that I tend to blog about whatever strikes my fancy at a given time. I do write up a few posts in a row here and there, but it's rare.

    Sorry about the delayed response, by the way, your comment got caught in the spam filter.