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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
May 31, 2017
Stanford@SEA: A Teacher’s Perspective
Hello from your friendly neighborhood teaching assistant; feeling inspired and intimidated by the literary prowess of the ever-impressive Stanford undergraduates who have already contributed to this, the sole means by which we keep parents' blood pressure down. We are once again underway, leaving behind the gem of an atoll on which I could wax poetic for hours had Hanna not already done so. So rather than paint the same word pictures the students have deftly crafted, I will instead attempt to spice up your reading material with perspectives from the most junior member of the teaching staff.
A wise woman once told me that her human inability to learn everything brought her great stress. I can sympathize, for many of the students have specialized knowledge far surpassing my own (for example, me lecturing Dan about groupers might feel like an exercise in role reversal). If our job is not, then, to bestow great swaths of information upon the class, what is it?
We teaching assistants occupy an interesting role on board. We don't have quite so many responsibilities to the ship as the professional staff, we don't have so many responsibilities to the mainland as the professors, and we don't have nearly as many assignments as the students. Yet we've still needed to become proficient sailors, and rather than having one project to worry about, we have all the projects to worry about. As I mentioned, we are not here to teach everyone everything about every project, rather we are here to help make every project possible, which is a dynamic responsibility that can be as simple as ordering supplies or as subtle as, "your project is prohibitively difficult and you need to narrow your focus."
The students' ambitions are vast, and we hate to be dream crushers, but an over-scoped project is an over-scoped project. Experience in academic research-field research in particular-brings with it a different notion of what is possible. Broad, sweeping objectives like "full reef community assessments" and "measurements of human impact on overall reef health" are "possible" given adequate time, money, and trained staff (if the stars
align). We are limited in all three, and we can't count on the stars.
Tactful nudging by the teaching staff drove the students to focus their projects and define more pointed and achievable goals that were less likely to bring heartache and sleep deprivation. These goals-still a bit lofty-were further pared down after the first deployments and missions ("I can't believe we thought we would be able to identify and count more than just parrotfish").
You might be fooled into thinking it has been more than six weeks since the teaching staff was exchanging worried glances across the room as the class pitched project ideas judging by how much they have matured (the project ideas, not the class). Now every day is an adventure as projects gain traction on the ship. Light bulbs continue to come on as the research takes hold ("why does everything produce bias??"), and every project has some data to work with now as we cross the halfway point and make way for Tonga.
The data is only half the battle, though. It is time to start crunching the numbers as we quest for statistical significance in a land of high variability and small sample sizes, all while sailing this beautiful ship, not forgetting about the book report, and preparing for the arrival of our favorite Pulitzer Prize winner and writing coach, Ken Weiss. I wish I could work as closely with each individual project as the students can, but I do not envy their work load, nor do I doubt their ability to execute. They may scoff at that, but they already have a leg up on at least two members of the teaching staff (myself included) who were denied admission to a good school in the Bay Area (not Berkeley) way back when.
Everyone is learning aboard the ship, including the course and professional staff. Everyone has something to teach, and no one can know everything. With each bit of new information, the vast unknown shrinks, but each new answer brings forth many new questions. I wonder then if the stress of not knowing rises or falls. This feels like a slippery slope into academia.