The first lecture I attended as a student wasn’t actually a regular lecture, even though I did not know that at the time. It was an intervention.
Together with about a hundred or so new students, I sat nervously in a lecture theatre in the physics department. I had enrolled in physical oceanography, which was taught together with meteorology, geophysics and physics for the first two years. I didn’t know anyone. Since my dad worked at the same university, I was pretty familiar with how universities work in general (which later turned out to be a huuuge advantage). And I wasn’t nervous about starting university itself, that was just something one did after school. But I was nervous about physics. I had stopped taking physics classes in highschool as soon as that was possible, and I had only taken the minimum required maths (both probably more to do with the teachers than the subjects themselves, but it’s sometimes hard to distinuish). But now, in order to become an oceanographer, I knew I would have to study physics together with people who wanted to become physicists, and who had a much better starting position than I had. Oh well.
The lecture started out with the professor arriving late, and then without any contextualising or welcoming us, or acknowledging that this was our first day at university, just starting going through content that — for all I understood — could have been chinese. He was just standing with the back towards us, scribbling on a blackboard so fast that it was impossible to take notes, mumbling something, and I did not have the faintest clue what was going on. I don’t know for how long it went on, but it felt like forever, and in any case it was long enough for me to feel like I had absolutely no chance to ever succeed there. Then, the professor started making weird and sexist remarks, and I started tuning out. This was not how I was going to spend the next couple of years. Then, at some point, a student asked a question and was rudely dismissed. But then another student spoke up, and another. And at some point — surprise! — we were told that this had not been a real lecture, that the professor was just an older student pranking us, and that also the students speaking up were older students playing a role, and that the whole purpose was to show us that we would have to learn to speak up when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to.
Why am I thinking about this now? In one of the recent iEarth teaching conversations, HC talked about something he had heard about how it was really helping students learn if they were given a really hard exercise right in the beginning. In that case, there wouldn’t be any “smart students” standing out and the not-as-smart students wouldn’t feel dumb, because everybody was equally lost (and the teacher would then help them through it to build confidence and grit and it would be all good, so it’s not the exact same story). But hearing about this triggered that memory of my first ever physics lecture, and I can feel the pit in my stomach now, 20 years later, thinking back to the feeling of definitely not belonging there, in that lecture theatre, in that department. Even though I had not thought about it in at least a decade, I don’t think it’s something I have ever fully gotten over, because even though this was meant as an intervention and the scenario was supposed to be much worse than anything we could ever possibly experience for real, there were many situations later on during my studies that were reminiscent of that experience. Only then, they were not pranks, and there was nobody there to resolve the situation for us, and clearly we hadn’t learned our lesson yet to resolve them ourselves. But each of those new situations seemed to confirm to me that at that very first day, I had been warned, and had ignored it, but that now was the time when I was going to be found out as not belonging. And this personal anecdote makes me feel really reluctant to start out a class with any kind of “intervention”.
P.S.: Looking back, what made me persist throughout all the physics and maths was a) that I REALLY wanted to become an oceanographer, so I just had to do what I had to do (and it turned out to be not as bad as I initially thought), and b) that there were two technicians, Rüdi and Manni, who always ran the experiments for the physics professors. They would be in the lecture theatre before the lectures started, setting up the experiments, and then clearing up after. And they were super friendly and approachable, and me and my friend and this one other guy started hanging out with them, asking them lots of questions, and learning more from them than from all the physics professors combined (or at least that was the case for me). And it’s for the first time today that I am putting together how important Rüdi und Manni were for me to feel like I did belong after all, maybe not to the people who wanted to be theoretical physicists like my friend, and for whom the mathematical derivations were enough (or made that much more sense that they didn’t feel the need for anything else, who knows?); but to a group of people who not only understood the phenomena, but in addition could show that they really existed in real life, could run demonstrations that the professors — despite all their theories — never dared touch. I had found my community, and even though it’s been 20 years and we’ve lost touch, maybe all my #KitchenOceanography goes back to those early experiences with Rüdi and Manni being the teachers the official teachers never were. Thank you! <3