It’s been nearly half a year since my last post on this blog, and needless to say it has been a crazy past few months that has kept me away from finishing any coherent thoughts here. I finished my first semester as an actual for-realsies professor, which was rife with mathematical mistakes, close calls meeting deadlines, and stressful night after stressful night. It was also packed with some of the most driven students, passionate colleagues, and wonderful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I cannot express how rewarding it’s been here.
Some have asked me what it’s been like since moving here. To that question, let’s first talk a little bit about magical ocarinas and time travel.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (ゼルダの伝説 ムジュラの仮面, or Zeruda no Densetsu: Mujura no Kamen) was an action RPG that came out in the United States around 2001 on the Nintendo 64. Riding the coattails of the absurdly popular Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask completely blew my 14-year-old mind with its initial premise: Link, the protagonist of this story, will fail. It’s woven directly into the story.
In The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Link, the protagonist of this story, will fail. It’s woven directly into the story.
Within the first moments of the game you are stripped of your identity, rendered almost entirely powerless, and thrown into a strange new world. The events of the following three days follow your efforts to regain control over your situation, ultimately culminating in your failure to prevent a cataclysmic disaster as an enraged moon slams into the earth. Time rolls inexorably onward, until its inevitable deadline arrives, literally rolling across the bottom of the screen. “Seventy-two hours until the end of the world,” the game ominously proclaims. Forty-eight. Twenty four. Six. Then, at the last moment, when everything seems lost, you’re whisked away by forces that you don’t quite understand. And then you realize: you’ve traveled back to 72 hours earlier, before the events leading up to the disaster occurred.
As a kid, I didn’t really understand the gravity of that first loop. In my mind, heroes weren’t supposed to fail in their quests. In a video game, I could get a game-over because I didn’t prepare enough, or because I wasn’t fast enough with the controls, or any number of reasons from a player’s standpoint. But here, the character himself was presented with a scenario and set of initial circumstances that he could not win. With that feeling of hopelessness in place, the game then explores a simple idea, once you’ve caught your breath:
Knowing what you know now, what would you have done to make things better, if you could do it again?
Link’s incremental success in subsequent cycles was directly dependent on the choices that I made during those three days.
Sure, not exactly a new concept, as the notion of past experiences informing your decisions another time around isn’t really novel. However, I find particular connection with Majora’s Mask, not only because it was one of the first tellings of this story that I had seen, but because of that extra layer of direct interactivity that the medium of a video game allows for. Link’s incremental success in subsequent cycles was directly dependent on the choices that I made during those three days. How many people could I save? What choices were worthwhile? In the end, did those decisions really bring me closer to my goals?
That’s where I find some parallels between this game and my time here thus far.
At the beginning of the school year, the savior-complex optimist in me entered classes with the overly-ambitious goal of being the best teacher ever.
Halfway into my second semester, I’m still reflecting on some of the shortcomings of both the first half of the class and of last semester. At the beginning of the school year, the savior-complex optimist in me entered classes with the overly-ambitious goal of being the best teacher ever. And I was promptly met with a jumbo-sized wake-up call of just how difficult that is, as assignments piled up that required grading, lectures were being written mere hours before giving them, and mistake after mistake was made in the field. Not graceful.
Writing MATLAB scripts or Excel spreadsheets isn’t exactly awesome-cool, but it’s extremely rewarding nonetheless.
Thankfully, I was blessed with some of the most forgiving and understanding students that one could hope for, for a first-semester professor – but that’s no excuse to deliver subpar performances. Now that I’ve been properly pants’d and my expectations lowered, I can focus on the things that worked and the things that didn’t. What completely blew up in my face? Were students happy? Did they learn? (I’m told the two aren’t necessarily the same.) And most importantly, what do I need or what do I need to do, to do the best job I can do to help these kids out? Now granted, writing MATLAB scripts or Excel spreadsheets isn’t exactly as awesome-cool as finding arrows made of ice or transforming into a rock-creature like in a video game, but it’s extremely rewarding nonetheless. Less worrying about being the best teacher ever, and more emphasis on being the best teacher I can be.
It’s easy to forget that things that are interesting to me might not necessarily be interesting to the people who are literally required to listen to me.
This semester, one of my classes is a straight repeat of one of the courses I taught last fall. With a little more comfort about the concepts and ideas that I need to get across, I’m presented with a little bit more latitude to toss in anecdotes or parenthetical comments that I found in my preparation for the class. It’s been this really interesting struggle that has arisen – where does the unnecessary material end, and the merely unpalatable material begin? My inclination is to lean more towards the more engaging and “sexy” topics, though the gross-yet-good-for-you material is still important and still needs to be taught. My biases might be showing a little bit too much.
It’s really easy to forget that the things that are interesting to me are not necessarily interesting to the people who are literally required to be there to listen to me. So I’ve got to work a little more on keeping things in line with how I spent the time preparing them in the first place. And better yet, for their sake and my own sanity, maybe I should try to better connect my lectures and coursework closer to the interests and desires of my students, to better meet their needs!
The choice of who or what you spend that time on may not always be the most desirable one.
See, in Majora’s Mask, Link encounters a few dozen people in his travels through his repeating three-day loop, all of whom have their own defined wishes and desires. You can choose to help them in their endeavors, or not – the limited timescale of the game forces you remember that there are only so many hours in the day. Every minute you spend helping a farmer locate her lost animals, you’re letting precious time slip away where you could be spending gathering items for stopping the moon from crashing into the planet. But if you blow through the game by doing only what you need to do to stop the disaster, you lose out on a lot from the various people, including some of the most powerful equipment and compelling story that the game has to offer. With a limited time comes a requirement to make choices on who or what you spend that time on, and the answer may not always be the most desirable one.
There’s certainly a balance to be struck, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t found it yet.
I’m still trying to come to grips with how to allocate my time properly here. I’ve been trying to keep a policy where I never turn anyone away unless I’ve been explicitly told otherwise, a decision made with the frustrating memories of being constantly snubbed or ignored by professors and teaching assistants through my own undergraduate career. The problem that arises is that by spending that much time talking to students and trying to get them to understand what I was trying to get across (with varying degrees of success), I fall behind on grading and preparation for the subsequent lectures for my classes, which unto themselves might have been more useful to prevent questions from arising in the first place. There are so many individual students that I want to take the time to help out to the best of my ability, and much of the time, I still feel that I should – but at what point does that mentality become unwieldy or impractical to sustain? I have no idea.
There’s certainly a balance to be struck, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t found it yet. And unlike a video game, I can’t exactly cast a magic spell to travel back a few hours or slow time down to take care of what I need to do. (At least not that I know of. I might get lucky somewhere along the line.) So, I still need to figure out how to make the proper judgment calls between what I’d like to do and what I should do. I think a pretty good professor mentioned that once.
I think that come this time next year, or even six months from now when I’m looking at my courses again next semester, I’ll be able to reflect once again, learn from my mistakes and my successes, and then become ever-so-slightly better as a professor and as a mentor to these kids. Right now, I have no idea what I’m doing. Four or five cycles down the line? Maybe I’ll have better luck.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even be able to stop an angry moon in the process.
Until next time, take care, everyone.