I just finished teaching a 4 week intensive summer school course (Microbiology).  This go-round was particularly grueling as I had enough students to need 2 lab sections which meant an extra ~2 hours there a day.  My wife (and child for that matter) can tell you how exhausted I was this last month.  I took a lot of naps (most unplanned) and just about used up my father’s day present, a decently sized Starbucks gift card (and learned about the “upside down” order in the process).  So needless to say I’m happy to be done teaching the class.

But I’m also not.

In the past year, I had the “privilege” of teaching a course that frankly, I didn’t enjoy.  It was the same course as this summer one… same material, similar class size and schedule, etc.  At the end of that course, however, I was basically counting down the days until the semester ended.  But not for this summer one.  I am actually quite sad to be done with the course.  Happy to get some more sleep, but sad to be done.  Why the difference?

My readers who are teachers or professors likely know the answer to this question.  One word.  Eight letters.  Figured it out yet?  Students.

I currently am, at least I think, an ardent materialist.  For those interested in science and religion (or it’s evil brother apologetics) who come to the table with any sort of fundamental background, materialism is something like a swear word, used to describe all those scientists who are hell-bent in spreading their atheism to the children with evangelical zeal.  As a materialist, I don’t believe that there is a soul or spirit that is separate from the matter or “stuffs” that make us up.  This does not mean that I am a reductive materialist who believes that everything is reducible to physics and chemistry and that free will and choice is all an illusion.  I guess I am one of the emergent folk who lives with the tension and thinks that higher order functioning can arise from simpler materials but the details of that are for another post and would benefit from another decade (or two) of thinking.

But back to teaching.

They don’t tell you before you start teaching how students can cause the same class to be different each time you teach it.  The dynamic seems to always be different.  This, of course, only applies to those of us that are lucky enough to teach courses with smaller sizes (or like, me teach all of my labs).  One or two students can make a huge difference in how a class flows, but it’s usually the class overall that acquires its own “life force” for lack of better terms.  So even though you’re teaching the same stupid Gram stain over and over again the manner in which it is received and then discussed can vary a great deal.

After my first semester of teaching, I was so sad to see the students go.  I told them that I wished I could teach them the entire year.  I suppose I could have failed them all so that they would have had to teach it again, but the dynamic would have probably changed then as well.  (And please don’t tell me that high school would provide that for me as I don’t want anything to do with those punks.)

I told the students in this summer course as it was finishing up that I really needed this class.  They re-energized me and made me excited to teach again.  They were like, “whatever, dude, I’m ready to get the ____ out of here”.  But as I got more and more exhausted, my spirit was revitalized.  It was as if my spirit could combat the rest of my body and brain.

And this brings me back the dreaded swear word “materialism”.  As a materialist, I have to deny the presence of a “spirit” that is separate from my body.  Sure I can do some fancy wordplay to skirt the issue and say something like “I AM a spirit” but ultimately I have to deny it as the term is commonly understood by the general public.  But this course revitalized my spirit.  What does that mean?

I’m not sure but it’s causing me to revisit my “ardent materialism”.  Perhaps it’s possible that we do in fact possess a spirit but that it will never be measurable or monitorable in the scientific sense?  Perhaps my spirit simply refers to one component/function/module of my complex brain and it is constantly competing with the other modules for awareness by the true me?  Perhaps the spirit is simply an invention by my neurons that while providing a cohererent flow to my life is ultimately meaningless?  Or maybe this line of thinking is utterly and completely hopeless and I would be better served by watching TV reruns and rooting for the beloved, but loser Cubs (speaking of another swear word)?

Who knows, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that another semester or 100 will help me find the answer.  And if I can have a few more classes like this past one, I’ll certainly be smiling while I ponder.