Well, I’ve been bad about writing—mostly because I’m actually teaching now. Since active reflection is critical at this point, I’m going to skip over 2-3 months of course development, hopefully to return to it later. See: part 1.

I was prepared for quiet students, but now I sympathize more than ever with my past professors and TAs. Isn’t that the great challenge of teaching, though: to help students find their own voices? To then, at some point down the road, get them to feel as passionately about the material as you do?

I don’t think it helped that it took four weeks even for just the roster to settle down. At the last and “final” count, I have 11 students from a variety of disciplines, including Anthropology, Design | Media Arts, Economics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science.

The first week was very experimental. I had a lesson plan, but I found that real life didn’t often abide by the time limits I’d allotted. And I was all nerves. Thus there were threads of ideas and fragments of conversations that were later dropped entirely. Even the introductory icebreaker fell flat, rang hollow. I knew that some of this would be alleviated when people started opening up, but I didn’t know how long that would take, and I couldn’t wait.

So Week 2 was a little different. I tried showing some demonstrations, including an implementation of Conway’s Game of Life. Again, though, I’d feel like I was babbling. I was gratified when students had actually done the readings. (Each week, I require them to write 2-3 paragraphs in response to guiding questions that I pose.) Although discussion picked up in comparison to the previous week, I had my first worries of a different kind. One of my students was older, in his 30s or 40s, and he was clearly familiar with the material. Though he had much to offer on the topic, he began to lead the discussion in a way that, I felt, both undermined my authority and—more importantly—intimidated the other students. Although this was initially disconcerting, I was prepared to consult with him individually if the need arose; however, he later sent me an email saying that he couldn’t stay in the class with his current commute and academic circumstances.

I decided to do something a little different in Week 3 by hosting a small debate. The topic: “Are We Spiritual Machines,” excerpts of which were assigned for the week. I split students into three groups: one “for” strong AI, one against, and the third as a panel of judges. I guess I had less experience with debates than I thought I did; by letting the groups have a back-and-forth conversation, the second group to go didn’t have a real chance to deliver their opening argument. Between making each side deliver a closing statement, having the judges critique each group, and giving the groups a chance to rebut, the logistics of the debate were a little fuzzy. Still, I think it was a good way to close this particular unit on “Intelligence, Consciousness, and Humanity.”

To be continued in the next installment.


Part 1 of a hopefully ongoing series as I continue to document my teaching experiences.

A chuckle; a joke. “Just teach it yourself.”

The words were rolling around my head when I went to bed that night. A few short, fitful bursts of sleep. At 5 AM, I was wide awake.

Just teach it yourself.

I sat down and began to write.

I had my eyes on UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Initiated Education program. Through it, I would work with a faculty mentor to design, propose, and facilitate a 1-unit, 20-person seminar. When my thoughts were finally drained, I hit Publish. And, citing “the pressures of self-doubt,” I allowed myself to forget about it for a while. That was in June.

In July, I received word that I’d be working for NASA in the fall. I had something new to lose sleep over.

The JPL internship was a full-time stint at 40 hours/week. The commute to Pasadena made it more like 50. Suddenly, it was November, and I had a week to submit the application for my class. I hadn’t met with any faculty mentor. I hadn’t brought the idea to anyone’s attention. I couldn’t even articulate my thoughts to myself, much less to a faceless group of judges. I was jingling the keys, afraid to try the first one.

Luckily, my chosen professor was a veteran to this arena. As he looked over my application, he coolly told me that he’d signed on as mentor for three other proposals—one on the brain, another on the Singularity, a third on transhumanism. (For a brief moment, artificial intelligence didn’t seem so cool. I felt fearful again.) We worked, reworked my proposal. “This tells me what you’re going to teach, but you’re writing for the committee. Dumb it down, and make sure they understand why it’s relevant.” Straightforward; no-nonsense. He liked the way I’d structured my ten-week schedule. It was the first time I’d talked to anyone about my ideas, and I was beginning to feel that it might actually work out.

The deadline approached. I must mention here that I am deeply indebted to J., who kindly acted as my proxy—obtaining my transcripts, printing out the application materials, and physically turning them in—since my 9-to-5 job (7-to-7?) precluded me from setting foot on the UCLA campus.

Not two weeks after submitting the application, I received an acceptance notice in my email.

It was on.

To be continued in the next installment.