Nervous System

Digging deep today. We are in that part of the semester, when everyone is bored and exhausted and overwhelmed. There are just a few weeks to go, the weather is nice, and no one wants to be in school. On sunny days, the campus commons devolve into a flesh show of bare legs and shoulders and mid-drifts, and the students constantly try to con their professors into having class outside.

It’s never a good idea. Wet butts, wind noise, a million distractions. One time, my students were attacked by an aggressive squirrel. It’s actually one of my proudest teaching moments, when my skills as an extemporaneous speaker fused beautifully with my skills as an ultimate frisbee disc handler. Mid-sentence on a lecture about human depravity, I whipped a 2-inch piece of mulch at the aggressor squirrel from 12 feet away. Beaned it right in the head. I never paused, never commented, just kept going. My students were in awe of me that day. Which was also the last time I ever agreed to have class outside.

But since I am a student now too, all I want to do is have class outside. Or not at all. Because my brain is full, and I am exhausted.

Speaking of brains, we recently dissected a fetal sheep brain in my Anatomy & Physiology class. We never get to do fun stuff like that in a humanities class, which is all, “As so and so says” and “perils of the human condition” and rhetorical masturbation, blah blah blah. In addition to being boring, the classes I teach are also extremely depressing. In fact, one of my students was so upset from material we discussed last week that she told me she cried for an hour afterword.

Yea. 😦

brain 4
You can see the arbor vitae in the round structures on either side of the brain stem.

I loved dissection. Brains are fascinating! My favorite part of the brain is the arbor vitae (“tree of life”), which is a formation of white tissue inside the cerebellum that looks like a tree when you cut it in half. It is so beautiful and mysterious. I am in love with brains.

But, as I said, mine is full. I have yet another exam–my 7th or 8th, I’ve lost count–tomorrow morning. I should be studying now, but I don’t want to. I should be studying always, but I don’t have time. Between teaching and research commitments and a taxing administrative job, I squeeze my studying in when I can. I have developed a ritual for that purpose: waking up at 4:30 AM on the morning of my test, studying in bed while the dog sleeps beside me, then arriving at school by 7 to study in a commons area. It’s quiet for the first hour, then other students filter in. I get to glare like a mad woman at people who disturb my peace, and I have been known to interrogate students before they sit down.

Brain 2
This is what education looks like in the 21st century: everyone uses phones to document lab activities, but drawing would probably help us learn more!

“Are you planning to talk?” I ask them. “Yes? Well, would you mind going to the lounge down the hall?” They comply, because I look and sound like a professor. Or just a crazy old lady. I would never have done such a thing when I was their age, but now I am old, and I don’t have patience for their noise. If all else fails, I listen to Chopin on my headphones. If you’re wondering, yes, I have wadded-up Kleenexes inside my sleeves and hard candies in my purse. My driver’s license says I’m 44, but all other evidence points to 80.

 

Finally, at 9:30 it’s time for the exam, which requires more intensity and focus than I have mustered in years. If we have class afterwards, I finish at 12:15. Then I start my grownup day.

Last week, I got to experience the extremes of the examination continuum. In the morning, I took a lab practical in my freshman-level biology class. Then, at 2 PM, I helped to administer an oral comprehensive exam to one of my doctoral students.

I used to say, with relief, that my orals were the last exam I would ever have to take. I reveled in that fact: I had summited the pinnacle of educational advancement, and oh, what a fantastic view! But, eventually, sitting at the top of the mountain started to feel less like an achievement and more like a sentence.

“Does anyone know how to get down from here?” I find myself wondering. “Because, um, I’m kind of stuck.”

Last week, when I took a freshman-level exam and administered a doctoral-level exam, I was palpably aware of which I enjoyed more. I loved learning about brains, poking them, memorizing their features, and demonstrating my mastery on an objectively measured test. It was challenging, but exciting too. I was proud of myself afterward.

By contrast, I hated delivering the oral comprehensive exam, because it combines the worst features of my job: literature review and performance. I was worried about how my student would perform, for her sake, but also because orals are a literal performance, of her abilities and my teaching, for the benefit of my colleagues. Oral comps also tend to get conversational, meaning, I had to perform smartypantsedness for my colleagues. The problem is, I don’t actually like to read in my field of study (more on that some other time), and I am not up-to-date on the literature I should know. Faking my way through these exams is intellectually and emotionally draining. Plus, I internalize all of my students’ stress, so I am a nervous wreck for both of us. I was relieved when it was over, but I did not feel the least bit proud. In fact, I felt like a fraud.

A friend of mine pointed out that acquiring a competency is always exciting, for people who love to learn. Someday, if I change fields, I would eventually have to account for my expertise in a similarly stressful setting. So it is illogical to compare my enthusiasm for a freshman exam with my weariness over an orals.

“Apples and oranges,” she said.

Brain 3
So lovely! You can make out the olfactory nerve bulbs on the left and the optic chiasma in the middle. Anatomy is a dream come true for people who love big words!

“Sheep brains and human brains,” I say. They have more in common than you would think.

Still, I don’t take her point lightly. It is hard to know what it would feel like to move into the medical profession and be accountable for other people’s health. New stresses, bigger stresses, I am sure. But new rewards, too? Perhaps. Whether they would make me happy, I cannot say.

Right now, though, I feel like I climbed a mountain without much thought for what I would do if I arrived at the top, and with no plan for how to get back down. I need a rope ladder, a helicopter. Or maybe just another mountain. Either way, as the title of this blog suggests, I can’t stay here.

I’ll figure that out later. Right now, I have a dog to walk, a nervous system to master, and an exam to take in the morning.

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