Final(e)

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At first glance, these could be images of distant planets viewed from across space. But no, they are photographs I took through the lens of a microscope during the histology lab in my Human Anatomy & Physiology I course. Left to right, they are hyaline cartilage (a form of connective tissue that is present in joints and respiratory tract organs); nerve cells with their dangly dendrites and asymmetrical axons; and cardiac muscle, which looks a bit like prosciutto but is in fact a miracle: striated tissue that contracts in perfect synch (autorhythmicity), without fail, until you die.

No, these are not planets. But to this humanities professor, they were an invitation to another world.

It’s the middle of the night, and yet I have just three hours until I am up again to finish studying for my final exam. I never imagined that this class would be so hard–about 1/3 of the class dropped out–or that I would learn so much. I am very tired.

I wish I could have luxuriated in the material over a longer period of time, or that I could have read and studied more. Unfortunately, given the demands of my job, passing my Biology exams(5 lecture exams and a half dozen lab practical exams) became an exercise in doing the least amount of work possible to squeak by. Of course, squeaking by has meant getting A’s pretty consistently; professorial perfectionism dies hard, or not at all. I learned so much, and yet I feel like I barely know anything…

Which makes me wonder about the basic scientific knowledge of the nation’s nursing corps. What exactly does one have to do to fail this course!? I suspect the students who dropped out were not willing (or able) to get up when it was still dark out, after only three hours’ sleep, to pour over study guides and homemade flashcards and a textbook the size of a microwave.

I really loved it, and I’m sad that it’s over. Almost over–I still have to get through this final exam.

*UPDATE*

With extra credit, I eked out a B on the exam, which gave me an A for the semester! Yea me!

I did some algebra to calculate the minimum exam grade I had to get (75%) and still maintain a robust A course average, and then I studied strategically. A few times this semester, I determined that some topics were too complex to warrant my full attention, given the limited time I had available. As such, the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction, the muscles of the arm, and several pathways of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system shall remain a mystery to me.

Today, one of the questions on the final exam was about where a particular type of nerve impulse goes after it leaves the post-ganglionic whateverthefuck. I wrote, “To the bar” and added a drawing of a martini for good measure. I had reached my limit, and there was nothing else to convey, except a wry joke at what I hope my teacher understood was my own expense.

This is the difference between going to school in your early 20s and going to school in middle age, especially after a long career as a college teacher: I know my limitations, I have too many demands on my time to give every topic my full attention, and I can forgive myself for not being perfect. If only I could apply that self-compassion to my professional life! Perhaps, if I decide to stay the course with academia, some of the lessons I’ve learned as an undercover undergraduate will stay with me.

I’m done with the A&P (for now), but I’m not going to the bar. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’m going back to bed!

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. 😦

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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.

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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.

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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.

Don’t Question the Steps, Just Dance!

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Today was insular yet interesting, a lovely mix of reaching out, reaching up, and hunkering down.

I took my first biology exam today, and it had me very, very nervous. The amount of material was overwhelming! We had to know the basics of anatomical directions; the regions, cavities, and systems of the body; the organization of living things and the requirements for life; basic chemistry (atoms, ions, chemical bonds, solution chemistry, etc.); and the anatomy of a human cell, including the name of every protein, carbohydrate, lipid, nucleotide, and organelle therein, as well as their composition and function. WTF!

And when did human cells become so complicated?! From what I recall of biology in middle school–the last time I took it!–a cell looked like a cracked egg and consisted of a membrane, a nucleus, and some cytoplasm.

What, then, is this monstrosity:

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I know what this is and how it works! 😀

It appears that scientists have discovered a whole bunch of extra crap in there, and I am expected to know what it is and what it does at the molecular level. Thankfully, I actually like sorting my proteasomes from my lyosomes, and I can now label and (sort of) understand everything on this diagram.

I also love how dirty some of it sounds:

“Can I use my secretory vesicle to transverse your phospholipid bilayer?” she asked thirstily.

I did my level best on the midterm, depleting what I thought would be three exams’ worth of index cards in a marathon flashcard session. And it was ok: I missed one out of forty questions. Had the exam not been open-note, I would have missed perhaps five or six, which is still respectable. I am pleased and hopeful, even though I have no idea where this is headed.

While I was getting ready for the exam, I texted about my nerves with a few friends, and they wrote back with all the affirmations and assurances I needed to hear. I am so grateful for their support.

Interestingly enough, one of those friends was J*. After my exam, we talked for the first time in five months, and it was wonderful.

Most of my closest friends will shake their heads ominously and ask, “Why would you muddy the waters with that piece of dirt?” And I can’t blame them, because they love me, and they worry for me, and they remember the disappointment and heartache I experienced with him as it was unfolding. Plus they never met him, so they regard him more as abstraction and distraction than as an actual human man that they might like.

The reality, though, is that J* is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I have missed having him in my life. And when we talked today, he said he missed talking to me too. That lifted my spirits immeasurably, not because of some fragile hope that the path he is on will one day lead back to me. Truth be told, my heart does go there sometimes late at night, when I can’t sleep and need a story to put my mind at rest. But that’s not why I loved talking to him today. It’s because I loved hearing his story and learning that he’s ok. Better than ok, actually–he’s excited for a new job, a new living situation, and a fresh start in a new town. I am happy for him. Talking to him also made me happy because the one thing I can’t abide is his indifference. Though I know to my core that no time is ever wasted (a sincere thank you to the poet Richard Brautigan for that wisdom), it would pain me to know that my time meant nothing to him.

And yet, even if that did happen, I would remain hopeful and still. Relationships ebb and flow, people come and go. I know this. Some of my closest friends right now–I didn’t talk to them for years, once upon a time, and now we walk together . People tend to find their way back to love, all kinds of love, if you don’t place barriers in their path. So you never know how someone might filter in and out of your life, because it’s not an orderly process like, say, protein carrier-assisted passive diffusion across a phospholipid bilayer. It’s more like osmosis: water flowing back and forth, in and out, filtering through aquaporin channels or caressing the gently undulating tails of the phospholipids themselves, until it finds its equilibrium. (I never realized the beauty of plasma membrane transport until just now!)

I don’t know the right metaphor, and maybe biology isn’t even the right science. It might be astronomy, with friends traversing hidden corners of the universe, then reappearing suddenly as a bright light streaking across the sky. But no, comets are predictable. People are not, though they can shine just as brilliantly.

Maybe we’ll just leave this one to the humanities and the Analects of Confucius: “To have an old friend come from far away–isn’t it a joy!”

I almost titled this post, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” because I am exploring a way out of an unsatisfying career by returning to the soothing embrace of school. And, ok, talking to J* long-distance again does feel very 2014. But I stopped myself from using that title, because the saying implies linear directionality–you’re headed towards something, but you’re having trouble getting there. Instead, I don’t know which way I’m headed, nor towards what, and I have no idea who, if anyone, will be with me when I get there. Even if I do take two steps forward for every step back, the steps do not go in the same direction. And sometimes the steps back aren’t so much a retreat as a return, to a warm and comforting place I need to experience from time to time.

“Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat!” We’re all doing this, all the time, crossing paths with one another in the process. That’s not walking a line.

That’s dancing!