Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Teaching Astronomy at a Liberal Arts School

Colby College, Miller Library
Image credit: E. McGrath
Recently, I was lucky enough to land my dream job — professor of physics and astronomy at one of the nation’s top-tier liberal arts schools. I’d be lying, however, if I said there weren’t quite a few adjustments to make in the transition from postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz to assistant professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. This new career is challenging and exciting on several different levels. Many people may not realize that a professor’s life does not just include preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading papers. There are all sorts of other commitments, including service to the college, guiding undergraduate students through their first research projects, attracting external funding, and carrying out your own robust research program. These are neither optional, nor is it sufficient to be good at any single aspect; in order for the college to succeed as an institution, we hire folks who we think will excel in all of these areas, thereby bringing further prestige and attracting better students to the college.

As a new professor, the biggest challenge so far has proven to be time management — prioritizing and fitting all those various commitments into a manageable schedule. A typical day for me consists of something like the following: four hours of lecture preparation, two hours in class lecturing, two hours of grading or composing exams and homework assignments, two hours meeting with students individually, one hour of committee meetings, and a couple hours devoted to my own research (much of which is done after hours). The astute among you will notice those numbers do not add up to a typical 8-hour workday!

This winter I also sat on a hiring committee for the Mathematics and Statistics Department here at Colby. My job as the “outside” member of the committee was to provide a different perspective on the qualifications of our candidates and decide whether they would be a good “fit” for Colby. Since STEM fields tend to be poorly represented by women and minorities, I was also asked to serve in order to diversify the committee. We reviewed over 250 applications for a single-year sabbatical replacement position. I was amazed at how many outstanding applications we received, and appalled that so many of these highly skilled men and women still did not have permanent positions. It is indeed a tough job market out there!

Other service activities in which faculty are involved include campus-wide committees that address everything from admissions procedures, to curriculum development, to information technology, to promotion and even dismissal hearings. Still other responsibilities include advising students and writing recommendation letters as they apply for jobs and graduate school. As a first-year professor I have been spared many of these tasks while I’m still “learning the ropes,” but I will become more active in these areas over the coming years.

Liberal arts schools like Colby also place a great deal of importance on maintaining an active research program. We are, after all, training the next generation of scientists, which cannot be accomplished in the classroom alone. Maintaining a research program that is not only accessible to students, but also tackles important and exciting questions in your field is imperative. Luckily, it is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a scientist, so it is easy to stay motivated.  Since much of the semester is devoted to more traditional teaching and service activities, I take advantage of the breaks to advance my research. This past January, for instance, I traveled to Sesto, Italy to present the results of my research at the Star Formation Over Cosmic Time meeting. And during spring break, I traveled back to UC Santa Cruz to meet with collaborators and discuss science. This summer there are a number of grant proposal deadlines on which I will spend a significant amount of time. Being able to fund your research is another important aspect of life as a professor. You are expected to bring in grant money that will not only pay for things like salary, equipment, travel, and publication costs directly related to your research, but will also support services used by the entire campus community.

NGC 6946, the Fireworks Galaxy.
Image taken by AS 231 students at Colby College.
In the end, what makes it worth all the long hours and hard work is the sheer joy of imparting pieces of knowledge to my many enthusiastic students, and seeing them get excited about science, sometimes for the first time. In my Astrophysics class last fall, for example, I held a number of labs at Colby’s small observatory, where students learned how to collect their own data, process, and analyze it using the tools of professional astronomers. The image of NGC 6946, pictured to the left, is one of the results of these labs. The skills we teach these young students, including critical thinking, experimental design, computational analysis, and technical writing will serve them well no matter where their lives take them after Colby. It is my hope that they will also have some fun along the way.

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