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2015 November 11

Learning outside your comfort zone

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In On cross-disciplinary ambiguity and conference comfort zones | Byte Size Biology, Iddo Friedberg makes a plea for biologists and computer scientists to pay more attention to each other’s concerns.  I reproduce the first and last paragraph here:

I recently attended a conference which was unusual for me as most of the speakers come from a computer science culture, rather than a biology one. Somewhat outside my comfort zone. The science that was discussed was quite different from the more biological bioinformatics meetings: the reason being the motivation of the scientists, and what they value in  their research culture.

Also, try to listen more, and attend meetings outside your comfort zone. It seems I learn more from conversations in my “non-regular” meetings than in my “regular” ones. Of course, once the “non-regular” become my “regular” meetings I will learn less, so basically I may have to constantly shift my comfort zone. Then again, to me it seems like science is always poking and prodding outside one’s comfort zone.

The basic message is one that we try to get across to our bioinformatics grad students—that it takes a wide range of knowledge, expertly applied, to make real progress in bioinformatics research and that you never know what odd bit of information will turn out to be key. Unfortunately, there is another message that they hear even louder: that one should focus narrowly on the research in front of you and not get distracted by other concerns (like teaching, going to seminars slightly outside one’s current research interests, taking courses, doing service, going to grad student advancement talks and thesis defenses, …).

Where do they get this message from? From the faculty who may pay lip-service to the broad-range-of-knowledge party line, but who don’t themselves go to even the weekly department research seminars, unless the speaker is a friend of theirs or is working in exactly the same field.

In previous years I’ve tried to go to every departmental seminar meeting, but I’ve been unable to do that this year, because the Academic Senate committee that I’m on is scheduled in conflict with our departmental seminar. (The Committee on Committees didn’t tell me that when asking if I would serve—nowhere in any of the information I could find or was given did it state when the committee met nor that the committee meeting times were cast in stone.)  I’ll be off the committee in the Spring, but that won’t help with my attendance at the department seminars, because my Applied Electronics class will have labs on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I’ll be teaching in the lab from 9:30 a.m. until after 5:30p.m.—again conflicting with the department seminars (also with department faculty meetings).

Besides attending department seminars and grad student advancement and thesis defense talks, I also used to take full courses to fill in the huge gaps in my education, but I’ve not done that for a while

Next quarter I will be having the first light-teaching load quarter in a long time (only one 2-unit course), so I was looking for a course I could sit in on and get some real learning done. Unfortunately, the one that I had looked forward to taking this year when I filed my curriculum leave plan is not being offered. It was a grad course on BioMEMs that was offered last year, and I guess they don’t get enough interest to offer it every year (or the sole faculty member who can teach it has other responsibilities that quarter).

I looked through the courses being offered next quarter in several departments, and the only one that attracted my attention was the second quarter of a two-quarter grad sequence in feedback control—and I really need the first quarter to be able to do the second one, as I’ve only vaguely heard of the topics in the first quarter and could not catch up fast enough to join the second quarter.

Another possibility is to take the Linguistics Syntax I course (which my wife took decades ago), but I’m not sure I’d have the time for it—it is one of those rare humanities courses that really does take the 15 hours a week that a 5-unit course is supposed to take, and a big attraction for me is the teaching style they use, of having the students design a grammar for English rather than being presented with an already polished one.  The learning comes in the doing, and so giving it less than the time it takes to do it right would miss the point of taking the course.  The schedule would be a bit tight even for attending class, as the Syntax I class is immediately before the class I teach (in the same building, though, so maybe I could do it).

Other people might consider taking an on-line course, but I’ve always found watching talking heads on a screen terminally boring.  Even a lecture that I would enjoy live comes across as flat and dull on a screen. If I can’t find a live class that I want to attend, I’ll try to put all my spare time into working on my book, but I suspect I’ll burn out on that if I try to do too many hours a week.

1 Comment »

  1. One of the most enjoyable and challenging classes I ever took was a poetry class. For a science major it was way out of the comfort zone. I had a gap between classes and figured why not. The professor, Dr King, was a classic curmudgeon which made the course a blast. I learned a lot about poetry, I learned a lot about people and I made a great friend in Dr King. We would argue poetry interpretations in his office every day after class. He know poetry and I did not have a clue so I was the knowledge winner. Academics who never look outside their specialty are cheating themselves.

    Regarding on-line courses – instant nap. I cannot do it even when the topic is interesting.

    Comment by gflint — 2015 November 12 @ 09:51 | Reply


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