The Wonder of It All, Pt. II

About a month ago, I wrote a short post about wonder in our work, and how Nathan Fielder and Neil DeGrasse Tyson explored the concept of wonder professionally (in very different ways). Last night, I watched Dr. Tyson ignite the passion of television viewers as he brought Carl Sagan’s Cosmos back to life. Truthfully, science never caught my attention in school, not since I was very young. Which is odd, given how much I enjoy Tyson. But in the interest of supporting educational television, I gave it a shot. So glad I did.

As director of the Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Tyson is charged with curating displays that make science accessible to all who enter the space. The ease with which he explains science translates well from his workplace to the screen, and he utilized storytelling well to make complicated concepts easier (not easy, mind you, but easier) to understand. Cosmos retained the accessibility of his regular workplace, using a calendar year to explain the age of the universe and a narrative about a lesser known monk who followed Copernicus in challenging then-current notions about astronomy.

I was having a hard time identifying just how this method of learning science was working for me, where previous methods had failed to captivate me. I always enjoyed biology more, but this wasn’t that. And I’d studied these topics before, but always felt intimidated or overwhelmed- a different sort of overwhelmed from the feeling I got when Tyson talked about multiverses:

But then a few people I follow hit upon the thing that distinguished Dr. Tyson’s take on science from most others I’ve seen:

That nailed it for me. I’ve had a lot of science teachers in my day, and few of them seemed to care about what they were teaching in a way that Tyson does. As is so clearly evident in his To The Best of Our Knowledge interview (linked to above), he loves his work. And when watching Cosmos, that love shines through.

In my first post about wonder, I talked about how it was an essential ingredient to doing our work well. But after watching Cosmos last night, I realized that my own theory was incomplete. Being excited by your work isn’t always helpful unless other people can see that excitement too, unless that excitement is channeled into creating a superior product for your target audience- in our case, students.

I think about this sometimes after I go to conferences, and feel a little dip in excitement as I realize how few of the ideas I could, for one reason or another, feasibly implement on my own campus. The fire that I spend all day building, is quickly extinguished as I return to campus or my office. I am excited about the potential that exists for the future of our work, but I can admit I let circumstances put a damper on that excitement. And the damper on my excitement, leads to a damper in my work. Is it hard to keep the fire lit when the circumstances around you aren’t always conducive to a burning flame? Yes. But with that must come the understanding that if you can’t keep the fire going, no one else will. My friend Jason alluded to this brilliantly earlier today in a discussion about burnout– if you’re over it, stakeholders (in our case, our students and colleagues) can sense it, and it affects how you and your work are perceived. As the saying goes, “Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Do what you can to stay fired up even on the days that it’s hard to do so- the integrity of your work depends on it.

Tyson ended the show with a reference to its beginning, and to Carl Sagan. Dr. Tyson had the opportunity to spend a Saturday with Dr. Sagan in Ithaca, NY, at seventeen years old. That time with Sagan, and the opportunity he was given to follow up with him (the Harvard astronomer gave Tyson his home phone number and encouraged him to call if he had questions), was significant in Tyson’s development as an astronomer.

I thought about this late last week, after a few situations with student groups left me feeling less than fired up. My first instinct was to retreat, and doing my day-to-day work, including running a training for new student leaders, felt like a burden. But shortly after I began, the energy of these students, a small but dedicated and curious group, helped to fuel the fire again. Counter rough encounters with students with the excitement and inspiration that comes from working with good ones. On the vast majority of campuses, the good outweigh the difficult. Let those fire-fueling encounters keep you going.

Clearly, I’m excited about Cosmos, and I look forward to continuing to tune in each Sunday. And it’ll be more fun knowing this little one will be staying up late to watch too:

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