From the Desk of the Director: Far Above Cayuga’s Waters

13241169_1066947783342534_6873238421297440535_nI will never forget the moment when as a young instructor I took a polaroid picture of the agarose gel after gel electrophoresis and (going against all protocol) started to shake it so it would dry faster. Sadly, the song on the top of the charts those days was “Hey Ya!” performed by OutKast, so naturally, I started to sing “Shake it like a Polaroid picture…”. I did not know any other words of the lyrics, but that was enough for a few students to approach me after the lab section and express their gratitude:

“Thank you for making us realize that the teachers are humans too.”

As a teacher, I’ve seen how much effort instructors invest into breaking down the boundaries that naturally exist between teachers and students. We as educators walk that fine line where we want to be friendly, caring, and nurturing, but we cannot be friends with our students, for a very obvious reason: it would be hard to assign a grade to a friend at the end of the semester. This is why the same OutKast song popped into my mind when I was sitting at the Biological Sciences graduation ceremony that the Office of Undergraduate Biology organizes every year. Biological Sciences warrants its own ceremony, as it is the largest major in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences..

We just sent off many of those students with a B.S. in this quickly-evolving scientific field. I had three graduating advisees this year, in addition to the many undergraduate teaching assistants who also said good-bye to Cornell. Therefore, I was happy to be part of this ceremony, and observe this great milestone. The Biological Sciences Graduation is held a day before the Commencement Ceremony, and it is a small, more intimate way to celebrate with the students and their families. Many of these students will become our next doctors, researchers, professors, or use their biology degrees as patent lawyers (comes handy when getting a DNA fragment patented), or working for investment firms, funding new health related spin-offs.

While these students were both celebrated and celebrating, I could not take my attention away from the faculty. We couldn’t wait to jump up from our chairs when the name of one of our advisees or undergrad teaching/research assistants was called. We wanted to shake his or her hand and often give an awkward hug, the kind that looked like most faculty wanted to give, but many students looked uncomfortable to accept. I was Tweeting, taking pictures, and would have Periscoped the whole event, if I did not already feel the looks of hundreds of parents sitting behind me, wondering why this faculty member is on his cellphone instead of paying the well deserved attention to their “baby”, who is getting a Cornell degree.

Yes, we teachers are human, and I wanted to jump up and sing to show the students that we have feelings; we will miss them, and we are just as (if not more) emotional at this important moment, than they are. With every graduating student, we instructors shamelessly celebrate ourselves. The “product” of education is successful students, and we facilitate that creation (interesting choice of words in a biology blog- I know); hence celebrating the moment with joy and emotion.

“We are all sensitive scientists, who are nervously checking in the mirror whether the academic regalia fits well, trying to squeeze in a last hug before our students become someone else’s apprentices, and looking for that last photo opportunity with our graduates in the crowd.”

After that, we return our gowns and hoods (yes, they are provided by the university) and begin our job again, as academic education is just like reincarnation in Buddhism: the spirit of each graduating student is reborn in an incoming freshman.

Our job, reshaping the minds of students, is never done. So, while our students try to shake off all that “faculty dust” they received from the hugs of their sensitive professors during graduation, we sit down for a moment, just like Sisyphus, to sing our alma mater (“Far above Cayuga’s waters…”) before trying to roll a new rock up the steep hills of Cornell.

Mark Sarvary

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