Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Teaching without being a "teacher"?

A young friend tells me she wants to teach, but teaching at the college level usually requires a PhD (thus several more years of school), and elementary/secondary education has a well-known set of issues: unmotivated kids (especially in required classes), uninvolved parents (or over-involved "helicopter parents"), budget shortfalls, layoffs, etc. And after hearing some of my cousin's stories (she's a high school science teacher), I have a hard time recommending the California public schools as a career for anyone.

But then it struck me that I also do some teaching -- though not usually in a classroom -- and that it is one of the highlights of my job. For example, our department's intern asked me about a certain web-server. Did anything happen to it? she wanted to know. I asked her what computer and what port (8080), then typed "netstat -tln | grep 8080" -- which showed no server listening on that port.

I did an uptime(1) on it -- up 1:12 (i.e., about 72 minutes). "The last time it worked was about an hour ago," she said.

"Could it maybe have been an hour and 13 minutes ago?" I asked. "Because apparently it was rebooted an hour and 12 minutes ago."

She allowed as it could have been. I asked where the root of the webserver (an apache 1.3 installation I think) was. I "became her" with su and then executed "apachectl start" on her behalf.

I pointed the browser at port 8080 on the box of interest, and the apache test page came up. Success! She wasn't familiar with "apachectl" so I sent her a screenshot of the "start" operation. This got her past the immediate problem (can't reach web server) and also showed her how to get past it the next time this happens. I love it when I can "teach a man to fish."

Another colleague came by with a question about an html page his script was serving up. He wanted to change its appearance, and didn't understand why it looked the way it did in his browser.

"Where is it?" I asked. It was in his office, 3-4 doors down. He had a test page, a static HTML text file, so we could do some easy experiments. The file was open in a text editor window, and rendered in a browser window. I pointed at a "<td colspan=3>" on the text-edit window, and asked, "Why does this say colspan=3 here?" He saw the problem and changed it to 2 -- there and other places in that table. He reloaded the page and a spurious border disappeared. One down, one to go.

The other issue was some nested tables were surrounded by whitespace, which he thought ugly. This arose some tables didn't take the entire width of their cells. I said something about this, and wondered out loud if ‘width="100%"’ might make a difference. He added it to the <table ...> line for one of the "spacey" tables. "Quotes?" he asked, meaning around the "100%" part. I thought so (I checked later and apparently HTML 4.0 does require them in this case). Another reload showed that the other problem had disappeared. Now all that remained was to make his script output the syntax to match his test page.

He did all the typing himself, which was a good idea on his part. (I probably should have had the intern do all her own typing too.)

True, this isn't most of what I do. And not everything you might want to teach will necessarily be possible to teach outside of a formal classroom setting. But it's a thought anyway.

By the way, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach is a terrific book, though I'm not sure I could have appreciated it before I turned 40.

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