Thursday 1 December 2016

Speak, Memory

Golly me, it's almost the end of term. I've been prepping up my classes for their  Xmas exam - test - quiz. We had a big discussion in one of my classes at the beginning of the year about what to call these [goddamned] assessments. Clearly we don't want the poor petals to feel overcome with anxiety and weak at the knees about the inevitable requirement that me-the-teacher has to find out what, if anything, they know. Everyone in the room had baggage about the word exam, and test was not much better, so I've made them fade into the background. Quiz is also a quite stressful word for many but some have had fun at table quizzes, so that's the least bad option. Today in Human Physiology we have a quiz on blood, blood-pressure and the circulatory system, so last week I was able to wheel out my perf on The Art of Memory as The Palace of Pressure, with a certain degree of hilarity at my antics.  That's the point! If I turn a cartwheel - without breaking my osteoporotic wrists - to suggest turn-over of red blood cells on their 100 day life-cycle then that might embed the concept in their noddles. They would remember it for longer still, of course, if I did break a wrist and they had to call [meemo meemo meemo] the para-medics.

For the last five years, all the 1st Year students at The Institute have had to sit through an hour a week of "Communications", where one of our more enthusiastic lecturers talks about conveying ideas effectively: written, verbal, small-group, seminar and executive summary etc. If the medium is the message, and it is, this is hopeless.  "And today we/I will talk about small group work  and powerpoint presentation . . . don't anybody ask any questions we have a lot to get through". This year, as part of the new Five Year Plan, we agreed to hive off Communications into each of the several modules when and as appropriate. So I could, with justification, tick the Comms box by billing the Memory Palace as a generic method of retaining the structure and content of an oral presentation.

In F&F last week, I picking on a couple of students to be ALO, autoclave liaison officer.  I'm working through the class to fulfill this key role and keeping tabs of who has won the election. I hope that everyone will get to do it at least twice and thereby feel competent and safe in their use of this potentially dangerous bit of kit. We've had two non-fatal accidents with autoclaves in the last 18 months. One of the ALOs said that he was terrified of autoclaves because I'd told him a story about my mother getting injured by one two years ago when he was still a wet behind the ears 1st Year. I hadn't, I'd told a story about a friend of my mother where the only victim was a kitchen ceiling. A salutary bit of trepidation in dealing with potentially dangerous equipment is a good thing but not so much fear that you can't use it. Why, if we took that attitude, we'd definitely not sit into a car. We then had a discussion about the difference between being ironic [which I often am] and being sarcastic [which I never intend] because I hope I have enough respect for difference in outlook and knowledge.

It's not the first time this recall of previous dramatic story has happened. Two years ago, the management foolishly asked me to take a lab section in the Molecular Biology module. I say foolishly because I am a danger to myself and others in the laboratory. But there was a positive outcome: because I knew nothing, the kids had to step up to the plate and actually learn how to carry out protocols and interpret results because the adult-in-the-room was no use to them. It didn't always work: this was the class that hadn't a clue about quantities. ANNyway, I was explaining the operation of a gel-reader in my own inimitable [be thankful that there is only one me explaining stuff on the deg of my comfort zone] way. One of the students perked up and said
"That's like the story you told us in Biochemistry last year".
"Quite possibly, Natalie, but it might be better if you could remember what you need to know about using these instruments, rather than cluttering up your head with my off-centre stories."

One of the key concepts in constructing the aids to memory is to use images that are off-colour, frightening or hilarious. I do my best.

footnote: 'Speak, Memory' is the title of  Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков Vladimir Nabokov's 1951 autobiography. There is a LOT more to Nabokov than Lolita, which elbowed his other works aside like Harry Potter and sold 50 million copies. You could do worse than read Ada, The Eye or Pale Fire which I hoovered up when I was a teenager. Here's a fragment from Speak, Memory - I love the image of the girl's arm waiting for the nut-cracker. And another chunk of Nabokov via the Guardian.

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