Wednesday 16 May 2018

Stuffing the head

Since I was told in January 2013 " . . . and you can finish a 75 contact hours course teaching Human Physiology", I've learned A Lot about how my body keeps itself upright and ticketty-boo without me having to think about it. It's the homeostasis, silly. Whether my poor students have learned anything during that time is another matter; but I've been working on it. I know that bulleting a bunch of facts onto powerpoint slides doesn't help very much - even if I read them out s l o w l y. Over the years, I've realised that teaching is just theatre: a good performance is memorable because you've never seen anything like that before. But I'm pretty sure that the bits which stick are when I lurch off the script and head off into the back-country of my experience. Of course a tale of projectile vomitting can be s(t)icky as can fainting and panic attacks. The women (who make up >90%) seem more interested the plumbing details of vasectomy because the men are too busy crossing their legs. Whereas everyone feels sick at the abuse of power in symphysiotomy. Another frequent 'sharing' [TMI TMI, the students silently cry] from me is the consequences of being the oldest person in the room by between 10 and 45 years. One of the most interesting things about homeostasis is that it gets crumblier as you get older, so I can talk with experience about failing sight and hearing-aids and my wonky thumbs.  Eee you 'ave to larf.

But college is not only about learning stuff; it is also about learning how to learn and how to process and critically evaluate information. It is broadly true that, if they had been taught study skills at school, my students wouldn't be at The Institute - they'd be at University in Dublin or Cork and planning to take Harvard by storm later. That was my route because I had a very expensive education: I went to TCD and then. missing Harvard by about 5km, did a PhD at Boston University. The exams I sat on this bumbling journey to an academic job required a certain amount of cramming and rote-learning in The Art of Memory and mnemonics helped to remember
  • the cranial nerves I - X of a dog-fish
    • old Oppenheim occasionally pinches three aspidistras from audrey's glass vase
  • and the 
  • geological periods between Cambrian and Quaternary [prev]
    • camels ordinarily sit down carefully perhaps their joints creak too quickly
I've been in mnemonic land before with core body-temperature and  blood pressure and mitochondria. This April for the last revision class of the year I launched a clatter of aides-memoires for some of the systems of checks-and-balances that keep things-of-the-body in homeostatic balance. I was careful here to emphasise YMMV - my cultural references: born in a different country less than ten years after the end of WWII, learning latin, and how to write a prĂ©cis, will be alien to the students. It works best if you make up your own images to associate with the concepts. Then again, the ancients recommended using images that were bizarre, disgusting and naughty - or all three together - and you may need some help with these . . . because you've been brought up proper.

I sat my last exam in 1981, put down my pen and vowed never to do that again. I've been true to that resolution since. But in the pre-1981 days, I found that writing things down helped bang them into the head and re-writing the key-words of the notes into a long, multi-column list was also helpful. I could remember where many of the words were on the pages and scan up the mind's eye up and down to fill in the gaps.

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