For much of this term, I’ve had these thoughts in the back of my mind regarding the physics supervisions I’ve been teaching for 2nd year students: ‘Oh goodness. I’m in over my head. I’m out of my depth. The floor has dropped out from beneath my feet. Someone’s going to find me out and it will all be over.’
To be fair, I have an undergraduate and a graduate degree in physics. I’ve studied the subject a lot. I’ve spent many years teaching physics in a variety of settings ranging from working with math-phobic adults who ‘just need a science credit’ to running university-level courses all on my own. And yet, this particular course is incredibly difficult. The pace approaches relativistic speeds (it’s very fast), the students are whip smart, and the professors are some of the best in their fields. So, the exercises and examples we work through each week are, by design, really really challenging.
Because physics is a big and deep ocean, even with many years of study, it is impossible to know and understand it all. No one does. That’s what makes it wonderful and mysterious. It’s also what makes it a bit uncomfortable when I’m trying to teach undergraduates a few topics I myself never happened to study. And that’s how I found myself drowning in the barely contained sense of panic described above.
But then I went swimming with my kids. My daughter is a little short for her age, but she is just about the biggest four-year-old I know. She decided she would swim in the big pool. She jumped in fearlessly, again and again. She was, without a doubt, in over her head. She was, most definitely, out of her depth. The floor beneath her feet was at least a meter away from her toes. She didn’t care. She just kept jumping in, swimming around, sometimes going under to see if she could touch bottom, sometimes hanging on the edge. The immensity didn’t bother her. She swam in it.
It occurred to me that swimming necessarily occurs out of our depth. To be a proficient swimmer, you must be able to cross waters much deeper than your own height. It’s not an activity where you stand on a rock solid bottom the entire time. I remember working through the Red Cross swimming badges as a child. To advance through the levels, you needed to be able to go a distance, use different strokes, dive in head first, and, importantly, be able to float. I think the ultimate challenge was a ‘survival test.’ We jumped in the pool from the high dive, fully clothed (swimsuits underneath), and had to use the clothes off our own back to demonstrate a variety of survival techniques. At the end, we had to tread water for an extended period of time, conserving our energy while assessing the situation. I loved the thrill of jumping in and ‘surviving’ by my own skills and power.
After becoming an advanced swimmer, you could sign up for the lifesaving course. To become a lifeguard, you had to be able to use all these skills, still out of your depth, in wilder waters, and help someone else along to safety at the same time. I never did take the lifesaving course. I guess I got sidetracked with the enjoyment of just swimming itself. But I think I could have done it. In a way, I think it’s what I’ve been doing this term.
So, we made it to the end of the term. I understand a lot more about some new areas of physics. I understand some familiar areas more deeply. I wouldn’t say that any of us touched bottom, but we’ve all made it across to dry land.