Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mourning inspiration

Howard G. Voss passed away last night. He was a former president of the American Association of Physics Teachers and a recipient of the Melba Newell Phillips Award. He was my first mentor and left an indelible imprint on my teaching. He gave me a lot of advice that I hear in my head almost everyday. I will miss him terribly and the world is worse off without him here.

The first time I ever taught, I was petrified. Let's just say that those who know me best are probably stunned to think that I get up and talk in front of people everyday. At first, I had been assigned as a grader to a course, but was switched to being a teaching assistant at the last minute. I cried at the thought of having to go into a classroom and have all those eyes on me. Professor Voss was very supportive, though, and had a natural vibe to his teaching which rubbed off on me. A few of the things I learned from him teaching that course (physics for pre-meds, my second-favorite course after astronomy to teach til this day):

  • If I walk into your lab room fifteen minutes after class starts and you're still lecturing to the students, I will tell you to be quiet in front of your class. - Lab is about the students doing hands-on work, not for the instructor to guide students through the experiment.
  • Just ask yourself, would you want this kid to open up your guts? - It is difficult to dispense failing grades, but sometimes the failing grades are earned.

Other things I learned from Professor Voss as I was his TA for several semesters:

  • Night students deserve a chance. He taught physics in the evening for a few semesters, with me as his TA. We had good students and good enrollments, despite many thinking that there would not be a need to teach physics at night. My love for night-time classes remains to this day.
  • Conceptual questions are important parts of a physics exam. Some students are good at figuring out how the numbers all fit together, but that doesn't mean that they understand the basic physics concepts. Professor Voss would put conceptual questions on his exams that would make me nervous, because he had me make up the exam key before he'd confirm my answers. Those questions showed me a weakness in my own background and a weakness that a lot of students manage to graduate with today. But not if I can help it!

Professor Voss also wrote a letter of recommendation for me on my first job search and just was altogether so important to my career and maturation as a teacher. Thanks for letting me remember him here. My condolences to his family and his colleagues.


Anonymous said...


Nicole said...

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing the insights that made Howard such a great teacher and mentor.

AaronJV said...

(hugs) it hurts when we lose those who made us what we are.

On the other hand, I think it's good that he helped make you such a great teacher. His ideas and teaching style, and, abstractly, maybe even his spirit, live on in you.

Dr. Lisa said...

Thanks for the kind words, dude. As much as it hurts when people leave our lives, it would be worse if we felt nothing.