Saturday, February 14, 2009

Volcanic Hazards for Humanities Majors

I have emerged from the depths of mid-quarter reading onto the island of Three-Day Weekend to make a post to my blog!

I taught my very first geology lecture on Tuesday. While I'm not technically a TA this quarter, I will be next quarter, and this lecture was for the same class. I ended up teaching this week because my adviser was out of town giving talks, and needed someone to cover for him. The class in question is one of those massive nonmajor earth science requirement courses - Natural Hazards. (Or, Ways The Earth Can Kill You, For Non-Majors.) This is normally a huge 500-person course, but the section this quarter is part of a special year-long course on California in general (first quarter was an English class on California novels, third quarter is on Native American history), geared at humanities majors in particular, and there are only 75 of them in the class. A slightly less formidable audience for a first big lecture!

This was not the first time I've ever taught; I was a TA for a year in the music department, but that was a much smaller class. My discussion sections had five students each, and they were supposed to sing for me. I have already found that it's much easier to impart information on a topic to a group of people than to make them practice a practical skill that they really really don't feel like doing. (It's especially hard when some of them can't even tell that the note they're singing isn't even in the same ballpark as the note I'm playing for them.)

Anyway, the lecture I got to give was about subduction zone and continental caldera volcanoes. This was very exciting to me, because volcanoes were my first geologic love, at age five or six. When you're that little, books about volcanoes tend to also be about earthquakes, so I quickly developed an interest in those as well, but the volcanoes did come first. My adviser's previous lecture had been about Hawaii and Iceland, so I got to jump right in with the really big booms. It necessarily had to be a pretty simple lecture in terms of explanatory science (the textbook states everything in terms of The Three Vs Of Volcanism: Volume, Volatiles, and Viscosity); I was supposed to cover the phenomenology of big bad eruptions more than anything else. I spent a good long time on pyroclastic flows and lahars, with historical examples from all over the world, then went into more depth on sequence of a stratovolcano eruption by describing (of course) Mt. St. Helens. (I also mentioned that Mt. Redoubt is a stratovolcano with imminent eruption, though not on that sort of scale, and I was surprised that nobody seemed to have heard of it!) I ended by tying these rest-of-the-world examples in with specific California sites (ski Mammoth before it blows, guys!), and by showing video of the Salton Sea Mud Volcanoes, because they're awesome.

I really tried to impart the impression that, "These volcanoes are fascinating, beautiful, and can totally kill you," and I really hope that more than just the two talkative students came out of the lecture sharing my enthusiasm and trepidation over all things volcanic. As I expected, based on the undergrad level classes I've taken here, the class was pretty quiet and stonefaced throughout, and they seemed loath to actually answer the questions I asked, even though it was stuff they totally should have known from the previous Thursday's lecture, if nothing else. I hope that their lack of response was just because I was the new unfamiliar guy, and have no actual grade-giving power. Because seriously, how could anyone not find extremely explosive volcanoes even a little bit cool?

Despite the unresponsiveness, I enjoyed giving this lecture, and it was definitely valuable practice for future TAing and lecturing in years to come. I'm looking forward to properly TAing this class next quarter, even though I know to expect some degree of apathy from people who are mostly just filling gen-ed requirements. I'm hoping I'll be able to indoctrinate at least a few of them into enthusiastic geogeekery!

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