– Devil inside

Every teacher has their “duh” moments, and probably at least one per semester. You say something to your class, and it’s immediately apparent by the looks on their faces that you’re so wrong, or uncouth, or just not with it. By being wrong or simply inexperienced, however, you sometimes learn the coolest things.

Like this semester, in my section of the writing component of an introductory genetics course (which was hard for me to teach, as a newcomer to MIT, and hard for the students to get), I had this brilliant idea to make, with the class, a glossary of sorts for the scientific report that each student was writing on a very similar set of experiments. I had noticed, as I was reading their drafts of the report’s introduction, that the student writers varied dramatically in their use of a technical vocabulary. So I stood near the white board, marker in hand, and asked them, “What are the terms and concepts you think you should cover in this report?”

It was a way of them teaching each other — and me, too — the material, and it worked. As I wrote on the board each term they offered, I asked the speaker to say something about the term, “polymerase,” for example. That student might say, “It’s an enzyme in DNA.” And then another student might add, “It’s what causes amplification.” And then I might ask, “What’s amplification?” And so on. Everyone took notes!, without prompting.

I had a question, too, about this one term that cropped up in almost every one of their drafts: “wild type.” Hmm, what’s this? I immediately associated it with other terms I know, like wild card, wild thing, and wild horses. Crazy, out of control, the outlier. I said, “Someone explain to me this term: wild type.”

There was silence. Smiles. Looks around the room. A few giggles.

“Uh, wild type is just basically the version of a gene as it occurs in nature,” explained one student. She was hesitant, not in her knowledge, but as a way to show tact. Another student added, “It’s a gene that’s not mutated.” This is, I gathered, common knowledge (although not, then, to me).

I laughed out loud at myself. Then they laughed. It was a “duh” moment, but it turned out to be a good one, too.

I remembered this today as I was driving home along a winding back road and occasionally checking my speedometer to make sure I was adhering to the limit. And then I was thinking of (a few) people I know who try to respect posted speed limits. And I broadened that category to people I know who honor common courtesies, follow procedures, recognize the importance of Scrabble rules, and so on. Sometimes it can feel like a burden to always remain within bounds. It’s a weird comfort, though, to realize that even though you may not be a wild thing, you’re always the wild type, through and through.


P.S. Does anyone remember “Devil Inside” by INXS? I was a fan of that band in the 1980s, and Jimmy and I went to Great Woods to see them when I was in my mid-20s. Even then, I somehow felt too old to be in that crowd.

2 thoughts on “– Devil inside

  1. What has become of you? To read that you are checking your speedometer gives me pause. I thought that adhering to the speed limit was instinctual for you. To consider you surpassing the limit (even though it was likely only by one or two mphs) makes me re-assess your being something other than mere mortal…

  2. JLR — I am a mere mortal who considers surpassing the limit. When it comes to driving, in particular, it’s easy for me to stay within the limit when I’m on the road with other cars; I get a sense of my speed compared to theirs, plus I can hang out in the middle lane. However, I have no context when I’m alone on a road, so I have to check that external monitor — the speedometer.

    Which raises the question: How do you know how fast you’re going?

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