Blame the Genes

I’ve described myself before on this blog as a “new-experience junkie,” which can prove both exciting and frustrating.  It’s exciting because each new experience teaches me something I didn’t know before, and as the title of my site suggests, that’s basically what I live for.  On the other hand, this tendency to search out new experiences and do things in new ways creates challenges. In other words, I sometimes can’t leave well enough alone.

I’m not wholly to blame for this, you understand; my genes may be at fault.  At least they offer a partial defense, according to “The Happiness of Pursuit,” a 2013 Time magazine article by Jeffrey Kluger about research into a gene dubbed DRD4, “which is associated with activity in the brain’s dopamine receptors. The gene comes in several forms, or alleles. Of
the three most common, one codes for even-temperedness and reflection, while the other two code for exploratory and impulsive behavior, as well as a taste for risk taking and a Pilgrim-Fathers-departure-of-Mayflower-from-Southamptontolerance of novelty.” Researchers at Harvard and Boston University found this gene is more prevalent within individualistic societies like the U.S., whose founders and early settlers self-selected to risk everything in the search for a better life in a new land. Kluger goes on to explain the concept of search activity. “Search activity simply feels good–a fact that helps explain why shopping for something is often more fun than buying it, hunting can be more enjoyable than actually bagging your prey, and so many politicians appear to have a better time running for office than holding it.” Touché.

My current quest involves a redesign of my Freshman Composition course for fall. While that sounds radical, I’ve really never taught any class the same way twice in 10 years of teaching. What’s different this time is that instead of beginning with the department’s suggested syllabus, I’m beginning with student learning outcomes (SLOs) and designing activities and assessments based on those desired outcomes. I generally worked from that basis when I taught high school, but I’ve been hesitant to design my own course at the college level when they so helpfully provided those sample syllabi. I’ve thought, “Heck, when at TCC, do as the other TCC profs do.” This is assuming (naively, I admit) that the other profs actually follow those recommended syllabi. What do I know?

This January I volunteered to be part of an Assessment Faculty Learning Community at TCC, and one responsibility of the group is to research and implement new assessment strategies. One of my motivations was to connect with other faculty at the college—as an adjunct, it’s difficult to feel connected. However, the group has been very helpful and I’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with the other five members from my campus.  I also have a new appreciation for appropriate assessments in gauging student learning; assessment isn’t the dirty word I believed it to be.

One of the perks of FLC membership is some professional development funds. I’ve used mine to purchase five new books on topics like writing rubrics, learning assessment techniques, metacognition, teaching critical thinking, and e-portfolios. (What else would a book geek do with PD funds?) I’m planning to implement a portfolio project for fall, although I doubt I will use an online platform—my students typically don’t have well-developed technology skills and I don’t want to get bogged down in teaching them. I’ve jumped in to several of the sources already and am letting the material percolate in my brain burner until it’s time to outline the course specifics in a couple of months. My goal is a class that is more engaging, provocative, and meaningful for students.

DNA strand blue on blackKluger describes this goal orientation for what it is: the desire “to tap into the propensities that allow us to take pleasure in striving–in, if you will, the pursuit.” Ironically, this article is one of the readings I’ve required my students to read the past several semesters, in keeping with my chosen theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.”  It’s one of my favorites (who could resist the genetic connection?), because I see myself reflected in his illustrations of the novelty-seeking gene. I’ve got my forebears to thank for inheriting it, and I do thank them. My genetics propel me toward pursuing new learning experiences that promise to continue enriching my life.

My DRD4s will be working overtime this summer.

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