Saturday, July 30, 2016

So many feels

So this is Mentor Week on the Lakes blog, and our students chose the topic for our posts: "What do we get out of the REU and what do we learn from our students?"  Wow ... so much to say that I'm not sure where to start...

The past three summers of the REU have been my favorite teaching experiences of my life.  Teaching the research methods courses in our Applied Social Science major, particularly the capstone class, is very similarly rewarding but there is something extra special about the REU structure.  The ability to strip away all distractions of other courses, and focus intently on a problem with just 2 or 3 students all day, every day for a whole summer is the perfect learning environment and teaching environment for me.  We have time to really get to know each other, time to dive deeply into the nuance of a problem, and we live and breath the research as a full time job together.   I find myself dreaming in Stata code and days fly by before I feel like they have even started.

Perhaps the most rewarding thing for me comes from seeing how quickly LAKES economists turn from students into my research partners.  Being at Stout, I will probably never have graduate econ students to work with, and until recently the department turnover has been so high I haven't even really had many other economics faculty to work with either.  As much as I love working with my soc, anth, history, geography, and political science colleagues, sometimes I have missed my grad school days being surrounded by a building of economists who all automatically speak my language. But these last three years I feel like I have had an even better experience than I would if I were advising PhD students.  I get to pick the best of the best from hundreds of applicants who are excited to come work with ME for the summer.  It's incredibly humbling and they continue to amaze me every day.

As for what I learn from my students... I guess I have two answers.  One big thing is that I re-learn why I love my job.  The last few years of budget cuts and assaults on faculty have been difficult and demoralizing in Wisconsin, and I often go home feeling like my job is 99.9% about managing budgetary disasters, faculty recruitments, grant applications, paperwork, and other things that leave me no time to actually do what I nominally signed up to do: teach students.  It's easy to lose sight of why you love teaching in that environment.  It is, however, impossible to lose sight of why you love teaching when you sit in a room all day with 3 brilliant, inquisitive, hard working, optimistic, resilient young women who want to learn and want to change the world.  There is no greater gift I could have.

The other thing I learn from my students is equally important for accomplishing this research.  My not-so-closely guarded secret is that environmental economics is not my main area of expertise.  Broadly, I study policy questions and applied econometric questions so this isn't that great a stretch in most ways, but I've had some serious catching up to do to get myself up to speed with the depth and nuance of the issues specific to environmental question to be qualified to be doing the work we've set out to do with our LAKES grants.  Setting out to understand how to put an economic value on a lake and a watershed is a tricky problem that I literally could not have done without my research partners.  Not my students - my peers.  Everything I know about this research I have learned with, and from, Matt Flyr, Lauren L'Esperance, Megan Isaacs, Lisette Solis, Erin Melly, Caitlyn Delaney, and Helena Pedrotti. (Not to mention the students and mentors in the other disciplines who have helped immensely as well and made our work infinitely stronger with their contributions and their own research). I would still be standing in the starting gates without them, and it's no exaggeration to say that in the end whatever knowledge we are able to contribute to this problem will be the result of their patience and determination in dealing with my mistakes and setbacks, trials and errors, to push through and accomplish the impossible in a few short weeks each summer.

I hate when the LAKES summers end.  Working on research together and creating new knowledge forms a bond that is a bit like being in a band and is a little different than a normal friendship.  As most of our APSS and Lakes students have learned over the years, I don't handle them graduating and moving on very well.  

I find myself often just sitting and holding a mug with a picture of Matt and Lauren from our first LAKES summer and missing them and their eternal patience with me and exuberance for the project.  I have a picture that Lisette drew of my family last summer that is still hanging on my fridge that I cherish each day, and I found myself this week re-reading a note from Megan that I have tucked inside a picture frame on my desk and take out any time I need encouragement. I'm not sure if Helena, Erin, and Caitlyn noticed me getting intensely choked up when we were talking about the logistics of wrapping up next week and trips to the airport, etc.  I tried to turn away and look out the window, but I don't think I hid it very well.   Pretty soon it's going to be time for me to be watching them fly back out of the LAKES nest too, and I'm not ready for these youngbloods to become scatteredbloods yet.  (that is an inside joke for them - don't worry if you don't get it!)   I hope they'll carry a little piece of our summer together with them as I know they will forever be a part of my life.  They are such amazing people and I can't wait to see what they do next. 

...As long as it's not a canoe race.

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