In the past i have tried my hand multiple times at learning Russian. Each time i start out with knowledge of the english alphabet and nothing else. At first, when just learning the Cyrillic alphabet, the printed words just look like groupings of symbols to me. As i begin to memorize what sounds are associated with each symbol, when i read the sentences over again the symbols start to look like words. I start to sound out the words in my head based on the appearance of the small strings of symbols on the page. Suddenly it all seems to make sense. Nothing has changed about the words on the page. They are the same words, but they are now accessible to me in a completely different way because i’ve learned the Cyrillic alphabet.
I tell you this because it’s the only way i know to describe what happened to me with the GIS course material this past semester. I enrolled again in the course i had to drop last semester. Very little had changed. It was the same course content that was completely unaccessible to my mind just one semester ago, but i learned and now understood the GIS alphabet, if you will, and suddenly everything made sense. I knew what the written definition of “domain” was last semester but now i understood what a domain was, how to create or assign one, and what its purpose was. Now it wasn’t just a definition on a page. It was a real tangible thing within a project and i understood what it was and how to use it. I have a middle-aged father-of-three with dad jokes to thank for that. I lucked out and got one of the more compassionate and encouraging teachers for the course this past semester. He answered my questions in a timely manner, provided good and encouraging feedback, and never said “google it” as my previous teacher had been so fond of doing. I didn’t feel alone in an ocean on a little boat without an oar any longer. One day i realized i only had two days to study before the exam. I drank coffee and ate things with caffeine in it and stayed up to study 20 straight hours and then take a 4 hour nap for two days in a row. I got a 95 on the exam. I began trading my Cs for As. I began doing the twenty hour mapping projects without having to redo them. I stopped having to hire a private tutor. Suddenly the material was making sense to me. In answering my questions, this instructor in a two month time period gave me enough of a base of knowledge to operate from that i felt like i knew the alphabet with which we were constructing words, metaphorically. I finished the course with a score of 92. The real win for me was that during the cumulative exam, twenty questions are written and twenty questions are performance based where you have to go into the software and create something. I got an 85.5 on the cumulative final exam but all the answers i missed were written. I got every point available on those performance based questions and since it was cumulative i got to demonstrate understanding of how to create everything we learned during the whole semester. I may have picked the wrong definition for some vocabulary words but i understood how to use the software to create what was needed to get the answers to questions posed. It was a really good feeling. I may never fully learn Russian but perhaps my experience with the Cyrillic alphabet was meant to prepare me for unlocking the world of GIS. This dinosaur can learn new tricks. The greatest gift this teacher gave me was that when i finally started understanding the material and i knew how to manipulate the software to get the answers to the exam questions, he became tickled pink that i was smiling. He was excited that i had found something to be joyful about in GIS and seemed to be really enjoying myself throughout the exam. I will never forget that. To my former teacher who was so fond of the phrase “google it”…you will never know the feeling of inspiring someone else to rise up in your field, you will never know that moment when you look in someone’s eyes and think “by God they’ve got it,” and “i fostered that.” You are a different kind of teacher from this man; the kind that gains a paycheck and nothing more. This teacher gains a sense of purpose, a little bit of identity, and perhaps an appreciation for how he can influence others for the better in the long run. I wrote him a thank you note, thanking him for making GIS accessible for us this past semester. He wrote back with feedback and suggestions for groups to join to stay current on what’s happening and what software is being used in the industry. The last words of the email were “Fly high!” I began this journey with the words “google it” burned into my brain. I embark on the next path with a different message filed away. I have new words, and they are entirely more productive and insightful. Like a bird, i will leave this nest and fly.