Saturday, October 17, 2009

I'm My Own Best Teacher

I had one of those nights last night that I truly enjoy, but don't often reflect upon. It all started when I was going to write a post about something Lorrie Shepard said at the Realistic Math Education Conference about instructional and assessment tasks. But first, I thought, I should look to see what she's written about the subject so I would have a greater background.

Since I'm not currently at the university, my access to full research articles is restricted, but I know CU has a VPN through which I can look like I am at the University. I found the VPN instructions on CU's website, but because I run linux the setup was more complicated. To their credit, the university had a linux client you could download and instructions for installing it, but I wanted to use whatever client that was already in the Ubuntu repositories. It took a little while, but after downloading the university client and sorting through the source code and configuration files, I had the information I needed to get the native VPN clients running on both my netbook and workstation.

Now, back to the Shepard article. Now that I had the same access I'd have if I were at CU, I could download full copies of papers from multiple sources. I was using Google Scholar, and lately I've been trying out Zotero to manage bibliographic sources. Instead of focusing on the papers, I was focusing on how the bibliographic entries were being stored by Zotero. Zotero wasn't detecting the sources very well on its own, but I was having good luck choosing Scholar's "Import into BibTeX" option,copying the entry to the clipboard, then telling Zotero to import from the clipboard.

I'm a long-time LaTeX user, but I've never used BibTeX. For a while now I've been wanting to reformat my undergrad senior thesis I wrote in 1999, but to do so I knew I'd want to re-manage the sources I used. I found my old thesis and started searching Google Scholar for the same references and I stored them in Zotero using BibTeX imports. I had imported about half the references when I could not hold back my curiosity any longer. Could I export these from Zotero and use BibTeX and LaTeX to re-format my paper?

After a wild goose chase trying to get the Gentium font in LaTeX (I guess I'll have to make that work some other day), I spent an unknown amount of time learning how BibTeX worked with LaTeX. My thesis had been formatted in some unknown format before (something for which I had always been disappointed in myself), so this time I was determined to format the paper using an APA style. There is an APA style package for LaTeX, and after much troubleshooting I was on my way to formatting the thesis. I went to bed at 5 am with the second half of the paper left to reformat.

What's the point of telling this story? Look how much I learned through my curiosities and distractions! I learned how to configure a VPN on linux, how to import, edit, and export bibliographic entries in Zotero, how to use BibTeX, and how to get LaTeX to automatically format papers in the APA format. I had been tired throughout the day, but learning all these things drove me well into the next day, hardly tired at all.

Everybody seems to have an answer to the question, "Who was the best teacher you ever had?" My answer? Me. I'm my own best teacher. I don't mean to sound cocky; in fact, I can only make such a claim because I'm humbled by the effect that education, including my many teachers, has had on my life. It's because of them and the many great opportunities they provided that I have become the life-long learner they wanted me to be. Teachers gave me the knowledge and skills I would need to learn on my own and become my own best teacher, and for that I'm forever grateful.