After 20 years of teaching, I finally learned that a little weed is just what you need to get through my class. Last year was quite a challenge. In the fall, I watched as your experiences came out in chalk and talk, sometimes to the deaf ears of faculty and college administrators. By the end of the year, I bore witness to the visceral outpourings at Battell Chapel after President Salovey announced Calhoun College would retain its name.
Over this time, the pundits accused you of curtailing free speech and of being fragile and spoiled. When I set out to find you, I failed. Where are the fragile? Are the ones against free speech out buying air horns? Are the coddled having their daily massage every time I venture on campus? I can’t find these Yalies because the pundits invented them to fit their own narratives rather than learning from yours. The real you are here because you earned your place. Graduating is now just a simple matter of surviving what my colleagues and I expect of you.
Your professors came here to push on the boundaries of our disciplines. As a scientist, I can’t do this without being willing to change my views in response to evidence. Shouldn’t this ethos also apply to teaching? The trending topics in teaching include trigger warnings. Just by typing these words I can hear the derision from some of your professors. Why? Are my colleagues clinging to their rotary phones or is there substance to their cynicism? Answering this would require evidence, which I found right in my own classroom.
For the past few years in several of my classes, I’ve distributed pregnancy test strips and fake pee (tubes of water, some of which contained the pregnancy hormone HCG at random). This is a hands-on activity to learn about the scientific method and antibodies. Antibodies do the work of determining if HCG is present and delivering that information as a visible blue stripe. So much of biochemistry is about the invisible, and yet a 25-cent pregnancy test strip lets you see an antibody in action. How cool is that?
Now pause for a moment and see if you can guess what I am neglecting.
I gave no trigger warning. Moreover, I imagined the exercise would only be viewed as humorous and that the humor would keep students’ attention on a dry subject. On one occasion, a female student, whose fake sample gave a positive result, pranked her parents by messaging a photo of her test strip. (OK, that was pretty funny. Sorry Mom and Dad.)
Unwanted pregnancy among young adults is not uncommon and definitely not funny. I thought about issuing an explicit trigger warning. But then I thought about the women whom I wanted to help. If they skipped that class, they would be identifying themselves to their fellow students. Did I really want to put them in such a position?
Marijuana (THC) test strips also use antibodies and have a purpose that is well understood by the student body. They are also inexpensive enough that I could order 200 tests, as well as some THC. I also checked in with a relative who is an assistant district attorney in New York City. His reassurance regarding my distribution of a Schedule I drug to students was less than gratifying. I was merely “unlikely” to go to jail. I decided no price was too high, no risk too great for your education.
Providing two options for everyone enabled students to anonymously avoid distress. It also helped the pedagogy. On a pregnancy test, antibodies form a blue line only if HCG is present. On the drug test, the line appears only if THC is absent. So, teach the class how one test works and then ask the students to work out why the other test works in reverse. The answer? Well, when it comes to pregnancy, size matters. The blue line on the pregnancy test results from HCG linking a freely moving blue-colored antibody to clear antibody affixed in a line on the test strip. THC is too small (1/500th the size of an antibody) to link two antibodies together. Instead, THC in the urine interferes with the blue antibody’s ability to adhere to and color an otherwise invisible line of affixed THC. Intrigued? Have you considered majoring in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry? We might be for you.
It took only a brief moment of empathy to make my class more inclusive. This required some lateral thinking that was fun and resulted in a good pedagogical tool being converted into a great one. I’m a convert. Bring on the trigger warnings! Last year’s pundits didn’t stick around long enough to see this and other fruits that came from your free expression of ideas. Instead they looked at your generation’s unusual capacity for empathy and self-awareness, and interpreted it as fragility. So to this year’s pundits, including certain Midwest university deans, consider this: Biophysics is hard. Is it so unreasonable that I should want my students’ — all of my students’ — undivided attention? It’s time for you to trade in your rotary phone.
Andrew Miranker is a professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and a Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .