This is a HUMANS OF UVM featuring THE BEST PROFESSOR a.k.a Steve Flemer
For the past two years in a row, Prof. Flemer has won “Best Professor” in Bored’s annual Best of UVM survey of students‘ favorite things around campus. We caught up with the Best Professor this week to chat about music and breakfast and dark matter and other important things.
Where did you go to school?
Here, actually. So, its interesting. I went to my undergrad here but I took some time off from school…a lot of people take a gap year, but I took a gap decade. I started my first college class at the age of 30, and I majored in chemistry. I got my degree here and then I got my graduate degree, a PhD in chemistry, and just stayed on. I eventually wound up teaching chemistry. My first class must have been in 1993, here we are 25 years later and they just can’t get rid of me.
For me, chemistry is the one subject that I have desperately avoided at all costs. What class can you just not bring yourself to take?
Language. I think I’m missing a chromosome in the language area. I had to take language when I was in my undergrad here, and I took French. After four semesters of French I still couldn’t speak a bit of it…it just sounded weird! All these other people were starting to speak in sentences and understanding each other. I’m missing some genetic material that just won’t allow me to understand anything but English.
Why organic chemistry?
Less math. I didn’t do too well in the upper level mathematics. I got by. Calculus is neat, I’m not good at it though. So, when you get into more of the inorganic chemistry and the physical chemistry and the analytical, that’s a lot of mathematics. Some people fall in love with their equations but not me. So, organic chemistry is the least amount of mathematics, but it’s more than that. It’s a beautiful dance of electrons where you can see it and visualize it.
How are you able to take a rather dreaded subject and turn it into something that students are psyched to learn from you?
I teach general chemistry and organic chemistry and they are relatively low-level. Thus, a lot of the people going through it HAVE to do it. They are doing it for majors that have nothing to do with chemistry—especially in the general chem class. So I found that I have a knack for getting through to them by saying, “listen, neither of us really want to be here, but let’s get through this. There are people here that don’t want to be sitting in these seats and I understand that—I might not be really in love with the subject matter either.” It’s the teaching aspect that I fell in love with, not necessarily the material, but getting out there and pitching it.
A hundred years ago, I was in a band with two musicians—and I was not a musician. I played punk rock because I could pluck the strings on the bass and that sort of thing. I was a performer! When they all suggested staying in to just dabble in the music among ourselves I said no. I was into the playing onstage, everything like that. So I equate that to the teaching of the subject as opposed to being in love with the subject itself.
Do you have a favorite element in the periodic table?
What is your preferred way of getting around?
You know, mostly walking. I walk. In so doing, it allows me to people watch and see Unicycle Guy and Mini Skateboard Guy. Because, if you’re Unicycle or Mini Skateboard Guy, it’s all eyes on you. I like to be more anonymous than that. On foot is where I’m at.
Have you ever tried riding a unicycle?
I think once I tried that. As far as skateboards in general, I never got into that. All my friends in the punk rock scene were skate-punks. And I’d try! But I’d look like an idiot. They were doing tricks and everything but I’d always get bored before I learned anything cool.
What is your ideal breakfast food?
Standard, all-American, eggs over easy with bacon and toast. You can’t have one without the other. If I have my eggs over easy, bacon, and toast, I cut off a piece of the egg, break off a piece of the toast, spear the egg into the toast, put it into my mouth and then take a bite of bacon, and make sure that there are equal parts bacon, toast and egg. If my daughter tries to take a piece of bacon she’ll almost get a fork through her hand because I love her, but it all has to even out you see.
What is the coolest scientific discovery that you’ve seen in your lifetime?
As a testament to how much humans think they know everything until they realize they don’t know squat, researchers found that 90% of the mass in the universe is simply unaccountable. Scientists know everything supposedly, but we just can’t account for most of the universe. They call it “dark matter” because it’s invisible but it must be there. It speaks to the hubris of the human condition. There is no settled science, it’s all theory! People put so much stock in science nowadays, but really it’s all just moving theory and this is a testament to that. We thought we knew EVERYTHING about our galaxy and our universe but we only know 10%! We don’t know anything, I like that. I love that science is wrong most of the time—because being wrong means that something else is being discovered.
If you had to listen to one song for the rest of your life…
Stay Free by the Clash.
Do you have any advice for a UVM first-year?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s not the end of the world if you get a bad grade. It causes a lot of undue stress. Not that you should stop going to classes and only be hanging out, but people change in four years—you can lighten up and not let your education be a burden.
Best meal you’ve had in Burlington?
There used to be a Brazilian restaurant on the corner of Saint Paul and Main. It isn’t there anymore, it left maybe four or five years ago. But it was a carnivore thing where they’d bring a huge platter of meat right up to the table and shave some off. This place was top-notch. The whole concept of having an enormous skewer of twenty pounds of meat…I was sort of in heaven.
If you were going to have any other job, what would your alternative universe dream job be?
I guess rock star. But also very grateful that I got out of it.
Do you have a favorite way to procrastinate?
Yes, I like to brew my own coffee in a percolator—not in one of those Keurig contraptions—until it becomes the consistency of tar. Add a little cream and sugar, and sit down with a book. I call that type of coffee my “ORJIL” or “one remaining joy in life”.
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