Everyone wants to be in the lab

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high school chemistry lab in Penang, Malaysia (2009)

The other night at dinner, I had the impulse to tell someone, when we were talking about undergraduate engineering students and my great pleasure in working with them, “My work satisfies the part of me that could have done that — could have majored in one of the STEM fields.”

I didn’t, though, because I hate that: when people in the middle of very good careers (like me) say something like, “If things had been different, I could have been an opera singer, or travel writer, or doctor.” I worked with someone 20 years ago who was the director of major gifts at an Ivy League university — a very good job by any measure — who would often say that if his life had been different he would be first violin in a major orchestra.  Honestly, I doubted it. How could he know?

So, I try to never say, “I could have been X if not for Y.”

Ha! But here I’m going to do something like that.

I have always loved reading and writing, so it’s really a great fit for me that I have become a communication lecturer who reads and writes and teaches writing and speaking and some ways of reading. When I was in high school I liked English, but maybe my favorite classes and teachers were in chemistry, physics, geometry, calculus, and even shop and music.

Jump ahead to college: I registered for biology, chemistry, and calculus. I loved Calc I, didn’t do so great in Calc II, yet I found biology especially to be tedious and chemistry only mildly satisfying.

Why did I love chemistry in high school and not as much in college?

Here’s the “if not for Y” part.

Chemistry in high school, as well as physics and biology, was taught AND practiced in a lab classroom. Everything happened there: the lesson or lecture, the experiment, the teacher’s office hours, the teacher’s grading of exams, the socializing with peers in class. We sat at the bench in groups of four, learned there, and did experiments.  If you remember this experience, too, and want to be reminded of it, see the photographs in the Flickr album, ECHS Has New Chemistry Lab: link.

My memories of the teacher, Mr. Victor Khoury, and classmates and furnishings and bits of experiments (carbon, and the crucible!) are vivid.

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high school chemistry lab in St. Louis, MO (2006)

In college, the lesson happened in a lecture hall, and the lab in the lab. The labs were taught by people different than the actual professor/lecturer, and the professor could be found in his office. The lab instructors we could talk to in lab, and I remember mine in the one college chemistry class I took. I also remember my lab partner and her name and my impression that she would go on to be a star in science, she was so obviously good. Continue reading

Teacher sets words aside and dreams a new self and new start

In this dream, I was sewing. Professionally.

An MIT friend and colleague, Juhan, had hired me to make 12 small quilts for baby beds, which he was going to install in a blank room to showcase wearable technologies for babies. The devices would be hidden under the colorful, hand-sewn quilts, so that when a viewer turned back the quaint covering, she would be surprised by hardware underneath. The room would be white, as well as the frames of the baby beds, so that the only color would be provided by the calico quilt squares. The hardware would be a buffed steel color, soft and glimmering.

In this dream, I also was aware of myself as a sophomore at MIT, a student mainly studying the liberal arts. I didn’t have a sense of myself as an adult living a youngster’s life; I really dreamed I was age 20, young and looking toward the future. (In other dreams, when my life situation is of a younger person, I am still aware of having a husband and children, and it is only the situation that is altered, not myself.) From my freelance quilt-making project, I suddenly realized — dream/realized — that I wanted to change my course of study from the liberal arts to something that would set me up to work in fabrics.

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I had an epiphany: materials science. The dream/plan crystallized. I started to worry. Dream/self realized that I hadn’t taken any science or math since high school, and I would need some to get into materials science. So I decided to enroll in Introduction to Biology for the spring. Then… then!… I can immerse myself in materials science next fall, I thought to my dream/self, who was very excited.

Hmmm, I worried. I might not be able to cram a whole major into two years of college. I might have to add another year onto my undergraduate degree.

Oh, so what? I said to my dream/self. You’ll be able to afford it — you’re at MIT, and when you graduate, you will start making some real money. Not liberal arts money. ENGINEERING money.

Dream/self was very proud of herself. She felt certain that she had had an insight into her deep, real, and abiding interests, and that her true career love had been revealed to her. She was charting a course for a future that would always suit her, a career she would never doubt. Her interest would never flag.

She was starting. She had a plan. Before too long, she would be designing the fabrics of the future*.

*And this is how I ended the account of my dream to Jimmy, when I described it to him this morning. I would be designing the fabrics of the future.

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Image, Lego Dress, from Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology on Flickr via a creative commons license.

Money for artists (and that includes writers)

If you are an artist, there are several reasons why you should be seeking grant and fellowship support for your work:

  • money to make art, learn more, and develop career;
  • support for the scope and completion of specific art works;
  • recognition and encouragement;
  • credentials in the artistic community; and
  • because you’re a worker, and workers get paid.

If you are an artist, there are reasons why you think you don’t need money in support of your art work:

  • I make art; I don’t seek money.
  • My work stands for itself; I don’t want to talk about/explain my work.
  • I have a day job that pays me enough to live. I don’t need money.
  • I haven’t developed enough as an artist to ask for support.
  • Fundraising is salesy, and I don’t want to do it.

People, my eyes were opened to both of these sets of reasons when, in April, I gave a guest lecture/workshop to students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA), at the invitation of an artist who teaches a class there on “Creative Futures,” which helps undergraduate and graduate students plan for the career part of being an artist.

Because I worked in development for many years before becoming a writing teacher in 2003, and because I’ve had significant experience doing freelance grant-writing more recently, I was invited.

But… I have never applied for grant support myself (for writing projects) nor have I helped any individuals seek grant or fellowship support.

I turned, therefore, to my artist and writer friends for their insights into and advice on the world of grants and fellowships.

Continue reading

Self-directed exploration of education as a topic

On December 12, 2013, I posted this on Facebook.

Dear learners and educators,

Please think about one book you have read about education that has greatly influenced your thinking or practice or learning, and post the title of it in a comment. I’m trying to make myself a deliberate reading list. Thanks!

My friends, relatives, and colleagues — all of whom work in or care about education — suggested the following. Two of the titles were actually Christmas gifts to me from my daughters, Lydia and Grace, who probably saw the post on Facebook but did not at the time respond.

This is a lot of reading. I put the list below as a reminder to myself and also as a resource for others. Also for Christmas I received a handmade notebook from my son Eli. I am reserving it for making notes and reflections on this course of reading.

a few books related to education and one blank one

a few books related to education and one blank one

I begin with bell hooks and Teaching to Transgress because (a) I already own the book but have never read it and (b) new projects should begin with radical inspiration.  Here is the first paragraph from her first chapter, “Engaged Pedagogy”:

To education as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

And here we go. Most of these books do not directly apply to my work as a teacher of scientific and technical communication and college students in a private research university, but it is my belief that any books on writing, education, or human development are relevant to my thinking and practice. There are 17 listed and linked. Please add your suggestion(s) in a comment.

Change-Prompting Books on Education

A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by David Capella and Baron Wormser (recommended by Meghan Cadwallader, a poet and director of admissions)

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by bell hooks (recommended by Sally Kokernak Millwood, trained as a social worker)

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, by Richard Rodriguez (recommended by Karen Baloo, a pseudonym for a psychology professor)

Writing/Teaching: Essays Toward a Rhetoric of Pedagogy, by Paul Kameen (recommended by Anne Geller, a writing program director, who says she thinks all the time about Kameen’s thinking on “the difference between performing being and performing becoming” and indicates that the book is also online: link for the download)

Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire, by Theresa Lillis (also recommended by Anne Geller) Continue reading

Paper, thread, fabric, and glue: be still my heart

sewn pamphlets

sewn pamphlets

It’s winter break, and the MIT community offers weeks of workshops during its Independent Activities Period, or IAP. Some are brief, some occur over days, some help participants build work or academic knowledge, and many are just for fun.

This week, I went to the MIT Libraries’ introduction to bookbinding workshop. To get to the location, I followed a series of signs that began buildings away. In the library, the signs took us into the basement, through the rolling book stacks (‘wait, there’s something behind here?’), into a far corner, and finally into a room which opened into clinical brightness: the Curation and Preservation Services Lab. It was like the secret room in a secret-room dream.

The lab is a model of both warmth and order. The space is about the size of two undergraduate teaching laboratories (or, maybe equivalent to three medium classrooms hooked together). Walls are white. There are several workstations, a few bench height. There is a GIANT paper cutter, and I wish I had a photo of that — the lever was raised, and no doubt you could butcher a chicken with its guillotine blade. Over the sink, the staff had arranged its kitchen implements (e.g. a tea strainer) on the kind of peg board you’d use in a workshop. Everything I saw was in its place and clean. Pinch me.

One the largest workbench was an arrangement of small rectangles of decorated papers and others of solid fabric, spools of linen thread and hanks of colored embroidery thread, and a few tools. On other workbenches were compositions of workshop supplies, one setup for each participant: paint brush, white glue, a cloth paper weight (like a bean bag), a linen wrapped brick, paper to protect the work surface, and paper to sew into a pamphlet.

first steps at making case

first steps at making the case

Some people might get excited walking into a bakery or shoe store. The array of paper and the just-so placement of supplies made this heart beat faster. I also had one of those moments of thinking: It’s so awesome to work at a university. Everything good happens here.

One librarian introduced the workshop and described the purpose of the lab. It’s a “hospital” for the library, and they do both prevention and treatment. The staff also advises on disaster preparedness and disaster response. Honestly, I instantly felt that I was ready to change my occupation. ER for books, people! Continue reading

Critical thinking must involve communicating too

A recent post on Tomorrow’s Professor itemizes and describes seven intellectual habits of critical thinkers.

Critical thinking is one of those qualities that are prized in teaching and learning but is often evoked as a good thing without being nailed down. Like “art” or “emotional intelligence,” we believe in it, we know it when we see it, but we haven’t always formulated for ourselves what we understand it to be. The list below, by Edmund J. Hansen, primarily situates the use and cultivation of critical thinking in school, with some references also to its importance in society.

I must admit I read this list with myself more as thinker and not teacher in mind. Do I consistently practice these seven intellectual habits? Do you?

  1. Intellectual Humility: Be aware of one’s biases and prejudices, the limitations of one’s viewpoint, and the extent of one’s ignorance.
  2. Intellectual Courage: Face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions and to which one has not given a serious hearing. Recognize that ideas that society considers dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified.
  3. Intellectual Empathy: Imaginatively (and, I would add, regularly) put oneself in the place of others so as to genuinely understand them.
  4. Intellectual Integrity: Be true to one’s own thinking and hold oneself to the same standards one expects others to meet. Honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’s own thought and action.
  5. Intellectual Perseverance: Be disposed to work one’s way through intellectual complexities despite the frustration inherent in the task.
  6. Confidence in Reason: Believe that one’s own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties. Also have faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves.
  7. Intellectual Autonomy: Maintain an internal motivation based on the ideal of thinking for oneself; having rational self-authorship of one’s beliefs, values, and way of thinking. Depend not on others for the direction and control of one’s thinking.

I reflected on Hansen’s Habits of Critical Thinkers and noticed that he emphasizes the individual’s responsibility to the self as thinker, reasoner, judger, and perseverer and the benefits one might gain from these habits. Not that he ignores responsibility to others — after all, Hansen is a teacher and promotes these habits in education — but the actions he describes are largely mental, interior, and personal.

This list needs an eighth habit, and it’s one I discern among the ones he has articulated. While the seven above are lifted and paraphrased directly from Hansen, the one below has been crafted, albeit from his principles, by me:

8. Intellectual Advocacy: Be responsible for preparing and communicating — whether in text, speech, graphics, or other publicly available media — reasoned arguments that consider and advance ideas, proposals, and analysis that represent one’s deep thinking, careful study, and sincere concern.

I add this here as much as a reminder for myself as it is for any readers. Often, I pride myself on my skill at weighing information and others’ views. However, I often keep my thoughts to myself, wondering if this battle or that one is worth fighting. I have historically given too much credence to an axiom I learned as a child: “Silence speaks volumes.” Silence, in fact, does not speak at all. Critical thinking gets society nowhere without the thoughtful, well-reasoned, and even impassioned — if passion suits — communication of thinking’s results.

A person must use her critical thinking to question and investigate her own convictions, but she must have the courage to argue for the ones she has examined and can support with evidence (including examples), analysis, and reflection. Do this according to Hansen’s Habits: with honesty, humility, empathy, integrity, persistence, and autonomy.

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Image by Jimmy Guterman, on the jetty/walking path to Boston’s Castle Island, April 29, 2012.


On teaching: some lessons via David Byrne

In February 2009, we went to see David Byrne and his band at Radio City Music Hall. The tour marked the occasion of Byrne’s new album, Everything That Happens Happens Today, with Brian Eno.

When the curtain opened, the audience saw the full band and dancers dressed in white and poised to play and Byrne himself also dressed in white but with his back to the audience. We could see his guitar strapped to him, although it was partly blocked from our view by his back.

We don’t expect this as audience: our first encounter with the performer ignoring us. He’s there for us, right?


In my seventh row seat, however, the teacher in me — immediately and without much reflection — got it. Facing an audience takes so much out of a person, even if he is accustomed to that encounter, that Byrne was delaying that moment. He was on stage and yet easing his way into it.

This memory and its interpretation is clearly my projection of an inner state on Byrne’s; I actually have no idea for this back-to-the-audience stance. (Indeed, when I mentioned this to Jimmy, who has a different memory of the show, he said, “Maybe Byrne was talking to the drummer and the curtain suddenly went up, and he was caught there.”) This interpretation is about me and my relationship to my audience, i.e. students, much in the way my dream about Beck was about me.

Unless you are a raging extrovert and love the limelight, it takes some psychic sturdiness and a little push to get one’s self, as a teacher, to stand up in front of those students every day and really be the teacher.

Today, writing in the New York Times about his experiences as high school teacher of students with learning disabilities (please read his great essay!), William Johnson describes one dimension of the job that requires special fortitude:

Like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

[…] If our students are not learning, the let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies.

And if they are college students, sometimes they just fall asleep. Continue reading