Everyone wants to be in the lab


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.


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

To a writer who is full of doubt and fear

When you talked to that student, full of anxiety about finishing a draft of the report on the lab experiment, that’s how you felt, isn’t it? That’s how you were able to remain calm and say what you did. “It’s okay. It happens. I know you are capable.” And then you added, “There are strategies.”

Both are true: a writer can be filled with doubt and fear, and a writer can employ strategies to keep going. You believe this.


Winston and I search the Internets

And yet lately you are not practicing what you believe. In fact, you may be starting to believe that your work as a teacher of technical writing — planned, precise, organized — is dismantling your skill as a writer of the exploratory, the awkward and searching, the digressive.

In sum, you may be losing your strategies. “I fear that I have become so practiced at academic writing that I can’t do any other kind than that,” you tell your friend James. He says you are still capable.

You could write every day. You could freewrite for 20 minutes. You could have no goal. You could enjoy it.

But: what is the goal? what is the genre? what are the audience expectations?

These questions, ones you teach all the time, they stop you. Continue reading

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

Skating, not skating, and learning to jump

Many times over the winter I almost quit figure skating.

I would go to a lesson and not practice.

I would practice and then push back an upcoming lesson.

I barely went to the rink hours for the MIT Figure Skating Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member last year and the year before.


In my head, I practiced quitting, crafting the excuse, and finding something new and safer to do, like tennis, which I played in high school.

I didn’t quit, although it seemed many times — when a week or even two weeks went by without skating — that I paused.

This was after a long year of being tired. Work seemed too hard, and it was tiring. I was always pushing myself to get it done in the time expected to meet important deadlines and not to let anything drop. I had pushed myself skating, taking the test and failing it. I joined the group fitness challenge at work, and for 12 weeks in a row I met the incrementally increasing time goals. The first week it was 150 minutes. By the end of 12 weeks, we were expected to be exercising and logging 300 minutes a week. A few of those weeks, I went beyond, and exercised almost 500 minutes.

I was proud. I was tired. I felt as if I stopped I would lose ground.

During my summer vacation from teaching last year I worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. I really liked the work and was successful at it. However, my life had little free time. I longed to sit on the couch and do nothing. I longed for an absence. My friend Jessie looks at this as a presence and calls it “rest.” I couldn’t. (I mean, I dreamed of rest, but the list of stuff to do called more loudly than the couch did.)

Last summer, I also took weekly skating lessons, but there was not enough time to practice in between. Yeah, I felt bad. Bad student. Not doing enough homework. But I kept going, half keeping skating alive.

I made no progress. It was like a review, remedial, over and over and over. The teacher was very nice and smart, yet I felt discouraged. I had hit the brick wall of my own ability. There is the reckoning that comes when you realize, and only adults over 40 can realize this, that it is not all onward and upward. There are limits. There may be back falls. There are ends. 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

Do nothing, and results will follow

It was breezy and overcast, but we headed anyway to the kayak and paddleboard rental place on Nauset Marsh in Orleans on Cape Cod. Why hadn’t we thought to call ahead? When we got there — there were 12 people in our family group — we learned that the breeze and tide made it too difficult to paddle back in. Rentals were closed.

Nearby was Nickerson State Park, with lots of wooded camping and a boat rental place on a pond. We drove there in our three vehicles, and split up even further into an assortment of single and double kayaks, a peddle boat, and, for Lydia, a stand-up paddle board.

across the pond, August 30, 2013

across the pond, August 30, 2013

Last summer she tried the SUP board on a cool day with high winds, managing the standing part but finding the navigation part challenging. A goal for this summer was to use the board to actually go somewhere.

The kayakers and Lydia headed out across the pond, after getting some advice on the wind and current from the young guy manning the rental business. Jimmy and I peddled behind. The squared-off peddle boat goes so slow. Even though legs are more powerful than arms, the kayaks and SUP board were more streamlined. They and their passengers seemed to go quickly and reached the other side of the pond while we felt stalled permanently in the middle.

accidental photo of me, peddling, August 30, 2013

accidental photo of me, peddling, August 30, 2013

We saw them head back, their faces to the wind and the prows of their boats into the current. The kayakers seemed okay, but even far away Lydia, who never fell, seemed to be working very hard. Emily and David hovered in their boat near her.

Jimmy and I changed direction and attempted to predict their path and intercept them. Emily and David traveled on. As we got within shouting distance of Lydia, I asked if she wanted a ride.

She shouted back, “I don’t need help. I just want some company.”

So for the rest of the way back to shore we stayed within about 50 feet of her, hardly interacting (beyond the occasional photo taking). She rowed hard and made it.

As parents and teachers — and in my family this broadens to include lots of loving adult figures — we don’t always have to step in and do something. We can be nearby and offer our silent presence: not advice, not physical help, not even encouragement. Young people already have some skill and often great determination and strength. Also, although mistakes are one possible outcome, it’s unlikely that they will be disasters. For example, I know Lydia can swim well, and the worst that could have happened was a dunking and a challenging climb back onto the board.

When we are in a teaching/helping/nurturing/leading role, the impulse is often to intervene. The danger in the intervention, however, is that the outcome becomes ours. The person helped loses her agency.

I feel this myself, too. When I am faced with a challenge, I like the pleasure of working it out myself or, if I can tell that I need it, asking for very specific help. It gets my back up when someone offers to take over for me. And yet when I am doing something difficult or grueling, it can be wonderful to have a trusted person nearby, perhaps involved in their own parallel challenge, whether physical or intellectual.

To help most, therefore, it sometimes takes great self-restraint, an ability to have a thought and not speak it, to perceive a solution and not implement it, or to sense uncertainty and not resolve it.

Teachers, for the semester ahead, let’s remind ourselves of the value of our presence and the power of nonintervention. This is not to discount the value of our active teaching — that’s important, too — but simply to remember that we have more than one way of being and doing.

Teacher as learner, learner as teacher

Friday I went to the studio of my MIT friend/colleague Juhan, for a critique meeting for Health Axioms, a project for which I’m doing (freelance) editorial work. On my way in, one of his colleagues, whom I’ve met a few times, said to me, “Jane, I read your article on teaching MIT students. Very nice.”

If you haven’t read my reflection published in Technology Review on teacher as learner — and, by extension, students as teachers of their own work — here it is: link.

All the dead and ruined young lives

Central Park Running Path, 4.15.2013

Central Park Running Path, 4.15.2013

On Monday, April 15th in the afternoon, Lydia and I were walking through Central Park from the Guggenheim down to Columbus Circle. It was the end of a two-day trip to the city to see a college that Lydia is interested in applying to.

I kept looking at my phone because the walking paths curved here and there, and we followed them and yet still wanted to be headed generally in a diagonal across the park, so I needed the Google map. In the Ramble, I got a text from Jimmy:

There appear to have been explosions at the finish line of the marathon. We are at the arboretum, far away.

I did not know enough to worry, and I ignored the text. Maybe “explosion” meant firecrackers launched by naughty kids.

Lydia got a message from a friend about the explosions, and she followed up. Perhaps she is more easily alarmed than me, by personality or age. “Mom!” she said something like this, urgently, and conveyed the seriousness of what had happened.

Our walk to Columbus Circle — to go to Whole Foods to get something to eat on the train before we headed to my sister Emily’s office and then Penn Station —  lost its power. The beautiful spring day seemed to be happening to other people. Lydia even remarked, as we passed New Yorkers, that they probably didn’t know yet.

I did stop to take this photo (above) on a bridge that looked over a playing field and what is called Central Park Running Path, according to the geographic locator in Instagram. Lydia discouraged me from taking more, claiming that our moment for picture-taking was gone.

I didn’t know what I felt: distracted, there-but-not-there, worried about our travel plans.

When we got to my sister’s office near Penn Station, we heard more. We watched videos on our phones and my laptop. We discussed. The word “amputations,” more than any other detail, provoked whatever it is I felt, and those feelings I could not name.

Continue reading

Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

Today I met with Karma, an MIT employee and adult student whom I tutor in English once a week through a pilot program. We have a grammar workbook that we are going through rather doggedly, and we like to break up the formal exercise with reading, writing, and speaking activities.


Last week we read out loud together one of my favorite short essays, “Joyas Volardores,” by Brian Doyle (The American Scholar, Autumn 2004). Read the full text here: link. It is about the hummingbird, and more. The essay is full of beautiful facts and therefore new vocabulary, so it is suitable for an ESL student. There is also a curious passage about the blue whale and a meditation on the human heart. There is much to puzzle over.

Today, we did some free writing based on the nature of the essay (i.e., facts lead you to ideas and even strong emotion) and its first sentence:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

I proposed to Karma that we generate more concrete nouns, in place of “hummingbird,” for things we had knowledge about that could be described.

Consider the __________ for a long moment.

microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
… and so on

I suggested that we each take the first sentence, put in a concrete noun of our own choosing, and free write from there, trying to emulate some of Doyle’s declarative style and building paragraphs on sentences with the simple subject/verb structure, which is used lavishly in the essay.

We wrote for 15 minutes. We read aloud to each other the first and last sentences of what we had written, to see how far our ideas had come. The noun Karma had chosen was “computer,” and the one I had chosen was “kitchen.”

I wrote a lot in 15 minutes, yet felt unhurried the entire time. (See below the jump for the full text of my free write.) I really was following my thoughts. Karma wrote less than me yet seemed contented also. This is a good way to get writers to excavate what they know from experience and observation; this exercise could be followed up with a research assignment to start to develop material from the free write into an essay.

I noticed, when Karma read it aloud, that his last sentence has the word “unimaginable” in it. A word in my last sentence is “unconscious.” We seemed both to have traveled from concreteness to the cerebral. To get to an idea is the goal.

What will we do with what we wrote? As we parted, I told Karma there is no real homework, but that I hoped he would think about his last sentence, and I will think about mine. We will start there next week.

Keep reading for my free writing…

Continue reading