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

Lost and found writing

garageI’ve been on Google Docs, which is now part of Google Drive, since the beta version became available. (Was that 2007?) I do most of my writing in that environment, whether collaborative and individual. I’ve lost track of what I’ve stored there.

Recently, I was searching for a document I knew was in there, and I came across one with an unfamiliar title, “toc: Jane’s World.” While I don’t recall the moment of this file’s creation, I recognized the contents immediately. It’s an annotated table of contents of a book of essays I imagined writing and publishing. There is a list of 11 titles with short descriptions of them after.

The table of contents was aspirational, I could see. The titles of essays were mere drafts; I’ve thought of better ones since. What really made me happy was to realize that 5 of the 11 essays were since completed and published, and one is well underway.

I worry a lot that, with time being fragmented by work and personal responsibilities and activities, no writing gets done. This lost and found table of contents makes me realize that writing is getting done.

Though many of my professional hours are spent as a teacher, I am still a writer. The list is akin to a letter written by the self years ago. I’m sending her a thank you note.

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 oneĀ 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.

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.

2483989061_536ffa3d77_z

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.

landscape
automobile
microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
iPhone
computer
motorbike
kitchen
… 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

Leaves of insight, before they disappear

6130889443_74c365a02b_b Here are three quotations from my reading over the past few weeks. Each has something to do with writing, even when it is not about writing.

1.
In this profile of Dr. Steven Zeitels (“Giving Voice,” John Calopinto, New Yorker, March 4), who is the surgeon who saved Adele’s voice, another patient, Scott Flaherty, “an operatic tenor… working as a teacher,” describes his motivation for undergoing risky surgery to restore his singing voice:

He explained [to Colapinto] why teaching was no longer satisfying. “I’ve grown tired of just talking about it,” he said. “I mean, when you sing you’re giving voice to your soul.”

Teaching singing to singing parallels the relationship of teaching writing to writing. It’s not enough to talk about or comment on. And yet that seems to be mostly what there is time for. This was my mournful state of mind in the weeks leading up to Spring Break.

2.
The playwright Annie Baker (“Just Saying,” Nathan Heller, New Yorker, February 25) also teaches in the graduate playwriting program at NYU. In his profile of her, Heller follows Baker and her playwriting students into the basement of a Washington Square bar, where they discuss the pressure to outline screenplays. Baker is wearied by them and negotiates her contracts to avoid outlining. She says

“I feel like it’s the most dangerous — I actually feel like Hollywood hurts itself when everybody outlines screenplays. And then it trickles down to grad writing programs. Like, I’m willing to sit around for hours to talk about what the screenplay’s going to be, and talk about ideas, and doodle diagrams on dry-erase boards, but I just won’t…. Because by the time I finish the outline, it’s dead.”

Talking and drawing can be explorative and generative when it comes to creative writing. But outlining: a killer. Too much left brain.

3.
Piano player Jason Moran (“Jazz Hands,” Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker, March 11) lives in New York but teaches once a month at the New Conservatory of Music in Boston. In tutoring Jiri Nedoma, who played his own composition once hesitantly and again with more sureness, Moran directed him to play it again, changing “the whole idea of the song”:

“Make it entirely different. Could you play it in stride piano?” […] Put different factors into the equation. Play it backward. Upside down. Your left hand might use something 1940 and your right hand is 2000, and what you find becomes part of your vocabulary.”

Nedoma played it again: “more delicate,” with richer chords. “He ended with a series of rising notes.”

Moran responded

“What you played at the every end, that’s where you should start… It’s almost like you played all that prelude just to find that little bit.”

Play, play, play. Mess it up. Experiment in unlikely ways. Often, you discover what you’re writing about at the very end — that’s what we tell students. It seems like this is true in other kinds of composition. What is found, at the end, becomes the new start. Not everyone, though, will have the perseverance to revisit one’s own work with the eyes of new discovery.

—–
Image, “A Sense of Direction,” by Constanza on Flickr via a Creative Commons license

Necessary, and ultimately unnecessary, distractions

About 10 years ago, in the weeks leading up to teaching my first writing class ever, I fretted excessively about what shoes I would wear on my first day in the classroom.

I was almost 38 years old, and really I had not ever before obsessed about shoes. But fretting about shoes, in this case, helped me work through a lot of anticipatory fears about my public role in the classroom. I wanted those shoes to be comfortable but not dowdy, fashionable but not eye-catching. I was getting ready for students to stare at me, but not at my feet.

The shoes I wore that first day — in a classroom at Wheelock College that looked over the Riverway — I have forgotten, and I have never thought again about what shoes I would wear in the classroom. That doesn’t mean the shoe distraction was frivolous; it focused my attention and fears on something concrete and manageable that I had control over. And then I got beyond shoes.

In the past couple of months, I have been preparing for my first ever figure skating skills test. (Read about the story and the outcome here: link.) In the lead-up to the actual date, I tried to learn about and think through everything. The social situation itself would be entirely new to me, even newer than being at the front of a classroom. I had never watched anyone else take a skating test, and surely, as a student, I watched teachers teach hundreds of times.

Skating outfits_550_cool

For a while I obsessed about what I would wear. It had to be more than fleece pants and a fleece jacket, which are the skating equivalent of a sweatsuit. But it didn’t have to be as much as a costume, with rhinestones, bright colors, and a theme. I scrolled through the offerings of online retail stores. I looked at skaters’ blogs for advice on what to wear. I ordered three skating dresses (one fit), a skating skirt (nice), and skating tights.

I had options. I didn’t wear any of them.

Two days before the test, my coach reminded me that the test situation would feel new and unfamiliar enough that a new and unfamiliar outfit might not be a confidence builder. He suggested skating pants, a nice sweater, low-key gloves. I went with his advice.

That morning, as I watched the other skaters who tested on the same day, some wearing skirts, I reflected on my outfit purchases that turned out to be unnecessary. But then I thought, maybe they were. Maybe the buying and trying on a skating dress was akin to trying on the identity of “skater.” Maybe the hours of online browsing was a way of wrapping my arms around a really big, overwhelming task. I didn’t know if I could nail the skating, but I do know I can choose and buy clothes online.

I made it through my first skating test ever: link. Next time, I’m wearing the skirt.

Fragments of a fall

It culminated in glory.

Ornament

Yesterday Grace and I strung the magnolia and arbor in the front yard with solar LED lights and some glitter balls and gold pine cones we bought last year. Fingers are crossed on the lights charging up today for a show tonight.

The glory, though, is the big final event for one of my favorite classes to work on at MIT, in mechanical engineering: 2.009 Product Engineering Processes. The name of the class might not arouse excitement — it could even evoke an image of a conveyor belt, which the word “processes” always does for me — but the experience of the class, students, and creativity does. Over the term, teams of 16+ students brainstorm, model, test, and prototype an innovative product. This year’s theme was “outdoors.” My two teams, Red and Silver, respectively developed a portable cookpot for campers heated by an exothermic chemical reaction (no flame!) and an innovative hand truck with treads to improve the ergonomics of delivering filled beer kegs from a parked truck to the basement storage areas of bars and restaurants.

If you are curious, you can watch the final presentations for Red’s Heatware and Silver’s Clydesdale by going to the course website (link) and clicking the links in the upper right corner.

Students don’t write formal reports in this class, although there are other writing tasks that I and other communication instructors can advise them on, such as surveys of potential customers and text for a product brochure. There are diverse presentations at milestone reviews that punctuate the development process, and we coach them on those. We also are members of the team, along with lab instructors, and that’s the best part — attending weekly meetings, lurking in the lab as they design and machine parts, and asking the kinds of questions that gets young people to think more critically about their original work. It’s socially rewarding too.

Red Team, Final Presentations, 12/10/2012 -- you didn't know MIT students were adorable, did you?

Red Team, 12/10/2012 — you didn’t know MIT students were this adorable, did you?

And the conclusion is like the last day of summer camp, or (as adults) the week-long writing or arts conference that you loved, and filled to the brim with every emotion: fatigue, worry, friendship, achievement, and anticipated loss. There is relief, but we do miss each other when it ends.

Way back in September, I had tried to schedule my semester to lighten my load for the final two or three weeks so I could give 100% to the product design class. I even jiggered the deadline for a final proposal in another class so that I could read them all before Thanksgiving. (I thought this would be good for the students, too.) That made November packed. Here’s an image of my at-home Homework Center, working alongside Lydia and Grace at the dining room table. It was a grind, but at least we were together.

Girlz_Homework

The autumn wasn’t all schoolwork. There was Thanksgiving at my sister Sally’s house with everyone. There was a wonderful, compressed trip to Orlando for a so-so conference and a few vacation days tacked on, which included a day at the Magic Kingdom and a day with the manatees in Crystal River (link). There was the cool fall day I replaced the rotted pieces on our kitchen porch, having gotten advice and help from the mechanical engineering lab director. Very satisfying labor and accomplishment.

Porch_fixed_550

And there were of course high points and engaged students in my other three classes, in biology, nuclear science engineering, and measurement and instrumentation for mechanical engineers.

Some things didn’t get done. There has been very little blogging or writing of any kind that wasn’t a review of student work. I made my peace with that as I was fixing and painting the porch over Thanksgiving weekend, and I realized that, to really do well at a task that is important to me, my motivation cannot be split across different ones. It only creates frustration, and not the productive kind, to be doing one thing and wishing you were actually doing another thing. I did think about writing — I wasn’t all “in the moment” — but it was without that inner torture of feeling as though time was slipping away. I said to myself, “I will come back to it.”

This happened also with skating. Some weeks I practiced only one time. Still, the lessons and progress continue. I recently signed up for a USFSA skills test on February 3rd, and I plan to skate at least three times per week over my winter break to get ready for it. I want there to be meaningful goals without anxiety or self abuse.

Recently, my friend Betsy and I were talking about our lives at midpoint, and what we have learned. We agreed that there is a kind of liberation to letting go the could-have-beens and to narrowing our focus on the parts of life most important to us. We recognize the limits within and without, and we see the tremendous space inside them, especially when the could-have-beens are carved away. I am parent and teacher first — maybe at my core I am a nurturer and steward of children and young people — and other strong interests often seem fitted to those or impossible without them. For example, three writing projects that are simmering on a back burner have something to do with children and the contraries of raising them. Central to my marriage to Jimmy is our shared devotion to, as well as shared burden of, parenting. (Interesting how devotion and burden are often intertwined.)

A couple of days after the December 10th final presentations for 2.009, that wonderful product design class, I went to its farewell dinner and talked to many students and staff. One student asked me if I had observed that the course professor had seemed choked up a bit when he was on stage during the students’ tribute to him, and if I had any thoughts why that might be. I couldn’t speak for the professor, but I did speak for myself and explained that, if you really love teaching, as I do, at some point during that night in particular there may be a moment when you think to yourself, “I have the best job on earth.” You see young people at their best, after weeks and weeks and weeks of work at times creative and at times tedious, and you feel great hope for the world. To be part of something greater than one’s self — so great it may even obscure one’s individual contribution — is transcendent. Tears leak out.

On December 15, Lydia hosted an outdoor skating party for about 100 students from the high school. Back in October I put the deposit down on my credit card and signed the liability paperwork, and she advertised it via Facebook, collected money from kids, and made the playlist. We bought a sheet cake. Jimmy and I were the only designated chaperones, although a couple of teachers came, too, and Eli and Grace also came along, and so did my brother-in-law and niece. I skated, of course, and secretly desired to act out my someday fantasy of being an ice rink guard. Lydia had cautioned me to be almost invisible and not to say anything. I bit my tongue therefore and resisted the temptation to give unsolicited tips to the absolute beginners.

It was not my night. It was theirs.

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

And now I’m back.

—–
Credit for Red Team photo goes to 2.009 Red Team, Fall ’12, courtesy of Brigitte Morales.

Time of the season

An MIT friend/colleague posted this on her Facebook page:

This week: 22 student meetings (30 minutes each), 12 student presentations to watch and grade, rehearsal for panel talk, planning meeting for IAP workshop, go to conference, give talk, come home… By next Monday I expect to be a shambling, drooling zombie.

Her capsule summary of her week prompted me to print out my Google calendar and annotate it with things I needed to get done the evenings ahead of actual student meetings, deadlines, a rehearsal, a lecture. Last night I left it laid out on the dining room table. This morning it greeted me. I added the coffee.

All those cross-outs on my To Do list on the left, obviously a good thing, explains my absence from blogging. There are especially a lot of drafts to review, and in the bits of free time left over I find myself wanting to read (The Heart Broke In, by James Meek — so good), not write, or go outside instead.

Outside the windows and along the route to work, the trees are changing and getting ready to drop their garments. Watching the big Japanese maple in the backyard, which we can see outside the south-facing windows on the second floor of our house, involves the holding of one’s mental breath. The leaf color turns and turns and turns, the leaf stems continue to cling to the branches as though hanging from their fingertips, a few let go and fall, and one day soon — poof! — the rest will fall, blanketing the grass in a big crimson carpet.

This is autumn: school burdens and tensions and the lead up to the holidays, while nature relaxes. I find myself wishing for the bottom of the To Do list to be reached, quickly, and simultaneously studying the unfolding of the season.

This is autumn too: leaves to rake, fallen branches to pick up, annuals to compost, and small and noticeable steps of progress and pleasure in one’s students (and children!).

We can, at once, be getting things done and in the moment. I do not think life can be lived entirely one way or the other.

—–
The title is of course an homage to the Zombies 1968 song, “Time of the Season.” I associate this with my brother Michael, who was one of the influential disc jockeys of my childhood. This 45 got a lot of play on my parents’ record player.

If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

—–
Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via Brainpickings.org