Impressing professors: Take your moment

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When I was in college I made a lot of weird blunders, especially for being the academic nerd that I am. I was not judicious in the words I chose, occasionally speaking out when I should not have, while failing to speak out when I should have, not taking advantage of many opportunities to broaden my horizons, so to speak. I never really tried that hard. Something I have written about before. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter, but when it comes to learning, it does. To say I was “lazy” does not mean I did not learn or that I did nothing. It just means that I could have learned and done and achieved so much more, had I not been in such a hurry, had I not let myself be influenced by others, had I known myself better, had I applied the full measure of intellect and drive I had to something. But I didn’t.

Still I had my own moments, few and far between, when I would stand out. I never wanted to stand out, certainly not verbally or visually, where people might let their eyes rest on me for more than a moment or two. Professors noticed me more when it counted (in writing). But still, yes, there were those moments, when a question was posed, and it seemed mind-numbingly simple what we were being asked, and yet the classroom sat in dumb silence.

A professor in my master’s degree program posed the question: “What was the main priority of American foreign policy in post-war America?” No one. Silence. “Come on, people.” More silence.

I raised my hand, wondering whether it could be as simple as I was thinking, “Containing Communism?”

“YES!” The professor looked at me gratefully, and with a respect he’d never once afforded me before. In fact, I am entirely sure I had been both nameless and invisible to him up until that moment. He favored me in a new way thereafter. It was strange: my comparative youth and silence in that course (everyone else was wading into their 50s, and I was barely in my 20s) had made me both stand out and be invisible at the same time, and he, perhaps relating better to the majority of students, closer to his age than mine, never glanced my way once before I uttered this stunningly basic reply to a basic question. Suddenly I had a voice when all my duck-and-cover-generation classmates, who should have eagerly yelled out the answer to that question, being Boomers, so close to it and the “Communism containment” directive, sat, mute, probably expecting that the answer had been something deeper or more complex than that.

I learned then that it’s not the quantity of what you say – it’s the quality. And, perhaps most of all, the timing – taking your moment.

Photo (c) 2010 EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine used under Creative Commons license.

Keep learning

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As SD the Firewall always says, “Every day’s a school day.”

I love that life hands you a whole lot of weird and random stuff to learn from and how it all interconnects in strange ways and leads to the strangest conversations. And the act – and art – of listening, conversing and being open to everything is free. And anything else is a form of arrogance. And comes at a high cost.

Sometimes what you learn is not that useful, such as learning about the existence of some weird 1980s British TV show called Auf Wiedersehen, Pet or a British cartoon called Roobarb (about a dog called Roobarb and a cat named Custard), which made me think of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls of my youth (there was a monkey called Rhubarb and a cat named Custard among those characters). Reading about Congo recently, I obviously learned about the history of Congo but it led me in a lot of different directions, from reading about the Scot, John Boyd Dunlop, who re-invented pneumatic rubber tires in 1888-89 (which led to a rubber boom and a certain kind of enslavement for Congolese citizens, despite there being no formal slavery at that time) to powerful Congolese uranium to Hutu/Tutsi conflict. In a completely different direction, I’ve learned a lot about William Blake the last two days. Then moved right along where I learned a lot about famous shy people and forms of shyness and its roots (read Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness yesterday).

At the same time, I also shared a lot of information about the Slavs (i.e. informing the aforementioned SD that the term “Slavs” refers to all Slavic people, not just former Yugoslavs).

Arrogance

Something else to learn – especially for people who are particularly arrogant – is that there is always something to learn and advice to take. I have met a couple of highly productive but extremely idiosyncratic writers. They invite you to read their writing, professionally or casually, but then cannot deal with the response or hack the editing or proofreading that inevitably follows. One writer was irrationally angry that my mother corrected his spelling – he tried to write ‘brassiere’ but had written ‘brazier’ (haha). Then another writer whose book had some riveting passages and fascinating ideas clearly must not have submitted his book for any editing or advice or even a cursory pass through spellcheck (a couple of references to “Saskwatch” rather than “Sasquatch”. And it was not about some provincial Saskatchewan amateur police force called Sask Watch) before publication.

Yes, every writer needs an editor. Period. Taking sage and experienced advice is a learning experience. Period.

What are we here for other than to learn?

It’s not what we thought…

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Everything turns out, in time, not to be what we thought it was.

Women’s fertility, thought to hit a precipitous slide downward from the age of 27 – or 35 – or some other number conjured up by dubious science, may decline in general/on average. But then it turns out fertility is not quite that simple.

“But it’s no wonder we’re so easily panicked. The fearful narrative around women’s fertility fits with a broader theme that’s become all too common as women have gained economic independence over the last several decades: we’re going to pay for our equality. Mothers going to work in the 1980’s were told they were subjecting their kids to an epidemic of sexual abuse at daycare centers. In 1986, Newsweek reported that 40-year-old single women were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than find a husband. These stories and many more like them, of course, are completely false. Perhaps the best way to fight the panic is to question those who’ve made a business of selling it.”

Pregnancy after 40 is becoming quite common. In fact, in the UK at least, the number of over-40 pregnancies outnumbers the under-30 pregnancies for the first time in 70 years.

I lived for years in Iceland, where it is quite common to have children (many, in fact) when you’re quite young (late teens/early 20s). This is seen as the norm. When a non-Icelandic friend lived in Iceland, everyone around her hounded her about having a baby before she was an “old hag” (meaning mid-20s, I guess???). She did not have a child until she moved to Denmark, and by then she was in her late 20s. The Danes, though, insisted that she was “so young” to be having a child, and all the other women in her maternity ward had at least ten years on her.

And this very pressing issue – fertility – reminds me not only that life goes on but also that, as it does, there are so many other things we don’t know shit about but pretend to (or to trust experts about them): Addiction, aging, the brain, radiation, education, the powerhouse Japan was supposed to be… or even pasta. Nothing is definitive – it keeps changing as the environment around it changes. We really don’t know anything – even what consciousness means.

The same can be said of people, but that’s another and different challenge.

Teach Yourself Revolution: Good Intentions

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A lot of us sign up for online courses – online education is becoming more and more dynamic and accepted. People do it for enrichment, self-betterment, refreshing skills, dipping our toe into something totally new, for diversionary purposes, for actual university-level degrees. I have signed up so many times for these MOOCs (massive open online courses) and never really participated in a single one until now.

Not surprised, then, when I visited my current course’s webpage to read: “If you have got this far and completed the first test, you are amongst the 45 percent left who started the course.” Three weeks in (one-third of the length of the class), fewer than half are still in the course. According to UK Times Higher Ed online (2013), only about seven percent (!) of MOOC students complete the courses they start. Remarkable.

Then again, it is not surprising – there is nothing holding you accountable. The learning with MOOCs, if you learn or engage at all, is passive at best.

While not nearly as passive (collaboration/group work and interaction is required), I have nearly completed an MA degree completely online but have not finished the last little bit – but I found that even with the level of self-discipline I have (I work mostly at home), finding the time and discipline to keep up on readings and lectures was really tough. If school/studying is not the priority or does not have some immediacy in my daily life (that is, the Coursera class I am taking now is quite relevant to my daily work while my MA had very little to do with my life or career), I am not going to be nearly as motivated to make it a priority.

But every time I sign up, I have high hopes and, even more, the best of intentions.

Backbiting

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While perhaps I could be a willing proponent of literal back biting (haha), the whole concept of “backbiting”, as in badmouthing someone who is not present (or, as I define it here, complaining about something rather vague only to have someone with whom I was speaking create a drama about it and turn it into backbiting – even if there was no text or subtext to indicate that), is not my thing. I have suffered the consequences of, but not permanently learned a lesson from, confiding in all the wrong people – or just by being opinionated and unabashed about opening my mouth. The most understanding ear is often attached to the most treacherous snake. The problem comes when you realize it too late. I am not really in a situation like that although I suspect that some of my complaints are making the rounds (but not in a malicious, backbiting, drama-creating way), but I have not yet pinpointed who the “culprit” is, so still freely sharing my opinions and frustrations. (In such scenarios, images of the film Raise the Red Lantern spring immediately to mind.)

I don’t know why this train of thought makes me think of a teacher I had in junior high and high school. Maybe because we ended up making fun of her behind her back all the time? Maybe because, in the course of a fairly short span of time, people can change, and you (and they) want to preserve you exactly as you were when you met them. In this case, the teacher in question taught my pre-algebra class when I was about 12. She was an incredible teacher who made all manner of mathematical complexities seem simple, assigning everything very methodical approaches that were so grounding and solid that they carried me through algebra and various other mathematical pursuits long after that class had ended, and I was exposed to much less gifted math teachers. You know what they say about getting the basics right. She left the junior high to teach at the high school, and I relied completely on the fundamentals she had taught, but little by little, each step I made in math was a downhill step. By the time I hit geometry in 9th grade, I was lost and had no idea what was going on (not to mention that I have no ability to conceptual shapes and angles and could not begin to write a proof about how an angle as big as my fingernail was the same as some angle that was as big as a house).

This teacher had her quirks, of course (ultimately why we made fun of her), from the laminated posters of Neil Diamond plastered all over her classroom to the what I can only refer to as “whorehouse chandelier” earrings, to her love for expressions like, “Yowza!”. She was her own character. Her self-satisfied attitude and even the “I am cool” voice she adopted in her teaching was enough to sicken me. But you can’t really argue with a virtuoso, particularly when she clearly not only knew her stuff but knew how to convey that information in a neat and palatable way. (I still can’t quite erase the memory of her smug expression and tone when she would show you some easy way to solve an equation and say, “All you have to do is plug… (pause for effect) and chug.” My response: Ugh.

But people change. I am sure she was still a math-teaching whiz by the time I got to the high school and landed in algebra II/trigonometry. She just did not apply herself. It was in fact only because of her mastery and teaching skill that I could manage the more algebraic elements of trigonometry. But for me there was WAY too much geometry mixed into trig (just seeing a webpage about trig has me petrified), and I was completely derailed. And by this time, the once careful, methodical, albeit arrogant, teacher, had taken on all kinds of extracurricular duties, like coaching the track team and god knows what else. She created all kinds of barriers between herself and the students, such as insisting that during class, she would only accept two questions on the homework. As a result of all these limitations, I got more and more lost, and by the time I began failing exams, it was too late. She, reflecting on her memory of my identity as a “good math student” from our previous time in the same classroom, called me in for a one-on-one chat and basically asked, “What happened to you?” (She was also not impressed by my brief pseudo-goth appearance, which seemed to make her think I was on drugs.)

Frankly, I wanted to ask the same thing, so far was she from her teaching roots. “What happened to you?”

Ultimately we were, in those three short years, in completely different places in our lives. When she finally saw how much I was flailing about and bothered to ask me if something was wrong and whether she could dedicate any time to help me further – because suddenly she was more than willing to answer as many questions as I had – it was too late. I was so far gone that I did not even know how to ask questions about what I did not understand.

Harbingers of Techie Doom – Skipping Humanity

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Circulating on the web is an article called “Young Techies – Know Your Place” by Bryan Goldberg. He contends that it’s a great piece of satire (a point that has been lambasted, in particular by Andrew Leonard at Salon and Jason Calacanis).

It’s hard to sum up concisely all the things that are wrong with the so-called “satire”.

It reminds me a lot of debates about whether athletes should finish school before they go pro – or grab the opportunity when they have it. In those cases, the window and scope of opportunity (and probability of getting injured) indicates that young athletes should probably seize the chance while they have it. You have all your life to go back to school later.

The same could be said of young techies – and we could all embrace the idea that formal education can be had any time (granted, it gets harder to fit into your life as you get older and have more responsibilities, but at the same time, many new high school grads really are not mature enough to invest the kind of money in college that they do and end up wasting a lot of money and dropping out or spending a lot of money and still coming out without a clue about what they want to do). If a person has the tech skills needed and in-demand and can gain valuable work experience – well-paid or not – that’s great. I don’t think anyone is saying that that should not be a personal choice.

However, Calacanis succinctly pointed out the insensitivity and lack of humanity in Goldberg’s argument: “polarization of wealth & unemployment are important issues of our time–not something to be a smug about”.

It is not as though people are not routinely priced out of living in certain cities (this has always been a problem, to varying degrees, in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris). But to laud the ability to drive prices up (rather artificially) not only sounds smug but points out clearly what these young techies may be missing in their makeup: humanity and compassion.

Humanity and compassion cannot be taught in school or in a menial job, but so much of what happens at university, as an example, is sociological learning, analysis, learning to think and process new kinds of information, emotional maturity, character building. A lot of what happens when you work in “menial 8-dollar-an-hour” jobs is a kind of learning how to live a grounded, down-to-earth life. That’s not to say everyone has to do that to understand. It is just that “jumping to the front of the line” and being smug about it – and not at all considering the larger-scale repercussions for all people – of any “revolution” (in this case a geographically restricted tech revolution that is upending real-estate/housing stability) – denies the idea that poverty or becoming one of the working poor is something that could happen to anyone. While it is not particularly likely for many of the young techies, there is something about lacking well-roundedness or lacking the connectedness to a community, that is alarming. Or, maybe it is not their disconnectedness – as much as it seems to be the disconnectedness of the guy writing on their behalf – satirically, as he claims.

The American way – a light extinguished

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus”

I like to ignore the realities of America now that I don’t live there, but it is true that what happens in the US does affect the world.

Brainwashing in the US begins early. Most people don’t think of it that way – and even rather anti-American people I meet in Europe sometimes think I am going too far when I describe the US system as a form of slavery (especially if one compares it to actual slavery, which of course is an entirely different, toxic and horrifying institution/monstrosity). It might be better to call it indentured servitude, with the indenture owed to student loan companies and increasingly inhumane workplaces. People are too brainwashed to know that that is the machine they are a part of – indoctrinated into the idea that they are would-be millionaires (as John Steinbeck said, ““Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) or that “anything is possible” if they work hard enough – and taught from an early age to value material goods over anything else, so that, unless they are actually hit by real hardship, an average American thinks he is prospering because he managed to buy … a new Jeep or something.

I often tell the disembodied and soulless story as one in which you are born and are told from the earliest time that you must get an education, so you go to public school (or whatever form you attend) and basically learn how not to think while a lot of nonsense is hammered into your head and creativity is systematically removed – stay in line, be quiet, color inside the lines, do what everyone else is doing, no that is not the right interpretation of this, there is only one right answer and only one way to get there). Then you are told you have to go to college or else you will not get a job. You go into great debt to do so. Naturally after that your hands are tied by the debt, so you take whatever job you can get rather than whatever job will make you happy – but you are also convinced that you will be happy if you buy the aforementioned Jeep. And of course unquestionably America is the greatest country in the world (and if you question it, get out because you’re no patriot!), so it does not matter that you don’t have the money or time to travel to see the world. You have a Jeep you can drive around with since you have cheap oil! And since you are stuck wherever you are anyway paying your student debt, you might as well do what everyone else does. Buy a house. Get married. You might start to question whether you are happy in your job, but you know you won’t find another one easily anyway … and now you have a kid or two, so you need to stay in your job to keep your healthcare. Then you play the tug-of-war with yourself about whether you can be a good parent, whether you have enough money for their daycare, whether one of the parents should leave their job (if there are two parents, of course) until you enroll your own kid into the same system that produced you just the way you are now and the same story repeats. And repeats and repeats.

This story, even if it differs from individual to individual, is somewhat amazing to incredulous Europeans, who actually don’t think of the details and intricacy of how this average American mind is formed/created. They often just imagine that “Americans are dumb” (broad strokes of generalization, of course) but fail to take the whole system into consideration. When I tell this story to the average American, it is equally amazing because the semi-awake one never thinks about the fact that each chain in the link of his life is some spot where he has been further handcuffed into the, shall we say, chain gang? University costs – mostly free in much of Europe – healthcare – largely free in Europe – daycare subsidized by the state – lots of vacation time and maternity/paternity leave … sure, taxes are slightly higher (but honestly not that much) – and most do not feel like they are enslaved by their jobs. You can leave any time without risking health coverage. These too are generalizations, especially in this era of steep austerity cuts and unemployment at unheard of rates in much of mainland Europe (Scandinavia is not quite in the same position).

The general theme here, though, is that there is a tremendous freedom to this and an impetus to then really think. But how could an average American be expected to think with that whole backstory forming and informing his life?

The American lifestyle and system creates a certain kind of constant fear. Fear of losing one’s job, fear of violence, fear of being sued, fear of in any way being out of step with the norm. I thought about this one night as I was driving my long-distance commute back home and saw a guy hitchhiking trying to get from a town called Bengtsfors to Årjäng (none of which will be familiar to or mean anything to anyone reading this). It may not be charitable of me not to have offered a ride since I was driving right through Årjäng. But hitchhiking is dangerous territory. I have no idea if this guy posed any danger, and maybe anywhere in the world, it would be foolish to chance it, but even if it were almost a guarantee that it would have been safe, I still would not have done it. You can take an American out of America but not shake the full American paranoia out of them. I have more than my share of this paranoia, assuming that everyone has bad or dangerous intentions and ulterior motives. Being American has taught me never to trust anything.

Maybe it is crazy and sounds like I am looking for the boogieman around every corner, particularly in the working world. Somewhere in me, I find it fun to search and apply for (and interview for, if called) jobs. It did not start as a fun hobby – it was more out of necessity when I searched like mad to find a job (as was always the case in my earlier life – applying for 100 jobs and getting maybe one interview or something). But eventually when I did not need to worry about it anymore and did not need a job, I decided it was partly fun, a bit of a game and one can always use interview practice (and potentially a free trip somewhere). But it was partly this paranoia showing its face – companies go under, companies downsize, industries change – you need to be ready and out there and know what the bloody hell is going on. Be ye ever ready, right? And I am.

Before the big crash of 2008, I was living in Iceland and actually went on a lot of interview trips around Europe… Dublin, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, London, a few times to Helsinki… cannot complain. While it is not always practical, it usually pays off. I have never once been blindsided. If you are paranoid (and/or American) enough, you will always see the writing on the wall and READ IT.

One of my freelance/side “careers” has ended up being job counselor/life coach/resume-and-interview consultant. Not that I ever wanted to do that. Europeans especially need a bit of coaching in this department because they have never experienced the dog-eat-dog American work culture (and I hope they never reach a point that they experience something quite like that). But Europeans are too soft, and there is no doubt that some things in Europe are slowly moving in a more American direction (although I don’t think it will ever go to the extremes). In my last job, there was a huge reorganization a few years ago, and something like one-third of the company was laid off. When this happens, employment laws offer considerable protection, and most decent employers extend protection and assistance beyond what the law requires. Despite the “helping hand” and the clear signs everywhere that change was afoot, those affected by this first reorg (which they euphemistically called “right sizing”) were completely blindsided because they have never been taught (how nice for them) to read the signs of what is coming. I think most aware Americans in a corporate environment are always paying attention to little things because paying just a bit of attention may pay dividends one way or another. Of course Europeans might be told pointblank that change is coming but never imagine that it will have any effect on them. Many of them were devastated in the first round of layoffs, even though they were poised to get at least half a year of pay (even if they got a new job the next day, they would still get the full pay). And the Norwegian economy was not affected much at all by the global economic downturn – so most people found jobs immediately. Their sense of panic was almost cute in its “working world naivete”. Not that I think it is great that I am so on my toes and ready for anything all the time.

It turned out for the best, of course, when I was sort of part of a later “right sizing” process. I was, as always, prepared. It was rather hilarious when my manager called me to give me the “bad news” – kept saying stuff about how I must feel so devastated and would feel it when the shock wore off. But all these strategies and acute situation awareness enabled an automatic prewarning. I was not shocked; I was not surprised. I was ready.

As we know (or should know), life is not defined by work – or should not be. Somehow, this is where American life and “ideals” derail. Increasingly, people work and work and don’t get anywhere and won’t be able to afford (in terms of time or money) some way out of the situation they are in (this is probably already the case, and I am just out of touch). When I consider that people who work in the service industry do not come close to earning living wages, I am appalled. But the system is set up this way – to glorify and maximize corporate profit, to supply consumer demand for impossibly cheaper and cheaper goods sold in stores staffed by people who cannot afford to eat.

Lovely. What a happy Thanksgiving, America.