Tuesday, April 10, 2007

They won't tell me what to do

This is not the post I started out writing.

I was originally going to write about how frustrated I felt - mostly with myself - after the conversation I just had with President Miller two hours ago. I wanted to save the world, do something that would help us understand engineering education at Olin and beyond; I wanted action. Now I don't have concrete goals. No concrete action plan. I have an even vaguer idea of what I'm doing than I did when I walked into his office. I was aggravated because I felt like I was wasting his time because I couldn't figure out what to do and I was burning to do something and help and why couldn't someone just tell me what to do already.

During the drive to Wellesley, I realized that was just it. I'd been trying to get him to tell me what questions I should be asking. And like any good teacher, the response had been "I'm not going to tell you that. It's something you need to find out for yourself." I just hadn't been willing to hear it.

It's something I've been struggling with a lot, this refusal from my teachers to tell me what I should do. Just as I think I understand the rationale behind one layer of independence, they pull another rug out from under me. "Say something! Tell me something!" I'll beg. "That's great!" they say, with a twinkle in their eye. And I rant, and I rave, and I learn - reluctantly - how to stand on my own feet, how to evaluate myself, how to work with sensitivity to the input of others but confidence enough in my own words to forge ahead in the face of silence.

Hypothetically, at least. It's a long, slow path.

(It's worth noting that I only realized this because I was walking into my tutorial where I say exactly the same thing to students all the time. "No, there is no rubric. I am not going to tell you what to say in your paper. Do you think that data point looks reasonable?" I should keep teaching, if only because it makes me a better learner.)

I'm forgetting a lot of things in my attempts to be productive and forge ahead (an overshoot reaction to my recent extended bout with wheel-spinning chaos and overanalysis paralysis). When I waxed philosophical on the effect of different teaching methodologies on classroom effectiveness, Pres. Miller told me to turn around. I did, and two feet away from my nose was a plaque talking about how fundamentally, "we are not teachers of subjects, we are teachers of persons."

He told a story about a professor who once walked out in the middle of a lecture with no explanation because he'd gotten an idea for a research paper mid-stride and just left his students hanging, wondering whether he was going to come back - an extreme version of the worship of ideas over the appreciation of people. Not necessarily a terrible thing. Ideas are important. But is that the priority I want to have? Am I focusing on knowledge for its' own sake, or because I want to impact lives - and on what level?

He reminded me that truth is not the only thing you can seek. There's also the beautiful. There's also the spiritual. And that we forget that what is fundamental to us is usually not fundamental at all, and that we remember this when we work with people different than ourselves; the further back we need to go to find a common denominator, the more we need to examine the basis of our communication and our work. It's the reason I'm getting so ripped apart in humanities classes. I've forgotten how to be an artist. Just a little bit, but enough.

So I'm going to do a little bit of art now. Perhaps it will get me back in more of a balance. Balance! It's always a balance, seesawing between the sharp teeth of several utterly incompatible unstable equilibria. What I need is more time.

No. What I need is to do less. Not just do less and think more. Do less and think less and be more. Be present.

This is going to take a while.

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