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History Got Me Hooked

As a student I preferred to wander around from department to department. I took classes that covered topics I was interested in or classes taught by professors I wanted to get a chance to learn from. I was a history major on paper but, mostly a student of as many disciplines as possible. Struggling to understand the different frameworks in different disciplines was some of the most intellectual fun I had while at Mary Washington.

Being the type of student who cannot settle down I often had a love-hate relationship with my major. There are certain requirements that need to be met (my inner-rebellious student just freaks out at the work “requirement”) when studying history and sometimes I didn’t particularly care for those requirements. The people who saw me stressed out by my history classes often wondered why I was a history major in the first place? It is a good question and I’m still not completely sure why at times. The best answer I have come up with is history is what happened to grab my attention first.

Monroe Hall, Sunny Day 2A history class I took my freshman year was one of the first places I had a moment that you long to have as a student of anything. It was one of those revelatory moments where you see something you hadn’t seen before even though it had been in front of your face all along. Grok is still the best word I can find that describes those kinds of moments. Those moments take many shapes and forms but, you know it when it hits you. It is a brain high where your thoughts race. You understand something in a deeper more meaningful way. For me the insight was finally realizing how historians create (yes, create) history. I talked a little bit about it after my freshman year but, the words there don’t really do it justice. Perhaps because I’ve repeatedly come back to the same revelation in different ways that it is now even more meaningful to me. Throughout my K-12 experience the historical accounts written in my textbooks were unchanging facts to me. Why would they represent anything other than what had happened? History classes were about the content not about the process. It was in my first history class in college where we looked at many primary source documents that the very obvious truth of what the discipline of history is suddenly struck me. There is no magical record of all of history that is written by divine hand that we print out as truth. No, history is a struggle to piece together the past through various types of evidence. The struggle to understand what was going on at a certain time without injecting your own biases (a seemingly impossible task). The struggle to combine the evidence and your analysis to say something about the past. My freshman year was the first time I saw this process in a way I had never seen before and I wanted more of that feeling. Throughout the rest of my time at Mary Washington I would run into the feeling several more times. Sometimes in history classes, sometimes in other classes.

Being a history major frustrated me at times because it wasn’t always about the process and sometimes it was a bit too content heavy for me. At the same time there were some history classes where I found the content highly interesting and was less interested in the process outright. I suppose I contradict myself. I still have those moments where the reality of how history is written hits me all over again and I feel a little bit of that brain high. Maybe because writing history begins to get at the question, “what is truth?” and to me that is a compelling question.

To Maintain the State of Doubt

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgement suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful…To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.

– John Dewey, How We Think

I spent a lot of time reading various blogs on umwblogs during my time at school. I had my finger on the pulse of conversations in various classes. Most often I lurked but sometimes I would comment. It was during my last year at Mary Washington I noticed a marked difference between how I formulated thoughts and how many freshmen on the  first-year seminar blogs formulated opinions. It is not that the incoming freshman class was stupid (although everyone always like to say kids are dumber than they used to be) I just had reached a level of thinking that most freshman had not. I was finally seeing those intangible skills that I had been told college would give me begin to surface.

It was during my last two semesters that I finally began to fall in love with doubt and skepticism. I had discovered the freedom in doubt. I found conversations that excited me and inspired me to go and do the research and learn to identify a poorly constructed argument. One of my favorite blogs to comment and challenge students on was a freshman seminar called Food Chemistry. I’m a historian by training but, that doesn’t stop me from getting in over my head in other disciplines. Most of the time my comments were simply challenging them to look at their sources, second guess their opinions, or even just provide evidence for their claim. This type of skill doesn’t require any special training in chemistry, mostly it is just critical thinking.

I had a professor who likened the ability to hold multiple ideas at once to a golden retriever’s ability to hold multiple tennis balls in its mouth. At first it can only hold one but, it can figure out how to hold two or three or more. Besides giving us all a good laugh the analogy made the point that learning how to hold multiple views and hold them equally without judging is a skill that is learned. We give a lot of lip service to critical thinking. I can’t think of many people who think it is a bad thing but, surprisingly most of us are terrible at it. Now most of us aren’t terrible at in ever aspect of our lives but, from what I’ve seen of this world so far (and its not much) most people go with convenient and shallow over difficult and deep. It is true we don’t have enough time to weigh heavily on all matters in our lives, we’d never get anything done. But I hope I don’t forget that many of the opinions I hold now that I assume true are not necessarily true. And I continually hope I have the humility to admit that just because I believe something doesn’t mean its true. This is why I’ve come to love doubt and skepticism. It puts me in a position where I don’t have to cling to ideologies or defend ideas just because it is the idea I’ve always believed. I go with what evidence and logic points to and hope that it leads me to being a better, more rational person.

Richard Feynman when talking about scientific integrity said this:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I could go on in detail about all the ways work against our critical thinking abilities. Go ahead and take a look at the wikipedia page on the list of cognitive biases. We have a lot to overcome. I spend a fair amount of my free time working on my critical thinking skills and challenging my thinking (where was this when I needed it in college?) because I enjoy it. I almost get a geeky kind of excited when I catch myself making assumptions I shouldn’t and correcting myself. The freedom to doubt is a beautiful thing.

Misunderstanding My Degree

On my last post Andy commented, asking how my education at UMW has fit in with real life. I’ve learned many things since leaving but, one of the first things that came to mind when Andy asked this question was peoples’ perception of what a college degree means.

I’ve discovered most people don’t understand that having a liberal arts degree (specifically a B.A. in History) means that I can do more than teach history or work at a museum. I’m really *this* close to making a shirt that says, “Yes, I have a degree in history. No, I’m not going to be a teacher”. It has become clear to me that most people don’t understand how my degree has prepared me for than doing “history stuff”. One of the most important skills I gained while at school is the ability to think critically and apply those basic skills to fields outside of history. So while I may not have deeper knowledge of fields outside of the one I studied, I know how to get information I need and I am reasonably good at evaluating that information.

One of the things I was told all the time by people at school was that my degree would prepare me for a wide variety of jobs, careers and prepare me for life in general. While I still believe that these people are fundamentally right I’ve realized that this idea is not so widely understood (or maybe it is rejected, I’m not sure) and it is a bit frustrating to have to try to repeatedly explain to people that I am more than a history major, much more.

On a related note I have a post on critical thinking and skepticism in general in the works.

Leaving the MW Caravanserai

A Look Down Campus Walk I finished my time at Mary Washington back in December. Since my graduation I’ve been thinking about what my time at Mary Washington has meant and what I have learned. It is not easy to encapsulate 4.5 years worth of experience into a few blog posts. Where does one even begin? I’m not quite sure. I plan on writing on many things and I do not know if there will be any cohesive narrative in the end but, I know I need to start writing. There is too much that I have learned and experienced that I need to set down on digital paper before time and distance changes the memories.

As I mentioned, I have several things I want to write about but, I’m curious to see if my readers (if there are any still out there) are interested in hearing about anything in particular. So, please leave a comment if you want to me to ramble on about something 🙂

Before I begin to write about my experience I would like to take the time to thank the many people who helped me reach graduation .First of all I am blessed with a supportive family who have been with me through so much. I have many friends who struggled on this college journey with me. I’ll always look back on my time at Mary Washington as a great time in my life for friendship, laughter and all the good things that make life enjoyable. There are many faculty and staff members (many of whom I now consider friends) that supported me through their teaching and friendship these last few years. So thanks to Jefferey McClurken (my long suffering adviser); Steve Greenlaw (who opened the door for so much); members of DTLT past and present, Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, Patrick Murray-John, Andy Rush, Jerry Slezak; the numerous teachers (and I use that term not in a strict sense of teacher) at the university who have taught me so much (in no particular order and forgive me for not linking to you all): Gardner Campbell, Teresa Kennedy, Zach Whalen, Nina Mikhalevsky, Jack Bales, Mara Scanlon, Krystn Moon, Sue Fernsebner, Neva Trenis, Bob Ekey and many more professors I had the pleasure of getting to know. The list of people is long and likely if you read my blog you have helped me along my journey in some way, so thank you!

The future is uncertain right now. I just hope that wherever I go that I will remember the lessons I have been taught at Mary Washington. And more importantly for me, I hope I remember the words of the many people who have faith that I will do something great with my life. Thank you all.

Fellow-Passengers to the Grave

For Christmas, a quote from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.


cc licensed flickr photo shared by Zedzap

G is for Grass

I know that grass sometimes gets a bad rap in this day and age. The idea of the gated-community with its pristine lawns, perfectly green, manicured and weed free, seems to be a symbol of upper-class indulgence. Rather than focus on the sometimes crazy things that people do to show off their wealth I want to focus on what grass meant to me as kid growing up.

L-R: Thom, my brother Tim, Me, Kate (Thom & Kate are essentially my siblings too)

We always had a nice thick lawn. My father had the ability to make just about anything grow (in fact I could be doing this post on his garden). The kind of lawn you could run barefoot on and not worry about hitting a bare patch with a potentially deadly rock shard embedded in it. But it seemed like every kid on our street had a good lawn to play on. Whether we were playing running bases, tag, or any number of pretend games, you could be sure that the lawn padded us from the many spills we took in over exuberance to get somewhere. I still enjoy the look of grass stained jeans.

 

Thom and I at a Tee-Ball Game

Of course big grassy areas were the best. On these fields you could play outfield in tee-ball (a position where you mostly stared at the grass because the ball never came out that far) or if you drew a big rectangle on a patch of grass you had a soccer field waiting to be played on. The smell of spring and fresh cut grass still beckons me come to a field with a soccer ball at my feet. I spent countless hours at these rectangular soccer fields all over NJ. Sweating, running, kicking, passing, shoving, sliding, diving.

Grassy hill on MW campus & my feet

I still love walking barefoot on grass or sprinting across a field after lacing up a pair of cleats. Grass is the plant that prevents suburbia from being washed away in the rain, the stuff that childhood memories are literally built upon, a space to play. And if you are lucky enough to stare up at the stars in the middle of a big field, the grass will provide a soft place for you to lay and get lost in the cosmos.

F is for Feynman

Last November I started a 26 letters in 26 days. I never got past the letter “E” but I figure it is worth picking it up again and see how far through the alphabet I can get again.

F is for Feynman, Richard Feynman. If you don’t know who Richard Feynman was check out his wikipedia page. Feynman was more than a brilliant physicist. He was a teacher, bongo player, safe-cracker and whatever else he put his mind to. I discovered Feynman back in late 2007 when I was taking a physics class at the University and enjoyed it much more than I thought I ever would enjoy a physics class.

For Christmas I asked for a book of his and my brother bought me The Meaning of it All. Feynman’s book, which is actually a publication of a lecture series he gave, examines meta questions of science and of life and the joys of uncertainty. He deeply understood that learning was more than remembering a series of equations and that being able to apply knowledge to new and unknown situations was what what deep knowledge was about. Feynman is both insightful and humorous and the wisdom he shares has helped shape my own journey as a learner and someone that wants to better appreciate the value of science. It is not enough to read Feynman though, you need to see the man in action. He is the type of guy whose enthusiasm for learning is so great he literally cannot sit still when he talks about ideas. Go to YouTube, there are plenty of Feynman videos there, but here is one on atoms:

I adore Feynman for his honesty, brilliance and wit. I am thankful for people like Richard Feynman who have inspired me in many ways and who have pushed my thinking. Lastly I’d like to share what Feynman said about Nature through the examination of wine:

Responding to Tweets in One Sentence

So this evening I asked for a blog topic to write a post on and of course I should have known my network would give me some “interesting” things to work with. So here is my one (or two) sentence responses to what people said to me in the order they were received.

Response to DistinctLaugh: Alas, I did not go to to the Rally but I probably should have because I support the idea of being able to discuss diverging ideas without thinking the other person is Hitler.

Response to DistinctLaugh #2: I think puppies are among the most adorable things on earth but, I’d rather get a full grown dog rather than deal with puppies and all the mayhem them cause.

Response to Pragmanic: I swear that I enjoyed that shrimp scampi. You have redeemed yourself many times over.

Response to DistinctLaugh #3: Well I think the divorce rates have been fairly stable (and high) for awhile and probably have little to do with the rise of egocentrism (whatever that means). No matter how children are raised they will probably find a way to blame their parents.

Response to Leelzebub: LARPing prepares you for a lifetime of being seen as the weirdo with weird habits but makes you realize there are others just like you.

Response to zachwhalen (who linked to this video): This appears to be a meme I am not familiar with but as I see in the sidebar of youtube there are many videos that use the leek spin.

Response to DistinctLaugh #4: While I may have griped about the snark, over time the levels of snark from Joe and Brad has improved the quality of my life and I am sure the lives of many others.

Response to zachwhalen #2 (linked to this site): Is there anything more hypnotic than a YTMND page that has a never ending loop of a meme? I find the leek spin particularly hypnotic.

Response to Leelzebub #2: Yes I should have gone to the rally and I have no good excuse not to go, just the rationalization that I did have a major project due a few days after the rally.

Response to BahktinJali (referring to the film The Best Years of Our Lives): Yes there is something very hot about actresses from an earlier period in Hollywood, mainly because they didn’t have to show a lot of skin or be overtly sexual to be hot. Also I can’t believe you called them chicks.

Procrastination: The War Inside Your Brain

“The future is always ideal: The fridge is stocked, the weather clear, the train runs on schedule and meetings end on time. Today, well, stuff happens.”

– Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today

Like nearly every other human being on the earth I suffer from procrastination. My procrastination is also coupled with perfectionist tendencies but, that topic is for another post.

I was reading a blog post on procrastination and it must be the first time I ever heard procrastination framed in such way that wasn’t related to organization and didn’t make me feel like a failure for not being able to fix it. This quote really drove home the point for me:

Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.

You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong.

Now on some level I knew procrastination was related to the inability to delay-gratification but, the article didn’t make me feel like a child for being unable to do it, it just made me feel human. As a human I hate to admit that I am incapable of choosing to delay gratification but, lets be honest that is something we all struggle with and it goes way back in human evolution to impulsively not delay things like sugar or using resources while they are available. So I admit it, I’m an instant-gratification junky. I have tendency to believe that in the future that somehow the conditions will be more suitable to get to work done but, as any procrastinator knows this is simply not true.

I now have a new mantra when I’m trying to get work done and I feel the urge to just check Facebook quickly or watch that one episode. I used to view my future self as someone better at work but my mantra goes something like, “future you is evil, do something while you can!!”. Now this seems a little ridiculous I know but, I’m amazed how it has worked. Especially when it comes to school work, as any professor I have ever had can tell you, I’m a notorious last minute worker. There are many reasons that complicate this but procrastination as a failure to predict my future mental states is one of the major contributors. Now it hasn’t fixed my procrastination completely but, I don’t want to fall into the fallacy of thinking that just because there isn’t an instant and easy change that it doesn’t work.

In addition, I try to no longer frame things I have to do as “I will” but rather as “will I?”. I wish I had the reference handy but, this article discussed how people are more likely to complete a task if they don’t make it something they have to do (I will) but rather frame it as a choice (Will I?).

Combining my new mantra (“future you sucks at work”) and framing my work as “will I?” has been helping me create a new model of approaching work in my head. Sometimes it feels a little ridiculous to go through these phrases and repeat them to myself but, as I have discovered sometimes you are just going to feel a little ridiculous in order to fix things.

From There to Here

I was eighteen when I arrived at Mary Washington and I was ready for a new adventure on my own.

But leaving one place for another does not mean you leave who you are behind, a lesson quickly learned. I spent many lonely nights walking the streets of downtown Fredericksburg wishing I was somewhere else.

Sometimes during those late night wanderings I would stop at the top of one hill near the school. From the location I could stare up and see the lights of dorms and eventually the light of the new bell tower. It was from that spot I could see how the school sat high upon Marye’s Heights. I would stand there, in that spot that gave me the view of campus that was so vastly different than what the up close view impressed upon, and stare at it imagining I was somewhere else.

Night Lights: Campus View

Much time has passed since those late nights and now when I do walk it is rarely in the same painful stupor that pushed my soul to roam the streets.

I have not moved that far from my first new home in Russell Hall. I’ve been in other dorms, other off campus housing and now in an apartment on the slopes of Marye’s Heights. It didn’t occur to until a week or two after I had moved in but, I now live in apartments that sit near the spot where I spent so many nights staring up at the school. This realization held a weird narrative beauty. How strange it is that I now live on the hill that so many nights had seen me wish I was not living at all. If my life were a novel this would be the moment in the story where the main character realizes that the pain of the past had healed over, things have come full circle. Life isn’t perfect (is it ever?) but, I am thankful for those odd moments when the narrator in my brain makes me take note of how I find myself in the same location. It is in those moments that I realize what great distances I have traveled.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


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