Activists or “Camilla, why don’t you care more?”

Every once in a while, I spend some up-close and personal time with activists. They have incredible energy, are unbelievably invested in what they’re doing, and really, really care about whatever they are advocating for. They are extraordinary. Occasionally, I wish I could be an activist, but I never will be. I admire activists. I admire the way that they invest all of their emotional energy in their causes. I will never be able to do that.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Deirdre and I dragged a petition around the HRC. You probably talked to us at some point (we talked to more than a third of the junior fellows in the HRC, we think). This post isn’t about the petition, so I won’t tell you what it was about (that is for another post), but I will say that dragging it around the building, trying to persuade people to side with me, and talking to people who disagreed with me was absolutely exhausting. And how much did I really care about the issue at hand? Well, from a philosophical standpoint, quite a bit. But I usually do not care to persuade people. I’d much rather provide them with information and allow them to make their own decisions.

I believe in knowledge. I believe that the only way to eliminate fear is to provide information, to facilitate learning, to teach. I base all my ideas about the world on knowledge and on information. I am not a feelings-y person. However, I don’t really know whether that means that I care less than activists care. My way of changing the world is slower than theirs. I want to create information and I want to share information. I want to change the world by teaching and by learning. I don’t think that I can fight legislation or get legislation passed. I am not strong enough to travel to far-away places and fix the problems there. But, bit by bit, person by person, I hope I can, maybe, change the world by teaching.



I have a poem, also, which is not relevant to this post at all.

What I Learned From My Mother
By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

On teaching, failing, succeeding, and making your best better.

Christina, Deirdre, and I are leading a CM this semester about planning for next fall’s FHRCS classes.

Writing about things often helps me to understand them better. Thus, I want to clarify my own goals for this CM on my blog. They are personal goals–this CM will be focused almost entirely on our personal growth as teachers, presenters, and (maybe more importantly) friends, in our roles as FHRCS STAs.

I have taught FHRCS twice. The first time I was completely clueless–a junior roped into teaching FHRCS by an email from Michael Blackwell. I had never taught a class before and felt as if I was just fumbling through, making things up. I tried my very best. We did fun stuff and academic stuff. We covered the 11 ways to earn honors credit and reviewed COSPs and toured VBI. We ate dinner together a couple of times, went to the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market, and had interesting discussions in class. For my background and for my experience, I thought that I had done my very best to teach a good FHRCS class.

This fall, I taught FHRCS again. I was really excited, really ready to go. with the experience I had, I knew I could do a better job teach FHRCS than I had before. I covered the same topics, did most of the same field trips/activities, but simply felt as if I wasn’t investing enough in my FHRCS. I wasn’t connecting enough with them. Maybe my activities weren’t exciting enough, or perhaps the topics I covered were ones that my students had already heard from other sources. Maybe, as a senior, I was just becoming too far removed from the freshman experience or I was too busy to be sufficiently invested in each of my students.

Regardless, I felt a bit like a failure. I want to do my own best. When I was young, I was in 4H. The 4H motto is: Make the best better. This has always meant a lot to me.I try to do my best, always. I really care about the things I do. How, then, do I improve? Is doing your best good enough? Not always.

I want to be a better friend to the students in my FHRCS next year. I’m an awkward person: not very friendly or charming or outgoing. I am sometimes overly critical or judgmental (although, I try not to be). Connecting with people can be very difficult for me. I really want to connect with the students in my FHRCS. I want to make friends with them and I want them to be engaged in FHRCS and to think that FHRCS is fun.

My FHRCS, fall 2012

Note: I feel as if I ought to discuss my FHRCS in at least one post this fall. Hence, this post.

Again this fall, I taught FHRCS. I haven’t been blogging about FHRCS (and won’t blog about it again, after this post) because I think that blogging about FHRCS (on a public blog which can be read by anyone) is a bit awkward and a bit of an infringement on the privacy of the kids in my FHRCS. However, I want to briefly discuss the things I value about FHRCS and, in particular, the things I value about the group I taught (and am still teaching) this year.

I like teaching FHRCS for several reasons, most of which I discussed in this blog post. Although I wrote it about my group last year, it is as true of my group this year as it was of my group last year. In addition, I really like who I am when I teach, discussed here.

My group this year is really excellent and really diverse, which made all of our discussions interesting. I have many different majors, many different career goals, many different personalities, and many different levels of engagement in the community represented in my group.

A proper analysis of FHRCS cannot be done in a public forum. However, I’ll say that I learn much more teaching FHRCS than I’ll ever learn in CM. Some of my ideas for FHRCS this year have been very successful, while others have been disasters. I can’t always be right and (I hope) I learn from all of my failures. CM is great, but suddenly having to construct and teach a class to 10 freshmen is a learning experience that I’ll never get anywhere else.

Science Should Inspire Awe (also, a little bit of poetry)

Science. It isn’t about memorization, you guys. It’s about HOW F***ING AWESOME THE WORLD IS.

Often, I cannot believe how absolutely awesome life can be. I do not mean my life specifically, but life in general: how life runs and how exceptionally well it works. I am talking about metabolism (the process which turns food in to energy), meiosis (the process which allows sexual reproduction and genetic diversity), and protein synthesis (the process which makes or allows for the production of nearly all of the stuff we are made of).

More and more, my science classes simply seem to pound ideas into my head. Memorize and regurgitate, they say. Get a good grade on the exam and then forget the materiel. Science isn’t the study of what the world is made of; it’s a list of facts. If you know them all, you’ll get an A in the class. Then you can get into a good graduate school and then get a good job. You don’t need to understand how the world works or why it works that way.

I chose my two majors, biology and animal science, because more than anything, I want to know how everything works. I want to know about bacteria, about biomes, about placentas, about the cell cycle, about digestion, about everything else. I chose to take the senior-level biochemistry for majors (even though I knew I wouldn’t get an A in it) because I wanted to learn all of that information in as much depth as it is taught in in that course. I get to learn about proteins, about enzyme kinetics, about glycolysis. Science should be taught in such a way that more students retain a high level of wonder and awe.

Here’s this, for your perusal:

you shall above all things…
by e. e. cummings

you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young,whatever life you wear

it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance


Isn’t glycolysis awesome? Thanks to khan academy/google image search for this image.

My girls

…by which I mean, of course, my mares.

Mac is making tremendous amounts of progress. She is my favorite little horse.

I would love to see her (which here means: ride her) in English tack, with this trot. It’s going to have to happen soon  (just as soon as I’m brave enough to deal with her occasional pre-canter crow-hop in an English saddle). 

She also has a pretty solid jog. Here’s her lope! It’s not solid, but it is now on the correct lead, which is progress.

Here’s my quarter horse, Sirius, pretending that she is a well-broke western pleasure horse (she isn’t. She aspires to run barrels in the future). I really love this girl. This is after about 1.5 months off (I’ve been busy and putting all of my time in to Mac and my school work).

I like her because she can do that (above) and then turn around and do this:

And here I am with my very favorite girl (this is when we went to Kentucky together last year).


How to break out a horse and not die, part 2

In my last horse training post, I wrote about what huntseat riders call “backing” a horse–basically just getting on for the very first time. This takes some courage on the part of the trainer and quite a bit of judgement and commitment, but not a whole lot of skill. Today, I’m going to tell about the first few rides. These should be brief–no more than 10 minutes each–but after each one, the horse will have vastly more knowledge and experience than he had previously, so their importance should not be underestimated. These rides do require skill on the part of the rider, most important is perfect timing. When pressure is applied and when it is released makes all the difference.

As this point, you have a horse that is used to having a person on his back. However, he has absolutely no idea how to respond to any of the cues that are typically used.

I like to use a bosal (a bitless bridle) or even a halter for the first few rides, because it reminds the horse of what he already can respond to–a halter and a handler on the ground. He knows to stop with pressure on the halter and to turn with pressure on the halter, when his handler is on the ground. This should translate to a stop and steering (to some extent) while he has a rider on his back. Thus, your first big concern is getting going forward.

Mac, my little Quarter Horse girl from the previous post, and I had a bit of a tricky time with this part. She really likes to stand still and hang out. She was happy to walk forward with me on her back if she had a buddy (my mom) on the ground with whom she could walk, but was really reluctant to walk on her own. I turned her to get her going (any sort of motion is better than none) and praised her enthusiastically whenever she moved forward. I also used my legs as a cue to go forward–even though it wasn’t a cue she recognised yet I squeezed or kicked gently to get her moving and released pressure immediately when she did more forward.

This phase of horse training is by far the most difficult to describe. I do it almost entirely by feel and based upon my previous experience. It isn’t an endeavor that can be described verbally in a complete way. You’ve got to learn to do it by DOING it. It is almost like art, in a way. An artist cannot describe how he paints so perfectly and I can’t describe how I get a three-year-old horse to go.

Here we are. I’m teaching Mac to turn and walk forwards by very gently applying some let pressure and pulling her face in one direction.

How to break out a horse and not die, part 1

In college, some people go to bars for fun. Some people join sororities or clubs. Some people just study all the time. Some people join bible studies, or dance, or row crew. Some people run charity events. I, however, really like breaking horses.

I guess I ought to begin by explaining the term: “to break a horse.” Non-horse people seem to believe that this has something to do with breaking the horse’s spirit or his will. I do not know where the term originated, but now it simply means to to the first part of his training. Once a horse walks, trots, canters, stops, and picks up leads (this is a reference to the asymmetry of the canter–the horse must canter left and right), he is typically said to be broke or green broke. The term is NOT “broken” (even though that sounds more grammatically correct), because nothing about him is broken, he just knows more stuff.

Here I’m going to tell about breaking out a 3-year-old quarter horse mare: Mac. She’s pretty much the cutest. She’s dun (tan/gold with black mane and tail) (I’m going to try to add a picture of her at the end of this) and she’s super smart and willing to do what I ask.

I started working with Mac at the beginning of January, about twice a week. I started by introducing her to the saddle and working her on the ground (leading at the walk and trot, stopping and backing up). I didn’t know her before I started this training, so I was also getting a feel for her personality. It’s really important, when training horses, to know what kind of individual you are working with: is she brave? is she smart? is she cooperative? If the horse is none of those things, you’ll have a long, difficult road ahead. If you’ve got one of the three, you’ll be OK. And if you’ve got two, or even better, all three, you’re set forever. Of course, there are other quirks and personality traits as well. But, when trying to explain horse personalities to a person who has never been personally acquainted with a horse, those traits are the first that come to mind.

After Mac was used to the saddle and I had taught her to trot and back quietly when when I was leading her from the ground, I started getting her used to weight on her back. I leaned over the saddle like a dead body (legs on one side of the horse on a step stool, arms on the other, torso draped over her back, gradually putting more of my weight on her and less on my feet.

After these steps have been completed (and, depending on the trainer, sometimes many other steps), it’s time to get on. Once you’re on, you’re committed. You have one leg on each side. It’s hard to bail if things start going wrong. You and your horse, in my case cute little Mac, have to be ready. I took a deep breath and got, very gradually, on. She didn’t care at all. I sat on her for about half a minute, just enough time for her to think about the fact that I was there, but not enough time for her to get worried about it. Then I got off, told her what a good horse she was, and quit for the day.


A reflection on FHRCS

This blog was supposed to be about my colloquium magnum, TA-ing FHRCS. Instead in has, slowly but surely, become about poetry. I’m cool with this transformation. I sure hope that the HRC blog graders are too.

It’s a little awkward blogging about FHRCS and knowing that “my” freshmen may be reading what I write. There also isn’t that much that I can say about teaching FHRCS. I plan class, then I teach. Sometimes we go some place or have a discussion or have a speaker in to class.

I’ve really enjoyed teaching FHRCS. I want to do it again.

I had a conversation with my lovely roommate about FHRCS. She asked about my teaching experience, because she thought that sometime she might like to teach FHRCS. Spur-of-the-moment, without thinking it through, I realized that there is only really one good reason to teach FHRCS. I told my roommate that she ought teach FHRCS only if she wanted to do it for the good of the freshmen in FHRCS. Not for teaching experience, not for resume-building, not for building relationships with faculty, not for avoiding colloquium. I want only the very best for my FHRCS. They are 13 fantastic, intelligent students with bright futures ahead of them. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. I feel lucky to have been a very small part of each of their VT experiences.

So, to my FHRCS: Thank you.

Training Horses

Today, I was as proud of my horse training and my horses as I have ever been.

Just to put this story in context: I’ve won classes against 20 competitors and placed against 40 of the best riders in my breed in the country. I’ve jumped 3’6″, received national and state year end high point awards, and broke several horses to ride. This moment beats those ones.

When I started riding my mare, Goldseeker, in 2005, she was a bit of a wily, unpleasant critter. I loved her, but she wasn’t well trained and there were many things that she was unwilling to tolerate. I rode her 5+ days/week for four years and showed extensively. By the end of those 4 years she was as solid as she would ever be–good at many events, and fairly quiet and sweet. Mainly, though, she liked the fast and exciting: jumping, barrel racing, reining, pole bending.

Sadly, we retired her at the end of 2008 because she was developing arthritis in her pastern joint and wasn’t sound enough to show. Three years later, her arthritis has improved considerably. I can ride her a bit and she can pull her cart. However, she doesn’t work hard.

Today, a girl with Aspergers Syndrome came out to ride. She is a junior in high school and apparently is very quiet and shy and has a hard time connecting with her peer group (as least, this is what I was told). Kay (Goldseeker’s owner) and I helped this girl ride Goldseeker. Goldseeker was quiet, slow, and obedient for this girl. The girl successfully walked, trotted, stopped, backed up, and steered on horseback. The grin on her face made every bit of horse training I’ve ever done worthwhile.

The gelding I trained and showed in summer 2009 also packed a 10 year around like nobody’s business: head set, jogging quietly, acting like this is what he had always done.

That is why I train horses. I don’t do it for money (I don’t get money, either. Haha). I don’t do it for the glory I gain at horse shows. But, if my hard work can make an unhappy teenager cheer up or a young kid gain an interest in horses, then what I did was worth it.


PS. I got a HAIRCUT.

PPS. I am finally reading Vonnegut.

“Do you like where you’re living? Do you like what you do?”

Yesterday, I remembered why I am here.

I remembered why I am here blogging, why I am here teaching FHRCS and why I am here in the HRC, taking part in this giant social experiment.

On Sunday evening, one of my FHRCS students came up to my room, so she could go over her COSP with my roommate, with whom she shares a major. After about an hour, it became apparent that my roommate had done what she could, and since I, too, share a major (another one) with my FHRCS student, I started helping her complete her COSP. I quickly found, however, that what she really needed help with was her pre-med requirements. I went down my hall and recruited one of my neighbors, a very serious pre-med student, to help us. For over an hour the three of us: my roommate, my neighbor, and I, hovered over my FHRCS student and gave her (sometimes completely contradictory) advice about her COSP and her future.

Now, that’s all well and good, but it’s just another day in the life of an HRC resident. No big deal.

However, last evening, during FHRCS, I asked each student to say his or her favorite and least favorite thing about Tech, so far. The student I just discussed went first. She said that one of her favorite things that had happened so far at VT was taking her COSP to be reviewed, and ending up with three upperclassmen hovering over her, fussing at her about what to change and what to keep the same, and then dissolving into unrelated conversation.

That made me feel awesome! Seriously. I am not often completely serious in this blog, but I am being completely serious right now. I am here, in the HRC, because I can, maybe, make a difference in the life of another student. And maybe, in turn, others will make a difference in my life.

The band Monsters of Folk says this:

Go listen.