The bright side of hating your passion

“I hate science.”

I hear this a lot in the hallway.  It’s sort of the default way of saying some experiment or endeavor backfired without getting into details.  I’ve said it enough times too.

Wednesday after our weekly class meeting I am going to watch the second of the two PhD Movies that came out recently (eight thirty in the GLC!).  I paid the $5 on the internet to watch the first with friends.  We had a great time.  There was something almost therapeutic about laughing, realizing you weren’t laughing alone, and hearing friends say “oh so true.”  But I just kept picturing someone who was not in grad school watching us watch the movie.  If I had watched this as an undergrad I would not have skipped a beat.  If I had watched graduate students watch this as an undergrad I might have got a little worried.  It really shouldn’t be that funny.

But I don’t hate science.  Not by a long shot.  That’s really not what we are trying to say.  We wouldn’t say that if we didn’t care so badly.   Having had my fair share (I think we’d all like to say more than that) of frustrating outcomes in the lab, is probably the single most influential experience on my recent thinking about teaching.  Is this what Parker J. Palmer meant when he described “mining” emotions for insights into an institution and a need for change?  I’ve been really grateful for the conversations in this class and the way they have given me resources to use this “insight.”

We have to ask “why my specific branch of science?”  Or come to terms with the idea that our job may be entirely dependent on the existence of a government agency that exists to give out money.  I’ve never been more aware of statistics that say we don’t need more STEM students for the jobs that exist now.  I’ve also never been more convinced of the importance of the role of the teacher-facilitator in science.  We’ve been challenged by Seth Godin to ask “what is school for?”  I don’t agree with everything Seth Goodin said – let’s be honest, sometimes of love the sense of self efficacy that comes with a good textbook.  But I think this question is critical and I think part of the answer for the educator is being able to shift that question to students.  To have students think critically not just about what is education for, but also what is this subject matter for?  To open it up both to criticism and innovation.

I’ll go a bit far afield for my example.  I saw a National Geographic article talking about child labor in the chocolate growing industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.  Dark chocolate is absolutely my comfort food and I’m starting to think I need to do a much better job at knowing where it came from.  I will shamelessly campaign for organizations fighting childhood forced labor and slavery.   But some of the data seemed odd to me.

The ages that were listed as child labor were children 5 – 17.  I read this the same day I had heard one of the bus drivers for the Blacksburg Transit talking with pride about how he had helped on his family’s farm starting around age 7.  “I guess I kind of skipped childhood, which is why I am such a big kid now.  I enjoy life.”  He took pride in his story.  The article said 68% of child laborers work unpaid for their families.  The way the statistic is stated it almost sounds like they the article is saying it would be better if more of the child laborers were shipped off to work for somebody else.  Obviously a critical point comes in whether these children are able to go to school, and the article acknowledges that.  But I wonder if the way we talk about a problem (a very real and critical problem) also reveals some of our own idiosyncrasies – the way we have shifted of view of what learning is for.   In the US would we think of a 5-year-old working at Walmart the same way we would think of a 17-year-old working at Walmart?  Sometimes we do, but it’s a pretty broad age range.   We act like we think it is abuse to have teenagers preparing for the economy as it exists in their region rather than the economy that we have in the United States.  I fully understand that the extent to which this disrupts education, disrupts opportunities to ever chose a different livelihood.  I get that there are multiple facets to this conversation.  But what career are we holding out for by being fundamentally opposed to a 16-year-old working?   What can we learn from this reaction about ourselves?  In the US we are worried that people graduate only knowing how to fill in bubbles in multiple choice tests and don’t have the savvy and practical skills for the work force.  Still we call it success if a 16-year-old is doing a good job bubbling in test answers and abuse (we only do this very inconsistently, but still) if a 16-year-old is, well, working.  And the part I find most interesting is that I bought this logic.  For my own life.  For my own education and priorities.  Until I got to grad school and realized how many research-critical skills I could have learned from waitressing.

The laughter at the PhD movie is laughter at a different disillusionment.  Not necessarily a bad one.   Palmer’s story of the young new medical student put in charge of a large group of patients and being in many ways set up for failure, afraid to ask for help, says a lot about the transitions that are set up between education and profession.    Palmer’s answer was to train students who remember why they chose to be where they are.  But the fascinating thing about grad school is that many of us did not choose to be where we are.  We chose our field of study and found ourselves where we are.  Grad school shifts your view of what your field is.  Grad school is good for reveling the long suppressed question of “why?”  It puts on the table things that were almost treated as sacred.  It’s not that the details are more stressful than we expected.  It’s as though we have the right for the first time to question the foundational things.  We start to learn the bright side of disillusionment.

I thought I knew what school is for, and how it related to my field.  Then in grad school as much time and effort as you have put into studying it, sometimes you realize you didn’t know what your field is for.  Or even all of what your field is.  The impact it has and the impact it should not.  The way it changes.  The way it is funded.  These questions are valuable.  Not always smooth, but part of what it means to be a professional.  They are the questions I want my educators to have asked.  And there is nothing anyone could do that would make me ask the question “what is school for” as seriously as when I start to ask it for myself.