Friday, June 13, 2014

On subjectivity in my studies

When I was an undergraduate, for the first two years I was a declared chemistry major, but I was taking English classes on the side. I liked both of them, but if you pressed me about which I liked better (especially by sophomore year, when I was lost in the crowd in the big organic and physics seminars) it would have been English. As I have long described the joy of English classes, there is no wrong answer. That freedom felt wonderful to someone who had always done well finding the one right answer. It was like giving an artist a blank canvas instead of a coloring book.

Now don’t get me wrong. I still liked chemistry. Lab was a blast. I liked watching what we were learning turn into something you could see up close and personal – even if all you got was either a white crystal or a clear oily liquid for your unknown. But seriously, I don’t know how we are going to solve any STEM crisis when you take 19-year-olds and tell them that they need to know this reaction pathway and then reproduce it. It wasn’t really understanding the physical process, but those damn drawings and the right steps were hard to remember. A PhD candidate friend of mine passed one of his professor’s wisdom to me when I was complaining about the memorization issue: there’s a reason you write it down. I digress though. At the time, I felt too constrained. I also preferred to read novels than to get glass-eyed over a text book.

I eventually swung back and understood why the regimented form was needed from a pedagogical standpoint. There are a number of foundational things you need to know in chemistry to build upon the next step. Chemistry is often taught as a parallel to the process we came into knowledge about the physical world. You start with the basic properties of matter, and then get more granular until you are looking at the development of theories of atomic structure. From the Greek “unbreakable” to a plum-pudding model to the familiar solar system  model to a quantum model where orbitals are about probabilities. Then these atoms combine based off of the individual property of the atom or the ion. It is cool stuff. In English, there is less of this. There are few, if any, foundational texts. The requirements at my undergrad at the time were just early and modern American and British literature, plus a class in Shakespeare. You could take those in any order. You could turn in anything you wanted. You could say you wanted to be a poet and people took you seriously.
Funny thing though. I had the chance to teach basic composition classes in grad school. (For some reason liking to read prose and wanting to be a poet qualifies you for a position teaching basic argument). The hardest thing was quantifying the grades. It is easy to tell what piece of writing is better than another, especially when students are all responding to the same assignment, but putting numbers to those subjective comparisons is a futile exercise. It made me think when I was working as a TA for the chemistry department at my undergrad. The students had to turn in their problem sets the professor assigned and I graded. They had to identify their unknown.  There were clear cut answers. From a teaching perspective, this was simpler. It was easier to tell a student just what they needed to work on. Advice for a writing student is much harder, and you feel as if your words are ignored even if the student revises the text.

Right now, I’m studying leadership in the context of a MBA program.

I was hoping that there would be clear-cut answers. “Do these things, and you will be a better leader. Let’s role play leading” Alas, that is not the case. Being a leader is situational, and there is no one thing that you can do. It depends on the leader, the organization, the followers, and the goals. It is a process, but there are goals to work towards. It feels like it is stuck in a weird middle ground between the subjectivity of the arts and the objectivity of science. It is a whole brain process, but just studying it isn’t enough.  I need to take what we’re learning and apply it to my day to day life. I feel it leaking in, if only by the fact of studying leadership am I conscious of my acts and how they are not just what I am doing daily but how I am leading. My only regret is that the class is structured over such a short time – 8 weeks isn’t enough to fully absorb what we’re talking about and then to actualize it in practice. I find my mind going in the day or so after the class and then it fades and I have to re-energize and refocus for the next week’s class. Part of me is looking forward to accounting, but part of me is already missing this class.