Approximately 5:30 Friday (yesterday) evening, I told my unit chief that I was headed out for the evening and weekend. That was not only okay, it was expected; I’d been heading into work 11 hours earlier to work on a very active set of reports from the day’s activity in Japan, which I summarized and sent out to our colleagues. (Ah, the joy of nearly 24 hour coverage due to time zone differences: the Japanese Embassy in Tokyo starts to wind down about the same time that the first folks in Washington are getting on the Metro to start their work day.) He surprised me by encouraging me not to think about work for a couple of days as I went to a concert and planned for a quiet time at home. Well, those who know me will recognize an immediate disconnect: Barrett to not think about work for whole days at a time?
Well, that is a challenge these days, for multiple reasons. It’s actually something that we discussed in a couple of our (distributed, online) lab meetings last fall, about finding appropriate forms of balance and mechanisms for taking care of one’s internal resources. Now, it would have rung hollow if I were to take 3-4 hours on Christmas Day to write up a blog entry on work-life balance. (Don’t worry. I spent much of the day with a roaring fire, computer games, and lots of cookies.)
When I woke up this (Saturday) morning, I was looking forward to coming out to the kitchen to a waiting blanket of snow, to make some tea and settle in for a quiet day… of typing up notes and responding to Purdue emails and designing new projects. That is a day off? Well, it is a day away from reading media reports of Japan – Korea tensions or considering meeting preparations for trilateral engagement. But on the other hand, the truth is that I have somehow set myself to try to manage two full-time jobs. How does that really work?
One of the first recognitions is the difference between what I want and what is, and if there is a gap between the two, what do I want / choose to do about it? The truth is, I specifically chose the Jefferson Science Fellowship opportunity as a unique experience to expose me to activity and opportunity that I could not get in my past patterns at Purdue, with a few grad students and departmental responsibilities and a few obligations to the state of Indiana. Those aren’t bad things, but there was a gap that needed to be addressed. (When I return to Purdue, there will be another gap, because for me to return to exactly the set of activities I left this past August would be a waste of this experience, no matter how familiar, or comfortable, or well-prepared I am for them.)
I am seeing this recognition in another context when I think about the experiences of my students. To be here, in Washington DC, is more than anything an experience of learning. And sometimes, learning takes up all of my time: it is one of my primary job tasks. Learning is also a task that takes focus, and discipline, and patience. I’m not just talking about the process of collecting a bunch of facts for later regurgitation, which is what most students think of in the context of taking a class for a grade. I mean a deeper learning, about context and discernment and recognizing what aspect of this pattern is important, and real, and valuable for me to integrate into a larger whole.
Well, that can be a process of life discipline, which then applies to everything. Learning is about noticing how I balance on one leg during morning exercise, or how well I could run through the cold last night to catch the bus or rail, or… how I improve the management of the lab.
It’s often been suggested that I have a casual approach to managing the lab. Actually, this is not true. I could insist on clocked hours, minimum amounts of in-person time in the lab, weekly reports, and any number of other rules. Some people actually have de-selected the lab because I don’t have lots of those rules. As I experience this year as an immersion in this bureaucracy, I recognize that it’s not that students don’t learn anything if I impose such rules; however, it’s clear that they can easily learn the wrong things. Did you reflect on the task, or simply put in the time? Did you embrace the difficulty as a form of instruction, or simply as a burden? Do you examine the situation as a system with gaps in design or execution of objective functions, or just complain about how “they” don’t care about (fill in the blank with whatever you feel is important from your local perspective)? Do you even think about what the various objective functions are?
As a result, I now have a much deeper appreciation of what choices are being made when one of the members of the lab considers taking on a full time job at various stages of her/his graduate professional progression. These are not trivial decisions, and there are various reasons why someone may need to choose to work at a job during one’s graduate career. And I’m not casual in my feelings about this. But I need the student to learn the right lessons, and I have learned (with both students, and children, and other organizational participants) that the right lesson comes from a well-designed combination of the teacher, the student, and the lesson (there is an interesting book on this called The Seven Laws of Teaching, originally published in 1884. Read widely, question deeply.)
One of the lessons is that getting a PhD is about learning to think about questions, and developing answers, that others have not done so. If you can’t work your way all the way through your own dissertation topic and method and analysis and interpretation, you really don’t deserve the PhD. Yes, your advisor can help you, but if you need your advisor to give you all of the steps, then it’s not your PhD. (Thanks, I already have my own, and I don’t feel the need for another.) Another lesson is that very few people outside of academia, or those who do not have a PhD already, really understand what that first lesson is about. There is just a different way of thinking and working going on. Not bad, not good, just different. So, if you’re used to approaching the world with one set of priorities and tools, and you move to another place where people don’t approach the world that way, you’re going to have to shift back and forth… and most people don’t shift back and forth among ways of thinking that well.
On the other hand, given how much I think about rules and lessons and managing and studying humans for a living, if there is a rule or insight or lesson I try to share, it’s usually not just for the sake of the rule. (See above.) That’s not casual either. If there is a disagreement between myself and a student on a dissertation topic, or methodological approach, or insight available from a course, there is a possibility that the student is right and is operating based on information not available to me. (In other words, they are good and working in an alternative domain.) However, one observation of learning the right vs. wrong lesson is when I see students trying to fulfill the letter of a rule, but miss the spirit; or try to avoid the rule because it’s not ideal or fun or convenient (or “fair”?); or argue with me about how my accumulated experience is not relevant for a particular case. Again, there may be reasons why any of those is correct. But, to be honest, that’s not likely, and what concerns me more is, what lesson is the student learning or trying to execute?
So, as I move forward through 2017, there are lots more lessons to learn, and quite a few gaps to examine and determine how I might want to resolve them. I admit that I am nowhere near content with my resolution of how to perform both Purdue vs J Desk jobs ideally. (One lesson is, I really want to do this J Desk job really well, because that is the priority and opportunity available to, and surrounding, me now. I care about the Purdue version / job, but it’s hard for me to do that full time too, and still care for my health and sleep and eat properly. So it slips in priority right now… but I know that’s only for a year, not for an indefinite shift as a career. That’s a lesson also for the students.)
Lessons are, in fact, about resolving gaps—not just gaps of factual knowledge, but gaps of how experience can affect interaction with the world. I continue to explore how to find the right gaps, and resolve them in good and effective ways, to solve the right problems. That’s a fairly comforting and happy thought for me as an engineer. And although we didn’t get as much snow as I might have hoped, I can improve my recognition of what gaps were most important for me to close today.