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letter thirteen: looking back and planning for the spring
Tl;dr: a smattering of thoughts, readings, and recommendation.
We've rolled into 2020, and I feel inundated with "best of the decade" posts. When I look back, well, a decade both seems impossibly long and short at the same time. In 2009 I was graduating high school and struggling with decisions to make about whether to pursue music professionally or try new things. Never in a million years would I have thought that I'd be back in school, without a single violin in the home, and as a teenager, research was not on my radar.
What are my wishes for the next decade? (A) to graduate (I have now reached the point in the program where people who knew me before go, "you finish this year, right?". (B) that we might look back and think, "wow, can't believe the world was so bleak back then!" As always, and like many of you, I straddle the lines between wanting to stay informed and needing to compartmentalize in order to get work done, all the while wondering whether the work I'm doing is meaningful. It definitely doesn't help that we are in the dark of winter. These questions around work we do in the world + academic work led to generative conversations with friends, and I'm very excited to co-facilitate a couple workshops in the next few months (at AOCC + AAAS) with AL + Van Anh on these very questions, called "Activism across communities: Finding alignment between work, action, and care." What does it mean to do activist work when our day jobs require so much emotional labor? How do we take care of ourselves and our communities near and far, all at the same time? (The three of us don't have answers but we do have questions!)
Other recent updates: we're not on strike anymore, so it's back to work! Also I did another millennial thing and joined BKB so I can really co-work and then take climbing movement breaks (so far so good). I had ambitious plans to write my entire first traft of my dissertation proposal over the last two weeks...spoiler! That traft was disastrous, but I've got a solid outline that makes working on each section feel a little more achievable. 2020 is going to be the year of a serious writing routine. And...I drafted my syllabus for my spring module about online learning communities! (If you want to see it lmk). Excited to read and discuss these pieces with students...I hope students will be excited too!
I read things I loved over the last few weeks - here are a few passages that resonated with me:
"Over the twenty-odd years I worked as a technology practitioner, I came to realize that my wrestling with the TRS-80 was not just a beginner's experience; it was a paradigm for all the work ahead. That state of not-knowing proved permanent as I moved from machine to machine, operating system to operating system, language to language, each move a re-encounter with bafflement, as was my introduction to the mainframe. Failing was also a permanent state of affairs. Programs crash. The causes of bugs hide from discovery. Designs lead to dead ends. Goals are ill-conceived. Deadlines are absurd. One must develop a high tolerance for failure, learn to move forward from discouragement, find a ferocious determination, a near-passionate obsession to solve a problem, meanwhile summoning the pleasures of the hunt...
"When I worked for others, though, I was always certain my incompetence would be revealed at any moment. I had taught myself chaotically. I learned what I had to know when a job required it and where my interests randomly let me. I was aware at all times that I had only islands of knowledge separated by darkness; that I was surrounded by chasms of not-knowing, into one of which I was certain to fail...[later] I learned I was not alone. I met a postdoctoral student in CS at Berkeley. I talked with him about my islands, the darkness, the fear. He answered without hesitation: 'Oh, I feel that way all the time.'" (Ellen Ullman, Life in Code, p.243)
"I dare to imagine the general public learning to write code. I do not mean that knowledge of programming should join the ranks of subjects that represent basic literacy: languages, history, philosophy, the fundamentals of science and mathematics. I mean it the other way around. I hope that those with knowledge of the humanities will break into the closed society where code is written: invade it....life is enmeshed in code, and yet only a bare percentage of human beings on earth understands what a computer program actually is....My thought is that we open the door to the coding rooms, spread widely the knowledge of what happens inside. It doesn't matter to what degree an individual learns to code; that knowledge does not need to lead to professional programming. The goal is for the general population to pierce the computing veil; to demystify algorithms; to know that code has biases; that programs are written by human beings and can be changed by human beings; to know the concepts, the patterns of thinking, the paths through which human thoughts get altered as they pass into the language of computers." (Ellen Ullman, Life in Code, p.245-246)
[Read a version of this chapter "Programming for the Millions"]
[PH - pronouns are weird in this passage]
"Over the years, I have noticed that the child who learns quickly is adventurous. She's ready to run risks. She approaches life with arms outspread. She wants to take it all in. She still has the desire of the very young child to make sense out of things. She's not concerned with concealing her ignorance or protecting herself. She's ready to expose herself to disappointment and defeat. She has a certain confidence. She expects to make sense out of things sooner or later. She has a kind of trust.
"On the other hand, to the less successful student, the world is not only a somewhat senseless place, it's tricky. It's her enemy to some extent. She doesn't know what is going to happen, but she has a pretty good hunch it's going to be bad. She is not trusting.
"The successful student is resourceful, and he's also patient. He'll try something one way and if he doesn't get it, OK, he'll try it this way, and if that doesn't work, he'll try it another. But the unsuccessful student has neither the resourcefulness to think of many ways nor the patience to hang on.
"The good student, possibly because he's not so worried, possibly because he has this style of thinking, is able to look objectively at his own work—to stand back from it and to look for inconsistency and to see mistakes. This can't be right if this is right. So, let's see what's wrong here." (John Holt, Learning all the time, p.155)
A decade is too long, so here are some 2019 faves:
Books I loved:
Making Comics. How to do nothing. Crumpled paper boat. Emotional design. Secret Commonwealth. Why Art? Severance. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. The wave in the mind.
Books I cooked from:
Bazaar. Nothing fancy. Dining in. Bread toast crumb. Not a book but the best focaccia recipe.
Black pants I wore (and will probably wear for the next decade, tbh, even though none of these go up to my sternum):
This one for comfortable "business casual." This one to climb in and then bike to school. This one when you want your legs to be softly hugged all day. This one when you accidentally go past your two-mile radius but still want to look presentable. This one when you want to pretend to be a woman of leisure, drinking coffee and slouching around on Sundays.
Any book recs? Cookbooks you're using? A better focaccia recipe? Hit reply.