Overworked, Burnt Out

As many of us are gearing up for that final push of the semester, this seems like an excellent point to remind everyone that the faculty are indeed not trying to run students into the ground with project work. Keith Hopper, Entrepreneur in Residence, weighs in.

Most people I’ve spoken to at Olin about being overworked acknowledge that it can be a problem here, risking the creation of an environment that negatively impacts learning. It’s not just students. The few faculty and administration I’ve spoken to about overwork seem to agree.

It might be easy to blame faculty, because of the assignments they give and the courseload, but this can’t be the full story. Similarly, it would be easy to assume that students just voluntarily take on too much, but it’s likely not that simple either. I wonder if the structure and resources of Olin itself might set up a potential problem.

Olin is an environment that rewards taking on a lot of stuff. Of course, the nature of project- based education is you can’t just study for a test, take it, and be done. Most projects will take as much effort as you’re willing to give them. The final tends to be a project deliverable, and most of these deliverables coincide at the end of the semester. As the semester wraps up, some students probably aren’t sleeping. They’re just trying to get it all done, although arguably this happens at any high-performing school.

Additionally, Olin provides endless opportunities to engage outside of classwork. There’s clubs, and SLAC, and a cornucopia of tools, resources, machines, and materials to learn and create with. Wrapped around all this are several structures that encourage more engagement, like passionate pursuits, self-directed courses, SERV, and co-curriculars. And those are just the ones off the top of my head. These all seem like a great, even critical part of the Olin experience, but do endless opportunities for creative engagement come with a downside?

Perhaps there are ways we might improve the situation without sacrificing what makes Olin such an amazing place. Better defining the problem and designing experiments to reduce overwork or its impact seems like the Olin way. For example, what if we experimented with fewer curricular projects, but ones that went further? This might provide the opportunity to vary the pace of work across semesters and courses and reduce switching costs and distractions from juggling too many simultaneous things. Alternatively, class projects might be broken up into more discrete efforts to vary the pace of work within a semester. I already see some faculty nudging courses in this direction.

I could also see the benefits to just making overwork and student engagement a more active topic of discussion and directed learning. For example, it’s important for all of us to learn when to explore and try many things and when to turn away the distractions and follow through with fewer things. We all need to make decisions throughout our lives on how much we should be taking on and how broad that sweep is. I see Olin as a great place to explore these ideas, and ideal if all of us (not just students) could avoid learning the hard way to the point of getting overworked and overwhelmed.

Everyone’s a Charmander

The following are the positive and enlightening thoughts from Graham Hooton ’14.

Urgency
I feel like everyone, especially in college but just in life, has a sense of urgency. Every time you have an idea, you need to go and implemented immediately, you need to go to change things this cycle. If you have the idea that you can do better then you have to start doing that right away, and it has to become a habit right away. You have to change your life because you had that idea.

Then we’re disappointed when we fall short of those goals in our New Year’s resolutions or things don’t change. We wanted that something to change and we talked to people about it and it didn’t change. OK.

Let me point about that [falling short] is totally expected, that’s what happens time and again. Why should you be surprised? It always happens that way, be surprised if it does [work the first time], be happy when you succeed and then if you don’t succeed take that as a lesson.

I have dozens of different notebooks and apps and organizations systems. It’s funny to go back and revisit [them] because it’s like, “Oh OK, well I’ll use this for tracking my workouts or use this for tracking reading,” and I go back and I see these lists and I thought of all these great list, but I never went back to it because I didn’t stick to it.

Can you imagine if I kept up with all this? That’s all I would be doing. I’m an ideas guy. I have great ideas about myself, about the world. I don’t have to act on all these ideas; in fact, I need to pick and choose, decide what I want to do. What to do as opposed to what can I get what can do.

Instead of looking at how to change yourself, accept yourself and the community and everything around you. And if there are things that need changing, figure out how you can do those while not actually taking on more work, more labor, more time, because you don’t have it. [We] always fill ourselves up to the brim. If you’re going to take on something else, be explicit about what.

Teaching
(Graham is getting his teaching certificate for high school science, more specifically physics)

It’s amazing and it’s actually quite liberating because I feel like I can just teach them anything and everything and they’re learning something. And if “this” is the concept, I literally have to talk about the words that are associated with this concept; they’ve never even heard them before, so you have to learn those words.

It’s fundamental but that’s what the difficulty of teaching is. Figuring out what people don’t know and trying to remember what it’s like to [not] know. You can’t teach it from a position of knowing and that’s why a lot of college professors struggle because they know so much. There’s a saying, “The more that you the more you know the more you see.” So you see the connections that students aren’t seeing, oftentimes things make sense to you because of a higher level concepts that you’ve already grasped.

Because of that higher level thing I understand this more basic thing more completely, but [the students] have never seen a lot of [concepts] so they can’t use that.
I thought it would be strange to be called Mr. Hooton but it’s… I think it would be very strange if they call me anything else because they are Charmanders, running around and they’ve got their little stubby arms, big eyes and everything and they’re so far from evolving into Charmeleons. Or at least, they have a little bit of self awareness. That’s my grade elevens, I think, they’re the Charmeleon level.

You’re never going to know everything so. And sometimes, you get really good at the stuff you’re doing, you don’t really realize that you’re getting good at a certain thing. [You might be] keeping track of shipments or something and [you] get really good at keeping track of [shipments]. And that’s a little tool in your toolbox that you never really knew you needed and maybe you never do need again. But maybe it does come in handy.

Being Deliberate
Align your actions with your intentions. If you want to be a certain way and you immediately start acting that way; if you realize you’re not acting that way, just start acting that way. Take that moment of realization to kickstart you again. And then you eventually build it into habits.

Also, leap at whatever opportunities that you have to do the things you want to do. That’s an instinctual thing, you say, “All of this seems like something I want to do. And I just follow it and see where it goes.”

Do your best at things. If you’re going to be doing something, really dive in, lean into it. Make sure you’re getting most of it, and you’re putting the most into it.

Find something you can give to people that’s really easy for you to give but that makes them feel so special, because you’re amplifying your positivity that you bring to the world so much. If what you’re doing makes their day, and for you that was just ten minutes. Whatever it was, if you’re amplifying your impact, I think you’re putting your own efforts to really good work.

For the first two weeks of my teaching, what mattered to me was that maintaining a life outside of it. And then the process stepped up, so I was teaching every other day, and then it stepped up [again] so I was teaching every day. And I realized that at that point what I valued was doing a really good job. So I dropped [everything else]. I was getting [to school] at seven and staying until nine pm. And then that’s when they kick you out of the building, that’s when the engineer comes around and says that it’s time to go.

But you realize what you have to do what you value, you have to decide what to do and what not to do.

Engineer Adjacent

Mitch Cieminski ‘16 on his plans for after Olin, and the things about his college experience that led him to the path he’s exploring now.

I was working at Insper in Brazil halfway through my sophomore year. And I think the reason I decided to leave Olin and do that wasn’t because I was some great engineer educator. I didn’t feel like I knew anything. But I just needed something to change and I didn’t really know what it was. That was coming off of a summer of research that was interesting but I didn’t totally love it.

The opportunity to go to Brazil just kind of presented itself. I went and it was awesome, I’m sure anyone at Olin can attest that I didn’t stop talking about it for almost three years. Why I liked it is because really what I was doing there was being an engineering education consultant. And consulting is like a really broad term, but basically I was a collaborator and designer and people respected me by virtue of my position.

Insper professors would ask me questions and seriously want to know my answer because it would seriously affect what they would decide [to do]. I very much felt like my position was not tokenized while I was there, even though we were all kind of worried that it would be. But we really did real work there, so I loved being this engineering education consultant. ‘OK, how can I do this for the rest of my life?’

And that is where I started.

I [figured] I would probably want a degree so people would believe I know things. So I started looking at engineering education programs. And I came across one at Purdue University. And that’s where Mel Chua was going at the time. I didn’t know her at all. I kind of just like emailed her out of the blue and said, ‘Hey I’m thinking that maybe I might want to study engineering education. And you’re doing it right now and you’re an Oliner, so maybe we should talk.’

We had a conversation while I was still in Brazil; that was the first time I ever met her. It was a weird conversation, in part because she told me to not go to grad school. She said to get some years of experience as an engineer and then think about it.

That was like pretty decent advice. But I spent the next two years trying to say, ‘Well if I’m going to be an engineer what kind of an engineer am I going to be?’ I was trying to find jobs within engineering that I liked and it turned out that all the ones that I tried I didn’t really like.

My SCOPE project went really well, and I think that was the best engineering experience I had after it came back [from Brazil]. But in general I realized in being back at Olin that I like engineering but not as an engineer. More as an engineer adjacent.

At first I wanted to be the socially engaged engineer who cares for the world. But now I want to focus way more on the social engagement than the engineering. And slowly that became, ‘I want to be a social scientist who studies engineering.’

Now I’m on the Alumni Council and there are a lot of Oliners who do not identify as engineers. Given that so many Oliners aren’t engineers, what is our rallying cry at this point? Who are you, fundamentally?

I think that in the world there’s a lot more flexibility than people acknowledge. I can make a big decision about where I’m going to grad school right now and the truth of this that in two years I could leave with a master’s degree and do something else or at the end of five years I could have a PhD, and just say, “actually I just want to be an engineer,” and I could go back to that. Or I could just decide to do something totally different; I actually do have a lot of flexibility.

And I’m young so that’s useful and. I have skills, so those are useful as well, but I’m in a very privileged position to be able to have that kind of flexibility. Right now, I’m living with my parents in between college and grad school and that’s because they can support me through that and they’re willing to as well.

If I make the wrong decision I can probably deal with it. And I’m pretty confident I can do that. Most people I’ve met in my life, especially at Olin, can definitely do that as well. Switch and figure things out.

Out of The Ashes – Chapter 8

[THE CLANS SEEK RESHANESE PATRONAGE. WHAT IS YOUR REPLY?]

“Good luck, Ambassador,” you say. “You’ll need it.”

Ambassador Yesui gives you an amused look. “There is no luck in my line of work. Only opportunity. Those who seize it prosper, and those who let it slip…” she trails off, then changes the subject. “I find it strange that an enemy would wish me well.”

You shrug. “As strange as an enemies sitting at the same table and having a pleasant conversation?”

Yesui smiles. “Just so.”

“If today’s ally may be tomorrow’s enemy,” Adrian cuts in, “perhaps the reverse can be true as well.”

Zhenjin’s face clouds over, and Yesui’s other bodyguards begin to mutter angrily. “You would have us be allies? After what your people have inflicted on mine? After–”

“Zhenjin,” Yesui says warningly. He shoots you an incensed look, but falls silent. “My bodyguard has no tact, but he speaks truth. Your people have wronged us greatly–” she raises a hand to forestall Adrian’s rebuttal. “–and we have wronged you in turn.”

“I cannot dispute that,” you say, “but–”

Yesui shakes her head slowly. “It is not so easy to forgive, Knight of Imvarr. It is not so easy to forget.”

You nod. “One of the first Knights wrote: ‘The tree of violence grows swift and strong; its roots gorge themselves with blood. But its branches cast a dark shadow, and it bears only bitter fruit.

The tree of mercy is delicate and fragile; it must be tended with care, kept safe from worms and rot and frost. But its blossoms are fragrant, its fruit is rich and sweet.’ ”

“I would not have thought to hear this from a warrior,” Yesui says.

You nod again. “A lord commands,” you say. “A general directs. A soldier fights and kills. But a surgeon saves those that can be saved, and eases the passing of those who cannot. All place a different value on life, and I cannot say who is right or wrong.”

Out of the corner of your eye, you see Lord Anselm and Lady Jin returning from their meeting with Reshan’s Finance Minister. Your superior looks inordinately pleased with himself, your host wary, and the black-robed Minister looks like someone who’s been convinced to do something unpleasant.

“Ambassador!” Lord Anselm says brightly. “Good to see you at our table. Is something the matter?”

“I was hoping to discuss the river tariffs,” Yesui says without preamble. “Nine parts in a hundred?”

“Nine? They’ll have my head on a pike,” your superior shoots back, sitting down and pulling a plate towards him. “Twelve, and I’ll put in a good word with the new Duke…”

~~

Zhenjin’s ire subsides as Ambassador Yesui wheedles Lord Anselm down to one part in ten, and he begins to move restlessly as they make small talk. You watch him impassively in case he tries anything, but he doesn’t seem to have violence on his mind. In fact…

“Is there something you want to say to me?” you ask Zhenjin. He has promised you a tale – perhaps he means to tell it now?

“Yes,” he says, and the conversations die down. “I will tell it now, if there are no objections.” He looks around the table for approval, then clears his throat.

“It was at Krakov,” he begins, and you know who he is talking about.

“Sixteen,” you say. “His name was Johannes.”

Zhenjin’s lips are a thin line as he gazes over your shoulder and into the past, putting a name to the face of his past opponent. Then eyes harden, and the young man steels himself against the unwanted connection. “You knew him?”

You nod. Then: “Tell me how he died. I will bring your tale back to the Order, so his successor may learn the truth.”

Zhenjin’s nod is jerky. Out of the corner of your eye, Yesui’s gaze flickers to your face for a moment. Then she coughs and looks away, and Zhenjin obliges.

“It was Krakov where I first fought one of your kind,” he says again. “Where we first learnt that Knights could be killed.” He leans back slightly, casting his gaze about the table. “How much do you know?”

“I am told it was a battle of some import,” Lady Jin says with a shrug. “Heavy losses on both sides, but eventual victory for the clans.”

Yesui nods. “Overwhelming victory in the field – our first – followed by a six-month siege. An Imvarri army dead, along with two Knights.”

“A city razed,” Adrian growls. “Its inhabitants put to the sword.” Yesui’s bodyguards bristle at the accusation in his words, but decorum keeps them in check.

“Unfortunate. But – alas – all too common in war.” Lord Anselm leans back in his seat, ignoring Adrian’s look of betrayal. “Forty-Seven?” he asks.

“I was there,” you say, and you remember.

~~

You remember the disastrous rout; the Second Army caught on the march just as it left Krakov – a volley of arrows followed by a wedge of elite troops and heavy cavalry punching through Lord-Commander Gregor’s weakened center, splitting the army in half and encircling its thirty thousand soldiers to be butchered like sheep.

Then signal banners wavering over the carnage for brief moments, standard-bearers fighting tooth and nail for a few more seconds to pass on the Lord-Commander’s last message:

Retreat.

A desperate push for freedom, agonized screams tearing through the air behind you; some are cut off by choked gurgling, others go on and on and on…

Columns of panicking men and women struggling to maintain formation at a dead sprint, slipping and sliding in the mud while arrows fall like hissing rain and howling half-men tear into the rear…

But Imvarri discipline holds. Your force takes grievous losses, dozens of men dying in agony for every foot of ground you take, but they fix their eyes on your back as you cut through the encircling clansmen, carving a path to salvation with steel and fire.

Nothing stands in your way for more than a moment, enemy rank-and-file fleeing in the face of inevitability – a pack of shapeshifters hurls themselves into the melee in a cacophony of howls and roars; a cumulative ton of feral strength and bestial fury seeking your death, but you cut them apart in the blink of an eye.

A spearhead of grim-faced soldiers widens your breach for their comrades to pass, and your ragged division tears its way out of the killing field step by bloody step. The few surviving mages churn the soil and mud behind the rearguard into quicksand, stymieing your enemy’s pursuit.

After what feels like an eternity, a ragged cheer goes up from the Imvarri as you break out of the encirclement, the last enemies finally breaking and scattering. The city of Krakov sits barely a mile ahead of you, its walls the only safe haven within a day’s travel.

But you have so few soldiers left – two thousand, if your eyes can still be trusted – and more clansmen are surely be on their way. A competent commander would send shapeshifters and cavalry to catch up to you before all two thousand men can find shelter in the city, and the Khagan is nothing if not competent.

A full retreat is suicide, you think. We won’t get everyone into the city in time, and the enemy will attack when Krakov’s gates open to let us through. If we fight and lose, they’ll take the city in a day.

You traverse the length of the column, loping past exhausted troops in an attempt to consult a surviving officer on strategy, but your efforts are in vain. Not a single red armband remains – it seems the clansmen focused on finishing off the chain of command after killing mages.

Two thousand is not nearly enough, you think as your soldiers stumble and limp past you, too tired to do anything but put one foot in front of another. Ten thousand would not be enough.

You consider your options, then make your decision…

~~

WHAT DID YOU CHOOSE?
1. [Sacrifice. You bought time with the lives of your soldiers. Five hundred men and women in ambush a distance from the city walls were no match for the best warriors the plains had to offer, but they blunted the Khagan’s advance enough for you to evacuate everyone else.]

2. [Endurance. You organized a fighting withdrawal into Krakov. The Khagan hammered your forces between his elite troops and the anvil of the city gates, but you held your ground in the face of heavy losses. Imvarri steel may bend, but it does not break easily.]

3. [Aggression. You feigned retreat, then fell upon your pursuers. The Khagan’s elite soldiers were deadly and swift, but in their minds they had already won. After all, how much fight could a routed foe possibly put up?]

~~

“–we cut down almost all the Imvarri, but the Alukhai and Tariat were too eager for glory and spoils. Their ranks thinned, and they let a handful of soldiers escape,” Zhenjin is saying. “Four– five thousand?”

“Closer to five,” you say. “Two thousand from the western pocket, a little more than two and a half from the east. The eastern breakout was able to pull away and flee. Those from the west… not so much.”

The clansman nods. “I heard the tales of your flight,” he says. “The Khagan sent sixty of his finest warriors and ten thousand men to bar your path to the city, but they returned without success.”

You remain silent.

“Truly, a cornered foe is capable of anything,” Zhenjin continues, and you can tell from his grimace that the words are bitter on his tongue.

Lady Jin nods. “A trapped beast will gnaw its own leg off to gain freedom; a man can escape almost any snare, if he has wits and strength and composure in equal measure.”

“Beyond that,” Lord Anselm says, “killing the hunter tends to be a valid – if somewhat more bloodthirsty – option.”

I did what was necessary, you think. I did what I had to–

Yesui interrupts your thoughts. “Those of my people who fought at Krakov have a name for you,” she says. “For all three of you. They call the archer Khar Sumnuud, the assassin Olon Sün. Black Arrow and Hungry Ghost.”

She pauses for a moment. Looks you up and down, gaze keen and appraising and just the slightest bit wary.

“They call you Yargachin,” she says finally. “Butcher.”

You incline your head in acceptance as Zhenjin continues his tale. War is war, after all.

~~

Zhenjin’s tale of the siege is, unsurprisingly, a grim one. Taking a city tends to be as messy and lethal as it is long, especially one as well defended as Krakov.

“The defenders refused to surrender, so we camped a third of a mile away from the city walls,” he says. “Far enough to keep us safe from the stone-hurlers, but not far enough for Khar Sumnuud. Two hundred dead on the first day – pack leaders, shamans, medicine-bearers, picked off one by one. Strong warriors or wise healers, youthful or battle-hardened, brave or cowardly… all dead the same way.”

Zhenjin purses his lips and whistles, and Yesui’s bodyguards begin to fidget.

“First a faint whistle getting louder and louder. Then–”

He claps his hands abruptly, and the bodyguards jump and shoot him reproachful looks.

“Another one gone,” he says, scowling. “Just like that. No honor in their deaths – not even the chance of retaliation. We moved the camp three times, back and back and back. But we were never far enough, and could not retreat further without dangerously thinning our lines. So we grit our teeth and watched good men and women die as we felled trees and dug into the earth to form the circumvallation – watchtowers and barracks ringing a ten-foot earthen wall.”

You remember Thirty-Five casually loosing arrow after arrow from the city walls. “It’s like killing ants,” she’d said. “No matter how many you squash, there are a thousand more.”

Zhenjin goes on:

“We completed the wall six days and nine hundred men later. It should have taken us two weeks, but we worked ourselves to the bone. We would be safe once it was up, after all.

Olon Sün had been busy, as it turned out. The night the earthworks were complete and we toasted our success, he slit four dozen throats – medicine men, experienced fighters, pack leaders… important men and women whose loss would be felt most keenly.

From then on, his targets slept together, packed into great tents ringed with keen-nosed shapeshifters. But Olon Sün never so much as tested the sentries.

He knew we couldn’t guard everything at once, so he switched to sabotage. No-one so much as caught a glimpse of him in action – all we ever saw was the trail of destruction he left behind: siege engines and tents in flames, food and water laced with slow-acting poison that took its toll over weeks…”

The plainsman grins.

“Then he slipped up. We held a clandestine meeting of most of the surviving medicine-men – the bait was too tempting for him to pass up. He was expecting four or five shapeshifters, maybe eight at most, but we had two dozen lying in wait.

We fell upon him when he tried to silence the sentries – his ungodly power made him almost invisible in the dim light, but we sniffed him out and tore him to pieces.”

Zhenjin pauses for a moment, then continues: “For what it’s worth, Olon Sün went down fighting. He killed six of us, and left me with this.” He pulls at his collar, revealing a jagged scar across one side of his neck and part of his chest.

“I… see,” you say. “He…”

What else do I say? You wonder, a vague sense of unease crawling up your spine. What do I say in memory of a fellow warrior who gave his life in battle? What do I say to his killer?

What will they say about me?

“He will be missed,” you say at last.

Mother’s Little Helper: The Feminine Mystique’s Impact on Inclusive Suffering

“’Things are different today,’
I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper”

(“Mother’s Little Helper,” The Rolling Stones)

Now, I’m not a mother myself, but I feel that I’ve met enough of them in my life to feel justified in saying that mothers feeling unappreciated and overworked is dece. Over half a century ago, (because this has been going on for that long and longer), Betty Friedan wrote a little book addressing these very issues, called The Feminine Mystique, which is largely credited with sparking the second wave feminism movement. Good for Friedan and her book.
The Feminine Mystique has been critiqued for, among other things, how narrow its subject and intended audience is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making something for a small audience or writing about a very uncommon subject. You can write an advice guide for former US Presidents on what they should do after the Oval Office. That’s an audience of five right now. You can craft an encyclopedia on Northern White Rhinos, of which there are ten still living. There’s nothing wrong with a small subject pool or a select audience. And while I won’t argue that Friedan was wrong in her choice to exclude anyone not straight, white, affluent, and female from her message, that cannot be the sole reason we decry the book.

That Damn Donna Reed
Through a somewhat roundabout series of events, I ended up starting to watch Gilmore Girls (and I couldn’t really stick with it). One episode that sticks out to me is the one where Rory, her mother Lorelai, and her boyfriend Dean watch The Donna Reed Show for their movie night. Lorelai and Rory provide constant, witty, sarcastic dubbing for the viewing, mocking how devoted Donna Reed and her TV daughter are to keeping the house cleaning and baking “an endless string of perfect casseroles” (Gilmore Girls, season 1 episode 14). When Dean comments that he thinks it’s a nice family concept, Rory uses the second half of the episode to show Dean how strange a 50’s nuclear dinner is, except that they both enjoy the evening and Rory learns that the real Donna Reed was actually quite revolutionary in the world of television.
Why do I mention Donna Reed?
For starters, The Donna Reed Show is a very clear example of both what a good deal of 1950’s home life was like and how we want to remember it having been. More to my point of not liking the book’s message, just because you think that how someone is living their life is wrong doesn’t mean that they have to join you in your sentiment, and you saying that your view is the correct one because you believe it to be that way is childish. Is The Donna Reed Show dated? Yes (it’s literally set in the 1950’s-60’s). Should we condemn how different women live their lives? No (society expects women to be everything all at once, so maybe we should focus on that). It’s good to go to college, it’s good to cook dinner for your family, it’s good to have a career, and it’s good to be a stay at home parent. A better book to The Feminine Mystique would have been Give Women a Choice in Their Lives.

On the Origins of Non-Straight People
On to the main event. I imagine that if you were to sum up every person that was part of any marginalized group, they would outnumber non-marginalized people several times over. And because we’re a species that has divided itself into fabricated groups, we feel the need to compete to be on top, we accept as an ingrained concept that not everyone can rise to the top together, we fight for ourselves and maybe our children or friends if we’re feeling generous.
To this point, Friedan, decides to spend a good portion of one of her later chapters “analyzing” and condemning homosexuality. I.e. she devotes a large portion of text to oppress a marginalized group while talking about how bad it is to be part of a marginalized group. “Homosexuals often lack the maturity to finish school and make sustained professional commitments” (Friedan, 229). She then goes on to explain that the Kinsey report found that homosexuality was least prevalent in college graduates and most prevalent in male students with a college diploma or less. And not only are gay men less mature and afraid of commitment, but they are discussed in the chapter entitled “The Sex Seekers,” a chapter in which Friedan discusses how women under the feminine mystique attempt to use sex as a way to feel fulfilled in their daily lives, but that it just manifest to hurt them, their marriages, and their relationships with their children. In fact, did you know that homosexuality is actually caused by an overbearing mother “who lives through her son, whose femininity is used in virtual seduction of her son, who attaches her son to her with such dependence that he can never grow to love a woman,” (229)?
Basically, homosexuals are a byproduct of female oppression, so when women are finally liberated, the evil that is homosexuality will be over. Awesome.

We Can’t All Have Freedom. Duh.

I’m not saying that it’s ever ok to marginalize anyone, but if it was just Friedan having her opinion, that would be one thing. It’s quite another to publish your opinion and then have that work become a central tenant of an entire social movement. Whether it’s cis white gay guys acting like they’re the only members of import under the LGBTQ+ banner or white middle to upper class women who can’t see how single women of color have issues that need to be addressed as part of feminism, Friedan’s work has helped to influence a culture where people only want to fight for people who look and live exactly like they do.
God forbid we be inclusive.

Evolution and Creationism: An Ideological Battle

A “Change the World” analysis for Six Books that Changed the World (Prof. Rob Martello)

When Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species in 1859, he anticipated backlash from the religious community. His theories were at direct odds with religious teachings of creationism, the belief that humans were created by a higher power. His contemporaries had learned to jive with religion of the era, with the church even funding research demonstrating the glory of God’s design. Plate tectonics did not directly contradict specific religious teachings. Origin presented an entirely different ideological barrier.
Darwin’s primary argument was “descent with modification”: species and subspecies formed and diverged over long periods of time due to selective pressures placed on them by their environments resulting in evolution. As far as Darwin was concerned, humans had evolved in exactly the same manner. There were several problems with this theory that hindered its adoption. First, evolution stood in direct opposition to literal interpretation of the bible. In the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, God directly creates the world and creates man. A literal interpretation of Genesis is known as Creationism, and was the dominant belief in the western world in 1859. Opposing the religious majority proved difficult for Darwin and he was met with religious rebuke. Second, the theory of evolution implied that humans were simply a descended species no different from other animals, creating a psychological barrier to acceptance. As Stephen Jay Gould points out in The Human Difference, humans have a “continuing psychological need to see ourselves as separate and superior.” This psychological barrier might explain why Darwin was met with such criticism from the scientific community as well, spurning his work for being deductive. Darwin’s other works, which utilized a similar evidence based construction, were never as hotly contested. Finally, Darwin’s theory suggested that the universe operated in a cutthroat manner without divine intervention that rewarded good and punished evil. The idea that the world was random and violent created an existential barrier that was difficult to overcome, and many were not willing to accept this as the way of the world.
You might ask yourself: Do Darwin’s contemporaries’ reactions to Origin of the Species have any importance today? The answer is yes, because a large number of people still believe in Creationism despite the majority of world religions declaring that the Theory of Evolution and their religion can coexist. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago”.
Why is acceptance of evolution important? The Theory of Evolution combined with Mendelian genetics—together known as Neo-Darwinism—is perhaps the central tenet of biology. It is important for the general public to understand these concepts for a multitude of reasons ranging from public health and the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria to sociology and race relations in the United States.
How has creationism persisted in the United States? This question is a political and legal quagmire that has persisted for more than six decades and is due to the Young Earth Creationist movement.
Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. The most conservative of Young Earth Creationists are also Flat Earthers, genuinely believing that the earth is flat and rejecting modern science. Henry Morris is the founder of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and “arguably the most influential creationist of the late twentieth century” (Scott, Antievolution and Creationism in the United States). Morris, along with John C. Whitcomb, published The Genesis Flood in 1963 which attempted to form a scientific argument for a literal interpretation of Genesis. While it was rejected outright by the scientific community, it was read by hundreds of thousands of people (Gordin, The PseudoScience Wars). The ICR was responsible for drafting bills at the state level for “equal time” representation of evolution and creationism in public school biology; these bills ultimately made their way into law in the early 1980s in Arkansas and Louisiana. By 1982 the Arkansas law had been declared unconstitutional but the Louisiana law bounced its way around the court system until 1987, when the “equal time” approach was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The serious consideration given to these theories and laws sowed the misinformation deep and is still dogmatically followed to this day. The most recent approach from Young Earth Creationists on the legal stage is to force evolution to be taught as a “theory,” leveraging the day-to-day interpretation of the word against the scientific term. A scientific theory is a system of ideas supported with data, analysis, and peer review. A day-to-day theory is one used to explain the world around us, independent of serious outside verification. This misinformation campaign has persisted to this day in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin among others (Scott).
The great irony of continued American belief in Creationist theory is that by the numbers, the percentage of people still believing young earth creationism is greater than the percentage of people belonging to religions that preach a literal interpretation of Genesis (Matsumura, What Do Christians Really Believe about Evolution?). The four largest denominations of Christianity in the U.S., along with several others, have all formally acknowledged the validity of evolution and its importance in the classroom, stating that an unfair treatment of the subject in biology class undermines a student’s education in the sciences.
As engineers and scientists at Olin, almost all of us accept the Theory of Evolution independent of our religious beliefs. We are able to do this without much internal conflict. Outside of our community though, there are many people who still believe in Creationism. Given evolution’s biological importance not only to medical advances, but also public health, it is important that we make an effort to change people’s stance on the matter. We can do this without compromising religious belief and improving the knowledge of the general public.

Sources:
http://theflatearthsociety.org/home/
http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx

Disability Isn’t…

An Open Letter From Your Friendly Local Inconvenience

This article is written with the knowledge and endorsement of the author of ‘Disability Is…’

Last month, Frankly Speaking ran an article about disability that made me, and a few other disabled people at Olin, uncomfortable and angry. A lot of that discomfort stems from what I see as the flawed premise: it is an article, written by an abled person after a one-semester class about redefining perceptions of disability and normality, that seeks to define “disability.” (I’m extremely wary of a class that lets students leave with opinions like this, and I would like to encourage students to be critical of class pedagogies and materials, especially those dealing with such sensitive subjects!) The article reads like a personal reflection, and indeed that is what the class assignment was—something much more appropriate to share in private than in public, because of the naïve and potentially harmful views it seems to espouse. How is the content of this article harmful to disabled people? For me, at least, it is easy to read it and feel like an object of curiosity, a metaphor for other people’s consumption rather than a fully formed being. For me, it is easy to read it and feel that as a disabled person I am the only one who doesn’t feel safe sharing my perspectives on what disability is. For me, this article is another reminder that I live in a world that seldom considers or tries to understand my perspective.

There were a few things I liked about the article; I appreciated the emphasis on the social construction model of disability. This model tells us that impairments are physical, neurological, or psychological conditions that make some functions more difficult; and that disability is a condition inflicted on us by a society that designs public systems for a specific set of needs that we don’t share, or that are directly contradictory to our needs. The second paragraph of the article is a solid representation of this model, and I was happy to see a public acknowledgement of it. The paragraph that directly follows it is more bewildering because the conclusion doesn’t seem to follow at all from what came before. It does not read as a well-considered train of thought. I understand very well what it’s like to be so excited about a new concept that you just have to share it—but when that concept is the lives of a historically oppressed group of people, you really want to take the time to make sure you’ve got it right.

“Disability is the reminder that we are all fragile, temporary beings on this planet…” the third paragraph begins. The author’s intention was to depict not the “truth” but the perspective of someone uncomfortable with disability, an intention which was not at all clear to me reading it. Directly following a textbook explanation of the social construction model, I read what sounded like the author’s own strongly-held opinion, and my reply is: the concept of disability was not created to remind abled people that this could happen to them at any time. It was created to give a name and cohesion to a group of people with impairments who suffer, directly or indirectly, because of them. The reason society makes things difficult for those with minds and bodies considered abnormal is not to remind abled people about the fleeting nature of their lives. It is because we are seen as inconvenient. More convenient alternatives to designing with our needs in mind include ignoring us, trying to breed us out of the population, imprisoning us in abusive care systems, and straight-up murdering us. This was the understanding I had when I read the paragraph about the social construction model; to jump immediately to what reads to me as both an insult and inspiration porn felt like a slap in the face.

Before I get to inspiration porn, a term with which some readers may not be familiar, I want to talk about the insult. “The sight of a disabled person creates an unease… I believe that one source of this discomfort is the inability to ignore the fragility of the human body …the inevitability of breakdown, death, and decay…” First, it’s a reminder I didn’t need; I am aware, almost at all times, that my existence makes people uneasy. I know from experience that I need to wear a heavy disguise to appear in public. Some people do not have the luxury of wearing a disguise, and is to these people that the author refers: those with visually apparent physical disabilities. To reduce their experience to their physical appearance, viewed through the eyes of abled people as an object of disgust, is mean-spirited. It was also certainly not the author’s intent, but again both word choice and choice of concepts needs to be considered carefully in order to avoid hurting the people you’re talking about. What I, very personally, would like to ask is empathy. This article is clearly written from the perspective of an abled person looking at disabled people, without the firsthand context of their experiences. When I see physically disabled people, I don’t suddenly remember my own mortality or how easily I could be injured and permanently impaired. I think about the incredible amount of inconvenience they probably have to go through in order to go about their daily business. I worry for their safety and mental health in a culture that devalues their emotions and personhood. The actionable result of this thought process is that I take care to amplify their voices when I can, to listen carefully to them, and to help them when they need help. It’s the same thing I would appreciate people to do for me.

Inspiration porn is another important concept in any discourse about disability, coined by Stella Young, a disability rights activist, in 2012. I took the following definition from Catherine Soper’s excellently succinct article on the subject.[1] “Inspiration porn is a term used to describe society’s tendency to reduce people with disabilities to objects of inspiration. You’ve all seen the memes… [such as] a picture of a small child running on prosthetic legs accompanied by the caption ‘what’s your excuse?’ These images make the people viewing them feel great, but often they take images of people with disabilities simply living their daily lives and make them extraordinary.” Another article by Elizabeth Heideman[2] adds, “Inspiration porn turns people with disabilities into mere objects, placing their physical differences on display and reassuring the viewer that ‘If these people can live with just one leg,’ for example, ‘I can do so much more without a disability.’” The idea of defining disability in terms of abled people’s reaction to it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Disabled people do not exist as an inspiration to try harder, a reminder of any kind, or the impetus for a philosophical realization. We exist as nothing more or less than people.

I would love to create a culture at Olin that supports disabled people and amplifies our voices. I would love to create a culture at Olin where I’m not afraid to mention the specifics of my disability, for fear of spending half an hour trying to explain my point of view, heart pounding, growing more upset until I have to end the conversation abruptly. I want to feel safe at Olin, and I want to feel like people are willing to respect me, and others like me, as more than design challenges or edge cases. I want to make this school safe for everyone who comes after me, and I want your help. Challenge your own assumptions about what disability is. Think critically about the perspectives you are given. Do research. Listen to the voices of marginalized people, and don’t speak for us. What we want is what you want: the support to do what’s worth doing, and what we love. Thank you for all your help.

Keeping My Promise

In memory of my friend

I still don’t know the last of his last day.
I might, forever, want to know the last of his last day.

Nevertheless,
I wish he was loved with sincerity,
Regrets his decision,
Never had the short end of the stick,
Didn’t leave in the pain of being evilly envied,
Knew how much we loved him.
I wish his last weekend wasn’t a lonely one.

For the star that’d forever be shining in Princeton, I write in the words of prayer…

Death is such a heavy word. Someone once told me love is a heavy word, but that was before I felt the loss of a loved one. I could reject a bad love, but with death, I had no choice but to accept it. It feels like you’d be living in Princeton forever, surrounded by fellow “Princetonians” you loved, busking every weekend in front of the fancy school buildings that don’t exist at Olin, and posting sweaty soccer pictures wearing the proud orange P on your chest.
I was eating a burger at Dunn-Gaherin’s with my friends the night you left. I called you an asshole as a joke for going to an Ivy League school, being on tv shows, singing like Freddie Mercury, and being goddamn handsome on top of all of that. I couldn’t feel more stupid thinking that was the last thing I said about you, thought of you as. As much as the handsome perfect asshole you were, thanks to you, I won’t ever be singing the Bohemian Rhapsody as a joke. It was your favorite, thus it will hurt for all those that loved you.
Although this is not what I thought I’d be writing about, here’s to our promise that one day I’d take your word for it and try publishing anything on anywhere. I will always love you. Till I see your beautiful smile again, rest in peace.

Science Isn’t Truth

We’re living in a time of falsehood. Between ‘alternative facts’ and a disturbing preponderance of fake news, the lack of common ground truth precludes productive conversation. I don’t have the solution to this. But I believe a small part of the solution is understanding the logical framework for separating science from untestable, irrefutable claims. To that end, dear reader, I’d like to tell you about the philosophy of science.

If your secondary education was anything like mine, then you were probably (implicitly) lied to about science. For me, science was presented as a ‘body of truth’ — a set of equations and facts to memorize and regurgitate for the exam. In college this view got a bit more nuanced — the equations we worked with were good approximations in particular settings, but lacking compared to some underlying truth. My mental model of science was still one of verification though — propose a hypothesis, then confirm it through experiment or rework if necessary. This model, however, is totally wrong.

This Verificationist perspective on science trips on a very old philosophical issue: the Problem of Induction. To illustrate — Europeans used to believe that all swans are white. They had observed many swans, found only white samples, and drew a generalized conclusion that all swans are white. But when they eventually explored Australia, they made a discovery which caused their theory to crumble: black swans. The problem is in thinking a theory confirmed by limited observations; a ‘proven’ theory purports to hold for an infinite set of cases, but experiments are necessarily limited to a finite number. How can we logically place trust in scientific theory?

Enter Karl Popper with his 20th century work “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”, where he laid out (among other things) the idea of Falsification. Popper argued that science should not be conducted by attempting to prove theories true, but rather by attempting to show them to be false — to falsify them. In this approach, a theory is never accepted as truth, but instead gains more credibility as it fails to be shown false.

Practically speaking, why does this matter? First, it gives a logically sound formulation for doing science. Second, it allows us to separate science from ‘pseudo-science’. Popper was a contemporary of Freud, and noted that Freudian Psychology was flexible enough to incorporate any new observations; Freud claimed to be able to explain any behavior of a female in terms of penis envy. This sort of theory is not falsifiable, and therefore does not deserve to be called science. A scientific theory disallows particular behaviors (e.g. perpetual motion); such a theory has some predictive capability.

Admittedly, this doesn’t solve the problem of outright falsehood. If we don’t agree on what observations were made, then the inferences we draw will be completely different. But understanding Falsification allows us to determine what kind of claims can be refuted, and separate out junk purporting to be science. If I’ve piqued your interest in the subject, I recommend both Popper’s book (a dense read) and the Crash Course YouTube series on Philosophy (an absolute joy).