You Can Always Visit the Olin Community Cairn

You can find photos from the event at https://olin.photoshelter.com/galleries/C0000d660DmR3f54/G0000o0uFnBMWcwM/2021-09-10-Cairn-Ceremony-J-Brettle-12-Sep-21

Our community gathered on the gloriously sunny early fall afternoon of September 10th to lay down some of the heaviness each of us has garnered over the past year, building the Olin Community Cairn. Cairns are symbols used in a huge variety of cultures around the world.  They can serve as memorial markers, a way of signifying mourning and grief.  They’re also used as wayfinding tools, markers that help you not get lost, that offer directionality.  We asked every member of the Olin community to return to campus with a stone.  This migration of stones from all over the world was meant to represent the heaviness that each of us has experienced during the pandemic as our community was dispersed.  Importantly, the stones were ones we could travel with – they were literally and metaphorically the heaviness we could get our hands around.  We placed the stones in a container, to both organize the physical structure of the cairn and also to symbolize the ways in which our heaviness can be contained, together.  During the ceremony, students, staff, faculty, and President Barabino all spoke about the importance of pairing action with reflection, recognizing that people drawn to engineering are also people who tend to be drawn towards doing, sometimes at the expense of vital reflection.  The ceremony was fundamentally about reflection, both personal and communal.  It ended with a shared storytelling activity.

A cairn was intentionally chosen as the focal point of our ceremony because, as an artefact in nature, it will remain a fixture on campus while also changing and fading over time. The chalk drawings on some of the stones will slowly wash away, the pile of stones may shift and change, and the container itself will weather over time.  Similarly, our memories, sentiments, and attitudes may stay with us, but they also fade and change with time. Our hope is that the Olin Community Cairn will be a place for continued reflection and support for each of us.  It is both a symbol of our collective heaviness as a community over the past 18 months and also a symbol of how we can come together and move forward, re-emerging as a community. 

Whether you were at the ceremony or not, please know that you can always visit the Olin Community Cairn!  It’s at the edge of the woods behind Milas Hall, off to the side of the Great Lawn.  Our deep hope is that it will continue to offer you a space for reflection on the heaviness of the pandemic and new heaviness in the years ahead.  It is a place to remember and also a place to offer you direction if you’re feeling lost.  You can always place a new stone there – the cairn should change over time as we all experience change in our lives.  We are so proud to be a part of the Olin community, where a ceremony like this could take place.  We’re a community that doesn’t need to pretend everything is great all the time.  And we’re a community that doesn’t believe heaviness ought to be a solitary experience – it’s something we can and should all carry together.  Those values won’t change over time.

Swing and a Miss

How many times must you be spun before you completely lose track of the piñata? It’s fun to watch, but foolishness truly is swinging at nothing and convincing yourself you’re close to the target. For me, my target at the end of the day is change and I worry that this whole engineering thing is a big swing at nothing. 

Now this is a bit of an under-exaggeration. Just like societal change is a much larger target than a piñata, engineering is much more consequential than missing a swing. Engineering is a primary driver of negativity in the world. Its outputs are used for violence, consumerism, and to drive an already drastic socio-economic gap in our community. Even most of the “helpful” technologies such as electric vehicles and medical devices aren’t nearly as helpful as they claim to be. 

The reason this is true is also the reason why this doesn’t have to be the case. Engineering today is driven by the oppression of the unseen yet critically important majority of humans. How could engineering be a tool for positive change if a sheer 99% of applications for engineering today are to create a more favorable position for the oppressors? For instance, I spent the past summer in the medical device industry, everyday I felt the whiff of a missed swing against my cheek. 

It was a problem for me that the primary end-user of a lot of the products in the company’s portfolio was the same group that owned the company, which was the same group that filled most of the engineering jobs. And the groups that benefited the least from the medical devices out there were the ones doing the cleaning and in general holding the most underpaid positions. Regardless of the intent to “save lives,” you can’t deny that there is an unbalanced distribution of lives saved in the population which says something for the unequal perceived value of our lives by our community. 

On the input end of things, while this company’s public position involved nice-sounding words like diversity and sustainability, on the ground floor neither were visible with the naked eye. It didn’t stop employees from explaining why they believe in white supremacy and when asking about sustainability to upper management, they had no clue if there was anything more actionable about the company’s practices than them asking manufacturers and vendors if they were sustainable. At all points there is a lot of energy directed into a swing in the wrong direction and with each failed, unrestrained swing discombobulation compounds, gaps widen and people are harmed. 

But this doesn’t need to be the case. We live in a world driven by a very small percentage of the population. As engineers, we have the largest impact on what the output of engineering is, and so, if the output of engineering is widely negative, then that is on our shoulders. 

To take a moment to call out a soon-to-be old lover of mine. Electrical Engineering is a huge and very significant part of this equation. From the beginning of the supply chain to when it ends up in a landfill, the outputs of electrical engineering only perpetuate an unsustainable culture that has been built on the backs of non-white and low-income people. There is more hope in my eyes for organic electronics, but our current and silicon-based technology gets to us, the electrical engineers, filthy with oppression. How can we balance that out? I am not convinced we can turn these filthy components and supplies into a technology that counteracts and supersedes that hurt. And our intentions do not change that hurt.

Our responsibility as engineers does not end with intent, but with impact. We have to accept that responsibility and in doing so decide whether we will continue peddling oppression or whether we will aim towards brighter horizons. Most swings so far have been misses, but if we focus more on the end goal we can definitely start hitting the target. 

Pandemic Art: Dada and Creativity Practicum

Last fall, I took the Olin class Creativity Practicum, a studio class about understanding and finding your own voice in art and design. One of the first assignments has you watch a video titled “I Could Do That” by the YouTube channel The Art Assignment. The video talks about why people who look at art, such as a Pollock painting, and say something along the lines of “that’s not art, I could do that” should really think before they speak, but that’s not relevant to this Frankly Speaking piece–no, I mention the video because for approximately two seconds, a piece of art was splashed across the screen, and it completely changed the way I approach art.

But before we get to that, a little bit about me: I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a crayon. Art-making has been a part of how I express myself, reflect, and tell stories for my entire life. In high school, I made art like this:

Skull & Mirror

Extremely detailed, highly accurate observational work. And I loved it! The process of observational drawing was (and still is) extremely meditative for me, and I’d sometimes become so absorbed in the process that I’d stand for four or five hours straight. However, I didn’t work quickly. A single piece would take me weeks or even months to finish.

Creativity Practicum, on the other hand, pushes you to work fast. There isn’t any emphasis on the quality of work you put out, or even on the idea that you’re “making art” at all. Each week you explore a different idea–sometimes a specific artist’s work, sometimes a more abstract concept–and then on one page of a spread you’d put images you associated with the week’s assignment, and on the other, you’d create a summarizing image and write a half-page reflection. I went about completing the first assignment in the way I usually do, and inevitably didn’t finish, but didn’t think much of it because I didn’t need to have a finished piece. And then I watched the aforementioned YouTube video, which features this collage by Hannah Hoch:

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer  Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany – Smarthistory

The title is Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany. Concise… but I was captivated by it. I love how the crowded composition makes your eye dart around the picture, and how carefully cut out and placed each individual part is (such as the man juggling his own head near the center of the image, which, upon closer inspection, seems not to be his own head). I love that it’s disturbing and funny in the same breath. And, ironically, I love that whenever I look at it I think, “Wait a minute–I could do that!”

I was already thinking about the different images that came to mind for each assignment and taking note of them. What if instead of putting all this time and energy into a piece I crafted by hand, I simply took those images and arranged them in concert (or in chaos) with each other? I tried it out:

Untitled Sketchbook Page

Okay, this was cool. Only one problem: the pages of my sketchbook were curling from all the glue. Then I remembered a girl in one of my high school art classes showing off some of the pages she’d made in Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, an interactive workbook that asks you to–well–I’ll let you figure it out. Her pages were wrinkled and torn and the notebook didn’t even close, but the pages inside were incredible. So I made the conscious decision to actively destroy every single page I worked on.

Throughout the semester, my art improved tenfold. Not only that, but instead of making one piece in four months, I made thirty. Less than half of them are things I’m proud of, and almost none of them are portfolio-worthy, but for the first time, I felt like I was conveying complex ideas and showing my personality through my work.

At home in the pandemic, I was constantly in the company of my childhood pet, Hobbes. His relentless affection was mostly reciprocated, but I sometimes felt he was a bit… needy. One day for fun, I made this:

Resist! (Sketchbook)

Hobbes began to feature prominently in my work. Everyone in the class became familiar with him, and not just because whenever I unmuted they could hear distant meowing. For the class’s final project, a collection of postcards, I decided that each one would feature Hobbes among images from photographs I’d taken. And throughout the whole process, my mind kept returning to the collages of Hannah Hoch.

Hoch was part of the Dada art movement, which developed in Europe and New York in direct response to World War I. Hoch’s work specifically centered around identity construction–what does it mean to be a “modern woman” in the aftermath of such a devastating event? During the pandemic–which hasn’t ended!–I felt comfort in the way that Dada embraced nonsense. Nothing else in the world made sense, after all–why should our art?

Although we’re back at Olin, things still don’t feel “normal,” and there’s no promise they ever will be. But I can continue to grow, as an artist and a person, in spite of that. And I’m glad to have found my “mews.”

RESIST!

OCLOACA Catalog

OCLOACA (Olin College “Look Out! Anomalous Creatures!” Association) has been hard at work over the past month since our return to campus. We seek out those creatures whose existence seems to reject reality, and warn the community of any dangers or delights associated with them. We are pleased to finally present a partial catalog of anomalous entities observed, or thought to have been observed, directly or indirectly, at Olin College of Engineering.

The Weeping Capacitors

These electronic components, found primarily in the iSIM lab but occasionally spotted elsewhere, are notably emotionally sensitive. If you curse at them in the heat of circuit-related confusion, they will cease to properly function until you cradle them in your arms and apologize profusely. Just don’t make them cry. We still don’t know what their tears contain. Also, we kinda want to protect them now.

That Perfectly Shaped Circle Of Moss We Saw On The Dining Hall Balcony That One Time, And I Just Had To Take A Picture Of It, Because Come On, It Was Such A Perfect Circle

I miss it every day.

The Anti-Mimics

These irritating pieces of text consist of a single symbol, or a single collection of symbols, that can be associated with many completely separate concepts. Most Anti-Mimics actually live in harmony with us, helping us communicate more concisely. However, many specimens can be particularly nefarious. One such specimen was recently sighted within the covers of a Discrete Math textbook: P(x) referring to the power set, and then only 2 pages later the same P(x), this time referring to a propositional function? We consulted one expert, Dr. Hexter, who specializes in malicious symbolic anomalies, and they had this to say: “[series of incoherent noises]”. After some guttural-noise-frequency analysis, our current hypothesis is that they were trying to evade the harms of the Anti-Mimics by creating a single-use, disposable word for every concept, but we’re not sure.

The Mist of Guilt

These microscopic organisms often build up in places like team rooms, classrooms, and poorly ventilated areas, but their multiplication is greatly accelerated by occasions where sleep-deprived yet passionate people have been talking in one room for too long. The Mist has a characteristic smell that doesn’t register as a smell to humans; rather, it registers as a strong feeling that you must solve all of the world’s problems now, or else — and not only that, but that you must do so alone. After being accidentally released from the site of a failed superhero creation experiment ██ years ago, many institutions have had to deal with periodic infestations of the Mist. If you begin to feel the effects of the Mist at any time, you must stop your current activity, evacuate the contaminated area, and do something else for a while, to allow the contaminated room to air out.

The Unknown Unknowns

The class of anomalous entities that we don’t know that we don’t know about. The only thing we know about these creatures as a class is that the number of entities belonging to it is probably extremely large, as well as incredibly huge. Maybe.

The Impostor

This monstrous creature skulks around every Olin location at once. Though it has been observed by many, its true appearance cannot be described. If one is exposed to it too often, it may follow them around anywhere they go. Contrary to popular belief, the Impostor’s most dangerous property is not being “sussy”. If you observe it, you will be strongly induced to believe that the Impostor is you — that you are watching yourself skulk about from a distance. There are many ways to prevent this. One involves recognizing your own goodness. I guarantee that if you’re reading this, you are not this creature, as the only thing that this creature ever does is try to make others believe in it. Have you been skulking around all places at once, at all hours of the day, making everyone think that they’re you? I thought not.

Join OCLOACA now, to help us better understand the reality-breaking entities that affect our lives every day. And remember — only you can prevent ████ █████████ ████████.

What Your Dorm Says About You

The Floor Is Laundry

What’s the point of making your bed when you’ll sleep in it the next day anyway? You have open containers of food and clothes strewn all over the floor. You haven’t taken out the trash in three weeks. You don’t get many visitors and you don’t know why.

The AmazonBasics Dorm

You forgot that dorms are supposed to have decorations, so you purchased everything off of Amazon when you got here. You have a Great Wave poster and a map of the world because those were the first things that showed up when you looked up “posters”. You used the rubber tubing and dowel as your hopper trigger.

The Dorm With All The Plants

You have given names to your plants and talk to them daily. You bought your water bottle from REI and decorated it with national parks stickers. Your favorite shoes are Birkenstocks or Tevas and you own at least one article of clothing from Patagonia.

The Food Pantry

Your fridge is overflowing because you make frequent trips to Trader Joe’s and hoard food from the dining hall. Your parents never let you eat snacks when you wanted, so you’re overcompensating now.

The “Live Laugh Love” Dorm

Everything you own is color-coordinated. You own scented candles and have used them more than once since first getting them on Etsy. Your favorite thing from home is your Fujifilm Instax and you hang your polaroids on your wall with string lights.

Your Floor Is So Spotless You Could Eat Off the Ground

You clean your dishes right after eating. You always put colored pencil sets into rainbow order when you’re done with them. You tell people “my dorm is so messy!” when the only thing on the ground is your shoes. Your hopper worked on your first try.

You Have Apple “Think Different” Posters On Your Wall

You check Hacker News every day. You’ve read Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things. You frequently quote Paul Graham, wear Allbirds, and use words like “scale” and “pivot” more than necessary. You are taking classes at Babson.

Why You Should do NOTHING, Like Me

Picture this: you’re alone in your room, which is a mess, with a semester-long to-do list in which nothing has been checked off. Your finals are next week. You have one night to finish a semester’s worth of homework for one class. It sounds impossible, but that’s what my life was like for my first two years at Olin.

“How did the professors even let that happen?! That’s not even possible!” you say.  Which—fair. You have a point. But the reason it got to that point is that I was depressed and anxious. And people at Olin are understanding. They give you the space you need to do the growing you need to do.

As many of you know, the people at Olin are just incredible. Each person you meet seems smarter and more talented than the last. They are talented, skilled and knowledgeable. They’ve done the coolest internship, the most complex projects, and have the best job lined up after graduation. It’s easy to feel like an imposter. It’s a lot, and it hit me hard. I felt completely out of place. I was just some not-American girl, who didn’t know how to code, who hadn’t done big engineering projects in high school. I pushed myself so hard after getting here thinking that I had to catch up. Two project teams, Robolab, and 20 credited on top of it. I thought if I became some kind of machine who was working all the time I could a) catch up with everybody else and finally get that internship, and b) not lose sleep agonizing over “what did I do to make everybody hate me today”.

Obviously, that crashed and burned real fast. I was barely able to keep up with that schedule for a week before I started falling behind, and I’d avoid people in shame, and then agonize over being ignored, and consequently not get anything done in the process of agonizing. I was burned out within the semester. I spent two years subjecting myself to this cycle, just so I could be good enough.

And then, COVID-19. We got sent home in March 2020. I was actually doing a little better that semester, adequately busy (but not too much), with some healthy social dynamics. I learned very quickly that online learning wasn’t for me. I decided to take the year off. At first, I was pushing myself hard to find an internship or some way of being productive. The internship didn’t work out, but I thought, “If I learn some theoretical content now, I won’t struggle when I’m at school, and I won’t be depressed!”

This turned out to be completely false. I was at home, learning at my own pace. No homework, no deadlines, no stress, but I was still lost. I felt hopeless all the time. I was living because of some invisible, inevitable, and incessant force pushing me forward, not because I had a dream of my own. And then one day, exactly five months ago, I put my foot down. I told myself, “For the rest of my break, I am going to do nothing.”

And that’s what I did. I would wake up whenever I felt like it and spend all day in bed binge-watching Modern Family and a random assortment of equally good, but equally trashy, K-Dramas and C-Dramas. I learned languages, sang terribly, ate the worst food, and did whatever I wanted to do, solely because I wanted to and it was good. So good that I don’t have any more eloquent words to describe it. I felt myself growing dreams and aspirations that I had given up on ever having again. I finally developed a passion for engineering beyond the point of it merely being a fleeting interest. For the first time ever, I want to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, with the people I’m with. And that’s all that really matters.

It’s really easy at Olin to fall victim to imposter syndrome and FOMO. For some, it’s worse than others. I only hope that you don’t get it as bad as I did. Because, honestly, it’s not worth it. Finding joy in what you’re doing, and being the best you that you can be, will bring a lot more value to your life than some stupid internship.

Editor’s Note: Please, please, please reach out to an ARC before it gets as bad as it did for me.

21

21 years of natural disaster after natural disaster

21 years of climate change denial

21 years of widespread poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to basic needs

21 years of billionaires in the richest country in the world

21 years of mass shootings

21 years of “now is not the time”

21 years of endless death and torture caused by our country in the middle east

21 years of “protecting national security”

21 years of being told terrorists are coming to bomb us

21 years of bombing other countries

21 years of gay and trans people being seen as less

21 years of “you’re being too dramatic”

21 years of pervasive racism in every part of our society

21 years of already having the Civil Rights Act, what more do you want?

21 years of pervasive sexism in every part of our society

21 years of not needing the Equal Rights Amendment because women are already equal

21 years of controlling women’s bodies

21 years of “protecting lives” in a country with almost no safety net

21 years of not having the right to healthcare

21 years of “uninsured people are lazy”

21 years of being asked why I’m so jaded

21 years of America.

Our Hopes: Returning From Online Classes

This semester we are returning to Olin in-person, after two and a half semesters of classes online or a hybrid of online and in-person. Olin classes typically involve building things, using tools, and lots of teamwork.While many classes had extremely creative solutions for moving their content online, things were undoubtedly different. At the end of the summer, I interviewed several current juniors and seniors about their experience with online classes, and what their hopes are as we go into an in-person fall semester.

While students had widely varying experiences with different parts of their online classes, everyone I talked to said that the experience was overwhelmingly lonely. “It did feel lonely and isolating at times… you’d run into those moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, I am sitting alone in my room, scribbling on a piece of paper, hunched over my bed.’” one student said. Multiple students said it was “harder to check up on people,” and that they felt less connected with their teammates than they had during in-person semesters.

While everyone experienced loneliness, students had different experiences with other aspects of online learning. While for one student professors seemed inaccessible and writing an email felt overwhelming, another said it was easy to find time to talk to professors because they only had to write an email and set up a Zoom call. The Zoom chat was especially polarizing: some people found it overwhelming and distracting, some felt more engaged using it, others really enjoyed having a “backchannel” to share links, and others only liked it as a place to type a brief check-in. A few students said that assignments and due dates were more well-documented and easier to keep track of than they’d been in-person, while others felt like the wide variety of online tools being used–Canvas, Slack, Discord, and custom class websites, to name a few–made things more confusing.

At the end of each conversation, I asked students what their hopes were for this semester. Here are some of their responses:

  • “I am super excited to be back on campus! I just really want to be around people again, I’m very excited to work in teams and in groups, and in the AC–or the MAC is what it’s now called”
  • “I hope I can maintain relationships without being in the same space as a person”
  • “I want to share my stupid ideas with people more”
  • “I hope that I can still find assignments online if I miss them”
  • “I’m really excited to have more space, like, not be confined to a single bedroom”
  • “I don’t think my priorities have changed that much, but I have a better idea of how to attack them now”
  • “I want to talk to professors more”
  • “I… do not know, right now, because I’m just expecting things to be difficult, and… I just hope to be able to stay afloat, in whatever way I can”
  • “I want to focus more on activism, and ethics in engineering and everything you do”
  • “I’m really hoping for a dynaming of rebuilding community that is patient. I hope that people share with one another and that we maintain this compassion that we built in zoom land, understanding that just because we’re back in person now doesn’t mean people’s lives are dramatically easier”
  • “I want ‘normal plus plus’”

Although we’re already two weeks into the semester, much still feels uncertain. What are your own hopes for this semester? I hope that as we continue to settle into a kind of routine, we can support each other and ourselves in achieving these hopes as best we can.

Professors Aren’t Your High School Teachers

You’ve already noticed that most professors at Olin go by their first names, while your teachers in high school went by their last. You might not know that you shouldn’t call them “Mr. or Mrs. Lastname”. Professor is always a safe option if you need to address someone with a title, but most Olin professors prefer you refer to them by just their first name in class and in emails.

Just like these are different ways you treat your professors with respect, they have different ways to show you respect than what you might be used to. You don’t have to ask to use the bathroom, or to leave the room at all. As a principle, you’re an adult and they treat you as such; you’re allowed to go where you want when you want, and you’re responsible for your education. If you’re doing independent work and don’t want to be in your seat, go sit somewhere else, like the hallway. Just know when to be back or make sure someone knows how to find you.

You suddenly have a lot of autonomy. Sometimes it feels like too much. I don’t always know what I’m supposed to be doing. You don’t have to go through a class completely on your own though. The professors and CAs are there to support you, and are happy to help when you need it. Asking for help at Olin feels different than asking for help in high school did. I felt like if I didn’t justify my confusion to my high school teachers, they would think I wasn’t trying, or that I was stupid. It feels different at Olin. Asking for help is proof enough that you’re trying. Professors expect you to try on your own, but will give support when you ask. Almost all the wondering if you belong at Olin comes from inside your own brain.

The professors I’ve talked to are careful not to force their point of view onto students. If you disagree with one, it’s probably safer than you think to speak up. They’ll explain their reasoning if you ask and leave room for other opinions. Feel free to ask why you’re doing a specific activity or why they said something.

Similarly, if they give you feedback, you don’t have to accept it without question. Feedback is not always a correction that needs fixing, sometimes it’s just a recommendation. In my English classes in high school, every red mark on the paper needed to be fixed or I would lose points in my next draft. When I got feedback on my writing in college at first, I was frustrated making changes that I disagreed with. Sometimes, I’d even  get conflicting feedback on my next draft. Eventually, I learned I didn’t have to make every change . I can interpret the intent behind feedback and decide how to use it on my own.

In all of these situations, I felt like my high school teachers were trying to catch me doing wrong. I had to fight against them for help, for extensions, or even to use the bathrooms. My professors treat me more like I want to be treated as a student: with respect, and like a capable adult who is sometimes in need of guidance.

It took me a while to realize this and treat them with respect in kind: as a resource, a more experienced adult, an expert, and never an opponent.