So Much Time, So Little Time

It’s easy to forgot how unlike the “real” world the academic schedule is. It’s not just summer break, or the fact that campus is nearly empty on Fridays, or that every holiday is honored. There are the lenient hours, the extra breaks, and the flexible schedules. That’s not to say people don’t work hard. Just that the schedule is unlike what you find in the non-academic life. Another example: winter break.

From mid December to the end of January, MIT is off. That’s nearly six weeks. For some people, that’s time to go on vacation, plan a research expedition (preferably to somewhere warm), or to work in your office without much interruption.

Or, another option is the Intersession Activity Period (IAP). During break, MIT puts together a series of mostly free (for anyone) classes taught any nearly anyone in the MIT community. These “classes” aren’t for credit, and often aren’t classes at all. Most are one- or two-hour lectures that are a fun way to get out of the cold and engage with people and ideas you might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. I signed up for a bunch.

Physicist and bongo player, Richard Feynman.

The Feynman Films: This was one of the rare intersession classes that actually spanned several days; 10 in fact, though “class” is a bit of misnomer. It’s actually 10 screenings of filmed lectures famed physicist Richard Feynman (who was an undergrad at MIT) gave over his career. Attendance was pretty sparse — maybe just three or four people — though I suspect that’s at least partly because the films can all be viewed online. I would guess that in the years before streaming online video, the film series was a much more significant draw. I do recommend watching the videos, though. His infectious joy makes even the most esoteric topics fun.

Waste Management: For three days, all of the talk was trash. Like so many public works and infrastructure we take for granted — water, electricity, internet, the mail — waste management is this omnipresent aspect of modern life that we almost totally ignore. There is incredible intricacy, nuance and engineering in order to make trash nearly invisible to most of us. Consider this: there are about as many landfills in the U.S. are there are Target stores. (You can draw your own conclusions.) Of course, landfills require all kinds of engineering to limit runoff, off-gassing, stability, etc. Also discussed: the increase in curbside compost pickup, the pros and cons of single-stream recycling (easier on the consumer, harder for everyone else), and the impact the 2008 financial crisis had on waste (there was a significant drop), as you can see here:

Learn to Draw Anything You Want: The line between science and art is thin one. Knowledge and understanding of  light, pigment, materials, biology, anatomy — those are key elements of many great artists. Recently there was an argument about whether Leonardo Da Vinci was a great artist or a great scientist. But why “or”? To him, there was no distinction, and that seems the right view. One of the things I really enjoy about MIT is the vast amount of public art on campus. From sculptures to photographs to paintings, murals, architecture, glass, iron and more, art is a major element of the MIT environment — as it should be. So I was delighted to see an IAP class focused on drawing. And I was even more delighted to see dozens of students piling into a small classroom to try their end at simple charcoal sketching. We spent several hours making simple sketches of Nefertiti and Brutus busts, among other objects. The teacher pointed out mistakes in perspective, shading and scale, but also offered praise to urge us onward. My daughter, upon reviewing my work, took a slightly different approach. “Wow, dad. These aren’t terrible.”

As much as I am pleased to see MIT honoring and elevating the arts, there remains a considerable gap between the quality of the science at MIT, and the quality of visual presentations made by the scientists. Happily, the Institute recognizes this and held several IAP sessions designed to address that gap.

One came from Felice Frankel, who makes stunningly beautiful photographs of scientific objects and processes. Her session, titled, “Are your Journal and Presentation Figures the Best They Can Be?” brought together about 15 students for a group critique of their scientific presentations. Although the topic of wrongly/foolishly/criminally calling all illustrations “cartoons” didn’t come up (see earlier post), the session did work to focus students on making their visuals stronger. Felice projected each students’ slides on a screen and then repeatedly posed the same question: “What do you want me to see?” It’s a simple question, but important and effective. Too often the students weren’t able to prioritize the information they were trying to convey. Without any hierarchy, the visuals were a confused mishmash offering little insight to all but the already knowledgable. The session didn’t transform these student scientists into highly trained visual communicators, but it did help move them down the path toward creating more impactful figures. It’s a start.

A similar session focused more on the performance was “Making the Most of Your Presentation” was led by the multilingual Belgian scientist and presenter Jean-luc Doumont. To a packed house in a large auditorium, Doumont lectured and demonstrated how to be an effective public speaker. Funny and engaging with a European suave, Doumont instructed the audience to refrain from swaying and pacing, to eliminate their “uhs” and “ums,” to minimize the text detritus that inevitably invades scientific slideshows, to avoid racing through slides as time runs out, and to never, ever, read the text from the screen. All good advice, and judging from most of the presentations I’ve seen at MIT, badly needed.

Before I started the fellowship, a friend joked with me that I should spend my time at MIT studying archery. So when I saw Kyudo: Japanese Archery in the catalog, I felt obligated to say yes. I showed up for the first day of the two-day class to find three dozen students and a dozen instructors. The instructors wore white robes and carried seven-foot bows. They arranged us into groups and started to explain Kyudo isn’t about shooting arrows, but about slow, purposeful movements. More tai chi than bowhunting. Following a prescribed series of eight specific and intricate steps is the key to Kyudo.

Time for a demonstration. A stout man gathered his equipment and approached a target. Too close, I thought. He stood less than a yard away from the rolled mat he’d be shooting into. Slowly, he moved through each of the eight steps. He set his footing. Adjusted his posture. Deep breathes. Readied and raised the bow. Paused. Drew it back, held it, and then released. Phwap! Wait. The bow lowered, the archer paused, and then he approached the target. Three twists of the arrow and a slow withdrawal of the arrow. Very Japanese.

Here’s what it looks like:

It was time for us to be introduced to the equipment. The Nigiri is a special leather and wood grip that you cannot touch with your bare skin. The Yumi is the bow, roughly the length of a downhill ski. The Ya is the arrow. We broke into groups and listened to the instructors.

This is not typical archery. This is a martial art. This is meditation.

So far so good. We stood and started to practice the steps.

No, like this!

An instructor tried to fix my posture.

Be more flexible!

Easier when you’re not 6’6″ I thought.

Better, but move more slowly. Stop between each step.

How can standing and barely moving be so exhausting? After an hour, my back ached. My feet were sore. I was failing.

Do not worry. It takes years to get good.

Years? I was barely surviving and afternoon. Ashamed, I made up an excuse about being needed at home. I put away my gear, thanked the instructors, gathered up my shame and embarrassment and ducked out of the gym. Pathetic.

The only downside of IAP is the tendency for classes to be scheduled at the same time. Want to get an introduction to Prog Rock and learn about antique maps? Too bad! Gotta pick one or the other.

Your Musical Biome? Only if you’re willing to pass on Space Propulsion: A Crash Course. (Not sure that title means what they think it means.)

Care to Envision the Future Aquarium Experience? I hope you don’t also want to play with RACECAR (Rapid Autonomous Complex-Environment Competing Ackermann-drive Robotics).

And Improv for Business may look appealing, but only if you’re willing to pass on “You’ve invented something cool! Now what?”

So. Many. Options.

Cyn got in the act, too. She signed up for “Nighttime Knitting” with a friend, as well as Beekeeping 101. During the first class of the latter, the instructor quietly played beehive sounds over the PA system without telling anyone. “At first, I thought I was going crazy imagining all that buzzing,” she said after the class.

And, like I said, pretty much anyone can lead an IAP. One of the other fellows organized me and two others to host “Science in the Media: Hot Topics and Key Skills in Science Journalism.” About a dozen folks joined us, which was cool. Maybe more would have come, but then they would have missed “Design and Build Your Own Skateboard or Long Board with a Custom Decorative Wood Inlay Top.” I know which I would have chosen.

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