Of braineries, schools of life, pie labs, and other learning places

I’m becoming more and more interested in informal models of education — specifically, in the kinds of informal education that take place outside of educational institutions, and that aim at teaching people skills that aren’t always taught in schools, and providing spaces for community and conversation as well. And, ideally, food. For instance:

  • Someday I want to visit the Brooklyn Brainery, which offers what they call “accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education.” I would absolutely love to take their classes on beekeeping, filling oneself with wonder, the secrets of the New York City subway system, and the history of Scotch. And if I lived anywhere nearby I’d volunteer to teach knitting, opera appreciation, and Intro to Shakespeare’s Plays for People Who Were Put Off by it in High School.
  • If I lived in London I’d also want to check out the School of Life, founded by the writer Alain de Botton, which offers short classes (and talks, and dinners) “concerned with how to live wisely and well.” And they offer a bibliotherapy service! “Bibliotherapist” is definitely on my list of Best Job Titles Ever.
  • This is more of a community center than an educational space, but the idea interests me so much I wanted to point to it anyway: PieLab, a “combination pop-up cafe, design studio and civic clubhouse” in Greensboro, Alabama. They’ve apparently moved away from the design side of things (and had some initial missteps and growing pains), but are still making pie, and teaching people how to cook.
  • As part of my New Year’s resolution to learn something new every month, in March I took a class in letterpress printing at AS220, an art and community space in Providence with its own print shop (and a great restaurant, too). Now I have a stack of homemade greeting cards, and I know how to make photopolymer plates and print on a Vandercook press and set type by hand — which I loved doing, even when I kept screwing up my line lengths and confusing my b’s and d’s. Behold, the fruits of my labors on the last day of class!

Typesetting! (daily photo, 3/17/12)

In summary: learning new stuff is fun, and it makes me optimistic about the world to know that there are so many people out there sharing what they know and spreading the learning around.

The stacked books meme

Thanks to this post by Susan at Crunchy Granola, I’ve discovered that there are lots of people stacking books so that their spines tell a story or form a poem, much like Nina Katchadourian’s very cool Sorted Books project. (And do check out all of those examples. Many of them made me sporfle.) So naturally, I couldn’t resist pulling some books off my own shelves and making a few of my own attempts:

Travels on foot (book spine poems #1)
Travels on foot

A sinister story (book spine poems #2)
A sinister story

Three-course meal (book spine poems #3)
Three-course meal

History of the Library of Alexandria, summarized (book spine poems #4)
History of the Library of Alexandria, summarized

What we talk about when we talk about love (book spine poems, #5)
What we talk about when we talk about love

Who else wants to play? It’s fun, I promise!

On mobility and the non-interchangeability of places: a rant

It’s been a while since I read anything that pushed as many of my buttons — and made me scratch my head as much — as this New York Times op-ed piece by Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz did. They begin with the claim that “Americans are supposed to be mobile and even pushy,” and go on to find, in a a number of recent trends, evidence that younger Americans are falling short of this supposed ideal of mobility. Younger Americans aren’t as willing to move across the country to pursue new jobs as previous generations were! They’re living with their parents! They’re not even bothering to get their driver’s licenses anymore!* They use the word “random” a lot, and they suspect that chance and luck may play a role in their chances of finding employment!** All of which, claim the Buchholzes, are signs that the younger generation suffers from “risk aversion,” “complacency,” a “sedentary” and “stuck-at-home” mindset. Which, in turn, are serious defects, because Americans are supposed to be mobile and pushy, goshdarnit!

I could spend a much longer blog post unpacking what I find problematic about all this, particularly the equation of driving with initiative and success, but I want to zero in on just one: that it’s somehow a sign of weakness, or something, that young people aren’t willing to move long distances for a job. Because that assumption’s been on my mind a lot lately, and it bugs the living daylights out of me.

The Buchholzes cite, as a representative example, an anecdote related by John Della Volpe of the Harvard Institute of Politics: “I spoke with a kid from Columbus, Ohio, who dreamed of being a high school teacher. When he found out he’d have to move to Arizona or the Sunbelt, he took a job in a Columbus tire factory.” According to the Buchholzes, that kid is being downright un-American not to move to Arizona. Their assumption seems to be that there’s no reason why a person should be attached to a particular place, or why one place might be any more desirable than another. Arizona, Ohio, what’s the difference? Why not go for the better job?

Except there is a difference. No matter how many of the same chain stores are in both places, the Southwest and the Midwest are not identical and interchangeable. I lived in the Midwest for eleven years, and for most of those years I really missed the East Coast where I grew up. Small towns will never be “home” for me the way large cities are, just as the places I love might feel completely wrong to someone from California, or Texas, or Minnesota, or to someone who loves open spaces and quiet. And I have a hard time seeing how that’s a character flaw.

Place matters when you’re trying to decide what to do with your life. And so do the support networks that exist or don’t exist in particular places. What if that kid in Columbus, in addition to liking the place, doesn’t want to leave behind everyone he knows, particularly in tough economic times when being with friends and family will help keep him sane, and maybe provide a bit of a safety net as well if he needs one?

A couple of months ago, Karen G. Schneider at Free Range Librarian wrote a post about finding one’s “place” that resonated a lot with me:

For many years I preached — and lived — the mantra of “geographic flexibility.” Education, jobs, other opportunities: first I, then we, could follow the wind. I have repeatedly counseled librarians that they had to have geographic flexibility for their careers. I judged them for not seeking jobs far and wide. I looked to myself as an example–I, who had lived worldwide.

Yet it took the Florida Experience to teach me why some people — and I now realize I am in their numbers — have an allegiance to the place they call home so powerful that it is on the other issues in life that they compromise. It’s not that Florida was insanely horrible; it’s that experiences that were less than stellar (and life always has them) took place in a context of alien other-ness — and it was this alien experience that made them sad, at times overwhelmingly so.

This. If you’re living somewhere that doesn’t feel like your home, ordinary problems setbacks are much, much harder to bear. Is it really so difficult to understand why someone who loves Ohio and has lots of ties there wouldn’t want to relocate to Arizona?

If younger people are figuring this out at an earlier stage in their lives, then you know what? Good for them. Maybe the world they grow up to shape will be a kinder and saner place.


* I have a whole other rant about the equation between not driving and immaturity in the popular media. Someday I’l get around to posting it.

** One wonders if either of the Buchholzes has attempted to find a job lately. Because you know what happens when you look for work in an economic downturn? You get rejected over and over and over, and sometimes you’re told that there were hundreds of other applicants for the job you applied for. And you can choose to believe that your success is entirely owing to your efforts, but the flip side of that is believing that your failures are also entirely owing to you. (I speak from personal experience when I say that that’s the readiest and easiest way to fall into a pit of despair.) Or you can choose to preserve your sanity, and acknowledge that when you’re competing with a vast pool of other equally talented and qualified applicants, the selection process can be somewhat arbitrary. (Academic job-searchers have known this for decades, but now the rest of the workforce is catching up.) And the Buchholzes are surprised that people take the latter view? Good grief.

On walkability, part 5: Aesthetics revisited

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on walkability and city form. If you’d like to read them in sequence, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.]

Via The Atlantic Cities, I’ve been checking out OpenPlansBeautiful Streets project, an experiment to determine what makes a street beautiful. When you visit the Beautiful Streets front page, you see two side-by-side Google Street Views of randomly chosen streets in Philadelphia. You then click the checkmark on whichever street you think is the more beautiful of the two.* The data goes into a spreadsheet containing locations and votes, which can be downloaded if you want to crunch the numbers yourself. As the Atlantic poster notes, the choices are often not obvious at all. Is the snarl of streets around 30th Street Station more beautiful than a pleasant but architecturally unremarkable suburb because the former affords a glimpse of the towers of Center City in the distance? Do overgrown areas register as dangerously run-down or lushly green? Does a street with humdrum architecture get points for including a park? Is there any beauty at all to be found in highways?

I’m not entirely sure how useful the results will be; I’ve noticed, from my own interactions, that my perceptions of a street’s beauty are skewed somewhat by sunshine, photo quality (there are some cloudy, hazy images in Google Street View that just don’t look good to me, no matter what the street itself looks like), and whether or not I recognize the part of town in the image. (The little jolt of nostalgia — “3rd and Market! I used to pass that corner on my way to the farmer’s market every Sunday!” — sometimes overrides my sense of aesthetics.) And as a commenter on the Atlantic points out, there might be some selection bias at work. But, even so, I’m going to be very interested to see what kind of results come out of the data once they’ve collected enough of it. As I’ve written here before, aesthetics are important if you want to make streets friendly to foot traffic.

It’s also a very useful site for making discoveries about one’s own visual preferences. I already knew I have a strong preference for older buildings, for streets with trees, for varied architecture, for a feeling of enclosure, and for buildings higher than two stories. But looking at these images has also made me realize that I love idiosyncratic things as well, like trolley tracks and Y-shaped intersections disrupting the regular grid. And that I think streets are especially beautiful when there are people using them. I can see a project like this working as a conversation-starter as well as a source of data.

Plus, for me, seeing these glimpses of Philadelphia again is just plain happy-making. Even the streets I’ve never visited, even the ones that are downright ugly. Though it does make me a bit sad that some of my very favorite Philly streets are too tiny and narrow to be on Google Street View in the first place. But I could write a whole other post about those streets, and I probably will, complete with pictures.

* Rather like the entertainingly time-wasting site Kitten War, where you vote for which of a random pair of kitten images is cuter. I wonder if the Kitten War folks have tried to analyze the principles of kitten cuteness? You know, for SCIENCE? Inquiring minds want to know!

Stranding is hard: a quick, cranky knitting post

As part of my “learn something new every month” New Year’s resolution, I’ve been trying to teach myself to be more adept at stranded knitting. (For those of you who don’t knit, stranded knitting is when you work with two colors of yarn at once, alternating small groups of stitches in each color, and you carry the non-working yarn across the back of the piece.) I have a couple of lovely new books of Fair Isle patterns for visual inspiration, and yesterday I practiced for a while on a test swatch.

This, more or less, is what was running through my head:

  • I HATE DOUBLE-POINTED NEEDLES. They’re so horribly fiddly. Should’ve just made a much bigger swatch so I could work on circulars. [drops DPN for the 20th time; sotto voce swearing ensues]
  • I cannot, to save my life, hold one yarn in each hand, the way that’s supposed to be easiest. Just. Can’t. Do it. I never taught myself to knit Continental-style, with the yarn thrown over the left hand.
  • But if I keep just picking up one yarn at a time and holding it with my right hand like I’m used to, the two yarns get hopelessly tangled in no time at all. [more sotto voce swearing]
  • OK. Trying the two-hands-at-once method again. I feel like a toddler learning to walk, or something. Am I really that much of a klutz?
  • Dropped the needle AGAIN. [more sotto voce swearing]
  • My method of yarn wrapping is generally inefficient and weird. I should work on that. I bet this would be a lot easier if I were better at holding the yarn in the first place.
  • I’ve been at this for what feels like hours, and this is all I’ve managed to do? Augh.

Attempting Fair Isle knitting (daily photo, 2/12/12)

So, clearly, I have a long way to go. But I keep seeing the most amazing stranded patterns for sheep-themed blankets and Old English socks and all kinds of incredible mittens (mittens with octopuses and koi and beetles on them! astronomical mittens! Cthulhu mittens!), and my desire to be able to make them is greater than my annoyance at my own ham-fistedness. At least I hope so.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more swatching to do. And probably a lot more swearing.

A cairn of small stones

Inspired by friends in the blogosphere, I’ve been participating in the January 2012 River of Stones project. The idea is that every day you write a short burst of prose, some sort of observation of the world, and then either blog it or tweet it. I’ve been confining mine to less than 140 characters so I could stick them directly up on Twitter under the #smallstone hashtag. Now that January’s over, I thought I’d pull them all together into one post and put it up here for safekeeping.

(I like the image of each of these bits of writing as a stone. Like you could pile them up and get a cairn. And I also really liked the habits of attention that this project encouraged.)

Hopped off the bus and into the blue hour. All downtown soaked in a wash of cobalt, interrupted by streetlights & lit windows.

A crop of spiky gumballs still hangs on the leafless sweetgum tree outside my office window.

Dashing between buildings on a bitterly cold day, face averted from the sun’s bright, remote, warmth-free glare.

On my walk home, church spires catch the last light. Two joggers, in matching navy sweats, emerge from the deepening twilight.

A dozen or so birds flying northwest in a ragged V that keeps shifting into a line, a loop, a shapeless huddle. Entropy.

Two men vehemently arguing on a New Haven street: “You wanted cappuccino! You wanted cappuccino!” “No, I did not!” “Yes you did!

Pink sunset light on the underside of blue clouds picks out an inverted landscape of prairies with the occasional plateau.

Constant micro-adjustments to the indoor temperature. The thermostat nudged up or down. The fleece slippers & fingerless gloves.

Burst of bright color through trees; looks like fall again, but it’s an orange-suited arborist on a cherry picker.

Two enormous raccoons outside my building. Suspicious muddy paw prints running right past my front door. Suddenly I’m nervous.

The arborists’ completed work: a tree lies in perhaps two dozen neatly made sections on the grass.

A thick disc of milky-opaque ice, raised irregularly in the middle, in my landlord’s birdbath this morning.

Distant church bells overlay the thumping bass from a passing car’s radio.

Yesterday night’s snow, this morning’s slush, this evening’s damp and vaguely slippery sidewalks.

Swaying gently in my chair to a glam-rock spreadsheet-editing soundtrack. Trees outside sway a little more briskly in the wind.

Freezing morning air took <5 minutes to insinuate right through the fingertips of my gloves and the cables and ribs of my hat.

Dusting of snow last night. Tree branches catching the morning light look like they’ve been lightly dipped in cream.

Pleasures of a snow day: walking in the middle of the street. For once, more pedestrians than cars. We grin at each other.

Three loads of laundry hastily done at the end of the weekend. The smell of clean, heated cloth pervades the apartment.

The waitress brushes crumbs from the table with a solicitous gesture. Through the wineglass the restaurant gleams ripplingly.

On a passing oil truck, the words “MYSTIC FUEL.” It’s from Mystic, CT, but the image of fuel for mysticism is irresistible.

Bibimbap in a stone bowl too hot to touch barehanded. All through dinner it radiates heat. I scrape the last of the sticky rice.

The man in the airplane seat next to mine slept for much of the flight, his thumbs moving as if texting in his dreams.

A woman, giving directions over her cell phone, points one way and then another along the route she imagines for her hearer.

Glimpses of people’s lives through windows at dusk. A glowing fish tank, a TV turned on, a refrigerator covered with pictures.

Weird contrast of mild, benignant weather & a lingering sense of wrongness: too-early daffodils sprouting at the end of January.

A week in the life of a librarian

Somewhat tardily, seeing as it started yesterday, I’m posting to announce my participation in Round 8 of the Library Day in the Life project, which runs all this week. The idea is for librarians of all stripes to post on various channels about what they do all day, which is the kind of information that I would have loved to have available when I was in the early stages of career exploration. For those of you just looking at this blog for the first time, hello! I’m a research and instruction librarian at Connecticut College in New London, CT, and you can read probably more than you ever wanted to know about me elsewhere on this site.

Mostly I’m going to be posting my day-in-the-life snippets on Twitter under the #libday8 hashtag, though I may also put the occasional photo up on Flickr. Like this one:

Connecticut College library at night (daily photo, 1/30/12)

I snapped this yesterday as I left work. You can’t really see because of the blurriness, but the main floor of Shain Library was full of students (it’s the second week of the semester, and the activity level in the building has already picked up a lot), and it looked very warm in the cold January 5:30 p.m. darkness.

And now it’s time for this librarian’s day to turn to dinner and laundry. Catch you all on Twitter…

On not knowing code*

It’s kind of ridiculous that I’ve made it this far without learning any programming languages. I mean, sure, that wasn’t part of the “Computer Applications” class I took in high school, and I was the kind of undergrad English major who took the required math courses and plunged with relief back into the humanities. And my graduate English program wasn’t known for its technophilia. But considering how much time I’ve spent since then among digital humanists and tech-savvy librarians and generally geeky people, you’d think I’d have picked up some coding somewhere along the line. It’s been a lacuna in my education. And I could sit down with some books and teach myself, except I learn better when I’m interacting with someone else in some way. Particularly when I don’t have a lot of spare time to learn new things in.

So when I heard about Codecademy‘s “Code Year” project, I signed myself up posthaste. Lessons in discrete chunks, on a regular schedule! Gamification! Comparing notes with also-participating friends! It sounded very doable, and it was well-timed, considering I’d just decided to learn some programming at some point in 2012.

And then a friend pointed me to Audrey Watters’ post on Codecademy, and I thought “Oh dear.” And then Julie Meloni posted about it too. Julie argues that “the key issue is pedagogy”:

Yes, the interface is shiny and the badges are neat, but no, it is not teaching you how to code. It is teaching you how to call-and-response, and is not particularly helpful in explaining why you’re responding, why they’re calling, or—most importantly—how to become a composer.

I’ve silently watched many people start the lessons, ask the right questions (“why am I doing X?”, “what happens when I do Y instead of X?”, “how does X and Z fit together?”, “how does Z compare to A?”, “wait, all I’m doing is typing what you’re telling me to type?”), and end up saying “well, I just earned 5 badges and don’t know what the heck that was all about or how it relates to [insert completely reasonable things here].”

I’ve been noticing the same thing. I mean, I’m learning something, but the key concepts are tangled up in my head with the details of JavaScript syntax, and I’m not sure why I’m doing a lot of the things the lessons walk you through. I’m typing into the box and getting “Correct!”, and I get what I’m doing in the short term, but I have my doubts about how well how well I’ll remember it in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, another friend, over on G+, explained functions by way of an example involving pseudocode and peanut-butter-sandwich-making instructions — which made immediate and enlightening sense to me, in part because I used to do a similar assignment with my freshman comp students, and in part because it made the larger point clear: what you’re doing, as she said, is “verbing nouns in time, checking conditions as you go.” Including conditions like “the lid of the peanut butter jar is stuck.” It comes back, as a lot of pedagogy does, to building on what the learner already knows (hello, constructivism).

So I’m still doing the Code Year lessons, but we’ll see. I might try the Rubyist Historian tutorial instead, or HacketyHack, both of which I’ve heard people speak well of. If there’s any learning-to-code resource out there that you particularly recommend, Reader, please feel free to point to it in the comments. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted.

* By the way, the title of this post is a deliberate reference to Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek.” And even though programming and Greek are two quite different things,** I kept thinking of it as I drafted this post, probably because, like Woolf with the Greeks, I’ve been confronting something simultaneously unfamiliar and foundational, and trying to connect it with what I already know.

** I actually do know Greek, though it’s been a while since I’ve used it for anything. I still have my battered Hansen & Quinn and my Middle Liddell, though. Hmm. Maybe later on this year I can work on reviving my Greek.

A couple of New Year’s resolutions

1. If I find myself dithering excessively over a decision, I will ask myself, “Really, why the hell not?” And if the only answer is “Um…I don’t know but I’m sure there’s a very good reason! Because of…um…stuff that might go wrong!”, I resolve to go ahead and do whatever it is, even if it scares me.

2. Each month, I’m going to try to learn a new thing. I haven’t picked out all the things yet, but I’m thinking: some basic programming, stranded knitting (my own personal knitterly final frontier), and, if I can swing it, perhaps a Rare Book School course this summer. Oh, and if I can find any local classes, maybe belly dancing. And if I manage to keep up the learning new things, I’ll blog about them.

2011 in review

It’s New Year’s Eve and, I have to say, I’m not sorry to see the last of 2011. It has not been the greatest year. My grandmother passed away in the middle of it; the neverending recession spread its malaise everywhere; and I spent the entire year conducting a job search that, so far, hasn’t netted anything, although there have been one or two near misses.

I should add that I’m not looking for a new job because there’s something wrong with my current job; I work with some really lovely people and I get to do quite a few things that suit me very well. But I’m starting to feel a bit stale, like I want to move in different directions. And there’s a geographical reason for wanting to look elsewhere: three years in New London have convinced me that I would not be happy living in a small town in Connecticut for the long term (“not happy” is putting it mildly, actually), and I need to get back to a larger city. I don’t blog the details of job searches, but if any of you who don’t know me in real life were wondering about the subtext of that recent meta-post, that’s what’s been going on.

Job searches can be exciting, but they also have a way of making one feel either inadequate or exhausted, or both. Most of my spare energy in 2011 went into the job search and keeping my spirits up, and I had very little left over for anything else. A lot of my daily writing at 750Words has been fraught with angst and tiredness and repeated disappointment and general dullness, like my brain has a few too many processes running in the background. It’s probably fairly telling that one of my theme songs for the year was “This Year” by the Mountain Goats, with its refrain “I am gonna make it! Through this year! If it kills me!”

But I’ve still been able to come up with a few good things about this past year. So here’s a list, as the sun goes down on the last evening of the year:

2011 saw the launch of #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars, edited by the always fabulous Bethany Nowviskie. I’m immensely pleased to have been a contributor to this project, and to have been in such fantastic company.

2011 was the year when my ongoing commonplace book research, conducted mostly in fits and starts and on vacation days, started to feel like it connected up with my dissertation in several ways, and like it could maybe turn into a book, somewhere down the road.

2011 was the year I came up with the following list of priorities, or personal manifesto, or set of guidelines, or whatever you want to call them:

  1. Make things
  2. Attend to the aesthetic
  3. Stay curious
  4. Discover things
  5. Seek and create conversation

(I wrote this list out on an index card and tacked it up over my desk, to remind myself of what I want to contribute to the world, and what I want to make sure to focus on both at work and outside of it. I still think it’s quite a good list.)

2011 was the year I started feeling a strong inclination to write fiction again. Or rather, I’d been feeling it off and on for a while, but 2011 was the year when plots for stories started popping into my head in much larger numbers than I’d experienced before, and the year in which I actually started writing some of them.

And, finally, 2011 was the year when I started memorizing poems again. I used to do that all the time when I was younger, and then got out of the habit (even when I was writing a dissertation on poetry and memory), but I’ve gotten back into it. Right at the moment there are a whole bunch of Philip Larkin poems I want to commit to memory. He’s in some ways the perfect poet to read in times of uncertainty, pessimism, and general dourness. But he’s also one of those poets who can pull me out of that state of mind by writing about it so well.

Anyway. Happy New Year, reader. May 2012 be a better year than 2011 for all of us.