I walk into my room in Red Cedar Hall during my second week at Stout. I look up and see my lofted bed, raised to its highest setting. I need to lower this, I think. I’ve waited too long. I drop my bags, cross my arms, and look at the wood and iron structure raising the mattress and bedframe.
It’s high up, and not just because I’m short. Really high, high enough that I need to fully extend my arms to reach the bottom of the metal frame. I test its weight. Heavy.
I step back again, re-cross my arms. This is going to be difficult. But I don’t need help. I do things like this alone.
I go under, lift, and begin to lower. Right away, I know the weight is too much. I try to shift my legs, but loosen my grip in the process, and the heavy frame crashes down onto my left shoulder. [insert expletive here] I yell. My housemate sticks his head in the door. Do you need help? he asks. No I quickly reply.
I don’t need help. I can handle stuff like this. I do it my own way, I make sure it’s done right. So I lift again, raising the frame off my shoulder.
As soon as I have the frame in the air again, I realize my mistake. If I let the frame go, it falls on me. But I can’t raise it high enough to get it back on its supports. I’m stuck. But I don’t want to call for help. I still want to do this alone. I should have the answer.
I lean back in my desk chair at the end of the first week, preparing the PowerPoint for my mini-project presentation. Determining Downstream Citizens’ Willingness to Pay I say to myself quietly as I type the words into the heading of my first slide. I pause, fingers over the keys.
Only a week, and I’ve already done so much. I’ve read at least 20 economic journal articles and make extensive notes on each. I’ve delved into complex modeling, using linear algebra that I have never experienced before. I’ve learned what a probit statistical model is and how I will eventually use it to tease out one little variable in the hedonic pricing or travel-cost method.
I’ve already done so much, learned so much, but there’s still so much I don’t know. Yeah, I know what a probit model is, but I don’t know how to do it. And the complex math that takes up a good portion of most econ papers? My eyes still glaze over, no matter how much focus I muster. I can’t even start a list of things I still don’t know because I’m sure that if I write the list it will just overwhelm me. So much.
And it’s not just my academic discipline either. As I am struggling to figure out how I’m going to pose my questions in the contingent valuation survey, I realize that I’m not even close to having enough knowledge. Is drinking water affected by pollution in the Lake? I need biology for that, but the last time I was in a lab was in high school. And how long has the pollution been a problem? I don’t think my 10th grade World History class will be much help figuring that out. What about the health effects of the lake? The closest I ever come to a pre-med education is when I’m sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.
The list goes on. And on. So much I don’t know. So I do what I have always done: I try to do it alone. I open up my library’s database, and navigate my way to a scientific journal article about the health consequences of blue-green algae blooms. I start to read.
I stop, realizing that I’ve read about a page without taking anything in. So I try again. I need to do this, I think. I need to find the answer. Myself.
But I just don’t get it. The complex scientific jargon is like a foreign language, and the author has apparently made no effort to translate. I close the page. I look at the powerpoint. Still blank.
Why can’t I figure this out? What’s wrong with me? Am I an idiot?
I slap my desk in frustration.
My housemate slips his head in the door. He must have heard the slap. You need anything? he asks tentatively, maybe trying to act like he heard nothing.
I cross my arms and stare back at him. You think I can’t do this on my own? I want to say. I’m used to finding answers alone. My way. So I know it’s right.
But this project, this whole summer, I’m starting to realize, is a bed I can’t de-loft on my own.
I look down at my computer, my eyes immediately finding the blank white PowerPoint slide. And then I look down at my arms, arms I didn’t even realized I had crossed.
I uncross my arms, and look back at my housemate. Yes, I say, I need help.
I end up writing that list—the list of questions I still didn’t have answers to despite my best efforts. But instead of keeping that list to myself—instead of using it as a constant reminder of a hurdle I had still not cleared but needed to clear alone, and instead of letting it become a symbol of my failure to find the answers—I put it in the PowerPoint, with the header “Help!”.
I’ve already started getting some answers from my fellow researchers in return, and I know more are to come.
A minute later, and I’m still stuck, bedframe above my head, unable to raise it to its supports but still afraid to drop it.
I push up with all my remaining strength. Harder I think. I should be able to do this. Alone.
But then I stop. I think about that powerpoint. Those questions I couldn’t answer. And then the answers I received when I opened my questions to my peers.
I came into this REU thinking that I always needed to have the answers. That I always needed to do things on my own to make sure they are done right. That I needed to de-loft my bed myself.
But here, I’ve learned that sometimes admitting what you don’t know, what you can’t do by yourself, is the only way to get the answers. Learning is not best done solo.
So I step back from the desk, arms open at my side, and walk out the door.
I walk into my housemate’s room.
Can I have a hand, I ask.