Thursday, July 30, 2015

How to Deal with Being Overwhelmed: Why LAKES REU Students are so Awesome

I get overwhelmed with so many important priorities in my life.  Most of you know how I feel.  I Co-Direct the LAKES program, which is a tremendous privilege I take seriously.  I have other priorities in life, like my family, teaching, exercise, involvement in civil society, friends, etc., etc., etc.  We really don't set ourselves up to deal with these things well in modern society, in spite of our efforts to improve "efficiency".  I will continue to criticize the modern political economy and the culture behind it for various, important reasons, but we all still have to deal with it on a daily basis nonetheless.  So how do you deal with being overwhelmed?  I argue that you surround yourself with awesome people (as I have discussed here and here and here before).  This summer I am proud to have many such students and colleagues I can lean on in the LAKES REU.  This blog post is a reflection on two of those students, Yanira Campos and Josh Herron (read on- I suspect you will fall in love with them, too).

Yani comes from North Carolina.  She has a sweet and easy charm about her.  Her southern accent is just subtle enough to make her seem appropriately proper.  That subtlety is expressed in her demeanor, as well.  Some people will just spill out a stream of consciousness and call it "contributing to a conversation".  I should know- we smell our own.  Yani is different.  She has this moment- a pause- after she is asked something.  In that moment she processes the question and always seems to respond in a way that is gracious to both the person asking and to herself.  She will step up and do something that is absolutely altruistic and no fun for her at all if she can, yet she will also graciously say "no" to something when she does not want to do it (or have the time to dedicate to it).  As part of this extraordinary self-awareness, Yani has a calm elegance about her where she really will not stand idly by if she does not understand something.  She has enough confidence in herself to know it is not her fault- she will simply ask more questions to learn something she does not understand yet.

And it's not that she's not scared.  She has big dreams and is quite anxious about them, but in a "I know she's gonna follow through on these dreams" kind of way.  Yani really doesn't allow herself to be rendered immobile by her anxieties.  She uses them to...well, just kind of go for it.  When she heard there were going to be a couple dozen young African leaders from 18 different countries on campus she was the first to run and greet them, even though she may actually be the shyest person in our entire group.  When we were still a week away from when I planned on sending she and Josh out to meet and interview farmers she softly emphasized that she'd prefer doing that the next day, if possible.  She admitted that she strongly dislikes math, yet she remained open-minded about learning OLS multivariate regression, and consequently found the tremendous usefulness and fun in doing applied math.  [Applied math is, of course, better known as quantitative social science research. :)]  In other words, her balanced, graceful elegance will allow her to do what she sets out to do.  If she decides to go into immigration law, I know she will be fantastic at it and happy with it because she won't let herself be less.  She will be one of the hardest working law students/lawyers, yet she will not let herself get run over by the work either.


Then there is Josh.  He is one of the most endearing, idiosyncratic young people I have met in my 15 years in education.  He loves to sing.  He enjoys camping.  He likes to sit on the beach in Greece in a speedo.  He dumpster dives.  He hunts bear.  He rides a moped.  He raises hound dogs.  He is into video games.  He will fight for those most marginalized in the world, not because it's cool to do so but because it's the logical conclusion on how to live a meaningful life.  He loves history and philosophy and medieval texts.  He simultaneously really digs statistics and lines of codes and fancy social network analyses.  His excitement about this program was as much about working with students from all around the country as it was the research experience itself.

Since Josh is the lone UW-Stout student in this year's LAKES REU program, I had experience with him prior to June 14th.  I remember a speech he gave on his research on structural violence at Research Day in April.  I remember the work was a passion for him.  I also remember his tie and mustache.  I don't know if he was trying to engage in some postmodern satire about how we take serious our appearance too much to the detriment of real substance, but I like to think that this was his counter-cultural line of thought.  What I like is that he really doesn't seem to do this kind of dramaturgy for the plain spectacle of it, or out of some desperation for others to pay attention to him.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I've never seen him push to try to be in the limelight.  He's happier seeing others get praise.  If he does something for dramatic effect, it's because it's important to be provocative at that moment, and all it takes is for him to just not care if he's perceived as weird.  Such self-confidence and care for others is a large part of what Nietzsche wrote about in describing the Übermensch.  The Superman or Over-man is not really super or great because he or she dominates over others in this world.  The Übermensch dominates over him or her self.  This is Josh.  Hemingway would have loved to write about him.  


The LAKES students came up with the topic for mentors' blogs this summer (this is, of course, mine). Along with our impressions of our students and acrostic poems, we were asked to provide a picture of ourselves as undergraduate students (an embarrassing one) and a recipe.  Gotta hand it to them on making it challenging for us, but please, please blame them for this long post. :)  I thought I might use those additional requests as an opportunity for a couple analogies.  This is not really an embarrassing college picture, but the moment was embarrassing:

I was fishing with my college roommate, Ken Putt, up near Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.  We were back-trolling for walleyes, and I hooked into this monster.  As you can see, I was quite proud.  We didn't know what it was, but it kind of looked like a walleye, so we figured it was a great catch.  We got back to the dock and I still had this big grin on my face when Putt's uncle saw it and chuckled.  He said, "You know what you got there- a dogfish!  Bottom feeder.  Not worth eating."  He dined on that for months with his friends, I've been told.  Over time, I have developed my fishing knowledge and skills to the point where I am actually pretty decent at it, if I do say so myself.  This came from doing a lot of it and (more importantly) learning from other, really great anglers.  

Cooking is similar.  For example, one of my favorite things to make from our garden is tomato jam.  Trust me- it's fantastic.  I've gotten to be a decent cook, too, with practice and appropriating great recipes from people more experienced than me (this one from Mark Bitman, NYT food writer):
1.5 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon fresh grated or minced ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or cayenne 
1. Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often.

2. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, then pour into hot, sterilized jam jars, screw the lids on and turn the jars upside down to cool completely.

In case you don't see where I'm going with this, cooking and fishing well takes knowledge and skills.  This is similar to what we are doing with the LAKES program.  Solving water pollution takes knowledge and skills developed over time, constantly revisited and altered as necessary.  This is the same with students in terms of their research and preparation for successful careers.  People (both at individual and collective levels) may not be great at addressing water pollution or research or other work initially, but like fishing if we are honest about what we don't know and are open-minded enough to develop new knowledge and skills then we can become great at those things too.  

And, most importantly, you surround yourself with extraordinary other people, like Yani and Josh and my students last year, Cassie and Alison, to help you develop such skills and knowledge.  It is then you can become great, without also feeling too overwhelmed. :)

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