Before I left college, I got some very good advice from a very good professor to seek out “jobs for learning.” He suggested an internship with the Student Conservation Association or a similar organization (realizing perhaps, that in this economy such internships are often easier for young college grads to land than regular work), but he also made it very clear that a regular old nine-to-five in the right environment could be a great place to learn. I was fortunate to get a nine-to-five, and even more fortunate that it has indeed turned out to be an excellent job for learning.
This programming business is particularly fun. My job is basically to create a mashup that uses the Google Maps API to show where the company I work for has done surveys and engineering work in the past. (This website has some totally awesome examples of mashups if the concept is unfamiliar to you.)
Programming is a blast because it’s this beautiful blend of back-end precision and organization and front-end design and functionality. It fosters creativity (which is not some latent thing inside each of us just waiting to be unleashed but something that is learned by rote repetition until you finally understand well enough to change the rules and see what happens) like nothing else. Like most people my age I suppose, I’ve been dabbling in HTML code since I was a teenager, but I basically only ever knew enough to force my links to open up in new tabs when WordPress’s “Open link in new window or tab” button wasn’t working.
So this job has meant I’ve had a lot of learning to do. And lest my boss worry that he’s paying me too much, I will say that my undergraduate education—yea, my humanities-based liberal arts education—prepared me perfectly for the kind of problem-solving I do everyday. Meanwhile, I’m picking up all kinds of skills, learning a lot about the art and science of land surveying, and understanding what truly collaborative work can accomplish.
<brag>I love my job.</brag>
<confession>Recognizing how many of my friends are unemployed or underemployed, I feel extremely guilty about this, but that’s another post. </confession>
This past week I’ve gone to a couple of lectures by an ArtPrize artist named Sheila Wyne who’s visiting Calvin from Anchorage, AK for the event. While I don’t have much time to write, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts.
Learning in order that we might communicate
Wyne works on a lot of public sculpture that is highly collaborative and often involves installations that require contractors. One thing she mentioned in one of her talks is that she’s taken welding classes not so that she herself is a certified welder but so that she will be able to communicate with the certified welders she contracts, both in giving direction and in asking questions. I was struck by what a wonderful approach to learning that can be. Imagine: we take classes in order that we might be able to communicate with the people who practice a particular discipline and with people more generally. We’re not in a class to discover or create necessarily, but first and foremost to cultivate our communication skills. Then where might communication take us?
Discovering through practice
Something that’s taken me a while of hanging out with art majors to understand is that not every piece of art begins as a clear concept. Wyne says that when she’s working on studio pieces, if she knows what the piece is about before she begins, she doesn’t bother making it. The process of making it is a process of discovery, and often it takes a viewer to find the meaning in a piece. Applying this to a broader project of learning, I think we’d get an interesting pedagogy. The projects I do for classes all have very clear concepts. My professors can articulate the purpose and expected outcome of my labs and papers and I head into them with a clear understanding of the goals and what I am expected to take away. But if we practiced first and then tried to understand later, I think we’d get something closer to the Oxbridge tutorial system, where students write essays first, then discuss their essays with a tutor to try to understand the material. Writing—that is, practicing and producing—is a fundamental part of the project of learning, not just an end demonstration of knowledge already gained.
These are rough and incomplete thoughts, but I wanted to get them down before they vanished. If you’re in Grand Rapids or anywhere nearby, come to ArtPrize, and check out Sheila Wyne’s entry “Spore” located at the Kent County Courthouse on Ottawa near Lyon. The below picture is from Wyne’s profile on the ArtPrize website:
It’s made from snaths, which are the handles of scythes. I didn’t know that word before last week Wednesday, but I love its specificity. Articulate! Communicate! And harvest grain!