Values and Learning

An odd subject, perhaps, but one that’s been on my mind of late. I spent the last two glorious weeks immersed in learning about one of my favorite topics, focusing nearly exclusively on that. It was wonderful. It was mentally exhausting. But it was also exhilarating.

I wondered why I felt simultaneously tired and energized… but it wasn’t the kind of cognitive and sensory overload that typically comes at the end of a long day of meetings, or even the physical fatigue I feel after a long day out in nature. My brain was completely fried but in a good way. I felt like I was using brain cells that had been dormant for too long. Waking them up and getting them firing again wasn’t easy, but oh, it was rewarding. I was energized because, well, wow. So many new and interesting and exciting things to learn. This course does a wonderful job of presenting cutting-edge data and information. So when I attend I know that I am going to expand the boundaries of my knowledge, which to me is one of the best possible things I can experience.

I realized that what I get out of this course – and others that I have the good fortune to participate in – directly aligns with one of my main values. You know those lists of values you see floating around, typically just a collection of words focused on different things – like family, education, justice, equality, etc? One of my top values is the combination of learning / education / knowledge. Learning because it can be formal or informal, and it’s lifelong; education because it’s one approach to learning, and one to which everyone should have access; and knowledge, because to me that is the outcome of learning and education.

For me, that value means growing, stretching my mental muscles, learning new things and new ways of thinking about the world. There is so much we don’t know. Learning as much as possible about ourselves and the world we live in is, to me, a basic principle of being human. I try so hard to foster a love of learning in my students… and not just educate them because the curriculum dictates that I need to. Lifelong curiosity, learning, seeking knowledge? To me, that’s the best possible way to live, and I hope that I can get at least some of my students to agree with me.

This applies to my research, too. Research generates knowledge. How cool is that? It doesn’t take what is known and use it in some way. Instead, research lets you push the boundaries of what is known. Ask the questions that haven’t been answered yet, and try your best to find the answers. I always say that the best part of doing research is that you never manage to answer “the last question”. There is no end – only more questions brought up by the ones that you (at least temporarily) answered. The quest for knowledge, for understanding? It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

So, what can I learn today? Time to find out…

Great thinkers don’t boast about how much they know; they marvel at how little they understand… A mark of lifelong learners is recognizing they can learn something from everyone they meet.

~Adam Grant

(From his new book, Think Again, which I need to read…)


I have yet again been absent from this blog. This time, though, it’s for (what I think is) a wonderful reason – I’m in the middle of a 2 week long intensive course on my favorite scientific topic.

Yes, I’m completely nerding out for two weeks. And I am loving it. I love that my calendar is largely empty, other than the sessions, which run from 0730-1630 (sorry, you can take the nurse out of the hospital but you apparently will have to rip her love for the 24 hour clock from her cold, dead hands…). I love that I get so into the lectures and discussions that I talk back to my computer. I love that I get to learn more every year that I attend this course. And each year, my mind is blown. It’s the best money that I spend all year.

And this is one of the reasons I love my job. I know I haven’t written about my weird job and how it’s just not like other jobs. But academia, for all its faults, provides me with the opportunity to feed my passions. To truly immerse myself in a topic that I love, regardless of why I love it. Of course, this will be a lot easier (and I will feel a lot more secure) when I achieve tenure. But even those of us who are earlier on the academic track are told to follow our passions. And to keep asking questions. A job that pays me to focus on what I love, and that lets me ask all the questions I want? Sign me up, even if the pay is the lowest I’ve received since graduating college lo these many years ago.

There is probably some way to do this in many jobs… but for me, this is the perfect combination of following my passion, immersing myself in the science of something I love, and giving myself the space and time to keep learning, to keep asking questions, to know that we don’t know everything. There is still so much to learn about this world of ours. I’m grateful that I get to keep learning.

Now on to week two of nerding out…

Just yesterday I watched an ant crossing a path, through the
tumbled pine needles she toiled.
And I thought: she will never live another life but this one.
And I thought: if she lives her life with all her strength
is she not wonderful and wise?

~Mary Oliver

Monday Morning Musings

I’ve seen a lot of bloggers use the “Currently” approach to outline what’s on their minds, or going in their lives. Since I can never quite follow the rules exactly – either a strength or a weakness, depending on one’s point of view – here’s my Monday morning look into what’s going on in my brain (always a scary place) and life in general.

Currently, I am…

Happy… that my parents are on their long-awaited beach trip this week. They have been looking forward to this for months. They go with another family – a big one – every year and they rent the same place, eat lots of food, go to the beach, and just relax. They need this so badly, and I’m so glad they’re finally there… even if it means I have to suffer through texts that will make me envious all week.

Grateful… that the family member who had the health issue is rapidly improving. Thank goodness for modern medicine.

Baffled… by learning that people apparently move with UPS these days? It’s move in season in my apartment complex. That’s what you get when you’re in a University town with a large academic medical center. July 1 is when residencies and fellowships in medicine start. So it’s a huge time of turnover around here, which is great for my people-watching habit. Anyway, I saw this when I went to the package room one day:

That’s the package room and the hallway outside. Yikes. When I went to tell the apartment managers, they told me that people are moving with UPS. Can you fathom how expensive that must be? I was completely baffled. Completely.

Looking forward to… the end of July. I have a two-week intensive online course at the end of the month that I take as often as I can (in person, if possible, of course it’s virtual this year…). I love it, and cannot wait to learn more about my favorite topic.

Feeling… a bit overwhelmed by the fact that I have not one, but two coffee dates, this week. Yikes. With people I like, but still. That’s a lot for someone who’s still feeling her way into the world post-pandemic. I am also planning lunch with my mother in law (much-delayed, and feeling guilty about that) so it’s going to be a socially overwhelming week for me. I might be a hermit next week. 😉

Ready… to get this week started! Have a wonderful one, whatever you are up to!

Friday Randomness

A few random thoughts for the last Friday in June(!)…

  1. That actually makes me think that I should share this thought first… I (and, I think a lot of people) put so much pressure on myself to pack everything good into the summer months. For me, that’s mid-May-ish through mid-August, based on my academic calendar. And at this point in the summer – nearly halfway through – I feel as though I haven’t accomplished, well, anything. Which makes me think… why do we do this to ourselves? Why do I tell myself that I MUST go to the local Arboretum (which is, apparently, lovely) this summer? Why can’t I go in September? I know that the weather limits some opportunities, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t keep doing things that fill my professional and personal cup throughout the year. The challenge, of course, is maintaining that mindset when the chaos of the academic year starts.
  2. I have a family member dealing with some health challenges, and it has reminded me of just how hard it is to be this far from them. I am always aware of it, but these kinds of things just bring it to the forefront of my mind. I wish I could be there for them. Sigh.
  3. I wrote up a day in the life post to share, then realized that before I do that, I should maybe write something about, well, how my job differs from other jobs. This has been a challenge for me throughout my working life as an academic. Even my spouse and my parents have difficulty understanding *why* my work life is the way it is, and why it is so all-consuming. And yet, it’s completely normal for people who have similar jobs. Anyway, you’ll all think I’m bonkers if I post that day in the life without some context, I suspect. So that’s next on the list. 🙂
  4. I learned this week that there is, apparently, a really excellent mini golf course about 10 minutes from me. Huh. Who knew? (Clearly, not me…) Unfortunately, solo mini golf is not appealing so I need to find someone to drag with me. Ha.
  5. The one thing on this summer’s list that’s non-negotiable? Getting some custard, for the love of pete. I live in Wisconsin. Land of frozen custard. There are so many options to choose from, and yet most summers I don’t indulge. Time to change that. Maybe I should make it a goal for each weekend – try a different frozen custard place. That seems a worthy goal. Maybe more achievable than the mini golf goal…

Sorry for the boring randomness. Feel free to come back when I share something more interesting. 😉

Art & Music

I don’t often write about my love for art and music here. I am not an artist, nor am I a musician (I leave that to Susanne and others far more gifted than I!). But what I do have is a deep appreciation for both, and a recognition that they are important for making my life more complete (and perhaps, more complex).

I listen to music nearly every morning. A wide range of genres, which shift somewhat frequently (and seemingly randomly, to be honest). Right now, it’s Celtic folk, which has been going strong for several months now. But it’s mixed in with The Chicks (a throwback to the early 2000s…), as well as Brandi Carlisle, several Australian, Canadian, and Scottish groups and artists, and others. It’s an eclectic mix, to say the least.

Why do I do this? Well, to be honest, it brings a bit of joy to the start of my day – putting my meetings and other obligations on my daily calendar, writing out the (usually long) list of things I would like to accomplish by the end of the day, and getting started on the first big thing. I also get to sing along, happily out of tune, much to the chagrin of my neighbors.

Yet, this is a more recent development. For many years, I started my day in silence, thinking that would make me more productive. But music adds another dimension, a reminder that life must also include moments of joy and uplift, not just, well, work. (As much as I love what I do, it’s still work!)

I feel the same way about art, although I admit that opportunities to bring art into my life occur much less frequently. (Side note: you’d probably be appalled to know that I have lived in the same apartment for four years and… there is literally nothing on the walls. Nothing. I Have art propped up on various surfaces around the apartment, and on top of my dresser, but there is nothing actually ON the walls.)

I actually count time spent in nature as time spent with art created by the universe. But oh, I cherish visits to art museums and installations when I can make them happen. My parents emphasized the importance of appreciating and taking the time to learn about art. What’s interesting is that none of us – me, my parents, my brother – are artists, or creative in the traditional sense. My mother is a wizard in the kitchen, and my father is an artist in his garden. But traditional art? Nope. Maybe that reflects the pragmatism with which we tend approach life…but I digress! What I really wanted to get to here was a recent experience that reminded me of just how important art is in my life.

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet up with a friend and her daughter in Chicago to see one of the immersive Van Gogh exhibits that is traveling the country this summer. (I think there are 3, this is the one that I saw.)

This was so different from any other art “exhibit” that I have seen… and so amazing. It literally left me speechless. It’s hard to describe, but they truly bring the art to life. Paintings, details from paintings, handwritten text… all projected around you in a large room. Pieces morph into one another (often completely unrelated in terms of theme or color…which makes the experience even more amazing). There is a full soundtrack that included many pieces I knew, or at least recognized. It’s a truly immersive and almost overwhelming experience, particularly for someone who has spent the last 17 months in isolation, with only a few opportunities to see others in person.

The feeling of awe, of joy, of uplift that I experienced was an amazing way to (start to) emerge from the challenges of the last year+. Seeing art literally all around me, surrounded by music, and others who were similarly immersed… it was a wonderful reminder of just how important art is to my life.

The experience reminded me of a fabulous essay in The Paris Review a few years ago, by Claire Messud. I’d recommend reading the whole thing, honestly, but these lines always stand out to me whenever I read it…

“There is glory in each day, for each of us. It is waiting to be illuminated and observed. Auden wrote that poetry makes nothing happen, but in our hearts and in our lives, we know that is not true. Art has the power to alter our interior selves, and in so doing to inspire, exhilarate, provoke, connect, and rouse us. As we are changed, our souls are awakened to possibility—immeasurable, yes, and potentially infinite. If ever there was a time for art, it’s now.”