I should be doing homework, but I need a little self-expression break. Let me describe geology lab for you.
Woodward 328 is also known as "the venting room," where we get together for lab with the nice TA and everyone blows off steam in angry, wounded tones about how miserable the professor is making them, and the TA chuckles. And we try to do our work but horrible jokes and puns keep bursting into the silence and people laugh a little too hard and you can tell they're stressed. The room smells very vaguely of sulfur and the walls are covered with maps, and every available horizontal surface that is not a lab table has lots of rocks on it. Some of the rocks look like what you'd find if you walked outside the building and some are crazy, exotic, striped or odd colors. There are some tupperware containers with supplies you might want to use on rocks, like magnifying glasses and bottles of HCl. The big windows on the west side of the room look out over the unambitious hills of Rhode Island and we can see the sun set.
There is a box of rocks for us to identify on one of the tables. It could be rocks with trace fossils, remnants not of an organism's body but of its behaviors. We have been reading in our lab manual about the traces left by activities like burrowing, resting, feeding and at first glance it is completely obvious that none of the fossils in the box bears any resemblance to anything we've been reading about. They have lumps, random lumps, lumps that look nothing like burrows or like the imprint of a trilobite.
There is no one who will tell us what these are fossils of. There is no one who will tell us, see, this is what a burrow looks like. The TA is not allowed to give it away. It is perverse. So we guess at everything and after two hours, the lab is up and we still have half the rocks to go. So we come in on another day and sit in the quiet room and try to finish it on our own. And we hand in our sheets and next week we get them back and every one of them is wrong. And we do it again with some other rocks.
Lab bears a striking resemblance to class, in which the professor sends us forth with a problem to research, without any prior lecturing on either the problem or on, say, how to write the papers. And we get the papers back and he has been very attentive.
I am coming more and more to find this absolutely hilarious. The thing that's so funny about it is not so much the perversity of it all as the fact that none of us is, actually, being hurt by it. We happen to be learning after the assignment instead of before the assignment, and our grades suck, but other than that, all the moaning and groaning (and some crying, no doubt) is essentially over bruised ego. There is nothing inherently hurtful about going into an assignment totally blind, groping around pathetically, and having everything you do corrected with a red colored pencil.
In fact, I am beginning to enjoy it.
I'm not quite sure what's gotten into me, but more and more it's starting to seem almost fun to be thrown into the deep end of the pool every week. Maybe it's liberating to know that there's nothing you can do to avoid the red pencil, so you might as well let go of the idea of getting an A and just enjoy the fact that we are all in this thing together. And tell another stupid joke. Or maybe it's because I am starting to find myself swimming, sometimes.
It's been strange to look up after these painful months and see that I have improved a great deal in my understanding of rocks and in my writing, without much conscious intention. I was just trying to keep my head above water. And I think that's why the indignities of the class matter less to me now... it's results, just results. I look at how much improved my latest paper is and I suddenly do not care that no one will show me what permineralized bone looks like before I'm tested on it, that no one will lecture about Milankovitch cyclicity before we delve into jargon-saturated scientific papers about it, that the professor is short-tempered and scathing and occasionally erratic, that I have no idea what my grade is exactly at this point.
And at this point it would be wrong of me to characterize him as a devil when I am coming to feel not only the beginning of a deep gratitude but also a genuine fondness... he has proven to be a complex and generous man who has already given me a great deal, and I am, in actuality, touched. I have been disabused of many ideas this semester, several having to do with who (and what) I am capable of learning from. And it is a delightful thing to realize that true competence is a better prize than an A, better than someone's approval, better than being treated "nice." I suddenly do not care quite so much about those things.
It's funny but someone told me at the beginning of the semester: "The truth will set you free; the process will piss you off." I am still occasionally pissed off (and still, unfortunately, terribly busy) but right now all I can do is laugh.