In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be officially finished with the spring semester and officially on sabbatical. I’ve been thinking about what I want to do on sabbatical, what goals I have, how to use it for rest as well as for work, and how to use it to create something new. Lately I have been trying to understand how and when we feel the right to create, especially to create without directions or a guidebook. There are areas in which I feel I can freely create without fear and without asking permission. I can cook anything I want to and only rarely feel the need to find a recipe. I don’t feel bad when it turns out I haven’t made an excellent soup — I’m sure I’ll make another good soup in the future. I rarely teach from a textbook and make materials for all my classes — exams, worksheets, activities — either creating things entirely on my own or remixing materials from others. I make presentations on Prezi or even PowerPoint, and I have never needed to ask how to give an amazing talk. I make up and solve math problems in a variety of contexts, and if I can’t figure something out, I usually just keep at it until it clicks or I run the problem by a friend.
But even in mathematics I often worry that I am not doing things the “right” way. I just had a sociology paper published and I worry that the math contained in it is not really “good enough” and that the sociology is lackluster as well. I have ideas for several more papers applying math to various subjects, and I worry that both the math and the applications are too obvious. I like to draw, but I don’t really want to do it because I’m not trained and not good enough. I teach a class called “Math, Art, and Design,” and I often use the class as an excuse to create sculptural forms. I don’t feel it would be legitimate to do the creation without the “excuse” of teaching, because I’m not really good enough at it. I certainly couldn’t make up something on my own. I would love to write fiction, but don’t think that I would have any good ideas worth writing. Over and over again, as I look at my life, I see myself convinced that I don’t have the power to create — that I don’t have the right to do it myself.
I don’t think I’m alone. Last week, I showed a couple of students a clip of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show and one of the students responded that it made her feel really bad about herself. I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but I had exactly the same reaction — that I’m so incapable that even a child can do things that I can’t figure out or don’t have the courage to attempt. But the only real difference between me and Sylvia (aside from the fact that she’s a good 30+ years younger than me) is that she thinks she has the right to do the stuff that she does and I don’t. I think I need printed directions and permission from an expert.
Why? In part, I blame years of schooling. School is designed to keep you in a subservient position, accumulating knowledge that you will presumably use in “the future.” You have to keep earning grades and accumulating classes until you get to the end of the path, and then you can (theoretically) use all of that knowledge. I remember always wanting to create and invent, but never feeling like I really knew how because there was no class in creating things. I knew how to do homework, pass tests, write reports, contribute to class discussions, and impress teachers. I knew how to play the school game, not how to make things outside of school.
I think we all have areas in which we feel empowered as doers and makers, and we all have areas in which we feel too intimidated, scared, or ashamed to create. What I’m interested in right now is how we can empower people to create, particularly people who feel shut out and disempowered. Is there is a way to transfer power from one sphere to another? Can I take the way I feel about cooking and transfer it to, say, DIY robotics? How do we start to see ourselves as creators rather than as learners submitting to the authority of a teacher?
A couple of things that I have noticed lately. A couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I found a brand new K’NEX set that someone left out in the trash. We brought it inside and put it together over the past week. I’ve never done K’NEX and it’s just a little two old for my daughter to do on her own. But we worked on it together, and as a result she and I both learned a lot about how the pieces fit together and about what is possible. She had the idea that we should use the K’NEX as part of a chain reaction that we want to build and contribute to the Friday-After-Thanksgiving chain reaction this year. I think we are both inching toward feeling empowered to work with the K’NEX after using the kit and empowered to build a chain reaction after being part of a workshop at the MIT museum last month. So apparently I think that copying someone else’s creation is one route to empowerment. But my impulse after those experiences is to get a book that teaches me how to design things in K’NEX or a book that teaches me how to create chain reactions (rube goldberg machines). I want to know what I’m doing before I try to do it, which is the school approach that I’m so good at. Instead I think I’m going to try some ideas ideas out with my daughter, allowing the two of us to leverage our growing empowerment through experimentation. Extrapolating from what I know from cooking, I know I can make one or two recipes. I probably need to learn more recipes, but first I want to give myself permission to play around with the recipes that I know, to see if I can change them in ways that to help me solve new problems.
In some ways, this kind of empowerment is exactly what “liberation math” is all about. I already think I have the right to create and solve a math problem, but can I help other people get to the same place of empowerment? So far, I have accumulated a few ideas, and I will be trying to come up with a summary of those ideas now that the semester is almost over. What ideas do all of you out there have?