What do you do?

I spend a lot of time thinking about this simple and ubiquitous question. After “How are you doing?”, “What do you do?” must be the most commonly asked question at parties. I ask it, and I’m (usually) genuinely curious and want to find out more about a person. I think most people are sincere when they ask what you do.

However, most of the time people don’t really want to know what you do. They really just want to know your (paid) job. In this setting, my answer is almost always “biochemist” or “teacher”. Most of the time when I answer “biochemist”, the immediate response is that I must be smart, and then we try to find out whether we like the same sports.

"Proof" of the  Pythagorean theorem. St. John's tutor Mr. Simpson showed this to me during our Euclid class.

“Proof” of the Pythagorean theorem. St. John’s tutor Mr. Simpson showed this to me during our Euclid class.

My alma mater, St. John’s College, is holding a conference Oct 16-18, 2014 asking the question “What is Liberal Education For?“. Like many small liberal arts colleges, St. John’s faces real challenges in today’s world where the value of education is typically measured by the salary that follows. In other words, “What do you do?”

I’m hoping to participate in the St. John’s conference. However, even if I can’t do it, it has gotten me thinking about my education and what I do. The answer is complex and it goes way beyond my “formal” education. As I’ve been thinking about these questions, the list always focuses around my great teachers.

Detail of stitches. Mr. Ginder taught me how to hand stitch.

Detail of stitches. Mr. Ginder taught me how to hand stitch.

I realized that I do the things that I learned from my great teachers. It is really pretty simple: there is hardly a thing that I do (or did) regularly that didn’t start with a great teacher. My definition of a great teacher is somebody who left a great impression on me and changed my way of thinking about the world. I’ve had many good teachers but relatively few great teachers. Somewhat chronologically (and somewhat incomplete):

Mr. Sullivan taught me to play trumpet but more importantly he left me with some fairly abstract concepts that apply to virtually anything: when you need to hit an isolated and exposed high note (i.e., to do a hard thing), it is better to go for it and miss than to weakly ease into it while trying not to mess up. This principle applies to most things in life.

Mr. Simpson taught me Euclid’s elements at St. John’s College. He showed me the beauty of Euclid and probably planted the first seed that science might be an interesting career.

A skinny Art in the middle of the Lewis and Clark Trail bicycle ride.  The dark patch on my rear end is the black dye from the bicycle saddle.  Photo by Dennis Coello.

A skinny Art in the middle of the Lewis and Clark Trail bicycle ride. The dark patch on my rear end is the black dye from the bicycle saddle. Photo by Dennis Coello.

Denny Coello taught me how to live on a bicycle. More importantly, he showed me that war and peace are much more complicated than can be written on a bumper sticker.

Wayne taught me to use a sewing machine and how to shine shoes. Most importantly, he showed me that there are many worthwhile things in life that don’t require a college degree.

Mr. Ginder taught me how to make saddles and how to hand stitch. When I messed up something, he would say with a chuckle “you weren’t holding your mouth right”. I’m still not sure what that means, but it stays with me to this day, and I’m pretty sure that he was channeling a zen master in the body of an old cowboy…

Dr. Grant was the first person who taught me that chemistry, and by extension science, was interesting and could be a meaningful and exciting career. He also turned me away from medical school, which would have been a poor choice for me.

Dr. Epstein (more on him in future blogs!) took me into his lab, brought me to southern Utah to pick sagebrush, and let me see first hand what it was like to do science. He made me love organic chemistry and biology and greatly influenced my course in science.

Don and Kathryn Coleman taught me Tai Chi in Madison, Wisconsin.

Don and Kathryn Coleman taught me Tai Chi in Madison, Wisconsin.

Don Coleman taught me Tai Chi during graduate school in Wisconsin. This was very important to help with stress. The deepest lesson that I try to remember every day is that everything boils down to breathing in and breathing out.

John Markley and Frank Weinhold (more in the future!) taught me how to do science and how to write a scientific paper. Writing is the most important skill in my current job as a biochemistry professor.

Ascaris iPad 2 case for Tony Stretton

Ascaris iPad 2 case for Tony Stretton

Tony Stretton (more in the future!) taught me the beauty of biology and the importance of neuroscience. More than most of my professors, Tony also taught me about balance in science and the importance of family and friends.

Life is complex, but much of it boils down to great teachers. Many of my greatest teachers were not in colleges and universities, and a few of them never attended college. All of them were “smart” but most important, they all had a spark that brought me beyond the basic information and made a lasting impact on my life. That is how I define a liberal education.

2 responses

  1. Art, what a wonderful reflection on your great teachers! I enjoyed it very much and your words have caused me to think about all the wonderful teachers along my path. It’s a great way to say thanks, and passing that wisdom on, another great thank you.

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