Starting Graduate School

August 28, 2011

The first week of classes are over, and I have already learned so much. Let me get my cynicism out of the way first. Chemical engineering graduate students are not business savvy. Most graduate students are not. Would you sign on to work with a company for five or maybe more years and not know your vacation hours? Or leave parts of your job description undefined? You would be very stupid to do so, and I should know as I have just done so. I’m regretting it right now. I skimmed the only few sheets of paper I signed, and no where is it spelled out what my job is. Thus, when my TA hours increased 50% from two classes to three classes, I have no recourse. I am simply at the mercy of the university.

When the graduate director broke the news to us, he was sure to impress upon us how much the university is spending on us. He wants us to realize that we are an investment on the part of the university, and so we should feel an obligation to do all of our work with the utmost diligence. However, I am still unclear what my work is. I will be taking three courses, and I will be making straight A’s. I will be taking and passing three qualifying exams come January (So yeah, good bye Christmas break!). I do not know when I will begin my research. This is frustrating, as the PhD is at its root a research degree.

In this first week, I have learned that boldness is rewarded. The single greatest lesson I learned from my brief stint editing Wikipedia is that their motto, “Be Bold!” is a great motto. Being bold in graduate school means introducing yourself and making friends with your fellow classmates. It means emailing the professors you are interested in and knocking on their lab doors. Sure, there will be missteps, but the end result will be getting to know if you mesh with a group. Being bold means—above all things—not to hesitate.

In this spirit, before classes started I knocked on four professors doors. Only one was in at the time, and he was not taking students this year. However, the conversation that followed was very helpful. He recommended reading “A PhD is Not Enough” by James Feibelman. It goes over all aspects of post-graduate education. I highly recommend it to anyone considering graduate school or wanting to understand what host of benefits and problems a graduate degree confers. For me, it cemented my desire not to work for an assistant professor.

Now that my cynicism has run its course, I must say that I am truly excited by what I will be learning. The courses I am taking are going to force me to come to grips with my weaknesses. In fact, I’ve already had to shore up some of my mathematical deficiencies. The research I will be involved in will force me to think critically and impart me with vision. I mean vision in the sense that leaders have a vision for a future. With this vision, I will see problems and their solutions. I will solve those problems, and the world will be a better place for it. How could someone not get excited at that prospect?

The Walking Dead

August 16, 2011

This post has been brewing for quite some time. As anyone who knows me in person would know: I love zombies. One of the first films I distinctly remember seeing is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on VHS. I must have been only eight years old, so it has basically been a lifelong fascination with zombies. Recently, more and more people are identifying with zombies. In an attempt to explain the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead (TWD) TV series, a NY Times article linked zombies to our lifestyle. A zombie is simple in its relentlessly pursuit to eat flesh. Furthermore, it does so for no discernible reason. Today, many of us feel like zombies as we go about our daily grind. Often we don’t quiet know why we are doing what we do. I know I have felt that way when I spend hours upon hours sending out job applications only to never hear back from anywhere. Romero’s films have also linked modern consumerism to zombies insatiable desire to feed, and I feel that this is also valid.

In this post, I do not want to talk about the zombies. Or the post-apocalyptic landscape that is the world of TWD. Rather, I want to talk about the still living characters and the acts they perform in order to survive. TWD draws our attention to the always pressing moral question of what is right.

To clarify, I am talking about the comic book series The Walking Dead (TWD), not the AMC TV series. As you’ve guessed by now, TWD is about a band of survivors trying to persist in a world overrun by the undead. It was created by Robert Kirkman who wanted to show what would happen in the long term to the characters in a zombie film. The series has been running for eight years, and the series covers over a year in the characters’ lives. The core of the group of survivors is Rick Grimes, his wife Lori, and their son Carl. Rick is the leader and makes life-or-death decisions every day. What complicates his decisions is that often he must weigh people’s lives against other people. How can one person decide who should live or die? What is the “right” thing to do in those cases?

For Rick, the right thing to do is protect his family. Around issue #14, he is talking to his wife and says, “I’d kill every single one of the people here if I thought it’d keep you safe.” Rick states how detached he is from everyone else and how he catches himself ranking them. He asks her if this all makes him evil. Neither his wife nor he himself knows the answer. I venture that he is not evil.

Let’s be clear. Rick does horrible things. He kills many people, cuts off a woman’s hand, and mutilates unarmed men to name a few. Rick also does very heroic things. He saves his group countless times, stops a wife and child abuser, and bears the responsibility of leadership. In addition to questioning his moral alignment, Rick questions his very humanity at one point proclaiming that the survivors are the walking dead (issue #24). I believe that we are forced to agree with both the tar baby principle and the entanglement of the great and the terrible. In order to protect his group from killers, Rick must become a killer. In order to be a great leader, Rick must do terrible things.

Thus, even though Rick does horrible things and is only looking out for his family, he is not evil. To return to the overarching point of this blog post, Rick is in fact doing the right thing. His zeal to protect his family leads him to protect the group with almost as much zeal. However, when Rick is forced to chose between his family or others, he does pick his family. In issue #82, with his group split up and cowering, Rick is forced flee. In an effort to convince people to come with him he says, “The thing to keep in mind about other people’s children they’re not our children.” It is clear that Rick hates this move, but he thinks it is the only way out. Later on, Rick realizes that in the long term a community is needed to ensure the protection of all, including his son. He rejects his previous misgivings about large groups and feels terrible for having decided to flee. Thus, we see how Rick’s very selfish motive to protect his family is broadly interpreted by him and leads him righteousness.

One last thing I want to address briefly is the comic book format. People think comics are for kids, and for this reason they may be tempted to call all comics rubbish. They would be mistaken. The comic book format works with the material by showing us the horrors and forcing us to confront them with the characters. A paragraph about a group of zombies feasting on a man can be gruesome, but the picture is stomach-turning. The comic makes the most of its format by showing us people’s faces so we can see their emotions and by using interesting panels to create visually striking stories. Notably, the creators of TWD have caught quite a bit of flack for showing some horrible things, but by showing these things you know they are not pulling any punches. No characters are protected by the author and truly anything can happen. I’m interested to see what will cost Rick his life and where the series will go afterwards.

P.S. The first season of the TV series was disappointing, and in spite of the lauds it received. Robert Kirkman, the comic book writer, is much more heavily involved in the second season. I am thus cautiously optimistic.

Laumeier Sculpture Park

August 1, 2011

I was going to simply write an entry saying that the Walking Dead entry was forthcoming, but that is too lame. So, instead I’ll talk briefly about my trip to Laumeier Sculpture Park. The place has a really well done website, which reflects the well laid out park. How well done you ask? Why, so well done that all of the artwork is cataloged and photographed! See it for yourself here.

However, as anyone who has been to an art museum before knows: seeing a photo is no replacement for seeing the work in person. This particularly applies for sculpture. The photos give no sense of the scale of the pieces. The feeling of the artwork overshadowing you or you interacting with the artwork is amazing. I really liked walking through this one, which is right next to a sculpture of tree roots above ground. The roots seem to be walking, which is creepy and fascinating. I could go on, but I will leave you with the idea that you should go out and experience some sculpture.