with a little help from my friends

I’ve been thinking about this essay for a long time, and every time I’m not thinking about it I soon find more reason to write it. The gist of it is this:

I can’t do anything alone.

This isn’t exactly and completely true. I did write a book review once that was completely independent and which had no external input … well, except for the column’s editor. So never mind; I stand corrected. Even the things I think are simple and independent and completely “on my own” have the hands of others acting on them.

So back to my original thesis: I can’t do anything alone. Nor do I really want to anymore. I used to imagine myself creating a lot of independent pieces, and as I fit myself into a department with the lone “science education researcher” role, I guess it wasn’t a crazy idea to think that I’d be doing a lot of work on my own. But I’ve had this funny evolution from expecting and wanting to do everything independently and without input from anyone else to now realizing — joyfully — that all of my successes have come when I’m working with others.

There are many examples:

  • I do research with Eric, stuff that I could never do alone, or at least I could never complete the bigger picture. Not only do we bring together two research lines, Eric helps me to understand what it really means. Plus, sitting down and talking through things makes all the work make sense and have real purpose. We realize every time we have a meeting that we need to have meetings more often. I need to meet with Eric soon.
  • One of the best courses I teach is with Carl. We have students figure out what it means to “know” something and what “truth” is. I get to do a lot of science and philosophy of science, and Carl gets to do a lot of literature and comparisons of fiction and non-fiction, and eventually we’re both leading things on culture and where its pieces come from. The thing is, I like going to this class not only for the things I get to do, but for the things I get to see Carl do, and then seeing them mix together.
  • Carl also initiated the gig with Billy Collins, calling me up on his cell phone one day as he was driving through a convenience store drive-up to order a pack (maybe a case?) of Pabst Blue Ribbon. (That detail has always been one of my favorite parts of the story.) And Carl made this connection because of my work with poets before, and my efforts to bring them to my conference along with partnerships with Ogden School Foundation when we had Jimmy Santiago Baca in town. Jimmy gave a presentation for us, but also worked in workshops with high school students. He came back a few times to continue the work.
  • When I started doing the science in the parks stuff, it was to extend the efforts of the planetarium beyond its dome. This was Stacy’s long term want. She had the resources and students and culture in the planetarium to pull this off. I just had to show up with a plan. And then I had the freedom to nix the first plan before it ever got started (an on-campus camp) and instead do something that neither of us had thought of before — go visit kids where they’re already hanging out for lunch. She needed this done, and I needed the planetarium to do it. And we both needed an established, federally funded lunch program to draw the students there in the first place. Amazing how well these things work when all the pieces are there.
  • And all the stuff I’ve done with John. Some things I just got roped into, back when I was a graduate student. My ability to play piano was taken advantage of. But later we did things more substantive, more generative. Crossroads and various grants and papers would not have been written were it not for him. (I think that’s true of several other of my co-authored papers: I just wouldn’t have finished them if there weren’t a group of us taking on different roles, or even just pushing things hard enough to see them come to fruition.) Running a conference is something that I wouldn’t have even considered if it weren’t for him and the collaborative energy. I couldn’t even imagine putting the pieces together; nor would it be nearly as much fun.

And the list could go on and on. I’m supported in lots of ways, ranging from a faculty who lets me leave campus for a sabbatical to a family that lets me stay at home for a sabbatical.

There are a few exceptions. While there are a few cases of collaboration in my teaching, like with Carl, I generally keep to myself when thinking about what I’m going to do in a classroom. Some of it is almost this secret — a funny kind of privacy since I’m getting ready to share it with up to 100 other people in a lecture hall. I’m funny like this when I’m preparing a talk, too. I have an easier time getting ready to give the talk to 350 people than I do rehearsing the talk in front of a couple of people. Teaching and presenting is something I really really like and prefer to do inside my own head, or inside a small room, or while sitting on a bus and letting a vision of a teaching episode play out.

But those exceptions are, obviously, exceptions. I’m initially surprised at this point in my “career” (whatever that means) that I’m not more independent. I never really imagined so much of what I’m doing to be so reliant on others. I also never ever imagined that so much of what I do is so much better because I work with other people. And I’ve been really really lucky to have found so many good people to work with.


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