Sunday, May 31, 2015

Secret places and close relationships

Over the past few weeks I had an amazing experience. I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka, came home to Boston for a day, and then went to the Azores.

I had planned the Sri Lanka trip since March. I spent one week in the back country exploring small tank landscapes and visiting with colleagues at the University of Rajarata. I also had a chance to reconnect with an amazing guide/driver who took me to many hidden small tanks and taught me a huge amount. 

The second week was spent in Colombo working with colleagues at the University of Moratuwa and the Fulbright headquarters. I've worked with the people at Moratuwa before so it was great to spend time with then. An amazing amount of time was spent hearing Singhala and trying to make something out of it. 

Both parts of my trip to Sri Lanka provided me with an intimate look at closeup landscapes that are not generally seen by outsiders. More importantly I got to visit several times with colleagues who I had met before, but who became closer to me on this trip. What an experience to share many meaningful conversations with new friends.

The trip to the Azores was shorter, only three days. I had spent time there last year but again, this trip gave me the opportunity to get close to old acquaintances and make new friendships with them. So the past few weeks have been an experience in deep conversation with people from different cultures with whom I share a lot of intellectual affinities. 

One night in the Azores as I was eating with a friend's adorable family, I kind of lost track of my whereabouts thanks to jet lag and thanks to the fact that here I was surrounded by people speaking Portuguese when only last week I had been immersed in Singhala culture and language. I don't think I would have felt this kind of strangeness had I just been traveling and sightseeing. The strange thing, if you can even call it that, came from the fact that there had been so much sharing during both of these visits. 

was lucky enough to be granted a Fulbright fellowship for the upcoming academic year. If these visits, so rich in human interaction, were an indication of what's in store, then I can predict and incredible set of experiences for the months to come. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Making new learning traditions

A year ago I was leaving the Ponta Delgada airport in the Azores with the motion that I probably wouldn't return. I had just participated in a conference on "interdisciplinarity," in which I was just about the only speaker with an interdisciplinary approach. During the conference I was treated kindly, spoiled actually, and taken under the wing of my friend and colleague Joao Cabral. I took the attention of this professor from the University of the Azores as a special courtesy that was being extended to me as the (unexpected) keynote speaker. Joao and I enjoyed hours of discussion, touring the main island of San Miguel and finding a common language of interests. 

A year later I got an email from Joao asking whether I'd like to visit the Azores again. Sure, I thought. The idea of convening a two-day seminar on teaching and learning sounded interesting. Later as the details started lining up I admit I felt some trepidation. A seminar on teaching math in elementary school? Where did I fit in there? 

Turns out that after not a little wrangling and departmental give-and-take Joao had gotten his way to bring me to the Azores. He wanted me here because of my expertise with teaching in an interdisciplinary environment, not because I'm a math person, which I'm not. Still, unsure of my role before coming I decided to bring some zometools as a gift to the department, especially his ebullient and talented colleague Elena, who teaches geometry, patterns, and symmetry through origami. I have to say as an aside that my colleagues at the University of the Azores are some of the most energetic and creative teachers I have ever met. They wear their erudition lightly, with a sense of humor and the deepest commitment to their students. 

The first day of the conference I handed out Zometool kits to student participants. And after my presentation Joao, who should have gone up next, offered, "why don't we ask the students to play with the zometools next?"  

I've used zometools with spectacular results with my Boston University undergraduates and design students at the Boston Architectural College. They did the same job here at the University of the Azores. Students used them with engagement, energy, and a spirit of exploration that bubbled over to the faculty who were there. In fact that afternoon we did a professors-only session with the zometools. My colleagues had the same experience as the students. When they presented their projects to our small afternoon group there was a great feeling in the room. The air had been cleared, people had done some serious play, and the energy was intense. The materiality of the zometools brought out patterns of experimentation, collaboration, and fun. Adults, kids, graduate students, undergraduates, budding designers, would-be business people, and teachers-in-training find the zometools irresistible. Could we make new learning traditions with these?

After the morning session the second day we tried the zometools again. The big box of toys was emptied onto the floor in front of the podium and we began to play. Elena had brought her students, an unexpected change in the program that required some adjusting. But that was the tone of the seminar. Keep communication open, learn from each other, and stay flexible. That's the way of the classroom too. It's a cognitive sanctuary where we need to encourage play, dialogue, and reflection. And as always, students are the center as we make new learning traditions. 

How do people use their landscape?

We live in our landscape and our landscape is an expression of our culture. So I think for most of us we don't pay attention to patterns of landscape use when we are at home. Traveling is another story, especially if we get out of the car. For example the impressions came tumbling in during a two week preparatory visit to Sri Lanka, where I was setting up protocols for my upcoming Fulbright. 

When you're there you can't help noticing the way people situate themselves in the landscape. Somehow it's "different" than the way we do things in the west. For example patterns that characterize the way people hang out in their landscape in Sri Lanka seemed distinctive to me. They became even more distinctive when after a day's rest in Boston, I came out to the Azores to work with colleagues on some educational initiatives. 

To a visitor at least, Ponta Delgada, The capital of the Azores, looks like a pretty quiet place. Especially away from the city center, the streets are fairly broad and the sight of people walking is seems rare. This is my second visit to the Azores so my impression of a quiet place was reinforced. There are however particular spots that are quite busy. For example a shopping mall (Parque Atlantico) near the center of town may be bustling while the streets around it are fairly deserted. The strip of restaurants and stores along the harbor also tend to be busier than the streets right behind them. If I had to use one word to describe the place, and I admit that this is biased by my own subjectivity, I would call it "quiet."

By contrast, Galle Road in Colombo might be considered "wild," at least at first glance. As a foreigner in Colombo the Galle Road appears untamed, chaotic, edgy, and perhaps dangerous. At least until you relax and get used to it. Walking a 1 km stretch of Galle Road from Hotel Road south to Templers Road, I came to discover that it had its own patterns of stillness and congestion. For example, the immediate vicinity of the Mount Lavinia bus stand seems to have people walking in every direction, crossing streets at every angle, and using a variety of vehicles in a variety of ways. Certain spots on the same stretch of road are quieter. But people negotiating irregular pavements, large puddles, and vehicles pulling in and out of spaces do give that stretch of road its particular character. If this sounds general, it is, because this is the very first time I'm writing down my impressions of the space. 

Galle Road dominates the western edge of Colombo, but it's not the only place in town. A few blocks to the east can take you to broad and shady residential streets that are practically as quiet as Ponta Delgada. And a visit to the ancient neighborhood of Slave Island uncovered a whole different set of landscape patterns, which I hope to study in detail during my Fulbright. 

noticed Colombo landscapes more poignantly after spending a week in the countryside of Sri Lanka. In the countryside there are some similarities with Colombo, for example congested city centers like Anuradhapura and bustling village centers like nearby Mihintale. When I visited Adampan village in the Mannar District I "discovered" a kind of hybrid, busy but not congested. This sort of hybrid landscape use seemed to be mirrored along some side roads in the countryside near Mihintale, with a significant difference. In Adampan, just like along the Galle Road there are people sitting in storefronts, in their tuk-tuks, and at various shady spots. This sitting is mixed in with lots of movement. I should add that not all the movement is oriented to "getting someplace." For example I stopped with my friend and colleague Dominic Essler to buy petrol for his motorcycle. There was plent of movement around the shop filling canisters, measuring, taking money, and examining his cycle. But on some of the back roads in the countryside there seemed to be just movement from one place to another, for example steady bicycle or foot traffic spaced by intervals of quiet. 

Lots of impressions here with no single narrative thread. But I think I want to study this further and work on some kind of analysis. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Playing with Your Food

In my last post I discussed "intelligence of the hands and feet," something I've known about intellectually but thought about that much before. It occurred to me that the whole question in Sri Lanka of eating with the hands is part of this bigger picture. 

This was my fourth visit to Sri Lanka so I had seen people using their hands to eat on many occasions. I have to say that it grossed me out. The idea of handling wet food with one's hands was just something I couldn't make peace with. 

Until this visit. Thanks to determination and close observation. Eating with the hands is not, as it would seem, shoveling food into your mouth willy nilly. The hands are used in ways that no utensil can duplicate. For example, say you're eating a fish of rice, curry, and dahl. Your first step is to sort of feel out the ingredients and mix them together in a preliminary way. I use my thumb to squeeze the ingredients together gently. 

As you combine and eat you begin to discover. The dishes, for example sambol, are a mixture of ingredients. With the tips of your fingers you find larger, harder, or inedible bits. For example, onions are hard for me to digest and by using my thumb and forefingers I can sort through a sambol and kind of push, or even place the onions to the side. 

All the time that you're eating you're rearranging the food on the plate. I haven't watched people that closely but for me it's satisfying to continue to mix and arrange, bringing the shrinking pile of food closer to me. 

String hoppers, which I had for most of my guesthouse breakfasts, are a slightly different story. You can mix them with your food or you can use them as kind of soft mini tacos into which you can put morsels of whatever you want. 

My last morning I was served "green gram" which, from what I can tell, was just boiled mung beans. It might have been an uninspiring part of the meal if I was stuck using a fork. Instead, I found myself squeezing little fingerfuls of the beans, arranging them with the grated coconut and spicy chiles with cabbage I was served. This way the flavor of the beans came through and my probing, squeezing fingers acted as a sort of first stage in digestion, mashing the beans before they came into my mouth. 

If, as I think, you gain knowledge through your fingers, this way of eating provides you with further knowledge about what you're eating. You experiment with proportions, textures, and flavors, making each bite a little different. What grossed me out at first is actually a way to elevate the culinary experience, highlighting the complexity and delicacy of Sri Lankan cuisine. 

Knowledge of the Feet and Hands

If you ever go to Sri Lanka you'll see that people have their shoes off a lot of the time. Not just shoes, but even when they have a chance to get their feet out of a pair of sandals they'll do it. Everyone. Not just tuktuk drivers. I was at the university the other day and my colleagues had slipped off their sandals. It's one of the things I have in common with people here. We don't like our feet cooped up. 

Toes, heels, soles, ankles--parts of people's feet seem to be in a constant state of exploration. Or when their not exploring, in graceful repose. I'm not as good as them at using my feet to divine the environment. But I'm working on it. 

On a more serious note, exploring the rice fields and small irrigation tanks last week I couldn't help but notice that people were naturally barefoot everywhere in the vicinity of the ponds. Most striking to me were the barefoot cultivators on small rice paddy dikes and in the ponds that were being newly flooded for the Yala (secondary) crop. 

A look at the rice fields in their shades of green and gray, glistening with young rice or readying mud, revealed something else. These fields, intricately worked and leveled by human agency over millennia, have been shaped in part by innumerable bare feet. It follows that the humble rice cultivator, the farmer who builds the dikes, levels the fields, cuts the channels, spreads the seed, sprays the pesticide, scatters the fertilizing pellets, tends the plants, and harvests the rice, does all of this work barefoot. And so generations of Lankans have worked this way, thanks to a knowledge of their immediate environment as sensed through their feet. Where I feel pavement through layers of material, the Sri Lankan farmer knows the soil through the bottoms of his feet. This to me indicates a profound difference in the way we experience our world one from the other. 

The fact that generations of feet have built the landscape of rural Sri Lanka through a sort of "foot-knowledge" is a fact worth celebrating on its own. But what does it have to do with what I'm calling "knowledge of the hands?" 

In Colombo I asked my hosts where I could find someone to give me a head massage. I'd experienced one in rural Mihintale, a story of its own, and I wanted to repeat the experience. They pointed me to the Sippaheluda Ayurvedic Hsopital, about a mile from my guesthouse. After my head massage there I decided to come back the next day for a full-body massage, something I've done only once before. I have to say I'm a bit skeptical about the benefits of massage but this changed my mind once and for all. The full-body massage provided an unexpected experience, strangely encouraging, one of those intangibles I discussed in my last post. And after it I decided to book for another massage for a couple of days later. 

My second massage is what made me think about the connection between knowledge of the feet and knowledge of the hands. The massage therapist was the same as the time before, but his massage was different. As his hands probed and manipulated, I could feel that he'd assessed on my first visit the condition of my skin, bones, muscles, and organs. Without telling him a thing about how I felt or where I had old injuries or discomforts, his hands and fingers anticipated the contours of my body. He knew through his hands. Through his hands he learned about and in a way, changed my body's history, the same as rice farmers, through their feet, know and renew the landscape of cultivation season after season. 

A rare brush with the intangible. A set of intangibles that nevertheless influence profoundly the natural and human environment around them. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What about the unexpected?

few years ago I was looking at Aztec sculpture and architecture in Mexico City when it struck me. I was looking at a world of curves, angles, and dimensions that was totally new to me. And unexpected. 

I went on to develop some further thoughts on this. In particular I began to wonder, how do we learn from experiencing the new? How do we assimilate physical space, sound, and movement we've never encountered before? How do we develop a narrative based on these intangibles? Is it desirable that we build such a narrative?

Using some of these questions I constructed a series of exercises for my undergraduates at Boston University and for my graduate students at the Boston Architectural College. I guess I could summarize my teaching goals this way: there have been lots of great thinkers, Darwin for example. But I don't want to teach my students what Darwin discovered. I want to set them on a path of discovery themselves. That path is lain on stepping stones of intangible, unexpected perceptions. 

Fast forward to my current encounter with the Sri Lankan landscape. It holds in store a world of new sensations, new shapes and lines, new dimensions, new sounds, and new movements. Most striking to me on this recent trip was a lotus leaf on an ancient irrigation tank, the morning after a rainfall. The random, scarcely controlled movement of water on the leaf as it blew in the wind, perhaps a mundane sight in rural Sri Lanka, possessed an electrifying novelty for me. 

Can we learn anything from these mundane novelties? I propose that on many levels, we can. For one, they open our brains in new ways. They present novel conditions that require some re-wiring in order to be understood. The more we undertake re-wiring the more we are prepared to keep on learning.  

At another level, we may apply known scientific narratives, for example an understanding of the properties of water, to phenomena like this. The movement of water in the leaf is attributable to cohesion, adhesion, and mass flow. From another angle we may illuminate known cultural or religious concepts like "the lotus leaf and the lotus flower hold nothing in possession."

From yet another perspective we may come to value impressions of the novel as a compendium of unknowns--phenomena that may, in some future moment prove useful in some material or immaterial way. What is valueless today may hold the key to unknown, uncounted treasures tomorrow. Or am I just shooting the breeze with this kind of conjecture?

Is it worth traveling halfway around the world to accumulate a series of intangible perceptions? I am here to find out. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Starting Over: The Sri Lankan Odyssey

In March I learned that I was granted a Fulbright award to Sri Lanka for 2015-2016. It's something I've been trying for for a couple of years so the moment was sweet. First thing after I  opened the acceptance letter I tweeted "Got the Fulbright. Trying to breathe." Then I remember walking up 5th Avenue in New York. I kept saying out loud "I got the Fulbright" and felt head and shoulders above the crowds. 

Just before I found out, I had booked a two week trip to Sri Lanka for May, scheduled to coincide with the end of my semester at Boston University. I figured then that it would be my last trip to Sri Lanka since I had pretty much given up hope of getting a positive response from the Fulbright. 

Here I am at the end of those two weeks. Yesterday I dropped in at the Fulbright office in Colombo and was invited to attend the half-year program review of the current batch of grantees. A couple of US professors presented their research here and notably, the six ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) presented their work. These kids, recent college graduates, told compelling stories of their experience here in Sri Lanka. They bring passion to their teaching practice, and most of them conduct  creative, inspired "side projects" that show incredible intelligence, commitment, and bravery. The ETAs show real love for Sri Lanka in their work, and for all of them, this experience of self-generated exploration holds the kernel of their future life/career experiences. All of the students' talks inspired me. 

What inspired me further is that some of the students are recording their work in blogs. Aha! I realized I could re-inaugurate my blogspace writing about my thoughts and experiences here in Sri Lanka. So this is my first entry. I'll be recording my observations in both of my blogs, "Scientist-Artist" and "Botany Without Borders." The blogs, which I stopped writing a couple of years ago, were a wonderful format that opened up heaps of opportunities for me. They also provided me with a jumping-off point for overhauling my approach to teaching. What a great tool! So here we go again. Let's see where it all leads.