Thursday, February 4, 2016


I smelled popcorn on Thursday while I was in the engineering building - all heat and air and too much salt. It triggered flashbacks to the woodshop class I took last semester. I realized that more than the aroma of wood shavings or the acrid scent of Wilcox oil finish, popcorn is the scent of woodworking to me.

My professor, Dr. C (who knew you could get a PhD in tech ed), would make popcorn on our workdays and during open labs. As the symphony of whirring blades and droning machinery commenced, Dr. C would go back to the storage area to pull out a cast iron skillet, seasoning and a big metal bowl to put the popcorn in when it was done. He even had these neat little bags on his desk with “Hot and Delicious Popcorn” printed on them in a cheery red font. The bags reminded me of the kind you get at a carnivals or the state fair – cheap thin paper that the oil soaks through in spots. They also remind me of barf bags on an airline, tucked in the mesh pocket in front of you, ready for when you start feeling sick. I don’t think I’ve ever been more stressed out by a class.
I have this memory of laying on the grass with my friend Jared on a lazy August evening right after I moved out to Utah and right before the start of my freshman year. I was picking at the grass compulsively while he was on his back next to me with an arm flung behind his head. I recall our conversation going like this:
“I’d be terrible at computer science,” I said (which was his major), “I don’t understand computers at all.” I tend to be like that about a lot of things – convinced I will be terrible at something because I’ve never done it before, because I don’t already know how. I could have said the same thing about wood working before the class.
Jared was quiet for a minute then he propped himself up on his elbows, looking at me, “How good are you at flying helicopters?”
“I dunno, I’ve never flown a helicopter before.”
“Hm…” he said, falling back onto the grass, “and have you coded before?” He had caught me in my own logical fallacy. 
It turns out there is whole body of work published about the assumption that you’ll be bad at something you’ve never tried. Psychologist Carol Dweck refers to it as having a ‘fixed mindset’. I read a lot of her research when I took a psychology class in high school. And since I’m trying to figure out why the smell of popcorn has my cortisol levels running so high, I quickly looked up a few of her articles and skimmed through them again. 
In a fixed mindset students believe that their basic abilities – intelligence, talent, athleticism – are all immutable. They have a certain amount and that’s that, so their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look stupid.
In woodshop there is no appearance of competency. It’s a skills class, not an academic class where I can sit back and be a warm body. I remember when I was taking calculus in high school I would avoid asking questions because I felt I would be perceived as stupid. Everyone around me was sitting silently too, a clear indicator to me that they understood what I was missing. Meeting up with classmates in the evenings to study at together at Caribou coffee, it became evident that all of us had been playing the same game. We were all high-achieving, disciplined kids who had been praised for our ‘intelligence’ our whole lives. We all sat confused and lost and silent in class together because we couldn’t bear the appearance of ignorance. I guess it comes down to the interpretation of a question – is asking questions seizing an opportunity for growth or a sad revelation of your inferiority?
There was no way to hide my ignorance when I was learning to use a table saw under the amused observation of my peers. Peers which consisted mostly of male TechEd majors who wear Carharrt, the brand of the blue collar working man, like it’s a lifestyle. The first time I ran a board through a table saw I went so slowly that the blade burned the edge of the wood, leaving deep red marks. Everyone could smell the smoke. The process of experiential, tactile learning made it painfully obvious that the mere appearance of knowledge is worthless. You either know what you’re doing or you don’t. There’s no bullshit, no fluffing out papers to make them reach the page requirement or anything else sly like that. In woodworking you have to make precise cuts, and sand down boards to exact thicknesses. Any error in craftsmanship is evident in the final object.
I don't know if having a fixed mindset is really as much about believing your skills are unchanging as it is about being haunted by fear that people will discover you as a fraud. In my mind, I imagined this nightmarish situation in which Dr. C turned to me and would say, "you're not good at this. Why are you here?"
I guess maybe it all comes back to something that my friend Molly recently brought up in a phone call during finals week - entertaining the notion that we may not be at college to be perfect, but rather, to learn. 

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