Signals from the Deep

Every now and then you get some honest-to-goodness evidence that all of your efforts aren't like radio waves simply flung endlessly into the cosmos.  Two days ago a student from last semester emailed me that something we discussed in class had recently come in handy.  

He had spent the weekend competing in a mathematical modeling contest.  These are university-level competitions in which teams of students are given 48 hours to devise a method for determining an answer to a difficult question.  My former student's task was to devise a model for estimating the weight of the leaves on trees of various sizes.  I assume his team had some information but not all that they needed. 

He wrote that more than once he thought about giving up, but he kept remembering a conversation in our core capstone course.  It concerned the value of understanding works of art beyond the level of "I like it/I don't like it."  We had read an Aaron Copland essay on listening to music in which he argued there are multiple planes of listening: the sensual, the communicative and the sheerly technical.  The latter involves a critical understanding of how a piece of music is constructed.

Like a lot of students he had at first resisted the notion that understanding works of art on a deep, critical level was worthwhile.  He argued that such understanding would interfere with the ability to enjoy a work without the contamination of over-intellectualizing it.  My standard reaction to this Wordsworthian "we murder to dissect" fuzzball response is to snort and call it out for what it is: a lame excuse for remaining an ignorant boob.  The joy of understanding things doesn't subtract from simply enjoying them.  It's just another kind of enjoyment.

Anyway this argument must have made an impression on the guy.  He had never thought it worthwhile to take the time to understand things that lacked any practical application.  Knowledge for knowledge's sake was a completely foreign concept.  But this notion came back to him when he grew frustrated during the math competition.   He decided not to give up and eventually found himself actually enjoying the process of understanding the problem.  It was this enjoyment that surprised him and he wanted to tell me about it.

Contented sigh.

Students have no idea how much we really appreciate these brief, small signals from the void.


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