Saturday, October 13, 2012

Have you ever felt like a toaster in a cheap suit surrounded by a room full of robots?

This New Yorker cartoon spoke to me. It seemed to be saying: Look Dee, IT'S YOU!

toaster= idiot

cheap suit=what I buy from Value Village

robots=graduate students

You will see what I am getting at.

OK, I am a graduate student, so I guess that makes me a robot too. After all, a toaster is a type of robot. It's a machine programmed or otherwise wired to perform a certain function with a certain amount of accuracy. Robots like the ones above, however, are supposed to be more sophisticated and autonomous, with complex circuitry that allows them to do lots more things than simply make toast.  Although the humans in Battlestar Galactica tend to refer to their robots (called cylons) pejoratively as toasters.

So far nobody has accused me of being a toaster.  Or a cylon (I wish!). What is my point here?

That graduate school is challenging. That sometimes you feel out of place and out of time, like a machine built in the last century (which I was), and you wonder what made you decide to forgo having grandchildren and letting yourself go for a life of papers, classes, teaching, statistics, grant writing, data entry, seminars, grading papers, and the ubiquitous departmental social gatherings? and all this in addition to the lab and field experiments. For most of my life I WAS a humble toaster--I did the same job day in and day out, boring as it was, and knew little else, but it paid the bills. Now I'm in the world of the sophisticated machines, the ones with the big circuits and complex functions.  I'm not saying it's all bad. But it's approaching midterm and I'm pretty well tired at the end of each week. I sometimes forget what day it is. I even sometimes forget to make myself toast in the morning.  The other day I nearly got in the car wearing bike gear. If my helmet hadn't smacked the door I might have driven off to school and gone to class dressed in bike shorts. These are the kinds of things mothers with small children are prone to do. I feel for those moms, for they are the ones that have to divide their brains into 18 thousand compartments to remember all the little details of childcare and logistics and such.

Add to that I went for an annual exam and my doctor recommended I get a booster shot for tetanus because I'm around other students all day. This shot was not just for tetanus, it was more like a vaccine cocktail for several different diseases (diptheria and whooping cough--wasn't that supposed to have been eradicated along with TB and polio way back when?). By the end of the day my arm was sore like I had pitched nine innings straight. Next morning the pain had spread to my upper back and shoulders, making turning my head and generally moving about difficult, so I cancelled all my appointments and stayed home on the couch. I went to bed thinking a good night's rest would help. This morning I woke up feeling like I had been run over by a truck. Vaccines are supposed to protect you--why do they nearly kill you in the process? I decided it's because I'm getting older and, perhaps, a bit more frail. I dislike that word, frail. It makes a person sound like a little wafer--thin to the point of being transparent, and unable to survive for long outside of a protective container. So I decided to stay inside my protective container another day. By this evening the mack truck feeling has dissipated, I'm far less sore, but it represented a setback for me. Graduate school is like a treadmill--you slow down or stop and you're on your ass before you know it. Finally this evening I had the strength to grade some papers. And, I found out I had left out some details I should have gone over with the students on Tuesday. Oh, well, it's not a major problem. But. With my frail toaster brain, I worry that I might miss things an average robot would have caught.

But the fact that I got most of it right must mean that I'm an above-average toaster.

"Now then, baboons—what is a corpuscle?"

"That's easy. First there's a captain, then there's a lieutenant, then there's a corpuscle."

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