On reaching out to one another
Editor’s note: Last Thursday, Professor Davis spoke to his students in 6.835, Intelligent Multimodal User Interfaces. His remarks are transcribed here with permission for the rest of the student body.
I’ve left some time in today’s class so we have a few minutes to switch gears and talk about recent events at MIT.
Let me start by saying that I’ve been here for a couple of decades, and without question, the past two years and in particular the past two months have been the most difficult period I’ve seen in MIT’s recent history. The events around the Marathon bombing and the recent suicides have sorely tested the social fabric of this place.
This has been a dreadful time; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. That’s easy to say, but sometimes it helps simply to recognize that and say it aloud.
It also helps to be honest about the nature of our culture. This is a wonderful place and it’s a difficult place. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by such interesting, intelligent, and talented people. It is difficult to be surrounded by such interesting, intelligent, and talented people. We’re all overachievers and it’s difficult to quiet the voice that constantly compares us to others.
We are all subject to the imposter syndrome (faculty as well, by the way), fearful that our entry here was a mistake, one that will inevitably be revealed. That fear is what keeps you from asking questions in class: you’re sitting there absolutely convinced that you’re the only one who didn’t understand something in a lecture, and if you ask about it the entire class will sit there smirking at your ignorance. In truth, most of the time 30 percent of the class is confused right along with you, and when you ask the question, they all look vastly relieved. Trust me, I see that look on so many faces, that unmistakable “oh good, someone else didn’t understand and asked the question.” You are not alone. (And by the way, if 30 percent of you didn’t understand, it’s because I did a lousy job of explaining.)
Remember the other day in class when I asked a question for which the right answer was “I don’t know”? That wasn’t an accident. As I said then, no one here ever wants to say “I don’t know,” and that’s a problem. Learn that it’s OK to say that.
Another slant on our culture comes from humor — they say you can tell a lot about a culture from its jokes. Here’s one I heard when I first came to MIT. A little background: in a single year — 1905 — Einstein published four papers: the first proposed the idea of quanta of energy, the second explained Brownian motion, the third proposed the special theory of relativity, and the fourth proposed the equivalence of mass and energy (E = mc2). Each of them individually was world-changing; he wrote all four in one year.
The joke says: Around 1915 someone proposes to bring Einstein to MIT, but there’s some resistance from the faculty. After hearing about his accomplishments someone asks “OK, so four good papers. But what’s he done lately?”
The problem with our culture is that it has a truly unbounded appetite for accomplishment. This is great — we are never satisfied with yesterday’s results. This is wearying — we’re never satisfied.
So what can we do? We need to change the culture. We can start small by looking out for one another, reaching out to one another.
I learned this firsthand a while back when I took a course in winter camping and winter survival. A group of 14 of us spent two weeks in the Wind River Range in Wyoming in February, traveling on army surplus cross country skis, carrying 65-pound backpacks, sleeping in tents with the temperature routinely 20–25 below at night. It was a most wonderful and remarkable experience, to be out in the middle of the woods in winter.
It was also dangerous — the most pressing problem was hypothermia, the situation where you’re not just cold, but losing body heat faster than you can replace it. It’s life threatening — slide far enough down that hill and you die.
We learned to watch one another, and ask a simple question: “Are you cold?” If the answer was an emphatic, “You’re goddamn right, I’m freezing my butt off,” that was fine. If the answer was a vacant stare, that was trouble. Time to stop traveling and get that person warmed up (lots of hot sweet tea).
We need to do the same thing here, because depression is like that. We all get down a little from time to time, but if you slide too far down that hill, if you keep sliding down faster than you can get up, that’s life threatening.
We need to watch out for one another and ask, “Are you OK?” Then listen carefully to the answer. If the answer is an emphatic litany of complaints about the amount of work that’s piled up, that’s one thing. But if you sense a quiet despair, it’s time to act. Call the health service’s 24-hour line (3-4481) and talk to them about the situation. They can guide you about next steps for helping someone.
We have to reach out to one another and care about one another. Just asking is a good start; it lets us know we’re not alone. And that by itself is a very good thing.
Randall Davis is a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science.