In the beginning, I was a writer. And/or a scientist. Which came first, I’ve never really been able to tell. On the surface, science seems the clear winner. I had my first microscope at age five, and a seemingly inexhaustible interest in the natural world — flowers, stars, animals, rocks — I just needed to know things. The spirit of inquiry was firmly engrained long before I ever stepped foot in a classroom.
But then, so too, were stories. Already an avid reader by the time I started school, I took easily enough to writing, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I saw writing as something central to my identity. I just thought it was something everyone did. Science, on the other hand, clearly did shape me from the start, and there was a name for it made me: I was a nerd.
I would go on being a nerd throughout my formal education and into my professional career. And I’d keep writing about it the whole time. Looking back, it seems as though I’ve spent much of my life treading parallel paths, never quite committing both feet to one or the other. At times I’ve tried to bridge them, and at other times, they’ve left me feeling torn, divided, even inadequate at both.
It’s taken me a long time to set aside the chicken or the egg debate about which came first or which is more important, and accept the fact that this is just who I am. Now I have two degrees in science, a diploma in writing, and a job that allows me to thrive in the space between these two boxes I’ve never neatly fit into. Officially, I’m neither scientist nor writer, and I’ve never been happier.
Somehow, in transitioning into my not-science/not-writing career, I seem to have stumbled upon the right mix of both. At first, I suppose I just chalked the position up to being a “good fit.” It’s been a welcome change to be able to bring the best of both worlds to my work without feeling the pressure to identify with one camp or the other. After years of trying to reconcile the science/writing dichotomy, I was happy enough to have found a balance between the two that I never really thought to question how not-science/not-writing could ostensibly be such a good fit for this scientist/writer.
Last week, it hit me. I was at a conference for experiential educators — a mixed bag of people involved in everything from campus recreation to residence life. It was an altogether different crowd and different atmosphere than I was used to, and as a relative newcomer to the world of student services, I wasn’t quite sure at first how much I’d have in common with this group. What would I, a student research coordinator, find to talk about with people who run recreational sports programs?
Before I had time to worry about it, however, I attended a session on experiential learning theory, facilitated by none other than a campus rec guy. I’d seen the theory before, and as a scientist, it seemed rather intuitive to me. You have an experience, you reflect on it, learn something from it, and then apply what you’ve learned to new situations. It’s the same kind of iterative process that underlies our research. But here was a campus rec guy talking about it, to a room full of people who used this same model as the backbone for a range of completely different programs.
I realized then that in spite of all our differences, we are indeed a community of peers. That regardless of our different educational backgrounds and career trajectories, regardless of whether we are working on residence leadership or study abroad or service-learning programs, we are united by a common purpose: to help students realize their potential by supporting them in high-impact experiential activities. What I have in common with these people who are so different from me is a deeply-held value for the benefits of learning by doing. More than that, my science/writing background, when superimposed over the various models of experiential learning, finally makes sense. I am not just a scientist/writer; I am a person who has lived and learned my entire life through a combination of experimentation, observation, and reflection. Science and writing are merely the tools I’ve used to do it. They are to me what rope courses and sailing lessons are to the outdoor leadership people — a means of experiencing and reflecting on the world and ourselves.
When I look back now at my own educational and professional history, the practise of experiential learning, whether I recognized it as such or not, has always been a common thread. It’s there in my record of high school absences, spent dodging classes I didn’t see as relevant for the real-life experience and meaningful mentorship I found working in libraries. It’s there in my undergraduate experience, where research and science writing — both non-academic experiences — became the dual pillars of my subsequent career. It’s there in the methods I’ve used in my own teaching — avoiding multiple-choice tests, taking students into the lab, challenging them to step out of their academic comfort zones and into the messiness of real-world problems. I’ve used writing to help students process information without realizing that what I was doing, in fact, was closing the loop of experiential learning.
Could it be that in all this time of striving for a balance between science and writing, I’ve missed the bigger picture? That maybe the reason my not-science/not-writing career fits so well is because I finally get to work by the same principles and values that I’ve always lived by? That I no longer feel the pressure to identify as either a scientist or a writer because I finally get to just be myself?