Some anecdotes

Hey all :).

Hope you’re all doing well! I was thinking about the blog this week, and came up with no one story I wanted to tell, so here we go with the usual :).

After playing Dungeons and Dragons for a while, I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with the idea of role-playing. I’m still trying to figure out where I fit into it, and how it integrates into how I see myself. Some brief stories along that vein:

1.

I was at this costume party, where we were all role-playing, and someone came up and introduced himself, reaching out to take my hand.

“You’re squeezing my hand too hard: stop,” I told him, immediately, instead of giving my name.

“Oh, sorry, that’s something I’m trying to stop doing, it’s a bad habit,” he said, and then I realized he wasn’t role-playing.

“Oh, sorry!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t mean to; I’m Monica, by the way. That was meant at your character, not at you. In the role-playing thing. I thought you were doing it on purpose.”

“Thanks for clarifying that, it helps,” he replied.

“Yeah, I’m sorry—I totally wouldn’t have said that to you as a person,” I reassured, still feeling bad.

“But I still would’ve been squeezing your hand too hard?”

“But I wouldn’t have told you,” I said earnestly.

2.

Another conversation from this costume / role-playing party:

One of my friends: “I love this role. As a pretend-CEO, if I don’t want to talk to someone, I can just get up from the table and leave. I can never do that in real life!”

I laugh. “I know, right? It’s fun.”

“I mean, I’m a manager in real life, I do tell people what to do,” he continued. “But I don’t have license to be a jerk. Even when you have power, you don’t have license to be a jerk.”

I smile. “The game’s fun, right?”

3.

“What is it that playing Dungeons and Dragons gives you the most insight in?” I ask one of my friends. “Like, you probably exchange the maximal amount of information by talking with people. Whereas if you’re doing an activity with someone, like rock climbing with them, then you’re exchanging less actual information, but you’re still learning something about how they operate. I feel like DnD is definitely telling you a lot about a person along some dimension.

“Maybe something about moral decision-making?” I muse. “You do have to make a lot more decisions about killing people in DnD than in real life.”

“But some people just have to go through a phase of killing people in DnD,” one of my friends points out. “Like, for a few games they’ll just run around and be evil, because they don’t get to be like that in real life, and then they’ll work through it and be something else.”

“And the idea of role-playing is that you get to try things out that you wouldn’t in real life, or are thinking about,” someone else points outs.

“Huh,” I say. “But…”

But the thing is, I still feel like I get some valuable information out of DnD, even if people are role-playing / pretending, in some sense. After playing DnD for a little longer, I have more of an answer to this question. I think you can tell something about peoples’ inclination towards cooperativeness, and compromise. These are long-term games, that last for months, so the relationships you build between you and your fellow gamers aren’t one-and-done. One person’s answer to my question of what you learn was: “You can tell what people are interested in,” and I definitely agree with that one. Some people are really interested in high-risk / high-reward scenarios or the opposite, or want to talk to people to get information or figure it out on their own, or want to be a certain type of character, and that’s all information on who they are. I noticed that my aesthetics for character design are quite specific, and, as was pointed out to me, people differ a lot more from each other than I would expect them to on a lot of the non-obvious, more personal preference decisions like this one. There is also a very interesting set of traits around inter-player dynamics: group-decision making is interesting because of relationships between individuals, characters, and personal preferences—the degree to which people use tactics on in-world characters or on fellow players differs, for examples. These dynamics evolve to a certain extent over time, but I can also notice some fixed traits.

I’ve only played DnD with this one group, but it seems like a really fascinating social environment in general. I’ve noticed I’ve been doing slightly different things with my character, too, instead of just role-playing as myself but with more physical abilities. We’ll see what is to come :).

I’m walking out of the main part of the gym, and looking at a woman in a wheelchair, getting off her wheelchair and onto an arm-rowing machine. Her movements are practiced, and I watch for a little bit, but she’s definitely done this before. I nod a little bit and head toward the exit.

There’s a glass door to my left and another guy in a wheelchair—a young one, looks like a student—outside, waiting to come in. I slow down, scan his face—neck looks pretty paralyzed, but he seems like he’s got good mobility to move the chair with his hand. He’s backing up, and I look towards where he’s going—is there an automatic door button there? He’s stopped backing up, so there probably isn’t—I look back at his face, and he’s looking at me. I tilt my head, almost slowed to a stop.

I scan the people nearer to the door than me—two girls chatting loudly, and a guy stretching. None of them are doing anything—the guy outside probably doesn’t need help, then. I look back at him to check—ah, he’s smiling at me. Definitely needs help, then. Cute smile, too.

I reverse direction, take a step towards the door. The guy who was stretching turns around and starts walking out the door, notices the guy in a wheelchair, and opens the door wider for him. Cute-smile-guy looks at door-guy and smiles gratefully at him, and I turn back around, heading to the locker room.

I probably should have waited for cute-smile-guy to look back at me, so we could acknowledge the end of the situation, but the goal was accomplished and I’ve got places to go. I’m thinking about how no words were exchanged in that whole exchange, and how long it took me to figure out what he wanted. If he hadn’t backed up, I wouldn’t have been thrown off by hypothesizing the existence of an automatic-door button: why had he done that? Oh, neck mobility—he was probably trying to get his gaze in range with where I was standing, which was at an oblique angle. Huh. And how interesting that my brain knew to automatically hypothesize the existence of a button, given that he was moving confidently. Brains are pretty cool, huh? Nonverbal communication is super awesome, huh? What would that have been like if I’d attached an eyetracker, if you were an observer watching me and him have this interaction? And the smile, there, that was a key part of it—what was that smile saying? Like: yeah, you’re right, I do need help, I’d be grateful go on, but, like, sweeter. There was definitely something to that smile, about the inference that I was doing. And all of this happened very quickly, less than ten seconds, and I wasn’t thinking about any of this at the time, it was all post-hoc. My father says that everyone can do this type of analysis, people just don’t want to. Why do I want to? Because it’s so good when I can do it, when I can see this kind of nonverbal communication, it’s just so satisfying and amazing that was can do it… good thing I’m in my field of study. How could I integrate this sort of thing into my research? It’s kind of like what I’m doing with robotics…

I have this image in my mind right now of a scene I saw last night. It was two of my friends, facing each other, leaning by a staircase, dark lighting. They both looked great: each wearing their interpretation of a cocktail-steampunk costume. They were talking quietly while the other partygoers walked up and down the staircase behind them, standing about a foot apart.

I know they’re dating. I’ve seen them argue with each other, I’ve seen them be affectionate with each other, and it was strange to me that they were standing so far apart, that one of them didn’t have a hand on the other’s shoulder. The height difference, too, always surprises me—that one inclines their head down, the other up, in maintaining unending eye contact.

I have relationships (platonic) with both of them—one of them didn’t want to engage with me that night, for reasons I’m not sure of, but decided not to worry about (with them, it’s often not personal), and the other had come over briefly to chat, but was busy helping with the event. I have different feelings about both of them, different attached “sense of them” in my head, and a set of feelings that are about them as a couple. I’m often confused by couples, and I’m confused by them as a couple, and I’m also unusually confused about each of them as individuals.

I glanced at them briefly, leaning towards each other but a foot apart, with my knowledge of how each of them were feeling that night, based on how they had engaged with me and how they seemed to be engaging with the other partygoers, based on the level of demonstrativeness I was used to from them (this seemed a little unusual, but then again, very well could have been normal)… attentive to them both, because I’m often curious about them, but looking away just as quickly because it seemed a private moment, them on the side of the stairwell, and I know something about how much time they get to spend together, and the constraints of the event we were at.

I never know what to do with couples. I watch them, usually, take frozen images of my head, of casual affection, how they look at each other, how they’re positioned, where their hand is, what it means… I get this kind of stillness in my mind that speaks of confusion underneath. I want something from them, I think, but I don’t know what it is. I want them to turn and look at me, break apart, stop doing the confusion, whatever it is that is precious to them. That I don’t understand, that I want in the abstract, but not really, I want love to exist in its own private bubble, I want them to love each other deeply in their own world, not in mine. Not in the world’s world, where everyone should be individuals, should be alone, on their own, facing the world, not in the (confusing, arbitrary? strange? mechanical) embrace of another’s arms.

They shouldn’t have been standing there like that, though. One of them should have been rubbing the other’s arm, offering the casual comfort I’m used to seeing from them. They should have been smiling at each other, excited, the spark that’s often between them live and ready to share, lighting them from within before they each go back to face the world and everyone else. They should have their moment and shine for each other, with each other, bright eyes and smiles. They should have that before they go back.

But they were standing a foot apart, looking into each other’s eyes, dark lighting, serious. I glanced at them, felt the stillness, walked back up the stairs.

I’m laying on someone’s chest, listening to them breathe. Not really thinking about too much, really, just taking in the lighting (red-tinged), and thinking about heartbeats. Speaking of…

“Your heart rate sped up,” I inform them.

“Oh.”

I wait, not sure if that’s it. If that is it, do I want to push them? I’d rather they just say something. But the mood here seems like patience is the name of the game, maybe—

“I was just thinking about the problem of how you create AI with multiple users.”

…Well then. {Flash of disappointment} That would explain why their heart rate sped up, since hard thinking does that. Still, I wasn’t thinking about anything as virtuous as artificial intelligence risk. Now I feel bad, and also like they shouldn’t have been doing that, because if I’d known that was what I was supposed to do then I would’ve, but that’s not actually what you’re supposed to be thinking about in this type of situation, you’re supposed to be thinking about the situation and me and stuff, not I’m-smart-look-at-me-go-AI things—

“I even remember how I got there. I was thinking about the problem of sexual preferences, and how it’s hard to know that sort of thing, and then got onto the general problem of what to do about unknown preferences across multiple users in general, and was then thinking about Pareto-optimal frontiers, and that’s where I ended up.”

…Oh. Yeah, that’s better. Also, like, I do pick nerds for the fact that they’re nerds. Also, people are so unpredictable, gah. How am I ever going to be able to predict the next thing out of someone’s mouth when people do out-of-the-rules stuff like this. Though maybe not that much out of the rules, this definitely fit in with a stereotype I have of another friend, maybe I need to bring that paradigm over—

–oh, wait, actually, it’s also pretty absurd, this situation, kind of funny, would make a good story, I should try to remember the details—

–oh, and also, I really appreciate that he went to the trouble of explaining this, it’s really nice when people indulge me with words and thoughts and stuff when I implicitly ask them what’s up, that was a good answer–

“Ha,” I huff. “That’s funny.”

They ‘hmmm’ back at me, friendly.

As a TA, I’m holding office hours for the students. Three of them are sitting on a couch together, working, and I’ve just told another person that I’ll look into his grades and give him the points back, since it was our mistake.

Another student comes in, tells me that the problem she lost points on was badly-worded, and that she should get points back. For a few minutes, she proceeds to argue with me, while the other four students watch a little uncomfortably.

“Look, I’m sorry that the autograder wasn’t working, but that was stated on the website, and your solution was not a clear answer to the problem, and you can’t do the problem again, and I’m sorry about it but I think there was enough there for you to have done it,” I tell her for the final time. She looks mulish.

“I’m heading out, do you want me to wait for you?” Her friend says, and she sighs and gets up.

“Do you have any other questions?” I ask the three on the couch, impatient to get back to it.

There’s something very satisfying about being a TA, about having students’ respect, about having power, about knowing that you can be right and are going to be backed up and that there’s really no time for you to bend over backward. Most of the time when students come to talk to me about grading errors, it’s our fault and I’m happy to fix it. Even when the students come up with complaints about problem unfairness, I often sympathize with them, because yes, the problem usually is not as clear as it should be. But it’s a matter of: did other students figure it out, did you have the resources to figure it out, if we change this for you will we have to change it for the whole class… being on the other side, realizing that so, so much of the unfairness in this whole system comes down to “we don’t have enough time and energy to make this perfect, we don’t have enough time and energy and money to make exceptions”… It’s very easy to see how people slip through the cracks.

I also really didn’t realize, as a TA, how much of a distance I’d have with my students. I teach two classes of 25 students, once a week. And at the front of the classroom, I’m blind to most people unless they’re actively raising their hands. I simply don’t have enough attention for it—I’m writing stuff on the board, and planning out what I’m saying next, and keeping the flow of the lesson plan, and trying to watch everyone’s faces for comprehension, and there isn’t enough space for me to do what I’d want to do, ideally. In my ideal world, I’d sit down with each of my students, and get a sense of who they are, and where they’re coming from with respect to this class, and how they’re doing, and what they’re struggling with, and I’d individually tutor them and get to know them and be a mentor. Instead, there’s a remarkable lack of communication—when they leave I don’t get feedback from them on how they’re feeling and what they’re learning, and that’s been surprising to me.

But what it comes down to is time. Time, and power, and I can see that change how I interact with people, and how they interact with me. Sometimes students want to argue with me (and I’m not talking about the usual situation of a student bringing something up, which I’m totally a fan of. I’m talking about the situation where I state a decision that I think has good-enough backing, and someone’s going to come up with a list of other reasons the situation is unfair, and repeat those points at me a few times.) When this happens, my internal thought process is: “Don’t f-ing fight me, you’ve got to know you’re going to lose, don’t be stupid about this,” which is incredibly different from my usual “Don’t fight me,” a common refrain I have that is plaintive, and happens when I feel hurt by someone.

The thing is, most of the time students are incredibly respectful and deferential, to a degree that I think is astonishing. It feels really nice, because students are often just grateful for my help, and that feels amazing. But even when students are arguing with me, they’ve always been respectful about it. And I always see their point, too, and realize how the question is unfair, and isn’t perfect, and that they’re coming from a good place and good argument. There just isn’t time.

There isn’t time to make every question perfect, or to make every exception, because if we make an exception we have to apply it to everyone, and regrading can take a lot of time, and policy changes can take a lot of time, and sometimes there are other students who did figure it out and went to the extra effort, and giving exceptions would be unfair to them. And I and the other TAs can’t give extra office hours, can’t help everyone, because there isn’t enough time.

One of my students was interviewing me for one of her course projects. “When you act as TA, what most changes about how you see yourself, how does it contrast with your normal identity?” She asks.

It doesn’t take me very long. “I’m… being a TA, I’m not, like, as nice as I want to be. I want to help everyone, I want to give people extra time if they need help, if they want something from me. And there’s not time for that? My emails are really rough to people sometimes, almost mean compared to my usual standards. Also—I’m not as personal as I usually am? It’s a mentor-student relationship, and I’ve done this before, and when you’re in the mentor role, you have this distance. The mentor asks the student how they’re doing, that sort of thing.”

Teaching’s really interesting—I’m really glad I’m having the experience. The thing is, the students really are incredibly nice. Real life isn’t like that, especially about something as high-stakes as grades—there is messiness, people look out for themselves, even as there are many kind acts, too. Bu there’s this bubble around teaching, in which students are grateful for the help, and deferential, and… you get power, you know, and you want to use it. You want to help everyone, because sometimes someone will come up to you after class and say “thanks so much for that lesson plan, I know it was a lot but it really helped me on my problem set this weekend,” and you turn to your fellow TA and laugh, delighted.

There’s also a thrill in having this much power, in being able to dictate my time, in being able to end arguments. As a graduate student, you’re usually interacting with people who are your peers or who are more senior to you (post-docs and faculty) and who like debating ideas. Moreover, most of us were recently undergrads. We’re used to being deferential, we’re used to being young (most of us, not all of us). Being a mentor and being looked up to is a huge reward.

I’ve also learned—or rather, been reminded of—the fact that I really like putting together information clearly for its own sake. It’s incredibly rewarding when I think people understand things more after I’ve explained it to them, and for me, this is one of the biggest draws of teaching. I just want clearly explain things that people want to know to them, and I definitely want to draw on this personality trait in future jobs.

(But in the end, I think the “thank you, Monica”s that some people throw at me after a lecture as they’re heading out the door—I think those are the instances I’ll most remember. So many previous graduate students I know really enjoyed teaching, and I think this is basically why. It’s so special.)

Oh dear, it’s far too late at night again :). Best wishes to all of your weeks, readers! I’ll be late or (more likely) won’t be posting next week, because I’m psyched to be heading to another CFAR event—three and a half days of intensive emotional drama and learning. And then it’s spring break for Berkeley: ah, beautiful studying days for my qualification exams, and I’m looking forward to that time as well.

Thank you all, as always, for reading :).

Monica

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