Neil, Nathan, and the Wonder of It All

Photo: Robin Beck/AFP

During my drive from Tallahassee to Jacksonville last week, I got to experience one of the great joys of life: uninterrupted National Public Radio listening. As I made my way across the Panhandle, I caught a great To The Best of Our Knowledge interview with America’s favorite astrophysicst (read: singular well-known astrophysicist) Neil DeGrasse Tyson about the universe and wonder. The full interview is a treat, as are most interviews that Tyson does, but this part near the end stuck with me:

“You know, I still catch snowflakes in my mouth as I walk down the street. I still see a puddle and ask myself, ‘How high can I jump before I splash into it to see how much of a mess I can make’. (laughs). I still do this. And I don’t think I’ve ever grown up, really.”

Anyone who appreciates the conversations about creativity and innovation that have permeated society has to love Tyson’s spirit in regard to his work. As he sees it, he is fueled to do great work because of wonder. He views the universe as a continuous source of great questions, and finds ways to stoke the fire within to seek answers. And as I continued on with my week, I couldn’t help but notice another headline that also seemed to be the product of wonder, or something like it.

Nathan Fielder, Canadian comedian and host of Comedy Central’s Nathan for You blew the minds of Californians again with the creation and swift shutdown of his parody coffeehouse, Dumb Starbucks. He’s done things like this before: if you ever wanted to know what happens if you mistakenly text your parents something meant for your dealer, or if you text your significant other “I haven’t been completely honest with you.” and then just wait, Nathan can tell you. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.

While some of the setups he pulls are at the expense of others, they all have one thing in common. In every instance, just as with Tyson, his setups start with “I wonder what would happen if…” His tactics sometimes yield disastrous results, but I respect the hell out of him for his strategy. He’s thoughtful and calculated, but also silly and operates in an absence of fear that we often let keep us from pursuing less than completely rational ideas.

Photo Credit: Graeme Mitchell/Wired Magazine

What does this have to do with me? Well, today I had a student in my office trying to reserve tables for a fundraiser, and he shook his head as he filled out the forms. “All this paperwork…”

I can’t say I disagree. I’d be lying to you if I did. I have become increasingly sensitive to the hoops and fences we put in front of students to get relatively simple things done, and similarly aware of my role in that process.

One of my significant goals for the semester is a hackathon-style brainstorming session, aimed at having students design alternate versions of our most bureaucratic processes. If six people don’t need to have their hands on our accounting paperwork to get a check cut, our students will be able to figure it out. For us, it could serve a dual purpose: (1) a frank and utilitarian assessment of our services and methods, and (2) a source of feasible alternatives to processes deemed unhelpful. I only hope that after so many years of thinking small, and within parameters that the institution and many others like it put in the way, that they’ll be able to break free from those restraints and, just as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Nathan Fielder have done before them (albeit in very different ways) come up with creative solutions.

I want to create space where the next version of our room reservation process, or our travel waiver collection procedure, or our fundraising parameters, comes from students asking “I wonder what would happen if…”  We tend to fear giving students that level of freedom; I’d prefer to cooperate with them and welcome it. They know things about their peers that we don’t. They can devise systems that their classmates won’t fight, create buy-in in a way we can’t. I don’t want to inhibit that. After all, if students over at Yale can come up with a fully operational alternative to their course selection software, why shouldn’t our students be able to come up with a better way to operate as a student organization? And, for that matter, who are we to get in their way?

Where do you see potential for wonder in your daily processes? And where can you build in time for wonder at the office, either for you or your students?

2 thoughts on “Neil, Nathan, and the Wonder of It All

  1. Amma! I love you ability to connect between what you observe and our work. I think I see myself in a similar “roadblock” position that you are talking about…Why does it take 15 forms to reserve a room? I get it, but I don’t have to love it.

    I am lucky enough to be in a place that’s still growing and adapting to these things. Student weigh in at every step of the way and we have refined some of our procedures to include digital submissions (gasp) and saved some trees. That being said, there’s still work to be done. I would love to hear how your brainstorming group works and what they come up with. Way to empower your students girl. Rock on.

  2. What a great and important topic, Amma. We seldom have time to think about — much less wonder about — the world around us. I love the hackathon-style brainstorming session and just might steal that idea!

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