February 19, 2011

Juggling

I remember getting a juggling set for my birthday when I was 5 or 6. Why would you want to give a 5- or 6 year-old a juggling set? I don’t have the foggiest idea. But I do remember that there was a period of about a few weeks when I was really excited about the matter. Life at Lafayette at times requires us to gain the skills of a master juggler. As of this writing I’m juggling my thesis, my work for screenwriting, my independent study in computer-generated art and my presentation for TEDxLaf (which you should register for, by the way. Right. Now). I’m sure there’s a chainsaw and a kitchen sink in there as well.

Juggling, via Wikipedia

I know that as college students we’re supposed to picking up amazing time management skills that allow us to get straight A’s, party all weekend and check Facebook at intervals of exactly 37.2 seconds, but somehow I missed that class. Sure, I get work done and I’ve never had to pull all-nighters (ok, that’s a lie, I did pull all-nighters, but it had nothing to do with studies, I promise). But that doesn’t mean that juggling comes easy to me. Case in point: my reading for screenwriting class.

I was visiting the University of California at Irvine last weekend for graduate school and missed class on Monday on Tuesday. I was a bit late getting the assignment for Thursday that included four chapters of reading (from Syd Field’s Screenwriting), watching the movie Adapatation and writing a one-page response paper on it. I managed to skim the chapters before class but today I decided to sit down in the library and go through them more carefully. In one of the chapters Field talks about how much work goes into first crafting and then actually writing a screenplay. Since I had all the other things going on in the back of my mind I got to wondering why I’m even taking this class in the first place. Was I really going to put in all that work to write  a screenplay on top of all the other things that need to get done? Am I going to become a screenwriter? No. Am I going to become a professional writer? Maybe. But I do want to become a communicator and a lot of the things that I’m doing this last semester fall into that category. I may be juggling like crazy, but most of the things I’m doing have a common thread going through them.

Recent studies have shown that when we multitask, we don’t really get any work done. All our mental capacity is taken up by the overhead of task-switching leaving precious little room for the actual tasks. Juggling many things at once is a bad idea. But at the same time liberal arts education is founded on the basis of learning about many different things throughout the course of a college career. Juggling on  a daily basis, in the short term, is detrimental. But on the long term having multiple interests and activities makes us better people.

Cornell’s graduate program in computer science (which I’m also considering) has an interesting quirk: students are required to have a “minor” as well. It’s a collection of courses that aren’t part of the actual CS curriculum. Many students take Mathematics, but you can take pretty much anything you want. I’m personally considering Art or Linguistics if I do end up going there. I think at some level we do all acknowledge the fact that confining ourselves to one narrow area might be comfortable and safe but is also dangerous and boring.

I didn’t take up juggling as a kid and I’m sure that set is still somewhere in my house lying mostly unused. But over the last three and a half years I think I’ve learned my fair share about doing multiple things at the same time. I’ve explored art and writing and I’m a recovering multitasker (I’m still tempted to turn on Netflix while coding). Going into a PhD program means focusing on computer science for most of the next 5 years. But I still hope to keep some of the juggling skills that I’ve picked up in the last few years.

posted in Shrutarshi Basu

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