Well first, happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there today! And especially to my mom.
I am a physics major, and whenever I tell someone this, there are two common reactions: one is that people say something like “wow, you are so smart!” which I eventually realized means “I pity your life choices.” The other common reaction is “I took physics once. I hated it.” There are lots of understandable reasons that people find physics especially confusing and difficult, but one of the things that I think resonates with everyone, regardless of how you feel about physics, is that studying physics means that you work on a lot of incredibly hard-to-solve problems. The thing that many of you may notknow that I want to teach you today is that physicists have three magical words that make everything easier. If you took a year of physics in high school or college, you probably did not learn these three words, but when you major in physics, you come to love them. These words are “to first order,” and you use them when you are working on a problem that is so complex and complicated that you simply cannot do it without making some simplifying assumptions or crude approximations. When you are done, and you have solved the simpler problem, you just say that you solved the harder original problem “to first order” and—amazingly—nobody argues with you, least of all the physics professors. Finding solutions that are good to first order is uncomfortable at first because it necessarily is only an approximation of an exact solution to a problem, but these approximations are also incredibly useful because they make it possible to come close to solving otherwise impossible problems.
For the past three years, I have worked as a physics tutor and writing adviser at the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching, which is our campus tutoring center. Although the Center’s welcoming mantra is “it’s for everyone,” I realize that it may not be as important a place for some of you as it is for me; nevertheless, I began to think about the distinction between problematizing and problem-solving because of a conversation I had with my supervisor there.
In October of this past year, I attended the National Conference in Peer Tutoring and Writing along with several other tutors from the Center and our supervisors. The conference was, as conferences tend to be, a simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting three-day extravaganza of running from presentation to presentation, all the while taking notes on all the problems with inclusivity that writing centers such as our own face. At the end of the conference, the group of us from Puget Sound sat in a circle for two hours talking about how we could implement changes at the Center. Some changes were easy, like reformatting the appointment request form to be more informative about the services that we offer. Others were more difficult, like how to make writing centers less gendered spaces or how to balance practical tutoring skills with an education on power and privilege in our training for new tutors. Solving problems, it turned out, could be significantly more challenging that finding them.
In college, the focus of our education is often on learning how to problematize, not learning how to problem-solve. This is perhaps why so much of our academic work insightfully explains problems but does less to suggest potential solutions, let alone to enact them. Some disciplines at Puget Sound, such as African American Studies, Environmental Policy and Decision Making, and Gender and Queer Studies, hone in on social and systemic problems directly. As far as I can tell, problematizing at its core means developing the insight to look beyond what is obvious or superficial in the world and to see how things are connected, and this is something that all disciplines teach. In math, we proverelationships between concepts. In science and the social sciences, we perform experimentsto understand how the world behaves under different conditions, and then we compare these observations to our theoriesabout the universe. In the humanities, our writing is driven by our theses—those clear, specific claims that call into question our assumptions about a topic or introduces us to a new way of thinking about an idea. The point is that in college, we studyproblems. It is an inherently intellectual endeavor, though it is also, of course, a valuable endeavor. In most cases, once we have successfully problematized, we stop.
Sometimes, problematizing some facet of a topic is enough, but more often, the problems that we uncover are not as fun or intrinsically valuable as ‘brainteaser’ problems like Schrodinger’s Cat or Maxwell’s Demon might be to a physicist. Some demons are real, and some problems have very tangible consequences. They are systemic, pervasive problems like institutional racism, toxic masculinity, and climate change. And the problem with problematizing is that, when you do it well, it is a simultaneously gratifying and gloomy process. I experience an unmistakable sense of pride and accomplishment when I put the finishing touches on an essay, even when the topic at hand is one as grave as describing how mass incarceration in America is a system of racial control. Yet the very success and clarity of mind that makes problematizing rewarding also make it paralyzing because often only once we have come to understand how countless individual threads interweave to form the fabric of a systemic problem do we see that solving it is more complicated than it initially appeared to be.
I know that solving meaningful problems is a formidable endeavor. But I also know that it is possible because I have already seen some of you intertwining your problematizing and your problem-solving while at Puget Sound. I have seen students with Advocates for Detained Voices providing support for undocumented immigrants who have been incarcerated without a trial. I have seen members of Peer Allies not only supporting survivors of sexual assault, but also raising awareness of rape culture on our campus. I have seen the Sustainability Advisory Committee working with ECO club to bring local activists to campus who discuss racially inclusive environmentalism and host events to raise awareness about how much the meat and dairy industries contribute to climate change. I have seen a wealth of identity-based clubs striving to make Puget Sound a place where students know that they belong even when they see so few students like them represented in the student body. The members of the groups I have mentioned are hardly a fraction of all the people that work to identify, understand, and solve problems on our campus and beyond; however, you stand as a testament that such work, though daunting, is possible.
After we graduate, some of you will tackle systemic social problems “full time” as activists or organizers in your various fields, but we do not have to be activists to recognize how these problems manifest around us and to do something about them. Being educated community members and citizens means so much more than voting every few years—it means taking action to solve the problems we confront every day. So, here is my charge to the class of 2018: don’t stop problematizing, but don’t stop there. Bring your most critical eye to the communities you disperse to after graduation. The problems you find, wherever you may go, will be complicated and nuanced, but trust that they are worth solving. And when the problems seem too numerous and too vast, remember that you were a college student once who wrote research papers and lab reports, perhaps even a thesis, and that this is not the first time you have had to break a daunting task down into manageable steps and chip away at it every day. When you have found a problem that matters to you, recognize that you have the power to do something about it, and do something about it. The task of solving the problems that matter, as we say at the Center, is for everyone.
To my own family and friends in the audience, and to all the families and friends here today, thank you for your endless support; for sticking with us when times were hardest, and for believing in us when we were too stressed and sleep-deprived to believe in ourselves. To the faculty and staff at Puget Sound, thank you for your commitment to our education; for teaching us to the best of your abilities and for providing opportunities for us to develop within and beyond the classroom. And finally, to my classmates, thank you for making my education meaningful not only in its broad purpose but in the daily rhythm of class discussions, homework assignments, and late-night conversations in the physics resource room. I look forward to seeing where you go, and I hope to find myself solving problems alongside you soon, even if our first solutions are only good to first order. Congratulations, Class of 2018!