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Minerva Week 2: Fog, screens, and sand.

September 13, 2014

Every morning, I look out to buildings and the bay. Today, I saw tiny white sailboats gliding across the water. Earlier this week, fog had obscured most of the objects in the distance. I think that’s a fitting metaphor for the week when classes began, a week when I actually used the Minerva software for hours on end, had real assignments to submit and a real need to cook for myself. I was initially disoriented, afraid and frustrated, but when things started to clear, I saw the beauty I had missed.


On Monday, class began, and then began again, and again, and again, as I worriedly refreshed my page. I couldn’t see others’ video, then I couldn’t be heard, then the sound quality was painful. “Is this what it will be like?” my little inside voice wondered. Thankfully, the incredible Minerva Product team had stationed themselves on our floor. I delivered my computer safely into their hands. It was tweaked and returned. There was a problem with internet strength in my room, it turned out. They said they would fix it and in a few days, but until then it was best that I took classes out in the hallway.

A screenshot from our Complex Systems class.

A screenshot from our Complex Systems class.

Many people received the same news. It was ironic to have us all sitting side-by-side in hallways while using a software platform meant to allow us to take class anywhere. It made the distinction between in-person and online learning so sharp. One time during the week, I had been paired up with Joy to discuss an assigned question and her computer stopped working. She trotted out of her room and found me, and then we talked. I found myself fascinated by her three-dimensional face, by the level of tones in her voice, by how much more information I could glean from our interaction than I could from a screen. At the same time, I know that some of the functions of the software are missing from a “real” classroom experience. We can all comment on shared documents, we can be quizzed and polled easily, and (perhaps most impressively!) our classes are recorded so that our professors can rewatch our contributions in class to give us scarily accurate assessments (almost like instant replays in sports, but after the fact). Still, after using the software for five hours in a day (as we do on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), my mind feels dull and dry – more robotic than human. That is when my hands grope around for my favourite purple sandals so that I can experience the other part of Minerva – my campus.

My campus is this city. It includes Coit Tower on telegraph hill, built in the 1930s using the willed money of a loving SF resident, a structure I sketched as the sun was setting. It includes all the steps I walked to reach Coit Tower, and the snatches of five different languages (Hindi, French, Italian, Japanese, English) I heard while milling around the tower’s base.


My campus includes the sea lions at Pier 39. Their raucous noises and aliveness make me forget that I am steps away from the garish tourist mecca of Fisherman’s Wharf. It includes the baby sea lions who push larger ones off their wooden sleeping decks and into the ocean, eliciting barks of protest. It includes the crowds of tourists transfixed by the humanity they project onto these animals.

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My campus is the shared kitchen in our residence hall, a revolving door of cultural cooking. Ailen offered to teach me how to make my own tortillas, and Joy told me how she makes fried bananas and rice. Tonight, I am going shopping with Xiaoning in Chinatown, and I am planning to pump her for advice!

My campus includes the juice bars and high-end gyms in the Financial district, and complaints from slam poets and cab drivers about the tech boom, first-hand evidence of gentrification (rising costs of living) in the city. Living in a tech hub also means that Google delivers my groceries for free. San Francisco feels like a testing ground for new services, which can come with a lot of early adopter benefits, but only if you have enough money/technology to engage in the first place.


My campus includes Ocean Beach, where about half of us went on Friday afternoon to light a bonfire and stick our feet in the ocean (and, in my case, to turn my back to the ocean for just ONE second too long and have a huge wave slap me in the behind! Thankfully my skirt dried). It includes the mural and mosaic-decked pavillion right across the street, built during the Great Depression when the government commissioned public art to make work for artists (what a beautiful idea).

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As I walked (or rode) to all of these places, the fog cleared. Minerva classes are online so that we do not need to have a brick-and-mortar campus, so that our campus can be this city and, eventually, the world. Our class schedule is packed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so that our Fridays are free for beach bonfires and late-night discussions. This week, I learned about overfishing, urbanization, induction, deduction, scientific laws, ambiguity, and the different levels we can use to analyze complex systems. In my long city jaunts, I saw, heard and smelled things that are weaving into my thinking and learning. I am realizing, again, how little I know, but one thing I am sure of is that it will only get better from here.


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