Monday, July 7, 2008

Unpacking and the urge to classify

I spent the holiday weekend moving into a house in town. This may seem a bit weird, but I kind of like moving. It makes me go through drawer and bookshelf stratigraphy, and rediscover things from the Paleogene (well, ok, 2000) that I had forgotten I owned. In some cases, they were things that we didn't need any more (such as size 3T Halloween costumes, which went to a daycare yard sale). In other cases, they were potentially useful (such as unopened tubes of toothpaste). And then there were the interesting things - the set of pretty metamorphic index minerals (garnet, staurolite, kyanite, andalusite...) that I had packed away when my son was born, for instance.

Now I'm working on UNpacking. It's work, but it's also an opportunity, to make sure that we will be able to find all three bottles of ibuprofen when we need them. I needed some logical schemes to let me find medicine, books, CDs, dishes, food, etc.

About halfway through the bathroom drawers, I realized that I had developed a new classification scheme for my stuff.

Medicine and hygiene stuff is classified by how it is used. Cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache? It's all in the "respiratory ailments" drawer. Clothing malfunction? Needles, thread, safety pins, etc are together. The "skin" drawer has hand cream, foot powder, and diaper rash ointment (leftover, because Boudreaux's Butt Paste is useful for things other than diaper rash). There's a drawer for glasses cleaning and repair. There's a drawer for bleeding (with everything from Spiderman band-aids to massive pieces of gauze for injuries that I hope never to see).

My husband was a bit surprised by the practicality of the scheme - he half expected me to organize the medicine by chemical formula. (If I had taken organic chemistry, I just might have done that.) I suppose I could have organized things by shape (bottles vs boxes vs tubes) or by color or by expiration date. And that made me think about the ways that geological things are classified.

Take rocks, for instance. Our classification into igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary is a good way to remember how rocks form, but it's horrible for students who are trying to learn how to tell apart nondescript dark-colored rocks. (Black limestone? Basalt? Hornfels? They can look very similar, despite being respectively sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic.) And it isn't very useful for people who want to use rocks, either. Metamorphic rocks might make nice sculptures and polished bathroom tile, or they might be good building stone but difficult to polish, or they might be good for roofs or floors. (Or they might be good for figuring out the temperature and pressure of metamorphism, and for sparkling in the light, but not much good for anything else.)

Builders and stonemasons classify rocks differently than I do. Does it take a nice polish? Then it's marble (even if I would call it serpentinite or limestone). Is it hard and difficult to polish, with speckles of various colors? Then it's a granite, not a gabbro or a granodiorite or a gneiss. If it breaks into flat slabs, it's slate, whether I would call it slate, phyllite, mylonite, or thin-bedded sandstone. (And if it crumbles, it's shale. Even if it's really something volcanic.)

When I teach about rocks in my intro classes, I often mention the other names students might have heard for rocks. It's confusing to switch organizational schemes. (And not all students think about rocks in this way.) But maybe I could help some of the students by telling them about the various ways I could have organized my bathroom.


Rock Doctor said...

I think there might be more than simply a lack of faculty jobs. I left academia for four years after my MS, because I wasn't sure if I wanted to switch to something else, or if I wanted to get a job, etc.
Now I am back for a PhD at 29, which I thought would date me as ancient in the academic world. It turns out that most of the PhD students in my school have done something else for a bit before coming back to it, and so we are all about the same age, with a few exceptions.
But those stats make me hopeful that I will be taken seriously as a candidate in a couple of years, even though I took some time off to do other things.

Kim said...

I hope that's the case - that people are doing non-academic things, rather than doing ten years of post-docs. And the experience could make you a stronger job candidate (depending on how you sell it).