Non-Fiction: “Feynman’s Failure Method”, by Trayle Kulshan

The prose poems, Teacher and Mercy, have been previously published in a book titled ”Revolutions” by Trayle Kulshan (2018, Sitting King, CA).
The quotes are by Richard Feynman, in the public domain.

Teacher
I try to teach like Richard Feynman.
Was it his sharp hair? The cadence of his
voice? His manner of dancing at the podium
that kept us all entranced? Later, he wore no
shoes and his hair was white, feathered about
his gaunt face, but his swaying around the
board, the rhythm of his analogies remained
the same.

His genius forgot the name of an obtuse
triangle while he illustrated exactly how
Newton invented calculus. He started with
hope to explain relativity. He said, “I don’t
know,” reveling in mystery, flashing joy, and
some faint darkness of his history.

* * *

“Study hard what interests you the most
in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

I try to teach like Richard Feynman: Richard Feynman searched for clarity. He was a bongo-drum player but he was more well-known as one of the greatest explainers of all time, and he won a Nobel Prize in physics. His magic was that he was able to make physics accessible to an average college student through creative, crazy, simple analogies and explanations. He used pictures, hand-sketched in white chalk-dust across black-green painted walls to illustrate formulas that no normal person understands. The hardest math of the century describing infinite possibilities with wiggly lines and arrows. We call them Feynman diagrams. We call his way of teaching and learning the Feynman method. He said that if you cannot clearly explain a topic to someone else, then you have failed to fully understand the phenomenon yourself. You need to go back and figure it out again another way. A more creative way. A more relevant way. A weirder way. Which is how he made his brilliant, wiggly diagrams. Richard Feynman clarified the difference between knowing and understanding. Each time I teach, I go back and make the topic more pertinent, more open, and with more wiggly lines and arrows. Each time I repeat the process, I am curious if there is really any difference between the teacher and the student.

“What one fool can understand, another can.”

Some faint darkness of his history: Richard Feynman searched for difference. He was known to be annoying and for analyzing failure. In 1986, I was 11, and the US was sending the space shuttle up with a teacher on board, not just astronauts, but a normal teacher. It could have been our teacher and so when it launched, the country’s children listened live as the Challenger space shuttle blew up. It killed the astronauts. And the teacher. And the spirit of US space travel. Richard Feynman was on the team of scientists investigating the national tragedy, and he was known to be annoying because he didn’t stick to physics. He highlighted the social problem that led to the explosion: the lack of questioning, the fear of risk, the risk of fear, the danger of groupthink. The technical problem was simple and was known by worthy engineers, but as the launch was readied (Check the rockets, the life support, the navigation, the fuel, the temperature- all systems go. 4, 3, 2, 1.) no one dared to stop the flow. No one dared to say no the O-ring temperature is low. And so, a tiny seal was broken and it killed the teacher. Richard Feynman wasn’t a genius because he knew the answers, it was because he asked the questions. Each time I think I’ve come to some conclusion, I try find a wider angle. I try to seek out the uncomfortable, the sore, or the stranger way it can be done.

 “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered
than answers that can’t be questioned.”

* * *

Mercy

It takes hard work to practice steps I think that
I have mastered, to follow every nerve twitch
and find where it began, to pry out nails to see
how they are bending and hammer them in
again.

It takes hard work to relax raw muscles after
kicks and dances, to stretch up and hold my
hunched back tall, to feel my face when it was
my feet that made me fall.

It takes hard work to reach grace by doing
nothing, to close my mouth and listen, to clasp
my hands together and to not touch what’s
underneath.

Trayle Kulshan is the Senior Academic Support Coordinator in AUD. She has been an Academic Advisor to students at Stanford University and a teaching assistant and mentor to graduate students at both Stanford and Clemson University. Ms. Kulshan is a certified teacher with extensive classroom experience across all grades and with special needs children. She has also taught adults in non-traditional training environments. She loves finding success with dispirited students because she believes everyone can succeed.

In addition to supporting students in the SRS Office, Ms. Kulshan teaches World Geography and Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at AUD.

Before joining AUD, Ms. Kulshan was a humanitarian aid worker for over 10 years, exposing her to many exciting cultures and contexts. She lived in Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Egypt. She collaborated with local populations and governments to implement water, sanitation, public health and food security projects while working for UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, Action Against Hunger, and the Peace Corps in local, national and regional roles. These experiences solidified her interest in natural resources and food security sustainability within current affairs and events such as climate change, migration and conflict in the context of humanitarian crisis development. She hopes that young people today prioritize service in their careers and develop an awareness of issues facing those less fortunate than ourselves.  

In her free time, Ms. Kulshan enjoys adventures with her son, yoga, cooking, and creative writing.
M.Sc. in Geology (Hydrogeology), Stanford University, CA USA
B.Sc. (Magna Cum Laude) in Agricultural Engineering, Clemson University, SC USA

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