Tedra Osell on Alexander Pope, Debbie Bliss, and the Value of Curiosity

Noodle Expert Tedra Osell shares her love of Alexander Pope and Debbie Bliss, and what she learned about the value of being more curious and less critical.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

This is a hard question! I think of smart friends who always have interesting things to say, teachers I've had whose classes I wish I could retake now that I know more about the topic, people with hobbies and interests different than mine — if only to find out what it is about those topics they're so fascinated by!

That said, I'm going to pick two unrelated people and topics:

Alexander Pope, who is my favorite poet. I'd love to learn all about the heroic couplet from him. He was an irascible and kinda sexist man, so I doubt he'd be willing to take me on as a student. Still, I find the irascibility, perfectionism, and wit of his poetry endlessly delightful and fascinating.

Debbie Bliss, whose knit designs made me want to start knitting. I haven't advanced beyond the very beginner stages because I have terrible work habits and the Internet exists. But I would love to be a good knitter, and I think that the way she uses color and her predilection for knitting for kids (hence, smaller projects!) would keep me engaged.

Of course, having said that these two learning fantasies are unrelated, I realize that they are both about making things that show their parts. You can "read" knitting if you know how, and heroic couplets are all about making epic poems out of individually discrete and quotable two-liners that are nonetheless highly detail-oriented and polished as finished products.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

"More curious, less critical." A therapist once said this to me while we were talking about my tendency to procrastinate on writing projects. The idea was that by asking myself questions — What am feeling? What is that about? How can I address it? — I'd short-circuit the cycle of procrastination and avoidance by breaking it down into its component parts. That is, if I begin with the thought that I'm worried I won't be able to finish this piece because it seems like such an ambitious project and there are so many things I want to say, maybe I can address that by jotting down notes about the various parts so I don't forget any of them — and voilà, look, I'm writing!

I tell this story because I think procrastination is a pretty common issue in learning, and maybe it'll be helpful. But I also recount it because I've found that being more curious and less critical is a helpful approach in many parts of my life. It helps me be a better parent, a better writer, a better friend. It helps me approach new areas of interest (it's so easy to draw conclusions ahead of data) and deal with challenging situations. It sometimes just helps me get off my couch and go out into the world to do something new.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Within the U.S.? Probably Washington, D.C. — it's an easy city to navigate, the metro system is very clean and easy to figure out, and there are plenty of free learning opportunities even if you don't get beyond the museums — but please do get beyond the museums. I really love D.C.; it's diverse, and people genuinely care about ideas and the concept of the public good. It's a great city to get to know, and one where so many people are from another place that it's pretty easy to get into conversation. And the conversations tend to be thoughtful and illuminating.

Outside of the U.S., I'm afraid my own personal background is pretty Eurocentric, so, with that in mind, I would say Berlin. It's a fantastic city, a great place to learn and think about the history of the 20th century (and experience some of it on a material level), easy for an English speaker to get around, and yet extremely cosmopolitan and foreign enough, obviously, to be exciting and eye-opening.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Most of my academic failures up through graduate school were about me failing to try, to be honest. But in grad school, I barely passed my first qualifying exam and straight up failed my second. It was petrifying, and I wanted nothing so much as to completely disappear from the face of the earth. I knew, though, that I had to go talk to my chair about what had happened and what we were going to do going forward. I remember thinking to myself that, for better or worse, I would finish the experience by knowing that I had done my absolute best and not given up out of fear.

What my chair said during our meeting was basically, you're trying to be too clever. The point of these qualifying exams isn't to show off that you can come up with an original interpretation of anything; it's just to summarize the stuff you've read by way of showing that you would be capable of teaching a class on the topic. No one had actually told me that before, and suddenly everything seemed so much easier. I passed the retake and all my other exams and everything went fine from thereon out.

I learned a lot of things from that experience. Having been a "smart kid" I'd always gotten by without needing to ask questions, and had always avoided learning situations where things were hard because I didn't know how to ask for help. Having to ask for help was terrifying, but doing it, and finding out that the explanation for what I needed to do was so much simpler than I expected it to be, was a huge relief. I still sometimes struggle with asking for clarification, but I try to remember that experience.

Most importantly, maybe, was the effect that experience had on my teaching and on raising my own kid. I understand deeply how hard and embarrassing it can be to admit that you don't understand something or don't know what is wanted, and as a teacher, I've always looked for ways to make it easier. When I was working as a professor, my first "assignment" was always to have students come find my office and say hi so they knew where I was and that I was there to help them. And I strongly recommend that all college students seek out their professor's offices during the first week of class! I'd use "tricks" during class, like requiring every student to ask a question once and answer a question once during discussion, so that they'd get used to doing these things and hearing their own voices in the classroom.

As both an instructor and a mom, I've made a point of never being afraid to just say "I don't know" to a question and then suggest that we go try to find the answer. I never tease my son for not already knowing something, or for not knowing how to do something, and I frequently remind him that it's always okay to ask for help — that if something is easy, it's a sign that he's not learning something new (not that there's anything wrong with doing easy things just for fun!). I've found Carol Dweck's work to be really helpful in overcoming the fear of not knowing, and recommend it strongly.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I'm not sure that going into my field was ever a conscious decision. My parents were both teachers, and education was always important in my family. But to be honest, I applied to graduate school initially because I'd finished college during a recession and moved to a city to live with my boyfriend. I knew no one else there and was knocking about doing jobs I didn't much like, so I figured grad school was better than continuing not to know what I wanted to do work-wise. I don't really recommend that approach!

My Ph.D. program I chose, again, mostly because my by-that-point husband thought he could get a job in the local area, and one of my M.A. professors said it was a good program. I enjoyed teaching a lot and have found that the drive to help and communicate and explain is what I really thrive on. In fact, they're central to whatever kind of work I'm doing, whether it's blogging, consulting, writing, or teaching. I left academia for mostly personal reasons but have maintained my contacts and interest in higher education, even as I've branched out and worked as a financial writer, an editor, a blogger, a homeschool parent, and an advocate. ...

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