10th JANUARY 2019, MAASTRICHT – On my desk at work is a small wooden box. It was a present from a student, given to me in the mid-1990s when I still worked in London. I quite often receive presents from students – bottles of wine, flowers, books or book tokens. One of the best was a voucher for ice cream. My philosopher partner rarely received anything from his students. I always thought it was gendered until discussing this with another heterosexual academic couple where the man frequently received presents but the woman never did. Leaving aside the workings of the academic gift economy, this small wooden box is particularly special.
It is special because you have to know the trick to open it. There is always something rather magical about a secret box with a hidden compartment. It is also special because of what it contains. This is a box of its time. There is chalk inside. Not just any chalk but special German chalk that has paper around it so your fingers don’t get covered in chalk dust. Now we have computer screens onto which we project the presentations we prepared prior to class, and maybe a white board or even a smart board for more immediate ideas and explanations. But when I started teaching, we still used blackboards, and hand-drawn overhead sheets. Chalk is very visceral, plus you had to think about what you were wearing. Black is never good with chalk dust. I don’t remember ever receiving any health and safety instructions about using chalk, but I do remember that it severely aggravated sore throats. I was glad to find that my German colleagues had found a way of alleviating the chalk dust problems, and stocked up on this when in Germany. My English colleagues were envious.
There is also a tiny screwdriver inside, with the Case Electronics logo on it, something I received from a conference. The company is still around offering computer and telecom services, including repair. Personal computers had started to appear on academic desks in the 1980s, but probably only became standardly available in the mid- to late-1990s. This was before they had become completely black-boxed. Sometimes you needed to open them, to adjust or replace the motherboard. If you tried that now you would have the ICT service people or the US security services down on you like a ton of bricks. Apple’s CEO recently admitted that while repairing iPhones is the environmentally responsible thing to do, it is bad for Apple’s profits. A colleague was stopped recently when entering the US because his laptop looked as if someone might have been tampering with it in some suspicious way.
There are also some items of sentimental value. I visited Berlin a few times in the 1990s, not too long after the collapse of the Berlin Wall (1989). These little pieces of painted concrete allegedly come from the wall, but I suspect it might be like the pieces of the cross. All those little pieces of concrete, now for sale in Berlin tourist shops, would make for a very big wall. Also from that period of my life is a tiny rubber stamp for making sheep images, and an ink cartridge for a very beautiful Pelikan pen. I have absolutely no recollection as to why I have saved a few marbles and push pins.
Because of other commitments, I was due to arrive somewhat later than other participants. Given my anxiety about publicly making a bad omelette, I was somewhat relieved to receive a message during the morning saying they had enough participants, and I did not need to attend, but of course was welcome to come along. I was keen to see how it was going, so I turned up after the other volunteers had made their omelettes and were already sitting down to a nice lunch.
This part of the experiment involved an expert omelette maker (hereafter referred to as ‘chef’) describing to the volunteers how to do it (on other days, volunteers watched a video or read a recipe). But I had missed that as well. So during the debriefing, I asked one of the volunteers to repeat what she remembered being told by the chef, and how she had done it. On the basis of that second-hand description but first-hand experience, I attempted to make an omelette a few days later, in my own home, to be consumed by my partner and myself.
I gathered together the ingredients (see photos) – three eggs for the omelette, plus the ingredients for a potato salad and a green salad. I cracked the three eggs into a bowl, using my traditional method of banging them on the side of the bowl. Suddenly cracking them with a knife was an experiment too far. I beat the eggs, and added a little bit of salt and pepper at this stage. There had been some disagreement between the chef and the volunteer about when to add seasoning. We recently acquired a new frying pan which was a huge improvement on the old one, so I was already feeling more confident. I melted some butter in it, and poured the egg mixture into the pan. We have a gas hob, but I kept the gas very low. As the egg started to cook around the edges, I used our wooden spatula to gently move the egg towards the middle, repeating this until the egg was mostly cooked. I had read in the past that egg continues to cook, even after you remove it from the heat, so it’s best to stop a bit earlier than you think is necessary, otherwise it could end up too dry. Plus, I was doing some experimenting of my own, by adding cheese and parsley after the omelette was mostly cooked, and putting the pan under the grill briefly to melt the cheese.
To my great surprise, the resulting omelette was better than anything I had ever produced. I even managed to roll it up, which I first thought was a bit ostentatious. The resulting roll was cut in half, and divided between the two of us. We had a very tasty meal, I have overcome my omelette anxiety, and maybe we have learned that skills can be transferred in this way. Though of course I did have a lot of prior (bad) experience to build upon.
I explained the problem – in my best Dutch – offering also both of the explanations above. To my immense surprise he pulled a tuning fork out of his desk drawer, and stood behind me. He struck the tuning fork against his desk and held it a short distance from my head. He repeated this, holding the tuning fork in different positions, and asked me what, if anything, I could hear. After this short test of only a minute or two, he sat down and informed me that I had minor hearing loss on my left side, and advised me to go to a specialist hearing centre. A week or so later, I did just that, where I was asked to sit in a soundproof cubicle with headphones on, while another young man sat behind a computer in a different room but in my line of sight. He generated various sounds and I had to press a button if I could hear them, on the left or the right. This lasted much longer, maybe 10-15 minutes. At the end, he too informed me that I had minor hearing loss on my left side. Not yet serious enough to warrant a hearing aid, but something to check again in two years. I left with a booklet about hearing loss, a copy of the graph generated by the test, the advice to come back in two years, and permission to ask people to stop mumbling, in both English and Dutch.
This experience was, for me at least, a wonderful example of the issues being explored in this project. In 2016, in Amsterdam, a young doctor had somehow learned how to use a tuning fork to test a patient’s hearing. At the same time, not far away, another specialist was using a computer with sound and recording software, to generate a graph indicating which frequencies I could hear on both left and right. How are these very different skills being learned? How do you test if a young doctor is capable of using a tuning fork correctly? What happens to the data generated by the computer? Do all doctors have to learn both, or can they choose?