Mayan, what else?

Take the time to breathe and do what you like
April 2021
Grégoire
J.
Technology and Policy Program

I was tired. My first semester at MIT was tougher than I had expected. I still have vivid memories of that defining evening of November. I was making my way back home with research ideas spinning in my head and started to feel anxious about the three p-sets I had to finish by week’s end. In short, I needed some fresh air and to disconnect from the hectic “MIT life”, as they call it.

Upon reaching home, I fell on my chair, facing a pile of homework waiting to be started. What should I do? Would I even be able to muster up the energy to start these p-sets? For the first time since the beginning of classes, I did not feel like doing any work.

Looking for a miracle, I threw a desperate glance around my room until my eyes landed on my nightstand. On the nightstand was a thick green book I had brought from France a couple months earlier. I had started reading it before leaving for the US and absolutely loved it. Written in beautiful English prose, it narrated the story of two American adventurers making their way through the dense jungle of southern Mexico and “re-discovering” Mayan ruins, which have since become the most famous Mayan ruins we know. 

Suddenly, my tiredness was gone and I felt a burst of energy. I knew what to do - “All right! Let’s do some Mayan!”. I felt elated!  

I realize that some context might be necessary here. Since my childhood, I have developed an immoderate and unconventional love for languages. For my friends, their love was found in drawing, playing video games, or building model trains. For me, it was languages. Ancient languages. In order to shift away from the science I was learning in high school, I would spend hours reading about writing systems, their history, and how they functioned. In my extensive research, I even learned that some languages have never been deciphered. How exciting, there’s still work to be done!

Excited by the challenge of uncovering a new language, I decided to focus my efforts on two languages. I started with Egyptian hieroglyphs, because I just loved the idea of conveying ideas using fancy signs such as pigeons, snakes, and fishes (it turned out to be way more difficult than I thought, but I did not realize that at the time). After diving into the world of hieroglyphs, I focused my efforts on the Mayan language. Why Mayan? There was no rationale to my decision, except for the fact that I find their writing system to be the most exquisite I know. Take a look for yourself at these symbols below, aren’t they lovely?  

Figure 1. A picture taken by the author somewhere in Mexico

Ancient languages have long been a defining passion for me. There are always some people who are surprised that I could dedicate time to such weird activities. Wouldn’t I rather do something I could later put on my résumé? Something that would help me find a job? Something useful? Fortunately, I never really understood what they meant by useful, so I continued passionately studying languages. 

All this came to an end the minute I stepped into MIT. I was too busy “getting the most of my time at the Institute” and languages slipped out of my mind – actually, I never really thought of continuing to work on languages for my first three months at MIT. There were already too many things to do to think of something outside of work and studies!

Fast forward, that November night made me realize how far I had strayed from my passions. Would I let MIT define me and the way I should live? Should I let my research and my classes take control over me and who I am? No way! I felt the urge to keep a sense of agency in life, an agency that I was losing by burying myself under layers of work obligations. My work only expressed a fraction of who I was and I felt that I needed to let other aspects of myself bloom if I really wanted to thrive - not only as a student, but also as a person.

Starting from that fateful night, things moved very quickly. I would dedicate every Saturday to reading about the Mayan language and learning the intricacies of its beautiful writing system. By chance, I discovered that Harvard had played a leading role in the decipherment of the script and hosted a museum with replicas of Mayan stelae (a Latin name for carved stones representing royal scenes) with glyphs (the term that experts give to Mayan writing symbols). The same stelae I had been reading about for years were      located in Cambridge! Today, I cannot count the number of minutes I have spent lovingly gazing at these stones. Passing tourists must have taken me for a weirdo, staring so long at one artifact… but I couldn’t care less! 

My curiosity led me to wonder whether I could join some kind of expert community to discuss Mayan epigraphy (“the art of ancient inscriptions”). Talking with a friend, I heard that a couple of Harvard PhD students in archeology were trying to set up informal tutoring sessions in Mayan and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, they did not have an instructor to lead the tutorials. Bingo, that’s something I could do! I started “teaching” on a regular basis, alternating every other week between the two languages. With that experience came an increased exposure to the archeology community at Harvard (truth be told, the world of Mayan archeology is fairly small).

All of these experiences made me feel very fulfilled – and productive. Juggling research, classes and teaching Mayan wasn’t easy. It required some adjustments in my schedule: I would force myself to go through my lectures and finish p-sets before Friday night. I would do this happily, knowing that Saturday would be dedicated to my “language stuff”. Any research left unfinished would wait until Sunday, if not Monday. Saturdays were sacred.

To those coming to MIT, my advice would be: do what you like. Your education at MIT will be intense.  Maintaining a balance between your work and outside activities is important – both for your academic achievements and for yourself.

Based on my experience, I would recommend the following:

  1. Forget about your CV and identify what makes you excited about life. Work might be your passion, but you might have other passions as well. From cooking to scuba diving to reading novels, we often lose track during of these simple things that make us smile;  

  2. Do not feel guilty taking time off for your personal interests. Grad school can be intense and working non-stop may make you lose a sense of agency and fulfillment – and eventually make you less “productive” at work. Taking time off is like taking a step back and then making a bigger jump forward;

  3. Talk with your supervisor if you feel like it. Supervisors can prove incredibly supportive of non-MIT related activities and actively encourage you to pursue new ideas and take holidays. It’s often a matter of communication. Supervisors are more likely to be accommodating, if not actively supportive, if they know what you want in life and what matters to you; 

  4. Explore what MIT has to offer. The Institute is huge and a couple years are barely enough to scratch the surface of what MIT has to offer. A friend of mine was passionate about skateboarding but could not find anybody to teach him. Against all odds, he heard that a Media Lab Fellow was a star in skateboarding and had invented most of the tricks that are in use today. Who would have thought?!

  5. Take advantage of what Cambridge and the Boston area have to offer. The Boston area is incredibly diverse and you will likely find something right for you. Teaching at Harvard was a very rewarding experience that made me want to engage even more in the broader Cambridge/Boston community.