Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tour guiding Nostalgia

I wrote this entry some time ago after reading this article in the MIT magazine.

But was inspired to post it after seeing this rather vapid article on the NY Times most e-mailed list.

We were told not to walk backward way back in 1997. Though I did anyway, since that was the only way I was able to get through my 75 minute spiel.

I swear that tour guiding was responsible for getting me to feel comfortable talking in front of a large audience at length (sometimes over 100 people). Before then, in high school, I came in close to last in the 5 minute speech event required for the Academic Decathalon. The thought of having stuff to say for more than 5 minutes was incomprehensible. Of course, now I regularly do 6 hours of lecture in a single day, it's funny, how life works.

I became a tour guide, inspired by my guide when I first visited MIT as a high school student in 1995, and tried every time to give a tour that went beyond a recitation of the same platitudes about class sizes and TA's that made all the other schools sound the same.

I worked extra hard because I knew that who your tour guide is has a disproportionate effect on which college you choose (the weather on the day you visited also does). I was told by one parent after a tour that they were impressed because tour guides at most colleges are normally pretty girls, and given I was neither, I started with two strikes against me.

I also always tried to dispel the myths people normally have about MIT. Telling people about how we have the most varsity sports in the country (which unfortunately ended this year), with the best civilian pistol team in the country (I always joked that I always thought it was a good thing that West Point beat us at pistol).

I talked about the almost balanced gender ratio in the Ellen "Swallow" Richards lobby (sometimes mentioning the quotes around the words "Swallow" as my favorite hack), and how women have graduated women since the beginning, whereas that school up the street didn't graduate women until 2000 (up until then, women only got degrees from Radcliffe). One of the mothers on a tour noted that I mentioned Harvard at least a dozen times. I was always happy to play up the friendly self-deprecating one-sided rivalry.

I talked about Tetris on IM Pei's Green Building. About the sleepy student discovering a Japanese tourist sketching the urinal in the Alvar Aalto designed Baker Hall one morning, or the moat that reflects light from beneath the Aero Saarinen MIT Chapel, or the 1/8 sphere of his auditorium.

My most memorable tour was for the mayor of Dalian, one of the largest cities in China, which I did in broken Chinese. I felt bad that I was the only representative of MIT his large entourage got to meet.

One of my favorite tours was the ones where only tourists came. And I could just talk about the fun stuff.

Good times.

Glad to see the tradition lives on.

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