Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

thoughts on sparc

summarizing an unsummarizable summer camp

what is sparc? how did i change from it? what do people get out of it? why should it exist? what is the point of people doing it?

these questions have been in my blog ideas file for nine months, and if they were easy to answer, i probably would’ve written this post earlier. while i could say that sparc is a ten-day summer camp that aims to teach high schoolers how to “develop quantitative skills and apply them to the world,” description stolen from the sparc website, you could probably say the same thing about many other summer camps. but the sum of sparc’s goals isn’t to convey a curriculum

in the past few months i’ve been to winter sparc, and met people i saw from sparc, and alumni, and talked about stuff. then i read sparc applications, and did interviews, and in the interviews i get asked what sparc was like, what i learned from sparc. i might also come back to sparc this summer, as a counselor, again. so i’ve been thinking about these questions, again, in the senses of “how do i pitch sparc to someone interested in coming?” and “if i came back, what would i do differently?”

no definite answers though, but some observations. at least for the sparc i went to. also i am speaking for myself, who knows what other people think? anyway

  • it’s kinda about “growth”, or “doing what’s best for its participants”, or “changing the world”. these alone don’t give us an idea of how to achieve these goals, but they’re aspirational

  • it’s about meeting cool people. not only other students, but the staff. it’s nice to have staff who exemplify depth and excellence in diverse ways

    • someone said i brought “being a mess” energy to sparc. that’s diverse excellence i guess

    • for some students, this might be their first opportunity to interact with grownups who both have a similar background and are somewhere they want to be. this is part of why diversity’s important: it increases the chance that each student finds somewhat they vibe with

      • the same can be said for students interacting with other students like them! but like, a fifth or so of these students have been to similar summer camps, where they could’ve had that experience already
    • lots of students say that having one-on-ones with staff and other students is the best part of sparc. sparc’s also built a lot of infrastructure to make one-on-ones happen effectively

      • which way the causation goes, i dunno. sure, having infrastructure leads into making one-on-ones good. but i think the reverse is also possible: generalizing good one-on-ones to make good systems. it feels more true once i think about how sparc’s been around for more than a decade
      • examples of infrastructure:
        • during ttt, which is kinda like the pre-sparc staff retreat, we had an activity called “how to meet cool people” which introduced the idea of “one-on-one culture”
        • day one, someone led an event where we had assigned small groups and went through closeness-generating questions, which i think people loved
        • we had a table with plastic cups for each staff member, and people could write their name and put it in someone’s cup to tell that person they want to have a one-on-one
        • (probably more)
    • admissions selects for students who are (among other things) self-reflective and thoughtful. i think that approaching conversations with self-reflectiveness and thoughtfulness makes it likelier that you get something out of those conversations

    • my read was that this year’s was slightly more cliquey than what i think’s ideal. i think we had some systems that make conversations good once they’ve started, but maybe we can do something to get more of those conversations happening in the first place

      • it’s fine if some people vibe more than others, it’s not fine if people don’t get the chance to learn which others they vibe with
      • my read could also be entirely wrong
  • it’s about getting people to be have more agency, whatever that means

    • people like saying the word agency. it became a meme. in my mind it’s one of words capital-r-rationalist people say, along with stuff like failure mode and epistemic hygiene. unfortunately it’s a useful word

    • by agency i mean the ability to make things happen, to shape yourself and your surroundings. quoting from why mit:

    a lot of things *happen* at MIT. they happen because people make them happen. MIT tends to take away the belief that there are things you can’t do. people pick up new skills like pebbles off a beach. they can do that because MIT teaches you how to learn, and then puts you in a community of people who all know things that you don’t know. and chances are, you also know things that they don’t know! and when you put all those people together, you get a lot of people who make things happen. they get together and someone says, “what if we made a roller coaster?” or “what if we made an a cappella group?” or “how can we help improve mental health issues in our community?” and everyone says, “well, why not?” and they go and make it happen.

    • there’s this idea that if you’re good at high school math competitions then you end up going to grad school or working for jane street. it’s like the idea that you go through college without thinking of what you want to do and then end up in consulting or finance

      • there’s the counteridea that these are “default life tracks”, and that you should seriously consider what you want to do rather than doing the default thing
      • this might be prevalent among other high schoolers, but i’m most in touch with the math community
      • i think the counteridea is becoming more popular among high schoolers who do math competitions, but my vibe was that people still aren’t aware of all the possibilities out there. my fear is that the counteridea weakens to “you should work on ai risk” or “you should work in a startup” or whatever
      • these ideas came up in a decent number of one-on-ones i had
    • like the infrastructure around one-on-ones, there’s also infrastructure around enabling student agency:

      • students can run activities during the afternoon activity block: highlights included juggling, going to the gym, and math group therapy
      • there’s a students teach us day where students run the whole thing. two people ran a class called raising money, which was about startups and stuff, that was super enlightening. there was also the talent show that day, which was amazing
      • students design a shirt and get it shipped to everyone
      • (probably more)
    • important to encouraging agency is having an environment where it’s okay to fail—not entirely sure what this feels like or how to make it a thing though

      • okay to fail, okay to be uncool, okay to be unsuccessful, okay to struggle, okay to be stuck
  • it’s about humaning better, about understanding yourself and others

    • this section’s gonna be vague because i don’t have any idea what i’m talking about

    • it’s about teaching/modeling emotional maturity, in the senses of:

      • being aware of, paying attention to, and recognizing emotions
      • understanding the purpose of emotions, and integrating them, whatever that means
      • cultivating equanimity, showing kindness
    • it’s about identity formation, in the senses of:

      • recognizing labels we identify with (“smart”, “athletic”, “queer”) and how they affect us
      • identifying what’s important or valued, and identifying what isn’t
      • viewing identity with playfulness, seeing it as something fluid
    • it’s about understanding how our approach to the world affects stuff, in the senses of:

      • approaching things with presence and awareness
      • being intentional in the ways we present ourselves to others
      • having epistemic hygiene (cough)
    • there’s explicit classes and activities for these, like philosophy of therapy, tribes, improv, fashion, crystal healing. but i think it’s mostly conveyed through conversations and modeling

  • it’s about exposing students to things that’ll come back later, about planting seeds

    • hence “technical” classes like the history of american education, or markets 101, or information theory. it’s fine if these don’t look cool or make sense immediately, because part of the point is exposure

    • i think capital-r-rationality falls in this bucket of things. like yeah, it’s likelier that this’ll be more immediately relevant to students, but in my mind it’s in the bucket of things that’ll make more sense more after camp

  • i think some students come into camp with somewhat rigid expectations of it. i imagine a decent number of attendees have heard of sparc from friends who’ve gone to similar camps. i know i did; search for “sparc” in my clouds over rochester post.

    • this is both a curse and a blessing. we want people to approach sparc with openness. but also, having a lot of people who believe in magic helps make magic work
  • sparc has a large alumni body. alumni night had a wide range of people, so did winter sparc, though less so. sparc the camp and sparc the community are different things. i think the verticality of sparc is unique among similar camps, but it doesn’t feel as “real” to me, compared to, say, the verticality of the mit alumni community

  • sparc feels to me like cpw or rex, which are big mit events, mostly undergrad-run, aimed at prospective or new frosh. people brought a lot of energy to sparc that i vibed off of. lots of excitement

    • the biggest thing i got out of sparc was a renewed joy in life. it was a lot of fun! i enjoy talking to people about emotions, goals, values, relationships, purpose, whatever, and sparc gave me a good environment to do that

    • a lot of friends i met in sparc i still keep in touch with

    • in retrospect i did get out of sparc what i wanted to get out of it (free food/lodging, fun, an identity crisis)

  • i feel like i’m less ambitious than a lot of the people i talked to at sparc. i talked a decent amount about how, if i was more ambitious, or cared more about things, or whatever, i could be doing cooler stuff; but as is, i don’t care enough. i hoped that some of the ambition would rub off; enough of it did that i’m dissatisfied with my life and my job, but not enough that i feel a super strong urge to do something about it

ok that’s it