can I be different
that my way is better?
but it doesn’t come easy
it’s worth the effort though
because that’s the path of peace…
Source: Clip Art Panda
can I be different
that my way is better?
but it doesn’t come easy
it’s worth the effort though
because that’s the path of peace…
Source: Clip Art Panda
In these days of banning books, I have been contemplating how to deal with out-of-date textbooks that nobody wants. Not because they’re risqué, they’re just out-of-date. It makes me wonder what to do with the manuscript I began writing in 2015. The first draft is still waiting to be edited when I can find time. In the meantime, I often wonder whether the book would be of any use to others in the times ahead because it may be too academic. And if it does have potential to be useful, it’s doubtful to survive censorship because it’s as historically accurate as I can make it and critical of colonial domination.
But there is still the question of those textbooks that have grown obsolete. In a continuing process of decluttering, textbooks are next on my list. It seems that only the pages can be recycled, but the covers and bindings must go. So, the process of unbinding has begun. It’s not as easy as one would think. Here’s a photo of my first attempt.
It’s the fourth edition of Social forces and aging by Robert C. Atchley (1985). (In case anyone is eager to read it, it was published by Wadsworth, Inc.). I also have the fifth edition of this text in the pile of castaways, but I kept the eighth edition in the bookcase for now, perhaps out of sentimentality (or senility?). I suspect I used it when I taught a course on aging and mental health at my alma mater after graduating with a master’s degree. That’s when I discovered I love working with students of all ages.
I couldn’t resist a final peek at the content of the book in the tedious deconstruction process. I happened to notice the following at the beginning of Chapter 15: Deviance and Social Control…
All societies use general standards to judge the appropriateness of a given behavior, human condition, or situation. If a departure from conventional customs or practice is seen as merely unusual, we call it “eccentricity.” But if the departure is so great that the behavior or condition would be condemned, then we call it deviance. Deviance is always defined from the point of view of a particular normative structure. In large societies such as ours there are many subgroups and conflicting standards of behavior. The same act can be defined as deviant by one group, as eccentric by another, and as “normal” by yet another. For example, what is seen as deviant in a suburban neighborhood is quite different from what is seen as deviant on skid row.
Norms are by definition ideas about how human behavior ought to be, and it is no surprise that societies set up mechanisms to prevent and control both the incidence and degree of deviance. Social roles, socialization, and the internalization of norms are all important processes in the prevention of deviance. Formal social controls that seek to limit and discourage deviance include laws, rules, regulations, and authority systems. Informal social controls include customs such as ridicule, disapproval, and ostracism. (Atchley, 1985, p. 286)
While I believe it’s important to know how people viewed things in the past, and what they were programmed to believe, this book has served its purpose and deserves to be repurposed. There is a pile of other texts waiting for their turn. But the topic of this quote stayed with me. I’m currently reading something that speaks to the profundity of cultural differences – I miss the rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a third act: A tale of transformation, by Nancy Daniel Wesson (2021), Modern History Press. I came across a passage about the challenges of communicating across cultures, even between people who believe they speak the same English language. I can’t quote the passage here because it would be out of context, but it brought to mind a passage in a different book that shares “an anecdote from World War II” (Estés, 1992, p. 343).
Clarissa Pinkola Estés recounts an experience she had when she was twelve, spending a day with extended family. She heard her mother and aunts shrieking with laughter as they sat “sunning themselves” and was curious to know what was so funny. While her mother and aunts later dozed in the sun, Estés picked up the magazine one of her aunts had been reading out loud and discovered the passage quoted below.
General Eisenhower was going to visit his troops in Rwanda. [It might have been Borneo. It might have been General MacArthur. The names meant little to me then.] The governor wanted all native women to stand by the side of the dirt road and cheer and wave to welcome Eisenhower as he drove by in his jeep. The only problem was that the native women never wore any clothes other than a necklace of beads and sometimes a little thong belt.
No, no, that would never do. So the governor called the headman of the tribe and told him the predicament. “No worry,” said the headman. If the governor could provide several dozen skirts and blouses, he would see to it that the women dressed in them for this one-time special event. And these the governor and local missionaries managed to provide.
However, on the day of the great parade, and just minutes before Eisenhower was to drive down the long road in his jeep, it was discovered that while all of the native women dutifully wore the skirts, they did not like the blouses, and had left them at home. So now all the women were lined up and down both sides of the road, skirted but bare-breasted, and with not another stitch on and no underwear at all.
Well the governor had apoplexy when he heard and he angrily summoned the headman, who assured his that the headwoman had conferred with him, and assured him that the women had agreed on a plan to cover their breasts when the general drove by. “Are you sure?” yelled the governor.
“I am very, very sure,” said the headman.
Well, there was no time left to argue and we can only guess at General Eisenhower’s reaction as his jeep came chugging by and woman after bare-breasted woman gracefully lifted up the front of her full skirt and covered her face with it. (Estés, 1992, pp. 343-344)
I have to admit this made me laugh as well. It still does. These days I think we all need more opportunities to laugh. Yet, I know it’s easier to laugh at other’s expense, and harder to look at the humorous side of things we’ve been socialized to accept as “normal.”
Initially, I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust what they tell me or write is true from their perspective. I’ve learned, though, that’s not always the case. Over time, I’ve become a lot more skeptical, but I wasn’t as an undergraduate student when I first read about a strange tribe in my anthropology class, the Nacirema.
Horace Miner’s (1956) article, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” helped teach me that lesson and others.
Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.
The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose… While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries… (Miner, 1956, p. 503)
In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend on the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation… (Miner, 1956, p. 506)
Wikipedia says the following about Miner’s work.
“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”
(For those who don’t already know this, “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards.)
These two authors, Miner and Estés, have something in common. They deal with topics that are rarely discussed in polite “normative” conversations. (I think Atchley of old might agree with that assessment, although Miner’s article had been published long before Atchley’s text.) Their published works will probably be censored in the coming years because they present views that could easily be classified as deviant by those leading the pack to enforce their seemingly joyless point-of-view. After all, hearty laughter and joy signify freedom from control – and they serve a valuable role as a “medicine for tough times” (Estés, 2992, p. 344).
Estés makes this point quite clearly when she describes the aftereffects of reading about Eisenhower’s welcome.
I lay under the chaise [lounge] stifling my laughter. It was the silliest story I had ever heard. It was a wonderful story, a thrilling story. But intuitively, I also knew it was contraband, so I kept it to myself for years and years. And sometimes in the midst of hard times, during tense times, even before taking tests in college, I would think of the women from Rwanda covering their faces with their skirts, and no doubt laughing into them. And I would laugh and feel centered, strong, and down-to-earth…
When the laughter helps without doing harm, when the laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is the laughter that causes health. When the laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love, heightened with eros, when it lifts sadness and severs them from anger, that is sacred… (pp. 344-345, emphasis mine).
I hope these stories helped lighten the heaviness of these times, at least for a moment…
Here’s a video that may help inspire laughter as well – Loretta LaRoche, “The Joy of Stress”
Atchley, R. C. (1985). Social forces and aging (4th ed.). Wadsworth, Inc.
Estés. P. C. (1992). Women who run with the wolves: Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. Ballantine Books.
Miner, H. (1956). Body ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist, 58(3), 503-507. (Link to copyright-free download here.)
Wesson, N. D. (2021). I miss the rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a third act: A tale of transformation. Modern History Press.
A work of dystopian speculative fiction (maybe) …
Truth be told, she had a vivid imagination. Mostly, she was able to control it by focusing on the present moment, detailed analytical tasks, or solving complex puzzles. But grocery shopping day always presented challenges. As an empath, wandering among so many random feelings and thoughts made her feel as though she was somehow entering a viscous “twilight zone” where whatever laws that govern the world were temporarily and totally suspended.
The experience that comes to mind to illustrate what happens involves a rather heavy-set young man. He was standing up from the wheeled conveyance he needed to get around the store, laughing and exclaiming his delight at the many flavors of Spam. He was reading the label on each can, announcing the flavor loudly, and throwing many of them into his companion’s shopping cart.
It took her a moment to hold her self-righteous judgement at bay. Spam reminded her of the canned pork, lard, and starchy commodities distributed by the federal government to her Ojibwe ancestors. It’s not something her ancestors would ever have chosen to eat and doing so left a legacy of serious health issues for generations. As “captive nations,” they had been confined to reservations on the least desirable lands and forbidden to carry on the traditional hunting, gathering, and gardening activities that had helped them survive for millennia.
“Corporations have done an effective job marketing this as a convenient, desirable food,” she thought. “Sadly, few people know that.”
Entering the twilight zone…
“And just maybe, there are tiny magnetic nano particles embedded in genetically modified foods and other health products. If people eat enough of them, nano particles are stored in organs throughout their bodies, attracting them by a magnetic pull toward certain foods every time they enter the store.”
Watching other shoppers walk aimlessly in a daze, or rush about impatiently almost hitting other shoppers with their carts only added to her imaginative speculation. Sometimes she was able to resist the pull and focus on one person whom she could help. It was “grounding.” Afterwards, the viscosity of the atmosphere would abate somewhat, allowing her to remember to be present and kind when other opportunities arose.
She may never know the truth about this speculative puzzle. There’s really nothing she can do about it anyway, except to be increasingly more thoughtful about what she’s choosing to eat.
there are times these days
when I’m certain I hear
the whisper of fluttering wings
or the soft sigh of a dreaming dog
perhaps the spirits of my beloved companions
do visit in moments when I need to remember
what unconditional love feels like
they were, after all, my best teachers
and it’s so easy to forget sometimes
when they’re no longer physically here
to soften the sorrow of wars near and far
Honoring the gift of their past presence
requires living the lessons they shared
ah, the challenge of teaching
during overwhelming times
please let me be here now
and take time
we only have
these precious moments together
two hours every other week
it’s not enough
but it’s what we have
I watch and wonder
how I can help you
rekindle curiosity and learn
when you’re too weary and anxious
to be fully present
let’s take the first steps together
to unpack a daunting assignment
step by step
take a few minutes to read
the article title and think
what do the authors assume
about the people and issues they studied?
those few precious words say a lot
about how researchers frame their work
it’s the first step for analyzing anything
and it’s too easy to move on
without taking time to realize
that this is the most important thing
they will have to say
about the assumptions, values, and worldviews
which (perhaps unconsciously)
guided the purpose and design
for the steps and details that follow
can one judge the quality of a work by its title?
the title, along with the abstract and key words,
offer a snapshot of authors’ views
about people and causes of problems
and clues about the trustworthiness
of their work and interpretations
do they encourage exploratory solutions
which are respectful and inclusive?
does their work have the potential
to enhance community connections and resilience?
“Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads”
(repeated because images can’t be translated)
snow, sorrow, solitude, and silence
the beginning of my 75th year
a time to reflect and listen deeply
finding the thread of gratitude
that weaves seemingly discrete moments
into a simple life of love and learning
transcending contexts of conflicts
over transitory illusions of control
while noticing beauty in unexpected places
even during the most trying transitions
Being on the margins brings many unique and unimagined opportunities. Blogging was one of them for me. I first began blogging as an experiment to support a friend from the commune where we had both lived decades before. We reconnected on Facebook during my brief time on that platform. She told me she was interested in sharing her writing on a blog, and I offered to partner with her although my years in academia led me to believe blogging was not a valuable source of information.
The experience soon dispelled those unfounded assumptions and opened up a whole new world of perspectives and virtual friendships. I had stockpiled many reflections written throughout the years but never published any. In part, I felt my reflections wouldn’t be useful or interesting to others, and in part because they didn’t really fit anywhere. They were either too academic, too critical, too fluffy, or not academic enough. That same challenge ultimately surfaced as a problem with my blogging partner. I wrote three drafts of a reflection I felt was important, but none of versions met with my partner’s approval.
A dear friend agreed to read the three versions and give me her honest feedback. “I love the second version,” she said. “I think you should publish it.” Using the skills I had learned about WordPress from my partner, I created a new blog with the name I still use, “Voices from the Margins.” I posted the disputed article shared below and let my partner know I was willing to continue sharing the blog with her, only positing things that met with her approval. She was understandably angry and told me to remove my other posts from her blog, so they’re also posted on this blog in chorological order from the first to the last before the original article posted here 8 years ago on February 12, 2014, In Honor of Caregivers.
After my policy class this week, I decided to write about a project I coordinated many years ago to address elder abuse. After reading the first draft, I realized that it was missing important details about the challenges caregivers face. That meant I had to face my dreaded file cabinets!
As a child who loved not only to read, but re-read, it was sometimes excruciating to live in a house that had very few books. Although I discovered the public library, I never wanted to return the books I borrowed, resulting in overdue notices and fines that were so embarrassing. I learned to avoid the library if at all possible. As an adult, I started buying my own books, and as a student and professional, I collected copies of every article I read and every handout I gathered from workshops. The number of bookcases and file cabinets I needed grew each year. My file cabinets have taught me an important fact about myself. I am a piler, not a filer. On the days I am determined to organize papers, I come up with logical ways to sort and label. But when I am working on something and need just the right information, I am never able to remember the logic! If the articles are piled, I have little problem remembering which pile it might be in – because I have had to look through every pile hundreds of times to find things. But once they disappear into closed drawers in neatly labeled file folders, I become paralyzed with indecision. “How did I categorize this article in my all-too-fleeting moment of analytic clarity?”
Photo Credit: The messy process of looking for details
I have learned to avoid my file cabinets as assiduously as I avoid libraries. But I have kept stuffing new things in them – there are now 5 of them with extra file drawers in 2 desks. But I haven’t left them behind as I moved from state to state – I might desperately need something that is in them someday! I really did intend to clean them out before my last move, but I only had 3 weeks to get ready and sorting files was just not a priority.
Adding details meant I needed to face my file cabinets. The only way I could ethically describe details from a project so long ago would be to overcome the resistance I feel when I even walk into the room where they are arranged and overcome the dread of opening the drawers. But I did face the challenge and actually made an important discovery not only about the project details, but also about myself as a much younger program developer and person. Even then I really did “walk the talk” of community-driven program development and egalitarian partnerships. Now I think I can tell the “real” story …
Many years ago, I made the decision to leave a well-paying job as a planning and policy analyst for a state government to pursue advanced education and the opportunity to keep learning. In part, my decision was based on the outcome of a recent gubernatorial election. A job that had once made it possible to advocate for improvements for elder services shifted to constant surveillance of every conversation I had with constituents and written justification for every exchange with legislators who requested information. It also shifted from developing innovative new programs to defending programs that were important for elders’ survival and well-being. And in part, the decision was because bureaucracies are stifling places to work even in the best of times. The political appointees who set the agenda for executive branch activities rarely have the power to make many changes that actually improve peoples’ lives within or outside the organization. They can, however, easily make it worse.
To help pay my tuition, I decided to take on a part time job coordinating a federal research and training project to develop and test an intervention to address elder abuse, The Male Caregiver Training Project. The project, conceptualized by a professor and a graduate student, was intended to reduce elder abuse by targeting men who were providing care for older relatives – parents, wives, siblings, or other relations. Although men were less likely to be family caregivers (about 25% of family caregivers at the time), they were more likely to be reported as perpetrators of elder abuse (about 66% of reported perpetrators were men). The assumption of the grant writers was that men who were at risk of abusing elders would voluntarily agree to attend eight, two-hour “training” sessions that were based on behavior modification techniques. The “trainers” would be social work graduate students under the direction of the professor, and the results would be measured to determine the effectiveness using pretest and post-test self-reports. The student who was going to coordinate the project left just as the funding was awarded, so I was asked if I would be willing to coordinate the project.
Of course, I didn’t know all of these details until after I accepted the position and read the grant. As soon as I did, I was amazed that such a proposal had been funded and set out to conceptualize something that might make a difference in the real world. What did I know about being a male caregiver? Really, not much. The only way to learn more was to talk to men who were caring for relatives. I also needed to meet with key staff in the two pilot counties to build trust and partnerships. And the best way to build authentic partnerships was to change who led the sessions. What would university students know about the communities and resources for caregivers? Community staff already had contacts, credibility, and knowledge. Why not involve them not only as leaders of sessions, but also as partners in designing what the intervention would actually involve? And if the intervention was successful, wouldn’t it make more sense for community staff to have a vested interest in seeing the sessions continue after federal grant dollars ended? I called the federal project manager to present my suggestions, and he became excited by the possibilities.
Photo Credit: Artwork by Caren Caraway for Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care
I met with the directors of human services in both counties and found a key staff person in each who agreed to work with me. They helped me find men who were willing to talk with me about their experiences. The men I met with all had so much to teach others about tenacity and compassion. They also had a great deal to teach me about the types of support that would make their lives as caregivers easier.
The stories I heard were a testament to the best people can be. Six of the seven men who agreed to meet with me were, or had been, caregivers for their wives and were themselves in their 70s or 80s. One was a primary caregiver for his father in his 80s who was experiencing mobility and self-care challenges. A few were understandably guarded in their comments, while others saw the interview as an opportunity to share challenges, sorrow, and struggles with anyone who was willing to listen and care. Alzheimer’s and dementia were the reasons men were caring for their wives. They spoke, often tearfully, about the loss not only of someone they loved to a disease that erased memories and made them strangers, but also about the loss of their closest friend and confidant. They saw it as their responsibility to provide care, often at great personal cost as they dealt with their own physical limitations and financial challenges. Most importantly, they all felt alone. There was no one to talk to about the conflicting emotions they faced. There was no one who could share the physical burden of doing all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and being on call 24 hours a day. They did the best they could as caregivers because they cared, and they did it alone because they didn’t know anyone they could ask for help or information.
So I summarized the findings, and with the help of my partners in each county, held a general planning meeting in each county that involved all of the key agency staff who dealt with elder issues and services. The purpose was to identify a team in each county that was willing to help develop and present the sessions. I spent a sleepless night before the first community meeting. Yes, I had these powerful interview summaries, and based on that, a suggested list of topics. But we couldn’t call this the Male Caregiver Training Project! Training is something that is done to horses, not that I recommend this approach for horses, but it certainly shouldn’t be how we work with people. As I was taking my morning shower before the meeting, I had an epiphany – we should call the sessions Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care. It highlighted the fundamental strength of the men who shared their stories, and reflected the suggestions they had for ways to help.
Staff in both counties identified resources that could serve as tools and resources to help caregivers. We all learned a great deal from the first workshop session in each county. We thought it would be difficult for men to share emotions, so we began with more informational topics. Yet during the first session in the first county, the men who participated shocked us with their willingness to share the depth of their distress – some spoke of contemplating suicide and murder – so we added crises counselors to the workshop teams. After testing and revising the intervention, six more counties tested the approach. More than 60 men participated in all during the project. Ten years after the grant ended, most of the counties were still conducting sessions, not only for men who were caring for relatives, but also for women. It spread to other counties and other states and eventually was nominated for a national award.
What made the experience rewarding for me was not public recognition. It was the opportunity to meet people, caregivers and staff who cared deeply enough about others to make so many personal sacrifices, and the honor of hearing their stories and working side-by-side to create an intervention that succeeded in improving some peoples’ lives. Among those I met was a reporter for a local paper who captured the essence of the challenges of caregivers and the importance of providing resources and opportunities for sharing.
…For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. To love and to cherish, till death us do part.
When Jacob and Martha exchanged wedding vows 45 years ago, he was an Army private and she was a schoolteacher. “She was a lovely little gal,” he said as he pulled out a black and white photograph – now yellowed from age—of their wedding day from a manila envelope. “Wasn’t she something?” he asked, speaking more to himself than to a recent visitor….
Like many couples, Jacob and Martha, not their real names, worked for the day they could retire and spend their days growing old together. Today, they are in their 80s, but their dream of carefree retirement is tarnished. Martha has Alzheimer’s disease…. She is easily confused and requires 24-hour-a-day care. Jacob provided that care. Despite his own failing health, he dresses, bathes and feeds his wife. He cooks, cleans the house, does the laundry and orders groceries to be delivered. He is with his wife all the time, declining offers of respite care because, he says, “it upsets her,” when he is gone. Her illness dominates his life….
Jacob was one of the six men who attended the first [Tools of the Trade] workshop series offered last fall…. “It’s was kind of nice getting out,” Jacob said. “The workshop was a very good thing for me. It helped me realize that I’m not alone. I had a chance to talk with others who are in similar situations.”
(Carla McCann, The Janesville Gazette, Wednesday, April 11, 1990, p. 1C)
I didn’t realize until many years later that I would need to know what I learned from caregivers during this project. I remember when my mother first realized something was happening to her. I went to pick her up because she had driven to visit my bother and could not remember how to get home. On the ride home she said, “I don’t know what is happening to me. I can’t remember things. I am so humiliated. I don’t want people to see me this way.” It broke my heart to know that this gentle woman who outlived her husband and survived years of abuse always wishing for a chance to enjoy life would never have that opportunity. At least, I thought, the bad memories will disappear as well.
Dealing with file cabinets has led me down memory lane with memories that are both grateful and sad. I think I will quickly find a place to stuff the project folders back into drawers and wait for the next polar vortex before opening them again. Yet I am grateful that I remembered how many kind and loving people I have met in my travels. I am sharing these memories to say miigwetch (thank you in Ojibwe) to the caregivers of the world and to those who support them.
On this 8th anniversary, I want to thank all of the friends I have met over the years. I have learned so much from you and remain deeply grateful for your presence in my life.
A lifetime lived in the liminal space
between those with petty power
and those whom they would oppress
perhaps without conscious awareness
please believe me when I tell you
it’s not an easy place to be
sometimes a clown or trickster
other times deliberately deferential
with a mousy well-tailored demeaner
soft-spoken and mild-mannered
and a focused observant presence
looking for any possibilities
for building common ground
yet unwilling to compromise integrity
even when it means disregarding
threats and demeaning disrespect
silently healing a bruised ego
because that’s not what is important
when others’ wellbeing is at stake
recognizing that one has many choices –
deep sorrow, self-righteous anger,
or patience and compassion for all involved
over lost opportunities to come together
in the exploration of creative, liberating
possibilities based on reason and grace
recent events served as a reminder
that my worldview and values
don’t fit well with those of colonial institutions
and those of the gatekeepers and overseers
posted as guards to enforce conformity
often unknowingly – reminding me once again
of the words of Michel Foucault (1979, p. 304).
“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. This carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observations, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of normalizing power.”
Drawing by Carol A. Hand (based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault, 1979, inset # 10 between pp. 169-170).
It may well be as Foucault suggests
that only some of us are fortunate enough
to know that we are not completely socialized
and carry the responsibility to teach
by thinking critically and “walking our talk”
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975)
Yesterday I asked a question I have often asked before, “What’s in the neighborhood where I live now?”
Although I have now lived here for about 11 years, it still feels relatively new to me. It’s the first time I’ve lived in this state. It’s where I moved when I retired to be closer to my daughter and grandchildren. My grandson has lived here with his mother since before his first birthday – 23 years ago.
I arrived battle weary after retiring early from a series of difficult academic jobs and personal losses, merely looking for a small house and yard where I could plant gardens and create a sanctuary. I was tired of dealing with mean and petty people in power. Of course, one often finds pockets of both kindness and wisdom and cruelty and ignorance everywhere. No matter where one lives, one also discovers the interface of natural beauty with threats to exploit and control nature in ways that continue to leave great harm for future generations.
The place where I live now is no exception. Yesterday, I was inspired to ask that question about my neighborhood in a more pragmatic, action-oriented way. Once again I greeted the morning by looking out through my front window toward the rising sun.
(hmm- the bell tower really does seem to lean although not quite as much as this photo suggests)
It was another bitterly cold morning when the sun would be so welcome, even though it would do little to add warmth to the day. But its light was blocked by a thick steady stream of smoke rising from the spooky tower sitting in the St. Louis Bay less than a mile away.
I learned a little about the tower from my last young neighbor in the rental house next-door. He was the first and only one of my neighbors who seemed to care about such things. He told me that the tower was owned by Minnesota Power. His father had told him that it was used to burn trees from northern forests that were destroyed by past storms. (Sadly, he moved last year when he bought a house. I miss him and his housemates, as well as our backyard conversations.)
With too many things to do before and after my young friend moved, I just stored that information away for future exploration “someday,” like the books on my shelves waiting to be read.
But that someday has arrived for the beginning of my exploration of what’s in my neighborhood. I decided to begin the story this morning before I begin grading papers, a sure way to lose the ability to think and write in my own language. But I need to sign off now to begin that task before tomorrow’s class.
Duluth (edited screenshot)
To be continued…
Of course, if you’re curious to find out more about the tower before I have a chance to write again, you can explore the links I have posted below.
Life is full of surprises. If we’re lucky, it takes us to places we never imagined. As a child, I was curious about the world around me, although I don’t ever remember hearing the word “research” until I was in college. When I did, it was often, but not always, in the context of incredibly boring classes that required me to memorize formulas, the assumptions of the Central Limit Theorem, and the differences among various types of variables that are subjected to research studies and analyses (independent, dependent, control, discrete, interval, nominal, ordinal, etc.).
I never saw myself as a teacher then, let alone as a teacher of research. Yet, I have been so at both the graduate and undergraduate levels in colleges and universities periodically for the past 20 years. I realized it could be exciting for me, and sometimes, for students. I think I have gotten better over the years at figuring how to make it both interesting and relevant.
During the past few years, I have had a chance to develop and continue refining a new experiential approach that focused on a crucial issue, the link between access to potable water and community health. The small, diverse cohorts of students I worked with each semester have done exciting work. The cohort last semester was especially notable. Their work has real-life implications for addressing health and crucial environmental issues on a local level.
I’ve tweaked the class a little for the semester that began last Saturday. The even smaller diverse cohort I met with seemed excited to learn, unlike the first cohorts at the beginning of past semesters. Access to potable water has gained increasing attention, highlighting its significance as an issue that is particularly relevant for all of us, and especially for vulnerable populations.
It’s likely, though, that this may be the last time the research course is delivered this way over two semesters. It may well fall victim to the quest for standardization and economic efficiency. Few people think of research as a core foundation for future work, and, from my perspective, for life in general. Like me, their prior experiences in courses on the topic may have been something they merely survived to earn a degree.
But research is important. The word “research,” both a noun and a verb, involves paying attention to the world around us, as well as exploring our own ways of perceiving and making sense of what we see.
“Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)
My perspective of research and teaching has rarely fit within “mainstream” approaches. That’s not surprising to me. My parents were from very different cultures, although both came from economically disadvantaged roots. They taught me to see the world from two cultural perspectives – Ojibwe and working-class Anglo-American. It inspired me to continue to observe and critically reflect about those different ways of seeing throughout my educational journey and professional career.
What I discovered are profound differences on many levels which directly affect how one approaches education. I learned what feels most comfortable as both a learner and educator. The table below is a simplistic but heuristically helpful way to illustrate those differences.
Source: Starnes, 2006, p. 389
These differences point out an indispensable first step when developing any course or curriculum. Ultimately, we first need to answer a central question. What is the purpose of education? Is to mold docile citizens who can memorize and regurgitate answers on fill-in-the-blank tests? Who can perform robot-like jobs without ever questioning authority? Or is education’s purpose encouraging observant presence, curiosity, and critical thinking skills? Providing an understanding of broad historical dynamics and tools that have proven effective for building inclusive, healthy communities? For equipping students with methods for thinking about and exploring creative ways for responding to an array of complex crises we face globally?
Six years ago, my colleagues and I answered that question with the second choice. We began discussing how to implement an alternative – an integrated model of teaching and learning. We created links in content across courses and experimented with collaborative course delivery. The research class was especially challenging.
Students in their junior year had variable levels of the foundational knowledge and skills needed to succeed within one semester. Many had never read a research article or learned how to find scholarly resources, and few had written academic papers. We experimented with a groups’ approach for assignments to reduce the workload. That proved unsuccessful for a number of reasons, so we decided to try a different approach.
We split the course in half and spread it over two semesters. The first semester allows students to learn basic knowledge and skills, and the second provides an opportunity for them to apply what they learned. The course still requires hard work, but it proved to be effective for the majority of students pre-Covid. The COVID transition year (2020) necessitated moving to a remote delivery model that was especially difficult for Native American students. The creation of a new assignment and small group approach that meet via Zoom helped build a supportive network that enabled those who participated to successfully complete the course. Because the new assignment proved so successful, it was integrated into courses for the following years.
We were able to fly beneath the radar for years because our site serves a unique population of students. But the current colonial corporate agenda is one of increasingly repressive measures in education (and governance). That agenda places our flexible, experiential approach in the limelight and threatens its survival. Our site, located within a tribal and community college, is not like the other campus satellite sites which serve different populations. There seems to be little acknowledgement or interest in considering the importance of culture and context in curriculum delivery, especially by national higher learning accrediting bodies and those who don’t have the will, skill, and/or courage to risk challenging them.
I honestly believe that each voice from the margins matters. This post is the beginning of the journey which may signal the end of my formal teaching career. It is my belief that children are born curious.
My grandson at age 2
Some continue to hold on to a sense of wonder, curiosity, connection, and gratitude in their adolescence.
My granddaughter at age 14
The approaches we use in education can help support those gifts or extinguish them. Even in college years, my experiences have shown me that the remnants of curiosity and wonder remain and can be rekindled. But it takes intention, patience, flexibility, and dedicated work to do so in ways that are interesting, relevant, liberatory, and effective.
I hope the decision the college makes regarding the future of education takes into consideration how important these gifts are for our collective survival and well-being on the “pale blue dot” planet we all share (Sagan, 1994/2014).
Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller (eds.). Doing Qualitative Research., (2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc., 1999.
Carl Sagan (1994/2014). Pale blue dot. Random House. /Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot OFFICIAL, aired on Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. Cosmos Studios, Inc.
Bobby Ann Starnes (2006). What we don’t know can hurt them: White teachers, Indian children. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (5), 384-392.