Degrees of Separation: Helping Our Students Find Safe Space for Thinking

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“Can you help me?” she asks. She looks doleful, head tilted to one side. She hints a smile.

It’s work for her, getting out a smile – I can tell.

“What do you need?” I respond and smile for her. “Tell me.”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” she says shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head no. “I wish I knew. I don’t know what I’m doing, I guess. What happens next? I mean: where am I going? Only the kids going to Wall Street seem to know what they’re doing. What about the rest of us? I have no idea.”

Living in extreme compression, as we do in academia—12 to 14 week semesters, which are more like 10 and 12; the ever increasing complexity of disciplines and their idiosyncratic literacies we’re asked to master; the weight of the ongoing mantra: succeed, excel, achieve, be noted, and all this in an affronting socio-economic-political climate where opportunity and resources are shrinking – we all know this, students especially; the added burden of the great cost of a college education, mounting debt—it’s not surprising that students, faculty too, are desperate for safe spaces to explore their place in what we experience as a progressively hostile, indifferent world.

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Walking & Talking: Reflecting with Students

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I want to thank all of the teachers that brought me to the place in which I now find myself.   I want to thank all that have loved me and held me together so that I can do what I do today.  I want to thank you for putting up with me – all of my nonsense.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

I thank you

In giving thanks, I thought about Walking & Talking… and wrote it as a way to give back.

I must acknowledge a distinct pleasure in my life: walking with students across Middlebury’s bucolic campus. Here I am, thinning white hair, not moving as spiritedly as the 18 year olds beside me, two or three students to the left of me, the same to the right, and sometimes one a bit in front of the flock, turning to say something. We part a sea of students in motion—bikes maneuver around us, others with cell phones in hand abruptly realize we’re a single mass and weave and bob by, there’s laughter, students call out to each other. Hey. Hey back. Polite nods at one another as we pass. A predictable stream switching classes.
– See more at: http://communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vila_walking.html#sthash.sgHs1Ddr.dpuf

The Ecology of Teaching

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I did this interview, last summer (2014), for Joe Brooks and The Community Works Institute (CWI).  Great camera work and editing by Michael Hanish, Free Lunch Productions.

On Being: Something Grand and Strong

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I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real—life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted. – Read  more of On Being: Something Grand and Strong @ Community Works Journal

From Getting Lost: Victory and Loss: Solnit’s Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left

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This piece was originally written for Getting Lost, the blog addressing the work of Rebecca Solnit.  I’m placing it here for the readers of the Uncanny.


Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :

There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style. That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Solnit also says:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.

Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.)  Read more …

“The World According to Maxwell Smart” and the Boundary-less Universe

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In his opinion piece, “The World According to Maxwell Smart, Part 1,” Thomas L. Friedman, who is someone I enjoy reading, because I learn, though I don’t necessarily agree with him all the time, says the following:

You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.

The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”

In other words, as I, myself, argued recently in “How Fútbol (not soccer) Explains the World – If Not How it Explains Immigración En EEUU (USA),” we are losing borders – they’re murky at best – and money is not restricted by man-made demarcations, just the opposite is true:

Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction…

 

The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them.

Friedman is interested in showing how complex – and interconnected – our world order (and chaos) really are; that blaming Obama, though there’s plenty to criticize here, fails to see the challenges we face; and, that there are “huge forces acting in these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them,” the promised subject of Friedman’s Wednesday’s column.

In order to emphasize this point – again and again and again – I’ll use two authors I frequently turn to on this subject (sorry, again and again for repeating the always already obvious – that which we turn away from):  Edward W. Said and Homi K. Bhabha, two professors experts on this subject.

Here’s Bhabha, from his now essential The Location of Culture, which I’ve used before in these pages, but needs repeating:

Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism

 

Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of differences and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. 

Friedman’s “figures of difference” are the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS, for instance.  Friedman adds:

NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”

And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.”

In other words, the compression and extensions of globalization are producing frightening figures, great violence and a dispersal of people.  The world is, indeed, borderless; these are simply man-made construction that are continuously being pushed aside.  This, in turn, is producing a world in which many have to live in dehumanizing exile.

Said is best here:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

Said’s first line says it all, defining the world Bhabha so eloquently describes as “tenebrous” because, in fact, it is “on the borderlines.”  Exile, then, is a terrible experience that permanently houses an individual in the “unhealable” space of in-between, between “a human being and a native place, between self and its true home.”

The exiles we create – and we do have a hand in creating exiles, all of us do; responsibility for our world is all of ours – are forever lodged in a suffering place all because we cannot seem to understand that incredible false sense of borders and demarcations we’ve given the Other – those we don’t want to acknowledge, those that are different, and always will be, those that ask us to reconsider our privileged vistas, our biases and prejudices.

Orchard Grass Farm site launch!

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Hello followers of this blog – SOME NEWS.  I’ve launched a new site, Orchard Grass Farm. Here’s what it is:

Welcome to My Third Life – Orchard Grass Farm