Let’s start with the $5 word in the title of this post: “post-Westphalian.” Westphalian thinking refers to the notion that each nation-state has sovereignty over everything that happens within its borders. The term comes from the Peace of Westphalia, ending religious wars in Europe in the 17th century. It tends to show up with political scientists and philosophers, as well as people who work in immigration and citizenship questions. It also, apparently, shows up on awkward dates with Harvard mathematicians, but that’s a story for another time.
Eddie Izzard is an Emmy-award-winning British transgender comedian. They (I am selecting the gender-neutral pronounthey, as I don’t know how Izzard identifies) came into my world in the 1990s with Dressed to Killand really impressed me with their incisive, irreverent, playful retelling of historical events, religious homilies, and current social norms that just don’t make sense. Silly characters and anthropomorphism abound, all seeming to spring directly out of Izzard’s nerdy, brilliant subconscious. One of my favorite bits is the infamous “Star Wars Canteen” routine (excerpted here), where Izzard plays the roles of Darth Vader and an employee on the Death Star:
IZZARD: There must have been a Death Star Canteen yeah? There must have been a cafeteria downstairs, in between battles, where Darth Vader could just chill and go down:
[Darth Vader] I will have the penne a la arrabiata.
[Cafeteria worker] You’ll need a tray.
[DV] Do you know who I am?
[CW] Do know who I am?
[DV] This is not a game of who the f**k are you. For I am Vader. Darth Vader. Lord Vader. I can kill you with a single thought.
[CW] Well, you’ll still need a tray.
[DV] No, I will not need a tray. I do not need a tray to kill you. I can kill you without a tray, with the power of the Force, which is strong within me. Even though I could kill you with a tray if I so wished. For I would hack at your neck with the thin bit until the blood flowed across the canteen floor––
[CW] No, the food is hot, you’ll need a tray to put the food on.
[DV] [pause] Oh, I see, the food is hot! I’m sorry, I did not realize. Ha, ha, ha. Oh, a tray for the–yes. I thought you were challenging me to a fight to the death.
[CW] A fight to the death? This is canteen, I work here…
And on it goes. Here’s the full clip.
Izzard recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and spoke about what comedy is in the 21st century. They and Colbert spoke about the powerful force of comedy to connect us to our humanity, to create good will and love among strangers and across borders. Izzard spoke of their touring and doing standup in four languages:
Comedy exists all around the world. Sense of humor is human, and not national. That’s the interesting thing. Because people say, “Ah, the French have this, and the Germans don’t have this,” it’s not true, it’s actually all around the world.
Izzard goes on to describe their choice of internationally meaningful topic – human sacrifice – and then continues on with the interview (here).
Am I suggesting that comedy can topple nation-states and erase the historically reinforced boundaries between them? No. I’m saying simply that the impulse to laugh is, like language, deeply human, even if we have different ways of experiencing it. It’s nice to find something that we all share as a species, in a time of division, especially between Us and Them, when Them often ends up being groups of immigrants, people of color, and trans and queer people. In painful, disorienting times, could this shared something be better than a few belly laughs about our own all-too-serious and often absurd reality?
It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.
We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.
A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.
What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.
By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058
Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.
Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284
Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.
Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.
I was invited by Left Voice to publish a version of a speech I gave yesterday at the Graduate Center’s rally for better compensation and conditions for adjunct professors (like myself) who struggle with precarious labor conditions yet comprise the majority of labor in higher education across the country. The link to the story, entitled “Our educational ecology,” is here. My main point: Exhausted adjuncts directly influence the experiences of their own students, some of whom (like mine) work in public schools as New York City Teaching Fellows…which means our work together influences the education of our city’s kids. If this isn’t enough reason to review the unstable and stressful conditions under which we and other adjuncts work across the country work, I don’t know what is.
Today I and my classmates at the Grad Center are joining forces with students from NYU and Columbia in a Walkout to protest the Republican text bill, which will tax tuition waivers and reduce our already small incomes as graduate assistants and teaching fellows. (For those of you who don’t know, adjunct professors like myself comprise over 50% of the country’s faculty, meaning that many college students today work with us.) My own grad students at City and Hunter Colleges, New York Teaching Fellows who study full-time while supporting NYC public schools, are in a similar situation. They will likewise see their incomes reduced by these cuts, painful for people many of whom are supporting families. All of this is taking place to ensure that money flows into the pockets of corporations, while the national deficit is poised to increase by over a trillion dollars.
Education is one of the central tenets of a democracy in which people contribute ideas and work together to make a better and more equitable society. This is an attack on our communities of scholarship, but also on our communities of working people with aspirations for their children to make a good life. Our institutions of higher learning stand to lose thousands of already struggling graduate students who simply cannot afford to stay and imposes a greater burden on those who do, compelling us to borrow more money to survive while working long hours as adjuncts and contributors to scholarship.
Today we marched in Union Square to protest this inhuman attack on our institutions of higher ed. We work very hard to serve our universities and our communities. It is time to stand together and fight for the rights of all students to a good education and become educated citizens in a country who must not forget us.
Like some of my other posts, I decided to leave this post title without a clarifying subheading. It refers to a suggestion made by Brad Heckman, an educator and specialist in conflict resolution with a background in international peacemaking who now leads an organization that provides conflict mediation training for police working in urban communities. Heckman gave a TEDTalk in 2013 in which he talked about how mindfulness can support healthy, inquiry-based approaches for resolving conflicts. The presentation is impressive, not least because it incorporates Heckman’s art work featuring caricatures of F. Scott Fitzgerald (in a bathtub, with rubber duckies), Nikita Khruschev (chatting on the phone), and actor Peter Falk (in the role of Columbo, a detective show which ran from the early 1970s for over three decades).
By Margie Korshak Associates-publicity agency-Falk was appearing at an awards dinner in Chicago. – eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20745073
The last one might seem a bit inscrutable at first, but the character refers to a key component of Heckman’s approach to mediation. He uses the trench coat-clad character of Columbo, who would “play dumb to catch the crooks” to suggest a posture of inquiry, of uncertainty, in approaching conflict resolution, which he encapsulates in the phrase “dare to be dumb.” Heckman reminds us that in cases where we don’t know the back story, let alone the full emotional content of a situation, we “don’t know what we think we know about parties in conflict.” Considering Heckman’s success in his work, it’s a positive provocation that invites a mindful, thoughtful response.
I love this. The phrase “dare to be dumb” particularly stuck with me because I think it expresses something I try to commit to in my teaching and hope to engender in my upcoming research about the experiences and contributions of adult immigrants in nonprofit education. My study will take an un-knowing posture, as I collaborate with students as co-researchers, experts, designers, writers, and contributors, on how they experience nonprofit education and how it might be different. I’ll be mostly “dumb” in two ways, letting my expertise be only one voice of many in our research circle, and acting as a listener and documenter of the voices and visions of the adult immigrants who agree to be my co-researchers.
This drives at the core of my work and what I hope is a rising change in educational scholarship. I’m increasingly unsatisfied with prefabricated teaching approaches or theory that rests on U.S.-centric, top-down thinking and past successes. What do our students have to say, in their own words? How do our research designs, our ways of teaching, speak for our students or research participants instead of with them? It is indeed daring to be dumb to relinquish power, to let go of expertise, authority, control. With this release, however, deterministic outcomes can be challenged. More new possibilities can emerge. More voices and visions for educational practice and scholarship can emerge.
Thanks, Heckman and Columbo, for that inspiration. Putting on my trench coat now.
Is love an emotion or an act? I recently asked this in a student working group where we discuss topics including whether men have a right to contribute to the shaping of public discourse about sexual harassment (appropriate as the #MeToo movement has emerged to inspire and to generate new questions) and how community college students can engage as agentive, conscious scholars even as they are frequently overlooked in discussions about higher ed (see here and here). The question came from a brief paper I’d read by Beth Ferholt, a professor at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, in which she reviewed a book in 2015 about Bakhtinian concepts (who I’ll admit I reference quite liberally) as they frame early childhood education in ambitious and creative new ways. Concepts like polyphony (the presence of multiple voices in a social context or even within an individual), authoring (the notion that each person is responsible for, and contributes to, their future-in-the-making), and answerability (an ethical claim that all people are responsible for their actions in our unique, “once occurrent being” in the world) all appear, and it’s nice to see philosophical approaches to education pave the way for new thinking. Love, according to the author, has an aesthetic (unifying) proposition in dialogic pedagogy, e.g., it is an act of lovingly being with another as this other learns.
So again, is love an emotion or an act? When I posed this question, a great starting point emerged when someone asked, “is this an either/or? Could it be both?” I wondered post facto whether it could even be a project, rather than a single experience. Intriguing and evocative for educational thinking.
This idea emerged back into my consciousness a few days ago when I read an article in Truth-out about a racially motivated and anti-immigrant attack that took place in Boston in May 2016. Characterized as a hate crime, two White men beat a Latino man with a metal bar and urinated on him. They were on record as making the following comment:
Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.
When asked about the attack, the response from President Trump was as follows:
People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.
A flashbulb went off in my head. I wondered: Can a love for one thing – one’s definition of country, for example, or one’s membership in a social group (which often overlap) – generate the predicate of hatred, even almost in a circular, self-sustaining way? Can this kind of love fall be an example of what Bakhtin meant? Is it possible to separate out the circumstances from the events, to challenge the inevitability of a cause-and-effect perspective in which a feeling of love and an act of hate can co-occur and, according to a White nationalist perspective, be raised to a higher value on some strange terms? To play demon’s advocate, this attack might have been less hateful in the assailants’ eyes and more a loving defense of their vision of home, country, and the way of life they see – however, myopically (sorry, my left-y side snuck in there) – is slipping away.
Piero della Francesca, Cupid Blindfolded — detail, c.1460, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo
Is this love? Is it love-as-act? It is also rancor, and it evokes violence as well as a dehumanization of the individual upon whom the violence was enacted. Can one make such judgment calls outside of politics? I would say yes, of course…but I wonder that these two criminals might not, however perversely it may sound, agree with me.
I love to vote. Some people find the process tedious, full of long lines and old-fashioned procedures involving paper and bubble-filling, but I love going to my local school, finding my council and assembly district, signing my name in exchange for the ballot in its huge long sleeve, and heading over to the area where I make my choices as a citizen. Not only do I get to participate in civic life in an active, direct way, I also get to say hello to neighbors I never otherwise would have met.
In a bizarre twist, I ran into my choice for mayor in person on the Upper West Side only three hours later.
It was definitely a what-are-the-odds type of situation and reminded me that being a New Yorker, for all of its stress and expense, also means being on the streets, on the subway, in shops and parks together. Lots of people hovered around De Blasio, a few hollered obscenities, but most just looked on peacefully as the incumbent shook hands and engaged in last-minute connection with the public.
As a professor, I work with public school teachers who are in the process of becoming certified to teach in the New York City Department of Education in a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. These new teachers support students from all over the world, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, emergent bilinguals (meaning people who are developing multilingual competences and literacies for a world that, they are told, will value these unique abilities when they enter the workforce), Black and Brown, and generally, within a single classroom, quite diverse. The important task of working with these young people puts my teachers into all kinds of schools and programs across the city, some in the neighborhoods where they grew up, and when we meet on a weekly basis, I hear great – and sometimes hard – stories about their experiences.
Some tell me they struggle with a demanding schedule, rushing from one teaching block to another with little time for a bite of lunch. Many have classrooms filled to the brim with students, working, for example, with 30 or 40 second-graders with wide-ranging individual needs requiring differentiation, personnel, and resources that the teacher often cannot provide. Others work in places like transfer schools which serve students who are struggling to graduate before the age of 21, when they age out of the system, because they have different language and academic needs and backgrounds than their more advantaged counterparts in other parts of the country. There are disciplinary issues, academic challenges, programmatic limitations, and a host of other struggles that these teachers face on a daily basis as they enter their classrooms and hit the ground running with “Miss!” “Miss!” called from the back of the room in the morning.
These classrooms are microcosms for the broader sociopolitical context of the United States and the city. For example, several of the teachers in my classes have received an influx of Puerto Rican students whose families have emigrated from the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria this summer. Others work with large numbers of lower-income students (the term “free lunch” appears in such conversations) who make up a sizable portion of the New York City public school population. One of biggest challenges is the policy environment we’re working in, known as the high-stakes testing era, where student test scores can help define how much funding a school gets, what teachers are retained or receive tenure, and even how teachers teach their classes. Both causes and effects of inequality and injustice at municipal, state-wide, and broader levels, the victims are students often essentialized according to their race or immigrant identity and consequently blamed for the deficits in their “performance” (a term I put in quotes because so often in our social context we are primarily concerned with test scores, rather than with growth and development, which pits students against each other in the race for scant academic and economic resources).
Underlying most of these difficulties that tax our new teachers and demand their time – weekends, early mornings, evenings included – and health is the fact that the public school system has been perceived by our leaders as a bigger and bigger problem needing resolution, and, paradoxically, a place where less and less funding should go. Betsy Devos, current U.S. Secretary of Education, has been proposing since Summer 2017 a 9 billion dollar cut to public education while singing the praises of school choice, the blanket term used for the implementation of school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools across the country. Devos has suffered an embattled tenure thus far in office, for good reason. She is a huge proponent of privatization of education in this country, which she and her family directly benefit from, while showing little real understanding of the schools and their inhabitants, the teachers and students who engage in teaching and learning there every day. Devos’s perspective is critiqued as characteristically a policy maker’s one, with a dark twist: a belief that free-market thinking and business models, which emphasize streamlining, accountability, competition, and cost reduction above all else, will “cure” our schools of their problems. Charter schools represent such thinking because they ostensibly take the burden of education off the backs of tax payers and allow private entities to do better what our schools have not been able to.
However, I have never, ever heard one of my teachers say, “We should close my school and send our students to a charter school.” They have never said, “Someone with money from outside the community could do this better than we could. We’re just waiting for them to come in on their expensive white horse to help us out.”
The problems our schools face are rooted in an issue that our government and much of the United States public are gravely mistaken about. We blame our schools for being ineffective, for not keeping us in the international game as economic competitors and leaders, for listening to teacher unions who, we say, slow down the important process of getting rid of bad teachers and replacing them with good ones. All of these points have some truth to address. But we do not give our schools enough money to solve their own problems. We don’t trust our teachers, who have over time been demonized by “bad teacher” scare stories in the press. Sucking the funding out of public schools, through policies that cut this funding, and put it into the hands of private enterprise that starts charter schools – which, incidentally, can be nonprofit or for-profit – while popular over the last few years, is much to blame. And policy makers who support this approach have failed in their promises that such an approach, paired with privatization, will save our schools. Cited in public debate as a savioristic option for youth of color in cities who struggle through the public education system, charter schools as a symbol of this corporate and philanthro-baron takeover in education have fallen far short.
Read “There Is No ‘Progressive Case’ for Charter Schools” in Truth-out for a thorough discussion of this issue. While some of my colleagues will disagree with me and cite their own schools as examples of charter school success, the pars pro toto argument cannot and does not apply across the board, though it provides an easy out for policymakers who face pressure to cut taxes. To avoid the much bigger, more complex, interrelationship of racism and capitalistic profit – where prejudice against Black and Brown and immigrant communities and the mad search for profit by the elites and corporations that influence political leaders to depict our schools as needing a business approach to “correct their missteps” go hand in hand – is to see schools as sick patients, rather than as groups of individuals already working together in and committed to their communities. My teachers see this, and suffer from the effects of social myopia that refuse them the resources, policy, and social support that they need to help our country’s youth engage with all of the possibilities of the future ahead of them. I fear that in a generation’s time, the problems we cite today will pale in comparison to the loss of creativity, diverse thinking, and responsibility to our fellow community members that is becoming normalized as we demonize “low-performing” schools and scapegoat our teachers for the starvation diet, on ideological and economic terms, we’ve put them on.
The Graduate Center library and first-floor hallways have spaces for exhibitions of art by artists with a variety of commitments and visions, some of which are beautiful, raw, terrifying, playful, and sometimes – in my favorite cases – all of the above. Below I’ve collected a group of images of zines which explore topics of race, queer ways of being, misogyny and women’s rights to self-determination, and other topics. Their images and stories are inventive, joyful, colorful, and saturated with the real commitments of their makers. An inspiration for all of us to author ourselves in authoring our worlds!
Yesterday I was walking in my neighborhood along a path that includes a beautiful cemetery with winding paths and lovely bent old trees. A cheerful orange-and-black clad woman greeted me from her seat at a welcome table as I walked up to the gates. “What’s happening today?” I asked, as kids in Spiderman and gorilla costumes milled around beyond the entrance. She grinned widely and replied that this was Trunk or Treat, an event for Halloween that families participate in across the country.
Why am I posting about this, when I write about education, democracy, social justice, and other topics more directly related to my PhD and my work in community? Because my previous post, “Time Enough at Last: screens and the elusive book,” brought up the way our google-eyed preoccupation with screens in public spaces can replace basic human activities, like reading, making small talk, or just gazing around and taking things in. Because I guess I’m wondering about humanity at a moment when it is being questioned by political uncertainty, social anxiety, and the widespread and pervasive influence of technology on our lives and our ways of seeing ourselves and each other.
The Trunk or Treat I visited yesterday heartened me, reminding me that we have choices, we have community, we have beautiful and silly customs that bring us together. Sure, accuse me of nostalgia, of being a Luddite, but don’t overlook the fact that my restlessness (and hopefulness) stems from an itching for human contact in spontaneous, unmonitored, unfettered ways that feels like it’s becoming rare.