Refusing to despair: Constructive action in the midst of overwhelm

In an age drowning in gratitude slogans on the one side and cynical knowingness on the other, many of us are struggling to find our voices when it comes to optimism, hope, and the sheer necessity to carry on. As our national catastrophe continues to blossom like blood in a swimming pool, we are called upon repeatedly to turn and face it — for the sake of ourselves, our students, and our world — in ways that are constructive and authentic. It’s a challenge that has many of us rethinking our usual commitments to realism, positive thinking, and social responsibility.

And so I have joined those who insist that despair is not an option, though some have been troubled by this directive. One annoyed Virtual Pedagogue reader wrote to me explaining that, when it comes to depression, “one cannot simply choose to be happy.” I know about depression, but she helped me clarify that the sort of despair I have in mind is mainly of the political and ethical variety, rather than one’s individual, affective life. And if we conflate our individual emotional reactions with the political and ethical responses we choose to enact, then we may well be doomed. So many of us, after all, whether clinically depressed or not, are teetering on the edge of emotional overwhelm.

But isn’t it cheap, unconvincing and dishonest to present a social face that is anything other than an accurate reflection of my private, individual feelings? If I am a bundle of hopeless misery, then doesn’t authenticity require me to move and respond from that place? In a world that has paved over individuals’ feelings of sadness, anger, and grief, especially those of women and people of color, recovering the ability to name and express such emotions is undeniably powerful. And individual feelings bravely shared have, of course, helped foment social change.

But this is obviously only part of the story, and we are no better off fetishizing individual feelings — as if they were sacred and infallible—than we are squelching them. The simple fact that I feel something, even over a long period of time, does not mean that that is the Truth of the situation, or even that it is the fullest picture of my truth. An overemphasis on individual experience, then, especially one suggesting that such feelings are somehow beyond my own cognitive scrutiny, makes slogans like “refuse to despair” sound invasive and false.

But refusing to choose the road of despair is not the same as choosing to be cheerful or to be inattentive to one’s own emotions. I can have many quite unhappy times as an individual but still remain firmly committed to constructive action. I can also choose whether to share my individual feelings so as to encourage isolation or to build connections that help galvanize social resolve. Refusing political despair, as I see it, means refusing to commit to a path of quietistic, narcissistic sadness to whatever degree I am able. And while some aspects of our individual emotional lives may well be beyond our control, for many of us, it is perhaps not so much as we sometimes imagine. Our quite appropriate respect for mental health challenges — our own and those of others — shouldn’t obscure the (sometimes small) ways we can cultivate socially and politically constructive emotional responses.

I recognize the power and integrity of emotions — I love that we are biological and affective creatures — but I think we also have a responsibility to do what we can to shape and influence our own emotional responses, especially habitual ones, to misfortunate and difficulty. We are, after all, social creatures who, like antelope in a herd, respond to and rely on cues from one another. I may hole up from time to time to wail and weep, then, but, even so, I will continue to insist that despair is not an option. Not now. Not ever.

Hard-luck students and the professors who save them

It’s often in the earliest days of the semester that students share some of their greatest tales of woe with professors. Some want to add an already full class and so labor to persuade us of their dire plight. Others, pre-worried about their grades, aim to sock away some sympathy credit for a rainy day. I’ve always found such personal revelations — coming, as they do, from relative strangers — to be jarring. This is, perhaps, partly because I am not inclined to share so quickly, even when it may be in my practical self-interest to do so. But I also think this all-too-common practice of individual student pleading, and ad hoc professorial granting reinforces an unhealthy dynamic.

I appreciate and love that my students are whole people. They’ve got jobs, families and endearing quirks, as well as bad memories, financial trouble, and, often, mental health diagnoses. Perhaps it is not even accurate to identify them as students. They are, rather, richly textured individuals who have temporarily taken on this student role for complicated reasons unique to them. Partly because institutions’ one-size-fits all prescriptions and policies don’t address particularity very well, the power of dispensation and indulgence often falls on instructors and front-line staff colleagues. We surely must, then, take seriously the personal experiences of our students. But how can we do it in a way that routinely avoids the pitfalls of ad hoc favoritism? And how can we keep from being condescending, and ultimately undermining to the very students we seek to help?

For example, in a recent introductory level class, I assigned three small paperbacks to supplement material available online, which, all together, cost about twenty dollars. And, as is typical, I was approached by a student with a list of heart-tugging reasons why she couldn’t afford college text books. I reminded her that there were electronic copies of two of them available through the library and made sure she knew how to access the library website. She left unhappy, though, because, as she explained, “most of my other professors just loan me a copy.” I didn’t want to be insensitive to her life challenges — I have no reason to doubt her account of personal hardship — but nor did I want to support this, for me, increasingly icky, shadow economy in which students with the extroversion and eloquence to share experiences of suffering exchange it for textbooks and other favors.

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This common practice of professors hearing and then reacting to individual students’ accounts of suffering reinforces precisely the very hierarchical power relation that many of us claim we want to challenge. It also risks letting our institutions off the hook at the very moment they should be bending over backwards to address the structural inequities that impact students’ lives. When I feel compelled to pick and choose students to whom I will grant special favors, I am “being responsive” — so far so good — but I am also singling them out for special treatment. This is not at all what compassionate instructors intend when they provide extra advantages — extra time, extra credit, free books, etc. — to a vocally hard luck student. But it seems to be only the students with the wherewithal and skill to recount their personal tribulations (to a virtual stranger, mind you) who receive such favors. It’s a bargain that strikes me as, well, a little creepy, as if instructors are rewarding students for performances of suffering.

With this in mind, I guess I still think the best plan is to focus on providing advance structure to our courses (and our universities) that makes reasonable room for the reality of human suffering and serendipity without routinely resorting to practices that are arbitrary and personal. This is, of course, a goal of offices such as disability services. If we really want to help, we must actively seek structural, systematic solutions to the structural, systematic problems that unfairly limit our students’ lives as individuals. With respect to the textbook example, we can, when possible, assign books with lower prices, put copies on library reserve, petition for lower prices from publishers, and advocate for a university-wide fund to assist needy students.

As so many professors now do, we can, when possible, build in extra time for assignments for all students to avoid having to make a special dispensation in response to a particular personal tragedy. Other mundane practices, such as having students drop their lowest quiz grades, also show respect for the fickle exigencies of everyday life. But given the ubiquity of such pedagogical flexibility these days, instructors may need to explicitly explain to students that these are, effectively, advance accommodations. We need to help sensitize students to the fact that these measures are meant to attend to their individual needs, but in a way that preserves equity.

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Of course, the habit of seeking personal favor and dispensation runs deep so we should not be surprised when students and, perhaps, some colleagues and administrators, resist. Higher education has, quite simply, evolved into an environment in which students have been encouraged to plead and professors have been primed to grant or withhold, often in lieu of the institution meeting its responsibility to address systematic disparities. Perhaps the dirtiest (open) secret is that some instructors enjoy the high of riding in on a white horse to rescue this or that student from the jaws of an otherwise unfeeling, impersonal, elitist institution. Certainly, I know instructors who are proud of being “responsive” to just about any request for dispensation. For them, no “favor” is too great and I get it.

In a university environment in which many professors feel angry and impotent on behalf of both our students and ourselves, it can be satisfying to be the socially conscious, compassionate professor who is “student centered” and pulls strings to advantage those we perceive as disadvantaged. And before professors will be willing to rethink our approach to hard luck students, we will need to tell the truth about this. That being able to ease the pain of individual students feels good, that it’s a rare reminder of our own power and status, regardless of its long-term consequences or viability with respect to our students and universities.

How mindfulness can help you procrastinate more!

As summer ends and deadlines close in, I, like lots of professors, am tempted to twist the basic principles of mindfulness out of shape, to use them not to come into greater contact with reality but as a trick to avoid it. It goes something like this: Though I really do know that it will not be too painful to complete once I get started on it, I push time sensitive work to the bottom of my list again and again. Eventually I come to dread even small tasks. The faux mindfulness dodge — which I’ve indulged in more than once — encourages me to analyze my feelings of aversion, to fan them into full visibility, to take them as seriously as the work itself that is waiting to be done.

IMG_4819But even when I frame my work aversion in high toned psychological or spiritual terms — as “taking my feelings seriously,” or somesuch — it is, at bottom, nothing more than a more palatable procrastination technique. As avoidance techniques go, it sounds more sophisticated than abandoning my work responsibilities in favor of shopping or of scrubbing the grout, but when I am more deeply mindful, when I am more honest, I see that it is the same thing. Forays into genuine mindfulness practices have left me with real tools and techniques to honestly face life, but they have also provided me with some high falutin’, New Age tinted scripts for more complicated forms of procrastination.

At a discussion on campus a while back, an audience member asked the panel to share favorite tools and techniques for completing tasks efficiently. A doctoral student, she was surprised at how consistently her dissertation could slip to the bottom of her priorities. I shared my experience with what I’ve come to think of as The Package, a small box that I had been charged with delivering to the post office some years ago. It sat there day after day, I described, for weeks, taunting me with its unmet need and my own incipient failure. Though my car and legs worked fine, and though I had the six dollars for postage, The Package became my nemesis, and led me both to elaborate self-examination and self-recrimination. My problem was instantly solved, though, I explained, when I invested the seven minutes necessary to get off my ass and mail the damn box.

The graduate student chuckled gamely at my little story and then repeated her request for anti-procrastination tools and techniques. The conversation veered to subjects such as how to better sync calendars and what time to get out of bed each day. It was, I thought, like when I read books about quitting smoking rather than quitting smoking. I used the very tools meant to overcome my addictive bad habit as delay tactics to permit me to continue doing it. Apparently, as reasonable creatures, we humans are also rationalizing creatures, shamelessly willing to put even the most noble spiritual practices into the service of our immediate whims and cravings. Because let’s face it, elaborate calendars and organizing systems have served at least as much to help postpone work as to facilitate it.

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The Uses and Abuses of Ambivalence

As I grow older, I’m better able to accept that living well requires making choices between imperfect alternatives. This more pragmatic orientation also feels more mature — think of a toddler who refuses any treat that falls short of ideal — and it also helps me appreciate how I’ve misused ambivalence in the past. As valuable and unavoidable as some ambivalence is, I now see that some of what I’d attributed to admirable, intellectually honest uncertainty probably had more to do with fear.

Of course there are different kinds of ambivalence and some matter more than others. For example, because I’m merely a coffee addict and not a connoisseur, when offered the choice between light or dark roast, I usually say “whichever’s freshest.” I’ve learned to say this rather than admit I don’t care because a bald expression of ambivalence can paralyze the cafe staff. Because they know and care about coffee, such naked ambivalence must seem irresponsible or disingenuous. “How can you not care?” they must be thinking.

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Ambivalence like this is pretty trivial unless the choice is thought to be expressive or constitutive of one’s identity, i.e., “I’m the kind of person who only wears black.” This is a kind of lifestyle identity politics that’s based on allying oneself with this kind of music, or clothing style, or football team rather than that one. When identity is, implicitly or explicitly, thought to be at issue then too much ambivalence can seem like a wishy-washy abdication of one’s very self.

Before I uneasily embraced online education, I was swirling in ambivalence that I couldn’t fully articulate. I was, in fact, more likely to voice my really substantive (ethical, political, social) misgivings about it than my more mundane concerns. In retrospect, though, I see that my merely practical worries drove my aversion to online teaching at least as much as my deeper misgivings: Would I be overwhelmed by the amount of work? Was I too set in my ways to master the technology? How would I meaningfully connect with students without the crutch of my charismatic schtick?

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My ambivalence about the substantive issues hasn’t really changed: I am still as deeply troubled by how online education enables an increasingly corporatist higher ed even as it provides invaluable access for some students. I still hate that I am contributing to a more impersonal, interchangeably modular, version of education, even as I am proud of my new efforts to engage with students in this flexible, open-ended virtual space.

My ambivalence is genuine and important, and I live with the tension of it as I more or less happily go about my online work. It is a low grade discomfort that informs my choices and practices but which does not disable me. Clearly, I did not need to wait until I had moved past my ambivalence to embrace online teaching, but nor did I need to pretend that those mixed feelings had been resolved. In fact, I think my ethical discomfort is healthy and points to problems within higher ed, a system with failings that, though I am implicated in them, also need to be reckoned with. It would be a disservice to my integrity and to my vocation if I were to paint my criticisms pink and become a mere cheerleader for online education.

On the other hand, I wonder where I would be headed had I remained aloof from online ed out of respect for my supposedly noble ambivalence. I am reminded of a former senior colleague who, in the early days of email, proudly refused to use it. He had all sorts of important, and probably legitimate, gripes: It was too impersonal, too ambiguous, too informal, and so on. But it was evident that his aversion was also rooted in his fear of being unable to master this new game, and being an anti-email crank came to define him. I’ve always hoped that his righteous confidence turned out to be warm company, because as email continued its inexorable march, he became increasingly isolated from his students and colleagues.

“Shut up and teach!” The fear of being too political in the classroom

Taking care not to be “too political” or “too ideological” helps maintain a superficial peace at thanksgiving tables and in classrooms, and is probably a necessary part of sensible social self-regulation. But such self-censorship can also disempower those most vulnerable to political vicissitudes and neuter our teaching effectiveness. Not coincidentally, it is almost a truism that “mere political differences” should not impede friendship, family love, collegiality, or the dispensation of one’s professional duties. And yet it is clear that what is, for some, a matter of life and death urgency, can indeed look like “mere politics” to those who benefit from, or are only distantly impacted by such matters.

The question of how political to get in the classroom is one faced routinely by thoughtful teachers at all levels. To what extent is it our educative and moral responsibility to face critical contemporary issues head on? And when does a teacher’s silence or “neutrality” devolve from being a tool to facilitate respectful, candid discussion to a tacit endorsement of positions that are racist, xenophobic, or just plain nasty? And how often are we tempted to police ourselves, to err on the side of caution, avoiding these “political issues” for fear of being singled out by students or conservative gatekeepers as having ventured into unsuitably ideological territory?

If there has never been a more urgent time for teachers in the U.S. to ask these questions, it is precisely because the normal boundaries of secular democracy have already been beaten into whimpering submission. The distinction between religion and state, vitriol and argument, and truth and falsity, while always fuzzy in U.S. public life, is blurring to a degree that may be unprecedented. And what adds salty insult to injury is that those most shameless about violating such lines, for example, the white supremacist kleptocratic theocracy now steering the ship, are the quickest to cry foul when they sniff out a supposed boundary violation.

It is, then, precisely those who have most enthusiastically injected personal morality into political policy that object most strenuously when others speak in ways that reflect this overlap. That, for example, abortion has been framed in the U.S. in such dramatically political terms, rather than as a personal, medical choice, is a quite deliberate result of conservative extremism. And, of course, once an “issue” has been successfully constructed in such terms, discussion about it is easily interpreted as always already political. Most of the battle has been lost, then, when so much that is basic to our well being, and that of our students — for example, the shape of our families, our ability to access clean water and medicine, our freedom to buy Starbucks coffee or wedding cakes without being harassed or refused — gets labeled “political” by those also committed to policing the bounds of appropriate discourse.

We teachers might, then, want to focus less on whether or not the topics we’re discussing are, in fact, political or ideological, than on the very deliberate, and political strategies according to which these themes have been politicized in the first place. With politicization itself as their most insidiously political tool, conservative extremists can effectively commandeer all classroom discussion. It’s a pretty simple recipe: My “think tank” pours energy and money into anti-choice, anti-gay, or anti-immigrant initiatives, buying politicians and campaign ads, and then censors those who dare disagree with our position on the grounds that these others are inserting politics where it does not belong. Controlling access to the very conversations that might be used to engage with these life and death concerns is a masterful stroke by conservative extremists precisely because it keeps so many moderates and progressives from speaking for fear of fear of being seen as “ideological.”

We progressives want to be tolerant, of course, and this laudable aspiration comes to be used against us by conservative extremists who understand quite well how invested many of us are in our ethical self-concepts. But by implicitly agreeing to honor the lines of tolerance and civility adopted by these extremists — and it is a double standard of the highest order — we effectively tie our own tongues. It isn’t, then, just that we may have both a political and moral duty to discuss critical issues, but that we have an even more basic responsibility to challenge where they have drawn the lines of politics and ideology in the first place. As usual, our easiest choice will usually be to remain silent. And, as usual, such silence will translate into a crescendo of support for conservative extremists who, with practiced, spittle inflected righteousness, will continue to shout at us as they have for years: “Shut up and teach!”

Nostalgia, Fantasy and Telling the Truth

Maybe it goes without saying that the vague sense of longing that most of us experience from time to time is for a home that never really existed. We live with echoes of pleasures and pains from gifts and wounds that we never received, at least not as we remember. It is both poignant and silly — the stuff of tragedy and comedy — that we become so intimately bound to pasts that never were. How much of my own longing and grumpiness about higher ed is based on an idealized past that never really was?

For those who, like me, earned public institution degrees in the 80s and 90s, and have since taught mostly at regional public institutions, the ivy threaded, romantic idea of college life has always been mostly fantasy. While I can actually recall intellectual epiphanies on the grassy quad, and the occasional fire-eyed professor, the bigger picture is more anodyne. There were, for example, buckets of beer, mind-numbing part-time jobs, and more than a few barely-competent teaching assistants. Grad school was an improvement, as was my post-doc at a more elite east coast university, but The Dead Poet’s Society it was not.

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Whatever hallowed illusions about undergrad life I still harbor were born as much from wishful thinking as actual experience. This vague longing I’ve felt, then, this irritating sense of mismatch between my experience of higher ed and what “should be,” is grounded partly in fantasy. And the still larger truth of the falsely rosy picture of higher ed becomes even more obvious after a quick peek at, say, the early days of Harvard Medical School, a grisly, disorganized affair. It turns out that histories of U.S. education are a powerful antidote to the most sentimental fits of nostalgia.

Paradoxically, I find that I’m now best able to resist my tendency to rail against the current state of higher ed when I’m at my most nostalgic. Then I can see that at least some of my resistance — to online teaching, “flipped” classrooms, and the like — reflects my middle-aged crankiness: Students today! Why aren’t they more like we were? The truth, though, is that they are a lot like I was, and in some remarkably annoying and admirable respects. Though I don’t entirely trust online education, nor do I have full confidence in my aversion to it. Of course there are grave problems with higher ed and we may well be in the midst of a genuine crisis, one swirling with questions about its affordability, accessibility, and status as a public good. But this incipient catastrophe is awful enough without our piling on false, sweetly scented memories.

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With this in mind, I try to focus my complaints about higher ed on actual problems and losses, instead of imagined ones. Although this requires an ongoing, ruthless level of self-scrutiny that I’m not entirely capable of, I’m motivated by the fact that the potential rewards extend well beyond higher ed. It is possible, after all, to live the whole of one’s life in worshipful service to bygone pain and resentments. And, of course, the tragedy here has much less to do with the original wound than with one’s dedication to suffering over what are, effectively, mere memories. Obviously not all new opportunities should be embraced, and even the best ones promise disappointment as well as delight. But at least the pain will be honestly earned, the price of actually engaging with contemporary life, rather than making excuses to avoid it in favor of what never was.

Maybe we should just eat the children? When students really, really don’t care

As a professor and scholar of ethics for some decades, I have had more occasion than many to come to terms with the complicated, clumsy, and sometimes repugnant, ways that students relate to moral quandaries. I am not surprised, then, that as our nation continues its ethical free fall, a significant number of white people either support the move to seize and warehouse immigrant children, or are ambivalent about it. At least a few of my students would echo the views of their families, insisting that these refugees should have planned better, followed the rules, or some other sentiment indicating an almost complete lack of empathy or compassion.

Accepting that others sometimes just don’t care is a challenge I first fully recognized as a TA in the early 90’s. A clever student responded to my presentation about genocide with a survival of the fittest argument. From a population standpoint, he cooly explained, such things don’t matter. Even then, I was skillful enough to engage with an entitled eighteen-year-old, but this wasn’t about facts or logical prowess. The fact that he didn’t care forced me to reconsider the value of the philosophical tools with which I’d been entrusted. But after all these years, as I am jarred by the vision of white people rationalizing or shrugging while brown toddlers sob themselves to sleep, my instinct is to focus on reasons why this policy is both foolish and cruel. Part of me forgets, and, yes, wants to forget, that the tools of my trade have no currency in the MAGA universe.

While there surely are failures of critical thinking at play here — these inhuman policies are also demonstrably stupid and short-sighted — reason is almost certainly not the primary vehicle for getting truly apathetic people, including our students, to change their minds. We are, rather, as our nation has always been, confronted with with epic lapses of empathy that are probably explainable only by the deafening static of white rage. There are, of course, proven methods to help develop empathy in classrooms and city halls, and we must employ them, but they are slow fixes, woefully insufficient to help people quickly awaken from mass hysteria. In this protracted moment of national shame, I am reminded that I cannot rely on the methods and sensibility most central to my identity as a professor to push through these clouds of cruelty.

While terrorized children have been wetting themselves under foil “blankets,” I see that I have been wasting precious time as I struggle, yet again, to accept that this is happening, not because of a lone, crazed tyrant, but with many reasonable peoples’ approval and complicity, some of whom, surely, have passed through my classrooms. As both a teacher and a member of the human community, I resist the heartbreaking truth that, sprinkled all around me, more or less intelligent white people, including, surely, acquaintances, friends, family members, and people in line at the post office, are quite pleased with it all. And, of course, my ignorance has been enabled by my own privilege and the fact that few MAGAs are likely to directly share with me their support of these brutal measures. A cloying veneer of polite civility, much of it in the form of silence, has allowed me, and lots of other progressive white people, to remain disingenuously ignorant of the full extent of the racism, sexism, and homophobia all around, including in our classrooms.

Socrates taught that those who do wrong, at some level, just do not know any better. When I had more faith in him, my life was a bit more straightforward. I could try to influence or shape moral perspective by exploring empirical and logical approaches. And, of course, I still believe that some people sometimes are capable of growing morally through intellectual growth, especially young people. I will never abandon this belief. But I can also see that it is willfully naive to imagine that a bigger pile of facts or logical analysis is going to sway those who have lost access to, or never developed, their own basic sense of compassion. Driven by fear and anger cravenly cultivated by conservative extremists, many of them will wear MAGA ball caps on their death beds. Given this reality, my inclination to fall back on reasoned argument is more a reflection of my own comfortable identity — this is what I most know how to do — than about what is actually going to change this situation.

That morality is both simpler and more complex than I imagine is a lesson a wise, beloved teacher tried to teach me in high school. My journalism instructor, Barbara Robinson, had me read “A Modest Proposal,” by Jonathan Swift. As you may recall, Swift satirically argues that the “Irish population problem” might be solved by serving up Irish babies in all sorts of elaborate recipes, from boiling to fricase. Ms. Robinson wasn’t just trying to sharpen my rhetorical skills; she was also helping me mature morally, to understand that I could not assume that others would appreciate or share my ethical sensibility. “Some people thought Swift was serious,” she warned me, “and they thought he had a pretty good plan.” How much time did I really want to spend barking up those trees?

If I cannot fully face the fact that some not insignificant number of people are prepared to eat these brown babies, I cannot really appreciate the size or nature of the job before me. While only a few MAGA Republicans may actually have the courage to wear jackets celebrating their apathy or to go on record ridiculing the cries of traumatized children, the callously apathetic and complicit are all around us. If they were not, then this train could never have left the station. While I will continue to hope that these folks change course — no one can be written off — I will no longer spend time wondering if they care, wishing they cared, or responding point-by-point, even in my head, to their exhausting rationalizations. At some point, the most reasonable, effective tactic may well be to avoid the trap and distraction of elaborately reasoned arguments altogether.