“Teaching” On-Line: A Report From The Front Lines

Midway through week 3. In three words, a roller coaster.

Last night the graduate Sociology of Education seminar was a case study of incompetence. When exiting breakout groups I disconnected everyone from everything so we had to scramble to reconnect. For good measure, I added in some pedagogical incompetence by talking too much. One other student saw my blabbing and raised it, and I didn’t know what to do as his classmates, like dominoes, tuned him out one after another.

After class, I retraced my steps and realized the errors of my ways. And so today I was an online teaching rock star, turning off the waiting room, screen sharing, moving between small groups and large with aplomb. I damn well better win the prestigious “Most Improved Zoomer” award, Boomer Division.

I just unplugged from the First Year writers. I forgot to tell them they could jet after they were done peer editing, so they all returned to “office hours”. And they just wanted to hang out, which was cool. They’re a fun subset of the bad luck Covid Class, those 18-19 year olds who missed their high school graduations and have had to start college with electronic teaching hacks like me.

One of them had hilarious background images repeatedly rotating behind him last session. Today, another student did. How long until I lose complete control?

But their daring to be different provided much need levity. They’re not just funny, but resilient, still in good spirits despite “the invisible enemy which no one could’ve seen coming”. After shooting the breeze a bit, I had to tell them it was 72 degrees outside and sunny for one of the last times in a long time. I pleaded with them to “go outside and toss a frisbee.”

Thursday, we’re meeting in-person for the first time. Glory hallelujah.

This Is How You Start A Personal Essay

“When I entered the job market, in 2017, I was mistaken for a prostitute.”

Carlyn Ferrari in ‘You Need to Leave Now Ma’am’.

“I learned to present a highly curated version of myself. I smiled. I made small talk. I exchanged pleasantries. I suppressed the urge to remind colleagues of my expertise during meetings, knowing that my tone or dissenting opinion would be perceived as angry, intimidating — or worse — insubordinate.

I listened as my first-generation students and students of color cried in my office and talked about how they felt they didn’t belong. Though it broke my heart, I treasured these visits. I had more in common with these students than my colleagues. Like me, they were brought in to “diversify” the campus. They had no support and neither did I. Every time they spoke their truth, I felt like a fraud for hiding mine.”

Do We Really Want More Self-Censorship?

Follow up to yesterday’s graphic which prompted this question from a lefty reader who is also a great daughter not just because she reads and comments on the humble blog.

“Is it bad for people to feel like they can’t say offensive things?”

For me, that begs this question, who gets to decide what’s “offensive”? A majority of your peers, but the First Amendment is explicitly designed to protect minority viewpoints.

Sure, given most people’s instincts for self preservation, publicly shaming anyone with retrograde, anti-social, even hateful opinions will probably get them to censure themselves.

But does that constitute progress? Isn’t it better to know what people honestly think because only then can we begin to deconstruct and challenge the parts that most reasonable people find offensive?

What if forcing those who communicate offensive things causes them to not just shut down, but to double-down on their ideology. Do we want those we find offensive to go “underground”, and in essence, let their retrograde ideas silently fester in their own heads? Won’t that make them more likely to eventually act upon their “offensive” ideas?

I find Louis Brandeis’s axiom convincing, “The light of day is the best disinfectant.”

 

 

I’m More Than My Politics, You’re More Than Your Politics

Political partisanship is intensifying mostly because we surround ourselves with people and tune into news sources that affirm our political philosophies. And so they harden. The technical term is “confirmation bias“. Conservative versus Liberal. Red versus Blue. Believing in American exceptionalism or not.

I’m a little weird in that liberal friends of mine marvel that I regularly engage in political discussions with conservative friends. Relationships are frayed because of political tribalism. Not just casual workplace ones, relationships with neighbors and family members.

One possible solution to this problem is to deemphasize politics by avoiding political topics, to talk about any and everything else, like Taylor Swift’s surprise new album, the weather (cloudy and 61 degrees farenheit in Olympia, WA) or the superiority of the metric system.*

But more kitten videos and fewer Trump ones is not the answer because political discussions are about power and privilege, fairness, and whether we’re going to realize our ideals, topics far too important to delegate to elected officials. Some whites who think they’re especially enlightened say, “I don’t see race, I’m colorblind.” To which most people of color say, “Must be nice, never having to think about the color of your skin, because we have to all the time.” Colorblindess is another form of white privilege.

Attempting to be apolitical is similarly flawed. Ignoring questions of power, privilege, and fairness does not make them go away. So how do we engage in policy discussions with people whose politics are so different than ours? Without losing our minds and jeopardizing our ability to live peacefully with one another?

By treating others the way we want to be treated. There are a boatload of descriptors that I’d like on my tombstone. Husband, father, friend, educator, writer among them.** I do not want to be remembered as a Liberal Democrat. “Remember Ron, yeah, he was an amazing Liberal Democrat. Really consistent on the death penalty. Always right about the social safety net. Impeccable voting record.”

And here’s the key take-away, I’m guessing that’s equally true for my Conservative Republican friends. We can go all in on specific political philosophies without our affiliations dominating our identities. We’re all humans, parents, siblings, friends, citizens, first, second, and third.

Consider a dystopian future, in say 22nd Century (dis)United States, where tombstones in cemeteries lead with deceased people’s political parties. Name, birth year, year of death, Moderate Republican. Name, birth year, year of death, Social Democrat. At times it feels like we’re headed down that path.

Social consciousness necessitates political engagement; but political engagement should not detract from multi-layered, nuanced, constantly evolving identities that begin and end with our common humanity.

*upon further thought, each of which could turn political

**I’m going to be cremated and spread liberally (not conservatively) in nature

 

 

Twelve Years On

Can’t believe it’s been twelve and a half years.

My enthusiasm waxes and wanes. Truth be told, PressingPause has never really gained the traction I had hoped. Probably because I haven’t invested sufficient time and energy into growing the readership. Widely read blogs are authored by people who approach them like full-time work. In contrast, I’m a hobbyist. Just as in life, there are no shortcuts; you get out, what you put in.

And there are other impediments. Most critically, an admitted lack of focus. Bloggers with large readerships fill particular niches. People grow to trust them to be insightful about a specific topic or two, not twenty two.

My longevity is the result of two things. First, a lot of people I care about are readers. Their sporadic referencing of something I’ve written is always encouraging. Also, as a globally-minded citizen, the proportion of international readers is very gratifying.

Reader feedback doesn’t even have to be positive to be motivating, which leads me to a good friend who I greatly appreciate for prodding me lately to write in ways that unite more than divide. By legitimizing more politically conservative points of view.

He contends my writing is too often “divisive” and that I’m a part of the larger problem of a divided nation. That feedback isn’t easy to process, especially since the whole sine qua non of the blog is to help create thriving families, schools, and communities. But I truly appreciate him for actively engaging with my ideas. It’s much better to have readers sometimes say my ideas are divisive or even “batshit crazy” than to never say anything at all.

I tried attending to my friend’s constructive criticism in a recent post titled “Trump’s Triumphs”, to which he might fairly counter, “You’re making my exact point, one measly post.”

Here’s what I struggle with, with respect to my friend’s feedback. As a reader, the writing that resonants the most for me tends to be personal, and authentic to the point of distinctive, by which I mean it’s true to their life experience. I don’t find writers who strive for objectivity by alternating between sides of arguments nearly as compelling as I do writers who are clear, concise, and have the courage of their more conservative or liberal convictions. And yet, as I explained here, I find overly dogmatic, hyper-ideological thinking and writing terribly uninteresting because of its mind numbing predictability.

And maybe that’s exactly what my friend finds most frustrating about me, that I’ve become too predictable. I need to think about that more because I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

When I read my own writing, I conclude that the more moved I am about a topic, the more fired up, or even angry, the better. But what if that’s not the case for my friend. What if he finds my “fire” too one-sided to the point of being off-putting?

This touches on a philosophical conundrum which all artists, not just writers, must resolve. Is art, or writing more specifically, like business where “the customer is always right”? Meaning is the reader always right? Or should the writer follow his or her heart and let the reader response be whatever it is or isn’t going to be?

 

 

Everyone Should Have A Coach And Be A Coach

Michael Lewis, the prolific and highly successful writer, is now also a great podcaster. It’s not really fair, dude has too much talent. His second season of Against the Rules is about the proliferation of coaches in North American life. Lewis tells really interesting stories exceptionally well.* And the focus is not just on athletic coaches. Give him a listen.

His stories have sparked my thinking about coaching, my idiosyncracies, and the nature of schooling.

One of my idosyncracies is that I am coach-resistant, meaning I have gone through life mostly figuring things out myself. Or not figuring them out as it may be. As just one of myriad examples, when The Good Wife wanted to go to marriage counseling, I resisted. For awhile.

Part of it is I’m too frugal for my own good, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I wonder if my reticence is rooted in my parent’s Depression era, Eastern Montana upbringing which resulted in both of them being fiercely independent. My three siblings strike me as similarly coaching adverse. I suspect it’s in my blood.

Which is too bad because I could definitely benefit from some coaching. My golf swing is close. I am the Seattle Mariners of home maintenance. I find tax and estate planning awfully complex. My cooking repertoire is limited. My online teaching skills are nascent. I could go on. And on.

On the plus side of the ledger, I have coaching-like things to offer others interested in catching mice under their house or improving their fitness, finances, relationships**, or writing.

I doubt I’m unique. Couldn’t you benefit from some intentional coaching you currently aren’t receiving and couldn’t you coach others in meaningful aspects of life too?

If all of us would benefit from receiving and providing more coaching, why do we organize schooling as a super short 13 year-long period dominated by groupings that are too large for meaningful coaching to take place?

We could do more than talk about “life-long learning” if we had better ways of finding coaches. Some type of coaching online forum, where you could both find coaches and also connect with others looking for coaching. Moneyless coaching exchanges could even be arranged. You coach me on how to cook and I coach you on how to write your family’s story.

This type of “coaching-based life-long learning” would result in a deepening of community. More simply, less loneliness.

I would make this grass roots coaching “start up” happen, if only I had a start up coach.

* Particularly excellent—the May 12, 2020 episode, “Don’t Be Good—Be Great”.

**since I’ve been to counseling

 

Down Goes Bolton!

If this book review of John Bolton’s tell all was a fight, a ref would’ve stopped it in the early paragraphs.

Early in my academic career, I wrote a lot of book reviews. Overtime, I only agreed to review books that I liked since telling people not to read a particular book didn’t feel like a constructive use of time.

Fortunately, Jennifer Szalai of The New York Times does not share my philosophy.

Her take-down of Bolton is exquisite. Her intro tweet to her review is an appetizer of sort:

Screen Shot 2020-06-18 at 9.44.12 AM

The highlights, or if you’re John Bolton, lowlights:

“The book is bloated with self-importance, even though what it mostly recounts is Bolton not being able to accomplish very much. It toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged.”

Szalai on Bolton’s impeachment dodge:

“‘Had I testified,’ Bolton intones, ‘I am convinced, given the environment then existing because of the House’s impeachment malpractice, that it would have made no significant difference in the Senate outcome.’ It’s a self-righteous and self-serving sort of fatalism that sounds remarkably similar to the explanation he gave years ago for preemptively signing up for the National Guard in 1970 and thereby avoiding service in Vietnam. ‘Dying for your country was one thing,’ he wrote in his 2007 book ‘Surrender Is Not an Option’, ‘but dying to gain territory that antiwar forces in Congress would simply return to the enemy seemed ludicrous to me.'”

The finishing touch:

“When it comes to Bolton’s comments on impeachment, the clotted prose, the garbled argument and the sanctimonious defensiveness would seem to indicate some sort of ambivalence on his part — a feeling that he doesn’t seem to have very often. Or maybe it merely reflects an uncomfortable realization that he’s stuck between two incompatible impulses: the desire to appear as courageous as those civil servants who bravely risked their careers to testify before the House; and the desire to appease his fellow Republicans, on whom his own fastidiously managed career most certainly depends. It’s a strange experience reading a book that begins with repeated salvos about ‘the intellectually lazy’ by an author who refuses to think through anything very hard himself.”

Szalai with the technical knock out.

Trump Puts Nation on Alert for Terrorists Posing as Peaceful Seventy-Five-Year-Olds

Trump is keeping Andy Borowitz busy:

“Trump listed some ‘telltale signs of Antifa,’ in order to help Americans identify septuagenarian terrorists in their midst.

‘If the person appears to be seventy-five or older, with white hair and a peaceful demeanor, call the authorities immediately,’ Trump said.

He warned that Antifa terrorists are infiltrating American society ‘everywhere,’ even on Zoom.

‘If you are on Zoom with your family and an elderly person suddenly appears with a friendly smile, a string of pearls, and the nickname ‘Grandma,’ you have been attacked by Antifa,’ he said.”

 

My Republican Friends Are Right

They tell me life is filled with risks. People die all the time from lots of different things. So why shutdown the economy over a stinkin’ virus.

I didn’t realize their amazing insight until today when I hit the yard HARD. Trimmed trees and bushes. Mowed. Edged. Blowed. Don’t hate me because the place looks so good.

Some of the bushes are twice my height necessitating a ladder. When working on parts of the bushes, I don’t have sufficient space to spread the legs properly so I simply lean the ladder against the bush. “Friends” who sometimes call me Slip because of my propensity to fall while running on ice in the winter, know where this is going. At one point, a bush I was leaning too heavily against gave out and TIMBER! Somehow I survived the fall but not without scaring The Good Wife who came running from the house fretting who she’d get to trim the bushes next year.

A little rain and lasagna later, I was mowing the steep short hill in the backyard overlooking the Salish Sea. Surprise, surprise, I slipped, this time going down faster than a Porsche Taycan. Total yard sale. Somehow, like an elite cowboy, I held on to the mower keeping it from disappearing over the bluff. And even though no one was watching, I immediately bounced up like Marshawn Lynch after a hard tackle.

Fast forward four hours. I thought I was done with dinner, but The Gal Pal requested “one more egg”. Well, of course, but plugging the cord back into the skillet is hard ya’ll. Burned my middle finger. I’d show you a picture, but I respect you too much.

The plan from here is to watch a little t.v., read in the tub, and ever so slowly climb into bed to fight another day. On second thought, the tub requires two big steps, so maybe a shower.

 

 

Pressing Pause

This blog was born out of a desire to step off the treadmill of life long enough to think about meaning and purpose in life.

Since our collective treadmill has been rendered inoperable by the coronavirus, we have an unprecedented opportunity to think more deeply about how to live.

But how do we do that when we’re like sedentary people trying to create exercise routines, how do we start being introspective and reflective, of thinking conceptually about what we want for ourselves, our neighbors, the world? How to reimagine our post-coronavirus lives?

One way is to rethink what’s most important. For example, many people are being more thankful for the non-materialistic joys in their lives, whether that’s a daily walk, deeper appreciation for nature, shared meals with family, or renewed conversations with lapsed friends. Similarly, many people are rethinking their consumer habits, realizing how little most material things adds to their lives. Many, of course, will have to spend less post-pandemic, others will choose to.

And yet, this isn’t such a golden opportunity to press pause or do much of anything for the 90.1% of people who are deeply worried about how they’ll meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. Many, many people can’t get past the most basic of questions, “How will I/we meet our basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, medical care?”

As a member of the New American Aristocracy, I have the luxury of reinvigorating my inner life; meanwhile, hundreds of millions of poor, working class, and middle class people around the world wonder how they’ll feed, house, and cloth themselves without steady work that pays livable wages.

Gideon Litchfield, in an essay titled “Where not going back to normal,” points this out:

“As usual. . . the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.”

He concludes:

“But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

The cynic in me thinks it’s more likely that heightened scarcity—especially of decent jobs—will cause people to be even more self-centered. The negative critiques of globalization add to my skepticism, if not cynicism. The worst case scenario is every person and every country for themselves in an increasingly cutthroat survival of the fittest competition. I hope I’m way off.

If the “New American” or “World Aristocracy” are smart, they’ll realize it’s in their own enlightened self-interest to think about how to assist and empower the “ones who have lost far too much already”. Ultimately, we will all sink or swim together.

In the end, it’s a question of time and perspective. Like any uber-lucky ten-percenter, at age 58, I can “circle my wagons” and save, invest, and spend with only my family and me in mind. I would live very comfortably, but my daughters’ children and their children would inherit an even less hospitable world.

Instead, I intend on taking the long view by focusing less on my comfort and more on the common good, or as stated in the humble blog’s byline, small steps toward thriving families, schools, and communities.