Monday, January 8, 2018

The Glaring Whiteness of Hope

Stop asking for hope.

This morning I listened to Krista Tippett interview Ta-Nahesi Coates for her podcast, On Being.  I normally do love this podcast as an uplifting alternative to my other favorite podcast with a strikingly similar, preposition-centric name, On Point.  Ironically, I listen to On Being to get out of the despair cycle that listening to news prompts for me.



Krista, I love you, but you white-centered the hell out of that interview, and could not resist asking Coates, who claimed over and over that he wasn't there to give white people directions, much less hope, for directions for white people, and hope for white people.  I was scratching my ears out.

In this historical moment, a lot of white people like me are freaking out, because of Trump, because of climate change, because of various and sundry forms of oppression that some of us are just waking up to, and we're looking to those who have been living in that oppression for "hope." I confess, I have been one of those white people.  But I have quickly learned that this demand is cruel, obnoxious, and ignorant.

Why do we keep asking oppressed peoples for signs of "hope"?  Because it assures us that the status quo isn't that bad, that the suffering isn't so awful as to be hopeless, and that we can just keep on keeping on.  If someone who has suffered so much can still feel hope, then we don't have to worry about our complicity in further suffering.

It's a dangerous argument to make, I know. I'm not saying that people who have suffered a lot shouldn't feel hope, or that their hope further justifies their oppressor.  I am not suggesting this at all. But I would like people like myself, and perhaps Krista Tippett, to look inside our white selves a bit more to figure out what others' hope is really doing for us.  Why do we feel we need evidence of it so badly?  Hope is not inherently a bad or a white thing.  I have lots of time for hope in other contexts.  I'm just focusing here on this particular thing that I've observed since Trump's ascendance, when a lot of people like me had the wool removed from their eyes, and all of a sudden really, really, really needed a hit of hope.

At the end of the interview, Krista shared some questions from the audience.  One question was from a set of school teachers who wanted to know something like "How can we maintain hope with our students when we're all suffering so much?"  It's a question that seems to get asked more and more of all kinds of speakers, teachers, pundits, politicians, activists...  No matter what the content of the presentation, no matter the expertise of the speaker, "wherefore hope?" seems the audience's main concern.

It's what I'm asked, too, and if you've read any of this blog, you know that the question of "hope" is of great interest to me.  But I'm profoundly ambivalent about it.  "On the one hand, on the other," is usually how I answer this question when I speak about the role of "hope" in teaching college students about the future of environmental justice.  

Two reasons I am particularly balking at hope after listening to Krista talk with Ta-Nahesi:

1. Why should the people who've been most oppressed also be burdened with the work of giving white people hope?  Coates responded to that question with this: "I reject the premise of the question." Right on. Amen. Fuck that question.

This new desire for "hope" smacks of the privilege of never having to find it before, the privilege of breathing, eating, and sleeping hope all your life, like I have.

Also, if audiences can't find hope in the content that the presenter is offering, the expertise of the presenter, the thoughts the presenter shares and the model they offer, then woe on them.  The presenter is showing hope by what they do, what they're saying, the work they do.  If we can't put two and two together, if we can't develop our own capacity for figuring out where to find hope, if we're looking to other people to tell us where to find it, we're ill-equipped to be hopeful. We're doomed to our own passiveness, our own lack of imagination, our own consumer-mentality that we can just order it online and just, poof!, have hope.

Hope isn't in a mantra or a beautiful turn of phrase.  It isn't in a person or set of people. Hope is a hard practice.  It's not even the end-game.

2.  Which brings me to the second irksome thing about the way hope was discussed in that podcast-- as if hope were the holy grail of inspiration from Coates or anybody else for that matter.   Coates has so much brilliance to offer-- about beauty, about sadness, about the craft of writing, about negotiating white-centering interviewers and audiences-- but Krista couldn't help but end on hope and how white audiences have received Coates.  Hope isn't the end game, Coates insisted on multiple occasions.

That it kept becoming the end-game was exemplary of the white-centering interviewer techniques that Coates discussed earlier in the podcast, when he said it wasn't his job to help white people "catch up" to his content.  Sadly, the audiences of this podcast missed a lot of his content because the interviewer centered hope in a particularly white way.  Which isn't to say that hope is white; I'm just saying that there is a newfound market in hope coming from white people looking to people who've suffered for their solace.

White people who have enjoyed hopeful lives for the most part (like me) need to learn better how to dwell in negative emotions, rather than seek relief so quickly and superficially.  Coates called it the "haunting" feelings that he wants to evoke in his craft.  Take this beautiful moment when he showed, not just told, Krista that he wasn't going to let her extract hope from him: she asked Coates about joy, and he refused her desire for saccharin, and answered by describing how to evoke sadness in the written word.  I wondered if she would push him on joy--"but you didn't answer my question"--but she let his answer be, to her credit, since, after all, it was his answer to her question about joy.  I think she took his point.

Coates' answer to the teachers' question about hope was that he was never expecting his own teachers to give him hope.  He wanted "enlightenment", "understanding," and "exposure" to help him understand what he was observing and experiencing in his own life.  He described acquiring these tools as "freedom"; surely, freedom is the end-game, not hope.  Hope is a kind of trap, as many people much smarter than I am have described, and which I write about elsewhere.

Since when do we demand hope from our teachers, our mentors, our parents, from anybody for that matter?

What does it say about our own privilege when we myopically focus on "hope" everywhere we go, with everyone we speak to?

What do we miss when our fetish for hope blocks out all the other rich, beautiful, sad, poignant, complex reality in front of us? That's where the real lessons are.  Is our desire for hope blinding us from the work, from the feelings, from the relations, that will actually get us through this time?

I want to dwell in some negative affects, but just not those offered by listening to idiots in the news, so I'm going to keep listening to On Being, despite these critiques, which of course I'm bigging up to make my point.

To end on an up-note, for my dear reader's sake, I'll say I'm grateful for the new insights this particular show gave me about the gagging reflex I've been getting when I'm asked about hope.


Friday, January 5, 2018

"The Beautiful Environmentalist: On the Real Food Movement and the Disciplined Body," by Madi Whaley

The following essay is a guest post by a brilliant student of mine, who I keep pestering to publish.  She agreed to let me post this essay as a start.  Enjoy!



The rhetoric of the “real food movement,” or “alternative food movement,” as termed by Julie Guthman, touts consumer food choices as beautiful, meaningful acts of food systems change, linking environmental ethics and healthy eating (Guthman, 2011).  Through this rhetoric, the mainstream real food movement creates a feminine-bodied archetypical beautiful environmentalist defined by lifestyle and image: environmentally conscious, healthy, and conventionally attractive. This archetype ultimately reinforces the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as termed by bell hooks (hooks, 1981). This research contextualizes the archetype within a larger socio-political framework of environmentalism and analyzes the dominant narrative of the real food movement. In turn, it explores the archetype’s dangerous ramifications for the individual’s perceptions of, and actions toward, their bodies, as well as ramifications for cultural perceptions of people whose bodies are not included in this archetype. Furthermore, I offer my subjective experience with this phenomenon to actualize the potential danger in this narrative. Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and governmentality, and the adapted concept of ecogovernmentality, serve as a framework to explain the relationship between the discursive tactics of the real food movement and the creation of self-disciplined environmental subjects (Foucault, 1978). Finally, I will discuss strategies for resistance to the patriarchal body ideals espoused by the beautiful environmentalist archetype, ultimately advocating for transformative food systems change with roots in community rather than in consumerism.
To understand how the real food movement creates this beautiful environmentalist archetype, we must first understand the dominant narratives, rhetoric, and cultural images produced by the real food movement. The real food movement is characterized by a focus on eating locally produced organic “wholefoods,” or unprocessed foods. The real food movement emphasizes the individual consumer’s choice, all the while directing individuals toward a specific realm of purchasing food that fits the healthy, organic, wholefoods criteria. Various aspects of culture shape the narrative of the real food movement. Michael Pollan has been instrumental in shaping this narrative and the beautiful environmentalist archetype. His well-read book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, contains language emblematic of the real food movement:
‘Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world - and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. (2006)
Here, Pollan suggests that the individual’s consumption choice is more than a personal matter: it is a vehicle for radical social change. The body becomes a political agent. Those who “choose” to eat local, organic, wholefoods “eat with a fuller consciousness.” They are the enlightened, ethical environmentalists, and we should all aspire to be so good.  This contrasts with those who “choose” to eat food produced industrially, who are “eating in ignorance.” These people, Pollan implicates, are the unprincipled, the ignorant. Certainly, such traits are not ones well-respected in society.
            Pollan’s insistence on consumer behavior as an indicator of consciousness and enlightenment reinforces two related aspects of the dominant narrative. One of these is the fallacy of consumer activism: the idea that individual consumption habits are responsible for whether or not we transform industrial agriculture. The other is the moral high ground established for those who purchase real food. In her book Weighing In, Julie Guthman criticizes elitism in the real food movement. For example, she writes:
By exalting a set of food choices, the alternative-food movement tends to give rise to a missionary impulse, so those who are attracted to this food and movement want to spread the gospel. Seeing their food choices as signs of heightened ethicality, they see social change as making people become like them. This gives far too much power to those who happen to be privileged (and thin) to define the parameters of food system change. (2011).
Indeed, as Guthman explains throughout the book, people of color and lower-income are far less likely to have access to organic produce, to have the time to prepare their meals from scratch. Furthermore, as Sarah Wald explains in Visible Farmers, Invisible Workers, this perpetuates a neoliberal cycle of food production, wherein those consuming the food are made to feel morally righteous, healthy, and beautiful in their consumption meanwhile those producing “real” food (at least as far as large-scale organic food production is concerned) face low wages, unsavory working conditions, and are largely denied access to the food. Together, these pieces of the dominant narrative contribute to a culture of guilt and shame around food purchasing for those who may not have the access, the finances, or the “self-discipline” to purchase real foods, and inhibit our ability to put the power of food production in the hands of workers and communities.


At the same time, the real food movement packages this sense of morality with patriarchal beauty ideals, which are enhanced by social media and food blogging sites. For example, a popular plant-based food blog, “Oh She Glows,” features recipes to help you “glow from the inside out.” Radiance, vibrancy, light: these are components of the real food movement’s lifestyle. They work in tandem with the ethical notions of purity, wholesomeness, and the natural. In her book, The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wulf explains that light has a strong historical association with divinity, radiance, and beauty. Conceptions of divinity, or purity, and radiance, or beauty, reinforce one another. Here, I argue that the beauty myth is getting packaged in a new form: going “green,” consuming “real” food makes one beautiful both in mind and body.
I argue that, albeit unwittingly, these discursive tactics reinforce the white supremacist patriarchy. Since, as scholars such as Guthman, Wald, and Van Jones note, “real” food is less accessible to people of color and low-income, one must ask whether this archetype allows for people of color and low-income to be considered beautiful. The archetype is certainly white-bodied, even though most “alternative food” is grown by migrant farmworkers. Furthermore, the real food movement’s conflation of authenticity, naturalness, purity, and beauty perpetuates patriarchy in a broad sense, through creating a new standard of female beauty and reinforcing the problematic conflation of femininity and naturalness. It perpetuates the cultural treatment of fat people as “ecological others,” as Sarah Ray would say. For environmentalists of varying positionalities, purchasing only “real” food may seem obligatory, especially with threats of climate change looming. The real food movement’s promise of agency and beauty add to this pressure. This is a cognitive and emotional pressure for those who experience it, but it manifests physically. We literally embody the narrative of the real food movement; the very compositions of our bodies are altered based on the “real” food we feel compelled to consume.
As such, real food movement discourse can be seen as an eerily literal form of biopower, a concept explored by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Biopower is characterized by “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations,” largely through discursive tactics that lead to self-discipline in the interest of the State (Foucault, 1976). Political ecologists and environmental humanities scholars have adapted Foucauldian concepts of biopower and governmentality to explain the ways in which the State and its auxiliaries exercise social control and control over the body to create “good ecological subjects.” Rather than offer structural or collective solutions such as small-scale worker-owned cooperative farms, the onus is placed on the individual consumer, who is expected to behave with moral discipline. In Discipline & Punishment, Foucault explains that such discipline creates “docile bodies,” easily transformed, yielding themselves to such mechanisms of power. Via the rhetoric of the real food movement, we are told that the good ecological subjects – those that are morally pure – improve their bodies, as they consume only the purest of foods: local, organic, wholefoods. Selectively disseminating knowledge, providing a set of principles by which the beautiful environmentalist archetype would eat, the real food movement creates an illusion of truth, autonomy, and freedom of choice for environmentalists with access to “real” food (Agarwal, 2005).
For example, ecogovernmentality is rampant at mainstream environmentalists’ grocer of choice, Whole Foods Market, which upholds the real food movement’s mantra of the conscious and beautiful consumer choice. The Whole Foods website hosts a page titled, “Healthy Eating: How to Eat Healthy Your Way.” This is followed with guides titled: “How to Eat Healthy on a Budget,” “What to Eat,” “How-to’s,” “Cooking and Shopping Tips,” “Family and Special Diets.” Whole Foods, ever so gracious, provides us with the necessary guides to healthy eating. They’re the experts, and they’re here to help us. We can take the information they provide and fine-tune it to meet our needs. Whole Foods’ rhetorical contribution to the real food movement perpetuates the beautiful environmentalist archetype, and provides consumers with the food they need to reach this ideal. Indeed, Whole Foods’ profits are hinged upon consumer anxieties and desires to feel healthy, beautiful, and morally righteous. Meanwhile, our individual consumption choices, and the increased pressure we feel regarding food choices do not result in the transformative food systems change that we need.
The Foucauldian framework also allows me to understand my own internalization of the real food movement narratives in a socio-political context. My experience also serves to illustrate the great potential for harm from this narrative. Having struggled with an eating disorder in high school, I sought recovery by ensuring that the food I ate was as “real” as possible, believing that it would improve my relationship with food, as an avenue for activism.
When grocery shopping or preparing meals, thoughts fired off so quickly in my mind that I sometimes thought it would overheat. Overwhelmed with the inescapable reality that almost every product I looked at somehow contributed to ecological, social, and personal health problems, my mind would fall into a swirl of panic over the choices at hand. Sometimes I would leave without food altogether, deciding that it was better to go hungry altogether than to make the wrong decision. And despite my great hunger and anxiety, this seemed perfectly justified based on the narrative I had been fed. To disappear, to become smaller, was to be beautiful. For I had consumed less resources, I had disciplined myself, given myself to some bigger issues. This was my reality: I wanted to save the world, and I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be that good, wholesome, beautiful environmentalist whose image was burned into my head by the rhetoric of the real food movement.
            But how do I make this real for you, my reader? This struggle seems so silly, so trivial, I’m sure. It may be incomprehensible, may seem preposterous that someone could internalize the rhetoric of the real food movement to such an extreme degree. And perhaps it seems quite a privileged kind of worry. Indeed, perhaps it is a luxury to fret over which produce I should buy rather than whether or not I can buy food at all. But the anxiety is real and it is horrible, I swear to you. It has consumed my mind and physically altered my body.
 In fact, various studies document the historical congruence between asceticism, with its goals of purity and freedom, and anorectic behavior, as well as the tendency among people with eating disorders to turn toward veganism or vegetarianism as a way to feel strong and righteous, while continuing rigid eating habits (Herzog, 2011) (Crisp, et al. 1986). For example, anthrozoologist Hal Herzog recalls a conversation with a young girl recovering from an eating disorder, who was attracted to veganism because of its “righteousness.” The phenomena they describe are consistent with my own experience regarding consuming “real” foods.  “Ecogovernmentality,” “self-discipline,” “rigidity,” and “orthorexia,” – these are the terms that describe the times when I go to the grocery store and feel my body start to shake, to feel a lump swell up in my throat, rendered unable to act. They describe my compulsion toward growing smaller, toward being pure and wholesome.
I do not mean to suggest that the rhetoric of the real food movement is wholly responsible for an epidemic of eating disorders. A variety of other cultural narratives, social situations, and interpersonal relationships influence our relationships with our perceptions of our own morality, our bodies, and our health. However, my experience exemplifies the severe reactions that a multitude of people can have to disempowering narratives.
To be clear: I firmly believe that we need to radically change our food systems. I want all people have access to healthy food. I want us to produce food in ecologically resilient manners. I want us as communities, as democratic social bodies, to have control over that production, to decide what we eat. I do not, however, believe that we can reach such change using the patriarchal and capitalist consumption-based narrative of the mainstream real food movement, where corporate control still reigns and farmworkers are still exploited, where farming practices are still unsound, and where women are shamed. We must focus our energy toward transformative food systems change, building networks of sustainable, community-centered food production. The beautiful environmentalist archetype has no purpose here. Indeed, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains, we cannot even create an ecologically sound world if our movement is focused on valuing that which is “natural” and “beautiful,” as if the two are mutually constitutive.
Many people can – and are – resisting this problematic rhetoric and constructing a more radically transformative food movement. Grassroots food systems change work is popping up all over the country, and the world. In fact, our abilities to mobilize on this front may be greater than ever before.
I believe that dismantling the oppressive structures in our own minds is a form of resistance. We must unlearn the problematic narratives we are subjected to, and create new stories for ourselves as individuals and as a society: stories that allow for us to be undisciplined, messy, dirty, impure; but full, happy, and healthy by our own standards. In my larger project, I discuss psychologist Michael White’s “deconstruction as therapy” to provide a framework for this change in thought. Perhaps we can see body positivity movements in ecological terms. We need to create our own narratives and our own cultures that are respectful of individual minds, bodies, and differences, as well as communities’ agency to produce their own sustenance.
Ultimately, the “real food” movement’s rhetoric certainly creates an archetypical beautiful environmentalist. The dominant narrative of the real food movement reinforces systems of power and privilege in society by tying morality to privileged consumption choices. It denies the transformative change required for our food systems, and by virtue of access and representation, excludes many people from the scope of beauty and environmentalism. Furthermore, it upholds patriarchal beauty ideals that are harmful to women at-large. Transformative food systems change truly addresses the issues that real food movement rhetoric caters to, without any need for shame regarding food consumption, without the need for white supremacist patriarchal beauty ideals.
The fate of the world is not resting in your stomach, and beauty is not predicated on likeness to the image, or essence, of the beautiful environmentalist. I have learned that you can eat the cookies if you want them, break bread with your community, and use the energy from all that good food to build community-oriented, ecologically resilient food systems.

Works Cited
Catalina Zamora, M.L., et al. “Orthorexia nervosa. A new eating behavior disorder?” Actas Esp Psiquiatr, vol. 33, no. 1, 2005, pp. 66-68.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Éditions Gallimard, 1976.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 3. Éditions Gallimard, 1988.
Guthman, Julie. Weighing In. University of California Press, 2011.
“Healthy Eating: How to Eat Healthy Your Way.” Whole Foods Market, 2016, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/healthy-eating
McNay, Lois. “The Foucauldian Body and the Exclusion of Experience.” Hypatia, vol. 6, no. 3, 1991, pp. 125-139.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Press, 2006.
Ray, Sarah Jaquette. “How Many Mothers Does it Take to Change all the Light Bulbs?” Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, pp. 81-101.
Statenstein, Liana. “Why You Might Want to Head to Eastern Europe for Your Next Cleanse.” Vogue, 2016.
Van Dooren, Thom. “Care: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 5, 2014, pp. 291-294.
White, Michael. “Deconstruction and Therapy.” Dulwich Centre Newsletter. No. 3, 1991.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Harper Perennial, 2002.

Wright, Laura. The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Can R-1s Do Better to Prepare PhDs for Teaching Jobs?

I'm in the process of hiring a tenure-line faculty for the program I lead at a teaching institution.

When I was getting a PhD at an Research-1 institution (R1), I was trained to think of my research profile as the most important quality I could offer an employer, and was even discouraged from getting accolades as a good teacher, as it might detract from my profile as a serious researcher.

I think my institution thought they would lose some face if they produced anything but the "best" scholars, scholars who would ideally obtain positions at other R1s.  And I think they thought there would be no harm in us having a dossier that was "good enough" for an R1, because teaching schools would gratefully pick up the dregs of us that didn't hit the mark of the R1 holy grail job.

I have obtained two tenure-track positions at teaching institutions since I graduated in 2009, and find I am profoundly disappointed by the way I was conditioned to think about the value of an R1, the value of the scholar, and the value of teaching undergraduates.  But it's not just about undergrads and the glory of teaching; it's about the current state of American cultural politics, anti-intellectualism, and the value of higher ed to a functioning democracy.

Since I've been at teaching institutions, I have thought a lot about what my PhD institution failed to train me for, though, in full disclosure, I loved my time at grad school and I loved my advisors.

As I review dozens of applications for a teaching job, many from R1s (because PhDs are mostly at R1s), I am struck by a prevailing inability of these scholars to articulate, much less imagine, how their very refined, specialized area of study might ignite student interest and success.

If, for example, you study some obscure event that happened in 1982 in a galaxy far far away, on a speck of dirt on some planet, it's not inherently exciting in itself, even though you have convinced yourself that it is.

An R1 says "hey, that's really, really unique, and its uniqueness is enough for us. You're contributing something really new, and we know it's really new because we know everything about this field."

A teaching institution says "how will this translate in the classroom?"  If an application for a tenure-line job at a teaching institution fails to SHOW the answer to this question really clearly, then the candidate has been poorly trained for the job market.

And in case it needs saying, most jobs these days are at teaching institutions, not R1s.




I confess that I was fortunate; my heavy-duty R1 degree was enough to land me a tenure-track job.  For the second round, four years later, I really have no idea how I landed yet another tenure-line job, other than the publication of my dissertation as a book made me look serious.  Nowadays, this wouldn't be enough for a teaching job.  A narrowly-focused book that makes a unique contribution to a narrow field is just not very valuable to a teaching institution. And why would it be?

Nowadays, an application that makes a person's obscure research or creative life come alive in the classroom will blow the competition out of the water.

If a person's research or creative life is inherently accessible to students --such as having to do with stuff college students are already thinking about, even just a little-- even better.  Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you need to tailor your research agenda to the whims of iGen. Quite the contrary; that's horrific. Don't do that.

I'm saying that R1s could do a better job training their graduates to frame their work in ways that is accessible, not just to hiring committees across the land, but to undergrads (who will be their main audience henceforth, much to the chagrin of the R1s), and also to (gasp!) the public.

The assumption that audiences will do the hard work we need to do to understand and value our research is just arrogant. Academia has been doing this successfully for a long time.  At a public institution like where I teach, the sham is up.

What counts as valuable research here-- the kind of research that gets you tenure-- is not what you think it is.  It's collaborative (with students, with community members, with others outside academia), it's radical (challenges dominant knowledge claims), it's about new forms of knowledge production (like, students bring knowledge and aren't just there to receive it), etc....  If you publish articles along these lines, we love you!  Being a superstar, solo scholar in some obscure area just doesn't work always.  But if this DOES describe you, how fun would it be if you could figure out a way to make students think your work is awesome, and make them want to do similar work?  Evidence that you can bridge research and teaching in these ways really blows our minds.

Which brings me to the subtle point I was making earlier about the current state of this democracy and anti-intellectualism.  Could R1s make their candidates' more attractive to teaching institutions? YES, and let me count the ways.*  Could they also make the research they produce more meaningful to the public?  YES.

And by doing so, could they engage in a much broader mutual, reciprocal form of knowledge co-production with people outside the academy?

We can only hope.

PhD students, ask more from your advisors and programs.

This historical moment demands more from us than to reproduce ourselves and narrow our audiences.
We would really like you to make your work exciting and accessible to us, to undergrads, and to non-specialists.   This might be a good thing for, oh, democracy, and, oh, America.

If your current advisors aren't telling you this, ask them to. Get a group of grad students together to think more about this.  Resist the temptation to deem yourself too awesome for a teaching job.

Consider the challenge I lay out here as a call for you to make your work meaningful in the world, useful in breaking down the shitty divisions in society, and dispelling the notion that the life of the mind is frivolous.

Just because we teach a lot here doesn't mean we don't value the life of the mind.  We're just way, way more accountable to showing others that the life of the mind is valuable.




*ways you can make your application more fitting for a teaching institution:


  1. In your teaching statement, avoid the "deficit model" approach to diversity.
  2. In your cover letter, SHOW, don't just tell, how much you love teaching.
  3. Wherever you discuss teaching, don't just cite theorists about how important student-centered teaching is; tell us how you make your research interesting to students.
  4. Don't just wax on about how much you love teaching. Loving teaching can kill you, and we want somebody who can survive a lifetime of teaching.  Saying that you have an "open-door" policy, for example, smacks of privilege.  Cultural taxation for faculty of color (and women faculty) is a major issue; how do you protect yourself? How do you leverage your teaching to support your other loves? Give us something more than just "teaching will save the world."
  5. Don't tell us that your way of doing student-centered teaching is to use the Socratic method and conduct discussion.  And for the love of the goddess, don't say that you mostly use lecture, and that you bring a variety of media into the classroom, such as videos and Power Point slides.  That doesn't say "student-centered"; that says "lazy."
  6. You're better off including challenges or critiques of your teaching that you've tried to overcome than quotes from students who love you.
  7. If you really want to be at an R1, but you're just desperate for a job, don't apply for this job.
  8. If #7 applies to you, and you manage to get to a campus interview, don't whine about whether we'll give you enough resources to do your ever-so-important research.  This will chafe on us like nobody's business.  Try to imagine that we all feel the same way about our research, and that just because we're at a teaching institution doesn't mean our research is worthless.

In sum, SHOW, don't tell why you belong here. And make your research applicable to college students in some way.







Thursday, November 30, 2017

Burnout, Part 1

So much of the teaching part of my job turns out to be about getting students into a positive psychological headspace.  Just attending class is often a struggle.  And I'm not even talking about their hunger, homelessness, or various other forms of vulnerability. It's real, folks, for them. So don't get me wrong; I'm not annoyed by THEM; a bunch of things are failing them, and here's what it looks like. On my cynical days, I confess, I wish I could just plug-n-play the most relevant mantra for their issue, and assure them that I've heard it all before, and to just get on with it as best they can. No need to conjure up the whole song-and-dance about it; I, too, have to move on to other duties.

The problem isn't them. It's that I'm burning out. Mustering up the energy to lovingly guide students from their excuses and the crazy myths they have about college has made me decide it'd be cathartic to write a "shit students say" list.  I am fully aware that there are just as many idiotic excuses that I make as a professor and academic, so I list these in full acknowledgment that a) it's not always their fault, for sure, and b) the stuff coming out of my own mouth is often just as ridiculous.

Apologies for the cynical undertones in what follows. Rest assured that I truly believe that the kids are awesome. They give me hope in the future, and I do cry almost every time I think about how honored I feel to have this job. My students' beautiful souls make all the other crap worth it.

But again, I'm burning out. It's not them, it's me. Or rather, it's the systems that leverage too much love out of faculty and too much debt and doubt out of students. Fuck those systems!

If you're a student of mine and you ever said any of these things to me, I promise I love you. I said many of these things too, when I was a student.  Once, on the last day of my Chinese Literature and Thought class, I played frisbee on the grass--outside the very classroom I was supposed to be in!-- because it was sunny, and I figured it was within the philosophy of Taoism to follow one's bliss rather than do work.  I told the professor I was "following the 'way'."

For another class on Buddhism, I wrote a 2-page final paper about how I couldn't write the required 7-10 pages about the topic because it would be against Buddhist teachings to try to understand it through reasoned writing.

I've done it all too, so I'm not on my high horse here. But as a result of hearing all these excuses so many times, I have come up with some mantra I find myself saying multiple times a day in response to these things students say to me, which I also list, below.

First, however, I hope you enjoy some of these doozies, which, again, I list here as a form of catharsis for myself, not as a criticism of my students:

Shit Students Say, Bless Their Beautiful Souls

1. "Professor, do you have a stapler?  Is it OK if I just fold over the corners?"
Read: I need permission every time I forget to keep my pieces of paper from separating from each other, and want your reassurance that it's not annoying to have to keep them all together as you grade my work.

2.  "Can we talk?  Can I close the door?"
Read: I'm about to unload some heavy shit.  This will take at least an hour.

3.  "Wait, so, everything I learned in high school was wrong?"
Read: I had no idea that K-12 education was a hoax. Is all education a hoax? What am I doing here?

4.  "Why doesn't your syllabus state that, by the end of the course, the planet will be saved, the 2016 election reversed, and that you're available for one-on-one hour-long sessions of existential crisis therapy?"
Read: I can't figure out how to take the gift of critical tools where I find them.

5.  "Professor, you work too hard. You should relax more."
Read: give more time to one-on-one hour-long therapy sessions, but do less of the other ridiculous stuff your job requires.  Also, being a professor must really suck.

6.  "I didn't want to submit an assignment that doesn't reflect my best work, so can I have an extension?"
Read: I didn't prioritize doing the work, but I want you to think it's because I care TOO much.

7.  "Why can't you teach me how to overturn capitalism in 15 weeks?"
Read: What good is this class in the world?

8.  "Why don't your classes solve more problems directly, with like, direct action and real-world, immediate change?"
Read: I have swallowed the anti-intellectual pill and don't think that learning how to think is valuable to real change.

9.  "Can I leave class early?  I have a thing I have to do."
Read: I'm special. All the other students who stay in class the whole time aren't as important as I am, and the things you have planned for my time here are not important to me.

10.  "This material is really depressing.  I can't come to class because the material you're teaching me is causing me anxiety."
Read: I thought I was supposed to only do things that make me happy.  Why are you asking me to be unhappy?

11.  "You mean, the world didn't begin the day I was born?"
Read: As an Anglo-American, I have no history. I'm told to believe that I'm the center of the universe, rather than a moment within a long arc of time.  I don't believe there's anything worthwhile to learn from anybody who's lived longer than I have, or who came before me.

12.  "You look tired."
Read: If I make you feel insecure, you'll go easy on me.  OR, depending on the context: I really care about you as a human being.

13.  "I can't write this paper because I don't know what I think."
Read: Tell me what to think.  And then write the paper for me.

14.  "I am lost. I can't do that thing you're asking of me. Pump my ego up by telling me that I'm great, and tell me what I think and what I should do."
Read: Imposter syndrome.

15.  "Nothing any scholar has ever said has any relevance to me.  Scholarship is created by academia, which is bought out by capitalism, so the only worthwhile thoughts in the world are the ones in my head right now, and maybe the thoughts in my favorite singer's head."
Read: I've swallowed the anti-intellectual pill and don't want to spend the time it would take to read all those articles and books.

16.  "Sorry I was absent. What did I miss?"
Read: I want you to think I care about what I've missed.

17.  "I don't have the rough draft done, so I won't be in class for the peer review."
Read: I procrastinated and am embarrassed that I don't have much to show.

18.  "Could we meet sometime to talk about this amazing idea I have?"
Read: I think the job of a professor is to wait for each individual student to have an amazing idea and to carry it through to its conclusion with them.

19.  "Needing to write a clear sentence is a form of oppression, so no, I will not fix all these fragments and run-ons, or choose precise words that say what I really mean, or get rid of all the "really"s and "very"s and "totally"s." 
Read: I'm too lazy to care about it.

20.  "I need to drop out of college because I need to do something more radical."
Read: You have nothing to teach me. Hanging out here is a waste of my time.

My Mantras/Responses:

Get that Shit Done.

Just Write.

It's in the Syllabus.

Sure, whatever you need to do.

Fake It 'Til You Make It.

Get that Shit Done.

You Got This.

Just showing up is 90% of the battle.

Get that Shit Done.

Did I mention, JUST GET THAT SHIT DONE.










Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Where is Decolonization in Environmental Justice?: Jaskiran Dhillon's Critique

I learned about the work of brilliant activist-scholar, Jaskiran Dhillon, at the Human Rights symposium in St. Louis October 11-12, 2017, the subject of my last blog post.  Dhillon is an assistant professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at the New School, and is from a tiny town in Treaty Six Cree Territory, Saskatchewan.   Raised by politicized parents, she quickly became involved in decolonial activism, and does this work across the globe, particularly in Canada and Burma and, recently, in solidarity with Standing Rock.  Author of Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention, Dhillon gave a plenary talk at the Human Rights symposium that developed an anti-colonial critique of environmental justice. 

A couple of random highlights:

·      Voicing a position I have a hard time conveying to my environmentalist students, Dhillon is suspicious of the new craze to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into Climate Change science and policy.  She reminded me that TEK is not a knowledge “resource,” as the language in the documents of federal agencies describes it, but rather an action word—it’s something that people do, not know.  The language of TEK as “resource” sets up TEK to be yet another thing to colonize for the purposes of settler-culture’s desire to adapt and survive climate change.  The “discovery” of the value of TEK on the heels of centuries of assimilation and oppression attests to the fact that settler culture only cares about indigenous ways when it suits their own agendas.  The potential for abuses of TEK and the communities that embody it—in the name of dominant white cultures battling or surviving climate change, while indigenous communities continue to bear the brunt of extraction politics—are high.  Dhillon asks, “whose interests are served when TEK is extracted in service of climate recovery?”, and says the problem is that the appropriation of TEK to protect “all of us” is not linked to the broader goals of indigenous sovereignty or dismantling settler colonialism.

·      Environmental justice (EJ) isn’t a useful term for indigenous movements, in part because it identifies the first race-based environmental abuses in the 1970s, with Love Canal and as documented by Robert Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie.  The origin story of EJ in the US ties it to the Civil Rights movement, whereas indigenous communities have been experiencing race-based environmental exploitation “since 1492.”  Also, for indigenous communities, colonization is above all an act of environmental violence. If we historicize the 1970s as the birth of EJ, we yet again erase indigenous history in the U.S. Alternatively, maybe EJ is just something else—not just a way to describe links between racial injustice and environmental degradation.  I think Dhillon might argue that settler colonialism’s own forms of environmental degradation ought to be described as its own thing. But it’s still really helpful for her to have pointed out the need for a more specific, precise definition of EJ so that colonialism isn’t ignored, yet again, and so that we can understand the nuances between different forms of racial injustice and their often quite different relationships to environmental degradation.  Another way of approaching it, she says, is to consider decolonization as a foundation to EJ.

·      Dhillon also made the brilliant point that climate change and settler colonialism are linked.  This may feel like a “no-duh” insight to those who study or live TEK, but this insight is really important as a follow-up to the above point: dominant environmental discourse often posits that industrialization (e.g. Leo Marx, Al Gore) or capitalism (e.g. Naomi Klein) are the root causes of climate change.  An anti-colonial critique of this narrative points out that colonialism paved the way for these later developments, and that ongoing colonial relationships enable these other phenomena to thrive.  Overthrowing capitalism or getting post-fossil-fuel won’t address the root problem.  Dhillon says that blaming capitalism is “a red herring.”  As such, a person can be fighting for fixing climate change and also be very much against indigenous sovereignty.  To take it further, I would add that this is precisely the kind of internal contradiction within the mainstream environmental movement that often assumes its “saving” of the planet will lead to social justice. 

·      Dhillon also writes about, but did not develop so much in the talk due to time limits, the links between NODAPL and police state violence, indigenous education policies, “man camps”, sex trafficking, and myriad other forms of cultural, physical, and sexual violence.   As she says, “NODAPL isn’t about a pipeline; it’s a fight for the co-existence of life.”

In the Q&A, Dhillon received a final question from an older white woman, who asked, voice quivering and nearly on the edge of tears: “I love my house.” Long pause.  “What are we supposed to do?”

I just about combusted in my seat, and wondered how Jaskiran would handle this.  She was a master class in difficult dialogue.  I wish I could relay precisely what she said, but basically, she firmly but calmly said, “that’s not my problem.  Find resources about how to work through your white guilt, find friends going through the same thing, and figure it out.  Start to see all the privileges you inherited so that you could have your house; this work is hard.”  She was firm about not coddling the white woman’s newfound epiphany of her complicity in colonialism, but did not punish her for asking the question.  I asked Jaskiran what she thought of that exchange, and I was really impressed that she welcomed the question and commended the woman for saying what so many people think, but fear saying.  


I’m still mulling over all that happened at that conference, but certainly Dhillon’s talk and her Q&A taught me so much about the messiness of the relationships between the climate movement and decolonization, and between EJ and indigenous rights.