Weekend blahs

studyI didn’t finish my paper. I have a forgiving professor who’s giving me an extension. I was able to get a few hours of writing in yesterday, but today I’m in charge of the kid. We had three birthday parties on tap for the weekend, and made it to two. Outdoor summer kid parties are NOT MY BAG. I think I need to start carrying a really embarrassing parasol. I’ve never been a fan of heat or hot sunlight, but with my middle-aging body, extreme heat is just a no go. If I stay in the shade I’m okay for a bit. Texas in the summer is not a great place for me, obviously. Luckily my husband loves the heat, so he and my daughter spend a lot of time at the pool while I hide at home in the air conditioning.

I’m also feeling a bit left out, because I opted not to go to Fielding’s Summer Session, which is one of our twice-a-year conferences. It’s a good place to network with professors, learn about classes they’re offering, and connect with other students and alumni. I went to the winter one in Santa Barbara, which was fun, but exhausting. With teaching, wrapping up a class, and trying to get ready for fall classes, I didn’t feel able to blow town for a week. Plus, we’re taking Lillian to Disneyland in the fall (don’t tell her!) and I wanted to put some resources towards family time.

So this is the time of year when I feel a bit grouchy and shut-in and start daydreaming about sweaters and socks and longing for fall. Maybe it will come before November this year.

 

Healing the Maiden

This isn’t going to be an epically long post, but I do want to expand on it later (I’m procrastinating on a paper for school. Yippee!)

John Legend just reduced me to a puddle of tears:

You may have to click through to YouTube to watch it. Watch it, and then come back and read the rest. You may need a tissue.

Having been steeped in feminist culture for the last couple years, I’m sure there will be a “Who are you to tell us what we need, you person with a penis?” kind of backlash. Don’t really care.

What this video meant to me, and why it made me cry, was because I have a four year old daughter who is so confident, extroverted, and full of spunk, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine her feeling the same kind of insecurity, unworthiness, and self-hatred that I did around my body (and as a women that means my innate value) until my early thirties. I can’t imagine her trying to starve herself into invisibility. I can’t imagine her wanting to hide her body, or plotting to have plastic surgery to change it, or having relationships with abusive, controlling people who make her feel bad about herself. I can come up with lots of reasons why this won’t happen to her, (although all those things happened to me) but I’m wrong.

The question isn’t, “How can I prevent this?”, it’s “How can I prepare her for this?” and “How can I help her get stronger when it happens?” How do I help her strengthen her inner voice, instead of swapping it for the judgement of others? How do I help her remember (or maybe even never forget) that she is always loved, always accepted, and always valued by the people who truly love her, by the part of herself that is connected to God, and by whatever force in the Universe brought her soul into being? My body may have built her body, but her soul is sacred, unique, and absolutely without flaw, regardless of what ANYONE (including me) might make her feel.

It took me a long time to learn who to let into my emotional inner sanctum and who to keep out. I wish I could somehow teach her those lessons without having to watch her go through the pain of internalizing the messages peers and society will give her about how she is not enough, or too much, or most likely both at the same time. This video made me realize that I can’t, and that’s heartbreaking. But I can be there for her when she goes through those moments. Even if she’s 15 and she hates me just for breathing the same air as her, I will be there. When she falls in love with a boy or girl who makes her feel bad about herself, I will be there (possibly with a baseball bat). When she screws up, or makes someone else feel bad because she’s in pain, or hurts my feelings, I will be there.

I will have to let her feel pain, because that is the only way she will grow to not question her worth. But it will be hard, because I love her more than life, and I want her to see how every cell in her body is a miracle, every time she looks in the mirror.

 

Mostly little thoughts today

I’m taking a break from the War on Women for a few days because a) It’s terrifying and draining, and b) I have a paper due Friday-ish. I’m taking an organizational studies class, which has been interesting since I’ve already got a master’s degree, several publications, and consulting experience in organizational development. That said, much of the material I’m reading seems more advanced than what I encountered in my masters program.

It turns out that the Org. Development field tends to look at phenomena through a few lenses, which always have underpinnings of the mechanistic, industrial revolution origins of the modern corporation, while ignoring or only partially integrating several other theoretical lenses. So instead of charting new territory, as I have for much of this program, I’m revisiting places I thought I knew well and noticing all sorts of stuff I didn’t see before.

From a sociological perspective, there are several more ways to regard organizations, leadership, change, etc., which have the advantage of not being tethered so much to the practical aspects of helping organizations survive. This may seem a lofty and unuseful perspective, but in reality it is difficult to get a holistic perspective on how organizations work (or don’t) when you’re being paid by them, either as an employee, owner, or consultant. It’s been intellectually refreshing to take the birds-eye view of the scholar. This also helps me recognize similarities between my dissertation sample population, online communities, and organizations.

Through a series of totally unrelated click-throughs, I ran across this article on Politico:
The Pitchforks are Coming…for us Plutocrats

It’s a memo by a billionaire to his fellow billionaires, where he says that refusing to raise the minimum wage on the grounds that it will tank the economy is bullshit, while our current cult of rich-person entitlement and the myth of trickle-down economics is what is actually tanking the economy. He believes that unchecked, it will also destroy our democracy.

So maybe some people in the trenches (or flying above them in their private jets) can also see that the appropriation of the American Dream mythology (work hard, have a good life) by the far-right (or whomever is funding them) may actually not turn out so well.

Whoops! Guess I can’t go apolitical for even one day… Wish me luck on writing a coherent essay for my class.

Shaming the Mother

The attacks on women are now so vicious and varied that it’s hard to know where to start. From Hobby Lobby winning the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance, to the near ban on abortion in my state, to the decriminalization of rape by universities and the military, it’s bloody hard to be a mother raising a girl in this society. How do I teach her the primacy of sexual consent in a culture whose legal system blames the victims of sexual assault? How do I teach her sexual responsibility in a culture that simultaneously holds women solely responsible for birth control and limits its availability?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, other than VOTE.

However, I am interested in a phenomenon that I’ve experienced and observed called mother shaming. Our culture seems to relegate mothers and the practices of motherhood to the home or out of sight, and reacts negatively when we don’t comply. It seems a combination of the pre-cultural revolution separation of the spheres of women and men, combined with the second wave feminist ideals of not allowing motherhood to consume women’s lives. Put these together (along with a still highly paternalistic corporate culture) and you get a world where any representations of motherhood are supposed to be sweet, gentle, clean, and most of all, out of sight. We must be Athena in the workplace and the Virgin Mary as mothers. To this I say bullshit.

There are myriad problems associated with this phenomenon. Breast feeding shaming and harassment. Ignorance of postpartum mood disorders. Lack of paid maternity leave. Unavailability of high quality affordable childcare. Career penalties for women who take time off to care for children. Social stigmatization for returning to work instead of caring for children full-time.

These problems play out on systemic, interpersonal, and psychological levels. The lack of subsidized (systemic) childcare financially strains families, particularly those that need two working parents (or a single working parent) to survive. The social stigma surrounding both staying home and returning to work are inescapable. Psychologically, it is difficult to escape  the feeling that we must do (not have) it all, and never complain, cry, scream, or sleep. Women sometimes enforce these social norms on each other as a way to direct their own internalized pain around these issues. The condescendingly named Mommy Wars are well-known to any of us who have been judged for our parenting decisions. Consequently, while I think the extreme right-wing is responsible for feeding the flames of mother shaming in our culture while advancing legal barriers to female health and safety, we must also take control of how we internalize and enforce these unhealthy norms on ourselves and one another.

I wrote in my Manifesto about my experience as a new mother starting my teaching career, and the negative feedback I received from a female student for not hiding my nascent motherhood skillfully enough. That was in 2011, and since then the legal penalization of women regarding family planning and care has increased more than I could have possibly imagined.

I’m particularly concerned with the archetype of the mother in our society. As a mother, I’m supposed to be sweet, self-deprecating, patient, kind, self-sacrificing, graceful, gracious, and accommodating. I should happily subsume myself into the care of my family. If I work outside the home, I must completely compartmentalize my mother identity while working and then put it back on when I get home.  Mothers are not sexy, but they shouldn’t let themselves go (get old, fat, or tired). Mothers consider others before themselves. Mothers are vessels for their children long after they have stopped being the physical vessel and nourishment; we don’t need personal space, solitude, or interests.

I am supposed to be an flawed version of the Virgin Mary; stained by my sexuality, but redeemed by my ability to subsume myself in a wholly receptive identity.

I’m not even talking about what I’ve been told, or what other women may feel; these are the messages that I’ve internalized about motherhood from living in our culture. I certainly wasn’t taught these values by my family; I somehow just absorbed them over time. When I became a mother, it was like somebody threw a switch in my head and suddenly this was who I thought I should be. Weird.

It’s bullshit. I need space and solitude. I do not have limitless patience or energy. I have intelligence, ambition, personality, sexuality, and a big independent streak. No one would  describe me as passive. I get angry, sad, tired,  and scared. Daily. I don’t stop being a mother when I’m working, and I don’t stop being a teacher/student when I’m mothering. This doesn’t make me a shitty mother; it makes me a good role model for my daughter, and a wiser teacher and student. I love my daughter to pieces, but she does not define me; I do.

When I see my friends trying to compartmentalize their motherhood to appear “professional” at work, or repressing their personalities to be good mothers, it makes me sad. When women judge other women for choosing the “wrong” identity or not playing their roles well enough, it makes me angry. And when our society shames or penalizes women for delaying motherhood, remaining childless, or choosing to becoming mothers, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Livid, perhaps.

I have an image of a dark space around the idea of the Mother in our society. That there is some subconscious aversion to the very idea of motherhood that causes us to react by trying to conform to these harmful ideals. There is an invisible blind spot, or an unhealing wound that we avoid through negative judgement and the creation of unquestioned social norms. I sometimes imagine the archetypal Mother trapped within a spherical prison that emits some kind of repelling energy that keeps us from examining why exactly we expect women to hide or modify who they are in order to survive.

Motherhood is messy. The process of making another human being and expelling him into the world with our bodies is strange, frightening, painful, and gory. Nourishing a child with milk that our bodies make for her is not clean. It is a messy, strange, mysterious, and earthy process that makes the fact that we are animals–not angels or gods–utterly inescapable. It is also the most powerful force in the world. Our species would cease to exist if women’s bodies could not menstruate, gestate, and lactate. But instead of revering these abilities, our society degrades them and insists we keep them out of sight.

The true nature of motherhood not fit with the objectified, sterile version of women peddled to us by traditional media and advertising. Our stretch marks and loose belly skin are not shameful or ugly. Breastfeeding is good for our bodies, and good for our babies’ bodies. Shaming mothers who breastfeed, and idealizing artificial breasts is unnatural and insane. The assumption that our work as parents has no relevance or positive impact on our work for pay makes no sense at all. I think the entry of many men into the childcare workforce may be helping to change these norms, but slowly.

We need to release the Mother from her prison. Millennia ago, socio-religious systems encoded power into spirituality by claiming that women were lesser and innately sinful instead of the source of our being as a species. I believe we can choose to stop playing by these destructive rules and live as the full, ripe, powerful beings that we are. We create and nourish life. We need to share the wisdom that comes with this miraculous ability, instead of allowing it to be reduced and degraded until we have no sense of our own, limitless value.

Impending Kindergarten Angst

My daughter Lillian is four years old; her birthday is in February, so she’ll be starting kindergarten a bit over a year from now. So the big decision is almost upon us. Public, charter, or private?

She currently goes to a fantastic preschool that is often regarded in the community as the “Lord of the Flies” preschool, in a not entirely complimentary way. Her day generally consists of running around, screaming, painting, getting wet, stripping off most of her clothes, painting her body (or her friends), eating lunch and taking a nap, and starting all over again until we pick her up. It’s fantastic. She’s made great friends and is socially fearless. While it looks like chaos, the teachers work really hard to nurture social skills, conflict management, creativity, and inquisitiveness. It spans 18 months to when they start elementary school, and most of the time the kids are all together on a massive playground filled with books, toys, sand, paint, bikes, carts, and all sorts of other fun stuff. The best part is the “potions” area, where kids get to mix up colored bubbly water with other substances. When Lillian started, she’d spend most of her time making potions and then dumping them on her head:
rainbowgirl

As she’s developed, she’s become more interested in her social interactions, stories, and imagination, and a little less prone towards body art, but she still has her moments. We luuuuuuuuve her school. She can do rudimentary addition and subtraction, and write her name. We spend a little time with her on letters, but we don’t push.

I think we forget that reading is an immensely complex process. It’s not just a matter of knowing the letter and seeing it in a word. “What begins with A? Apple!” No, it’s more a matter of, “What is the name of this shape? What sound does it make? What word do you hear that sound in? What other sounds do you hear in that word? What are the shapes for those sounds? How do they fit together to make a word? What sound does that word make? What does that word mean?” And probably a ton of other steps I can’t think of now.

In my human development class, I learned about the work of Piaget, a scientist who developed a system of stages to describe how children acquire the ability to learn new skills. If you have ever had a baby, you’ve probably heard the term “object permanence,” when babies learn to recognize objects still exist when they can’t see them anymore. It’s the first stage of abstraction. According to Piaget, kids stay in that stage until starting around 5, when they begin to transition to the intuitive substage. Kids become capable of learning different skills at different points–anyone with multiple kids knows that they are all different–but by about age 7, they’ve generally reached this stage.

Why is this important? Because the this stage is when they can start to learn the complex skills that allow for reading and mathematics. This leads me to my main thrust. MOST KIDS CAN’T READ WHEN THEY ARE FIVE. Maybe we should move Finland.

This research is decades old, and has undergone decades of validation. Yet our school system starts testing children for reading skills in the first grade, which means children are expected to learn to read in kindergarten. This is folly. Some children learn to read early; they develop early. This does not mean they are more intelligent, or have had better parenting, or been to a better school. It just means that a particular type of development is happening early. My husband learned to read before kindergarten. I learned in the first grade. We both write professionally.

The ability to read cannot be forced; the kind of learning my daughter is doing in her unconventional preschool is entirely appropriate for her level of development. Children before the age of 5 learn through play and absorption, not traditional teaching and rote learning. If I were following the prescribed route, she would be in Pre-K now to learn the building blocks for reading, so she would be ready to read in kindergarten. Sounds good on paper; doesn’t work in real life. You can’t fight biology.

Instead, our schools are creating stressed out kids, often misdiagnosed with learning disabilities because they are being forced to attempt skills their bodies are not capable of producing yet. Some kids will always buck the trends; but many bright, intelligent kids are getting the message that they are stupid, are being held back grades, and are forced to prep for national tests that allow their schools to keep funding. I can’t find anything in this scenario that is good for our kids, or our country.

As you may have guessed, I’m leaning away from public school for my daughter, at least for the first couple of years. There are a few good charter schools, though most of them choose enrollment by lottery. There are some Montessori based private schools, but I’m leery of Montessori based on my experience as a child. I’ll have to investigate those further. There are also religious schools, which might work depending on the teaching philosophy. While I am not christian, I teach at a Catholic college and I love the teaching philosophy which stresses critical thinking, ethics, and self-reflection.

My husband and I have some big decisions before us, and the seeming obliviousness of the current system to the developmental needs of our children makes is much more complicated (and expensive). I would love it if our public system based the curriculum on appropriate developmental science, but the evidence seems to prove otherwise. I feel somewhat helpless in the face of these issues; I can’t work to change the public system in time for my daughter’s entrance into it, so I have to look elsewhere for the kind of educational experience I want for her. It’s frustrating and sad.

My own pre-college education was mixed, but I placed into Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) in my district, which kept me engaged when my other classes were boring or frustrating. They didn’t start testing in the first grade then, however. When I became a college student, I discovered I loved learning. Public school had been tolerable, but never as engaging and energizing as I found my college classes. I would so love for my daughter to love learning before she’s 18.

I wish my daughter’s preschool extended through high school; they have the strongest grasp on how to nurture a child’s talents of any school I’ve encountered. I hope I can find something just as wonderful for her as she grows into adulthood.

Déjà vu

In January of 1989, When I was  barely 17 years old, I moved into a flat in San Francisco and became a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I had studied music since the age of 7 (I was a harpist for five years), taken piano, and then fallen in love with singing in my teens, starting voice lessons at 14. I was the star of my junior college choir (I had tested out of high school), and was a fairly well-trained young musician. I expected to take the school by storm. Instead, I got told to sit down, shut up, and sing the 24 Italian Arias (kind of the primer for singers) until my technique was good enough to handle anything else.

I had a sight-reading teacher who was older than the hills and gloried in humiliating her students until they cried. My voice teacher wanted me to talk in a squeaky voice to help my upper registers get stronger. I just wanted to perform. But Freshmen didn’t get solos in the big Sing-it-Yourself Messiah with orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall. They didn’t get roles in the yearly opera production. They couldn’t even take the opera scenes class, which was reserved for upper-classmen.  I was bored and frustrated (and a teenager on my own for the first time). Not a good combo.

So I took up a couple of new hobbies–Anorexia, and jazz. The first is fairly self-explanatory and stopped when I started getting dizzy spells and had to see a doctor. I think it was a way of feeling in control of something when my artistic life seemed very regimented and controlled (growing up in thin-obsessed California was no help) and the onset of adulthood was so scary. On the positive side, I decided to take jazz singing lessons with a teacher in town to have some artistic outlet while I was waiting to become good enough to sing La chi darem la mano with a zitty young baritone. Unfortunately, my conservatory voice teacher got wind of my extracurricular activities and told me to stop. She said it could taint my vocal training. I was crushed.

The Conservatory was hugely snobbish, particularly in the voice department. Anyone who sang musical theater  was looked down on. Anyone who sang early music did so because they didn’t have the voice for grand opera. The pecking order was clear and the grapevine was brutal. A huge controversy erupted when Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras formed the opera supergroup, The Three Tenors. Were they betraying the sanctity of their art? How dare they sing pop music in giant, sold-out stadiums while creating thousands of new opera fans?

So I was young, frustrated, and artistically unfulfilled. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I switched teachers early in my first year. My second teacher was elderly and a bit more worldly. His career had  been mainly in American art song, which was mostly ignored in the US in favor of European music. His students were usually the stars of the school due to their impeccable technique. He worked with me on a lovely Bach Cantata and encouraged me to compete in a local youth competition. I did well. Through those first few years, he helped me find outside opportunities to perform in various environments, including churches, Gilbert and Sullivan troupes, competitions, and home recitals he held for all his students. His general approach was strict, but generally compassionate and a little nontraditional. He would suggest less-known arias for auditions, instead of the typical Quando m’en vo and other top 10 favorites that conductors heard 100 times a day. He prepared me to eventually get the roles I coveted when I’d paid my Conservatory dues.  He didn’t pretend to be a Life Guru as many of the other teachers did, he stuck to the music and spent a lot of time on expression and finding my unique talents, rather than trying to make me match the masses of other young sopranos looking to fill the same few spots. I was much more fulfilled as an artist, and learned to take a more pragmatic view of the ups and downs of my chosen field.

The other side of being pragmatic was learning to manage my image, and manage the reactions of others. In a word, manipulation.

The music world is brutal. Auditioning is not all that far from what you see on American Idol. You might not get crucified by judge the minute you finish singing, but you’ll get it on an adjudication sheet later, or through the grapevine, and that feedback will also reflect all the politics going on between the rival voice teachers and their studios. In the face of such competition, some try to tear down their competition (gossip, rumors), but that’s unethical, ugly, and will eventually bite them in the ass. Instant karma is a real thing in any small, incestuous, competitive community. If you’re a PhD student, is any of this starting to sound familiar? Because I’m finding it creepily familiar.

So I became a master ass-kisser. There’s an art to it. Don’t flirt with your teachers. Just don’t. I’m a teacher now and I’ve had students try it on me–it’s obvious and tacky, I promise. Light compliments are fine, just don’t trowel them on. Ask their advice on something you know they love to lecture about. Sing arias from their favorite roles if you’re auditioning for them. Offer to help with mundane stuff (costuming, programs). Be reliable, friendly, and avoid drama. I got a number of gigs because something fell through, and the teachers knew I was a reliable, quick study. I wasn’t as flashy as some of the other singers, but they knew I would commit and get the job done.

The problem in the end was that there were too many drama queens in the positions of power, and not enough people I could trust for honest feedback and support. There were also too many abusive fuckwads. There were a lot of those. I think the average emotional age in that business is about 14. Teachers can be horribly abusive (I had several after my college teacher, all of whom had boundary issues).  As students we’re taught that it’s okay for teachers (and conductors and directors) to be temperamental, yell, scream and make personal attacks (and sexually harass). It’s really not. So I quit, in stages, and eventually found out I liked using my brain for thinking and my voice for talking and I left it behind me. Though my heart still hurts at Christmastime because I  miss singing the soprano solos in Messiah. That was magic.


Welcome to my present. I’m in a PhD program, essentially a Sophomore, and am dealing with a lot of the same stuff. Or at least the stuff I’m dealing with reminds me a lot of the stuff I dealt with 20something years ago as a young, unseasoned musician. Except now I’m 42, I have two masters degrees, and a whole lot of life experience (and some published articles). Yet I feel as if I need to bow to the masters, and say “Thank you sir/ma’am may I have another” when I get unhelpful criticism. It’s this labyrinth full of challenges that are hard enough without feeling like I have to subjugate myself to the will of others. My conservatory-learned skills have come in handy; I know to show appreciation to people who help me, and try to steer clear of those who hinder, but I’m starting to have doubts about how to get through this mess. Every scholar has his or her own set of issues, blind spots, paradoxes, and axes to grind (including me). Yet I have to convince a whole slew of them that my particular set of foibles doesn’t preclude me from becoming a member of this elite set.

Recently, I’ve spent some time thinking about why I want this degree:

  1. I want to teach full-time. I love teaching; it’s my favorite, most meaningful, rewarding job ever.
  2. I want to write books and articles on stuff that I think is important.
  3. I love learning and thinking.

You’ll notice “being an academic” is not on the list. When I break it down, the only reason I need this degree is #1. Life as an undergraduate adjunct, while rewarding as a practice, sucks for job security, career growth, and pay. I would like some more of those, and the ability to support my family if my husband can’t. The rest of the reasons are things I could truly do myself, even though this little voice in my head whispers that I won’t be legitimate unless I have those three letters after my name. But the kind of legitimacy that happens within academia is far less important to me than the kind that comes with touching people’s lives, either through teaching, writing, or speaking.

Therein lies the rub. I have to get through this grueling process of gaining the legitimacy necessary to teach without buying into the dogma. It’s hard! In spite of my Gen-X non-joiner tendencies, I want to be liked, respected, and generally well thought of by all these smart, accomplished people with degrees from Harvard and the like. So my ego ends up right back in 1989, struggling to figure out how to learn my craft without losing my soul. I’m struggling to stay a grownup in an environment that makes me feel like a kid. The whole setup of my non-traditional school is to create peer relationships with students and faculty, but I can’t quite get there. It still feels paternalistic at times, which is unsurprising when you view the industry as a whole.

In 2001, I hit a crisis with music. I realized I couldn’t become an adult in that environment, and I desperately wanted to grow up. So I left, and built a new life where I mostly feel and act adult. Lots of therapy helps. Now I feel like I’m having a similar crisis, but I’ve been living as something like an adult for the last 13 years, and I don’t know how to handle it. I can’t go back to being a teenager. I can’t hope for a single mentor to guide me through the labyrinth.

I guess that’s why I’m blogging about it. I am hoping that my internal guide will help me find my way, and my inner voice will be louder or more persistent than the voices of those (internal and external) that tell me my past experiences have no value and I have to rely solely on others to decide who I am and what I’m good at.

When I blog about this stuff, I feel a bit like that 17 year old taking jazz lessons on the side. Am I breaking the rules? Am I corrupting my ability to write and think academically? Or am I making sure that my voice shines clearly through all the noise? Maybe instead of continuing to hope for a kindly guide, a wise-man like my college voice teacher, I can be my own guide, champion, and mentor. I hope so.

 

Dedicated, with love, to Donald Stenberg.

 

Category: FSO (Figuring Shit Out)

As I embark on this experiment of writing daily, I have several goals in mind.

  1. Looking at current events through a theoretical lens.
  2. Integrating different theoretical areas.
  3. Figuring out how old theory applies to new modes of communication.
  4. Figuring Shit Out.

Today is the first day I will be writing about Category 4, Figuring Shit Out. School has gotten harder and harder for me. It’s harder academically (duh), but it’s also harder emotionally and physically. I’m having a hard time focusing. I have this thing where I need structure, but it has to be structure I’ve bought into. Too much (or too arbitrary) structure=I rebel; too little structure=I flounder. I’ve spent some time over the last two semesters beating the crap out of myself about this aspect of myself, which now seems like a waste of energy. I am 42 years old and unlikely to change my core personality. The trick is figuring out how to get something akin to what I need in the ambiguous,  student-driven program I signed up for. I think I’d go nuts in a narrow, traditional program, but the one I’m in has its own pitfalls for my personality type. So here are some thoughts on how I learn.

Things that work for me:

  • Engaged instructors who give specific, feasible feedback.
  • Instructors and fellow students who consider my ideas and give feedback on them.
  • A medium to fast pace.
  • Lots of interaction.
  • A framework I can refer to if I get stuck (reading suggestions, essay questions, a roadmap or syllabus for the class).
  • More written interaction; less phone/video conferences (online meetings tend to bog down).

What happens when my classes work:

  • I can make multiple connections between what I am studying and earlier writing/learning/experience.
  • Writing comes fairly easily.
  • My creativity is high.
  • I’m not afraid of feedback (nervous is okay).
  • My energy level is high (unless I’m sick or my kid is sick or my husband is sick you get the picture).
  • I’m generally jazzed about what I’m doing.

Things that don’t work for me:

  • Lots of ambiguity.
  • Hands-off instructors.
  • Micromanaging instructors
  • Too much group teleconferencing.
  • General critical feedback with no specifics (ambiguous or hard to read feedback).
  • No syllabus or trying to create my own syllabus without a supplied, underlying structure.
  • Instructors who criticize my work without addressing my ideas.

What happens when my classes don’t work:

  • I freeze up.
  • I have difficulty concentrating.
  • I actively dread feedback.
  • I procrastinate.
  • I internally criticize my work as I write. (no bueno)
  • I’m generally cringey and insecure.

My human development class was the perfect balance. The teacher was tough, but highly invested in my ideas. She was generally happy with my writing, but very detailed in her feedback. Our personalities were simpatico. The class was structured, but she gave us room to play if we needed to. It was a group class, and the rest of the class was engaged and did a lot of online commentary on each others work. All papers and feedback were public to the whole group so we learned from each others’ successes and challenges.

It was not stress-free; it was a high performance, high pressure class. But the trust building that occurred with the frequency of interaction between the students, and between the students and teacher made the experience truly invigorating and transformative. For the record, this was an all asynchronous class – meaning we didn’t have any video conferencing. I learned a ton, felt really good about the work I produced, and built relationships with my instructor and fellow students. Win!

In reality, most classes are going to be a mix. I’m always going to have some level of anxiety–my perfectionist and competitive tendencies have the advantage of giving me an edge, and the disadvantage of heightening anxiety when I’m insecure or in a high ambiguity situation.

My spring semester was wicked hard, and I was feeling depressed and out of sorts. The course was new territory, new ways of thinking, and tons and tons of new material. Try reading five or six dissertations and you’ll see what I mean (for example you may want to stick a fork in your eye). But in the end I felt like I had accomplished something really useful. Several really useful things, in fact. I got hard but helpful critiques, learned a ton about the literature in my dissertation area, and also learned to forgive myself for being late. I was late on EVERY PAPER. I am never late. Anywhere. Boy, was it hard to let myself be late. But in the end, it was okay. I needed more time because other circumstances were slowing me down, but I got it all done and came up with some new ways of looking at my topic. Win! This was not a full-of-bliss experience but the payoff was worthwhile.

This semester has been not good. I did my first individual contacts (this means it’s just me and a teacher) and guess what? Writing my syllabus from scratch (for myself, not my students) is just too much ambiguity for me. Most of the material has been pretty good, but I ended up dropping one of the two courses because of most of the things on the “don’t work” list. And just a piece of advice; don’t study Jung when you’re supposed to be studying the foundations of systems theory. Just don’t. So now I’m just taking 4 units of Organizational Studies with a systems emphasis, which is mucho mejor.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I’d figured out all of this before I had to drop 4 units in the middle of the semester to be made up sometime in the next year when I’m also teaching all year? Yes, it would. But I’ve learned a ton of stuff from the bad experiences; it’s just the painful, soul-searching crap that is usually accompanied by confrontations and hard decisions and self-doubt and insomnia and occasional unwarranted yelling at my family.

So that’s Episode 1 of Figuring Shit Out. Stay tuned; next time I compare the classical music industry to academia. They’re more alike than you might imagine.

Morning Pages, But Interesting!

Morning Pages are the 3 page journaling requirement in The Artists Way to help free up artistic blockages. There’s also a website called 750 Words where users can do an online approximation (and the application keeps track of the word count and how often you complete–nifty!). I find I’m in need of a little something more when it comes to my writing these days.

I suck at journal writing, in the sense that I usually only journal when I’m really upset and need to get some stuff out of my system in a way that won’t hurt anyone. It’s a great tool for that, but never really seems to help me with school stuff.

School is hard these days. For good reasons (covering new material in far more depth and speed than in my masters degree) and not so good (feeling vulnerable to the negative opinions of others, financial pressure to get through it in the next couple of years). Fielding is hard in some special ways; we can design our own classes to a certain extent, so if one ends up not working, we have to hold ourselves accountable (even if “we” are a second year student who may not yet know what she doesn’t know).

One thing I’ve struggled with is processing so much information and spitting back out as original thought written in scholarly form. The 50% of me that is extroverted needs to talk about stuff. I need to talk through my ideas with other people who are studying something similar. I make connections and have all my little ahahs when I’m talking. I miss the classroom! <—Nerd  So, sometimes when I write for school it sounds a little more like conversation, and a little less like a peer-reviewed journal. I’ve published in those journals, but not while I’m still trying to process and understand the literature. I’m missing the middle two steps, which are talking about it with my peers and professor in a classroom setting, and writing reflectively and getting feedback on my thinking process as much as the format of my writing.

So, I’ve decided that my blog is a really good way to conversate (and make up words!) about my ideas. Regularly. Daily.

The last thing I posted was an essay I wrote for two classes I have been taking. I got reamed for not writing it like a journal article. Truly, I wrote it more like a well punctuated blog post, because that’s how I think through my ideas and make connections between sources. I tend to get feedback that I write more like a journalist (Which is a bad thing why? Clear and persuasive is good, right?). The reality, however, is that I have to learn to write like somebody with a PhD. So I’m trying an experiment where I get my ideas out on digital paper here, on my blog, where hopefully some people might want to converse with me about them, and then use my fully expressed (and hopefully somewhat vetted) ideas as the building blocks for the kind of writing I need to do to get through school.

Since I’m trying to do this every day, I’ll probably try to apply theory I’ve learned with my own thoughts to stuff like current events and popular media/art. I actually suggested this as part of a self-guided class, but it got shot down. So what! I know how I think, I know how I learn, and I know how I write. I’m tired of sitting down to write a paper and spending most of the time dreading how it will be received, or feeling incompetent and self-conscious. I have writing constipation. I know I’m a good thinker and a good writer; I just need some additional help to get from new material all the way to dry convoluted scholarly writing.

So, I’m hoping to write on this here blog seven days a week, though what with the 4-year-old I might give myself a pass on the weekends.

I hope you enjoy my new found zeal for blogging. You can look forward to me talking about heavy subjects like the re-interpretation of the hero archetype in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, why people love zombies, and how mommy bloggers are changing the world. These are my Morning Pages. Stay tuned.

 

 

Big Thoughts

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for school. Have you ever heard the parable about the blind men and the elephant? Each grabs a different part of the creature, claiming that the thing he is encountering is a different object – a rope (the tail), a pillar (the leg), a fan (the ear), and so on. I feel like that. I’m all the blind men at one time. How do I become a specialist, or THE specialist in an area of research, without contextualizing it? I got my first two degrees in music, so I didn’t study a lot of philosophy. I decided to cram a chunk of the history of sociology into a few weeks and see what came out the other end. Ahem.

I needed a socio-historical context for my research. I’m interested in how people express aggression online. The question is why? What does how we behave online tell us about ourselves? About our era? Our future? So I boned up on Marx, Freud, Jung, and Campbell and came up with some ideas.

Marx, Freud, Jung, and the Postmodern Crisis

Marx deconstructed the idea of wage labor as a natural or virtuous endeavor, claiming instead that it created alienation in workers and encouraged labor exploitation by capitalists. He essentially saw the worker as superior to the capitalist (in modern parlance, perhaps a manager, executive, shareholder, or business owner) because a worker produces actual goods, whereas a capitalist derives profit from the labor of others. Marx believed that claiming the fruits of this labor in exchange for wages alienated the worker from his own creations; Marx saw labor as central to human fulfillment. He viewed religion as a false, externalized repository of human fulfillment, and the reclamation of exchange-value for labor as the path towards a liberated society that made religion superfluous. (Singer, 2000)

Similarly, Freud saw religion as the externalization of the self; the Devil and his works were really the sublimated, repressed desires of the Id, while our need for a loving God was the sublimated desire for the infantile relationship with the parents. Freud exploded the idea of a genetic or predetermined difference between social classes, and challenged the domination of the church at the most fundamental level.

Insofar as the idea of God being “out there” instead of “in here,” Jung shared Freud’s view of the interpretation of religion as being immature and parentified. However, Jung was not as dismissive of the mythic or religious impulse. He recognized the mystic experience as a way of connecting to an internal source of energy that humanity shares across cultures and throughout time. (Stevens, 2001) Joseph Campbell built on this idea, identifying the idea of the God within in multiple mythologies, religions, and cultures. (n.d.)

Marx saw religion as enslaving, and the industrial revolution as terribly dehumanizing. But in dismissing religion and Hegel’s more spiritual idea of Mind as God (which is echoed by Bateson), Marx also ignored human development. While Marx saw money and possessions (greed) as an unnatural cultural constraint used to concentrate power and money around a select few, my anecdotal experience does not support this.

I spend a lot of time around little kids who don’t have the neurological hardware yet for much social indoctrination. At around 2 years old, kids start wanting to possess things (and watching parents’ endless machinations to get their toddlers to behave as if they are socialized is comical) and keep other kids from taking them. Developmentally, small children seem to see possessions as potential extensions of themselves. I think, as many developmental theorists thought, they’ve got a whole operating system pre-programmed as part of their innate survival instinct. I don’t think, as Marx did, that possession and competition are all the result of unnatural indoctrination. It is perhaps at the junction of religion, government, and corporation (the self-preservation of an elite few) that “unnatural” social norms are created, alongside the necessary ones. Our salvation, perhaps, lies in understanding that our survival as individuals as predicated on our survival as a species.

While Marx described the endgame of capitalism remarkably clearly, he didn’t foresee the post-modern crisis. Many of his predictions about the increasing inequalities in capitalism were correct (unemployment, subsistence wages, income inequality), but instead of a united revolution or cooperative culture, we now have a cult culture. The destruction of the central socio-religious idea has given way to a multiplicity of social, political, and religious skirmishes. Instead of world wars, we have civil wars. Instead of a major ideology, we have ideological cults.

For example, the cult of capitalism claims that making money is innately moral and natural. Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” still influences politicians who seek election based on platforms that claim to “fix” our economy by giving tax breaks to corporations and the rich. The cult of consumerism trades the numinous religious sacrament for the transient glow of owning products whose advertising promises everything that we desire (heaven). The cult of science and rationality promises salvation through rejection of the emotional, irrational, and mystical impulses. The cult of health and beauty promises us unending youth and admiration (eternal life). Cults of political and social ideologies coalesce and decompose around issues like homosexuality, gun ownership, reproductive rights, and bullying. Our religions have become so factionalized as to be unrecognizable. The most consistent characteristic of our postmodern ideologies, is that they are subject to change rather quickly.

Positivism is alive and well, but it is applied to whatever gives the individual the strongest buffer between himself and fear of death, despair, or the unknown. Positivism seems to be working in service to a multiplicity of tenuous positions, rather than to any one pervasive perspective. Such is the post-modern world.

The Schism: The Internet, Pop Culture, and Interconnectedness

While Marx foresaw the corrosive effects of unchecked capitalism, just as Habermas recognized the numbing and self-destructive effects of the culture industry (Habermas used the term culture industry to describe the combination of media, corporate interests, and political interests that control the perceptions and decisions of citizens through media like television and advertising), particularly in the US), neither foresaw the current schism wherein capitalism continues to grow and consume itself and its resources through its religion-like status, while the culture industry is being dismantled through open access to information sharing.

While we have not done away with our consumerist tendencies, when it comes to information and entertainment, we have taken more control over what we consume. This is not to say that the internet has created a balanced and critical discourse; the wide availability of misinformation has perhaps further polarized the existing cults of belief. However dialogue, cooperation, compassion, and self-organization are taking place using the internet as a vehicle. Largely beholden to corporate interests (meaning the interests of a few very rich people) television, radio, and newspapers have typically been the vehicle used to control the emotions and perceptions of voters/consumers. Now we watch fewer and fewer commercials; the most successful television is on commercial-free channels like HBO, AMC and Netflix, and we get our news through multiple sources rather than reading the local newspaper in the morning and watching the television news at night. We curate our consumption of media and entertainment instead of having it curated for us.

Despite the chaos of our post-modern world, our need for a more universal story about our collective identity and future is reflected in popular culture in the form of superheroes, vampires, apocalyptic epics, and other mythological and archetypal stories that have been with us in some form throughout recorded history. Popular culture explores dystopian futures (Battlestar Galactica), multiplistic moral dilemmas (Ender’s Game), and complex hero characters (The Dark Knight).

While we cling to simplistic, untenable “facts” in our deeply divided political lives, we explore complexity and ambiguity in our art. Although our society is largely dismissive of pop culture, we forget that “real” art (European opera, literature, and visual art) was actually the pop of its day. The relationship of art to society is a function of history; not validity. The music of Mozart was not less artistic than that of Beethoven, but society’s view of art shifted radically from the classical to the romantic era, from a frippery of the upper classes to a vital force of human expression.

I realize it may seem lightweight to explore movies, television, and popular music, but they are the repository of the mythology of our time. To ignore them is to ignore some of the best impulses of our humanity. Fiction and fantasy are a barometer for collective hopes and fears and an outlet for the images that seek expression in our dreams and nightmares.

I see a deep juxtaposition between the post-modern fracturing of our societies and the universal, unifying themes in our popular art.

The socio-economic engine that benefits the privileged few is losing the hearts and minds of the masses through the dismantling of the culture industry. But to what then do we give our hearts and minds? Is the new age of Mind or Self or Brahman or Unity Consciousness actually coming to pass? Is something more whole and beautiful emerging from the chaos and violence of our century? Are we as a species finally moving from this concrete, cultish way of being into something more holistic and interconnected?

I have been listening to some interviews with Joseph Campbell from the late 1970s-early 1980s. In one, he posed a futuristic question. If we are becoming a world community, or an in group without an out group, what do we do with aggression? Campbell claimed we needed to transform it. Is that possible? Can we make poverty, ignorance, rape, murder our enemies, instead of people? Is it possible to stop “othering”? Or, is that just the consequence of being an animal species?

The internet seems to be simultaneously creating a ground for unity consciousness, while giving people endless opportunities to create and destroy perceived enemies. Freud and Jung identified this phenomenon: that the mythical enemy, or other, is really the projected shadow of the self. Yet wisdom traditions have also held that god/heaven is here and in all of us. Campbell points out that this is the foundation of Buddhism, and is also found in the mystical traditions of Christianity and Hinduism.

Is the internet intensifying division, or will we perhaps burn out on “othering” and find a more connected way of being? Will we realize that our individual survival is predicated on our survival as a species, which is predicated on the survival of our ecosystem? Can we focus on destructive behavior, instead of destructive people? Can we eradicate rape instead of rapists; murder instead of murderers? Or will we always need someone to point the finger at?

Concluding Thoughts

So what are my Big Thoughts after considering all of this material? While Marx, Freud, and Jung recognized the dehumanizing effects of modernity, nobody foresaw the internet and its implications (except maybe a few sci fi writers).

In 1980, Campbell pointed out that globalization was taking away our ability to “other” others, even before the spread of internet technology. Gareth Morgan (2006), too, makes an interesting comment about the potential for communication technology when discussing how technology is often harnessed to reinforce existing power structures, “…this misses the true potential [of information technology], which rests in creating networks of interaction that can self-organize and be shaped and driven by the intelligence of everyone involved.” (p.116)

Fifteen years later, society seems to take part in “othering” in smaller and smaller factions. While gay marriage was not even on the radar of most political candidates fifteen years ago, today most of the country accepts it as a basic civil right. Arguments over the scientific basis of global warming are giving way to more pervasive use of alternative energy sources. Simplicity gives way to complexity and concreteness gives way to ambiguity. Traditional battle lines break down and reform, then break down and reform anew.

While the human family seems increasingly fractured and tribal, and the internet facilitates this phenomenon through the easy creation and dissolution of communities, our pop culture is consistently reflecting universal, mythic themes. Our heroes and heroines are more complex; our stories more dystopian and complex. Yet when I look at the usual battery of summer blockbusters, the themes that emerge are about the rebirth of humanity from its own ashes (X-Men), or the retelling of ages old fairy tales from a different vantage point (Malificent).

I recently took my daughter to see How to Train Your Dragon 2. The movie portrays a battle between two fictional Viking tribes. One that espouses a patriarchal, dominator culture that harnesses the power of dragons (nature) to dominate other tribes. The other tribe has a cooperative and innovative relationship with dragons that it uses for collective prosperity. The movie also portrays a cultural transition from a fear-driven culture to a cooperation/love-driven culture.

The chief of the tribe is grooming his son Hiccup, the main character, to succeed him. Hiccup’s mother was thought to have been killed by a dragon when he was a baby. A teenager in the first movie, he tried to kill a dragon to gain adult status, but instead befriended it and learned to ride it, eventually convincing his father and the rest of the tribe to end their war on dragons. He lost his foot in a battle with a huge dragon that his father had challenged, but his dragon (Toothless) saved him and won his father’s trust.

In this movie, Hiccup encounters a tribe whose leader lost his arm to a dragon and consequently took revenge on dragons by learning to dominate their alpha. Hiccup encounters his mother, who has lived in peace with another alpha for the last 20 years. Without detailing the entire plot, Hiccup’s father dies and Hiccup takes his place as leader, with his mother and and warrior girlfriend Astrid as his counselors. The nascent cooperative culture is tested and strengthened by its interdependence between men and women; dragons and humans. I’m also giving some thought to the symbolism of the missing foot and the missing arm; the foot helps us balance, while the arm can be used to wield a weapon or defend from attack. Perhaps both characters are compensating for what they have lost.

Contrast this with summer blockbusters of yore, such as Independence Day (1996) where the world unites under the leadership of the American president to battle creepy, uncomplicated aliens, while celebrating the irreverent cowboy archetype in the hero character played by Will Smith. This “space western” summer movie dominated my childhood, but seems to be giving way to far more complex and multiplistic themes that consider the identity and history of the “other,” our relationship to the earth, and our collective fate as a species.. While we still seem to be intent on “othering” in our politics and political discourse, there are hopeful signs in our art that we may be moving beyond this. One can only hope.

DeBlois, D. (2014). How to Train Your Dragon 2. Animation, Action, Adventure.

Edinger, E. F. (1991). Ego and archetype: Individuation and the religious function of the psyche. Boston: Shambhala.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Singer, P. (2000). Marx: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Stevens, A. (2001). Jung: A very short introduction (New edition edition.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.audible.com/pd/Religion-Spirituality/The-Wisdom-of-Joseph-Campbell-Audiobook/B002VA9TR2