Posts by drmsmichelann

The Iceberg Model: What it isn’t

One of the great mysteries of the social sciences isn’t the way we share, borrow, and reinterpret great theories, it’s why we dumb them down.

In my studies of organizational development at the masters level, we learned about the iceberg theory:

So clean. So fresh.

The image above looks a lot like the one I studied during my degree. Policy and organization on top, behavior (and occasionally *gasp* emotion) on the bottom. All cultures, including organizational ones, have norms that are picked up and spread without being written down. However, this is a very sanitized version of the original, by none other than Papa Freud himself:

Freud did not fuck around.

Freud says that the stuff below the water’s surface consists of repressed trauma, early childhood experiences we can’t remember, disowned personality traits, and repressed impulses like competition, rage, lust, territoriality, fear, etc. All of that stuff does not magically disappear and turn into “behavior and engagement” when we go to work in the morning. The basic law of human psychology is that what doesn’t get expressed comes out in some other, usually unintentional, (and potentially harmful) way. People continue to be people, and the more we pretend otherwise, the murkier that water gets.

Another prominent example that I won’t go into in this article (because it deserves its own) is the coopting of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a developmental theory) for capitalistic ends. There has also been recent criticism of how Emotional Intelligence theories are used in repressive ways. The linked article is highly recommended.

Unfortunately, much of organizational development literature tends to be self-justifying. It does not delve deeply into the historic and often inhumane reasons behind gender and racial wage gaps, the confluence of power around white men, or the exploitative nature of capitalism. Much of it is still of some value, and a few prominent theorists do, in fact, look at organizations more thoroughly and don’t engage in the circular reasoning of much of the literature. Largely, however, capitalism, and by extension organizational development theories, are self-justifying and lack vital critical perspectives that could improve working life for many people.

In my classes on career development and ethics, I have often likened corporate culture to the upper crust characters on the popular show Downton Abbey. They are masters of understatement (I mean…) and substitute cutting wit for frank conversations (or visible emotion). Unfortunately, undergrads don’t watch Masterpiece Theater so the metaphor is usually lost. Nonetheless, the writers of the show masterfully demonstrate how the characters reinforce cultural (and gendered, and racial) norms through subtle barbs and jabs, or well-placed silences, rather than oh, I don’t know, actually talking directly about whatever the hell they are feeling.

Unfortunately, organizational culture, in general, follows this pattern, and the fact that it can’t recognize its own repressiveness is just further evidence of the same. Attempts to frankly discuss any number of elephants trundling around the room usually result in accusations of overstatement or drama, while vague, ambiguous language is much safer when dealing with conflict. Long live passive voice!

Conflict resolution in the therapeutic context usually involves clearly stating your own feelings and experiences in a way that does not blame, nor excuses, other people involved. If my husband and I are fighting over the dishes, a therapist would encourage me to say, “I feel hurt when I cook dinner and you leave the dishes on the table.” My husband might say, “I feel frustrated when you use so many utensils to cook with and don’t clean as you go. I feel taken for granted when I clean up after you.” In corporate-ese, this conversation would be closer to (and over group email), “I’m confused why there are so many dirty dishes in the sink! Did I miss something?😺 “Oh, I didn’t know that cleaning other people’s dishes was my job! I’m sorry, can show me where it says that in my job description?😉” Translation: “Wash the damn dishes, Mary!” “That’s not my job, Karen!” <resentment grows> And, scene.

I find it particularly bizarre that in academia, where our work and writing is often judged on our ability to clearly and accurately state the reasons for and results of our research, we suffer from the same problem. Three years into a pandemic I still get astonished reactions (as do the select colleagues who are also fed up with artifice) when I point out that shoving unvaccinated, tightly-packed, unmasked students into lecture halls will result in deaths, and that the safety of students and the community at large should maybe be a high priority of an R1 institution whose reputation is built on scientific rigor. The audacity!

Another thing I tell my students is that the difference between the dynamics of school and the dynamics of the workplace boils down to one thing: survival instinct. Our work pays us the money that allows us to eat, pay for shelter, and meet the basic conditions for life. Our hindbrains and those of our colleagues are easily activated when we feel our income and by extension, survival is at risk. At the same time, organizational culture encourages us to suppress or hide emotions like fear, anxiety, sadness, and insecurity. You know, feminine emotions. 🙄 Nonetheless, these emotions exist in abundance for most of us, especially during times of social and economic upheaval. So I warn students they may see some really weird behavior in the workplace, and subsequently feel like they are taking crazy pills because everyone else is ignoring, minimizing, or justifying it.

Many things in organizational culture have changed over the last decade, but this; not so much. This recent case at Netflix shows how much power rests in the hands of those least able to perspective-take, and consequently affects what issues are discussable, conscious, and able to change. All of Netflix’s work on affinity groups, trans visibility, and representation amounted to shit when the CEO decided that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

In conclusion, if you are married to a particular organizational development or industrial psych text, please do check the references and learn about the theories from which it is derived (or in some cases, stolen). We cannot break out of exploitative, toxic, and repressive norms at work without a clear-eyed look at what we are leaving out of the picture, or what lies below the surface of the water.

Out of bounds: The myth of the skinny anorexic

I am a fat anorexic.

I was put on my first diet by my parent when I was 11 years old. I hit puberty early and started my period that same year. I was not fat, but as any parent knows, the medical system starts tracking kids’ height-weight ratios super early, and even in the early 80s, that meant being constantly scrutinized for a body that might someday be out of bounds. (I think my kid’s pediatrician started tracking their BMI at about 5. Just think about that for a sec.)

Our bodies need EVERYTHING when we are growing. The last thing we should do is put developing kids and adolescents on diets, but this seems to be the time when adults are most likely to start monitoring and depriving kids of nutrition.

As a sociology/psychology scholar, I know a lot of backstory to this that as an 11-year old, I did not have access to. Womens’ hard-won rights to autonomy over their reproductive systems did not include the right to present however we wanted to — we were still supposed to be slim, tall, white, and full of hard angles (but have really big boobs and hair). The early 80s was the domain of Phyllis Schlafly and a regressive backlash against feminism that taught me and my peers that everything was fine and that we didn’t need to be loud like our moms, those obnoxious women’s libbers. The pop culture of the era celebrated women’s newfound agency over their sexuality by constantly separating women into sluts — those who invite rape, and virgins — those who deserved to be loved and protected. Anyone who didn’t meet the physical requirements of beauty was a punchline or a token (or often both). Nobody I knew questioned diet culture or even identified it as a thing.

I don’t remember having food issues until about age 7 when my parents started criticizing how and what I ate. This was after my male pediatrician warned my mother that I might, someday, be fat. We now know most of the research on what constitutes fatness is deeply flawed, and I was never a fat kid, but it didn’t matter. I internalized the idea that I was by the time I was 10 and experienced increasing body dysmorphia as I grew towards adulthood.

Even before that, as early as I can remember, my mom would go on diets and cruelly critique her own body. She had a lifelong membership with Weight Watchers and would eat weird snacks like buttermilk blended with frozen strawberries. I didn’t understand why the person I loved most was so mean to herself, but in my young mind, I must have absorbed that there was something virtuous about it. My mom would talk about how she went on Weight Watchers after she had my brother and reached her goal weight of 98 pounds. When I was later diagnosed with an eating disorder (anorexia), it may have been this claim that kept her from accepting that I had a dangerous problem. If I was 117 pounds compared to her 98, I couldn’t possibly be anorexic. The toxic diet culture of that era told us all that we were fundamentally flawed, and self-starvation was the only way to compensate for it.

Eventually (meaning by age 11), the monitoring became intense, specific critiques of my body and body parts that seemed to go on for hours. If I protested that I liked my body and didn’t want to change it, I was told I was deluded. I was an embarrassment. I wouldn’t find love. Nobody would hire me. I was also accused of gaining weight to “protect myself” from others. This is not so fun when you are 11, or 13, or 15…My body was small, but I had curves that did not fit the ideal of the 80s. Short legs, small waist, round hips and butt… ironically the kind of body that women get injections to create now, I was made to believe was out of bounds. It took up space it wasn’t entitled to, and that — that was dangerous and immoral. This message wasn’t just from my parents, it was all around me — in media, in the women and men in my extended family, and don’t get me started on dating culture in the 80s.

I started putting myself on restrictive diets in high school, culminating in a Slim-Fast regimen that was about 800 calories a day and consisted of two meal replacement shakes and a low-calorie frozen meal. I also went on Weight Watchers with my mother at least twice (once after the anorexia diagnosis).

I graduated from high school early and spent a year at a community college getting some credits. When I was barely 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I lived in an apartment with two roommates who also attended school there (there were no dorms). I was alone and scared and determined to be as skinny as possible. I got a lot of attention from men at my school that reinforced my need to be as physically perfect as possible. I directed a lot of my fear and anxiety about living in a new city and starting college into fear of gaining weight. By this point I was suffering from extreme body dysmorphia; I saw my increasingly tiny body as huge and ungainly. By the middle of my first semester, I was eating an apple for lunch and feeling panicky if I ate anything else except meal replacement shakes. I started having dizzy spells and seeing bright spots in the periphery of my vision when I stood up.

I took myself to a walk-in clinic. They asked me what drugs I was doing and why they were cocaine several hundred times. Since I wasn’t doing drugs, they eventually turned me over to a nutritionist who asked me how much I ate per day. When I told her my limit was 800 calories, she explained that I didn’t have any body fat and I needed more food than that to live. She also told me I could still “tone up” if I wanted to. (Ugh.) I didn’t believe her, because my maximum weight for my short body, as prescribed by Weight Watchers, was 113 lbs. I was 117. Therefore, I was still unacceptably fat.

I never saw her again. She tried to call me and even sent me a letter stating her concern, but I blew her off. I did start eating more normally and started gaining weight. What I didn’t know, for a long, long time, was that the weight cycling I had done in my early through late adolescence had convinced my body that I was in real danger of starvation (because I was), so losing weight became much harder, and gaining it became easier. (This is widely known scientifically now, but health care providers still prescribe weight loss instead of diagnosis and treatment of patient symptoms, which has resulted in the untimely deaths of people who weren’t diagnosed with things like cancer until it was too late.)

The culture in which I grew up taught me several totally false things about food and eating:

  1. Hunger is weakness
  2. Vanquishing hunger is strength
  3. Weight gain is weakness
  4. Weight loss is strength
  5. Eating until you are full is gluttonous
  6. Staying slightly hungry all the time is healthy
  7. My body is too weak to know what it needs and doesn’t need
  8. My mind is too weak to control my errant body
  9. Only skinny people are anorexic.

I continued to struggle with body dysmorphia through my 20s. I gained weight steadily, punctuated by bouts of weight loss from restriction. I never thought that I might still be anorexic because I didn’t look like an anorexic anymore. I realized that I had been dangerously thin at 17, but none of that applied to me now because I wasn’t thin. But my body knew the truth; it knew that I was always a step away from self-imposed starvation. My body wanted me to live more than I wanted to starve it to death.

In my late 20s, I decided that diets could get fucked and I was going to stop yearning for a body I didn’t have. I found a gym and a trainer and started to learn what healthy, gradual exercise felt like. I think it was the first time I really started to inhabit my body. I bought cute plus-sized clothes and dumped my fatphobic boyfriend (and my fatphobic career).

My 30s were the years of the good fatty, a trope that body liberation people are intimately familiar with. I was okay because I was a good fat person — I exercised, I dressed cute, I presented as feminine, and I was healthy (whatever that means). I was what we now call a “small fat” — a person who can shop at mainstream plus-sized stores and some stores with extended sizing. I didn’t have many role models, and I certainly wasn’t ready to confront my own fatphobia, but I wasn’t actively starving myself either. My weight stabilized, mainly because I was hyper-fixated on it being stable. I used exercise mainly to control weight gain, but I still restricted periodically; it was just “lifestyle change” instead of diets. (Yeah, right.) Still, I was happier and far more confident than I had been in my pre-teens, teens, and 20s. I had a career, I dated a lot, met my now-husband, changed careers, and towards the end of my 30s, had a baby.

I kept a blog during my pregnancy, a time when I felt particularly liberated from body dysmorphia. Ironically, when I reread the blog, just about every entry has something in it about my weight. No, not weight-obsessed at all. I didn’t gain body fat during my pregnancy, and I lost a lot after it. My body used up a chunk of its reserves for baby building, nursing, and pumping. I felt great (other than the PPD and constant exhaustion), and dare I say, virtuous. I could eat like a horse and still lose weight. BECAUSE I HAD JUST MADE AND WAS FEEDING A BABY WITH MY BODY. It wasn’t virtue, it was continuation of the species, Mary.

So when I weaned and started to gain back the weight I’d lost, it sucked. Still, I had become more aware of the body positive movement and its early leaders. However, it wasn’t until well into my 40s that I realized that I had never stopped restricting. Ever. The BOPO movement became more intersectional and more critical of the good fatty trope, which was also very white, feminine, and heteronormative. I was by that time working on my PhD and becoming more aware of critical theories. I also started following some people on social media who were at the intersection of the eating disorder recovery community and the body positive community, and the intersectional and Black feminist community.

That was a rude ass awakening. I realized I had far more in common with the ED recovery community than I had ever considered. Fat women, particularly queer or black or other combinations of intersectional oppressions were treated like shit and assumed to be secretly binging instead of engaging in obsessive restriction. Skinny=anorexic. Fat=binge eating. Fat women were denied medical tests and medical care because all their problems were blamed on fatness and its falsely-associated lack of self-care and self-control. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of this bullshit, but not too frequently because I have the privilege to choose my providers and I also avoid going to the doctor like the plague because I don’t want to be harassed or shamed.

I have never been a binge eater. The further I got away from diets, the less I overate at all. As I started to read about Health at Every Size approaches and Intuitive Eating, I realized that I had been sold a whole ass bill of goods about the value and strength of my own body. And that the very diets that I forced myself on over and over until my 30s were responsible for my easy weight gain. Not only that, but I realized that I often revert to restricting behaviors when I am stressed or feeling out of control. I would skip meals and then wonder why I was gaining weight? The answer; my body wanted me to live more than I wanted to starve it. It still does.

I’m now 50. I’ve realized that food restriction has permeated most of my life, and I’m still prone to it if I’m not careful. Even working from home for the last two years, it’s still too easy to drink coffee instead of eating lunch, and then wonder why I feel like shit in the evening. When I signed up for a grocery delivery service, I realized that this low-level anxiety I always have had about food scarcity started to go away. I could always find something in my fridge to eat that would taste good and make my body feel good.

I have internalized so many negative, false narratives about how my body works. I’ve gained weight during the pandemic. I’m 50, perimenopausal, and it’s harder to exercise regularly. But for the first time in my life, I haven’t completely freaked the fuck out about it. I have bad days, but mostly I’m okay. I’m not a small fat anymore. I can still find clothes that fit me and look cute. I’m white, present as feminine, and therefore have a lot of unearned privilege, so I have an unfair advantage over the people struggling with an abusive system that marginalizes them from multiple directions. And I still hate living in a fatphobic society that believes in a set of pernicious lies about fat people.

  1. We are not lazy or weak.
  2. We are not dumb.
  3. We are not more or less healthy, as a population than anyone else (in fact research shows we live longer).
  4. We are discriminated against persistently for no reason other than bigotry and peoples’ own internalized fatphobia and projected existential fears (see my dissertation).
  5. We are loveable and attractive.

All the horrors I was told about how my life would turn out were straight-up bullshit. If I died tomorrow, I could say that I had lived a meaningful, love-filled life.

When Tess Holiday came out publically as having anorexia, more puzzle pieces clicked into place. So many of us are fat because our body-mind relationships were damaged at a really young age, and our bodies compensated by gaining weight to counteract our habitual starvation. Some of us would be fat anyway because fat bodies are part of the normal range of human bodies. But many of us damaged this vital link so young we will never know what our bodies would have been like without episodic starvation paired with deep self-loathing. However, regardless of what my body looked like, it still would have been monitored, critiqued, and judged based on things I have no control over and have nothing do to with my health, attractiveness, or value as a human.

Between our parents, grandparents, society, and the media, there was no way to learn to see fatness as part of the normal range of human bodies. The constant monitoring of bodies, particularly female-presenting bodies, is insidious and incredibly damaging. I had so many random adults “warn” me about my body before it was fat, or when I just wasn’t skinny. My high school choir director. Almost all of my voice teachers (fatphobia was one of the reasons I left opera). Some random dude at my conservatory seemed personally offended when I wasn’t anorexic-thin anymore. Another who I did an opera scene with who was supposed to lift me up and was disgusted that I, a human woman, weighed 150lbs. Many doctors, in spite of the fact that intentional weight loss has been proven to be 1) almost universally unsustainable, and 2) Not particularly conducive to better health, other than it may reduce medical discrimination and mistreatment. (It does nothing to reduce medical racism, transphobia, or healthism).

One light at the end of this tunnel of crap is that younger people are figuring it out way sooner than I did. Skinny and fat, black, white, brown, queer and disabled — we are all recognizing that our culture’s obsession with our appearance is just thinly veiled social control. We don’t need it.

The craziest thing I’ve learned is that having an abundance of nourishing, tasty food available is the best antidote to my anorexic restricting behaviors and their effects. The less I skip meals, the happier and safer I feel. The more excited I am to move — to walk or dance or stretch. The oppressive weight of other people’s perceptions doesn’t do nearly as much to my psyche when it and — my body — feels safe and loved.

My kid, bless them, can spot fatphobia from a mile away. They know that judging people based on how they look is something to work through and release, not justify and cling to. Fun fact: I’ve never put my kid on any kind of diet, or critiqued their body or their food. Their diet may look nuts to broccoli-obsessed parents, but my kid does what I never had a chance to do: just listen to their body and not judge it for what it wants. We don’t force food. My husband and I eat a really wide variety of food, and slowly but surely, the kid is integrating more stuff into their own nutrition. They have an unbroken relationship between their hunger, eating, and how their body feels.

If I can raise just one person who isn’t weight-obsessed and fatphobic, I will have done a damn fine thing. I know other parents like me who are jettisoning diets and weight monitoring for their kids, the way many of us are also jettisoning oppressive falsehoods about gender and sexuality. Some of these kids are going to be unbelievable badasses. Hopefully, they will help the kids whose parents haven’t unpacked all the bullshit and are continuing to pass this generational abuse on to their kids. My kid witnesses casual fatphobia at their middle school all the time — from 11-year-old girls to 60 something-year-old teachers. But at least they recognize it for what it is, rather than internalizing it as some kind of valor.

I’ve had decades of therapy but I am still pretty fragile when it comes to pervasive fatphobia. While I haven’t “dieted” in many years, I slip into restriction without realizing it, though I recover more quickly than before. Luckily, (and deliberately) I have surrounded myself with people who also recognize how damaging diet culture and fatphobia are and don’t trigger my shit. There’s no way to escape it completely, but the saner the people around you, the more obvious the crazy is when you encounter it.

Undereating is not a virtue. Eating is not a sin. Feed your body.

Learn more:
The Body is Not an Apology by Sonia Rene Taylor
Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings
Health at Every Size by Lindo Bacon
Podcast: Maintenance Phase
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

Trauma Informed Pedagogy and Whiteness in the Classroom

Over the past few years, but particularly near the 2020 US Presidential election, I have gotten subtle, and not-so-subtle messages that being too political can be dangerous as a professor. Particularly because I am not protected by tenure, student feedback that labels me as biased can harm my job security.

This isn’t easy to navigate at the best of times. I teach ethics, leadership, developmental psychology, and sociology of the family. I can’t ignore the developmental harm caused by separating children from parents. To do so would be unethical. I can’t ignore the trauma and harm my students, and their families experience at the hands of ICE, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, police violence, and a harmful justice system. Again, to do so would be unethical. The issues that have become front-page news directly affect many of my students. They tell me about them. I have heard many first person accounts of traumas that I will likely never face. While I have experienced this era’s stress, it hasn’t really affected me directly, mainly because of my whiteness. I did not earn whiteness, yet I get all the unearned privilege that comes with it. Most of my students do not and face dangers I cannot imagine.

I integrate current event discussions into all my classes because I believe it is irresponsible not to. In the process, I learn about the worlds in which my students live, about how campus policies and local politics and national policies affect them, about what they care about, what makes them happy, and what keeps them up at night.

I don’t consider a discussion of current events to be more political than any other aspect of public life. It’s just that, as has been said by women wiser than me, the personal is political. My students’ lives are deeply affected by the community, university, and country’s cultural and political climate. To ignore this fact erases them, causing further harm. It also disengages them from the learning process.

When the Black Lives Matter protests happened this summer, my institution listened to students and faculty and did some promising introspection. I hoped that this constant, low-level pressure would lessen. However, we were instructed to be as apolitical as possible in the wake of the presidential election.

This made me deeply uncomfortable, as I have witnessed the direct harm the current political and social climate has caused to my most vulnerable students.

Almost 95% of my students are women, and about 60% of them are non-white. They are the ones who have been most endangered by the policies and climate of the last four years (and the last 400).

Many of my students are or have been in crisis this year. I try to create a space in my classroom where they can relax a little. Where they can talk about their lived experiences if they want to. And where we all listen, and laugh a little, and think about the world from each other’s perspectives. Most are juniors and seniors worried about the future, worried about choosing a different path than their parents envisioned for them, and right now, worried about social violence and COVID. That is a lot to carry.

Yes, my few conservative white students are probably feeling pretty freaked out right now, much as I was four years ago. But I was never going to be the victim of increased social tolerance for white supremacy (because I’m white), Islamophobia (because I’m white), and the demonization of brown-skinned immigrants (because I’m white).

Part of engaging in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy entails knowing your own issues and dealing with them appropriately. The rules of processing trauma dictate that we take our trauma to someone who is 1) emotionally available, 2) has consented to hold our feelings with us (like a therapist or close friend), and 3) is not experiencing worse trauma than we are. Cognitive dissonance, like I experienced in 2016, and my conservative white students may be experiencing now, is very uncomfortable. It is not, however, life-threatening. I try to listen deeply to my students when they talk about trauma and not impose my own schemas on theirs in an attempt to relate.

I am not a therapist. But I am older, more financially and emotionally stable, and more experienced than my students, so I consent to hold space for them within the classroom boundaries and the teacher-student relationship while referring them to more qualified resources as needed. This is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

The mythology of false equivalency created over the last few years and further reinforced by social and mainstream media shows up like this:

Worrying about your Black child being killed by the police during protests is proportionate to feeling angry that a Black man was president.

Avoiding taking your kids to the doctor because ICE has been raiding your neighborhood and has put your uncle in detention is proportionate to being upset that gay people can get married.

Being verbally or physically attacked because you wear the hijab is proportionate to being upset that you are required to wear a face mask.

Physical danger and emotional discomfort are not proportionate.

False equivalency seems to be a pervasive byproduct of an era with continually mainstreamed racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and misogyny. Feeling uncomfortable is not the same thing as being in physical danger. Moreover, being in constant danger due to increased tolerance for hate crimes and discrimination has far-reaching negative effects on mental and physical health.

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that the world is not as it should be. We may experience it when someone says something in public we believe is false — when someone describes reality in a way we don’t experience. We feel it as tension in our bodies and perhaps as a flood of thoughts trying to defend or justify our position. It doesn’t indicate the rightness or wrongness of our position; it just is. We may also experience it as a symptom of intellectual and psychological growth. In Transformative Learning, a theory that underlies my pedagogy it is referred to as the disorienting dilemma. This happens when a learner is confronted with a viewpoint of the world, or perhaps themselves, which is new and uncomfortable. They must grapple with this discomfort as they test and then integrate the new knowledge into their world and self-view.

I experience cognitive dissonance when a Black activist criticizes white liberals on an issue I haven’t confronted yet. Over time, I have learned to lean into this discomfort, wait for it to pass, and then look at the issue without the need to rationalize my feelings immediately. Often, this causes me to grow just a little bit and to integrate some new knowledge into my world view. When I learned to do this, I stopped being as defensive when my demographic, white women, was criticized and learned to listen more deeply. This makes me a better person, a better ally, and a better citizen. Not perfect — not even close — but a little bit better.

I try to model this in the classroom by remaining receptive to criticism of what material I cover and how I teach it. If a student expresses concern that I am marginalizing a group or leaving out an important perspective, I will discuss it with the class, apologize if necessary, and adjust my approach. It’s not the responsibility of my students to fix my issues — I continue to engage in learning about systemic inequality and improving my practice — but when it happens, it allows me to model humility and flexibility to other privileged people and show that you can screw up and make amends and you will be okay. I try to show privileged students that discomfort is okay; marginalization is not.

Here is an example. I was teaching a class on families’ socioeconomics, and we were discussing current events, which included a wave of performative white supremacy online. A Black woman mentioned that some white people were posting videos of themselves drinking gallons of milk because they claimed that the ability to process lactose as an adult is a sign of racial superiority (rather than a random mutation). I laughed it off as too absurd to be real. Then I googled it when I got home. Yup. It was totally real. So in the next class, I publicly apologized for disbelieving my student and promised to do better. I ate some crow because 1) I totally deserved it, 2) I owed her an apology, and 3) other people need to know that admitting you are wrong won’t actually kill you.

The point of this story is not that I am a super woke white lady. Obviously, I’m not. It’s that I believe that teachers must model ethical, mature behavior, which includes owning our mistakes. (Note: ethics are messy) My Black and Brown students should not have such low expectations of white teachers that I am the best they can hope for. My conservative students should not be so brittle that they can’t handle some alternate perspectives. If I keep trying to be better, then maybe my minority students will expect more from me and my white students will expect more from themselves.

Cognitive dissonance is not life-threatening.

Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and ableism threaten students’ health and projected lifespan. They affect my students’ likelihood of experiencing violence, the quality of medical care they receive, their job and financial stability, and their access to housing, all during a pandemic that endangers our species. So I cannot in good faith pretend that white students’ discomfort is equivalent to marginalized students’ lack of safety. They are not. I try to center the experiences, critiques, and stories of my non-white students because I believe it is unethical not to. Marginalizing at-risk students isn’t just unethical; it’s dangerous.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy is not trauma-informed if we do not consider the ways that our social, financial, and political system does disproportionate harm to non-white people. In the aftermath of a contentious election and in the middle of a global pandemic, I cannot ignore this fact at the expense of my ethics, teaching, and, most importantly, my students.

It’s not developmental delay, it’s trauma

There has been a disturbing trend at my kid’s mostly amazing middle school. One teacher started telling my kid’s class (they are in the 6th grade and in person for the first time since spring of 4th grade) that they were underdeveloped and behaving like 4th graders. She told them she had discussed this with other teachers who agreed.

This is problematic, to say the least. Stigmatizing and shaming a group of kids is just stupid, stupid pedagogy. Shame and fear shut down the higher functions of the brain. Learning becomes close to impossible. It certainly does nothing to endear these students to this teacher or create a safe container for learning.

Later that week the teacher stressed my kid out and they started crying. The teacher took them into the hallway and tried to force them to calm down, while my kid begged for a little time by themselves to self-soothe. The teacher ended up sending my kid to the counselor’s office, who called me while I was teaching a class. This shitshow was entirely avoidable.

Some of the reasons my kid is struggling in this class, much more than their other classes, are they are dyslexic and the philosophy of this teacher seems to be “more is better” and “peer pressure makes better performance.” None of this tracks with kids with neurodiversity, so I do not know what her deal is. We’ve asked to have my kid transferred to another teacher’s class for this subject.

I talked to the counselor about my concerns and contacted my kid’s 504 coordinator. My kid has had very few issues with their other teachers and is doing pretty well for a dyslexic kid newly in middle school. Imagine my surprise when the principal sent out his weekly newsletter, usually a mildly interesting mix of updates and recommendations, and instead echoed what my kid’s less-than-stellar teacher had been saying. They are having discipline issues and it’s because kids are emotionally delayed due to quarantine.

I have been beating the drum of Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for a while now, but this was special. How the fuck do we get from almost two years of uncontrolled sickness, death, and job loss to “emotionally underdeveloped” and just whiz past trauma? More than 50% of the school population in Austin is Hispanic. The Hispanic community has been hammered by COVID. My college students of color are much, much more deeply impacted by the pandemic than my white students, me, and my contemporaries.

At the beginning of the last school year, I published a screed about forcing elementary school kids to be on camera all day for zoom school, because you don’t know what kind of shit they are dealing with. The same applies here. How many relatives have they lost? Have their parents lost jobs? Are they homeless? Are family members experiencing mental health or addiction issues? Have they been deprived of social interaction beyond computer screens because their parents have to work and don’t have time to provide them with stimulation? Can they even access the internet for what little social interaction is available? HAVE YOU ASKED YOURSELF ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS WHITE PRINCIPAL DUDE? Our kids still can’t get vaccinated, are trying to acclimate to an unrecognizable world where a deadly virus is still killing hundreds of people a day in our state, and you are acting like our kids took a fucking vacation for a year.

White Principal Dude, you have trauma. My kid’s abusive teacher has trauma. I have trauma, and so does my kid. We are all just trying to roll with the continuing punches and function as best we can.

Trauma-Informed Pegagogy means we take stock of and honor all trauma, including our own. And as trauma-informed teachers, leaders, counselors, and parents, we do our absolute best to not make our trauma the problem of people with less power than us. EVER. If you are assuming that everyone has a problem but you, you need to take several seats.

My kid got COVID from their school last week and my husband and I have breakthrough cases. As older, higher risk-people, this has not been a cakewalk. but our main fear has been for our kid, who is unvaccinated. Our kid is struggling with guilt for making us sick, despite our assurances that it is not their fault. We are angry at the school for crappy contact tracing. THIS IS ALL TRAUMA. It does not disappear because we don’t want to deal with it. Our tendency to blame, mine included, is a way to avoid the helplessness we feel in the face of this invisible, deadly virus.

Schools, teachers, and administration need to stop putting all the responsibility and blame for COVID onto those with the least power and start dealing with everyone’s actual trauma. Blame is avoidance, which only gets you so far. Our kids need boundaries, yes, but they also need compassionate, healthy teachers, who in turn need emotional, psychological, and financial support to weather this continuing shitstorm. We must do better.

A Tale of Two Governors

Texas and Florida are the epicenters of the Delta strain Covid outbreak right now. Both governors have outlawed mask and vaccine requirements for publically funded institutions, which includes K-12 schools and public universities. I teach at one such institution.

My university does important research on Covid, yet the leadership refuses to protect students, employees, and staff from possible infection, disability, and death. We have been told that we must return to campus and teach in crowded classrooms, even if we live with unvaccinated children or immunocompromised family members. Students want online classes. Teachers want online classes. Staff wants flexible work arrangements for safety. No one cares. The university has not polled or requested any information from any of the affected stakeholders, and the president, most recently known for keeping a sports song that originated in minstrel shows and booting band members who don’t want to play it (against the recommendation of pretty much everyone) has decided that our fates are unimportant in the greater scheme of things. The greater scheme of things is, apparently, not pissing off our genocidal governor and making more money off the backs of students and underpaid workers, regardless of risk.

One of my students committed suicide last semester. While the university doesn’t publically share the number of suicides, I know anecdotally that many more students took their own lives. Many students lost family and friends to Covid, experienced deep personal trauma, and had severe mental health crises. Mental health resources in Austin have been maxed out for over a year. I spent a lot of time last year compiling mental health resources for students and sharing them widely, for what little good it did. Through all of this instructors and TAs also experienced trauma and loss while trying to adapt to student needs and university demands.

The current situation is untenable and deeply unethical. I know we are not the only university experiencing this; many of my colleagues around the country have been talking about similar situations with their work. So just for the record:

Our lives are not expendable. Our work is not expendable. Our students’ lives are not expendable. Grow a backbone and follow the science you make so much goddamn money off of and protect us from unethical laws instead of pretending that the inevitable illness, disability, and death is acceptable. It is not.

Why we teach.

My teaching philosophy boils down to this: Don’t be an asshole. Give your students the benefit of the doubt.

College students are young adults or old adolescents, depending on who you ask. They go through a lot of brain and personality development during the four-ish years they spend in college. A few of them are entitled, or sociopathic, or just jerks who make your life harder. The vast majority are not. They are just young people who are trying to figure their shit out and get a degree.

When I talk to professors about the stuff I’m passionate about (Trauma Informed Pedagogy, Intersectionality, Critical Pedagogy) they are usually interested. But when I talk about my policies, or how I deal with students who are experiencing trauma, some get uncomfortable. “I don’t want students to come talk to me about their lives.” “What if they are taking advantage of you?” Some are openly adversarial and hostile towards students, though I don’t hang out with them much. Shocker.

If you want to see yourself as a nice person or a good teacher, ask yourself this:

  • What do you have to lose by giving students the benefit of the doubt?
  • What do you lose by being friendly and approachable?
  • And more importantly, what do you gain by being suspicious and judgemental?
  • Who are you helping?
  • Is your work more fulfilling when students are afraid of you?
  • Is it healthy or realistic to assume students are lying or manipulating you?

I’ve had some shitty teachers because I’ve had a whole lot of school. One yelled at the class and told us our ideas were “pablum” because we didn’t mimic his conclusions. He was special. One, a terrible writer, tried to convince me that accessible writing was bad writing. My sixth grade teacher hated smart kids and bullied and intimidated them in front of the class. They were all either adversarial towards students or easily threatened. They lacked ego strength. They were bullies who got off on the power distance between themselves and their students.

The thing that ties together the best of my teachers and professors is this: Grace. Assuming the best, but being able to critique in a concise but kind way. Having clear boundaries but being willing to hear critical feedback. Having compassion for students and genuinely liking or loving teaching. Having ego strength and being willing to deal with setbacks and failure as steps on the path towards being better rather than blaming students. They had humility and compassion mixed with a goodly amount of confidence in their own abilities and a willingness to learn and improve.

The last year, and particularly the last semester, has just absolutely sucked for students. It’s sucked for teachers too, but it’s REALLY sucked for college students. My students have had issues with housing, anxiety, depression, relapse, and the suicides of their classmates. Lots got COVID because they live together and they can’t control the practices of their roommates. Many are working full time to lessen financial strain on families hurt by the pandemic and our inability to provide anything like a social safety net for our population. They’ve lost friends and relatives to COVID, mental health issues, and other stuff worsened by the social upheaval and ongoing racism in our society. They are tired, stressed, and some are past their limits.

My university is usually pretty hands off when it comes to how we run our classrooms as long as we are in compliance with the law, and those of use who have been sounding the alarm on student mental health are often ignored. But this semester the shit really hit the fan in the form of Snowvid – the mass power, gas, and water outages in Texas due to a snowstorm and prolonged freeze. We were all affected, me included. It sucked. The university urged us to give students extra grace: time on assignments, absences, etc. Most of us did. Some didn’t. Too many of my students told me about teachers holding Zoom classes on days the university was closed due to the freeze (after explicitly telling faculty not to hold classes or give tests).

I got the highest student feedback scores ever this semester, and they are always pretty high. Here’s why: I didn’t assume students were trying to take advantage of me, BECAUSE I DON’T CARE. I am worried about students dying, not whether or not I’m a sucker. If I catch a student blatantly lying or cheating I will take action because it’s irresponsible to let them think it’s okay, and they may do much worse harm in the future if someone doesn’t hold them responsible. But beyond that I do not fucking care if a student asks for an extension for a hangover or a hospitalization. I really don’t. I still failed students this semester, despite a super lenient policy about late work and willingness to be flexible on attendance. If you don’t do the work, you don’t pass. That’s part of my job. But I do not regret helping the students who were able to pull their shit together at the last minute pass my classes. I don’t regret making accommodations for students who were having issues with depression but hadn’t gotten a letter from the disability office yet. I don’t regret letting students who were doing full time child care for bereaved relatives have a pass on Zoom.

If your main joy in teaching is really schadenfreude and you relish the power you have to make your students lives suck, please find another profession. If you are more concerned about being hoodwinked than you are about your students learning, why are you teaching? It can’t be the money.

Stressed out students don’t learn well. (Stressed out teachers have issues too – believe me. My memory this year has been shit.) Further stressing them out unnecessarily when you could extend them some grace is just sadistic bullshit. I am so tired of hearing about “weed-out” classes that result in students dropping out of school. The students who really don’t want to be there will leave, believe me. You should not have a free pass to be an asshole because you teach a difficult course.

If the culture of your department or school is adversarial towards students, say something. Do something. You CAN influence culture change over time. Showing students that they can expect compassion and humanity from teachers empowers them to make change. Giving students a place where they can be authentic has the advantage of making me a better teacher. When students trust me enough to tell me I fucked something up, I can fix it (or myself). You can effectively wield authority while still being a decent human being who treats students like decent human beings. I promise. I could post a ton of research from different fields on the minutiae of why trauma informed, growth mindset, inclusive, experiential, reflective teaching is better teaching, but it really boils down to this. Don’t be an asshole to your students.

Teachers are not collateral damage.

I’ve read and listened to some utterly infuriating commentary this week from reputable media on sending kids back to physical classrooms. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Kids are unlikely to get seriously ill.
  2. Rates of infection are not currently higher in school populations than the population at large.
  3. Screens are ruining their brains.
  4. Remote learning is imperfect.
  5. Kids are getting behind in their education.
  6. Kids need normalcy.

I will now call bullshit on these points.

  1. Yes, kids are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID but there are several things missing from this picture. Their teachers can get it and die or be permanently disabled. Several children have died. We don’t know how long (if at all) people are immune after recovery or what the long term effects are, including on kids. School staff can be in high risk categories and will be put at unacceptable risk. Kids can be silent spreaders. They can bring it home to you, and you can spread it to others before you become symptomatic. Dead or hospitalized parents are more traumatic that Zoom. Accidentally killing your grandparents–also more traumatic than Zoom school. Permanently destroying the health of their teachers and other school staff – No. Just no. They signed up to educate you kids, not die for your denial soaked facsimile of normalcy.
  2. When you talk about rates of infection you are essentially talking about acceptable losses. We do not have acceptable losses in the US. We have unacceptable, preventable losses. We have no plan, no tracking, no tracing. Very little testing for screening. What is an acceptable loss? A parent? A kindergarten teacher? A janitor? The principal? 4% of janitors? 20% of teachers? This is not a fucking land war. It’s a fast-spreading, unpredictable, and sometimes fatal or disabling disease that nobody should have to expose themselves to so we can all fake that everything is fine.
  3. Screens are not ruining kids brains. They never have. Kids are creative and social, and the internet provides myriad was for your kids to be creative and social that is developmentally appropriate for their age. Is it better than playing with kids outside? That’s an apples and oranges question. Would I love for my daughter to have a sleepover with her best friends who she hasn’t seen in more than half a year? Hell, yes. But not at the expense of lives of permanent lung or heart damage. Seriously. Get over the screen thing and educate yourself about age-appropriate games, education, and social media. Oh, and there is no diagnosis for game or screen addiction in non-adults. It’s a myth. Make some clear rules and stick to them. Don’t hobble what entertainment and social contact your kid has because you read the internet was going to rot their brains. It’s not. There are tons of websites for evaluating games and platforms for kids.
  4. Yes. Yes it is. Online learning has been a hot fucking mess for my daughter. It is not perfect. It is not normal. You know what else isn’t normal? A GLOBAL FUCKING PANDEMIC. Get the fuck over it. Zoom may not be your or your kid’s favorite thing but neither is killing Grandma. Just get the fuck over yourselves.
  5. Kids have amazing neuroplasticity. And you know what they can learn about right now, even if they are behind in useless standardized testing? The world around them. Social justice. The environment. Cooking. Art. Music. Programming. They will continue to grow and develop and learn when you stop freaking out about whether or not they will get into Harvard and just let them be kids.
  6. Kids need honesty way more than they need normalcy. They soak up stress and sense lies. There is no normalcy available to provide them with. They know stuff is weird and stressful and they pick up WAY MORE than you think they do. Talk to them about why everything is weird in a developmentally appropriate way. You can shelter them from the worst of the trash fire that is our country right now, but you can’t hide it. Be a grownup and figure out what you kids need to feel empowered and knowledgeable. They will surprise you.

Thus ends my current rage list. In summary STOP PRETENDING LIKE EVERYTHING IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE. Deal with reality as it is, not how you would like it to be, and show your kids the respect of valuing their lives and the lives of their teachers over your need to convince yourself that normal is just around the corner. It’s not.

Trauma Informed Pedagogy in K-12 during a Pandemic: Some thoughts

I have been learning about and teaching through the lens of Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP) for a couple years at the college level. Here are some of my basic assumptions and practices:

  1. I don’t know peoples’ stories.
  2. Many people have experienced trauma and I cannot predict or judge how my curriculum may affect them.
  3. I recognize that discrimination-based trauma is ubiquitous and I do my best to acknowledge harm and make amends when I cause, misunderstand, or overlook it.
  4. I try to center marginalized voices in my classroom.
  5. I acknowledge the influence of colonialism and patriarchy on the formation of philosophy and science and try to provide access to research by non-white voices.
  6. I provide trigger-warnings and alternate assignments for topics such as hate crime, police violence against people of color, domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse.
  7. I allow students to actively use self-care, including leaving the classroom or engaging in non-distracting breaks (drawing or looking at phones) if they are feeling triggered.
  8. I discuss and provide resources for counseling, mindfulness, and self-care on and off campus.

This is just a starter list – I expand it as I go and learn new things. In the Zoom school world, there has been conversation about video and how to manage TIP while teaching online. As a professor, it really helps when I can see my students’ video feeds. Screaming into the void is hard and exhausting. However, I don’t mandate video use because, again, I don’t know people’s stories. They might be homeless. They might be sick. They might be having a bad hair day. I’m not God, and I don’t get to choose for people how shitty they are feeling and which reasons are valid.

My daughter started the 5th grade this week and it’s mostly on Zoom. She did Camp Half Blood this summer for 4 weeks, all online, and it was EPIC. Like so good. So she’s fairly comfortable with the technology and how it works. But it’s very different to be in a Zoom classroom with stressed out teachers and stressed out kids with stressed out parents, trying to have a “normal” school day. I feel for the teachers. It is a whole damn thing to try and make this work with 10 year olds–can you imagine what it is like for first graders? I can’t even.

But here’s the thing. Some topics, like in my classes, are intellectual and easily discussed without getting overly emotional. Some are not. My kid spends most of her day with her two main teachers, and a few short sessions a day with the PE, Art, Music, Chinese, Library and Social Emotional Learning teachers. These topics are not all the same. How kids react to them is not going to be the same for a variety of reasons.

I want to see TIP practiced in elementary schools. If you are talking to kids about feelings and stress, they may get stressed out. They may have had relatives die in the last few months. Their parents may be out of work. They might be food insecure. Don’t force them on camera. Don’t make them parrot words back at you. Don’t threaten to call their parents in front of other kids.

Like just don’t.

Need to call on kids in math class? Probably fine. But remember, you don’t know their life. You don’t know if one of their parents is drunk and abusive and at home. You don’t know if they are worried about not having new clothes and looking bad to other kids. You don’t know if they have shitty bandwidth.

You. Don’t. Know.

I need elementary school teachers and counselors and administrators to recognize this nothing is normal right now. Pantomiming normal is not helpful for kids, it’s confusing. Compassion is helpful. Grace is helpful. Many teachers know this and do endless amounts of emotional labor to help kids feel safe. But please remember that kids do not have the same capacity for denial as adults. They can’t filter, and they can’t choose what makes them feel scared.

Whether you teach grad students or kindergarteners, please remember that you do not know what they have seen or experienced in the past few months. It is not your place to judge. We have to do our best to provide education under the weirdest of circumstances, and if we want our students to give us a break when we screw up, we need to afford them the same respect, no matter their age.

Historical Antecedents of the Quaranteam

My family (my husband, daughter, and I) recently decided to invite another family to be part of our quarantine bubble, or Quaranteam. Texas is sucking mightily at flattening the curve (All Hail the Ravening EconoBeast), and most of us have pulled our kids out of the summer camps that remain, expecting to have a long, hot, boring, socially distant summer. The family we teamed up with is compatible in lots of ways: two kids that my kid went to preschool with, the older of whom is close in age, working from home/staying home parents, and a commitment to minimal exposure to COVID-19 through quarantine, the use of masks, grocery delivery, etc. We’ve hung out a lot over the last few years because it helped wear out our kids and gave us other interesting grownups to talk to and they are fantastic humans. We are politically compatible and share interests in nerd things. I’ve also hung out with both partners individually doing stuff like lunch or gaming. We all get along pretty well. It’s no small feat to find a group of seven humans who can stand each other most of the time. Sometimes our kids get into it, as kids do, but it works pretty well.

It was a huge relief to be near other people when we finally took the plunge. Whatever mental or physical deficiency (probably both) comes from not being able to be with your people was mightily assuaged just by an afternoon of hanging out and letting our kids play. We fist bumped. The kids hugged. Seeing my only child get her first hugs from other kids in forever weeks made me a little verklempt.

So I was explaining it to my therapist, and I kept coming up with this seemingly weird parallel. When I was 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I got two degrees and worked while flying around for auditions, so I was there for about seven years in all. I lived there from 1989-1996, during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Nobody close to me died, but people very close to people close to me did. A lot. Sex was dangerous. San Francisco is also a famously sex-positive, kink-friendly city that was an LGBTQ haven in a still homophobic country.

The upside of this is that sex was practiced frequently, enthusiastically, creatively, and very carefully negotiated in advance to ensure minimal risk. Everyone knew someone with HIV. Didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, in a city where those lines were super blurry to begin with, it was common courtesy to 1) disclose your sexual activities with prospective new partners, 2) discuss types of protection (and/or contraception if pregnancy was a possibility), and 3) disclose the last time you were tested or get tested before engaging with a new partner, even a casual one. There was a hotline you could call for free to find out the latest information on transmission and prevention. There was (is) a fantastic store for books, toys, videos, cheap high quality condoms and other protectives that was laid out like a clean well lit book store and not a creepy sex shop. Absent was the furtive, guilty, ignorant behavior often associated with sex, and sadly, still very much present in states where sex-ed is banned or limited to abstinence “education.” Yes those are snarky quotes.

So anyway, here are the weird parallels. We are trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a debilitating and potentially fatal disease. This is drastically changing our behavior patterns. When we didn’t understand how HIV was spread (and not spread) abstinence was the only safe option. Just as quarantine is the only safe option when we can no longer control the spread of COVID-19. We still have human needs for connection and proximity, which come into conflict with our desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Hence, we deliberately, carefully, negotiate terms of engagement in a way that will hopefully carry minimum risk and maximum gratification. Same/Same. Ish.

The other parallels are much darker. Spread of HIV among heterosexual populations where discussing sex and prevention is taboo is still a problem, especially in places where effective treatment is too expensive or unavailable. Such is the case with COVID-19. But instead of people half way across the world being in danger, it’s us. Our government has utterly failed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and the ignorance of much of our population, combined with structural inequality that puts low wage workers at much higher risk with little power to control their levels of exposure. Others refuse to believe that a virus is more powerful than they and act as if there is no danger. All of these issues exponentially increase the likelihood of infection for everyone else. In the 90s, if nothing else, we could stop having sex. But we can’t stop breathing, or eating, or working, and those activities or the activities that enable them put us and our loved ones at risk.

So I am happy to have some more people to hang out with and practice safe quarantining (as safe as we can be with an airborne pathogen), but I continue to be concerned about the misinformation and blatant idiocy that is keeping this disease active and dangerous. We are so lucky to have compatible friends and jobs where we can quarantine easily. We are also the recipients of tremendous unearned privilege. As my mental health improves, I wonder how I can compensate for this in some way. For those of you similarly safe – respect safe distance from others. Tip the crap out of delivery people. Speak loudly (and financially) in support of higher wages and safe working conditions for the people keeping our children fed. Don’t forget that the ability to quarantine safely is anything but universal. And just as the AIDS crisis of the 1990s was not the fault of the victims, but of a negligent government, your ability to avoid infection now doesn’t mean that you have done anything special to deserve it.