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.

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.

Everything is surreal. More systems theory. And some psych.

Oh, the naive me of like two weeks ago. Okay, not really. But trauma fatigue is a thing, and we are all dealing with it to varying degrees based on 1) our circumstances and 2) our ability to deal with ambiguity and stress. I’m not going to self-own by trying to do neuropsychology, but basically, our brains spend a lot of time trying to deal with the ambiguity and stress, which has a lot of physical and psychological effects. Brain fog. Exhaustion. Insomnia. Weird-ass dreams. Aches and pains.

I’ve posited privately that those of us cursed with an overactive imagination and a tendency towards anxiety are uniquely prepared to deal with, as it turns out, a pandemic. I’ve seen this reflected back in some of the articles and posts of fellow worriers. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It went and dropped. Now I just have to wait it out and not spend a lot of time and energy freaking out about what I can’t control. Which is totally weird, since I often freak out about what I can’t control. But I know it’s not just me. I am not wasting my energy trying to deny the science or convince myself that nothing is really wrong. I guess worrying about existential realities all the time makes it easier to deal with existential realities? It’s not that I’m unbothered — I’m super bothered. This all sucks. I just don’t see the need to retreat into projection or denial to cope. Imma listen to the epidemiologists because they know how disease works and do my best to keep myself and my family as safe as we can.

My neighborhood had a sign up at the mailbox last week. It suggested having dinner on your front lawn and talking to your neighbors. We didn’t, because mosquitos, but my kid and I took a walk in the early evening. Clusters of people were hanging out in yards, clearly several households, no masks, much closer than 6 feet from one another. One of my neighbors hailed us and invited us to join them. We did not.

Why does my 10 year old understand this shit better than my educated upper-middle-class neighbors? How can anyone avoid the fact that this disease is airborne? I’m probably not the most responsible of the people I know. I still visit the grocery store occasionally and I don’t wipe down groceries and deliveries. I wash my hands for 20 seconds after any contact with the outside world and hope for the best. I wear a mask if I’m going to be shopping or picking anything up. Mostly we stay inside and when we take walks we keep our distance from others.

This does not infringe upon my liberty because it’s a safety issue. Others have said this better than me so I won’t harp. But seriously. Seriously. Working together to prevent community spread and keep our infection rate and death toll low is, to me, just a basic human society thing to do. Don’t dump your garbage in the street. Don’t pour motor oil down the sewer. DON’T ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE IN INCREASING THE DEATH TOLL IN YOUR CITY.

Every day our mayor holds an update. He talks about infection rates, deaths, and recoveries. The numbers are going up. Not creeping up–going up. Meanwhile, our governor and other public servants are forcibly opening up businesses with the threat of withholding unemployment and other benefits. As far as I’m concerned, this is state-mandated genocide. And yet people in my community are trolling the comments, claiming that the death toll is inflated (it’s not) and the mayor overreacted (he didn’t). I find this so frustrating.

Here’s a funny thing about systems theories. They are widely adopted in business and economics. Economists understand the interconnected nature of cultural systems, psychological systems, ecological systems, and financial systems. And yet. This drive to free Americans from the tyranny of trying to save our own fucking lives is predicated on saving the mythical beast that is the economy. Milton Friedman, champion of unfettered, unregulated capitalism as Utopia famously wrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Meaning that corporations bear no responsibility to the multiple ecosystems inside and outside their constructed boundaries, only that they must grow profits indefinitely for the benefits of shareholders. This ignores the more common folk wisdom of don’t shit where you eat. This Randian thinking has lead to the fiction of trickle-down economics and the eventual marriage of white supremacy and American exceptionalism to some particularly weird interpretations of Christianity (that seem to avoid the whole “being rich is bad” and “blessed are the meek” and “judge not” bits) with a dash of gun-nut culture, paranoia, and nourished on a steady diet of Fox News, Infowars, and OAN.

As I observed a couple weeks ago, for some people it seems to be easier to distort reality than to deal with it. When the sources of information with which you are surrounded (or surround yourself) feed you this steady diet of being the center of the known universe, I guess it’s pretty hard to pull back and take a look at the bigger picture, in which a microscopic organism is actually much, much bigger than you.

That doesn’t mean that I understand the people engaged by the latest round of enthusiastic astroturfing and hijacking of reality.  I mean, I kind of do? It took me a while to really grapple with bearing some of the collective responsibility for the harm done by white women and white feminists. I, too, was raised to think I was a good person, and as a good person, I couldn’t say or think racist things. I was super wrong, and I had to go through the phases of being defensive and dismissive, and then trying to prove to POC I was “woke” (God I’m so sorry for being insufferable), and then eventually learning to lean into my discomfort and responsibility and educate my own damn self. I’m sure I have many layers left to unpack. But it’s not like I haven’t fucked up and had to own up to harm before, so there’s that–I just had to do it on a more global scale. It hurt, but it was necessary. So I guess I transitioned from White Guilt to maybe white responsibility, or at least the beginnings of it. There is a term for this in Transformative Learning Theory. It’s called the “disorienting dilemma.” It means that when adults, though education, are forced to re-evaluate their fixed identities and behavior, it can be psychologically disturbing. If your pedagogy is informed by this theory, you have to scaffold the learning process to allow for the emotions that come up. I think of this in terms of a psychological container – a set of norms and rules in my classroom that allow for respectful expression of difficult emotions and reactions.

I also feel like, as fucked up as the Ph.D. process is in so many ways, it also kind of cracked my brain open and forced me to see into the innards of things. My brain developed some capacity it didn’t have before. I’m not smarter. I just went through this intense re-training of how I examine the world and myself and process information and that helped me do that zooming out thing, independent of how I’m feeling at any given moment. If I can do anything lasting for my students, it’s supporting their innate ability to see the bigger picture and helping them learn to communicate it.

A couple years ago I had a student ask me why anti-vaxxers were a thing. I’m getting very similar questions now, often with that comparison. My answer about the anti-vaxxers was this: Becoming a parent utterly terrifying because for the rest of your life the most terrifying thing you can imagine is losing your child. And there is no way you can completely guarantee that it won’t happen. You have to live with your inability to completely protect them for the rest of your life. It is AWFUL. As an anxiety-prone person I was uniquely NOT prepared for this. It knocked me on my ass for several years. Eventually, I grew the capacity to not fixate on that fear but to also not deny it. I suspect that anti-vaxxers find comfort in believing that they are helping their children survive more than the rest of us sheeple, thus temporarily relieving the crushing existential fear. Of course, this involves building and moving into a citadel of misinformation that actually puts their children (and vulnerable children) at considerably higher risk. But the projection acts as a crutch, and there is enough misinformation out there to live comfortably in that citadel as long as your kid doesn’t get measles or FUCKING POLIO.

So anyway. When my students are once again asking me why white ppl are ignoring basic science in favor of whatever the hell it is they think they are fighting for, this is the explanation I think about. It’s the closest I can get. I studied defense mechanisms via fatphobia on the internet for my dissertation, and there was a lot of, “well you’re going to die before me because diabetes and laziness” with the unspoken coda being “so I’m safe from worrying about an untimely death for a little while”.

The current madness, however, has taken shape and been propagated much, much faster than most of this stuff. The American psyche is already fertile ground for paranoia and projection, but I’m pretty sure some other actors have been surfing this wave, much as they did during the last Presidential election.

I guess I wanted to believe that we were better than this. I know sociologists and historians and cultural theorists and multi-disciplinary weirdos like me will look at how the world has coped with COVID-19 and try to figure out why South Korea and Germany and New Zealand managed to avoid a significant death toll while the US and the UK and Sweden shat the bed. I’m sure we will argue about it for decades. But I wonder if exceptionalism has something to do with it. I wonder if there are aspects of culture that prepare people to cope with our extremely limited control over our environment in a way that seemingly similar cultures do not. Or maybe we just had more and less competent leaders. That is certainly a thing.

Here’s my final point in this ramble. The economy is not really a thing. It’s people. The ruling class in America has been burning incense and making sacrifices a deified ideal that is really just this hollow, fake, golden calf that they believe exists as an independent entity to which we must sacrifice, in this case our elderly, poor, prison population, and interred immigrants. Just ask Dan Patrick. But it’s just people. Shareholders only really exist when we think of money as an entity. Take away that ideology, and it’s just people, making stuff, trading it, and living their lives. The sooner we can break free of this batshit crazy illusion, the better.

 

Everything is weird. With systems theory and some personal theology.

The coronavirus has taken over all our lives, one way or another. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to keep working by teaching from home. My husband works from home. My daughter is also home and doing some schoolwork for the remainder of the semester. So I’m teaching 6 zoom sessions a week, plus meetings, plus doing most of the homeschooling, plus child-rearing and trying to manage her trauma and my own. It is a lot. But I am insanely lucky and privileged.

I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of feels. I’ve been through periods of trauma before. I was in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I remember the giddy numbness that eventually faded into jumpiness and fear. But I’ve been home by order of our city since the middle of March and the giddiness and dissociation has started to wear off. What’s left behind is sadness and rage.

The sadness is for all the pain people are experiencing. For the people dying without their loved ones and their loved ones not being able to be there for the dying. I’ve been at a deathbed, and it is a traumatic but also sacred experience. I’m sad for the health care providers, caught in a tug of war between public servants and a financially and morally bankrupt industry and a toxic, dysfunctional government. So many have already died. All of this makes me deeply sad.

The rage is about the sheer idiocy that is pervading our government, and the idiocy of the people who are protesting or flouting basic safety measures that don’t go nearly far enough. I write and think about systems theories, a lot. I wrote this piece about systems theory and the environment and human limitations almost two years ago. I’ve been thinking about it.

The thing that has always gotten me isn’t the cruelty that is so obviously from a place of trauma and fear. I don’t approve of cruelty and believe it should be stopped whenever possible, but I understand how trauma can turn into psychotic projection, and how society creates an environment for it.

What gets me is the casual cruelty and dismissal that is so common and mundane. I can wrap my head around someone telling a fat person they should kill themselves because the source of their pain is so obvious. It’s abusive and not helpful or generative, but it’s a clear demonstration of projected trauma. I have a much, much harder time with this binary, cause and effect, self-centered, casual cruelty that causes people to rearrange reality so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Right now I see it everywhere and it’s making me miserable and angry.

Austin’s mayor got ahead of the curve (for Texas) and put in place rules for social distancing and shutting down non-essential services. We have had relatively few deaths for a population of a million. Cases are rising faster now, however, because it seems that many people can’t understand the basic trajectory of a contagious untreatable disease. You get it. You spread it to others before you get symptoms. They spread it to others before they get symptoms. People die.

I have some theories about this blindness. Particularly because the people protesting and calling health measures fascism are mostly my age or older and white.

White people are totally centered by American society. We grow up seeing people who look like us achieving the pinnacle of success in every field and sector of society. When we suffer, it’s tragic. When the other (black, latinx, disabled, gay, etc) suffers it must be because they have done something to make it happen.

This is a grossly distorted view of reality. Humans are not the primary system on this planet and our little genetic differences in appearance matter not at all to organisms like viruses and bacteria. Our constructions of societies and languages and countries and tribes matter not at all. And we are not the most intelligent system. The earth is. The earth is a system that is vastly more complex and intelligent than people on our very best day. Intelligent doesn’t mean conscious. And I am starting to doubt how important consciousness is to our survival as a species after all, since we seem to be using it to rationalize doing really, really stupid shit.

We are tiny organisms that are part of a much, much larger ecosystem. Population control via disease is a basic tool in nature’s toolbox. As many scientists have said, it was only a matter of time.

But white men (and women) have been living in an imaginary world where we are the masters of nature and our primacy in society is due to some assumed superiority of mind or spirit. And suddenly, we can’t escape the reality that we are very, very small in the scheme of things. We are helpless in the face of this virus, and we have a very small, very disruptive set of things we can do in the short term to keep from dying off in the millions.

White people can’t deal with this basic existential reality because we have been raised on exceptionalism. We breathe it, eat it, see it constantly in media ane art, and are constantly reminded that we are uniquely connected to the best of what humanity has achieved by our whiteness. So now there are protests and conspiracy theories (I particularly love the one about Bill Gates engineering the virus – because of course, it has to be a white man wreaking havoc on our species – it can’t be a non-sentient hyper-intelligent system we have no control over).

So faced with the existential terror of a death we cannot project or blame on someone other we create fantasy worlds where the virus is a hoax and people are not dying by the thousands every day and our president isn’t lying and stealing supplies from destitute hospitals full of workers who are dying while trying to save our lives. Where governors and mayors who are trying to save lives are actually Nazis trying to steal our personal liberty (whatever the hell that is) and where going to church won’t result in countless deaths over months as community spread creeps through our communities.

I don’t know how to cope with this. There is no Schadenfreude if these morons get sick, because by the time they do they will have infected hundreds of innocent people who are just trying to survive. They will orphan their kids. They will kill their parents. All because they can’t handle being small. This virus reminds us that we are tiny. I believe in God, and I believe that I am loved by God. But I don’t believe God loves me more than they love the ants I have killed by pest control or the Arctic animals losing their habitats. God doesn’t love me more than the black families who can’t get decent health care because of racism and exposure to toxic chemicals and stupid white people who refuse to pay attention to scientists. I am not loved more than the ant, or the person with darker skin than me, or the undocumented immigrant, or the endangered species. My God is the Universe, and they don’t play favorites with humanity.

I’ve been yelled at online by multiple people in the last few weeks who say I’m a terrible teacher because I question authority and that z-paks cure the virus and that black people are high-risk because they make bad decisions and our mayor is actually Hitler because face masks. And then I see the same bullshit said from the podium of the white house and from national news and retweeted over and over again. And I think, huh. If having consciousness means we can distort reality to the point that we do nature’s job for her and reduce our species’ population by millions, is consciousness really a sign of advanced evolution (or God’s favor), or is it a failsafe for Nature? Are the limitations of our ability to understand that we are not actually the center of God’s creation what will keep us from destroying it? That is terrifying and sad.

My daughter understands how community spread works and she’s 10. My students, on the cusp of adulthood, are arguing with their parents and grandparents about staying home while finishing natural science degrees from one of the best universities in the country. It’s not getting through.

I’m out of thoughts. I hope that somehow people come to terms with our smallness and start doing everything we can to slow the spread of this disease so we can make better decisions about how to live as a species on this planet in the future. But for now, I’m just sad. Here is a song that helps me connect to my sadness and to my kinship with all those suffering right now:

That time of year

I have a batch of student graduating and with that comes the existential dread of what adulting will be like. I usually ask my Ethics class to come up with questions for me to answer the last week of school. I’m going to post some of my better responses here for posterity.

Question: What is up with not being motivated? Can I make myself more motivated? (paraphrased)

Answer: Motivation is a big issue, and there’s no easy fix. I’ve been highly motivated to do lots of stuff in my life, and some of it worked out and some of it didn’t. I’ve also had motivation issues with really important things that I eventually trudged my way through.

I believe we have an inner voice (or a bunch of them) that guides us, but sometimes that voice gets drowned out by other stuff like an obligation, financial reality, the need to be accepted or admired, etc. Also, what makes life meaningful changes as we age.

If one topic keeps you really in the zone (interested, time passes quickly, challenges are exciting instead of daunting) and another makes you exhausted and miserable, you might explore the former. That said, I’ve endured some stuff I mostly hated (dissertation review, for example) to get where I wanted to be, but my overall goal got me through. I’ve also had the same activity be amazing in one context (school) and totally and utterly awful in another (running a business).

We are creatures of impulse, and sometimes too many impulses pull on us at once. Sometimes it helps to write down or visualize what we want and what the barriers are (and what we are spending time on instead). Try to do this with curiosity, rather than self-judgment or guilt. I’ve used mind maps, spreadsheets, and journaling to concretize my ideas – whatever worked at the time. I’ve also worked with coaches a few times and therapists a lot.

Finally,  I think the best decisions are when your heart, brain, and body are all on the same page (and this includes friends, partners, jobs, pretty much anything that has a big impact on your life)

Body – Do you feel energized and have stamina when you’re engaged with the activity (person, etc)? Do you feel balanced? Or do you feel wiped out? Do you end up relieving stress in ways that wear you out more? (staying up too late, drinking alcohol, or my personal favorite, too much coffee)

Mind – Does it make rational sense to pursue this avenue? What are the long and short term pros and cons?

Heart – Do you feel fulfilled, safe, joyful, peaceful, excited? Or fearful, angry, competitive, or insecure?

No career/person/etc is 100% perfect. I’ve had 4ish careers, and all of them had great things about them and suck things about them. It’s really about the balance. As a teacher, I have to fight really hard to carve out time for my family and physical/mental health (because of that 24-hour semester thing), and academic politics are just stupid. But in return, I get a lot of control, the opportunity to be creative and to continually learn and improve. For me, teaching is a career that’s max on fulfilling and min on the suck parts.

That’s especially important for me because the combination of being a recovering perfectionist and a highly competitive person can really mess me up. Teaching, ultimately, is not about me so I can let go of the need to compare myself to others.  Someone will always think I’m amazing (even my first semester 8 years ago when I sucked) and someone will always think I’m totally lame (no matter how much other students like my classes). I find this strangely freeing. In some ways, it can be helpful to work against type. Make of that what you will. And watch Hannah Gadsby’s Ted Talk – she talks about this too.

Diet Culture and Disordered Thinking

TW for eating disorder discussion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life is crazy right now, but these thoughts have been stewing in my brain and body and I need to get them out on the page.

Society’s basic approach to eating and having a body, especially for women, is highly disordered. We don’t just have an eating disorder crisis, we have a society full of people teetering on the edge of (or really quite over the edge of) highly disordered relationships to food, eating, bodies, and self.

For as long as I can remember, the women around me talked about how much they hated parts of their bodies and how they were restricting their diets as penance and punishment. They compared themselves to others, positively or negatively.  While my parents tried much harder than many in my generation to feed me and my brother fresh food, it was often framed in terms of suffering for a reward, which does not engender any kind of positive relationship to hunger or cravings. Tasty food was “bad” and healthy food, delicious or not, was “good”.

Animals do not worry about bad and good foods. They eat what their physiology dictates when it dictates. We are animals. We are wired to eat what we need when we need it. But girls are taught from the time they can understand the language spoken around them that their bodies are flawed, their need to eat is a sign of weakness, and vanquishing hunger, though any means possible, is a sign of moral strength and fortitude.

This is so beyond fucked up.

The amount of diet culture I had absorbed by the time I was seven and my parents started actively trying to restrict my diet and change my eating habits (they claimed I ate too fast. Food insecurity causes people and animals to eat what they can when they can and a child can’t tell the difference between a lack of food and the threat of food being taken away) was already verging on disordered. Add into that picture living in Southern California where disordered body relationships and eating were the norms, and parents who were worried that I would get fat and ruin my prospects at a happy life/career/relationship and I was well and truly fucked.

In my late teens, I reasserted control over my life by increasingly restrictive diets and eventually anorexia. It wasn’t like one day I was all, “Anorexia is the answer to all my problems!” I had been soaking in a number of toxic cultures, none of which presented trusting and appreciating my body as an option – only restricting and punishing it. The toxic masculine, rape-culture of the 80s. The beauty worship of Southern California. The health obsession of Northern California. Generational trauma. Abusive relationships. There was no chance for me — I had never seen an example of a woman who loved and nourished her body with pride — or if I had, she had been derided for being too masculine or fat or ugly.

I was a fast learner and I learned this lesson young: Your body is not your own. It’s public domain and it’s your job to manipulate it into the most visually pleasing form at any cost. And no, you don’t get to decide what is visually pleasing. It’s crowdsourced and can change from moment to moment. So dig into that self-hate and spend your adult life trying to be something other than you are, no matter how miserable it makes you or how much energy it leeches from your soul.

I know this may sound extreme. Some of it is. But most of it – not so much. Girls are exposed to unhealthy standards for beauty, size, personality, and eating as early as they can observe the people around them and see commercials, browse YouTube, or flip through a beauty magazine. Girls are taught that their bodies are flawed, unreliable vessels that need to be disciplined and monitored with hypervigilance. They are rarely presented with an alternative – that they are their bodies, and that life is a gift that should not be wasted on obsession with the potential judgment of others.

Who among us was taught that our food preferences were okay? Who among us were told that we were beautiful because we ourselves were wonderful, rather than we were slightly more symmetrical or thin or pale than another girl? Who among us was allowed to naturally enjoy eating?

Our culture is deeply disordered. If we told boys that they were worthless unless they looked like a cartoon version of a man, we would be terrible people. If we thought that breathing too much or too little was a sign of weakness and sloth, we would be instantly diagnosable. If our parents taught us that drinking water was to be approached with the same trepidation and guilt that eating when hungry is, we would be in foster care.

We teach kids to mistrust the core of who they are – the body. The body is not our enemy. It is us. The idea of mind over body, of spirit over mind–that is the disconnect. Our mind is not distinct from our body, not psychologically, and not psychologically. It’s all one organism that we fracture into imaginary pieces. We have to stop doing this to ourselves and to our children. We have to stop.

There are many alternatives that have emerged in recent years. Health at Every Size. Intuitive Eating. More holistic and less objectifying approaches to health and happiness. But it’s still an energy-draining struggle in a culture that thrives on industries that teach us to spend most of our time, money, and energy on fixing problems that are socially and economically constructed to be un-fixable.

I’ve come a long way since my late teens and the height of my eating disorder, but I still catch myself in old thought patterns a lot. Some of them are just stubborn bastards that don’t want to die. I’ve loosened up my ideas of beauty and health tremendously. I’ve learned to enjoy food and movement with much more gusto than I ever imagined. But I’ll never completely shake the darkness that could have taken my life.

We will never cure eating disorders if we don’t treat them until they are literally life-threatening. Our culture breeds disconnection. We have to find a better way.


One of the things that got me thinking about this was my Instagram feed. I’ve been following various body-positive anti-discrimination accounts for several years, but have recently added more HAES ED recovery accounts. I see so much of my own experiences in some of the stories these people have shared, and they’ve made me realize I still have work to do. Internal work and external work. One of the great fallacies of diet culture is that it’s all about willpower and strength and self-control. I promise you, every woman in this society has an iron will when it comes to her body. It’s just that the body wants to survive more than she wants to starve it.

I am an educator – it’s my job to help people unpack their assumptions, but this one is extra tricky. Many people are already on the path to awareness, but did I tell you about that time a nutrition student wrote a paper for my class that wrote off Body Positivity because it won’t make you thin? That happened.

Constant starvation, which is what many diets entail, puts the body in hibernation mode – slowed metabolism, respiration, and heartbeat. When we eat, the body stores the food for future starvation. It is very hard not to gain weight if you have put your body through this shit multiple times. Your body wants to survive, even if you don’t.  My favorite quote from The Beauty Myth says,

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Obsession with controlling our bodies at their own expense is a kind of madness. Starvation is linked with depression and sometimes psychosis. Yet our culture rewards this madness with promises of happiness, love, and success. There are many more disorders linked to how we treat our bodies than anorexia and bulimia. Excessive exercise, excessive restricting of any kind, obsession with “clean” food, all of it can leach the life out of us.

And let’s look at the word “tractable.” If the worst thing someone can say to you is “you’re fat” – that’s pretty fucking tractable. It’s awfully easy to manipulate people who have been conditioned to see other’s reflections of their bodies as their ultimate worth.

If you are struggling with this stuff, keep at it. I somehow managed to make it to middle-aged as a successful, loved, and fulfilled person without being remotely thin. I’m going to keep struggling and eating because that is so much better than ingesting the toxic mess our society and peers have been feeding us.

Hashtag wars

I’ve been asked to write about hashtag activism, hashtag vigilantism, and hashtag cyberbullying. Sometimes people think they are all the same. They’re not. I’ve been hitting my head against this essay for two weeks and I can’t seem to uncomplicate it enough to write anything coherent. So here are some general thoughts on how hashtags work and the benefits and problems they have. Because I love bullet points. And sentence fragments. Obviously.

  1. Speech (in the US) is a fucking free for all. You can’t control what people say, who they say it to, or how they say it. This is especially true on the internet because law enforcement doesn’t take online threats seriously (in the US) unless they involve money (fraud).
  2. Our hate speech laws are weak, and even though direct threats of violence are illegal, they are rarely if ever taken seriously, let alone prosecuted. This makes any ethical discussion super fuzzy. If you want to see a country that takes responsibility for online behavior, look at the UK.
  3. Hashtags are pretty neat little things – they let people coalesce around just about anything. Events (#marchforourlives), social justice issues (#oscarssowhite, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter), charity fundraising (#familiesbelongtogether), and funny memes (#secondcivilwarletters).
  4. They are also used for public shaming (#bbqbecky, #permitpatty), and in some extra crap cases (#gamergate) violent, damaging, bigoted attacks.
  5. The problem is there is no clear line between who does what. And because our legal code don’t give a fuck about online violence, it’s easy to rationalize harmful behavior.
  6. There seems to be a push to paint all shaming, aggressive, or angry behavior online with the same brush as revenge porn, stalking,  doxxing, and swatting.
  7. The problem in writing about this for me lies in an essential conflict between sociological and psychological perspectives. Something that can be moderately damaging psychologically (shame, fear, anger) can have positive sociological effects if it enforces more equitable social norms. I have no idea how to resolve this epistemologically.
  8. The closest I get is that there is some psychological research that shows that bullying experiences in youth can have positive outcomes as well as negative ones. We learn where our boundaries are. We learn what strengthens and weakens relationships. We develop a greater sense of right and wrong. We learn to survive.
  9. So behaviors that can seem mob-like or bullying online, when used to highlight things like social inequality, can be powerful tools.
  10. Speaking of tools, there are lots of people who are tools and use these tools to be tools. They use hashtags, photoshop, hacking, and other stuff to terrorize people. Not make them uncomfortable–terrorize them. THIS IS NOT THE SAME THING.
  11. If you are being personally harassed or terrorized online, report it to the website. Report it to the police. Document it on the Southern Poverty Law Center website (#hatewatch) if it has any sexual or racial or otherwise discriminatory tone to it. We can’t make laws if we don’t document this shit.
  12. Don’t freak out every time someone disagrees with you. There’s a difference between someone calling you an idiot online and someone threatening to kill your kids or all Jews. Learn the difference. Please.
  13. I’ve been called fat, stupid, ignorant, and various other things online. Oh, and that time some rando told me my insta picture burned his eyes because I was so ugly. Does it suck? Why yes, it sucks. Is it a crime? Nope. But if someone found my personal info and published it widely, published false information about me, or threatened me or my family, I would report the shit out of them.
  14. The internet gives a collective voice to marginalized people. Black Twitter is a real thing, and it’s vital to change the embedded, structural, institutionalized racism in our country. Reverse-racism is NOT A THING.
  15. Calling out white people for calling the cops on black people for #existingwhileblack is not terrorism. Is it bullying? Maybe, but I think the social good outweighs the negative. Most social progress has been made through some form of public shaming.
  16. #metoo same/same. Misandry is not a thing. Rape culture is. Making white men hyperaware of their behavior is not bullying. It’s the cessation of millennia of abuse.
  17. But if some asshole decides to use that as an excuse to threaten one of those women — be it #bbqbecky or a #metoo participant — he’s breaking the law and should be prosecuted. And here we end up back at the same point – crap laws; no prosecutions.
  18. Conclusion – we need better hate speech laws and better laws to govern internet behavior. The end.