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.

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.

Hit the wall and keep trudging.

Catchy, no?

I keep hitting walls, picking myself up, and trudging on. Last semester was fairly awful. This semester has been great in many ways, but exhausting and stressful nonetheless. I have to generate at a major paper draft in the next few weeks, hopefully sooner. I’ve pulled two new syllabi out of my ass this semester, but still have a whole new class to teach starting later this week (after I wrap up the last one, today).

In the meantime, I may be getting back to the food blogging, since my body has decided that it won’t digest lactose or gluten. Because that’s helpful. Keep in mind I am a snobby foodie daughter and sister of professional cooks and food writers.  I often sneer at restrictive fad diets while eating my locally sourced meat, cheese, bread, and vegetables. Except now two of those things are gone forever (or at least until after menopause–there’s hope). Re-learning how to eat has been stressful. Speaking of menopause, that’s fun too. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have symptoms before 50, because I will personally fly to wherever you live and bitch-slap them for you.

I feel like I have academia-induced bipolar disorder. One hour or minute or half day I’m full of amazing ideas, I’m speed reading articles, mind-mapping, and writing super cool stuff. The next minute or hour or half-day I’m exhausted, filled with self-doubt, sure I’m going to be sniffed out as a total imposter, and curled up in the corner with my laptop and Pinterest trying to find all the best gluten and dairy free recipes that I will never have time to cook.

This is my life. My poor husband and daughter have to deal with my epic mood swings, periodic isolation, and caffeine induced tantrums. I can’t seem to totally unwind enough to sleep well, cry, or just fucking relax. I take everything personally. I know that most of my problems qualify as “too much of a good thing” rather than all of the really horrible things that could happen, but that knowledge doesn’t help me figure out how to cope right now. I know getting a PhD is a gauntlet that I am willingly running, but the difference between this and other gauntlets I’ve run is that there is no settling in. It’s always changing, evolving, and getting harder. There’s very little room to breathe. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.

That’s my whinge for today. I’ll see you on the next upswing.

Question: When is the perfect time to blog?

Answer: When one has so many other things to do that are critical that one cannot decide which to do first and chooses instead to blog, do dishes, fold laundry, or take a nap.

My every day blogging has not been every day. However, let me expand on a certain tendency that might shed light on this.

I have too much to do. I have a four-year old daughter. I teach college. I’m working on my PhD. I have a house (currently in shambles) that does occasionally need cleaning. So what makes sense when one is overloaded with stuff to do EVERY DAY? In my case, it seems to be adding things on. I have this idea that I will somehow kick into “high gear” (yes, those are real air quotes, sue me) if I add MORE THINGS into my life. In recent weeks I have considered joining a gym, taking African dance classes, taking modern dance classes, taking voice lessons and auditioning for an ensemble, and daily blogging. Does any of this sound productive? Does it make sense to add more things into my overloaded life in the hope that my body will somehow produce some miracle juju that will make everything easy and every moment of my day will be perfectly optimized?

There are times in my life when I am hyper-productive. Think finals week: you study and produce far more than you do during the rest of the semester. However, you are probably also between the ages of 18-22 and have fantastic metabolism and limitless energy, which you squander on stupid relationships and binge drinking/eating. Ahem.

Even in my middle, gently deteriorating age, I have these bursts of peak productivity. However, they are not sustainable because I have a body that needs rest, and a family that needs attention, and a deep desire to take naps. I also can’t tolerate caffeine much any more; it usually gives me a short-term boost that makes me want to shop wildly followed by a long-term crash that makes me grouchy and difficult and super tired. Dammit.

So why am I trying to reverse engineer these brief, peak energy moments by adding more shit onto my plate? I have no idea.

Last week, I cooked meals for my family, exercised, carted my daughter to and from school, studied, graded papers, taught class, worked on the syllabus for my new fall class, negotiated two class contracts for the fall, applied for IRB approval for a project (which included creating a proposal, an informed consent form, and taking several hours of online ethics training and testing), bought a new phone (I include this because iPhone users know how freaking long it takes to go through the purchase process and then get the phone to actually synch and load your stuff and then it hasn’t really loaded all your music so you end up using your cellular to download music from the cloud in your car because you really really need to hear “Stay With Me” right this minute while you’re stuck in traffic), and survived the weekend which included a kid party, an ill-advised drinking experience, and more kid time (which included my daughter’s first mani-pedi which was unbelievably adorable okay I’ll stop now).

What I didn’t do: blog, join any new dance classes, or start taking voice lessons again. There is a reason for this. Adding more stuff into my life is not going to make me more productive–it’s just going to make me feel like I’m sucking at more things. I also wonder if I daydream about all these little hobbies because I spend a lot of time feeling incompetent, and I like the idea of doing something that I’m either already good at, or something that doesn’t require me to be particularly talented or smart to accomplished. I like things like dance because I don’t expect to ever compete with professionals, so I can take as long as I need to to get to be okay at it. There aren’t that may things that I feel okay with being okay at.

School is hard. I’m used to being the smartest kid in the room, and I’m not that kid anymore. Getting a PhD is totally different than getting a Masters. A masters is like undergrad, but more fun. You’re also not petitioning to get into the club that your teachers belong to.  Getting a PhD is like training for a marathon and spending a lot of time trying to figure out why you can’t seem to get your feet to work (while your trainer runs around you in circles going “Do what I do and one day you’ll be a real runner!”)

Blogging is good for me — it frees up my voice, which can get mighty raspy when all I’m writing is academic papers. Still, I can’t keep setting myself up to fail at little things to avoid the discomfort that comes with the big things. Parenting is hard. School is hard. Teaching is hard. I can’t always be the prodigy to whom everything comes easily. Instead, I need to just keep plodding ahead, while leaving myself some time to just chill the hell out. So I expect my blogging will continue to come in bursts. I will not be writing every day unless I really feel like it. But I will continue to post sporadically, and I have some social commentary stored up in my brain, so maybe I’ll write that next week when I’m trying to write my final Org. Studies paper. Woo!

P.S. Please send me some IRB juju! This is my first time applying and I’d really like to get approval. Light an IRB juju candle for me.

Mostly little thoughts today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà vu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dedicated, with love, to Donald Stenberg.

 

Morning Pages, But Interesting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Procrastination or Germination?

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I have had a crazy semester. I’m taking three classes, teaching two, being a mom, trying to cook occasionally, and now the end of the semester is upon me. In between now and Dec. 15 I have to grade 15 papers, submit 22 grades, write a lengthy position paper that’s supposed to be publishable quality (help me! I haven’t done this in years!), survive Thanksgiving, remember to celebrate my anniversary, and not drown in dirty clothes.

At this moment, I’m dealing with the manic ups and downs of the steroid shot I got on Friday to ward off impending bronchitis and the accompanying asthma. It’s worked so far, but sleep and focus are both hard to come by. So here I sit, blogging, in the hopes that it will help me get focused for this paper.

Learning wise, this has been a mind-blowing semester. I took Human Development, Social Justice, and Feminist Theories. All life changing topics, but I think HD really shifted my perspective the most. The first part was grueling; we had to read a really dense, jargon-laden, example-free overview of the field to get the basic frameworks through which human development is viewed. The reading got progressively more interesting and exciting. Each week, we had to write a paper on the theory/theories we had read about and explore a certain aspect. I was terrified at first; the professor for the class is known as being the Writing Ninja and I was sure I was in for some hard, necessary criticism. She was actually pretty easy on me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

My writing is not perfect; far from it. I’m pretty obsessive about editing, so that helps. I self-edit, I always have at least one other reader, either my mom or my husband (both of whom write for a living), and I try to do at least one out-loud read-through, which also catches the worst of my errors. I’m good at critical thinking, mostly because I don’t automatically negate my own reactions and opinions, no matter how renowned the author. There’s this constant internal-external process I go through where I take note of what interests, offends, excites, or otherwise entices me to reflect in the reading, and then compare it to my own experiences, previous studies, and general beliefs. I think I picked up this process in grad school, and it is serving me well so far in my new program. So I shift in and out of analysis and personal reflection, and it seems to work for me. I think it has the advantage of taking an idea and really knocking it home; so much academic writing is entirely abstract. And BORING. Some of the best ideas are hidden by some of the worst writing! It boggles the mind. I have this wacky idea that I can write academic quality papers that are still reflective, interesting, and specific.

However, I’ve never taken this approach in a formal paper. The two I’ve published academically were not personal, and I want this paper to be personal as well as rigorous.

I’ve had a harder time in my Social Justice and Feminism classes. It’s been confusing and difficult. I love many of the readings despite how heartbreaking it is to read the stories of people who have been disenfranchised, or whose cultures and histories have been misinterpreted and rewritten by those in power. These stories help me see where we are different, and where we are the same. Where I can help, and where I should just listen. But the language of Social Justice is totally different from my language, and I often feel lost, misinterpreted, and mostly just really trivial. From my standpoint as a white, educated, affluent woman, I feel like I’m not supposed to express my opinions or try to share or relate with people who are different. I don’t get this message from my fellow students, but it’s the impression I’m getting from the field of study itself, I guess. Or at least some of it. Some of the authors and editors clarify and seem to invite me into their experience, others seem to be saying, Stay Out! I started this program because of my specific interest in aspects of feminism and human behavior, but I’m having a hard time getting the twain to meet.

So I guess I want to take the writing style that was so successful in my HD class, and use it for this SJ type of paper. Wish me luck. And thanks for reading my rambling. I’ll be posting my final HD paper shortly. It’s all about my love of Kegan.