Creative Control

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We cannot teach everything.

I learned this during a world history graduate seminar years ago. I hadn’t thought about the challenges of teaching world history until then, but there it was, staring us all down: what do you teach when you can’t teach everything? How do you decide what stays and what goes?

How do you shape the narrative?

Continue reading “Creative Control”

Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects

Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:

Tweet
Tweet from @JohnRosinbum: A student just asked me, “In research how do you deal with reading depressing things?” Any help #twitterstorians?

I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.

I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.

Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.

So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present.  Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.

So what do I do with information like that?

Continue reading “Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects”

Balance vs Wholeness

In last week’s blog post, my colleague Tanya reflected on the rush of October – that “month of muchness,” as she keenly calls it. It is a month of feeling unsettled, she explained: a month of building momentum into winter; a month where nothing ever seems to get quite done.

I relate to this sentiment. October has been a blur of continual work and life events. Just this past weekend alone, I hosted a birthday party for my son, went to two other social events, and hosted two work events (family group hikes connected to my business Super Nature Adventures) . The fleeting daylight is a reminder that soon the holiday season will also begin, and before that (and before Thanksgiving!), my family is also planning a trip to Japan (more on that in a later post).

Yet despite all of these events, October also feels far less stressful than it has been in the past, when my career involved some kind of mix of adjuncting, academic research, and/or playing that fall game that academics like to call “going on the job market”…all while also being a parent and spouse.

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I do not miss that period at all. In that version of October I not only felt stressed by split in two by competing demands from work and family life. I felt fragmented by two ideas of what I was supposed to be.  That version of October caused me to miss my son’s Halloween a few years back because of a conference talk that just so happened to be scheduled the same weekend. That version had squeezing in family time between grant applications, or grading, or job searching. That version lined up midterm exams with trick-or-treat night.

That version of October is all about the denial of the sensory pleasures of autumn (pumpkin picking, apple baking, leaf collecting). That version is cruel to PhDs who also happen to be parents of small kids because it demands that you do the most serious academic work for the most critical deadlines during the period when kids want and dream for you to be silliest.

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A few months back I was listening to a “Creative Mornings” podcast that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in connection to my post-ac experiences. In it, Mom Complex CEO and speaker Katherine Wintsch argued that we owe it to ourselves to shift our mindset from the concept of work-life balance to that of work-life wholeness. Work-life balance, she explains, is simply a myth. There is no way that you will find your life in the kind of harmonious sync that the word implies because as soon as it does, there will be a new challenge to throw everything askew.

Perhaps it’s a kid that gets sick. Or, say you are heading to work, and your car breaks down. Maybe you have your schedule completely in balance but then an old friend calls you with a problem that needs to be solved. There will always be something new thrown your way.

When we focus on the idea of wholeness instead, we provide ourselves with the tools for getting through those constant challenges and surprises. Wholeness is what fills you up and what helps you get through the day. Wholeness is also recognizing that self-care is a critical component to getting it all done.  Wholeness is not about balancing it all – it’s about providing you with tools that will help you when October rushes past.

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Now looking back on post-PhD years, I realize that one of the reasons I left academia was because I wasn’t feeling whole. I needed to find a career that filled me up and allowed me to feel like I wasn’t living two separate lives. So I chose to craft a business connected to the kinds of things that I was missing when I was trying to be a good scholar, instructor, or academic job candidate. My small business creates materials – namely, family hiking packets designed to empower kids – that are all about making time for family outdoors. The work I do gets me outdoors into nature, and is designed to make it possible to spend time with family (on trails, during group hikes) while also getting work done.

I knew that I was looking for ways to bridge the gap that I had felt before but I hadn’t really felt the effects of that choice until this fall – my first fall outside of academia in many may years. Like I said, October was still a very busy month with lots of work, and yet as we start November, I don’t feel that nagging guilt and general bitterness that would haunt me during my busiest grad school years. I feel tired, yes, but also ready for the next adventure.

Wintsch writes, “I think as a society we should move away from acts of balance and more towards acts of wholeness.” I agree, and I think that academia is a great place to start.

Autumnal Reveries

I’ve felt restless this month, caught between one thing and another, going here and there, completing work, finding new tasks, never quite feeling done. It is a month of muchness: three days of parent-student-teacher conferences and four consecutive weeks of assessment after assessment to read and mark. October is that time of the school year, when we come into our own as students and teachers, reaching into potential more deeply than we did when the leaves were still green and our minds turned back to summer.

Continue reading “Autumnal Reveries”

Nobody Wants to Change

Generally, people don’t like it when you tell them they need to change.

They really don’t like it when you tell them how to do it.

They might grudgingly do it when they recognize you are right, but the world will be a little duller for it.

At this year’s Southern Festival of Books, everyone seemed to be ruminating on these truths in one way or another. Without having planned it, most authors I got to hear speak and read kept circling back to this idea that those who most desperately need to change are also the most resistant to it.

A few even took stabs at figuring out what to do about this. I was so drawn especially to Nicole Krauss, whose latest book, Forest Dark, is about the courage to turn from the certainty of self, toward the unknown in hope of personal transformation.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing- it’s possible this isn’t exactly how she said it, but it’s how I heard it) that the self is a narrative- a story we tell ourselves, and are told, since we were small children. This means that the story is much more flexible than we think. When the narrative we tell ourselves stretches too tight and limits who we are or who we can become, it’s entirely possible to enlarge our sense of self.

But so few people do this, because changing is terrifying and it is stigmatized. It’s embarrassing to concede that we have grown into a corner and must now take a different direction. It’s doubly embarrassing to be told what to do in that moment of personal crisis.

In the end, you’ll change when you have no other choice. And when it’s time to change, what do you need? Continue reading “Nobody Wants to Change”

Tired

“I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two-

And see what worms are eating 

At the rind.” – Langston Hughes

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Last Monday, I was scheduled to post my regular contribution to the Smart Women Write blog but then I woke up to the news of Las Vegas, and I just…couldn’t. I couldn’t post on the post-ac themed post I had planned to publish because it seemed so jarring, and I couldn’t publish anything else.

For a solid day, I tried to come up with something, but every time I even considered addressing the topic I went numb. At one point last week, my collaborators and I collectively talked about gathering useful links, but by that point I couldn’t stomach looking at anything else about the topic.

I honestly don’t know how anyone even dives into these topics anymore. 

Last year after the Pulse shooting, on another blog, I spent time exploring the pain the of that event and that experience wore me out for more than a month.  I had to take a news break for much of July before being able to ready myself for teaching that fall. Then, of course, there was the cycle of election politics and then the election itself. 

And it’s not just this year, or last year either. Yesterday on social media, Facebook’s “On this Day” feature reminded me:

  • That three years ago, my old hometown of St. Louis was in thick of protests over the Michael Brown shooting
  • That two years ago to the day of the Las Vegas shooting, ten people were killed in a mass shooting on a community college campus in Roseburg, Oregon
  • That a year ago, a video surfaced that showed Trump bragging about sexual assault.

Had the app gone back earlier it would have reminded me of my days living in DC, when 9/11, anthrax, and the sniper shooter fueled my autumns with anxiety.

Had the app looped in this past month it would have mentioned the latest police shooting verdict and related protests in St. Louis, the newest mass shooting, the latest sexual assault.

 And let’s not forget hurricane, after hurricane, after hurricane, and the earthquake in Mexico City, and the fires here in Oregon and along the Pacific coast.

No wonder I am tired. 

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I’m far from the only person with tragedy fatigue.  More and more often my conversations with friends turn to topics of coping strategies and self-care. I recognize in retrospect that the act of not writing last week was in itself a form of self care.  It’s okay to remove yourself from the news. It’s more than okay (even healthy) to avoid social media.

For me, it also helps to feel useful, and so I’ve turned my energies more towards my local community and family where I can feel like I can help. I have leaned into my role as a parent in ways that I never thought I would before this year, channeling my energies towards preparing my son for whatever may come in the future.  I’ve been paying more attention to my school and my neighborhood. I’ve been trying (imperfectly, I admit) to practice kindness as much as I can. And I’ve been giving myself more rest.

What about you? How do you cope with the weight of news like the Las Vegas shooting? What do you do for self-care?

 

 

St. Louis Protests 2017: Resource Round-Up

I’ve been thinking of Mandela’s words a lot in the last few days. It’s a reflection that resonates quite a lotfor me, standing on the sidelines as I watch and listen to news about the protests and often questionable police responses that have been happening daily for more than a week. On Friday, September 15, a judge found Jason Stockley not guilty of murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, an African American man who fled the scene when Stockley and his partner tried to confront him for what they suspected was a drug deal. Stockley shot Smith five times at the end of the ensuing chase.

You can read more about the verdict here, and see the full verdict here. Stockley opted for a bench trial, rather than a jury trial, and in the weeks leading up to the decision, things were tense. The governor even decided to make sure the National Guard was on hand “just in case” when the verdict came down. (Note: I may have missed something, but I don’t think the National Guard has actually been used at any protests.)

Continue reading “St. Louis Protests 2017: Resource Round-Up”