Tag Archives: social justice

Is there a connection between ‘innocence’ and ‘privilege’? 

I came across this excellent piece by Shannon Gaggero about her realization that her (white, middle-class) kids experience innocence differently than children in other households may.

Put simply, maintaining children’s “innocence” is an opportunity available only to parents who are already working from a position of privilege within mainstream society, usually through a combination of sufficient financial/socio-economic standing, social “capital,” and racial identity.

Preserving my children’s innocence is an act of preserving white supremacy – A Striving Parent

Shannon describes children’s books, resources, and talking points she uses with her very young kids to help them see injustice and respond to that in appropriate ways.

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Several years ago, my colleague Jack and I were asked by some VBS organizers at our church to teach the “missionary story” to a group of preschool children. [If you know anything about me, you should be chuckling right now…. the last time I worked with preschoolers, I was a high schooler helping out in my small church’s VBS and wondering what I’d done to make the universe assign me such tiny humans whom I didn’t understand at all. (My lifelong habit has been to work with post-pubescent beings.)] Jack doesn’t have kids of his own yet but he’s got a pile of nieces and nephews and seems to be better at translating toddler behavior into something understandable.

Anyway, the missionary story – for those of you who might not have been raised in VBS culture –  is that moment when a VBS worker attempts to compress a complex, nuanced story of someone’s cross-cultural ministry experiences usually in a colonial or post-colonial society into a 5 to 10 minute Golden Book of missionary fervor.

[That comes across as too harsh; I loved hearing missionary stories as a kid because they were human and interesting and a little more connected to what I could envision as day to day life than Bible stories. I’m a little worried that most of the adults in the churches I’ve gone to aren’t aware of the imperialist baggage of white missionary activity among populations in Africa, India, or Asia and how that probably hindered their work for the sake of the Gospel. But that’s a topic for a different day.]

Jack and I had been asked to share a missionary story with pre-K kids for the sake of cross-cultural education. A mission we could get behind for sure. So one of us dug out of our closet a CEF story book about Mary Slessor, the legendary Scotswoman who labored in West Africa for decades and adopted many children who would have otherwise been murdered due to the local custom of treating twins as demon-possessed.

Slessor’s story in the CEF book opens with her childhood, making mention of her upbringing in poverty with a drunken and abusive father. Jack was telling the story on this first day, softening the language into something more palatable for 4 and 5 year old ears: “Her father was a very bad man. He was mean to Mary and to Mary’s mom.”

I’ve told this story myself to groups of kids at Good News Clubs (another high school / college era activity) from a variety of backgrounds. At the time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that some of the kids listening might know far too much about domestic violence. At least I grasped the poverty angle.

But as an adult with several years of teaching experience, I knew this was a touchy moment in the story. I also knew that it might be hard to explain to 21st century white middle-class parents why their little kids were coming home talking about domestic violence. I figured the innocence of church kids would preserve us. Most people raised in similar circles (Christian, conservative, white) don’t clue in to social justice issues until they’re far older.

I’d forgotten about the kid in the room from CHC.  CHC is a local charity, one of the very best I’ve ever known, operating group homes for foster children in our area. Despite nearly shutting down when South Carolina went through a phase of refusing to place kids in group homes in a burst of idealism that hardly matched the dire need for foster care in our state, CHC weathered the storm and – as you might expect – is running at capacity. Their kids attend church with the resident houseparents, and in this case, VBS.

I’ve forgotten his name, this beautiful little boy with curly hair and a toothless smile. He was impish – small for his age, a wicked grin, always into everything, fighting every boundary. I didn’t know his story, but every instinct told me he could be a handful.

Yes. “Handful.”That’s how we describe the children who howl or bite or rage against the dysfunction and/or drug abuse and/or sexual assault and/or generational poverty and neglect which ground up their families and spit them out into a state system that tries to provide a pale resemblance of family life and normalcy. 

This boy, I’ll call him “Mark,” was listening to Jack tell Mary Slessor’s story today. And he knew. He understood. His 4-year-old body knew what it meant in real terms when Jack said, “Mary’s father was a bad man, a mean man.” So he contributed. This was a story he could grasp. “My mommy is bad. She hit my sister on the leg.”

Later, “My mommy tried to hurt me with a knife.”

I wrote about this at the time, but I bring it up again because 7 years later, I still can’t get that moment out of my mind. I was horrified to confront in that moment a glimpse of what this child had already experienced, a sin-drenched violation of maternal instinct. And I was equally terrified that the other kids would realize what he was saying and start asking questions. And that we would soon be in the middle of a preschooler crisis and then a horde of angry parents would appear at our door with pitchforks.

That, my friends, is probably as close as I can get you to a teacher’s inner monologue. Every lesson, if you’re doing it right, teeters on the edge of incredible discovery and deep learning, but that always comes at the risk of stabbing straight into one of the questions we adults cannot answer, like why mothers of 4 year olds would try to stab them. Or why the richest nation on earth has such a drug problem. Or why South Carolina can’t seem to do anything about the generational poverty that chews up its citizens. And if your lesson crosses over into those churning waters where the real learning happens, your animal brain begins to tingle with fearful anticipation of the phone calls you’re going to get from parents or school board members when they realize your discussion of Dickens robbed children of their innocence.

Friends, I ask this in all sincerity:

How can parents know whether preserving the purity and innocence of their children – whether toddler or teen – is wisdom or idolatry?  

I’ve seen this many times in my work with teens and young adults: healing the wounds of dysfunction and pain requires interaction with healthy, functional peers and adults. So if all the healthy, functional families cocoon themselves, who’s left to walk alongside the wounded?

What can this look like, if it’s done well? Is a school community capable of this? Is it a church responsibility? Can a family accomplish this kind of ‘education’ on its own, apart from church or school?

Martin Gladwell on Higher Ed

I was stunned recently by three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, ReVisionist History, pertaining to higher education. He rips into rich colleges for leaving the poor behind. That’s gotta sting…..

Gladwell’s episodes present only his point of view, a potential downside to any podcast,  but their strength is in their novelty. Few public voices are willing to say “out loud” that the nuclear arms race in “amenities” within higher education may be immoral – genuinely, truly against the morals of a system that ought to care about the people who live in it. And while no systemic change comes from a dreamer yelling and shaking his fist at the sky — which is kind of how Gladwell comes across — systemic change will not happen unless someone first points out the problems. And it helps if the person doing the pointing is hella famous with a really big megaphone.

Episode Notes
1. “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” — Stunning storytelling gives this episode outsized impact. It’s a carrier for the message that there are 36K “poor smart kids” in the US *each year* who do not make it into college but  have the academic chops to do it. Aside from a moral argument about capitalism eating poor people because it can do that, this episode sets up an economic argument for helping poor kids reach their full potential — as a nation, we need all the capable, smart people we can get.

This episode fights against the myth that poor people have the same level of access that non-poor people do. Truth is,  as exemplified by  Carlos, they don’t. They’re held back by the ancillary effects of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of not having the social capital to know how to navigate the system. Lots of evidence out there that poor kids apply to far fewer colleges, rarely try attending good ones even if they get in, do not understand the financial aid process, and drop out of good colleges in higher numbers because of family disruptions or even just feeling massively out of place living with a bunch of rich kids. Campuses rarely address the cross-cultural disorientation of someone poor or working-class on a campus with kids who aren’t.

2. “Food Fight” — I would disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that private colleges are more at fault than public ones for leaving poor kids in the lurch. That said, the episode uses the quality of cafeteria food as a proxy for an institution’s financial priorities, acknowledging the dangerous waters of a consumer-driven higher education market. Give the people what they want, or they won’t come. Fine, but what if the “people” want you to spend money immorally? Should we consider investing in filet mignon instead of scholarships for poor kids an immoral choice? This is the question Gladwell presents as he compares Vassar to Bowdoin college. Vassar has chosen to buck the designer-college / rich kid college trend, so the cafeteria food is pretty bad. But a lot more poor kids are going to Vassar now…. and the leadership thinks it’s worth endangering their brand to do so.

I have a two gripes with this episode.

First, Gladwell is right to focus on private colleges, but that’s too easy of a target. I don’t think public and private institutions should be judged by such different standards here –not since states have slashed public funding for colleges so drastically that many public institutions rely on tuition revenue. Not when South Carolina (and Georgia and several other states) use lottery money or other public revenue as direct funding to students, who then select in-state colleges. Yes, private colleges in SC receive huge portions of their budget from SC Life and Hope scholarship money carried to them by the students they pursue, but state schools like Clemson also receive a vast sum of money from the same scholarship funds. While Clemson also gets millions more directly from the state — and I agree that our state colleges SHOULD be funded with a view toward improving education for SC residents — its focus isn’t on fixing SC education. Clemson wants to be rich and famous. Our flagship state institutions are fighting for prestige just like the top-tier private colleges.

Just like Bowdoin. It looks different when you’re talking about cafeteria food, but it’s the same disease.

In SC, the colleges on the front lines of education to the underserved are the state campuses of USC in rural areas, the HBCU schools, and the tech schools. Everyone else is going after the smart kid who has money to pay tuition. And the 2-yr colleges, as Gladwell pointed out, are horrifically underfunded.

[I recall Obama trying to bring light to the plight of community college funding early in his presidency and getting nowhere. Maybe it isn’t a federal problem to fix. But SC can’t even muster the political will to fix its damn roads, so there’s not much hope in my mind that the SC legislature will raise revenue to support Tri-Couty Tech either.]

Second – Who’s responsible for the amenities arms race in higher ed? Obviously it’s a joint problem. Parents let their kids buy a $25K/yr education and borrow the money for it. Colleges panic and are afraid to do what Vassar is doing – see financial aid as a moral issue, and force the colleges in their region to talk about it.

I’d like to think that as a society we would collectively agree to address this issue, but realistically, people with power (=money) rarely give up that power willingly, and especially when that would mean denying their own offspring a leg up in the world. Because that’s what money buys in higher education – if you have the money to get into the Ivys or top tier colleges, you’re going to take advantage of that because of the range of opportunities it will open for you later: networking, job promotions, rubbing shoulders with top academics and famous names (like Gladwell). Even in SC, going to Clemson (which will probably cost you at least $5K out of pocket these days unless you’re a Palmetto Scholar, and the net price cost is actually $16K) means you join a huge network of alumni who essentially run the Upstate, especially in business, engineering, and architecture.

So I don’t think we people are going to “fix” this ourselves. It will continue, and get worse, apart from external intervention. I don’t know what that intervention should be, but we can’t say Gladwell didn’t try to point out the harm this thinking does to many students who never get into college, and the loss that represents to their communities.

3. “My Little Hundred Million” – the episode in which Gladwell is flabbergasted by the president of Stanford. It’s pretty hilarious, actually. I appreciate that Gladwell isn’t trying to be a neutral observer here. His central theme is that decisions about money and funding are, at their core, moral choices when we’re in the realm of education.  So what does Stanford need with another hundred million?! Why are they still pursuing funding??

Gladwell demonstrates that a decent investment of philanthropy from someone of means into a middle-sized college in an “average” area can spark landmark improvements, far beyond the raw value of that money by itself. But at a Stanford or Princeton, it just gets thrown into the enormous endowment pile.

Gladwell’s Stanford point. A college with an endowment in the BILLIONS is not hampered IN ANY WAY from doing any research it wants to do.  But the effects of even a modest $10m gift to a medium or small school is huuuuuuge — Stanford is already helping pretty much every one it’s going to help. Glassboro State in New Jersey, the focus of this episode, is now helping hundreds more people in its region get credentials for engineering fields.

Some have criticized Gladwell’s argument here in noting that well-meaning but ill-informed donors do a lot of damage by giving big piles of money to colleges and tying their hands, forcing those colleges to start programs the region doesn’t need, or linking the money to a narrow cause which isn’t future-proof. But the donor at the heart of this episode funded a college in a highly populated area to start programs that are sorely needed both in NY/NJ/PA and across the nation. Win-win.

Imagine a rich Saudi prince gave Lander University, a small school in a small SC city away from the corridors of power, twenty million dollars to open an Islamic Studies department. Some might see this as donor meddling, the poster child for philanthropy gone wrong. But let’s consider that for a moment. Assuming the college officials weren’t stupid and set up expectations that the Saudi donor doesn’t control anything about the programming, what benefits might come of it?

Well, SC knows almost nothing about foreign cultures. It’s one of the biggest problems of the state. The Upstate does ok in the urban areas because of Michelin, BMW, etc, but that has zero effect on the rural areas. So there’s the possibility of greater human diversity within Greenwood Co, a perk in itself.

Are there jobs out there for people with knowledge of the Middle East? Um, yes! That would be a brilliant move for a small SC college — to anchor a program in a growing field. The State Department, the military branches, the CIA, and global business are all going to be looking for people with a rich understanding of Islamic culture. It’s not going to change anytime in the next century.

Now, if someone simply gave Lander money to start a program, it would probably be better for the state as a whole if Lander also got to pick the field, and select something more immediately beneficial to SC. Health care is obvious; advanced innovative manufacturing would be good too.

But Gladwell’s point is this: $100mil invested in SC’s education system would actually change lives. At Stanford or Princeton, it doesn’t. No more than Stanford is already doing cutting-edge work.


In short, I thought this was a brilliant trio of podcasts. Not perfect by any means. But brilliant.

If i were to poke at Gladwell …

– He glosses over the fact that every poor kid who gets into school is going to need a whole village of support behind him, or it’s a pyrrhic victory.
– He gets preachy. I generally agree with him, but moral outrage isn’t going to lay the groundwork for solving the problem by itself. (However, we’ve got to start somewhere, and too few people are even bothered by the moral travesty of feeding rich kids lobster while many other kids will never get close to the educational or social advantages of college.)
– He isn’t addressing what I think is the actual problem: the assumption that every intelligent person needs to go to college, that there are no viable alternatives for intelligent kids to gain personal enrichment and broadening experiences except by going to college. We don’t fund gap year programs; we don’t send poorer kids to Europe or even to other parts of the state. Generational poverty eats lives and traps them, stripping people of even the ability to imagine a better life for themselves.

All that aside, I hope Gladwell continues to prick our consciences with ReVisionist History. Go check out the podcast series.

Shotguns as Sacrament

I’m not going to wade into the deep aftermath of Orlando – that space is already thick with people screaming at each other, and surrounded by those weeping too hard to read the political debates about gun control, immigration reform, definitions of terrorism, the interplay of race and fear, and how tone-deaf Donald Trump can be at a time like this.

I’m pretty sure you can find all of that for yourself thanks to Google.

But a friend of mine said something on Facebook that stopped me cold: “For some people in the discussion, guns are tools. For the others, guns are a sacrament.”

She went on to point out the Messiah-like thinking that many Americans attribute to gun ownership:

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See, I think she’s on to something there.

In the American Religion of Individualism, we have rituals and liturgy. We bear the marks of the faithful on our bodies and in our lifestyles and in our encultured practices of what we purchase and support. (I *highly* recommend James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to unpack that idea further.)

And many of us have fallen into the trap of seeing the Right To Self-Preservation as one of the highest virtues. Just as John Piper, who was viciously slammed by many conservative Evangelicals when he dared suggest that Jesus did not intend us to shoot home intruders dead should the unthinkable happen.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question.

The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life.

Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.

Source: John Piper: Why I disagree with Jerry Falwell Jr. on Christians and guns – The Washington Post

Piper went on to reasonably suggest 9 reasons why retaliation isn’t a Christian response, and taking another human life – even when that action would be justified – may not be the most Christian response. And ooooohboy did that set off a klaxon resounding across the Internet, calling every gun-owning pastor and theologian to write a counterpoint.

Why is gun ownership such a rallying point for conservative Christians?

Is it because we have succumbed to the idea that we deserve political and personal power, never mind the New Testament promises that Jesus’s Kingdom is not of the sword?

Is it because we Christians refuse to be the minority? Because we refuse to give up our rights so that others may share in power?

Is it fear? Are we so afraid of non-WASP people and gay people and immigrants and “terrorists” that we cannot even consider that Jesus may call some of us to love others to the point of sacrificing our right to own an assault rifle (a weapon created solely for the purpose of murdering humans)?

Are we unwilling to follow God’s commands to “Honor the King” and “Obey the rulers who have authority over you” and to recognize that the government is an agent of good in the hands of God to bring justice to evil doers?

Just, uh, go back and read that sentence again. Because the Bible calls government an agent of righteousness. Setting out to destroy government in the name of God (as a cultural value, at least) may not actually be biblical.

Is it because we, too, worship at America’s altar of Individualism?  

We may preach grace for salvation, but we sure live as if succeeding in this life depends entirely on us, as if protection is entirely a quotient of gun ownership, as if mass shootings are merely a failure of an individual to be mentally healthy or subscribe to the right worldview tenets, as if personal responsibility is all that’s needed for someone to bootstrap their way out of poverty.

Karl Barth wrote a meaty essay about The Church and the State. As you might expect from a man who survived Nazi Germany, the idea of the Church gaining political power and military might made him start twitching.

Here. It’s a long read but you should give it some attention. Because Barth forces us to consider the limitations of the Church in grasping power in the political sphere. We are not here to build a political partnership with the Republicans (or Democrats). We are not here to write gun policy. We are not here to demand our rights above others (like the children slaughtered at Sandy Hook, or the night club dancers in Orlando, or the movie theater victims in the West, or…..)

Barth, Community, State, and Church (PDF)

And when we Christians lose sight of our mission, when our Americanism clouds our judgment so that we cannot remember the Great Commandments, we do a disservice to our countrymen.

Am I arguing for pacifism? No.  And before you jump all over me, I own guns. Always have.

But you are not a Savior. Your gun is not a Savior. You are not going to be the Hero in some medieval morality play where a Bad Guy walks in and threatens your family or people in your ChikFilA during lunch, and you protect everyone else by pulling out your concealed pistol.

No. While you may save lives that day, you also fed into the insistence that weapon ownership is more important than having a conversation about whether our “rights” have gone to far. And that inability to even consider that we Americans might be wrong in our approach to gun ownership is the biggest problem we’re having right now.

When really sensible, expected limits on weapons like assault rifles have become to taboo to discuss, we must acknowledge there is a problem.

But hey, don’t take my word for it…

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Good reads this week

I fell out of the habit of cataloguing the stuff I run into as I traverse the ‘Net for work and pleasure. It was a good habit; I’m going to restart it.

An old one (from 2014), but still very good. Rape culture is borne out of the idea that men need sex to be happy, he argues, and that’s bullshit.

Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.

Source: Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds – The Daily Beast

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I read this, and then I got angry. Perhaps you will too.

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

Source: Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read To Her Attacker – BuzzFeed News

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One of my recent games of Arboretum. Isn’t it lovely??

If you like beautiful card games, you should try to get a copy of Arboretum. It’s one of my favorite games of 2016. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find a copy these days. So while you’re waiting, and if you like game mechanics, read this:

Source: Meaningful Decisions: Dan Cassar on Design Choices in Arboretum — Cardboard Edison

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Gawker has been running a series of stories told directly from adjuncts in higher education. It’s an ugly, unfair, horrible mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into.  College now rests primarily on the backs of these underpaid and under-resourced junior faculty. At some point, the house of cards will fall. In the meantime, it’s grossly unfair to the adjuncts and it shortchanges students too.

The Educated Underclass – series (Gawker)

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I don’t usually post sports stuff, but everyone around me remembers Clemson kicker Jad Dean missing the field goal that cost CU a key game about a decade ago. I think you could hear the roar of anger across the entire Upstate.

Well, here’s the rest of the story:

Former Clemson kicker Jad Dean’s life has been a journey through football and faith.

Source: Former Clemson kicker finds peace in faith – Reignite My Story

 

Trust the process

“The Process.”
We should print it in big, bold letters because that’s how this idea rolls:

The Process.

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I’m teaching this semester, and despite all of my emotional hand-wringing in my last post, I genuinely enjoy it. I’ve got a good class and so far they’re working to do what I ask and stay engaged. They keep showing up every day, an effort that I genuinely appreciate.

I’ve got goals – big, lofty ones and realistic, smaller ones – that I’m working to achieve in my students and in myself.

One of my goals is to improve my own pedagogy by unpacking and implementing some of the ideas I’ve learned in the past few years about active learning, student-centered learning, and critical pedagogy.

Active learning happens when teachers choose learning activities that engage the student in participating meaningfully in the learning process. This reduces the time given to passive receiving of information (lecture, watching videos, in-class reading) and gives that time instead to a variety of techniques which demand involvement, ranging from basic discussion to group projects, collaboration, thinking activities, improv, building, prototyping, communicating, creating.

Student-centered learning is a similar concept; it probably involves a lot of active learning but each occupies a different axis within educational practice. I like to define it as the broad attempt to move the student to the center of the classroom experience, usually by pulling the teacher off the center stage. This doesn’t mean that the instructor is less important, but it does raise the value of a student’s voice and it implies that students have agency over what they learn and how they go about it.  A student-centered classroom puts the questions raised by the learners at the center of lessons, and teachers who pursue this model invest a lot of work into teaching students how to ask deeper questions, research for more than a pat answer, and fuel their studies through internal motivation (what the student wonders, loves, wants to know).

Critical pedagogy is a term that could take weeks to define. If you go forth into the wilds of the internet searching for an explanation, you may return scarred and terrified — yet, at its heart, critical pedagogy offers us an important focus for human education. Let me compress these ideas into something straightforward: critical pedagogy builds on the work of legendary Brazilian educator and lawyer Paolo Friere, who worked with the poorest of the poor in his native country. He realized that literacy means nothing to people who own little and feel they cannot control much in their lives. Their relationship to “power” is totally broken as they live out the realities of social injustice. Yet even “uneducated” people are rich with experience, and if someone takes the time to teach them how the world works, how power structures work, how they can step aside and critique the way their world is working, even the poorest people can begin to take charge of what agency they do have and turn it into something useful to make their lives better.

Friere recognized that whether a student comes from poverty or privilege, he or she can be enriched by learning how to critique power structures, act as agents as change to achieve greater justice in their social structures, and enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from being someone who understands better how the world could work.  Friere’s writings are infused with explosions of joy and theological presuppositions that I find quite refreshing. He might be one of the most “Christian” educators I’ve ever read.

So.  For me, this means changing the following about my habits of teaching:

  1. I want to move my students into the center of my classroom experience. That means less talking from me, and more work on my part to generate strong questions or learning prompts to drive students deeper into their own inquiries.  Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier to just lecture….
  2. I want to master the skills of facilitating better discussions, both as a class and when students are working in small groups on tasks. That means sharpening my own critical thinking and analysis skills, but also shutting up and listening more than I talk.
  3. I want to be more aware myself of critical perspectives on texts, toward the daily news, of national crises like the Ferguson / Charleston shootings so that I can model for my students what it looks like when we step outside of our contexts and critique those contexts through a variety of lenses.  My lens tends to be shaped by what I believe are biblical concepts of human dignity, social justice, economic systems, power relationships, etc.
  4. I want to resist stepping in too early to rescue students as they labor—often with great anxiety—to give birth to a new idea or understanding of the world mediated through their reading or writing or experiences. Being able to give “the right” answer feels very heady, like drinking from an authority fountain. I think professors and instructors secretly love that feeling.  But our drinking comes at the expense of our students’ growth.
  5. I want to facilitate better relationships among my students, forming us into a discrete learning community that displays love and care for each other as well as concern for the broader world. This is much more difficult, I’ve found, in college where my contact hours are much fewer and students in my class may see one another only during my period. If teaching is relational (and it IS), then I need to also acknowledge that learners are related to one another. Asking them to step into difficult, challenging spaces with a group of strangers will never do.

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I titled this post “Trust the Process.”

The thought hit me recently as I walked down the hall from the day’s lesson that I’m gambling a lot on my insistence that teaching writing be grounded in teaching students better thinking skills.  I think a lot of us find it easier to grind through grammar exercises and assign writing prompts that focus on the pedantic, nit-picky final stages of the writing process.

Those stages are structured and codified.  I can easily recognize a comma splice. I can mount an argument to defend the Oxford comma or criticize overuse of linking verbs.  I can quote handbook sections in response to unclear pronoun referents, and dump the responsibility on the students to figure out how to fix those broken sentences in their latest papers.

And while much writing instruction claims to talk about the thinking behind the writing, much of what we DO in the name of writing instruction doesn’t actually do much to force students out of incomplete, inadequate thinking patterns into new ones.

It’s my firm belief that if I spend a lot of time shoving students into better habits of mind, proving to them that fuzzy thinking can never produce clear writing (only clear thinking can), then in the end—even if things are really rough around the edges right now in their papers—they will emerge in three months as better thinkers and therefore better writers.  And that improvement will stick, if I can fundamentally alter the way they approach thinking about a question or a problem.

And if their thinking changes, even in small ways, that brings them closer to being people who have a shot of developing the ability to step out of themselves and ask the hard questions about their situation. Why aren’t we accepting more Syrian refugees?   Why haven’t our legislators reformed the US’s abysmal Gordian knot of an immigration system?  Why aren’t Christians who claim to be guided by biblical morality demanding reforms in immigration as an outworking of the Gospel in their thinking?  Our power structures are broken.  Our economy smashes some people so that others can consume the excess. Our politics descend to angry ranting.  My friends, these things ought not so to be.

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My experiment may fail.

I’m not assessed to death like K-12 teachers are, but my day of reckoning will come when the final papers (argumentative essays) enter the pile for the committee to read in May and assess how well my students’ writing stacks up against the course rubric.

Some English professors are all about the fine points of grammar and argumentation, popping veins when students try to modify the word “unique” (pro top: unique means “the only one of its kind”; don’t tell me something is “really unique”) or misplace the adverb only in a sentence.   I’m convinced even they would agree with me that moving students toward clearer thinking is worth more.  I’m also convinced that I can teach students how to cope in a world that demands good spelling and decent sentences … but that must come alongside sharp and clear thinking.

So I guess we’ll see….

 

Worth Reading This Week: Film, Helping the Poor, School Desegregation, and Racism (Oh my!)

Two reads and one listen that are more than worth your time.

I’ll open with what I think is the best of the three, though it will require a longer time investment.

Episodes 562 and 563 of This American Life delve into a topic people stopped talking about years ago: school integration.  “Separate but equal” schools were rejected as a solution by the Supreme Court 60 years ago, yet many inner-city minority students live in a world in which their schools are measurably inferior to the surrounding suburban schools where all the money resides.  As rich schools get richer, we must confront the increasing data that supports continued integration of schools across racial lines as a solution to the achievement gap.

Or to be really blunt about it: The Gospel might mean I should love my neighbor enough to send my kid to a worse school so that families with few other options for their kids can benefit from the effects of my (white) privilege.

Controversial enough for you?  Good. Give it a listen.
Also, if you aren’t shaking with anger and grief during the audio of the parent meeting in St. Louis in 2013, you have no soul.

This American Life: The Problem We All Live With (#562)

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Second, I commend this dense but readable essay that suggests Christians should stop fighting a PR war and focus attention on the daily, hard work of loving the people around us.  It’s not rocket science. But it takes work … when it’s a lot easier just to snap a selfie at a rally or #StandWith on Twitter or complain about how the Church isn’t helping the poor. (That last line is for you, John)

If you Love the Poor for the sake of the Favs and RTs, it will destroy you. Even doing it for the love of others can tear you apart, constantly peeling the onion of intersectionality until you’re a crying mess. Loving the Poor for the praise of Our Father In Heaven, as Jesus told us to do, might involve just as much crying, but it at least gives you something beyond yourself that you can hold on to when you have no idea whether or not you’re actually loving people or loving the thing you’re building for them or loving the way they make you feel.

Loving the Poor: Pics or It Didn’t Happen (from CAPC)

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Finally, this essay about how watching films changes us for the better because it trains our hearts to empathize is well worth a read. Again, a little denser than I’d like for a casual piece, but absolutely worth your time.  Brought back lots of great memories from the time I read James K. A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom.

Irrigating Deserts: How Film Transforms and Causes Us to Love Our Neighbors (From CAPC)

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OK, I lied. One more.

All the hoopla over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman hasn’t produced in me any desire to read it. I’m familiar enough with the shape of the tale and the surrounding metanarrative of how a reclusive author at the end of her life suspiciously agreed to release a manuscript she never wanted published.

This is the first article I’ve read which makes me think perhaps GSAW is worth a read after all.

“I am Atticus”: Racism and Vision in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Good Reads: Articles I recommend from this past week

I liked last weekend’s ’roundup’ of my favorite reads on the Internets, so here’s another round. I recommend all of these:

College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one. – The Washington Post.
“If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value.”  The author continues in this excellent essay to explain why today’s consumerist, assessment-driven view of education results in “trigger warnings,” low student motivation, and bad teaching.

What Overparenting Looks Like from a Stanford Dean’s Perspective | MindShift
N
othing earth-shattering here, but she gently reminds parents that over-parenting isn’t a virtue, no matter how much social pressure exists to push everyone in that direction.

I’m a professor. My colleagues who let students dictate what they teach are cowards. | Vox
About a week ago, an anonymous professor wrote a Vox piece that splashed hard in social media. He wrote that the rising tide of student fears about encountering ideas they disagree with had pushed him away from teaching truly challenging material in the classroom.

This rebuttal, by a female minority professor is a thoughtful piece, one that I highly recommend. Her title is provocative, but don’t make too many assumptions on the front end about what you think she’s going to say. It’s a good read.

Suicide Isn’t About Wanting To Die | PsychCentral
Many people assume that suicidal people want to die. They don’t. They just want the pain to stop. An important read for understanding how to help suicidal people.

Black America is so very tired of debating and explaining |Salon
An important read from a perspective I do not naturally hear within my personal context. The author insightfully parses the causes for the continuing deep and damaging racial divide in America. You might not agree with his viewpoint, but you definitely should read it.

Why did it take 50 years for Calvinists to care about race? How the Mainline saved Evangelicalism | Anthony Bradley
An excellent post by Dr. Anthony Bradley about the PCA, SBC and acknowledging dark racial history in Evangelicalism:  “My Protestant mainline friends are wondering why the Calvinistic Baptists and conservative Presbyterians are so celebratory about the current progress in 2015 given the fact the rest of American Protestantism had these discussions 50 years ago. In fact, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy came to the assistance of African Americans during the Civil-Rights Movement while gospel-centered, grace-centered Calvinists did nothing or supported racial segregation from the Bible. However, even with the half-of-a-century slowness to embrace issues that African American and “liberal” Christians regularly raise, we must give credit wherever credit is due. Progress is progress.”

And don’t miss the bibliotherapy article I posted yesterday.