Brownie Points: Teaching and Cooperative Communities

You all know by now that I teach Introduction to Anthropology classes for a local university.  My role is pretty small and many of my students are just trying to

abandoned ancient antique arch
Photo by Pixabay on

fulfill a social science credit requirement, so I try not to take myself too seriously.  Over the past few semesters, my approach to teaching has undergone some substantial changes, more of which I’m currently making to my lesson plans for the upcoming term, but there’s one thing that’s remained constant. Our species survived and flourished, not because we did or do anything so drastically different from other primates.  Rather, it’s a question of degree.


Cooperation and Creation

All anthropoids (the great apes and Us) make tools to some degree.  We all cooperate. We all share. We all practice social regulation essential for cohesive community building.  Humans do thes things to a much deeper and more elaborated extent than any other extant primate species, which is why we survived.  That’s not intended to be an either/or statement regarding why we are currently the last Homo standing. There are several potential reasons for that, which I won’t go into today.

But we evolved in small groups spread across a vast landscape not particularly kind to the makers of mistakes.  We’re here. And, barring killing ourselves through war, ignorance, or climate catastrophes exacerbated by willful blindness, we have the chance to move forward.  7 billion or 7, we still have a responsibility for one another. And part of this responsibility of mutually assured survival entails that we maintain communities capable of absorbing change and human variation.  The closed society, like a closed thermodynamic system, is one doomed to increasing decay into stillness.

We also must keep all our hands in the game, quite literally when it comes to understanding how the physical world works.  One way to do that is to practice a craft.  It might fall under the heading of a hobby or it might be a form of skilled labor, but especially in a society such as this, it must be chosen.  I encourage my students to touch the world, above and beyond academic pursuits and earning wages to pay for continued life status.  Why?


The Disconnected Human

Isolation is a death sentence for much of our history on the planet.  To be cut out of a social group is detrimental to any primate, some of which will actually die without physical contact.  But for humans, it was also a literal death, because life is harsh and living requires the cooperative efforts of a closely bound group. Today, this may be less literally true, but studies indicate that social isolation takes a very real toll on physical health.

In terms of a whole culture group, particularly this one, I see our increased distance from even a basic understanding of how the physical world works as a sort of isolation.  It is a separation from others.  In our consumer economy, you never need to know how materials respond to physical forces, because you are not responsible for building or making anything.

If you need anything from dinner to a house, you buy it.  Someone else is responsible for that building or making, which renders us dependent. But it also makes us careless and disrespectful.  How many people treat masons or tailors, line cooks or farmers with respect, considering that these people have the knowledge to house, clothe, and feed us? When was the last time you remember vocational training put on the same footing with a university or academic education?

These features of our culture bother me.  They spell out a social trajectory that is a bit distressing, because we are a society of individuals who are pummeled with factoids and subject matter, but are rarely shown why we need to learn physics and maths.  Never mind that the arts have taken the brunt of budget cuts in my lifetime.  And the result is, when paired with test-oriented inculcation, entire generations who cannot think, cannot make, cannot survive if a single cog in our modern social machine is removed.  This is the opposite of the dynamic and adaptive cooperative species that emerged to become recognizable as our human forebears.


Rough and Smooth

Of course, I speak generally. There are, on the individual level, quite a few people who do interact in these ways with their community and physical world.  What I seek to do, on the small scale, is to encourage my students to pursue these endeavors. I provide a situational reward framework that offers incentives.  They’re taking my class to fulfill an academic requirement, and usually have little interest in taking the next, more focused step.

So, I offer Brownie Points that will enhance their academic marks, for going to cultural events, for participating in community projects, and for investigating crafts or skills.  Did you learn how to sew so you could make your own CosPlay outfits? Brownie Points! Are you learning to cook at home to save money or impress a sex partner? Brownie Points! Have you been learning how to rebuild engines or how to construct housing units as a personal extension of academic endeavors? Brownie Points! All I need is documentation–a ticket stub, selfies at the Masquerade, pics of you on a building site or behind the line at the soup kitchen, progress pics–whatever.

I simply want my students to know that being involved–cooperative, creative, dirty to the elbows with community and with the making of stuff–has value, and this is the simplest way to show that.


Grow According to Your Nature: High Summer Garden Saturdays

Earlier, before the desiccated rasp of summer crickets created the soothing white noise barrier, I could hear the sounds of traffic from the major roads nearby. Those sounds were intrusive, lacking the monotony necessary to become invisible to my ear, but in the garden there was another sort of syncopated rhythm–the short flights of resident sparrows, the hop-scratch of brown thrashers and towhees, momentary slashes of cerulean or jonquil that betoken goldfinches and bluebirds, and the erratic, aggressive curiosity of ruby throated hummingbirds.

The Backwards Illogic of Interference

I do not permit poison in this space–no NPK, no pesticide, no herbicide. And while there are weeds aplenty, there are no infestations of insects, no marching plagues. The garden grows according to its nature. My seasons are marked by multiple, overlapping sounds of life bursting with the busy languages of several dozen species.

I’ve never quite managed to understand why people feel the need to apply poison–and yes, synthetic NPK fertilizer falls into that category, too, since it encourages growth without natural hardiness. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers treated with these products lack resistance to pests and infections and the edible productions are neither as flavorful or nutritious, because the substances, such as flavanoids, that cause those attributes are the results of struggle and natural pest deterrent systems.

Similarly, why would I put pesticide or herbicide anywhere near a space where I and small, vulnerable animals–pets, toddlers, chipmunks–spend time? Not only am I simply aiding natural selection and ensuring that only the strongest of a species survives to reproduce, I’m exposing myself and all animals to toxic, systemic accumulation of whatever chemicals I apply to remedy a problem that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t apply chemicals in the first place. Also, it helps to not see weeds as hostile agents in a personal war that puts human against all of nature. That’s stupid, counterproductive, and a waste of resources.

Shadow Runes and Deep Silence

The endless wave pattern of sound that is the song of summer crickets and cicadas creates a protective bubble. I can no longer hear even the most vigorous engines from the nearby roads, and it creates an illusion of silence. Strange, how so many overlapping sounds have that effect.

The sun pours heavily into this bowl of unstill stillness. Crepe Myrtles cast sharp, runic shadows across blades of grass and sandpaper concrete, merging and shifting. The negative spaces are golden. Now, the birds are resting, quiet in the deep cover of the unruly forsythia hedge and the various tangles of foliage around the garden.

The hot afternoon is thick with humidity and I savor the kisses of wind that occasionally run through this secluded space. Now, in the hours of honey light, bees take over. I let my basil plants bolt, trading productivity of the human sort for that of a different nature. Spires of simple white flowers rise atop the awkwardly tall shrubs. The leaves are still pungent and flavorful, but have lost their sweetness.

It’s worth a little culinary loss to sit and watch thirty or forty bees and butterflies harvest nectar from the white flowers or the brilliant coins of marigolds that populate the understory of the basil-tomato forest. The most obvious are the enormous bumble bees, with their fuzzy yellow mantles and great black eyes that look at me when I bend close to take their picture. They are gentle and content to change course if we get too close to each other. Then, there are wild honey bees and a number of smaller bee-like pollinators. Monarchs, Swallowtails, and four distinct varieties of moth also come to the garden.

Is my garden perfect? For me, yes. The hazy rambling forms, the weedy borders and wild interstices speak not of order or control, but a voluptuous abundance. This is the essence of plenty, for all it isn’t devoted solely to human food plants. It is a well of stillness and silence from the right-angled noise of harsh construction, greedy waste, the pointless and endless agitation of the human artificial landscape. Is it managed? To a point. But like the round and irregular plantings of native with non-native species left largely to their own devices, there is also a measure of chaos that is integral.

It is the open margin through which nature comes and goes, tidal, seasonal, and responsive to an unbelievably variable complexity. In my garden, I see the principal of least action in play. My eye excises the targets of the bees’ flight and traces only their trajectory. The garden is an open system, that must grow according to its nature–which is a multitude of natures, in reality, mine being the least of all.

The Revelation of Ignorance

This morning, my head hurt.  It wasn’t because I was short on sleep or caffeine or because I forgot to break my fast.  You see, I was trying to think about things I had no business thinking about, for which I lacked the tools and the fundamental intellectual underpinnings.  One does not spend decades fleeing from higher maths and then suddenly decide to learn about phase states and black holes, never mind their theoretical inverse twins, the white holes.  It’s simply not done.  And yet, it’s exactly what I was trying to do bright and early.

Phase States…okay, liquid, solid, gas.  But…Wave Functions?

Learning as a Drug

I’ve always prided myself on my insatiable thirst for knowledge and its close cousin, understanding.  It’s one of those integral features of what I call my Self.  But like a precocious child who stumbles into the liquor cabinet, I found drink stronger than I could take, and it made me a bit sick.  I found knowledge I could not imbibe, because I did not understand how to conceptualize those lessons.

To backtrack a bit, I began watching the PBS web series called Space Time, which an acquaintance mentioned last night.  Now, there are certain aspects of astrophysics and garden variety physics that I’m quite familiar with and these bear a degree of dog-eared comfort.  I’ve idolized Carl Sagan for almost my entire life, thanks to the fact that I was born in 1981.  Cosmos was a staple program in my household, viewed as easily and frequently as Fraggle Rock or Reading Rainbow.

Penrose Diagram

But, there are thresholds I never crossed.  I began avoiding mathematics at a young age.  The 80s are an era of ignominy in mathematics education.  Base-8 approaches and The New Math destroyed the love of math for an entire generation, building walls of confusion between students and comprehension.  When I was quite young, I was actually tested for advanced placement in mathematics, but shortly thereafter, the trouble began.

I “cheated” because I didn’t show work or arrived at a correct answer in a different way than I’d been taught to do.  Then, I was told I was just “naturally bad” at math.  And there are some rather nasty precedents in this country for telling little girls they are bad at math.  But the small schism at a young age became a gulf as I grew older.  I reserved my thirst for subjects in which I so clearly excelled–writing, history, social sciences.  I squeaked under the bar for physics and calculus.  In short, I learned to simply avoid subjects that did not readily bear the fruit of praise.

When Awareness is Awakening

To some extent, I’ve managed to patch up my bad romance with hard science and advanced mathematics.  Carl, after all, can be quite convincing.  And activities such as gardening, site assessment, artifact analysis, and population studies require a better handle on maths.  But the mysteries of particle physics or the contemplation of Infinity nestled between arcane Greek symbols and parentheses, peppered with supernumeraries–these things remained as only vague ideas.  After all, how useful to a writer and an anthropology teacher are they?

As you might suspect, not very.  And even now, they aren’t especially vital to my exploration of my physical existence.  At 36, I’m not likely to ever have any concrete need of the Planck constant, and the little fact that the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation of the universe holds a constant temperature of 2.725 Kelvin is just a useful tool to have on hand when I flirt with the physics nerds.  So, why did I foolishly jump into the pool before inquiring whether it was full of water or…something less salubrious to my kind? Because the person who showed me the pool was one of those aforementioned nerds, and I was quite interested in flirting.

I get hot for science nerds…2.725 degrees Kelvin…

Sex, it appears, is a prime mover for foolishness of many varieties.

But something unexpected has happened, along with me gasping and floundering my way back to the edge of said pool.  I realized why my students look at me with dead eyes when I lecture about anthropology.  Silly, but it’s something I never really grasped before–that this might be like jumping into a pool for them before they’ve really learned how to swim at all.  They lack the tools and the skills and even the foundational understanding that would assist them in absorbing the words coming out of my mouth.  Even using smaller words isn’t helpful, as I’ve discovered.

By the time I went to college, I was 25.  Prior to that, I was, and still am, an avid reader.  So I had a base from which to work.  I encountered many novel and unfamiliar concepts as I progressed through my history and archaeology degree work.  But none of them were so alien that I could not even grasp the most basic aspects of them.  My anthropology class, then, really must seem like rocket science to most of my students.  And here I am, asking them to get involved–they lack a vocabulary, even the most minimal grasp of basic concepts, or even how to see the lessons I craft for them.  And of course, they never do the assigned reading, because they feel stupid and assume that the text will only deepen their despair–all that effort of reading words, wasted!

So, with this revelatory understanding clear in my head, I will design lessons that hinge on fun presentations of ideas.  I’m going to have to Carl Sagan the subject of Anthropology–yeah, I just made his name into a verb.  How very ethnolinguistic of me.

He’s a verb if I ever saw one…

When the Path Does Not Yet Exist

Lately, I’ve been feeling empty. I’m not talking about that black hole feeling in which I recognize an endless and insatiable sea of need. (Thank goodness.) But it did take me a little while to identify what sort of void I did feel. There have been weeks during which I grilled myself with probing questions: Are we feeling depressed, worthless, unloved this morning? Is this just another rehash, yet one more false start?

And to some extent, those are important questions. But I did not recognize their ultimate foundation until a few days ago. Yes, I am feeling all of these things, because I am not of use. Now, being of use is not a static condition. It means different things for different people, and its definition may change over the course of a single lifetime.

To be of use…

But once the obvious answers to the question of what I want have been supplied–to be fulfilled, to have basic needs met, to have the luxury of experiencing moments of joy in whatever form my life assumes–the answer that remains unquantified is still hanging in the air.

What do you want to do?

My boss (whose title is technically “Chair of Social Sciences” but to use it in this context makes it sound like my furniture is talking to me) asked me on Friday what I wanted to do when I indicated that I felt a need to live a life more defined by Service to others.

Do I feel a little foolish that I don’t have a ready answer, even now? Yes. The hard truth is that I don’t even know what is possible or what exactly I would want to do at this point. But a little hard thinking over the past couple of days has permitted the consideration to take on a more defined shape.

Sidestepping reality for a moment.

I know what I’m about to say is unrealistic and lacks any sort of rational shape. But it’s my first gut reaction to the question of what I want to do.

I want to work for an organization that crunches numbers and collects data about significant social problems and then works to provide solutions. I want to walk into a room full of skeptical public employees and present those solutions in a way so attractive that they will at least agree to hear more, to come to the table and work for greater equity among the most vulnerable parts of their community. That is what I want to do.

But what does that mean? Well. Hm. That’s what I’m figuring out in a roundabout sort of way. I have a skill set. I have education. And now, I need to spend time figuring out the things I don’t know yet–the hard information, the new skills and education I will need to acquire, and the opportunities that suit my need to be useful in the right ways/make the world a place of slightly less suffering for more people.

What sort of work would I think, at this point, would have that general impact? Food insecurity, inescapable poverty and third-world living conditions, and a lack of educational and economic opportunity are not things I believe should exist in the wealthiest developed nation in the world.

Call me a socialist or a commie or whatever–but I also believe that, with the proper tools and mindset, these conditions can be reduced or eliminated in such a way that everyone in the community–as a community of human–beings sees the benefit.

Is there such a place for me, job or avocation or whatever I should name it? And if so, how do I get there from where I am now? These, along with a barge load of data and self-education about economic and government policy are questions I need to answer for myself.

I do not know what I will find. At this moment, I am simply asking questions and trying to understand how the answers fit together. I feel and have felt for some time an almost overpowering urge to live a life defined by meaning and purpose. Yet I have permitted myself to remain stuck and in a hand-to-mouth rut that has a distinctive downward curve.

I want to know more about the factors that lead to food insecurity/food deserts, poverty and lack of social and economic mobility, homelessness–I feel as if they are connected. Then, I want to find out what people are doing to fix these problems.

I feel like I won’t really know where to go or how to improve my skill set until I know more about how things actually are. And so…here we go. If there isn’t a path forward yet, then I suppose I’ll have to make my own.

On the Banks of the River Both-And: The Universe as a Compound I

Early this morning, I sat in my garden drinking my first cup of coffee.  It’s my usual habit to take a few moments to center myself, and allow thoughts to be whatever they will–a half-assed version of meditation that suits my inability to still the inner world for longer than a few heartbeats.  12072611_10101918673874203_291909373709517194_nThis works well, and allows me to progress to more important considerations beyond keeping silent and still.  I was not made to be serene on purpose, and the harder I try, the farther from it I get.  So I just don’t anymore, and that helps me to relax.


Apertures of the Universe

There’s this concept that keeps crossing paths with me.  I’ve encountered it repeatedly, whether in the pages of a Hindu sacred text, the writings of Alan Watts, or as a child watching Nova and Cosmos.

We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Pause and chew on that for a moment.  How many billions of humans exist, right now? Each of us is one of these cosmic apertures, through which all the stuff of the universe is touching itself, looking at itself, listening and doing, wiggling, feeling, thinking.  If that doesn’t fuck you up for a split second at the very least, you haven’t really thought about it.  Or you’re just used to thinking about it.  13912572_10102337793704703_7071814879435889539_n

This idea that we are each continuous and eternally present functions of the entire cosmos, not the end product, but an always-wiggling bit in transit, isn’t new to me.  And yet it is always new.  Every time I encounter it–reflected back at me through what I’m reading or seeing or some random thought that floats by during my half-assed Practice–it feels fresh and crisp and startling.

So if each one of us, as conscious/self-aware human animals, is such a lens, to say nothing of the innumerable plant and animal species with which we share the planet, and there is life out there beyond this little envelop of moisture and rock and air–that’s one hell of a compound consciousness, an “I.”

I briefly contemplate what sort of apertures tardigrades and bacteria make, or daffodils and puppies, triceratops and tube worms, corals and elephants…and broccoli.    Because why would such an impossibly, burstingly full and wigglingly alive universe restrict itself to one variety of experience or self-knowledge?colour_mandelbrot


Or Best Approximations

God, or the eastern imaginings of such a thing.  I won’t spend much time on this topic today, because it strikes me that it would take far too long.  I can’t ascribe to some sort of formal creator deity, especially not out of the Levant.  But this hyper-conscious, compound I that the universe appears to be seems like the closest I’ve come to accepting the notion of a deity on a personal level.

If that is a god thing, then aren’t we all god in the sense that what looks out is a fractal bit of the bigger “I”? Isn’t that broccoli you ate for dinner, the bullock who died for your hamburger, the squirrel eating all the birdseed out of your bird feeder right now–aren’t they a fragment, too? Perhaps in a totally broccoli-like or bovine-esque or squirrel-onic way, which is not yours…but isn’t that something worth considering?



Worlds that Never Were: Imagination, Intelligence, and Education

I recently finished grading and submitting records for another semester.  My role is small.  I only teach a couple of sections of Introduction to Anthropology for a local university.  And yet, I see what I do as important–not just for my students, but for me as well.  Learning is not a finite process, restricted to a specific location or a particular building.  It goes on as long as we do, and when it stops, we may as well throw in the towel, because what follows is a long, dim corridor of heartbeat and breath and boredom.


How “Education” is Killing Us

That may seem like a dramatic statement, and in the short term, it is.  In the long view, however, you might come to see things from my perspective.  Much of my year is given over wholly to crafting lessons and lectures, interfacing with students, and reading their attempts at writing.  After two years, I’m gaining a little data, but much of what follows is based on my daily experience.

I teach zombies for the most part, with a few who stir to life to answer questions or laugh at my terrible jokes.  But the vast majority of my class time is spent trying to provoke some sign of intelligent life in a room populated with glassy-eyed, unresponsive young humans.  16dbdd643e2671848823165d27161957Even the simplest inquiry usually turns into an unpleasant and frustrating process of trying to gain some answer besides a shrug or a blank stare.

It’s possible that most students sign up for my course because they think it will be an easy A, because anthropology has a reputation for being flimsy or whimsical or whathaveyou.  You try cramming all of human activity and behavior and belief over our 3 million year (yes, 3 million, because Homo sapient aren’t the only member of the genus) history, and introducing the five distinct disciplines within the field into 15 weeks, and let me know how whimsical you feel.  That notwithstanding, I try to make it fun and interactive.  But when I’m the only one interacting, it becomes difficult.

I think a larger problem is that most of my young students are either fresh out of high school or have had no other college experience that they can use for context.  What I’m learning is that learning is not the goal in the public education sphere, and hasn’t been for some time.  These kids are trained not to respond, not to question, and certainly never to have anything resembling an original thought.  In my class, and I suspect in most other classes, this is a huge problem.  How are you supposed to be an adult if you don’t know how to think or interact?


Teaching to the Test Isn’t Teaching

Imagination is something all humans possess, although it takes different forms and is dependent upon the individual for a means of expression.  It’s also the fundamental underpinning of natural human intelligence–this ability to abstract, to envision, to play.  And it’s something that’s being kicked out of us during our years of formal education–not because the teachers want to do it, not because they want to build automatons for the State Machine.

I’ve known primary and secondary teachers who weep blood crafting interactive activities and shell out considerable amounts of their meager personal income in order to keep the spark of human curiosity alive in their classrooms.  It’s a losing battle, that, when you consider that the State Machine mandates that the only thing that matters is performance upon standardized testing.  This encourages rote memorization and pushing through material with little time for questions or exploration.  It’s a feature of our industrialized educational sphere, and was when I went to school, too.

It’s this pressure on educators that causes them to inadvertently squelch natural intelligence.  We “measure” intelligence in this culture based on a monolithic standard that doesn’t give credit for different types of intellectual strength.  This root is problematic when you consider that I’m on the other end teaching people who don’t appear to have the sense of a box of rocks.  233393-Robert-A-Heinlein-Quote-When-any-government-or-any-church-for-thatBecause what they seem to have internalized are not the facts or concepts they bubbled so many bubbles about on scantron sheets, but a broader concept that their job as students is not to think but to memorize.  They’ve also been taught that being “wrong” is worse than being silent.

How did we get here? I think this question and realize that I already know, but the answer is long, convoluted, and digs up unpleasant realizations about this culture that no one really wants to hear.


Burning or Banning?

Books that teach are unpopular.  I’m not talking about your Algebra book, but those that shove our noses into the muck of our social context.  When we prohibit access to these unpleasantly honest works–many of them labelled “fiction” as if that were somehow of lesser value than hard and factual, dry and unpalatable assessments–we are agents of a sort of decentralized tyranny.  a254993c08e067def58d677fcfcc66b2So, schools that ban books are doing the job of fascists everywhere, even if they would squirm away from that rather bald comparison.

You see, I was a horrible student, given to causing trouble by asking too many questions and later to simply absenting myself entirely from the microcosm of high school.  What I wasn’t doing was “hanging out with an undesirable element” or stealing or drag racing or defacing public property.  Those activities were  not to my taste.  I was smoking, and drinking terrible coffee at a Waffle House, with my journal and a stack of books two feet tall.

I was reading Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov,  Wollstonecraft and  Rousseau, le Guin and Buaudrillard and a host of other writers both frivolous and deeply academic all mixed up together.  Many of these books have spent time on a banned books list in one or more school districts.  Some, like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 have earned spots on those lists–and why? Because the core message of the book is dangerous to communities that want everything to be nice, organized, peopled by a citizenry that asks no uncomfortable questions.

I was imagining.  I was looking for answers and truth, which are not always the same thing, about both Life and my life.  Sometimes, I felt I’d nearly touched those truths or answers.  Sometimes, I feel like I will chase them like a horizon line until I die.  But, in all the time since my stint as a teen aged truant, I have valued hard truths and troublemakers. Those questions that some feel can be avoided by removing literature that encourages the young to ask them are essential to a healthy culture. They push us to embrace and explore change in healthy, relatively safe realms of the imagination.

But they are not comfortable. And those who dare to inhabit this discomfort inevitably invite their friends in, too. Questions, and literature that leads us to ask them, are treated as a sort of gateway drug in many parts of our social landscape. And those who deal in banned books, disturbing inquiries, revisionist history that flouts our carefully constructed social-historical mythologies–these are Troublemakers. The status quo reviles them as the peddlers of anti-social rhetoric. I have always prized them, having been one, myself.


I value them still, even when said troublemakers make my job difficult.  Because I see, after only a few semesters, that my class may be the first, terrifying taste many students have of intellectual freedom.  After a staid and cultivated landscape of subject matter–which they memorize, regurgitate, and promptly forget–here comes this crazy person dragging them into a hinterland full of dangerous concepts, wild and unruly thoughts.  I tell them that everything that came before was part of a cultural narrative and its truth may not be quite as they believed.

Those with imaginations tend to get more out of the class than those who simply scribble every fantastical and barely believed word that comes out of my mouth.

“There are millions of people in the world who believe very different things than you do.” “Religion is a social system, designed by humans to encourage community cohesion and social harmony. And there are many deities, even some religions with no deity at all.” “Our species is one among many in the Homo genus, and we once share the landscape with at least one other type of human.” “Colonialism shaped both Western science and the way we perceive world cultures, and is alive and well in a new form, today.”  (Cue expressions that look like physical pain or shock, whether the student is an agitator or compliant.)

I see the former, who may sometimes ask questions or engage in dialogue.  The latter wrap themselves in the comfort of learned scholastic behaviors and obedient silence, as if offering no resistance to this terrifying new place will somehow preserve them.  But it won’t, anymore than it will do them favors in their adult life.


Talking Heads and Parking Lots: Pausing at Semester’s End

I walked across the griddle of black asphalt that was the parking lot.  My car looked lonely, because the last day of classes had already happened and students had taken their freedom post haste.  True, most teachers are giving finals next week, and those same students will return, dragging their feet and muttering pep talks to themselves on Monday or Tuesday.  I, I thought as I pressed my key fob to unlock the car, am not most teachers.


How Did I Get Here?

On a Friday afternoon, beneath a sky marked only by the most decorative of clouds, I sat in my car in the university’s mostly empty parking lot.  After the frozen stillness of the offices, I unfurled in the dense and clotted heat of the closed passenger compartment.  This was a space into which the minutes did not trespass, and the light fell more freely.  How did this happen? I meet my own gaze in the rear view mirror, and let my eyes slide away.

It strikes me as the height of irony that I, of all people, should be a teacher.  Yes, I, the poster child for truancy, the hater of unwarranted authority and imposed structures lacking sufficient explication–and yet here I am.  My shoulder bag, abandoned in the passenger seat, bulges accusingly with term papers and scantron sheets.  I have not yet made a start with the papers, but the bubble sheets for the last test–titled Anthro 1102, Greatest Hits–those, at least have been squared away.  I never wanted this, never dreamed of or planned it.

But there, what’s that? Could it be satisfaction? Perhaps contentment? What an odd sensation of…just right.  IMG_5333


Feasts and Modern Survival

On the afternoon before these hot-car meditations, my students gathered for the Commensal Feasting Event.  Putting food in our faces together with other familiar humans seems to be something all groups like to do.  In fact, this penchant for snacking with friends may be one of the big keys to why and how we managed not to die out like the other Homo species with which we once shared the landscape.

But surely it’s not important anymore, right? I mean–modernity, science, all the technological and industrial mechanisms with which we can surround ourselves in lieu of others of our kind–what about all that? In this culture and others, it seems, we are now dying of loneliness.  Because we might feel self-contained, but we’re still pack animals at every level.

So, I’ve made it a practice to bribe my students with extra credit.  It’s an exchange, really.  They invest time or resources to prepare or purchase something–which, even cups and plates are rewarded, because we need those in order to eat and drink together–and then we gather on the last scheduled day of class before finals week begins.

We visit and eat, every offering is displayed on the feasting tables (desks or lab benches shoved together at the front of the room.) There’s music and sharing and a lot of noise, especially when I have more than one class section and they meet each other for the first time.  Everyone has a pretty good time.


Summer Vacation Thoughts

I have a lot of work ahead of me, which I am a bit reluctant to begin.  But once everyone’s grades are averaged and I’ve submitted the numbers to the university, then what? When we’re young, we idolize this stretch of hot weeks and ending of scholastic responsibilities.  But, I find myself in a different place, a reversed one, as a professor.

I know, even in the cases of students who frustrated me, that I will miss the routine of class, of lecture and trying to reach them about things that are relevant to the discipline. I will miss seeing the characteristic expressions that betoken brain-melting or sudden understanding.   Because, while it’s not the reason I took this posting as a teacher, it is why I’ve stayed.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work to do this summer.  Once grading is complete, I want to dismantle my entire class structure.  The lecture style, while fun for me, doesn’t feel effective.  Are they learning? And what are they learning? Because I am sometimes deeply disturbed by the concepts they manage to twist with misunderstanding.

Then, there’s the strange terror response they exhibited at the very mention of a 20-page research paper.  I lost a few students because of that, because writing and research are no longer taught, no longer considered relevant life skills, but something mysterious to be feared and avoided.



At the feast, I told my kids, “Congratulations.  You made it.  No matter what grade you receive on the paper, you should know that it’s a huge accomplishment.  You did this, and you should be proud of that.”

So, who knows–perhaps I’ll deconstruct the process and make it four or five smaller chunk grades.  Or maybe we’ll do several small projects.  IMG_5334All I can say with certainty is that, while I can absolutely talk for 3 hours at a time about anything anthropological, I wonder how much they hear and remember.  I think a new approach is essential.  That will require an awful lot of coffee.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Just so you know, none of the above or the images or the quote are my contributions.  That would be WordPress.  It brings up a question for me, which I will pose to those of you who have joined me.  Can you manufacture authenticity?  Or perhaps we should call it “soul,” since the substance of a thing is integral, here.  In the attempt to do so, do we not rob ourselves of authentic experience, and can we know anything about a person or, in this case, the writer of a blog, who uses the simulacrum of real-ness as a foundation for everything that comes after?



Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton