Education

Out of sight, out of mind

you forgot me

My brother, who is some years older, once said, “When I don’t see you, I don’t think about you.” This meanness nearly felled me, but it was just one of an infinity of cruelties for which he had become known.

Now, memories of these sadisms live in me as if they were another body with a separate respiration, and I continue my lived life in the other vessel, the more fragile of the two, which nevertheless still sustains me.

I have been thinking, though, that my brother simply gave voice to what many of us could never be honest enough to admit but to what is likely true for most human beings: we really don’t think about others—not deeply, not at length, and not over the long haul—in part because we are consumed by our own often desperate needs, which, when you really think about it, are born out of this wish we have not to die.

Here I am, for instance, feeling terribly sorry for a sweet student who tells me her boyfriend has just passed away; then, a few days later, forgetting all about what seemed in me a genuine compassion, I am irritated that she has not come to class and that she has not handed in several assignments.

Or this: a friend is ill, with a ravaging and protracted treatment ahead of her, and I am solicitous and well-wishing at the start. I even offer assistance and seem to mean it. Ask me a week on about how she is doing, though, and, if I am honest with you and with myself, I will have to confess that I have not thought of her once since I made my offer. It seems, instead, that I have been busy worrying about bills. And about a man.

With my friend, whom I really quite love, It is as though the offering is nearly the same thing as the doing, and I can convince myself I am a pretty terrific person by conveniently mistaking the former for the latter.

Image

Happy birthday to me ♫

birthday-hat-with-flowers

Today, September 17, I received birthday emails from my dentist, my eye doctor, my everyday doctor, and my bank. In the past, I have sneered at these types of marketing ploys and have inwardly labeled them as ungenuine and self-serving.

On this day, though, and in part because these emails were the only birthday wishes I had so far received (with the exception of a text from my daughter), I noticed the sneer was nearly gone. I attribute this softening in part to my age (which is older than it used to be) and to my slowly growing acceptance, it seems, that the world—including its marketing arm—is what it is.

While showering, I also noticed I was thinking about the word “grit.” It is one that is bandied about these days in education circles, and it has to do with a recognition that students not only need academic skills to succeed but also need “noncognitive competencies” to have a successful launch. Those who possess grit, then, have developed the inner resources that enable them to persevere even in the face of significant suffering. One of the many reasons I prefer working with community college students to working with students at four-year institutions is that so many of them have had to overcome great hardship to get to college, and they show their “grit” in all that they say and do.

I can relate well to the many struggles of the students I have known. When I look back on my years, I see that I, too, had learned to rely on my inner strength and on my sense of purpose when it seemed there was no one else to support and help me.

From childhood, mine has not been an easy life: Broken home. Broken marriages. Broken heart. But, I have more than survived the many difficulties, and I am still here, on September 17, to wish myself a happy birthday and to be grateful I have been given the possibility of one more year.

Image

Academic freedom, my ahem

impostor

Academic freedom is the right of teachers and students to express their ideas in the classroom or in writing, free from political, religious, or institutional restrictions, even if these ideas are unpopular. (Source)

Some 20 years ago I began teaching at a community college in northern California, where I made up for in enthusiasm what I lacked in experience and skill. At the time, I taught several writing courses, with their state-mandated emphasis on “critical thinking,” and I accepted the challenge of opening a mind or two with whatever latchkey I could find in my bag of teacher tricks. It delighted me, I confess, to lob a juicy controversy into the middle of a classroom and to see how students would react—though always my goal was to encourage new, and perhaps more expanded, ways of thinking and feeling about a thing.

During those early teaching years, the only challenge to academic freedom that I experienced came as a result of a short-lived edict from college officials demanding that we turn in any student we suspected of being an illegal immigrant. I remember saying to myself, and to anyone else who would listen, that I would go to prison before I participated in such a betrayal.

Some years later, I was teaching at a northern Virginia university, where, because of 9/11, there existed on campus a burgeoning paranoia that apparently frightened the administration. As a result, we were told to keep our noses clean and our political opinions to ourselves. Although I have never been one to express my political views to students, this silencing did not sit well with me, but I did as I was told since I was an adjunct faculty member without the job security tenure confers.

After a hiatus of several years, I have recently gone back to teaching writing part time at a community college, and I am faced with another insidious challenge to academic freedom, one that is “undirected and driven largely by students” and that aims “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” (Source).

Now, it seems, one can be called to the dean’s office for using a word like “violate” in the classroom (even if in the context of teaching about the law) because it might “cause student distress.” And one cannot ask another where he or she was born for fear that such a question might somehow suggest this person “is not a real American.” And one might think twice about asking students to read classic works of literature like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because the former “describes racial violence” while the latter “portrays misogyny and physical abuse,” which “might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma” in “students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence” (Source).

While this backlash against teachers has received more recent press at four-year universities and colleges, those of us who teach at community colleges will no doubt soon need to begin fearing how an errant remark or a misguided reading assignment might affect the long-term emotional well-being of our students. A few days ago, I sent my students home with an assignment to read an article about why ISIS has been successful in recruiting westerners (our theme for the semester is “identity and belonging”). Now I find I am wondering about when I will need to proceed at my own risk should I again wish to assign a reading like this.

Photo

Changes Afoot

a foot

Some of you might have noticed that Ruminationville has a new look. And, so it does. Three years ago I chose a WordPress theme (template) that struck my fancy, but I knew next to nothing about WordPress or about website design. Though I feel great affection for the design I chose, I recently found myself wanting something a little more expansive, unbounded—and au courant, as we French like to say.

I was able to transfer all of the content from my previous site—even the many photos and videos I have posted. A big hurrah for that. You might notice, though, that some of the images—particularly with older posts—seem too small or otherwise wonky for this new design; the same goes for alignment of certain poems with the visuals and the titles. In the coming days I will be addressing these minor snags as best I can.

I’m also hard at work on another website, a writing & an esl tutoring business developed with “the very busy” in mind. Among other writing services, I will be offering “creative consultations” for those who would like to discuss their works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry as well “academic consultations” for those who are writing masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations. And, some clients might be interested in the blog posts, articles, LinkedIn profiles, website content, newsletters, press releases, resumes (and more!) that I can write for them.

I am also very excited about expanding my existing tutoring services for adult, non-native English speakers. In-person English language sessions will continue to be available for those living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, but I will soon be able to offer Skype sessions to those living around the globe. My focus will continue to be on helping English language learners develop or improve their speaking, listening, reading, and writing/grammar skills in ways that will be relevant to their own lives and experiences.

I will be launching the site soon and will let you know when you can mosey on over and have a peek.

UPDATE: I have launched leslielass.com. Go and have a look!

Image

On devolution

god_jack sanders_photo by Marilyn SandersToday I caught the last moments of a Terry Gross interview on NPR. In it, she was speaking with Jack Miles, general editor of The Norton Anthology Of World Religions and professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of God: A Biography, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. What I heard was of great interest, but most interesting of all was a seeming throwaway line I might have missed had I not gone back to read an online transcript of the discussion and reflect on what had been said.

“I have no confidence that the world [awaiting] us — given global warming, given the threat to the human habitat — is a world of ever-increasing knowledge…,” says Miles. “We may be at a peak now from which we will decline. Who knows?”

I think I can honestly say it never occurred to me that human beings would stop evolving; in fact, I have often taken comfort in the belief that we could grow out of our smallnesses and stupidities to become the enlightened band of sisters and brothers we were meant to be. But one glance at the day’s headlines, and I have to wonder if we are, in fact, on a slow, steady slide downward.

Photo

Wow

Jaguar

but the best encounter

Diane

I’ve ever had

the best one

was when

I was tracking a jaguar

in the jungle

by myself

which I usually don’t do

I saw these big male tracks of a jaguar

I’d never seen before and

I just took off thinking okay

I’ll track it a little while but

I shouldn’t be alone but

I ended up tracking it for hours and

 it was getting dark and

I didn’t have a flashlight and

I can’t be alone in the jungle without a flashlight so

I turn around and

there’s the jaguar

in back of me

wow

Photo

(Excerpt from an 8.18.14 interview between NPR’s Diane Rehm and zoologist/wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz )

It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.

Photo