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Learning As I Go…

It all began with a simple “Yes” I typed in response to an email from the chair of the Philosophy Department.

I was in the throes of massive coffee consumption, grading exams, and preparing to give a talk at a conference in Chicago, and so, I admit, I didn’t entirely grasp what I was saying “Yes” to.

It turns out, I had agreed to take on another professor’s class: Philosophy of Sex. Well, okay then. I requested the same textbook to be ordered for the syllabus. No, I hadn’t read it.

My background is in Existentialism and Moral Theory. My course load is comprised of classes in that framework. To say Philosophy of Sex was outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise would be woefully understated.

Including my graduate years, I’ve been teaching for about…never mind. Let’s just say Friends was still running and we were in suspense about Ross and Rachel.

In all of my years of teaching I’ve entered the classroom with the echo of something my high school math teacher once stated: “It’s my job to make sure you know more when you leave this room than when you entered.” I’ve held myself to this standard every day I am with my students.

Until…

Taking on this Philosophy of Sex course had me stumbling, blushing, and a type of tired no amount of caffeine could fix. Some topics covered in the textbook were things I had no desire to discuss, like defining the language/terms of sex as opposed to oral sex, are there sexual duties, sodomy laws, BDSM, and all things Freud, like penis envy (that absurd-only-a-man-would-think-that-idea).

I finished every class with a heavy heart as I walked to my car feeling that I hadn’t ensured my students an education or, as my math teacher had put it, knowing more when they exited my classroom. And, for the first time, a student left a scathing review of me online calling me “awful.” I know I shouldn’t have cared about that, but I did.

I was literally going over the chapters of the textbook at the same pace as the students, coming into class to discuss what we’d all just read for the first time. It was a humbling experience, and one that reminded me of a truth I’ve always known but only felt now in a profound way; namely, to teach, in part, is to embrace also being a student. That is, teaching does not the mark the end of one’s education, it’s couched in the continuing process of it.

Fortunately, I recruited my friend, the fabulous writer Stephen Elliott, to give a guest lecture on his piece from The New York Times “Three Men and a Woman.” Class lecture on kink covered!

I also managed to get the incredibly interesting writer Antonia Crane (author of Spent: A Memoir) to speak on the politics of sex work. She was engaging and brought a great energy to the class (for which I am oh so grateful!).  I got to be present, take a seat, and learn right along with my students.

It is with little irony that throughout the academic term I was also starting a writing project, a book all about the dynamics of teaching. I’ve been toiling with an outline framing the various angles of what teaching means and how we learn. For this project I’ve been conducting interviews to include in this book.

So, for the last few weeks I’ve either been in the classroom wondering how to manage actual teaching conundrums or running about meeting people to gather their wisdom on teaching. I’ve kept coffee shops around me in business.

With every meeting, much to my delight, I was reminded of how to view my own plight in teaching a class I found challenging.

Here are some nuggets of wisdom from my interviews:

I traveled to Chicago to meet with two of my friends from grad school, Dan Hutmacher and Dr. Drew Dalton. Both are brilliant and my meetings with them not only gave me food for thought, but had the added bonus of transporting me to memories of our grad school days in Leuven. Dan has undergone quite a journey from academic studies, to the corporate world, to recovering with and dealing with Crohn’s. He’s devoted much time to teaching others about this disease. He told me he’d been teased in the corporate world for spending his studies in Philosophy. But, he said, when your body is trying to kill you and you’re in the hospital, philosophy is what saves you. He reminisced on the writings of Levinas. After much surgery and recovery, he’s devoted time to creating a blog teaching others about Crohn’s.

Drew spoke much about his love of being in the classroom as we walked all over downtown Chicago.  In the throes of conversation he’d point to this place and that offering a brief history.  He’s Yelp personified.  He proposed that the subject “philosophy of teaching” be inverted to “teaching as an act of philosophy.” He said, “In the classroom that’s where philosophy is happening.”

At a café in Atwater Village I met my friend Chris McKenna, a charming actor with an infectious smile. Seriously, one can’t help but smile around him. Or look up. He’s six foot three. I asked him how he continues to learn his craft. He told me he reviews his performances, studies them, and thinks of how to improve. In other words, Chris learns, in part, by self-reflection and a desire to be better.

In my hometown Pasadena, my friend Patil, a teacher at an Armenian high school, smiled as we spoke over coffee when she talked about her love for her students. She cares for them and invests in them. As a mother, she explained, I treat them how I’d want teachers to be for my daughters. This reminded me that teaching is not merely a job, it’s a relation to others.

One evening in Orange County, while enjoying sushi with my friend and roommate from college, Jennifer Arnoldt, I asked her what people should know about going into corporate America. She answered, that no one knows what they’re doing. But, she continued, you go to work and figure it out. Well, I certainly needed to hear that!

On Melrose in West Hollywood, and a bottle of wine into the interview, I asked my friend Mike Racanelli (a man of several creative feats: producing, writing, acting), what inspires you? He leaned back, folded his arms and said, that’s a good question. Thank you, I replied. Hmmm…what inspires me?, he halfway mumbled. Everyone I meet, he said. You’re welcome, I said. Mike clued me in on the importance of finding the interesting and the possibilities to flourish with every encounter.

At the Cal Poly Pomona campus café I chat with Professor Tom Keith about his work making documentaries and how he decided to make films. He gave a humble smile and admitted that his first film, Generation M, was a project he never expected to get any traction. Really? I asked. It’s insightful and I’ve shown it on more than one occasion to my classes. For him, it was a way to reach out with the medium a lot of students use. You have to meet them where they are, he said. He’s now working on his fifth film. His disposition regarding teaching is one where he respects how the students learn and not just approaching teaching as the way in which he wants to deliver the material.

And, at this point, I’ve reached the end of the academic term. It was with genuine surprise a few students in the Philosophy of Sex class told me they enjoyed the course. My heart warmed with the news. Because, in all honesty, it’s about them and I want for them to learn.

I knocked on the chair of the Philosophy Department’s door. I confessed that I wasn’t sure how the class went, that I fumbled through the lectures, and I may have made of mess of things. It’s okay, he said with a shrug. Want to do it again in the fall?

“Yes.”

 

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Sexual Assault is a Crime

Sexual Assault is a crime.

It is more than a topic of the day, a discussion about misconduct, a misunderstanding about unwanted advances.  It is not a confusion about excess flirtation or an exercise in not modernizing one’s knowledge of what is acceptable.

Sexual Assault is a crime.

It is an attack on a person’s humanity, an attempt to chip away at another’s autonomy, a violation of their being.

Sexual Assault is a crime.

Had Trump, on that infamous Access Hollywood tape, bragged about a different crime, would the public have been so dismissive?  Imagine: “That’s where I paid to bury the body, and when you’re a star you can do anything.” Or: “That’s where I stole the money, I moved in on that vault like a bitch.”

Sexual Assault is a crime.

Perhaps calling it “sexual” is problematic.  After all, “sexual” is normal, an expression of desire, love, and often times lust, part and parcel of the human condition.  It is expressed in a culture of hook-up, 50 Shades of Grey, and Tinder scrolling.  What if we focus on the assault matter?  The part where one person disrupts another in a physical manner causing harm.  What if we discussed it in the same vein as a punch? 

Sexual Assault is a crime.

 


We are all Mika

Make no mistake, Trump’s vile tweets about Mika were not simply an attack on her but an attack on all women.  Once again, his method of defense (or “punching back”) carried the residue of an ill-conceived tired notion that woman’s character is tethered to her appearance.

I don’t know how any male members of the GOP who supported Trump can look to their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters without a sense of embarrassment.

Mika pointed out the fact that Trump had created a Time Magazine cover with his image and displayed this at his resorts.  In other words, he embodied the very “fake news” he so willfully condemns. She’s also been highly critical of his policies and the manner in which he conducted himself on his trips with other heads of state.  This is her work as a professional.  Thinking, researching, reporting constitute the foundation of her participation in the world of politics; yet, Trump’s idea of a response focused (and falsely) on her face.

Trump’s attacks were in no way indicative of a man interested in policy or political discourse.  Instead, they were a reminder of the way in which he views women, as something to be mocked, a body to be observed, a thing a man can do whatever he wants with.

We were all Mika in Trump’s tweet.

We are all Mika in her reply:

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Make vs Invite

Don’t try to make someone think.

Invite them.

The beauty of ideas are meant to be shared.

Add wine.


Pence Meets Atwood

Mike Pence: How wonderful to meet you at this extremely public place. My wife is approximately two feet to my left.

Margaret Atwood: (politely smiles)

Mike Pence: I’m a fan of your work. Or as the president would say “tremendous” fan.  Bigly. (chuckles)

Margaret Atwood: Why thank you.

Mike Pence: The Handmaid’s Tale is just brilliant.  I’ve a copy of it in my office.

Margaret Atwood: (blinks)

Mike Pence: I’ve read several times.

Margaret Atwood: Um, you know that’s a dystopia, yes?

Mike Pence: (coughs) Oops.

 


Unlearning

Sometimes education is

a process of unlearning,

disrupting a foundation

and rebuilding anew

book by book.


Daunting Term Paper

Term paper season causes a lot of anxiety for students.  The grade is not a matter of memorization but of doing something with one’s acquired knowledge.  Scantrons no more!  The irony is we’re often eager to state our point of view except when it’s obligatory.  Here’s a few tips:

  1. Start with a subject covered in the course that interested you.  It’s important that you find your chosen topic to be intriguing.  Trust me, if you’re bored with your thesis then writing will be excruciating.  Don’t be afraid to connect a subject learned in class with something that aligns with your passion and/or area of expertise.
  2. Don’t worry if you’re momentarily paralyzed by the project.  Many writers feel the jitters when eyeing a blank page. Congratulations, you are normal!
  3. Break the tasks of putting the paper together into manageable bits.
  4. Try free writing (old-fashioned with pen and paper) using the following prompt: “This interested me because…”
  5. Or, try this: “This subject reminded me of…”
  6. At the risk of sounding corny, if your attitude is “Ugh, I have to write this term paper,” consider shifting your attitude to “I have an opportunity to explore an idea and express my thoughts.”
  7. Once you get a handle on your position regarding a topic then begin using the library’s search engine for publications on your subject matter.
  8. Reading the publications ask yourself: does this enhance my view?  How so?  Is this contrary to my view?
  9. Now begin an outline with a clear thesis, order of ideas, and a conclusion.  Why is this topic worthy of writing about?  How is it significant?
  10. Fill in your outline. Again, break the work up into bits if the task feels overwhelming.  Some people do wonderful work hours at a time, but that isn’t necessary for everyone.  Devote at least 25 minutes to pure focus time on your paper and shut off any distractions.  Step away for a while and then return to your work.
  11. Contact the professor if you’re concerned about the direction of your topic.  All professors were once students themselves and they understand the trials of paper writing.
  12. Chat with a friend about your paper idea.  Talking out loud about an idea can inject energy into your work.  Perhaps your friend will add an insight.
  13. After your first draft print your work.  I cannot stress this enough.  Never hand in a paper that hasn’t been printed and edited.  A print version allows you to spot grammar errors and awkward sentence flow better than re-reading on a screen.
  14. Review the professor’s guidelines regarding citations, margins, and other details.
  15. Type up corrections you made from your printed version.  I recommend printing another draft, stepping away from it to do another activity, and then re-read your printed version out loud and slowly.
  16. Edit out overused terms and double check your use of conjunctions.  Most likely due to the world of texting I’ve found many grammar errors confusing possessive with plural.  (Know the difference between it’s, its, you’re, your, then, than, their, there, whether, and weather.)
  17. Make your final corrections.  Print!  Cheer!
  18. Remember, your term paper is an expression of your thoughts.  You are offering an interpretation or analysis on a subject that is unique because it comes from you.  This is an exercise in thinking, not just knowing, and it is one of the ways you learn more about a subject and, in turn, more about yourself.

*Fancy more tips?  Click here.


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