Tag Archives: Inspiration

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.”

 

Click for My Amazon Author Page


Make vs Invite

Don’t try to make someone think.

Invite them.

The beauty of ideas are meant to be shared.

Add wine.


Beautiful Souls

Thank you for sharing your talent, for being an inspiration, and for making the world more beautiful.

IMG_5250

FullSizeRender copy 2

FullSizeRender copy


Unblocking

*Daily Prompt

Composes email to journal. Attaches file. Hits “send.”

A momentary sense of relief sets in upon the completion of a written work. This is usually followed with deep breaths and a generous serving of Pinot Noir. But then the next day arrives and an inkling of unease snakes into my thinking:

“Now what am I going to write? That was it! I am out of ideas! I’m done. Oh no! I’ve got nothing.”

A second serving of wine will not suffice; instead I go for an extra dirty martini.

For me, writer’s block has been nothing more than an appealing way to describe mental paralysis brought on by my own anxiety. When you stop to ruminate on the wondrous thing that is writing, it’s quite astonishing. Ideas that exist only in the mind and do not occupy space needle your physical self to move your fingers and usher those ideas into the physical world. On paper or on the computer, ideas that only the thinker was privy to, become object. Your mental activity suddenly emerges as something to be seen or heard. The beauty of this act of creation also spurs anxiety because in writing, one actively unveils the contents of the mind.

While writing and thinking are primarily solitary affairs there remains the crucial component of sharing this work. Inevitably, a reader (or readers) need to come into the picture. “What will they think of what I think?” Leading with that question cloaked in fear, I’ve learned, only launches a bout of writer’s block. Here are some steps I take to diffuse the anxiety:

  1. Stepping away for a while allows for the mind to re-boot. Sometimes I honestly don’t know what is more challenging, forcing myself to stop writing or forcing myself to write. I have found that when I overcome the guilt of not writing for a few days I tend to return to my laptop fresh and ready to start.
  2. I make it a point to visit interesting places.

    Yours truly at Huntington Library, Pasadena: Japanese Dry Landscape Garden.

    Yours truly at Huntington Library, Pasadena: Japanese Dry Landscape Garden.

  3. After taking time off, if I’m still at a loss for ideas I resolve to sit down and write whatever is in my head without editing. I’ve eloquently nicknamed this my “brain vomit sessions.” There will be pages and pages of non-sense before a gem of an idea presents itself. I’ve accepted it is okay to unleash paragraphs of ramblings because that is simply part of the writing process.

The best of the worst of my doozies from brain vomit sessions (I sincerely hope this makes you feel better about your own writing woes):

Reasons I Envy My Cat

Things Said At CrossFit That Would Be Awkward In Any Other Context

Chubby Introverted Atheist Growing Up In Catholic School: A Memoir

Mary Wollstoncraft Meets Ladies for Tea

Socrates Decides to Chat With The Oracle at Delphi Himself

  1. I read more and with a notebook handy to write down any interesting word or phrases. After compiling my list I work out sentences with them. Sometimes toying with a word rather than scrambling for a big idea unlocks the block.

    photo-29 copy 2

    Unfortunately this little beast often interferes!

  2. Most importantly, when anxiety encroaches on my writing time I stop and journal about why I write in the first place. Without fail, I end up at the same conclusion: I write to improve myself and to understand the world. The more honest I am with that sentiment, the less afraid I am of embarking on another writing project.

Some inspiration:

Sue Grafton: “Seriously: I write because it’s all I know how to do. Writing is my anchor and my purpose. My life is informed by writing whether the work is going well or I’m stuck in the hell of writer’s block, which I’m happy to report only occurs about once a day.”

Mary Karr: “Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.”

Simone de Beauvoir: “I got the desire to write very young….The meaning of this project was to make the world my own, to show my life as freely recreated by me.”

Bryan Magee: “I have written several of my books because I wanted to master a subject: producing a book about it was the best, if not the only, way I could force myself to work really hard and systematically at it over a long period of time. I can sit and think for a while, but not for months on end—unless I write.”


On Love

Over coffee a few weeks ago, my dear friend Courtney asked me do a reading at her wedding ceremony.  “Of course!” I responded.  Giddy and flattered, I asked, “What would you like me to read?”

“Anything.  Something from Philosophy.  I trust you,” she said.

The lovely couple

The lovely couple: Courtney Bates & Brendon Small.

I picked a piece from Plato’s Symposium:

Plato’s Symposium gives an account of a dinner party where the participants each took a turn to explain Love.  One speech in particular, from the playwright Aristophanes, is the one I wish to share.  Aristophanes said that the human being was originally whole, with two heads, four legs and four arms.  Having upset the gods, the human was divided into two and left wandering the earth craving blindly for the other half.  After some time, Zeus took pity on the beings and turned their heads and arms forward so that they could eventually reconnect with each other.

Aristophanes:

“When one of them finds his other half…the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are they who pass their lives with one another; yet they could not explain the intense yearning for the other.  It is that which the soul desires and cannot tell…

Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and say to them, ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together.’

–there is not a man among them when he heard this who would deny or who would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting in one another’s arms, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of an ancient need.

And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were whole, and the desire and the pursuit of the whole is called Love….

Therefore we shall do well to praise the god Love, who is the author of this gift, and who is also our greatest benefactor, leading us in this life back to our own nature, and giving us high hopes for the future…”

 

 


The Honeymoon is Over; Getting Through the Mid-term Slump

The air of excitement from the first week of classes has dissipated.  The skip in your step now resembles a sluggish mosey to class, and you are armed with a highly caffeinated beverage at all times just to get through the day.  A count-down to Winter (or summer) break is mentioned in most of your conversations.

How to get over that mid-term blah:

  1. Plant yourself at the library, a study space, or a coffee shop with all of your syllabi.  Review upcoming deadlines and class requirements.  In general, take 20 minutes to reacquaint yourself with the goals of the class.  This will put you back in the frame of mind of the first day when you were more enthusiastic.
  2. Write down the grades you want this term.  Imagine the end of the term and seeing these grades next to your name.
  3. Write down 3 things (per class) you can do next week to make the grades you imagined happen.  List the amount of time and the day you will do these 3 things. The more specific you are the better.
  4. Visit your professors’ office hours.  But what to say?  Here are some conversation openers:  If you are enjoying the class, then let them know (mention a specific reading), ask a question about the material, or ask their opinion about a term paper/ project idea you will be doing for the class.   A recent guest speaker promoting study habits at Cal Poly said to university students: “There is one person in the class who knows how to get an A and that is the professor.”
  5. If you haven’t done so yet, make a friend in your class.  Get to class five minutes early and introduce yourself to the person who usually sits next to you.  When you know someone you are more likely to attend class and enjoy it.
  6. Go somewhere new.  Try out a restaurant, a different coffee shop, another spot in the library, or a place in town (like a museum).  Breaking up the routine re-charges your mental battery.

Good luck!


How To Survive Boring College Lectures

OMG, this class is so boring!  How are you going to get through it?

It’s true.  Some lectures could be more effective at putting you to sleep than Ambien.  Nevertheless, attending lectures remains a key ingredient for performing well in college.  Here are some pointers:

1. Even A students get bored at times by lectures.  What is the difference between the A student and the C student?  Their approach to the lecture.  Don’t let “boring” become an excuse for not showing up to class.  Dive right in, sit near the front, buy a coffee, and simply face the fact that you will be less than entertained for a couple of hours.  Get in the mental game and you will survive.

2. One of my friends from graduate school took impeccable notes, and before exams everyone lined up to study with him.  When I asked him his secret his response surprised me: “I’m bored in class, so I write everything down.” That is an A student approach to the problem!  Instead of avoiding lecture he planted himself close to the front of the room and made it a bit of a game to literally write down word for word what the professor said.  Give it a try.

3. Absolutely read the material before class.  If you are unfamiliar with the course material then it will only magnify the boredom.  Not reading would be like signing up for a book club, going to the gathering but never bothering to open the book.  Or, to put it another way, it would be akin to listening to an inside joke for two hours and paying money for the experience. How boring!  Be sure to prepare and stay in the loop.

4. When you are reading the material create possible questions to ask in class (if the professor takes questions).  Participating in class speeds up time for you.  And, you never know, your question could prompt others to speak up and the class could take an intriguing turn.  Dare I suggest, you might enjoy the class then?

5. Do not take out your phone to answer or read emails.  Again, this will make the boredom worse.  You are essentially running away from the problem by turning to the cell phone rather than confronting the issue head on.  This is a C student response.  Moreover, it is a bad habit.  After college you might find yourself in other boring situations like work meetings.  It is not a good (or beneficial) idea to tune out and gravitate to your phone while others are talking.  Indeed, there will be times when your good friends bore you!  Would you take out your phone while they talk?  Of course not.  For class time, strengthen your concentration abilities and keep the phone in your bag.

6. This last point is a bit painful but it must be made, namely, are you making an effort in the class?  Finding something interesting, like recognizing beauty, takes time and thought.  One isn’t always “struck” or in “awe.”  Often, interest is the result of devoting energy to appreciation of said subject (or object).  When you learn more you will discover more things to be interesting.  The boring lecture just might-maybe-possibly-I’m-sorry-to-point-it-out be indicative of your disposition rather than the professor’s.

Overall, keep the end goal in mind: to do well.  We’ve all been through a boring lecture.  You will survive!  Remember, it is your grade on the line, so don’t shy away from the class even if you need to muster all of your brain power to stay alert.  Good luck!

CLICK here for my book on how to succeed in college.

Click here for some more great tips on getting through lectures from College Success Now.

 

“The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has and the less he is at the mercy of fate.” Bertrand Russell


%d bloggers like this: