Tag Archives: work

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.


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?



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On Harassment

Harassment has everything to do with the character of the perpetrator, not the person on the receiving end.  It is an action reeking of contempt and misplaced assumption about power.

How did Trump reply when asked if his daughter were to be in such a situation? “I would like to think she’d find another career or find another company if that was the case.”

To clarify, his son, Eric Trump added, “I think what he is saying is that Ivanka is a strong, powerful woman; she wouldn’t allow herself to be.”

Allow herself to be?

This struck a nerve with me, a nerve I’d buried and forgotten.  Until now.

On two occasions in my career I’ve been caught off guard by inappropriate and sexually suggestive behavior while at work.  Both times I was alone in my office.  Both times the person was of a higher rank and older.  Both times I was paralyzed with a running loop of ICan’tBelieveThisIsHappening racing in my mind.  Both times I was embarrassed.  Both times I walked away in a daze wondering how I’d pull off getting back to work.

I did not allow this behavior.  I’m about as flirtatious as a brick and my attire is a degree less conservative than a Mormon fundamentalist.  But even if I had the appeal of a Samantha Jones or Sofia Vergara, harassment could not possibly be justified or described as relevant to the person being harassed because it does not stem from them.  The action belongs to the perpetrator.

Harassment is uninvited.  In fact, that’s pretty much the central nature to harassment.

On a rational level I know that I did nothing wrong; nevertheless I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I left my office both times feeling shame and contemplating what I had done to make the men believe that was okay.  Now, after reading about Trump Inc’s position on the subject I see why.  I’m wrapped up in a culture where the woman’s actions and credibility are called into question as a matter of course.

Deep down, I absorbed the lie of victim-blaming.  And this is the unfortunate truth despite the fact that I know better, that I’m a Ph.D., a vocal feminist, and a proud Beauvoirian.

If you’re perplexed as to why I didn’t say anything, the only response I can offer: I was in a state of complete shock.

I imagine other women, all the unreported cases, have a similar narrative: alone, no witnesses, not another career to run to, a perpetrator with a higher standing.

Note: another career wouldn’t make sense for me because

1) I love my job

2) See number 1.

So, on behalf of any person who has been bullied, harassed, or belittled for gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and/or race, I’d like to say:

Fuck you, Trump and son, for suggesting we are not strong, powerful, or should look for another career.




Philosophy Profs, What Does Your Syllabus Look Like?

Philosophy.  My love.  My work.  My on-time with coffee.  My off-time with wine.  Sometimes I stop to eat.

Yet, this love of mine is plagued by a reputation of exclusion.  For example, the very existence of the question: Is Feminist Philosophy Philosophy? I find both perplexing and telling.  Allow me to digress with a little tale.

My mother, years ago pre-Gwennie, felt ill and stayed home from work.  On that day she was watching television and perked up when a list of symptoms described an ailment pertaining specifically to women’s health were discussed on a talk show.  That’s what I have, she thought.  According to the show, research discovered something called P.M.S.  Yep, folks.  No joke.

Mom immediately scheduled an appointment to see her doctor. Upon visiting the doctor she relayed what she learned and explained that it fit her illness.  Nonsense, the doctor replied.  There’s no such thing.  He prescribed her tranquilizers and sent her home.  Mom took one dose, but never any more because she said they made her feel even worse.

Today, with the advancement of medicine and knowledge regarding women’s bodies, it is difficult to picture a doctor unfamiliar with something so incredibly basic.  However, women’s issues could not be identified medically if they were not studied in the first place.

And now back to my original puzzlement.  Is philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, closed in a similar fashion?  Does it neglect new avenues of thought simply because it hasn’t been traditionally thought before, as the case with the doctor?

Ah..hmmm… Feminist Philosophy?

But Feminism should be in Gender Studies, I hear some cry.

Can one imagine telling the Political Philosopher that his/her study doesn’t exist because there is a Political Science Department?  Or, forget Philosophy of Mind and take a walk over to the Psychology Department?

Despite this question of Feminist Philosophy and its proper academic place, for I only use it as an example of exclusion, I believe the majority of philosophers were gobsmacked at Salon’s damning headline Philosophy has a Sexual Harassment Problem and that it is not only the oldest of the humanities but “the malest and whitest.”

As a female student in undergraduate, I sensed this truth, but at the same time I found the literature so completely enthralling that gender hierarchy took a back seat in my mind.  The only glaringly obvious moments were in my Philosophy of Mind course where I was the one woman in class out of about forty students, and graduation day when I was the only woman in the department to walk.  Other than those moments I  happily threw myself into my studies.  Socrates awesome.  Descartes awesome.  Spinoza awesome.  You get the point.

Not until midway into my Master’s Degree did I think to ask “Are there any women philosophers?”  My thesis supervisor handed me the book On Violence by Hannah Arendt.  I dropped everything, read all of her books, and anything about her I could get my hands on.  She became my obsession.  Arendt was not a feminist thinker, but that was not really what I was looking for.  Quite simply, I just wanted to know that there was such a thing as a woman philosopher.

Two years later during the summer holiday I planted myself at a cafe and read the novel All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir.  Stop the presses!  I ensconced myself in Beauvoir’s works, existentialism in general, and completely reoriented my Ph.D. dissertation.  Even in the midst of my giddiness over this new found love, I knew that this came about because I sought it, and not because women thinkers appeared on any of my course syllabi.  There I was, approximately 5 years into my study of philosophy and I had never been to a university lecture on a woman philosopher.


I’d like to suggest a meaningful way to make philosophy a more inclusive pursuit, namely, professors should examine their syllabi and required course reading material.

How are we, in higher education, presenting philosophy to the next generation?  Are we, through the syllabus, implying to women and minority students, albeit by omission, that the only contributors to theory are white men?  Are philosophers perpetuating the disgraceful status of “malest and whitest”?  Are we challenging ourselves to read and research outside of our academic comfort zone?

Operation Relax

Not too long ago I tweeted the following:

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I am addicted to working.  When I am not teaching I am grading, and when I am not grading I am reading, and when I am not reading I am writing/journaling, and when I am not writing I am thinking about writing, and when I am not thinking about writing I am drinking coffee while thinking about how I ought to be thinking about writing.  Chocolate.

I juggled a few projects over the last year and a half that left me little time outside of…hmmm…anything else.  The last of these projects was a paper I presented for the Simone de Beauvoir Conference in Alicante, Spain.  While putting the finishing edits on the paper I turned to my dear jet-lagged hubs and said, “After this I will take a break.”

He smiled and said, “We’ll see.”

Oh!  I sensed a challenge!

“One month,” he said.

“Okay, one month.  No working.” I chimed.

“We’ll see.”

So here we are, folks, at what I am calling “Operation Relax.”  I’m terrible at it!  In the beginning I chatted up a friend at a dinner party about this “operation.”  Within seconds of the conversation the sweet allure of writing about the meaning of relaxing knocked on my mental door crawled out of the well of my mind like the girl from The Ring.  How do people relax?  Why is it necessary?  What is the difference between relaxing and idling?  Is this a cultural problem relating to the constant need to produce?  Possible health issues?  Physical manifestations?  How about the impact of meditation?  I bet Camus wrote something in his journals on this.  I really must research the dynamics of…

okay stop!

Intuitively, I know that I need to allow time for my brain to re-boot, but accomplishing this is surprisingly difficult.  My goodness, how to relax?

In the book The Art of Learning, author Joshua Waitzkin (chess genius) advocated embarking on long breaks in order to return to any work or craft refreshed and with a brighter perspective.  In this spirit, I’m putting some faith in this plan and trying new activities.

In the last 3 weeks I’ve done the following:

1. I joined CrossFit.  This has by far been the most insane daunting thing I’ve ever done.  For those of you who are familiar with it, you’ll understand when I say that every time a “WOD” (Workout of the Day) is posted I gasp: “No (expletive) way.”  On the bright side, the physical activity draws me out of my mind and into the present.  My students will never again be able to look at me with their big worrying eyes and complain that an assignment is “too difficult” because if this gal can run, row, do burpees, push-ups, and whatever hellish exercise they throw at me, then no one is ever getting away with saying “I can’t” in my presence.

2. I indulged in a shameless TV binge of  seasons 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones.   I couldn’t bear to wait for Season 3 so I bought the book. Armed with said book I secured a place at Starbucks and have come to know the local Starbuckians, but  I know to avoid Tom because he mistook my study of Philosophy for an invitation to tell me at length his thoughts on The Book of Revelations and the impending Rapture.

3. I am re-doing my patio and learning the basics about plants, like which ones are most likely to survive.  I put every plant in a pot with my fingers crossed in hopes that I don’t kill it. “You must live,” I whisper.  The neighbors might be concerned.

4. I reached out to friends and mildly drifted from my classic introverted persona.  This has confused everyone involved, but in a good way 🙂

5. I’ve been to two comedy shows because why not?

A few days of this “operation” remain and I’m still somewhat stumped by the complexity of it.  No doubt, I am guilty of immersing myself in a project, and near the conclusion, immerse myself into another one without stopping to relish the moments of the project itself.  Relaxing, ironically, has fallen into a similar category for me.  However, in my defense, I do know this: I’ve found a profession, namely Philosophy, that has gripped me in such a way that I don’t necessarily want to let go.  I read classical and contemporary works with an overwhelming feeling of being grateful for the opportunity.  That being said, with this “operation” I am also learning I must experience the world more fully in order to be thoughtful.

*By the way, this blog entry doesn’t count as working and, yeah, don’t tell hubs, okay?

Being Polite: Some Help From Kant

“The cashier is not part of the cash register,” my philosophy professor declared as she explained Kant’s principle of autonomy.

This simple yet clear example from my undergraduate years echoed in my mind as I waited in line at Subway this afternoon.  A young lady in front of me snapped at the man putting her sandwich orders together.  Arms crossed, phone in hand she blurted,  “Um, I want more pieces of turkey on that one.  You have more on those other two.”  He checked his work and looked at her uncomfortably.  She pressed, “That one only has four slices. Those have five.”

He gave a friendly smile and pointed to the sandwiches to show that they were in fact even: “One, two, three, four.  One, two, three…”

Cutting him off, she huffed, “Okaaaaaay.  I get it.”  Then she returned her attention to her phone.

Kant’s principle of autonomy states: Treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, never a means only.  According to Kant, because human beings are rational, autonomous agents, their humanity must be respected.  One cannot “use” another or treat a person as a tool.

This young lady in front of me, however, behaved as though the employee existed solely to craft her sandwiches.  Judging by her demeanor, she believed him to be a “means only.” There was no hint of “please,”  “thank you,” or sense of graciousness in her tone. Cue my frustration!

One might reply, well she wasn’t aware that she was doing this.  Indeed!  That is the point!  The lack of consciousness is precisely what makes the scene problematic.  A person is more than a cash register!

My philosophy professor did employ grander approaches to exploring Kant’s principle, but the one that stuck was this very real means of using it in day-to-day life. For many jobs the work environment extends beyond the employer and employees to the interaction with customers or people of other businesses.  As a patron or customer one is essentially part of another’s work environment.  That is, when you go into a store or restaurant, even though you are not working, you are participating in someone else’s work day.

Just a friendly tip: turn off the phone, take the music out of your ears, and see the person with whom you are interacting.  Smile and take a moment to know that you are part of their work day.  The worker has a dream, a family, looks forward to the end of her/his day.  She/he is more than a servant.  The cashier is not part of the cash register!

Reflections on Ending the Academic Term

Only a week ago I dreamed of finishing up this latest batch of term papers and sending off my students’ grades.  But, as the end is here I admit that I find myself a bit melancholy.  The feeling always sneaks up on me despite its consistent appearance over the years.  On the first day of class it is difficult to imagine that in just a few weeks time I will know my students by name (not i.d. numbers), their interests, read their work, and be witness to the evolution of their thinking.  We are part of each other’s lives for such a brief time, and in another couple of weeks I’ll meet my new group of students, forge new relationships and the cycle will continue.

Am I too invested?  Well, I can hardly conceive of teaching any other way.  In my very early years of teaching a tenured faculty member who sat in on one of my lectures said to me afterwards: “Forget about knowing their names. Focus on your writing.”  I distinctly remember nodding my head “yes” politely all the while thinking to myself  “Can’t I do both?”  I’m glad I didn’t take that advice, for I’ve noticed that when I invest in the students they are more likely to invest in the class.  This is the goal, yes?

Learning is about growth, dialogue, and sharing ideas not only fostered by the instructor but by the students as well.  It should be a fun, engaging environment, and it should be an avenue to seeing the world anew.  I like being a moment of that experience for the students (and hopefully a helpful facilitator of that).  Truth be told, I learn a lot from them.  I get a plethora of book, movie and t.v. show recommendations, some of which I have then passed on to others.

There are days when I collapse the moment I get home after a long day at the university, relishing that divine instant my feet are freed of shoes and I’m swimming in my oversized comfy clothes.  Sometimes my eyes burn from being in front of the computer returning emails and then moving on to read assignments.  I consume an unholy amount of coffee to keep my attention sharp.  The respite after grading the final exams seems so sweet indeed.  But, here I am nearly done and all I can think of is the wonderful time I had these last few weeks at work in the classroom.

Overwhelmed? Try Micro-Chore Lists

Last month hubs and I moved, but little did I know that moving constitutes one of the top 5 stresses in Life.  In the past few weeks my disorientation hit a few interesting notes:

1. I threw my keys into the garbage at work instead of an empty coffee cup.  It was great fun digging through the bin at the University hoping to go unnoticed by past or current students.

2. I locked myself out of my office at work.

3. I temporarily lost a set of students’ quizzes.

4. Not able to find my shoes, I wore flip flops to work.

5. I drove in the wrong direction to get home.

6. When the printer in my office died, and I was told there were not enough funds in the Department to replace it, I threw a fit that could rival Stanley Kowalski.

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A solution was in order: Micro-Chores

The idea is to take any large project and formulate a list of things (maybe 5 things per day) that will take you 10 minutes or less per chore.  Do these things first in the morning.  You will feel energized and more in control of your life.  In fact, by completing the 5 micro-chores you will gain momentum to spend extra time on the projects.  This helps to de-stress your life and bring about organization.

If you find yourself in the throes of a large project, or several projects, break down very simple steps towards accomplishing your goals.  For example, instead of listing “unpacking” I wrote micro-chores like: unpack one box, hang up one thing, etc… With respect to my regular “to-do’s” I also created a micro-chore list: grade 5 papers, 10 minutes return emails, print draft of paper, and so on.

One more important way to deal with being overwhelmed is to take a moment to thank people who have supported you in some way.  A quick text or email will do.  Showing gratitude builds character and puts your woes into perspective because stress can give the illusion that one is alone in the world, but when you reach out that illusion dissipates.  Let people know you appreciate them.

Here are some thank you’s of my own (mush alert!):

1. Thank you to my husband-partner-love for being wonderful throughout this chaos and for regularly getting take-out sushi or Mexican food.

2. Thank you to my dear friend, the brilliant and stylish designer Courtney Bates for helping me pick out tile and furniture for the new place.

3. Thank you to my students who have shown a lot of patience while I sort through your assignments.  You are bright, you make me laugh, and teaching is an absolute joy because of you.

4. Thank you to 7-11 for making the extra shot of caffeine free with coffee purchase.

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