A Natural Extension

Corlita

I was honored to stand with over a dozen parents, teachers, and former board members, to speak in support of the Morris Jeff United Educators at the board meeting yesterday. Here’s what I said.

I’m speaking today to express my enthusiastic support for the formation, or perhaps I should say the re-formation, of a teachers’ union at Morris Jeff.

As you are all very much aware, Morris Jeff Community School as we currently know it was born, or perhaps I should say reborn, after the flooding of New Orleans, during the recovery process, as a grassroots effort toward the recovery and rebuilding of our city.

It was inspirational to bear witness to this process. Engaged citizens took on an awesome task, self-organizing for a better future, talking to one another, sharing information and taking action. This was a pattern I saw repeated again and again throughout my neighborhood, and in neighborhood after neighborhood across the city. But this effort was special, a sterling example of democracy in action. As a result, we have a fine school, and I’m proud to say that my my daughter is currently on her way to completing her third year here.

In my view, the process of teachers getting self-organized is a natural extension of the very process that gave birth to the school. A teachers’ union embodies the principles of grassroots democracy, organizing from the bottom-up, and I am fully in support of this in broad general concept, as I feel will yield many positive results for our children. I encourage the board to look favorably on recognition of the union and to enter into negotiations as appropriate.

Additional information:

Morris Jeff teacher’s union ask to enter a collective bargaining agreement with school board (Mid-City Messenger)

What Do I Love?

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Today I led a discussion centered around the topic of our passions and desires. “By what star do we navigate our journey on the earth? What we love will shape our days and provide the texture of our inner and outer life. How can we plant what we love in the garden of this life?” (I’m quoting here from Wayne Muller’s How, Then, Shall We Live?) We started with one basic question: “What do you love?” I invited participants contemplate this question, to “sift through a variety of disparate impulses,” and draw up a list.

Earlier this week I was feeling down, disconnected, unloving. I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to write on my list.

I was extremely grateful to discover myself wrong.

  • Questions
  • Apples
  • Myself
  • My family
  • My job
  • Xavier
  • My body
  • The Earth
  • The image of Gaia
  • (Neo) Paganism
  • Internet
  • Humanity
  • Bread
  • Water
  • Breath
  • Photographs
  • Video
  • ROX
  • Friends
  • Roxlyst
  • Lucy
  • The elements
  • The Sun
  • The Stars
  • The Moon
  • History
  • Evolution
  • The Academy
  • Activism
  • Green Party
  • Mindfulness
  • Contemplative practices
  • The people in this room
  • My journal
  • My fiction
  • Words
  • Logic
  • Emotion
  • Music
  • Creativity
  • Silence
  • Beauty
  • Meaning
  • Fog

This list is by no means exhaustive. I stopped the clock at five minutes. As Muller promises, “this is a fruitful and nourishing practice.”

Photo adapted from original love? / Federico Reiven / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rest Easy, Ms. Foxworth

When I first met Ms. Foxworth, just 18 months ago, I was taken aback by her manner. She was quiet — very quiet. New Orleanians are known for many things, but being quiet is not one of them. Yet here was this woman talking so quietly I could barely hear her.

My confidence was a little shaky. This would be my daughter’s first public school teacher? Could this woman handle a room full of rambunctious pre-kindergarten children?

Another parent reassured me: “She’s great,” I was told. “They call her the Child Whisperer.”

Ready for 2013

Very quickly I learned how ungrounded my misgivings were. Without raising her voice, Ms. Foxworth commanded the attention and respect of every child in her class. Maintaining order amongst four-year-olds is no easy task, but she managed to make it look as natural as breathing. I was in awe of her.

Ms. Foxworth also welcomed me into her classroom. The kids were doing an International Baccalaureate unit on plants, and I came in to share a lesson on wheat. It went so well that I came back six more times throughout the course of that school year, to share seasonal celebrations with the children, often tying them into the larger curriculum. At every juncture Ms. Foxworth gave me encouragement and appreciation.

She even participated in the activities. One year ago today we planted a “light garden” for Candlemas.

Ms. Foxworth

My daughter’s moved on to kindergarten now, but when I saw Ms. Foxworth last week, she asked if I couldn’t come in to her class again and share a lesson with her new crop of students.

As it turns out, that was the last chance I’ll ever have to speak with her. Over the recent two-day snow outage, news came that Ms. Foxworth had passed away.


I didn’t really know Ms. Foxworth all that well, but I do know a few things.

She was a veteran teacher, at the pre-K level for two decades, and her experience clearly showed. These days there are a lot of Teach for America kids in local schools, but there is no substitute for long years of experience.

I will also say this: She wasn’t paid or respected nearly enough. I hasten to add that I was never privy to her salary information, nor was I ever aware of anyone disrespecting her. However, I know that as a rule we do not pay teachers highly in our country, and we do not accord them the deep respect that other cultures do. Let’s face it: In America respect and salary are often correlated, and teachers are not at the top of either list, but they should be. That’s one of the most troubling aspects of American society.

It makes me sad to know that Ms. Foxworth is no longer with us, that I’ll never see a child run up to hug her again. What truly breaks my heart is the knowledge that we, the American people, could have done better by her while she was alive. Some things are inevitable, but how we treat our teachers is not. Sorry to get political, but I feel this is an important point, something we must insist on at every turn.

The best way to honor a great teacher is to uplift the teaching profession.


Ms. Foxworth’s untimely death is a tremendous loss to our entire community. Ms. Foxworth didn’t just teach our kids. She taught us all by her example.

As another parent put it, she “embodied the power of gentle, calm silence.” It’s an ideal to which I still aspire. Even if you never met her, I think we can all still learn from her.

See also a far more eloquent tribute from Joie d’Eve. It’s funny how we hit the same themes.

Your Trip to Amherst

Red Leaves

The nearest airport is in Connecticut, so when your plane lands you still have a good long drive to get to Amherst. You talk to the shuttle driver. She has an accent you can’t place, but she’s lived in Massachusetts for at least a decade.

She drops you off at Allen House, a little bed and breakfast you found online. It proves to be a lovingly-done Victorian-era restoration, cozy and charming. The place is booked full of people from all over the world who are here for the same purpose as you. An instant and easy camaraderie springs up between you.

You’re here for the Fifth Annual Conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), which is being held at Amherst College.

You make your way up the street to a noodle shop with a couple fellow travelers for a quick dinner. It’s cold, much colder than New Orleans, but only outdoors. You’re surprised to find that it’s warm and toasty indoors wherever you go. Apparently central heating is to New England what air conditioning is to the Deep South.

Then you walk over to Amherst College campus. The conference begins this evening. After registering at Converse Hall you find your way to Stirn Auditorium.

The ACMHE conference is a little different from other conferences, and that’s evident from the start. The opening plenary begins with silent meditation. There are a couple hundred people packed into the auditorium. Though no one says a word, you feel the power of their presence all the more. You are aware of the potentialities that will unfold over the next 40 hours.

If that wasn’t enough to distinguish this conference as unique, what comes next certainly seals the deal. An extra space has been reserved on the keynote panel. An audience member is randomly selected to fill it.

Random

And so the conference begins. The theme this year is “Integrity of Practice.” The panel considers questions that revolve around this theme. Then the audience members discuss the questions amongst themselves, and finally share their thoughts with the larger group.

Integrity of Practice

The next morning you have breakfast at the Amherst Inn, owned by the same people who run Allen House. The breakfast table serves as an extension of the conference, the conversations of the night before continuing over pancakes and coffee.

Very soon, you’re back on campus for the first of the parallel sessions. There are nine sessions running at the same time, and all the topics look fascinating. How to choose? You find yourself drawn to a session by David Forbes of Brooklyn College/CUNY, with the provocative title, “Contemplative Education and Neoliberalism: A Perfect World Still Requires Radical Action.”

A Perfect World Still Calls for Radical Transformation

Forbes’ presentation is chock-full of ideas, far more than even a fast-talking New Yorker can cover in the allotted time. He is asking all the right questions. “What is the purpose of contemplative practices in education? Is it enlightenment/awakening and the elimination of greed, ill-will, and delusion for everyone and at all societal levels, or is it a relativistic technology used to improve attention, reduce stress, and gain personal success and productivity in a competitive society?” The conversation that follows is galvanizing.

The morning continues. All the sessions look so promising that you decide to take a cue from the previous night’s panel and select your next session randomly. You end up listening to Ed Sarath from the University of Michigan hold forth on “Integrity of Practice in Meditation and Improvisation Pedagogy.”

Ed Sarath

You’re stunned to realize that improvisation has been perhaps the most central musical practice throughout world history, except for a period of about 200 years in Europe. This seems to throw light on the state of the modern academy, which even in America tends to be both highly traditional and Eurocentric. But that is changing.

You’ve come here from a historically Black university, so it is with special interest that you attend your next session, “Contemplative Race Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Racial Discourse.” The presenters, Seth Schoen and Rev. Christopher Carter, seem very young. In fact, they are graduate students, and this is their first such presentation.

Contemplative Race Theory

They present a “compassion practice” which they have developed together, a fairly advanced guided meditation that is grounded in critical race theory. It would seem to be a good way to prepare classes for difficult, sensitive or contentious discussions. They hope to publish on the practice soon. You make a note for future reference.

In the afternoon, there are open space sessions, organized around topics suggested by participants that very morning. You attend a discussion on race, class and gender.

Open Session on Race, Class & Gender

The conversation is heartfelt, respectful yet challenging. You are taken by one participant’s observation that contemplation disrupts her “default modes of being,” which suggests the subtle potential of such practices for subverting engrained social structures.

The theme for the conference is “Integrity of Practice.” But your own personal theme is beginning to emerge. It might be called, “The Joy of Walking Slowly.” You find yourself walking often in the company of two women who walk slowly for different reasons. Karen is walking with a cane. Eileen simply seems to be the sort of person who is never rushed. You find you must make a conscious effort to slow down and stick with their pace, but this seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the conference.

Before dinner on Saturday evening Karen reveals she doesn’t have a sprained ankle or a broken foot. She suffered a life-threatening stroke some while ago. You listen in awe to the story of her recovery, and how her 30-year practice of meditation helped her through a very difficult time.

It’s been a full day. You’re tired. You sleep like a rock that night, for about ten hours, disturbed only by a welcome nocturnal visitation from the B&B’s resident housecat.


Sunday morning begins in much the same manner as Saturday, with conversation around the breakfast table as stimulating as any one of the formal sessions. You walk to campus with Robert-Louis Abrahamson. When learning of your fascination with seasonal progress, he bestows upon you a touching gift: a copy of his own CD and accompanying booklet, Journey Through the Seasons, a cycle of meditations on the five Chinese healing energies.

You’re excited to attend a roundtable discussion on “The Role of Teaching Centers in Introducing and Supporting Contemplative Practices,” convened by your new friend Eileen Abrams.

The Role of Teaching Centers

A nascent faculty development network seems to be emerging. You know from previous experience how powerful this can be, and the exchange of ideas is invigorating. For example, one colleague suggests exploring the connection between contemplative pedagogy and retention rates. It seems like a promising line of inquiry.

But the best has, perhaps, been saved for last. The impromptu student panel was one of the most engaging sessions at the ACMHE conference. This was, in part, an opportunity for faculty to ask students, “What do we need to know from you?”

Student Panel

A number of new connections are made for you. For example: Metacognition is enhanced by meditation. We’ve sponsored workshops on both topics but never drawn that connection. You think to yourself: We should sponsor more student panels at CAT. We have much to learn from our students.

On the ride back to the airport, you find yourself once again conversing with the shuttle driver. He hails from Morocco and is a big fan of the Boston Celtics. As you describe the conference you discover what you’ve learned.

Pedagogy must connect course content to a larger whole; otherwise, we are merely conveying disassociated tidbits of information, quickly “crammed” into short-term memory and just as quickly forgotten. Pedagogy must be meaningful, purposeful, and connected to deep values in order to be effective and transformative. You’re struck by the awe-inspiring scope of this charge. You realize that this domain — the domain of meaning, purpose and values — provides a good working definition of spirituality. These issues are the main concern of many religions. Therefore, in order to be effective, teachers must be on a spiritual path or grounded in a spiritual practice. It’s not something extra, some “value added” proposition. It’s absolutely essential. It’s the core, the foundation of what we do. And it follows that a holistic faculty development program must provide support for the spiritual development of faculty members.

The implications are staggering. However will you communicate this to the folks back home?

Cross-posted at CAT Food (for thought)

Six Long Essays

Contemplation (Green)

I’ve been doing it again: writing elsewhere.

I’ve just finished up a series of six essays for College Contemplative on the topic of “Contemplative Faculty Development.”

  1. Introduction
  2. My Story
  3. Stepping into Silence
  4. The Transformative Banquet
  5. Sustaining the Dialog
  6. What’s Next

Read at your own risk; I apologize in advance for the length.

I wrote these in preparation for the Fifth Annual Conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education where I presented on this same topic. More to come.

How We Chose Our School

In the recovery planning efforts that followed the flooding of New Orleans, we often heard the mantra that we need to have “the community involved in the schools and the schools involved in the community.” I first heard this from Clifton James. I’m sure he was repeating an aphorism, but it made an impression on me, and I think it needs repeating some more.

At the same time we were working on recovery plans, the craze for chartering schools was gaining momentum. Leaving aside the significant controversy over charters for now, let me just observe that charter applications can be more or less community-driven. Typically an educational management company will partner with a local community group, or vice versa. The question of who’s driving is huge. I was on the periphery of an effort to charter Dibert Elementary that was definitely community-driven. That effort failed (twice) and left a lot of people frustrated.

But it was not the only game in town. For years now, I’ve had my eye on another community-driven charter effort. I knew some of the people involved. I knew they were people of integrity with values that I respect and share. I knew that if they were involved in chartering the school, then the community really would be involved in the school, and the school really would be involved in the community.

And, crucially, this would not just be a covert way to serve the “NPR crowd,” i.e. white middle-class liberals. A school that serves only one segment of the community, or even primarily that segment of the community, will not reflect the community as a whole. I’ve got nothing against NPR listeners. I used to be one myself. In fact, the involvement of the NPR crowd is essential. But it can’t be just about them. It has to be about the whole community.

Community, community, community. All this talk about community sounds nice, but what if the community is divided and dysfunctional? That’s the case here in New Orleans, in Orleans Parish. We are a diverse city, but most of us are African American. (It seems odd to type that, so I should probably note that I am not, in fact, African American.) While there are a lot of middle-class Black families here, most of the poverty is also found in Black families. There are really not many poor white people in Orleans Parish. In fact, an analysis of recent census data for Orleans Parish indicates that 65% of Black children under age five are living in poverty. The poverty rate for white kids? Less than 1%.

What’s more, let’s remember what poverty means. While it’s possible to be poor and educated and healthy, for most people poverty is associated with lower educational attainment, lower life expectancy, and a host of other things we generally regard as bad.

I mention these unpleasant realities to underscore what true diversity really means. It’s not just racial-ethnic but also economic. If a school is to truly serve the community, its population must reflect the community.

Let me be blunt. The question that emerges is this: Will middle-class white folks send their kids to school with poor Black kids? Too often, the answer has been a resounding “No.” I’m not casting aspersions on other people’s choices which may be a result of many complex factors. I acknowledge there’s more at work here than old-fashioned racism. (Still plenty of that, though.) Unfortunately, the end result is just the same, and our schools still suffer a de facto segregation. This is true not only here in the Deep South but across the nation. Don’t believe me? Read Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge, which provides evidence that “the U.S. continues to move backward toward increasing minority segregation in highly unequal schools.” If you missed this in the corporate media, well, that’s no surprise. It made #2 on Project Censored’s list: US Schools are More Segregated Today than in the 1950s.

And this hurts us all. When our community is divided, we all suffer. Can a school provide the ground for uniting a community? We seem to be asking a lot of our schools these days. Nevertheless, this seems to be part of what our daughter’s new school aims to do. And this is why we want to be there. I don’t know the demographic numbers, but everything I’ve seen and heard seems to bear out these values of inclusion and community. I’m only just getting to know the extended family of children and teachers and parents. So far, I’ve been impressed and inspired by the passion and determination I’ve seen. I’ve saw that same light come alive in other parents’ eyes, as recently as yesterday evening. They are impressed and inspired as well. Together, we can do this.

Why We Pulled Our Daughter Out of a Private Suburban School and Enrolled Her in Public School in New Orleans

Why We Pulled Our Daughter Out of a Private Suburban School and Enrolled Her in Public School in New Orleans — a headline intended to provoke. New Orleans public schools have such a bad reputation. How on earth could we send our daughter there?

It’s an act of hope.

Also trust. And determination. And a lot of other things, I suppose, but let’s come back to hope.

Hope for our daughter. Of course we hope our daughter gets an excellent education. We all want what’s best for our children. This is trite but true. We would not send our daughter to a school which was not up to our standards. As we are educators ourselves, with some graduate education under our belts, our standards are pretty high.

Hope for our pocketbook. We are not so poor that money is the determining factor, but we’re not so rich that I can avoid considering it. We are stuck in the middle. We can afford private school tuition. We’ve paid it for the past year. But it would not be easy. Money is an object. The least of all objects, but still an object. We are already paying taxes after all. If we pay tuition we pay twice, and that offends my sense of economy.

Hope for our community. Ah, here’s the rub. In my lifetime I feel that local communities everywhere have been undermined and weakened, to the point that many of us don’t even know what a community is any more. Our sense of the public sphere is diminished. The common life and the common good have all but evaporated. And that is a shame.

It seems our national political discourse has framed the relevant issues in terms of a conflict between individualism and government control. Libertarian types refer to public schools as “government schools.” I’m somewhat sympathetic to this critique, in all honesty. But what is lost in this debate? There has to be a way to think about and talk about our commonalities without resorting to the authoritarian structures of the state or the private model. Recently, the Occupy movement returned some attention to the idea of public space. I found that heartening, even though I’m skeptical that any real progress has been made.

Schools are among the most important public institutions we have. While private values such as religion may get reproduced at home and in the church or temple, whatever shared public culture we have gets reproduced in the public schools.

But make no mistake. Sending our daughter to public school is not some sort of altruistic act. We are not sacrificing our child on some altar of ideology. That would be perverted and wrong.

Rather, as I see it, we are thinking ahead. We are thinking not just of our daughter’s education but her overall quality of life. What kind of city will the next generation inherit? We need more quality public schools here. Everybody says so. The health of this city depends on the health of its public schools, both of which have languished far too long.

By investing in the school, putting our lives into it, we are investing in our future, and our daughter’s future.

A school is not a clockwork toy that one can wind up and let go. It requires constant effort and constant renewal. Every year there is a new crop of kids, a new crop of families to bring into the mix. This year we are part of that new crop. We plan to do our part. I’m not sure exactly what form this will take, as we are still getting the lay of the land, so to speak. But we hope to find our roles and make meaningful contributions.

This is how a community uplifts and sustains itself. This is what we believe in. I hope this hope is not misplaced.

First Day of School

Monday morning we got up bright and early. After breakfast I dressed my daughter in her new uniform. Then we got on the bike and rode on down to her new school.

Last year Persephone went to Pre-K3 at a Catholic school in Jefferson Parish on the West Bank. It was a good experience, I think, but not exactly the best fit: I’m not Catholic, and we live in Orleans Parish on the East Bank. We sent her there because that’s where Mama works. They were able to commute together, and that was a good experience for both of them, I think.

I like having her a little closer to home, enrolled in a school where I might see friends and neighbors, but there are many other factors at work with regard to our school choice. It’s complicated. I’d like to articulate those factors, so I’m working on a longer essay, which I’m finding surprisingly difficult.

Anyhow, Monday was her first day at her new school, her first day at a public school, and it felt like a pretty big deal to me. But it did not seem to be such a big deal to Persephone. She took it all in stride. She was neither excited nor anxious. She didn’t even say goodbye or notice when I left the room.

Which was great. Some kids had a much tougher time with the transition. The son of one friend of ours had never been away from home before, and he was still howling Wednesday morning when his mother left. I felt for both of them.

So far, so good.


OK, wanna see something freaky? Compare what I just wrote above to what I wrote last year.

The girl took it all in stride. She was neither anxious nor particularly excited. I thought it might be rough adjusting to a new and earlier morning routine, but it was all very smooth.

So far, so good.

The similarity is almost spooky. And here I was attributing the girl’s equanimity to her past experience. But perhaps it’s a character trait. Maybe she gets it from me.

The Old Testament in Five Minutes

Genesis Creation

Watching The Theologians this weekend reminded me: I finished work on another movie earlier this summer and never wrote about it. It’s a five minute animated version of the Old Testament.

Believe it or not, this took me five years to complete. If I’d cleared my desk and worked on nothing else it probably would have taken a month but of course I have other responsibilities. In fact this lay untouched for years at a time. So it felt really good to get this one done.

The script and voiceover are by that notorious maverick bible scholar, Dr. Michael Homan, author of The Bible for Dummies and chief dude over at BibleDudes.com. He also does more traditional scholarly work, primarily debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In that vein, I’m sure Dr. Homan would shudder at my terminology. I refer to the “Old Testament” so Christians like my aunt will key in immediately. However that term is not really accurate. After all, the text is also sacred to the Jews, and I imagine they don’t appreciate calling it the Old Testament. But you have to admit the Old/New distinction was some brilliant marketing on the part of the early Christians — to say nothing of changing the order of the books.

Anyhow, the correct title of this movie is The Bible Dudes’ Like Way Cool Tanak Summary Movie Thingie.

If you want to know more about the word Tanak, the BibleDudes can explain it all for you. Or check out Lewis Black’s amusing comments on the whole Old/New Testament subject.

Context Clues

Bayou Conversation

What’s in an Acronym

I work at an HBCU. That acronym is not recognized by my spellchecker, nor was it in my vocabulary until I came to work here. It stands for “Historically Black College or University,” a term which requires even more unpacking.

In a nutshell, the story is this. Once upon a time in America, people of color had virtually no educational opportunities. Even after slavery was abolished, institutions of learning were for white people only, and remained so for generations, especially in the American South. And so eventually HBCUs were established, and over a hundred are still operating today.

Like me, most Americans don’t know about HBCUs, their role in our history, or their continued relevance. To understand this, you have to come to terms with certain painful aspects of our history, which seem to be subject to a peculiar and selective cultural amnesia. Sometimes we’d rather forget about slavery and its legacy. Or perhaps we’d like to pretend that’s all well behind us, old dead history of purely academic interest. Such a view relegates HBCUs to the status of relics, anachronisms, survivals of a bygone age. The truth is that while we’ve made progress we are still living that history, and racial disparities are still significant. HBCUs still have a role to play. I’ve been learning about all this, and more, on the job.

Book Club

I work in faculty development. It’s part of my job to think and grow together with the people who are actually in the classroom teaching.

One avenue to that end is our Fall Faculty Book Club, which has been running for several years now. This time around, we are reading How Black Colleges Empower Black Students, an anthology edited by Frank Hale Jr. The response has been phenomenal. We had so many faculty wanting to participate that we had to split into two groups.

As I read through the very first essay, “HBCUs in the Old South and the New South,” by Samuel DuBois Cook, I learned a lot. I did not know, for example, that HBCUs were at the forefront of the movement toward diversity and inclusion. Most modern educational institutions now embrace these values — or at least pay them lip service. But in the Old South, this was a radical commitment that went against the grain of the dominant culture, and there were consequences. I’ll cite just one instance: The state of Georgia cut off funding to Atlanta University because they had accepted some white students. Read that again if you have to. Atlanta University had been established as an HBCU, and the idea that white students would be attending classes and rubbing elbows with Black students was unacceptable to the establishment. The university administration held their ground and lost state funding. This was in 1885. The university survives to this day, in the form of Clark Atlanta, but it could not have been easy. This is a dramatic illustration of a general principle. HBCUs have always been inclusive and multiracial, long before the contemporary notion of diversity became popular.

Sacred Work

The religious themes in this essay were also striking. These are by no means incidental, as the very first HBCUs were private institutions founded by religious groups. As Dr. Cook notes at the outset,

It was neither accidental nor an experience of minor and fleeting importance and relevance that virtually all of the educational institutions founded to educate freedmen were church-related. Indeed, the church-relatedness of their origin was of overwhelming and enduring significance, meaning, and value. Involved were a theological worldview, formal commitment to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and a belief — however insufficient — that ex-slaves and their descendants were human persons endowed by God with intrinsic dignity, value, and worth and were equal in God’s sight.

Furthermore, Dr. Cook refers to the founding and operation of these institutions as “sacred work.” He writes of teaching as a “sacred commitment,” a “divine art and enterprise.” That language gave me pause.

I work at an institution which is not only “church-related” but which was founded by a saint, now canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The cornerstone of the oldest building here, dedicated in 1932 and built with Indiana limestone, bears this inscription:

God’s greatest work on earth is man.
Man’s master art is the leading of man to God.

Teaching is surely one of those arts that can lead “man to God.” I’ll leave aside my reservations about theological doctrine for the moment, though they are many. As I read Dr. Cook’s essay, I realized that one doesn’t have to be Catholic to participate in this “sacred work.” One doesn’t even have to be Christian. One doesn’t even have to be a theist.

So, in a very real way, I might assert that my job is my religion. Or at least a part of it.

Discussion Group

As I mentioned, interest in this book was so high we had to split into two discussion groups, with my boss facilitating one while I took the other. We had our first meeting on Monday.

In aiming to foster a good discussion, I drew upon a key lesson from last year’s book club selection, The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc: Start with a story.

We began by going around the table, introducing ourselves, and telling a bit of our story. “Tell us how you got here,” I said. “Tell us the story of why you are here, both on this campus generally and in this particular room. Tell us how you came to be at this HBCU, and also why you wanted to be here reading this book about HBCUs.”

I began with my own story, in order to model the sort of openness I wanted to hear from the others. I won’t repeat that in detail here, as I’ve written about all this before: How my grandfather was a Klansman, how I went to high school with Klansmen. Despite growing up north of the Mason-Dixon line, I grew up in a virtually monocultural suburb where Black people were rarely seen. My point was that the very notion of an HBCU was completely off my radar. I never heard of such a thing until I was searching for a job back in ’99.

Though I’ve picked up some bits and pieces over the past twelve years, I never got a formal orientation to HBCUs, what they represent, and what it means to work at one. Furthermore, my department is responsible for orienting new faculty each year. So by reading this book, I’m hoping to deepen my understanding, to finally get that orientation, and learn how to orient others.

Around the Table

As we went around the table, a couple interesting things happened. First, people really did open up. The stories people told were heartfelt, candid, and emotional. Second, I experienced a sense of humility and honor and interconnection and respect that seemed quite profound — and I’m certain I was not alone in this. I felt some intangible essence reflected back to me from the face of each participant.

I was reminded that dialog can be a spiritual practice.

On my door to my office I have posted a copy of the Tree of Contemplative Practices. After the meeting was over, I consulted it.

Tree of Contemplative Practices

Sure enough, listed under relational practices one finds dialog, deep listening, and storytelling.

How does it work? Just off the cuff, my impression is that when you really open up to dialog you become part of something bigger than yourself. Sitting in that room, listening to my colleagues and co-workers, we became more than just ten individuals around a table. Some sense of shared purpose and identity began to emerge, however tenuous, however briefly. Most every spiritual path seems to acknowledge the idea of being a part of a larger whole.

We had that sense of expanded context doubly Monday, as we experienced a communion of sorts with one another, and also felt our sense of shared mission within the larger scope of history.

Context is everything.


Tangents & Foonotes: In the process of writing this I discovered the Spirituality & Practice website, which appears to be a great resource. For example, check out the section on listening as a spiritual practice, and make sure to use the listed links for related quotations, books, films, art and much, much more.

I am trying to keep these posts under a thousand words. Trying, and failing.

After the Tide

Rising Tide Sign

I’m actively looking for ways to integrate various aspects of my seemingly disparate interests. Having Rising Tide here on the campus of the university where I work was a major integrative accomplishment for me personally. I don’t mean that it was particularly onerous, because it wasn’t; but it was extremely gratifying. Of course I tend to think it’s also a major benefit to both the University and the conference itself. The participants get a great venue and the University gets a quality educational event. I love to see these things coming together.

That’s my windy way of saying that Rising Tide 6 was a screaming success, thanks to the work of countless volunteers over the last several months.

I was too busy to pay close attention to the actual programmatic content — but through the miracle of video technology and the yeomanlike efforts of Jason Berry, I’ll be able to catch up after the fact. And so can you.

Here’s the panel I helped put together for Rising Tide on “Social Media, Social Justice.”

Sadly Cherri Foytlin was stranded in Charlotte by Hurricane Irene so she does not appear, but thanks to Mary Joyce for filling in on short notice. Kimberly Joy Chandler moderates; other panelists are Jordan Flaherty, James Huck and Stephen Ostertag.

All the videos should be online by week’s end. By the way, over a thousand people tuned in to the webcast live. 1,249 to be exact. As Jason says, that’s “pretty damn good for the first outing and the little advertising we had for it.”

The event was a lot of work but also a lot of fun.

There was a lot of great stuff on stage, but my favorite moment occurred in the hallway, when the police working the detail got into a friendly theological debate with one of our vendors, Grammy-winning soapmaker, William Terry.

A Necessary Failure?

Circle of Chairs

Over the past year or two I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of contemplative pedagogy. This is the notion that we can foster a more thoughtful way of living and learning in our students and in ourselves by cultivating reflective and meditative practices in our teaching.

To this end, I’ve relished the opportunity to engage in a series of discussions on this topic with faculty, and I’ve challenged myself to incorporate contemplative practices into these sessions whenever appropriate.

Most recently I had the opportunity to lead a short discussion with participants in the Faculty Communities of Teaching Scholars. Our theme this year is “Promoting Critical Thinking and Self-Authorship in the First Two Years.” Contemplative practices seem like a perfect fit for developing self-authorship, and so once again I attempted to teach by example. As we were thinking so intensely about our students’ needs and capacities, I decided to conduct a loving-kindness meditation. Also known as Metta Bhavana, this is an ancient practice from the Buddhist tradition. I modified the typical practice to focus specifically on our students.

In some ways, I may have been overreaching. I am not a practicing Buddhist, and more to the point I had never done Metta Bhavana before. Nevertheless, I went forward with it. I even went so far as to rearrange our classroom into a configuration more conducive to the practice.

I was fairly pleased with the results. Certainly I did get some good feedback from the participants, with at least one person saying she repeated the practice later on her own time. That’s wonderful.

All the same, in some ways I consider the exercise at least a partial failure. The problem was not the practice itself, I think, so much as what followed. I was so intent on preparing for the Metta Bhavana itself that I did not attend to the context. I failed to make a strong connection between the meditative practice and the larger conversations that had been emerging in the classroom over the previous days. That left some participants wondering what to make of it all.

But if this was a failure, at least it was an educational and perhaps necessary one. I learned a valuable lesson. Several in fact. Always attend the context. Always make the connection. When trying something new, don’t neglect these important basics.

Cross-posted at CAT Food (for thought)

First Day of School

Today was Persephone’s first day of school ever.

First Day of School

She’s going to a small Catholic school on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish. I never thought I’d be sending my daughter there, but it’s the same school where Xy teaches, so the convenience is unbeatable. There are precious few publicly-funded pre-K3 programs in town. We don’t get any price breaks thru Xy, but it so happens that tuition is cheaper than daycare. We could pay $7K for another ten months of daycare, or $4K for school. Easy choice, really.

The girl took it all in stride. She was neither anxious nor particularly excited. I thought it might be rough adjusting to a new and earlier morning routine, but it was all very smooth.

So far, so good.

Back to School

It’s become a tradition to take a photo of Xy as she heads off to her first day of classes.

Back to School

I realized this morning that we’ve been doing this for long enough that I have built up quite a little archive, going back to 2005, just a few days before Katrina.

Back to School

Back to School

Back to School

Back to School

First Day of School

Teacher

These photos kind of recapitulate our lives over last six years. Even though I always feel a great deal of pride when she embarks on a new year of teaching, reviewing these pictures also makes me a little sad. She’s still reeling from the brutal year she had in 09-10. A year like that can really undermine one’s confidence. (Her recent surgery has not made things any easier either; she’s recovering but there have been some anxiety issues along the way.) Teachers across the country have had it rough but here in New Orleans they’ve been kicked to the curb repeatedly, used and abused, underpaid and overworked and repeatedly disrespected.

Seeing the real human toll on someone you love isn’t pleasant.

When Xy comes home exhausted and overwrought, I don’t know how to advise her. Oh, I have plenty to say. I’m brimming over with perky little self-help ideas, I’m just not sure if it helps her in any way. It might be better if I was just the “strong silent type,” but I’m more the kind of guy who wants to get in there and fix stuff. It’s a fairly typical masculine mindset, I suppose. But we have such different working environments, and our psychologies are just different enough, that I don’t know if she finds much value in anything I say. But my frustration is only a fraction of what Xy feels.

Each year starts with such high hopes, only to end deeper in discouragement and despair. I worry. Yes, I do.

But enough gloom. Teaching is hard work, but the world needs good teachers, and these teachers need our love and support. Give a teacher a hug, or a word of appreciation, or better yet a nice home-cooked meal. That’s my plan.

Rain Punk

So yesterday I was over at Dr. Tim T’s office in the music building, helping the good doctor sort through some video issues. Midway through our session it started to rain, and Dr. T and I both agreed that it was nice to be back in the pattern of afternoon showers here in the summer. Last summer these never materialized and the southeastern states have been in a drought ever since, or so it seems to me.

But soon the rain was really coming down hard and heavy, with thunder and lightning. Then a guy from the film crew shooting upstairs popped in the office and said water was gushing into the recital hall. We ran upstairs and saw indeed that rainwater was pouring down in two places. The way the place is configured it was hard to see exactly how the water was getting in, but we surmised there was roof damage. I called Physical Plant to report the issue.

The rain continued. I made my way back to my own office by dodging from building to building but I still got pretty wet. A couple hours later it was still raining when I rode my bike home. I got wet again, but of course it stopped raining as soon as I got home.

That night, Xy and I watched the third disk in the second season of Treme. We were done at midnight. I stepped outside in my robe and noted some activity at Banks Street Bar, and then I remembered: Creepy Fest! It was kicking off at Banks Street Bar, and I was missing it. I ran back inside, pulled on some shorts and an undershirt, and made my way to the bar just in time to see Nick Name & The Valmonts take the stage with a blistering cover of “C’mon Everybody.” I was drawn right up to the stage and was soon surrounded by a small crowd. Here’s a video of them doing a Sonics cover at another local bar last month.

They played that last night too, and a bunch of others like “Louie Louie” and “Surfin Bird” and “Maybeline” and “Let’s Get Fucked Up,” all in the same intense and incredibly loud amped-up punk rock style. The singer (Nick Name) was wearing a shirt that said “Rock ‘n Fucking Roll” which would seem to sum up their philosophy pretty well. The audience broke into slam dancing at one point, and I hauled my 44-year-old bones out of harm’s way right quick. There was a time when I would have been an avid participant in such shenanigans but I guess those days are gone. Besides which I was still wearing my damn Birks which I use as house slippers. Not exactly prime gear for the mosh pit.

But I loved the show these guys put on, and I was digging the crowd. I saw a young African-American man wearing an Eyehategod cap. I saw passionate and playful public displays of affection amongst beautiful people of the same sex. I saw a mohawk spiked up a good twelve inches. There was a full moon shining outside. I felt that my life was complete.

And I had a brief moment of revelation. I felt there was some deep connection between the scene unfolding around me and the thunderstorm earlier in the day. It was so clear and so interesting I resolved to write it all down.

Now, of course, I can’t remember what I was thinking.

Then The Unnaturals started to play. I guess they wiped my mind clean. From what I can tell they’ve been around for years but I’d never seen them before.

The Unnaturals

Amazing. Mostly instrumental, surfy, amazingly huge sound for a three-piece. I especially liked a grungy bluesy number wherein the barefoot bass player put down her instrument and sang. I liked her bass playing too, but appreciated the change-up. And the sounds coming out of that silver guitar refreshed my soul.

They got done about 2:00 AM.

My ears are still ringing. My soul was not feeling so fresh this morning, but that’s another story.

Later: Now that I’ve had some time to mull it over, I’m prepared to take a guess at the parallel between the rain and the rock, which I glimpsed briefly and then forgot. Perhaps it was this. I felt a comfort at returning to an old familiar pattern. The summer afternoon rainstorm, the late night punk rock show, both are old familiar patterns which I have missed. The rain reminded me of summers past here in New Orleans. The show took me back further in time, and to another place, to Second Story or Uncle Sparky’s basement in Bloomington. I remember one night counting no fewer than sixty people in the crowd whom I knew on a first-name basis. At Banks Street Thursday night, I knew no one — not a soul. Yet the vibe was much the same.

A Dozen Intertwining Years

Today Tomorrow I am celebrating a dozen years here at the University. That means we moved to New Orleans twelve years and a couple weeks ago. I can’t conceive of one without the other. A dozen years of work and life at this school in this city. As previously noted, I’ve now spent a quarter of my life here. I used to agonize about the prospect of a bifurcated life, but somewhere along the way I’ve come to blend my multiple personal and professional roles. My home life and work life and civic life are all sort of intertwined. My neighbors are my co-workers are my co-conspirators are my friends. Occasionally striking the right balance can be a challenge, but for the most part I like it. I feel like a whole person, and I’m glad to have found a place where that’s tolerated and occasionally even encouraged.

Here’s a photo I took when I started here, and another I took this weekend. I just noted they are remarkably similar, though I didn’t plan it.

bcu

Hair

Same as it ever was, the more things change, still crazy after all these years, et cetera.

Of all the moments I’ve enjoyed here at the University, one of the funniest was the Great Toilet Installation Fail of 2010 which I just posted to the FAIL Blog, per Maitri’s suggestion. Please vote it up.

May Madness

This used to be a mellow time of year for me. Mostly I work with faculty, and faculty tend to get very busy toward the end of the academic year. That means they have less time to work with me. But since 2009 that’s changed. There are two new factors that have made this a crazy time. We’ve started doing a week-long seminar that begins as soon as school ends. And then there are the honoree videos.

(The hike would be a third factor but we did it earlier than ever this year.)

The video project stems from when our new Vice-President of Academic Affairs instituted an teaching award. Each year, awards are given in three categories to junior and senior faculty, for a total of six awards. I was taken by surprise when I was asked to produce a video of each winner, to be shown at commencement. But when your boss’s boss’s boss asks you to do something, it’s generally a good idea to make him happy. So I’ve done my best at this task for three years now, though it’s just about the only video production I do at this job anymore.

This was an odd assignment, because the videos are extremely short — just 25 seconds each — and they have no audio. It’s just a little something to throw up on the screen while they announce each award.

I got my co-worker Jim, in Media Services, to help out. He did all the shooting. I set up the shoots, provided some direction, carried the tripod, and did all the editing.

We had to hustle to get them done because there’s a very narrow window of opportunity between when the winners are initially revealed and the commencement ceremony. It’s a lot of work and not much glory, but it’s mostly pleasant, and the short deadline means there’s a limit to the madness.

I just got the sixth video done yesterday, and then in the afternoon, I got a call: The script for this portion of commencement has been changed, shortened, and it no longer makes sense to show the videos. Instead, they decided to go with stills, which I exported from the videos.

No skin off my nose. Still, I’m a little bummed no one will see the results of our labor, so here with I present six short silent videos. I think they’re kind of cool, and in some small way they capture something of why I love working here.

You’ll note I didn’t shoot the video for that last one. We got that from Michael’s private archive. The University did not fly Jim and me out to the Middle East.

If they decide to stick with the still image format next year, I imagine they might ask the University photographer to take pictures of the honorees. If so, this may be the last time I’m involved. Which is fine with me. Our work in faculty development is inherently non-evaluative. We’ve worked for years to create a space on campus where faculty can explore issues around teaching without feeling judged. Being associated with these awards in any way has been slightly awkward. Perhaps this means next May will be less crazy for me.

Mostly Wasted

Waiting for the Electricity

Yesterday was a strange one. I busted my butt to get on campus in a timely fashion. (Persephone had a bad case of back-to-school blues — not a fun morning.) But when I got here I found the lights were flickering. We had partial power — half voltage or something like that. My boss said her printer was making weird noises of its own volition. I was able to boot up my computer and get online briefly, but I soon lost the connection and then we lost all power. The phone system was also having problems. I was supposed to shoot some video of a faculty member who’s won an award; I tried calling him but couldn’t get through. Of course the elevators were not working, so Jim and I went down four flights of stairs and over to the next building and back up three flights. I’d figured we’d have to postpone the shoot but it turns out the faculty member’s research area has emergency backup power. So we headed back down the stairs and over to a third building, and up four flights. Fortunately that elevator was working. We had to wear biohazard gear: masks and coveralls and gloves and footies and hairnets. The gear was uncomfortable and the whole experience was unsettling. It was an animal research facility. I’d vaguely known it existed, but I’d never been there before. I found myself ethically disturbed. I guess that’s the best way of putting it. But we shot the video. I spent the rest of the day waiting for the power to come back on. But when it did the net was still not available. There’s not much I can do offline. It was “Quiet Day,” the day between classes and finals, and for once Quiet Day was really quiet. I talked to one faculty member who came to campus just for a meeting, which had to be canceled because the convener couldn’t access her e-mail to retrieve the agenda. Finally I headed home, and I had to agree with a co-worker who said the day was “mostly wasted.” I was patting myself on the back for being one of the few people who actually got something done. But then today Jim pointed out that the video we shot is probably not viable because our subject is wearing a facemask. You can’t see who he is. The Administration may also have concerns about the location and subject matter; animal research is a touchy subject. We’ll have to shoot it again. So the day was pretty much a bust after all.

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 5

Sunday night, I made my presentation, “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” to a special interest group of the AERA. Even though the presentation is over, I’m still playing catch-up here on the blog.

Rising Tide 5

And so I come to my fifth and final installment of stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

Rising Tide is an annual conference organized by bloggers. It convenes on the last Saturday in August, the anniversary of Katrina. I was there at the first one, and I was so impressed by the event that I’ve been back every year since.

As I tried to reconstruct what I know of this event’s history, I briefly fantasized that Rising Tide had grown out of the first Geek Dinner, hosted by Alan Gutierrez in July of 2006. This was probably the largest gathering of local bloggers to date, which prompted Schroeder to remark:

The New Orleans blog movement has become an incredible network of information dissemination, storytelling, and mutual support, and I would argue that the New Orleans movement has emerged as a stronger expression of community than in almost any other forum of “extra-personal” (i.e., non-interpersonal) communication anywhere else in the world.

True, that’s a bold statement to make, but I still think the New Orleans blog community is a nascent, fragile community — for a lot of reasons. Nevertheless, what one finds here is remarkably enriching, providing a profound sense of shared values and commitment to a common cause.

Moreover, the dinner also elicited a post on Your Right Hand Thief with the title, “There is a Rising Tide forming.” It does not mention the conference explicitly but that title is evocative. This post also sees a comment from Gentilly Girl which could serve as a mission statement:

I also believe that get-togethers like this will serve what we are doing as “reporters” of reality here in New Orleans.

Remember… we have a job to do, and that is to tell the story of New Orleans and our lives post-Deluge. We also need to party sometimes.

But in reality, Oyster was kicking around the idea of the conference — he called it a “convention” at the time — well before the Geek Dinner. He put out a call to action (“Katrina bloggers, activate!”) on July 5, 2006.

Think of it: bloggers from all over could get together, and talk about the Katrina aftermath, and blog, and argue, and party, and share information, and podcast, and effect political change, and meet each other in person, and have a “work day” in a flooded neighborhood, and actually do something, and have panels and guest speakers and t-shirts and stickers, and we could get some press and everyone would leave feeling really good about their experience in New Orleans, and would blog about it, and want to do it again…

Oyster credits Scout Prime of First Draft for floating the idea some weeks earlier, but I can’t find that, and don’t even know if it was online. Clearly Oyster didn’t act alone, as he soon reports a planning meeting with other local bloggers. But I think everyone acknowledges Oyster as the main instigator who got the wheels in motion. For that reason alone, I have long thought of Oyster as the dean of NOLA bloggers.

The conference may be organized by bloggers, but it’s billed as an event for anyone who cares about New Orleans. In my experience, that’s accurate. Who are bloggers, anyway? For the most part, they are people with a passion for a topic who use writing to express themselves. In this case, the topic is New Orleans. The “bloggy” aspect of Rising Tide is not hugely relevant to the content of the conference as such. It’s quite simply a venue for learning about the past and future of this city, and to discuss and debate all the complex issues that entails.

However, there is one tradition that’s emerged that’s very much blogocentric. (Did I just coin a new word?) That’s the Ashley Morris award, which is given each year to someone who exemplifies Ashley’s passion. So far, I believe all the recipients have been bloggers: Ashley himself, Karen Gadbois, and Ashe Dambala, all of whom I have already profiled, and also Matt McBride and Clifton Harris, both of whom both deserving of a profile in this series if I hadn’t already hit my self-imposed limit.

Each year, around Katrina anniversary time, there are a slew of events along the Gulf Coast designed to commemorate those who lost their lives, and all the other things that happened here. Most of these events are symbolic and ritualistic, which is good and necessary. But as far as I know Rising Tide is the only attempt to look at the complex issues at stake in a critical fashion.

That’s why I had hoped to host Rising Tide here at the University where I work last year, on the fifth anniversary of Katrina. It didn’t work out, and that was just as well, because a certain highly-placed political figure (some guy named Barack Obama) decided to make an appearance here on that day, which would have certainly thrown a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans. But I made the case again this year, and the stars seem to have aligned properly. I just got confirmation from the organizers even as I was working on this post. Funny how that works — but I will let them make the announcement.

Rising Tide 5 / Maitri / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0