Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

What does “too much” mean, really?

I'll look back on this and smile, because it was life and I decided to live it.It’s pretty common that someone I know — importantly, someone who knows me well — will ask me, with a laugh, “How many jobs do you have right now, Liz?”

Just this morning, Doug said to me as I was leaving for work, “I just hope you don’t say ‘yes’ to everyone this semester.”

I’ve been known to lament about my tendency to over-extend myself, to commit to more things than I probably ‘should’ … and honestly, this has felt like such a consistent narrative to my adult life that I’ve never bothered to stop and examine where that ‘should’ was coming from.

Enter Tara Mohr. Like so many things that float into my digital sphere, I’m not really sure how I first found Tara, but BOY! Am I glad that I did.

Playing big means being more loyal to your dreams than your fears.She writes about women who want to “play big” in their lives, women who want to pursue big dreams, rather than holding themselves back. Her Playing Big course is full of wisdom and insight, and her writing is equally thought-provoking. This week, she shared with us her thoughts on this notion that “I have too many interests,” and the cultural stew that tells women we should do less and focus more. Her thoughts, penned in 2012, would’ve served me well had I come across them six years ago. They serve me well now. And the resonate so fully with me.

Particularly in the academic sphere, we’re often told (implicitly or explicitly) that we need to focus, that having too many interests — especially if they’re somewhat diverse — means we cannot accomplish big things. As I was finishing my PhD., a mentor said to me, “You have all of these conference papers on your CV, and there’s no clear focus. What Do You Do, Liz?”

As a graduate student, I often lamented this consistent push on us to specialize, to find some very narrow niche of study that we’d become expert on. I don’t want to limit my intellectual curiosities, nor do I think that having a broader sense of what’s intellectually interesting necessarily means I can’t speak intelligently on the various things that interest me. To put it simply: I’m always going to want to know more, about a whole bunch of different things.

Academia, as currently constructed, fails to reward this breadth of curiosity. At its worst, academia actively punishes those who want to look through their area of expertise with the broadest lens possible.

Yet, I think it’s fair to say that my students actively benefit from my curiosities in psychology, sociology, pedagogy, yoga, coaching, and first-person narratives from far-flung places around the globe. When a student wants to know more about presidential politics, the bureaucracy, or Congress, I’ve probably got some first-hand research to share about questions in each of those areas that gave me an entry point to those subfields. When a colleague wants to talk about how to integrate active learning into their statistics classroom, I have the statistics background to speak their language.

For years, I’ve felt sheepish about this lack of focus, because I’ve so consistently been told that my unfocused approach to my work indicates a lack of discipline.

When I read Tara’s blog post, though, I felt unshackled.

If you feel like you have too many interests, if you feel like you lack focus, I urge you to rigorously ask yourself: is there *really* a problem here? A problem in my getting things done? A problem in my working myself to exhaustion? If yes, address those specific problems – don’t hack away at what you love or tell yourself you need to love more narrowly.

If the answer is no, if in fact there is no real problem, then you’ve probably just absorbed a kind of criticism often labelled at creative women: focus. But the people who were threatened by your garden of interests, don’t know you, and they don’t know your rhythms. Only you do.

I make space in my life to sleep 8 hours a night (sometimes I can’t quite pull my attention away from the TV to sleep 8 hours, but I certainly could, if I weren’t so easily convinced that I simply MUST watch, tonight, the Gilmore Girls episode where Lorelai plans her entire wedding to Luke in a single day, then freaks out about how easy it was.

I genuinely love (!!) the things I fill up my days with.

You might look at my Google calendar (which I don’t recommend) and feel like you need a stiff drink and a long nap, but I look at my Google calendar and get a bit twitchy with excitement that I freaking GET TO DO THESE THINGS.

My garden of interests, to borrow Tara’s phrase, is messy and not always filled with expected blossoms, but I love its eclectic collection of blooms.

Oprah’s awesome. But she shouldn’t be president.

Like many of my friends, and a whole stinking lot of the world who watched Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at last night’s 75th Golden Globes extravaganza, I felt moved by her words. Feel free to watch if you haven’t yet (somehow):

But as a political scientist, as a teacher of government, and as a citizen, I find the calls for Oprah to run for president in 2020 to be exactly the wrong solution to what ails us.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Oprah has done more than most women in promoting strong voices, open hearts, and true connection. I wish she’d drop her relationship with Weight Watchers, which I feel pretty strongly promotes pathologizing the body in a way that is more than just unhealthy, but is actively harmful. But nobody’s perfect, including Oprah, and she’s done a whole, WHOLE lot of good in her life and in her career.

Oprah is not Donald Trump, but neither Oprah Winfrey nor Donald Trump has any experience whatsoever dealing with the sort of large-scale distribution of responsibility and critical services that the United States government oversees. No matter how you feel about the size or scope of the federal government, we can all agree (I think?) that we’d like to have — to name just three quick examples — clean water, safe food, and competent diplomacy that avoids nuclear winter (and the near-extinction of our species; if the use of nuclear weapons doesn’t terrify you to your bones, please listen to Fresh Air‘s interview with Daniel Ellsberg for a quick injection of horrifying reality).

As a country, we have got to get past this notion that celebrity equals executive competence. You might love Oprah as much as you hate Trump; people who love Trump probably hate Oprah in equal measure, too. Feelings about a person willing to live in the public eye isn’t qualifying in a race to be the head of the federal government and the face of our country. Period.

If we want to be intellectually consistent and fair, we must stop talking about Oprah (or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, or Kidd Rock, or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-fav-celebrity) as a viable candidate for office and start looking at the hard-working, thankless people who are actually Doing the Work of running governments at all levels.

Oprah may inspire us all to be the best version of ourselves, but that’s not what we need in a president (it would be a nice start, but that alone is not enough). Let’s let Oprah be Oprah, and turn to our system of progressive government work / responsibility to bring us viable, competent, steady leaders for our government.

The dangers of hubris

I’m currently at an academic conference, the sort of event I once adored and increasingly find to be somewhere in the neighborhood of insufferable. To understand why, I share this sentiment expressed by a researcher on a panel I just left, sporting an unattractive scowl: “Sad to say, I’m increasingly convinced that the American public can no longer perform its democratic duty.”

Now, I will hardly claim to be the most optimistic or rose-colored-glasses-sporting observer of the state of American public opinion, but I’m hardly ready to throw up my hands and declare defeat. Instead, I feel pretty strongly that we must double down on our efforts to create open lines of dialog among those with different perspectives on politics. There is no less-effective way to do so than by starting with the intellectual commitment to the futility of it all.

The more often I sit in academic research panels, the more often I find myself grasping to understand what, if anything, this endless hamster wheel of effort actually accomplishes. I look over the conference program, at the same panel titles and same research topics that I’ve been seeing since I first attended a conference in 2005 or so. I’ve sat in on about five presentations today, and other than some interesting graphs showing things that FiveThirtyEight or the Washington Post could have published, I don’t know that I’ve heard a single thing that I didn’t already, on some level, know.

One might say that’s because I’m at one of the lesser regional meetings of my discipline, but even at the premier regional meeting of my discipline, the last two times I’ve got I’ve been wholly unimpressed.

What are we doing, academics? What are we contributing to the world when we spin our wheels around the same old, same old tired research questions that have little impact on daily life? Who is gaining? How much money are we spending to come to these conferences and have the same conversations we’ve been having for a decade? Is there a better way to spend our time and intellectual energy?

I’m not down on academic research writ large. I’m reacting instead to an acute sense that we have too many people in academia, that there is little hope that the graduate students dominating the conference program will all find good jobs, that there is a lot of mediocrity (and I count myself among that).

This is a stream-of-conscious reaction to my instinct that these disciplinary conferences no longer hold the same value for me, and that my time might be better spent going to teaching-specific conferences that help me hone my craft. (I’m thinking about The Teaching Professor.)

Now excuse me while I go to a teaching-specific panel that I hope (fingers crossed!) might yield some useful takeaways.

Best reads of 2017

When I realized last January that I’ve never blogged my favorite books of the year, I was horrified, and I immediately put together a few recommendations from 2016. Thankfully, this inspired me to keep much better track of what I read in 2017, and I’m happy to share my favorite reads of last year.

Although I now understand I chose colors poorly, the green dots are eBooks, the blue dots are audiobooks, and the purple dots are printed books. Those with hot pink dots encircling are the ones on this list. Each slice represents a month, starting with January in the leftmost piece of Quarter 1 (also quadrant 1) and working clockwise around.

I began the year with an ambitious goal to read 100 books in 2017. I fell far short, clocking in at just 65. These were a mix of Kindle reads (mostly bargain chick lit novels that were unremarkable except that they gave my mind something to decompress with), Audible audiobooks, and traditional printed books, both fiction and nonfiction. I began this best-of-2017 list by reviewing my Excel spreadsheet (#nerdsunite) and creating a nifty visualization of my year in reading (see picture). Clearly, I read in June, July, and December. Not so much the rest of the year. This makes some sense, no?

Without further ado, here are my favorite books I read in 2017 (not, let’s be clear, my favorite books published in 2017). There are twenty of them, so pace yourself.

Best Fiction

  • Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, was a book club read in June, and it was the best book by Patchett that I’ve read. Others have described this novel as more autobiographical than her other work, and the characters felt so much more real to me. I really enjoyed it, and I found the story and characters lingered with me long after I put the book down.
  • Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. Before it was made into an HBO miniseries, I purchased this book (on the Kindle, so it’s an eBook best read) because I’ve adored every Liane Moriarty novel I’ve read. When Blake, then Doug, binged on the HBO series and wanted me to watch, I knew I had to make reading the book a priority, which I did in August. Once I’d finished, I exclaimed a bit of surprise to Doug about something that happened somewhat late in the book, and he admonished me for spoiling something we don’t yet know from the TV series. Whoops. I’ve only watched one or two episodes of the TV series, but I can assure you that the book is far, far better.
  • The Fifth Letter, by Nicola Moriarty. To be honest, I probably bought this eBook originally because I thought it was a Liane Moriarty novel, but I gave it a shot even after I realized it was a different Moriarty (side note: Nicola is Liane’s younger sister). The thing I loved about The Fifth Letter was how four friends from school reconnected, with all of their baggage and drifting apart, and found a way to become closer. To be sure, it was a bumpy ride, but I really enjoyed this book and couldn’t put it down. I read it in November, on roughly day one of Thanksgiving break, when I probably should’ve been grading. (Whoops.)

Best Nonfiction, International Affairs sub-category

Many of you know that I’ve become rather immersed in thinking about the most vulnerable in the world over the last two years. Being tasked with teaching World Politics and wanting to do it in a way that keeps my interest did that to me. Here are some of the most moving books I read this year to help me teach this course better.

  • The Lonely War (Iran), by Nazila Fathi.  I loved this book so much because it gave me a new perspective on the more moderate (or even progressive) voices in Iran today, as well as how the Iranian diaspora continues to hope for political change in their home country that would allow them to remain in closer touch with the people they love still in Iran. I think this book is necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand Iran, and I assigned it to my World Politics (honors) students in the fall semester. I read it originally in early February. (See also books by Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.)
  • A Hope More Powerful than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel (Syria), by Melissa Fleming. Every single person should read this book. If I could send everyone I know a copy, I would. It traces the story of a young woman terrified of the sea (she never learned to swim) as she makes her way from Syria, to Egypt, across the Mediterranean, trying to find a stable life with her husband. This story will break your heart and help you understand the very real challenges faced by those in Syria. Do you stay in a country where you have zero quality of life and risk death with every outing for food (which is scarce), or do you flee and be treated as a sub-human by a world unsympathetic to your plight? There is no good option. If you don’t want to read the book, please watch Melissa Fleming’s TED Talk about Doaa’s story.
  • A Very Expensive Poison (Russia), by Luke Harding. You may not realize you’re reading nonfiction and not a spy novel if you pick up this book by Luke Harding. It reads with the pace and intrigue of a thriller, but it’s unfortunately all true. This book tells the story of the poisoning of Russian whistleblower-turned-British informant Alexander Litvinenko in London by two unlikely assassins. I hear it’s being made into a movie, so get the real scoop now before Hollywood finds a way to distort it. (Read my blog about this book.)
  • No Good Men Among the Living (Afghanistan), by Anand Gopal. Had I read this book earlier in the year, and not in July, I would’ve made it the first narrative nonfiction book for my honors World Politics students to read. It was profound; it was infuriating; it was heartbreaking. Gopal writes with compassion, fearlessness, and gravity. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about our involvement in Afghanistan until I read this book. This is another I think everyone — everyone — should read. I’ve spent hours and hours trying to figure out how to get Gopal to my campus to share his insights.
  • The Girl with Seven Names (North Korea), by Hyeonseo Lee. My fascinating with North Korea continues unabated, and the accounts of those who have escaped and found refuge elsewhere are both heartbreaking and hopeful. This one particularly attracted my attention when I saw it has 1,882 (and counting) Amazon reviews and fully 5 stars. That rarely happens, and the book deserves it. Lee’s courage and tenacity are the stuff of legends. As you read this book, you won’t believe what she endured. You’ll feel humbled by the so-called “challenges” of your life … but that’s really not the point. No, the point of her book is how resilient the human spirit is, how strong we can be when our lives are on the line. Ultimately, this is a profile in courage, and I loved it when I read it at the beginning of my December holiday break. (You can also watch her TED talk here… but there is a LOT more detail in the book, and I wouldn’t watch the TED talk in lieu of reading it. Just whet your appetite, then go read it.)

Best Nonfiction, American politics sub-category

I don’t tend to read a lot of polemic political work, but I do enjoy memoir-y books and things that make me imagine a world where people can disagree without hating one another. I long for that.

  • The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding. I read this only because I realized it was the basis for the Oliver Stone movie, Snowden, and I figured Harding’s perspective would be interesting. I was right; this book reads quickly and keeps your interest. I’ve become rather fond of Harding’s writing style. This is a reasonably fair account of Edward Snowden’s actions and the results of them. It’s less of an advocacy piece than Glenn Greenwald’s account (which I enjoyed, particularly the first couple of chapters). Regardless of whether you think Snowden did the right thing, understanding his actions, his stated motivations, and their impacts is critical if you want to have a reasoned debate on the virtues and pitfalls of privacy in a digital age.
  • Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work at the White House, by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I listened to this as an audiobook, and I would recommend doing the same. Mastromonaco narrates, and her voice conveys so much more than just the words. This tale of her work as an advance team / logistics planner for President Obama is hilarious, insightful, and just plain fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Far more so, I have to say, than Reggie Love’s Power Forward in the same vein.)
  • Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Nixon. Okay, this book was just plain fascinating. I loved it. Loved isn’t strong enough. I found it to be thought-provoking, utterly compelling, and well-written. Nixon is a former CIA senior analyst who was the lead on questioning Saddam Hussein after his capture by American forces. For someone (Hussein) who we thought we understood so well, Nixon reveals how two-dimensional our portrayal of the leader was. I will probably read this book several more times over the rest of my life. It was just a wonderful little reminder of how people are almost always more complex than our soundbite-infused media world typically can convey (says the recovering journalist). (Read my blog about this book.)
  • Three Languages of Politics, by Arnold Kling. You can buy this book, but you can also read it for free as an eBook from Libertarianism.org. The short book sets out a theory of the three dominant themes in political discourse and how they prevent us from ever really having a useful conversation. Kling argues that conservatives emphasize Western values and moral virtues/traditions over those who are indifferent to these things; liberals/progressives emphasize the protection of the oppressed and the under-privileged; libertarians speak in terms of individual rights over government intrusion on personal choice. When we take an issue and approach it with these different ‘languages,’ we talk right past one another. It’s a great, resonant, and timely read, and one I encourage picking up.

Best Nonfiction, everything else sub-category

There was a time not that long ago when 90% of what I read was fiction, but as you can see … times have changed! Here are a few other nonfiction books I read and loved this year.

  • Shrill by Lindy West and Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker. Every single woman needs to read these two books, no matter your political or personal perspective, your size, your inclination, your experiences. These books speak hard, brave truths about the lived experiences of women in the 2010s. I love Lindy and I love Jes and I think they are brilliant, hilarious, and brave. I want to be more like them.  (Read my blog about Jes’s book.)
  • In the same vein, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay is a brave telling of what it’s like to live through sexual assault and do everything in your power to make yourself as unattractive as possible to prevent future harmful male attention. It’s very difficult to hear Gay grapple with her life’s experiences, and I don’t always appreciate her pathologizing of her weight. But I was honored to read (well, listen to) her story and connect with the raw and powerful emotions she expresses. This book is hard. So, too, is being a woman in a larger body in 2017.
  • How We Learn by Benedict Carey and Teaching with Your Mouth Shut by Don Finkel. I read a number of teaching-and-learning books this year, but these were the best. Carey’s book summarizes a whole lot of the research on how people think, learn, and remember. It’s a wonderful, readable synthesis of a LOT of great information. Finkel’s book fundamentally made me reexamine the assumptions I make in teaching my classes. At several points, I had to put the book down and stare off into space to think. I put several of his suggestions into action this fall, and in the spring semester, I’ll be leading a book club of my colleagues at Chattanooga State in discussing his ideas. This book will be with me for a long, long time. Educators — read it. Seriously. (But skip all the Iliad stuff if you, like me, yawn at Homer. You won’t miss anything critical.)
  • The Magnolia Story, by Chip and Joanna Gaines. I’m not quite the huge fangirl of the Gaines family as I know many others are, but I listened to this as an audiobook and LOVED hearing Chip and Joanna banter, rather than just reading it on paper. If you can listen to this, and you have any love at all for their work on Fixer Upper (HGTV), you will love this audiobook. I’m not sure I’d recommend it in print, though.
  • The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. I also listened to this one as an audiobook (read by Levy), and ohmygoodness itwasSOgood. It’s an incredible story. An unbelievable story. An incredibly strong and tenacious woman. And her voice just brings the whole thing to life in a visceral way. I would recommend this as an audiobook, but if you don’t listen to things, read it anyway. This one is worth the time regardless of the medium.

Honorable Mention (not on graph): Best Chick-Lit Series

There were many great contenders, but I give this to the Willoughby Close series by Kate Hewitt. There were five books in this series, and I devoured each of them over the summer at breakneck speed. Highly recommended for those who like breezy and heartwarming “women’s fiction.”

Meeting my future self

Playing Big the book, by Tara Mohr

Click to buy this from Amazon

As part of my ongoing Be a Better Liz work, I’m currently taking Tara Mohr’s Playing Big facilitators training. It’s a program designed for current or aspiring coaches and advisers, and it focuses on helping women find the places where fear and self-doubt prevent taking risks and going after the big ideas or projects their hearts are called to do.

The first step of Tara’s “playing big” process comes in identifying where the voices in our heads hold us back. Calling out my “inner critic,” as she calls that voice, dovetails nicely with so much of the work I’ve been doing over the last two years. As I’ve come to understand how unmoored from reality my inner critic truly is, I’ve found it so much easier to turn down her volume. My inner life is significantly happier and quieter.

But it’s the second step of playing BIG that has fundamentally shifted my awareness of who I truly am — and, critically, who I truly wish to be. That work Tara calls finding your “inner mentor,” or your future self. In a guided, meditative visualization exercise in last week’s group call, I visualized meeting the Liz who lives 20 years into the future. I asked my older self what I need now, to get from here to there. What mattered most to her in the previous 20 years. What I need to know as I travel my life’s path.

Playing big quoteI’m decidedly NOT (!!) ‘woo woo,’ but this visualization exercise was enormously powerful … far, FAR more so than I could’ve possibly anticipated. (NOTE: If you’d like to try this exercise, you can get an audio file of the guided visualization, along with a few other goodies, here: www.taramohr.com/pbbookmaterials/.) My future self has a serenity that just overwhelms you from the very moment you meet. She smiles easily, welcomes you in, and so clearly cares. She has the peaceful air of someone grateful to be alive.

Ever since my high school friends and I were forced to confront our mortality, the precarious line between life and death, I’ve tried to live my life grateful for each day I’m given. I want the death of my dear friend before she could even set out into the world to be meaningful, in that it inspired me (and, hopefully, the others who knew her best) to live my life more fully and more gratefully than I might have otherwise. I try not to leave the harder conversations for later. I let the specter of future regret guide a lot of my decision-making. So, carpe diem is a phrase my inner voices go to regularly.

Mimi Kennedy

My inner mentor looked a lot like Mimi Kennedy. And she was happy, like Mimi in this photo.

Visualizing my future self is not the same. It’s not about the little things — whether to take a trip at the holidays, or write a letter to a friend, or some other fairly small choice. No, the future self, the inner mentor, she has a far wider lens to take in the world. She has the innate wisdom that seems to come with age. She has lived. She has loved. She has experienced life, in all its ups and downs. And she is filled, to the brim, with joy.

This work is so incredibly powerful, and in a year or so, I’ll be bringing all I’m learning into a necessarily small coaching practice, helping women like 2017 Liz … or 2015 Liz … or 2008 Liz … or … well. You get the point.

 

When you want to help, but cannot

Color me frustrated. And, then, color me mortified that I’m about to make a deep, dark, fraught issue all about me.

For much of the last 18 months, I’ve felt tugged toward work with refugees. This tug began when I read my first book about Syria 18 months ago, and it has grown in strength weekly. I spend a fair amount of time reading first-person narratives about escaping Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and other horrifyingly awful places around the globe. With each new story, I find myself growing ever more insistent that there must be a way I can contribute to a warmer welcome, an open heart, and a genuine desire to help heal the wounds so many in this world are facing today.

One of the paintings I boughtSo a couple of weeks ago, I bought some art created by refugees living in Greece, thanks to the incredible work of Love Without Borders, which brought an art exhibit to Chattanooga State Community College. My world politics students served as “docents” for the exhibit, and among our initiatives, we coordinated writing postcards to the artists and their families back in Greece. The money we spent on the artwork went directly to the artists to help them buy food and necessary supplies for their families. This injection of person-to-person contact (through an intermediary) was exactly what I didn’t need if the goal was to satiate my need to help.

Instead, I now feel near obsessed with this need, and it’s just not happening.

Monday, I went to a talk with a woman from Spain who volunteers in Athens several months a year with refugees living there. She played hostess to a group of Chatt State honors students who did a service-learning project there last May. I tried to beg my way into that service trip, but I was told I wasn’t allowed. When this woman, Mar, came to talk, she talked about the very real issue behind “voluntourism,” a phenomenon particularly problematic with refugee communities. She said that people who want to come and volunteer for a week or two often do more harm than good; they don’t have experience working with the needs of this particular community, and by the time they start to figure it out, they’re on a plane back home. Most NGOs ask for a commitment of at least two weeks before allowing volunteers to come to work with refugees. I heard someone say recently that the money spent on the travel to Europe would be better spent by giving it to NGOs to use where they need resources the most.

Melissa's wish tree

The Melissa network in Athens provides a space for refugee women to spend time with other women. They have a wish tree where the refugees can express a wish. This is a picture of one such set of wishes.

Thursday, I invited a representative from our local refugee resettlement agency to come talk to my students. Her message of hope and service was incredibly moving, but when we asked how we could be involved, we were told that the greatest need is for daytime transportation for refugees to get to a doctor’s appointment or other business-hours appointments. In other words, for those of us with jobs, there really aren’t opportunities to be involved. She told us that people who are resettled as refugees want to shed that label as soon as possible. They want to blend in. They want to be normal Americans. They want to have normal lives. They simply don’t need or want people to burst into their lives and demand to be their new best friends.

Talk about a first-world problem! I know this sounds ridiculously self-indulgent to complain about. I have a recurring monthly donation to the UN’s High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR); I talk about refugee aid almost daily; I’m teaching the students in my classes about the need to be compassionate, understanding, and welcoming; I’m doing all that I can without actually interacting with refugees. And yet, it feels like I should be doing more, and I’m rather frustrated that I can’t seem to find a way to do so.

To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory.If you haven’t, please explore the UNHCR’s web site (http://www.unhcr.org/).

Please follow Art Without Borders on Facebook and help Kayra and her artists in any way that you can (monetary donations help purchase art supplies; purchasing artwork is an intensely emotional experience and wonderful).

Please read books of bravery (such as A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea or City of Thorns or The Girl With Seven Names, to name just three of dozens that are worth your time).

But most of all, please be an ambassador for those who have left home. As Mar said to us Monday, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” (a quote from a poem of the same name, by Warsan Shire).

Read their stories wherever you can. Buy sponsorship gifts for Christmas for your relatives (you can do that here, for example, from the International Rescue Committee). Stay up-to-date on what’s happening (the IRC does a good job of that, too).

Hold your families close, and keep your heart open.

Questions my students have

NOTE: This page is a repository for some of the more interesting, insightful, and applaudable comments and questions from my students. It will be updated frequently.

At the end of each class meeting this semester (fall 2017), I’m asking students to reflect on what they learned that day that was important or interesting, then to jot down any questions or curiosities they have. What continues to strike me about this exercise is how insightful, piercing, and straightforward some of these questions are. They suggest that those unfamiliar with the government can be enticed to care, if their curiosities are allowed to marinate.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • I don’t know where the actual power in government comes from.
  • Why was nothing done to Andrew Jackson when he went against the Supreme Court?
  • Why is our government still so spineless and unimpactful about issues that don’t matter to the majority?
  • Not a question, necessarily, but I’m interested in reading the Constitution. What does it say? It seems like something most people should know.
  • How can the Constitution change laws?
  • Why were the Federalist Papers written ONLY to the people of New York?
  • What would be a good way for a president to get Congress to cooperate?
  • Why do people always hate the president?
  • Why are there no term limits with Supreme Court justices?
  • How can the president choose to enforce or not enforce federal laws?

Last updated: Sept. 10, 2017

What my students taught me this week

We the PeopleAt a political science conference last January, another professor and I started talking about civic education and civic engagement among our students. This is something I’ve read about a bit, but it’s not something I’ve honestly made all that much of an effort to incorporate into my classes before.

I’d trace the lack of effort in this regard back to two things: First, political scientists often argue that they are teaching their students the theories of our discipline, which help our students develop critical minds and a reliance on empirical evidence. The prevailing wisdom of our discipline is that teaching students how to become competent citizens isn’t our job. Second, while I certainly make an impassioned plea each semester on the importance of voting, I haven’t before felt the emphatic need to encourage active engagement with government before.

But … well. Things are different in 2017, aren’t they?

So over the summer, I piloted a semester-long project in my online American Government course. (Aside: I’m a fan of a semester-long project; I’ve incorporated one into almost every course I’ve taken, as a way to focus the week-to-week material on a larger theme.) This Civic Engagement Project asks students to (1) identify who represents them in government at the national, state, and local levels, (2) research the broad strokes of each representative’s background, and (3) make an effort to reach out to each representative with a question or statement of policy preference. They then reflect on how this project changed the way they think about government and the strength of citizen voices on what government does.

To be honest, I expected the impact of this project on students to be neutral, at best. It was easy to imagine college students finding this project a hassle, tedious, and uninspiring.

Thankfully, though, the summer students surprised me. In their final reflections, they repeatedly wrote about how the mission of this project became evermore clear to them as they worked through the levels of government. One had coffee with her city council representative. Another decided to intern for her senator in DC next summer. And in perhaps the most fulfilling moment I’d had as a teacher in a long, long time, one wrote in the final reflection paper:

Since the completion of this semester-long project, I have formed a new sense of self in my community. I feel more connected to my country, and I can only imagine how empowered I could feel if I continue to be active. My learning experience was much greater than I expected initially. Not only did I grow as a citizen and learn new information, but I was able to better understand the material I was studying. Having a place for real-world application expanded my knowledge. My attitude towards government has changed, in that I do think some representatives do value my thought and opinions. Despite this change in attitude, I still believe there is an overall political agenda that takes precedence over things citizens are concerned about. I think it takes a loud, persistent voice to head and acknowledge. The best place to start with real change is probably my local community. Without Washington and high politics being involved, I think the chances of change are higher. Even though I believe that I, alone, am not enough to influence a decision or create true change, I still hold value to being an active and informed citizen. I stand a little taller when I am out in public knowing that I have played a small role in keeping my community flowing. I have encouraged my friends to become interested and involved; because if we want a government by the people, we mustn’t forget that WE are the people. I strongly recommend this assignment be kept in the course in the future. It makes the textbook material easier to comprehend and it brings empowerment.

This fall, I’ve kept the same basic structure, with one major change: I’m now also asking students to attend a public meeting or event with one of their elected representatives — be that city council, school board, a town hall meeting, a hearing or session of a legislative body, etc.

I’m very curious to see how students in a regular (fall) semester react to this project, but I can tell you that in the first two weeks of classes, my students have taught me an enormously important lesson: Knowing how to identify your elected officials is hard.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t spent literally hours over the last two weeks explaining the difference between US senators from Tennessee and Tennessee state senators. Or explaining that local governments have both city and county representatives / councils / commissions. Or helping students understand that while Paul Ryan is a member of the national government, he’s not their representative. And so on.

I’ve been politically attentive long enough to find these questions easy to answer. You want me to tell you who represents me? Before Trump was elected president, I could name my national representatives, and I knew one person who represented me locally, but I was completely ignorant of my state legislators. But I at least knew HOW to find out who they were.

My students have taught me that this is a privilege, and it’s not one that many of our peers share.

When my friends lament how politically unaware others are, or how complacent Americans have become, or how ignorant voters in this country are, they are operating from an assumption that Americans know HOW to engage with government and simply choose not to. My students have taught me that we’re all wrong. We know most Americans don’t know who represents them at the various levels of government, but we assume that they could find out. And we’re wrong.

Incredibly, the first part of this semester-long project — namely, identifying the people who represent you … just finding their names! — is the single hardest part of the whole damn project. Let that sink in. Just finding out who is advocating on your behalf is harder than researching their background, contacting them, or going to a meeting at which they preside.

Theories of political science are endlessly fascinating for many of us, no question. But if we want our students to engage in critical thought about how groups of representatives make decisions for the rest of us, we’d better start by ensuring they understand, at a FAR more basic level, how this whole thing works. If we want the American public to trust our institutions, believe that our elected officials work on our behalf, and live a more informed and engaged life, we’d better start by demystifying what feels, to so many of our compatriots, like an impossibly opaque system.

There are those in my discipline who would say that I’m taking a rigorous academic course and making it a civics class, the likes of which they should’ve paid more attention to in eighth grade. Honestly, at this juncture, I’m beyond caring what those critics would say. When learning is centered on making the seemingly opaque more relevant to the life of the learner, long-term impacts are possible. When students understand who is working on their behalf, and start to see those people as … well, people, the salience of everything else we want to teach gets a boost.

I’m eager to see how this semester goes, and be sure that I will let you know. I’m also going back to that political science conference next January to report my findings and hopefully inspire other lofty academics to reshape how they think about what our students do or do not know.

In defense of speech

XKCD cartoon on the First Amendment

www.xkcd.com

Across my Facebook feed came a meme (which I won’t repost here) suggesting that the only reason we haven’t outlawed Nazis and Nazi rhetoric in the United States is because we celebrate their beliefs. This line of thinking really unsettled me. Not because I celebrate Nazis or their ilk. Not because I support white supremacists and their vitriol. Not because I want to live in a world where Nazi sympathizers have power.

No, I’m unsettled by some of what I’m hearing among my kind-hearted and social-justice minded friends. Honestly, I’m as repulsed by this vile message as you are.

But … the First Amendment. Our bedrock values of freedom. It’s still there, and we need to remember that the truest test of our belief in free speech comes when we are asked to defend the right of our brethren to espouse beliefs that we find most repulsive.

There is a fine line between speech that offends and speech that incites violence. Our courts have a difficult time drawing that line, and they don’t always get it right. But we will be judged by how we legislate or enforce the expression of beliefs that we find most reprehensible, and right now, I fear some of us are losing sight of that.

Yet, as the XKCD cartoon above so clearly points out, it is your right as an American citizen to react to speech you find offensive by speaking back. The First Amendment protects against government intervention, not individual reactions. Many states allow employers to fire employees for any reason, including your actions and speech outside of work. That’s OK, unless you work for the government (or use government resources or reputation to express yourself). I can shout back at you. I can counter-protest. I can boycott your business. I cannot pass a law restricting you, though.

I get that the recent surge in white supremacist rhetoric has us all feeling horrified and disgusted. We thought we were beyond this. But we must not conflate disgust with the impulse to restrict what others can say. Period.

I see graphics like this, from the Newseum, and I worry. I worry so much:

Newseum's look at Americans' support for the First Amendment, 2015

Click on this image for the full PDF

What does a full heart make you do?

Confession: I LOVE Jen Louden. She’s a writer, a writing coach, and just a phenomenal woman who does phenomenal work that I wish I had more time to fully embrace. She recently sent out this quick 3-minute video called, “Writing made me do it,” in which she talks about taking a few moments to journal about the things writing made her do. She then suggests doing the same and seeing what it sparks in you …

… and while I’d really love to tell you that my love of writing has made me do so many wonderful things in my life, things big and bold and important like Jen, in truth, writing has just given me a conduit to explore my world with curiosity and openness, the better to write about it. That’s not nothing, but this line of thought has got me thinking on something else entirely.

Let’s back up a second.

A week ago, I was on Amelia Island in Florida, staying at a beautiful, unexpectedly quiet beach condo with four of my dearest friends, soaking up the energy that being with people who know you well uniquely provides. I left that space on Monday with a full heart (and a body that desperately needed sleep, ha!).

In the week since, I have taken decisive action forward on a plan my heart has wanted to pursue for going on a year now, but I just hadn’t found the courage to leap towards.

A full heart made me leap.
A full heart made me trust my instincts.
A full heart made me believe in myself and my vision.
A full heart made me comfortable going outside my comfort zone.
A full heart made me want to be bold.
A full heart made me desire spreading my happiness to others.
A full heart made me feel more comfortable with my body.
A full heart made me less anxious about the judgment of others.
A full heart made me embrace the fact that I don’t have to be 100% unique in order to be impactful.
A full heart made me love more fully and with less hesitation.
A full heart made me giddy with excitement.
A full heart made me grateful to have the friends I do, the sisterhood that knits us together and holds us tight, even when we’re apart.
A full heart made me feel a stillness inside myself that I haven’t ever felt before.
A full heart made me ready to act.
A full heart made me do it.

Liz Norell Yoga

These women and this place fill my heart. Photo credit: Boston Photography

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