Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

Category: Politics

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 (

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.

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

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

The perils of shallow knowledge

John Nixon’s memoir, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, begins with this explosive paragraph:

The rise of Islamic extremism in Iraq, chiefly under the rubric of ISIS (or Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham), is a catastrophe that the United States needn’t have faced had it been willing to live with an aging and disengaged Saddam Hussein. I do not wish to imply that Saddam was innocent of the charges that were thrown at him over the years. He was a ruthless dictator who, at times, made decisions that plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed. However, in hindsight, the thought of having Saddam Hussein in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the awful events and wasted effort of America’s brave young men and women in uniform, not to mention the $3 trillion and still counting we have spent to build a new Iraq.

Nixon spent more than a decade at the CIA and admits he voted for George W. Bush — the president whose political beliefs pushed an eager-to-please intelligence community into finding weakly- or unfounded justifications for invading Iraq. He also admits to voting for Barack Obama, saying about John McCain: “While he had a lot more foreign policy expertise than Obama did, McCain was another shoot-from-the-hip kind of politician. I thought we’d had enough of that with Bush. As for Sarah Palin, my goodness, where would one begin?” Unfortunately, though, Nixon says Obama was uninterested in Iraq, as he saw the problems there as Bush’s, not his; under Obama, things in Iraq got far worse, mostly due to American inattention.

His fair assessment of politicians across the political spectrum buys him a lot of credibility in my eyes. More importantly, his passionately patriotic insistence on a need for nuanced intelligence completely divorced from political whims is crucial. The great flaw of the Bush 43 administration’s foreign policy was its need — nay, its demand — that the intelligence community be intensely pressured to find evidence that fit with Bush’s black-and-white view of the world. Bush was impatient with complexity and nuance, and his foreign policy showed it. Incidentally, this conclusion is not one I’ve made after reading just a couple of books; it’s echoed again and again in the writings of intelligence officials, political observers, and military men and women themselves. (For more, see the moving and provocative Eugene Jarecki film, Why We Fight (read about the film here; buy it on DVD here; stream it from Amazon here). It will make you mad — but in a very productive manner.

The more I read about the Middle East, the more I’m convinced that it’s an issue too hard for political minds to tackle. Nor do I think that military minds should be in charge. We require thoughtful, considerate leadership well-versed in Middle Eastern relations, history, and culture. We haven’t had that in any of our leaders in a very, very long time. And it shows.

My letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) regarding Betsy DeVos

When Betsy DeVos was initially nominated to serve as Secretary of Education, I sent my Tennessee senators multiple postcards begging them not to confirm her. Lamar Alexander was one of her strongest supporters (in or out of Tennessee), and his letters in response to my pleas consistently emphasized how qualified she is, how much she cares about students, and how wonderful she would be as Secretary of Education. As the news of DeVos’s decisions has piled up in my news feed, I finally reached a breaking point last week and penned a letter to him. What I had to say wouldn’t come close to fitting on a postcard. I’m finally sending it off today, and I thought I’d share with you all, too:

June 29, 2017

Senator Alexander,

Although I have grave concerns about the healthcare bill recently proposed by Senate Republicans, today I’m writing today to detail the many terrible decisions the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made since assuming office—with, it’s worth pointing out, your vocal, enthusiastic, unqualified support. It seems like I hear almost daily about another decision she has made to weaken our education system, and I want to know specifically whether she still has your support.

Below are just a few reasons that I’m horrified, angered, and deeply concerned about Secretary DeVos’s tenure, albeit brief, at the Department of Education:

  • After taking a brave stance to protect transgender children in schools by allowing them to use the bathroom of their identified gender, she caved to pressure from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and backtracked, putting lives of our MOST vulnerable students in jeopardy. This happened after she said, in February, “I will not be deterred in my mission of helping kids in this country.” Except, it appears, when political pressure from her allies is too fierce. So much for having a strong spine, eh?
  • Her misstatements regarding Historically Black Colleges & Universities on February 27 was, at best, tone-deaf with respect to the reason our country created HBCUs to begin with. She said about HBCUs, “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and great quality…Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.” It’s not as though students who “chose” to go to HBCUs were doing so because they had viable other options to attend college.
  • Her support of dismantling the public-service loan forgiveness program would directly impact my life in a massive and detrimental way. You see, Senator Alexander, I am one of the people who has dedicated her life to public service. I went to school and achieved a PhD while supporting myself through adjunct teaching (another matter altogether that I could go on for pages about). On average, I made about $1500 per semester-long class. Student loans were the only way I could afford to continue my education to attain my PhD. It took me nine years to finish my degree, all of which I was adjunct teaching, at times as many as TEN CLASSES PER SEMESTER. Think about that, sir. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones; I’ve obtained a full-time, tenure-track teaching job at Chattanooga State Community College, making me eligible for the public service loan forgiveness program after I complete my required years of service. My days are now dedicated to helping our most at-risk students achieve an associate’s degree and a better future for themselves. I know that you understand and value the importance of education for economic improvement. Shouldn’t those who get down in the trenches to enable that economic improvement be rewarded, too? (For context, I left a full-time job in 2005 at which I was making more money (not adjusted—in real dollars) than I now make 12 years later teaching with a PhD and 10+ years of teaching experience.)
  • The proposed reductions to the Education Department’s budget are devastating. I don’t think I need to elaborate further on this.
  • The recent announcement that the Education department will scale back on civil rights investigations is horrifying. At a time when violence against at-risk youth continues to plague public schools, we need leadership that will take every available action to protect students. Period.
  • Another recent announcement from Ms. DeVos’s department plans to roll back protections for students against actions taken by for-profit colleges. This, again, is horrifying. Eight states and the District of Columbia have sued her department to keep the rules in place. Shouldn’t we be protecting our students against the sorts of fraud and broken promises that we saw with our president’s “Trump University” scheme, settled for millions of dollars prior to his taking office? Imagine if those sorts of for-profit “colleges” could fleece unsuspecting Americans without any punishment or recourse?

Senator Alexander, I know you have a genuine passion for education and its promise. Ms. DeVos is taking us backwards, not innovating in ways that improve student excellence and meet the promise of education in this country. We simply must do better.

Will you take a stronger oversight role on the Education department? Will you work to correct these errors? Please speak out, sir. We need your strong leadership here. If Secretary DeVos is indeed someone you know well, respect, and support, my hope is that your wisdom, insight, and direction may help stem the tide of these terribly dangerous moves on her part.


(Dr.) Liz Norell


Synchronicity & current events

The human brain is a magnificent thing. No matter what you’re currently mulling over in your free time, there’s a good chance that it will pop up in other areas of your life in unexpected ways.

And so yesterday, when I was furiously trying to finish my latest book, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West, by Luke Harding (a reporter at The Guardian in London), I came across this passage:

A Very Expensive Poison coverThe Kremlin’s aim was to avoid an evidence-led inquiry … and to confuse the public mind. The numerous ‘versions’ of [one man’s] murder … were part of a sophisticated media strategy with its roots in KGB doctrine. … There were multiple explanations. How was one supposed to know which one was actually true?

In fact, the aim is to blur what is true with what is not, to the point that the truth disappears altogether. By noisily asserting something is false, you create a fake counter-reality. In time this constructed sovereign version of events becomes real — at least in the minds of those who are watching. (pp. 386-387)

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that a book about Putin’s efforts to disrupt democratic society in the west would turn up something that was so incredibly relevant yesterday. But then, just a couple of hours later, I was listening to one of my staple podcasts, Slate’s The Gist, and the next episode included an interview with NPR’s On the Media hostess extraordinaire, Brooke Gladstone. She was there to talk about her new book, The Trouble with Reality (which I’ve now ordered). In this episode, she talks about the many ways in which the truth is obscured by the “baubles” the current political climate generates (crowd size, anyone?).

This calls to mind something I’ve found myself sharing with students with alarming frequency in recent years — a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US senator from New York (who, sadly, died in 2003):

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

It’s almost quaint, isn’t it? How cute. How the world has changed.

I think many of us, especially those who have — at one time or another — been drawn to journalism as a career option / opportunity / vocation, want to believe that there is The Truth out there, waiting to be discovered. But unfortunately, we increasingly live in a world where commonly agreed-upon facts are harder to find. When you have someone as cunning as Putin (or as inept as Trump) deliberately trying to obfuscate the truth, and a segment of the mass public who is willing to defend their support of that person to preserve their own cognitive sanity (which I understand — I really do), then the opportunities for mass misinformation run rampant.

And that’s the world in which we now live, I fear.

It’s the world in which I now teach, sadly.

And it makes reasoned, rational, informed discussion nearly impossible.

To wit: Last night, a former student who is (well, was) a Facebook friend sent me a message. I won’t share it with you, but suffice it to say it was (at best) marginally tethered to the truth, a lengthy rant about how Trump can solve all our economic and political problems with a few “common-sense” solutions not even remotely feasible or (in some cases) legal. I sent this person a quick message asking her to leave me off distribution lists for these sorts of messages. She immediately replied: “I tell you what I will delete you and we never have to worry again.”

The world will get no better when we cannot talk across differences; in fact, it will get worse.

When we inhabit bubbles of our own facts, we lose so, so much — compassion, common ground, any hope of resolving differences, and ultimately the very foundation of our small-D democratic (and small-R republican) form of government.

I don’t know how to end this. I do what I do because I have hope, and as an educator I must believe in the power of knowledge to make the world a better place. I keep fighting the good fight (educating my students) and hope my efforts at understanding, compassion, and kindness grease the wheels for true connection.

Carry on, friends.

Three (really hard) things we all benefit from doing

What does it mean to be empowered?

Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people looking for you find you.That’s the question we began with this weekend, as we stood in our power, took up space, and connected with our tribe.

Each of those things defies the ability of mere words to communicate what is so much larger than a single thing or feeling or action.

To “stand in your power,” you must first recognize your power, feel that power, work through your issues and fears and insecurities, and embrace the gifts you offer this world in unique and necessary ways.

To “take up space,” you must first recognize and reject diet culture, which tells all of us — but especially women — that to be small, quiet, and deferential is morally superior to being large, fierce, and confident. Taking up space unapologetically is a radical political action. It cannot happen if you don’t find the courage to believe that you deserve to exist exactly as you do, without diminishment or reticence. Shunning diet culture opens the way to redirect abundantly your time, money, and energy into actions that serve to boost women (and men). It robs the world of energy, time, and resources that break spirits and kill vitality in the uniquely pernicious way of this disempowering culture. Less is not more. More is more.

And finally, to “connect with your tribe,” you must first do the work to know yourself on a deep level. A tribe that stands in its power and takes up space does not abide by hiding the self in shame. You can’t shrink in the back corner and just observe. Finding or being present in a tribe requires active engagement, true vulnerability, and warm presence. Tribes absorb the vibrations of each individual member and amplify them, creating an energy out of the whole that far, far surpasses the sum of its parts. To step into this echoing space of love requires us to shine light on the shame we feel… a process that, as Brene Brown tells us, extinguishes our shame, because shame cannot exist in the light. That release creates space for love to flow in, and it does, coursing from one person to the next, filling cups of spirit and love and light as it flows.

But when you do these things, when you stand in your power, take up space, and connect with your tribe, you are transformed.

I am transformed.

Not 48 hours ago, I walked into an unfamiliar space, knowing less than 10 percent of the people in that space. Today, I walked out of that same place, a place that, for two days, felt like the bravest space I’ve ever occupied, and my spirit felt as though it had linked both with each person there and the larger collective we formed together.

It took me 39 years to find the gorgeous, courageous women (and a few men) who would become the foundation of my tribe. As I continue to stand in my power, take up space, and do the work ahead, I know my tribe will grow, and grow, and then grow some more. To be a part of this empowered tribe means moving through the world never more than an extended hand away from support of the most soulful kind.

It took me a year to make the journey inward that created the space to find and embrace my tribe. It doesn’t happen quickly, and it certainly doesn’t happen without scaring the shit out of you as you hit those calcified layers of shame and self-doubt and fear. But as you sand-blast your way through those defensive layers, you’ll reach your inner light. It shines brightly within, and it will warm the spaces you take it.

Imagine a world where we are all in this tribe, shining our lights brightly and fiercely. What power! What love!

I don’t pretend that’s feasible. Yet, I do know that when you feel someone’s genuine light shine on you, it has the power to change you.

So this is my work. I have found my light. Being with my tribe stokes its flames and brightens its color.

The light in me truly honors the light in you, even if you haven’t found it yet. I know it’s in there, and I will devote my time on this Earth to doing what I can to help you shine your light on us all. We need you.


Books I read and loved in 2016

I was listening to Anna Guest-Jelley‘s podcast, Love, Curvy Yoga, this morning, and I heard her talk about her favorite books of 2016. And I thought — why haven’t I ever written such a list? It’s appalling, really. For someone whose first or second favorite hobby is buying books by the dozens (if you think that’s hyperbole, check in with my postal delivery professional), why haven’t I been doing best-of roundups for DECADES?!

So, without further fanfare, here are my favorite books that I read in 2016 (not necessarily ones that were published in 2016, it’s important to note). There is no rhyme or reason to the order — it’s too hard to choose just a few, much less rank them!

Incidentally, the links below go to with my affiliate ID. If you would like to support my writing and/or yoga teaching, much of which I do without much or any compensation, please use these links to show your support. Thanks!

While much of the fiction I read is pretty terrible (I tend towards the 99-cent Kindle “women’s fiction” genre), a couple of the novels I read this year really stood out. Specifically:

  • Dietland, by Sarai Walker
    This book fictionalizes the growing movement of backlash against the diet culture. Plum finds herself on a bizarre mission to earn money for weight loss surgery, only … well. You’ll have to read this gem of a novel to see where she ends up.
  • In Twenty Years, by Allison Winn Scotch
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, and this book was no exception. The characters and their adventures have stayed with me FAR longer than does the typical novel. It tells the story of a group of college friends who reunite somewhat unexpectedly twenty years after graduation. I strongly recommend this book.
  • Me After You, by Jojo Moyes
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, too. They are always well-written and heartfelt, but in a way that lingers with you long after you finish reading. This sequel to her runaway bestseller Me Before You had me ugly-crying quickly and repeatedly. Nevertheless, it was WONDERFUL.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
    Alternating between the perspectives of a young French girl and a young German soldier during World War II, this book is eloquent and capitivating. I wish I could re-read it for the first time. It just captured my imagination in a way few novels do.

World Politics
This year, in an effort to become a competent instructor of world politics, I significantly expanded my knowledge of hot spots around the world… largely through reading narrative nonfiction accounts of these places. Here are my absolute favorites, books I think everyone should read:

Social Science
Y’know … the day job. I read a few books in 2016 that generally sharpened my thinking about politics and American government:

Yoga, Intuitive Eating, Being You, & Body Image/Acceptance
The biggest passion of my year has been this inward quest to understand, accept, and be present in my body. These books have resonated with me at a deep level:

  • Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life, by Kelsey Miller
    Holy moly, this book seriously changed my life! It was my first exposure to this thing called “intuitive eating,” and while it’s memoir (not manual), Kelsey’s refreshingly honest voice captivated me from the moment I began reading. And yet, I forced myself to spread this book out, because I found my mind so thoroughly exploded as I read that I needed breaks to process. I will never be the same person I was before I read this amazing book.
  • Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon
    This book also changed my life in extreme ways. It was so powerful and paradigm-altering that I bought nearly a dozen copies to give to women I knew would find its message similarly empowering. If you’ve ever struggled with thinking your body was the enemy, you simply MUST read this book.
  • Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, by Glennon Doyle Melton
    Every woman should read this book. It’s an incredibly honest accounting of what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world, beautiful and brutal (or brutiful) as it is. Glennon Doyle Melton is a force to be reckoned with, and I loved this book so much I went to see her speak live… my only life author event of the year.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brene Brown
    Everything Brene Brown writes, speaks, or does deserves our attention, but this is the book of hers I fully read in 2016. Her message of self-acceptance and the need to be vulnerable is one we can all benefit from hearing. I will reread this book many times before I fully appreciate its nuances and wisdom.
  • Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, by Judith Hanson Lasater
    This book was the first required reading for my yoga teacher training program, but its lessons have far broader resonance. The message of Lasater’s book really grounds our yoga practice in the simple acts of everyday that keep us present in our lives. I think everyone can get something humbling and profound out of this little gem.

The lost art of listening

The world is noisy this week: first, the giddy anticipation of Election Day, women all around this great country joining Pantsuit Nation on Facebook and proudly donning their “I voted!” stickers; then, the unfolding surprises on election night; finally, the reality slowly seeping in that a loud and bullish man was just elected president.

The noise is deafening. On both sides of the political aisle, we are feeling our voices raise as we either celebrate or lament the outcome of the 2016 election.

I believe that we each know best how to process this election result for ourselves. For some, that means engaging in public acts of protest or celebration. For others, it feels like stupor, the sense that we can’t quite wrap our minds around what has happened in the last three months of our lives. Still others feel a deep sense of loss. Perhaps you’re feeling adrift, not sure where to devote your attention after spending so much of the year mentally engaged in a collective sense of disbelief and uproar.

Noisy, isn’t it?

This is why I believe that, once we’ve had a chance to let this election sink in and the immediate, reactive emotions fade a bit, we need to cultivate some quiet.

We need to stop yelling. We may even need to stop talking. I believe the work ahead of us, if we are to move forward in productive ways, comes in the lost art of listening.

On the left, we had a diverse coalition of people celebrating the imminent shattering of the glass ceiling. A woman who has spent her life fighting for women and children seemed destined to become our first female president. The reasons to celebrate were many. This coalition was pushing for broader access to education, healthcare, clean energy, environmental protection and preservation, and reproductive care. The intentions were noble and the argument came laced with facts, figures, and self-evident truths.

On the right, we had a somewhat less-diverse coalition of people frustrated to the point of outright anger over a system that seemed to have left them behind. They pushed for a clean sweep of the wealthy government officials who don’t understand what life is like for a factory worker laid off when a company moved production overseas, or who resent the seeming aura of superiority and disdain adopted by the well-educated and progressive. These were and are legitimate feelings of being left behind by a world that increasingly demands sophisticated technological skills and deep education. Politics is inherently rooted in emotion, and these voters were by far the most expressive of those underlying emotions.

[Aside: Speaking from experience, no matter what you say or do, when you have more education than those around you, basically everything you do is interpreted through the lens of someone who just expects and believes you think you’re superior. This is a reasonable thing when you consider that every human being is wired to want to fit in and be accepted as they are. The sense that the well-educated assume themselves superior becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the left makes arguments with these aforementioned facts, figures, and self-evident truths. If the left is to become less despised by the right, they must learn to speak the language of emotion, not reason. See Haidt.]

Not everyone on the left was capable of seeing the legitimate concerns of those on the right; not everyone on the right was willing to see the problems as endemic of a developed economy and not as the result of demographic change.

And here we are: Absolutely nobody is happy. The left is miserable with loss of hope and fear of the future; the right is miserable with the present and fearful the new president won’t be able to do enough to shake up the status quo.

Our solutions, though, lie not in trying to find a single leader who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and shake things up. In fact, when it comes to our deepest misunderstandings, the president is only ever going to divide public opinion into supporters and opponents; at best, the president is a net neutral. Electing either of these candidates was going to fracture the country further.

My friends, the only solution I can give you is this: Listen. Really, really listen. Don’t sit quietly while you wait until it’s your turn to talk. LISTEN.

I’m not suggesting you should abide by outright hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, etc. However, we know from our experiences of the last few decades, particularly with the LGBTQ community, that the best defense against ignorance and fear of the other is knowledge of the other. Twenty years ago, most Americans felt the LGBTQ community was populated by a bunch of immoral and dangerous people; today, most Americans not only accept this community, but say our LGBTQ friends should be able to marry the person of their choosing and form families. This shift happened because our gay friends came out and said, “Here I am!”

When you know someone who’s gay, it’s much harder to demonize the entire category of people.

When you know someone who voted for Trump and you actually listen to them, you understand how they got there.

When you know someone who voted for Clinton and you actually listen to them, you understand how they got there.

When you know someone who’s a Muslim, you see their humanity.

When you know someone who came here as an unaccompanied minor to escape violence of Central America, you see their humanity.

When you know someone who is afraid to be pulled over by the police because they might get deported for having a tail light out, you see their humanity.

We have stopped knowing people who aren’t like us, and it’s the single most dangerous thing in our country, I believe.

I’m not saying we can change minds or hearts overnight. We cannot. I’m not saying we should condone hatred and bigotry. We must not. I’m not saying you have to do this tomorrow. You need not.

But as we move forward and try to find ways to calm the hatred surrounding us, this is the only viable path. One person at a time, one conversation at a time, we must listen, understand, and let others know us.

I remain convinced that most people, most of the time, are mostly good. Nobody is good all the time, and very few people are irredeemably bad. You can find some commonality with almost anyone you meet. I mean, almost everyone likes pizza, right? Set aside the good fight for a moment and find the common ground. Eat some pizza. Smile. Show compassion for the troubles we all — every single one of us — face.

Listen, friends. Just listen.

Why yoga makes sense for a political scientist

For a lot of 2016, I’ve thought about how divergent my life’s two biggest current passions are — political science and yoga. American politics this year have been — dare I say it? — unusually nasty, and yoga is the very opposite. What is the common thread?

At first, my impulse was to think of yoga as the yin to the yang of my professional life. Political science involves studying how a whole lot of tough decisions get made about (as Harold Lasswell famously said) who gets what, when, and how. Understanding how those decisions get made is at the heart of what I explore intellectually and teach to my students. Inherently, then, political science contains a strong undercurrent of competition, of sorting out the winners and losers.

Yoga couldn’t be more different. Yoga challenges us to embrace now, just as it is. Meeting yourself where you are, as you are, is one of yoga’s greatest gifts. We set aside the striving for a few stolen moments of the yoga practice, and we tune into the quiet voice inside us that knows what we need. Yoga is about wholeness, about love, about presence. It is the very opposite of the practice of politics.

And yet, for me, these two things have increasingly come into harmony for me. It’ll take me a little bit to get you there, but bear with me.

Remarkably, the catalyst for this unexpected marriage of philosophy has come from my work this semester teaching World Politics offline for the first time. To be honest, I dreaded teaching this class: I’m not an international relations scholar, I don’t know much about IR theory (other than what I learned in my one required seminar in grad school), and I’m pretty ignorant about events happening in most of the world. That’s not because I don’t see the value in being informed; rather, it’s because when I have taken the time to learn about world events, I find myself somewhere between despairing and disappointed with the incredible persecution that happens out there in the world. I’ll gladly take the (relatively) petty differences of American politics over the genocide, war crimes, and intractable problems out there in the world.

As a political scientist, though, this avoidance of the tough questions couldn’t last forever, of course. When I was told I’d be teaching World Politics to actual, real students, my first impulse was to hope the class wouldn’t attract enough enrollment to run. We ended up with 12 students, which is a bit low, but the Powers That Be decided it was enough for us to run the class. Faced with 15 weeks of class time to fill, I had to come up with something to say or do with these inquisitive students.

It all started with a whim, really: What if we dove deeply into the Syrian conflict, trying to see the situation from the variety of perspectives involved, then see if we could brainstorm possible actions to move the conflict forward?

I bought an eBook on the history of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and assigned my students to research one of the major perspectives. I devoured the book about Assad, told in narrative fashion by a scholar who had visited Assad many times. Staying just a couple of steps ahead of my students, I led us through a “simulation” of Syria. One of my students said, “Is this problem even fixable?” It was the right question. None of us could answer. But in the process, I came to see the humanity of each person or organization involved. Assad isn’t making humane choices, but it’s not that big of a leap to understand why he would fight back against his own people.

Next, we tackled North Korea. I think it’s human nature to be intrigued by North Korea. Reading two personal narratives of Americans who went to North Korea — one for vacation, one posing as a missionary English teacher — deeply affected me. My heart aches for those living in North Korea. They don’t have the benefit of the ignorance I’d been choosing for 39 years: They can’t find out what’s happening in the rest of the world, and if they try, they can be sentenced to life in a work camp or, worse yet, wind up dead. And yet, as we simulated the North Korea situation, my students and I came to understand why the various actors, including Kim Jong-un, behave as they do.

Today, I finished a moving book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called The Lemon Tree. I was profoundly affected by this story. The story (again, narrative nonfiction) weaves the story of two people — one Palestinian, one Israeli — connected by one house, behind which stood a lemon tree.

It was in finishing this book that I have come to understand how political science and yoga fit together: They each teach us about how to relate our own experience to the broader human experience. When you try to understand how and why others make the choices they do, you challenge yourself to find the common humanity. The Jewish woman in The Lemon Tree embodies this in a way most of us will never have the courage or conviction to do; Dalia understood that if we do not reach out to our enemy, to The Other, we will never stop fighting. We will never have peace.

This reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s incredibly important work on understanding the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives. Haidt challenges us in his TED Talk to step outside of the fight of good against evil at least occasionally. Instead, he says, we must learn to cultivate a certain moral humility and try to understand one another. When we stop engaging in the mindset of teams (e.g., Democrats and Republicans), we can approach the world with a more open mind and open heart.

And ultimately, isn’t that what yoga is all about? I think it is. Yoga encourages humility; it demands we accept the world as is. People new to yoga often feel invited to compare themselves to the others practicing in the class with them. Yoga invites us instead to turn our focus inward, to listen to our own wisdom.

How much better this world might be if we could invite that same acceptance and humility into our lives more broadly. When we seek out the humanity in others, rather than demonizing or comparing or engaging in Us against Them thinking, we find common ground. We can be present. We can love.

So there you go — my brand of political science is quickly becoming an extension of my yoga practice. It’s been heading in that direction for years, but it’s only thanks to my experiences struggling with my lack of knowledge in World Politics that I’ve really made the connection.

In August 1994, I was entering my senior year of high school after having spent the summer in France as an exchange student, then at a stay-away six-week summer camp for rising high school seniors called Governor’s School. That summer shifted the way I thought about myself and my future. I chose to apply to colleges thinking I’d major in French and international relations, then join the foreign service. It took me approximately 48 hours of homesickness at GW to realize that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of life. I never even took an IR class as an undergrad. I barely even took any political science classes at GW. I’m struck today, as I’ve been struck at many times in my life, how everything has once again come full circle: Twenty-two years later, I’ve fallen in love with a class about international relations and the lessons it has taught — and continues to teach — me.

Each of the books I linked above is a great read. If you find yourself curious about the most difficult problems facing our world, check one (or more!) out.

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