Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Muffins with Mom, Hot Dogs with Dad

The sunshine is back! It is a welcome site after weeks on non-stop daily rain. I awoke to rain this morning, but it looks as if the front that has been stalled over Mississippi for days has finally decided to move on to less soggy pastures.

I was just finishing up my daily lessons on Motivating Mississippi, read Bill Maher's latest column about how what we eat is making us stupid, and recalled a student asking me for help yesterday. Suddenly, I felt the first genuine smile I have had in weeks come to my lips, and then the sun came out.

The student is a single mother with two young children, and she is very intelligent and hard-working and takes her school very seriously. She parents the same way, just having taken her young son to hear the Dali Lama in Memphis on Wednesday. After the policy class, she walked out with me and said she might need my help on something she had "gotten herself into." Her children's school received money from the Reinvestment and Recovery funds to increase parental participation in their children's education. They sent out letters of invitation for "Muffins with Mom, Hotdogs with Dad."

She marched herself up to the school and asked to talk with the administration. She pointed out that Mississippi is number 1 in the nation for obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure and the last thing we needed to be doing was adding to that. She had read the stipulations for how the money was to be spent, and had a list of suggestions for activities that would increase parental participation without a junk-food feeding frenzy. I was thrilled: policy advocacy in action.

I choose to regain my sense of what is possible, and move to standing in the inquiry, not the circumstances. Even if it does start to rain again.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rain, Facebook, Humid Days, & Sarah Palin in Hong Kong

Non-stop rain for the last 2 weeks--maybe 3--and another week in the forecast can take its toll on even a person who loves rainy, overcast days...like me. Maybe it is lack of sunshine, maybe it is the constant humidity and the fact that my hair has been wet and resembles the hairdo of a sheepdog for the past 3 weeks, or maybe it is the constant bickering back and forth about racism and health care that has me down in the dumps, but to quote Carl, "I don't need this."

I quit Facebook this week. I have been thinking about it for a while, and had been deleting pictures and posts. I had removed all the "friends" who never communicated with me or responded to me. It seems to me that if one does not have an exchange of communication at least on occasion, then one is not in a friendship relationship. Frankly, I also got tired of all the quiz results, poll results, etc, over issues that either are not important, are not going to change anything, or have long been decided. What is the point of posting a poll asking if you are in support of putting Christ back in Christmas? In the first place, Christ was never in Christmas. He never asked his followers to celebrate his birth; he asked them to celebrate his death. Christmas was an adoption of a pagan celebration, a compromise in the church to members who still wanted to celebrate the Feast of the Saturnalia. The church renamed it and its purpose, and voila! "Christ"mas was born. It's not that I intend to offend, or even care what tradition someone wishes to adopt or adapt--as in the case of Christmas--it's just when people espouse beliefs and do not even know the source, history, or background that tend to make me want to roll my eyes.

One night after some spirited exchanges on one of my real friend's page--spirited being the euphemism here--I awoke to see my friend had deleted it, with the comment that she was sorry she offended anyone. I have to say that just stunned me. Not that she would say that--she is indeed a kind and gracious person who does not want to offend. It was the fact that one would feel the need to apologize among "friends" for supporting the belief that one had. In reading all the back-and-forths on Facebook in the past weeks, there has been no actual discussion--of the merits or non-merits of a position. Just the back and forth of agreeing or disagreeing. It was one comment in particular that got me going the night before: something to the effect of a person thought no other views had merit--only his. I was struck by how much of that is the norm in our communications these days. Right, left, or center, we tend to discount any merits of anyone's beliefs (and indeed, in some of the mindless accusations going around, that is not hard to want to do). So, I was moved to delete my account and get back to the real world that I live in. After all, I reasoned, my real friends and I communicate by telephone, email, or in person, without hundreds of other people having privy to the conversation and the ability to agree or disagree with it.

I come home from work every day and sit on my porch for a short while--watching the birds at my feeder. It is my decompression time. Yesterday I was thinking about all the comments about racism and health care that have been flying back and forth in the news of late. I thought of all the people I know who have entrenched beliefs about "welfare" and poor people, and black people. I have spent my career working with 'those people' and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many of them fit the stereotypical beliefs about them. Even when I worked with people with disabling mental illness (like schizophrenia), most of them wanted to work. I find myself asking over and over how these beliefs get so entrenched when I would assume that the majority of the folks doing all the criticizing do not even interact with poor people, people on welfare, or black people.

I suspect a lot of my discontent right now is also tied to the overload of work at home and at the university. It seems I cannot get caught up either place, and that kind of pace takes its toll at some point. Home is a mindless repetition of the same tasks day after day, and little to no help in getting them handled. If I do not go to the store, it does not get done; if I do not prepare a meal, it does not get done. I had gotten deli soup and bread for last night's supper, after having cooked a full meal the night before. I sat down and asked if we were going to watch the opening House. Rand said, "It depends; are you fixing supper?" I opined that I did not realize someone else could not heat the soup and bread. I heated the soup and bread, ate mine, and retired to my study to work--no longer interested in watching House or anything else. I think it was like deactivating Facebook--what is the point of this anymore either?

At work, it is one meeting after another since the semester started, backlogged on research and writing due to teaching an overload of the Research Writing course which is quite labor intensive. I am trying to finalize the travel course to South Africa in January, and running up against problems there--I am close to the point of calling it off.

Sarah Palin is in Hong Kong--or was. I think it was her first trip abroad after she got her passport. Maybe I should see if she wants to go to South Africa with us in January--if word got out she was going with us, maybe the class would make.

And now, time to grade some papers. At least a Thursday to catch up because there were no meetings today for a change.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday in Tupelo

I spent the day in Tupelo, leaving at 8:45 this morning and returning home at 6 p.m. tonight. Rain and storms before, during, and after made it a harder day than usual, though it brought some moments of relief as well. I am teaching an online research writing class this fall, and it has been very frustrating for the students and for me. I went to Tupelo today to be available to meet face-to-face and respond to their concerns.

I had two group meetings, and then some individual students came by to talk with me. All in all, I met with quite a few of the class, and worked straight through with no lunch break. I think it was productive and helpful, and seemed to alleviate much of the anxiety and frustration. It is all kinds of things: lack of high speed internet for some of them, lack of confidence in their ability to write, change from a community college to the University of Mississippi, technical problems with the program, and above all--fear of failure and the consequences for their study.

I want to be careful how I say what I am about to say, but in many ways, it reminds me of the huge negative legacy that racism has left in this country, as well as the world. Let's face it, Europe, England, and the United States colonized Africa, Asia, Central and South America and we are still affected by that. While these countries (members of the Global South) are deeply in debt to "developed nations" it is directly related to our having stolen their land, their land's minerals, wood, and animals, as well as their people.

It is impossible to suddenly say it's their responsibility when they lost a great deal of their own natural resources--including their people who were enslaved and are now part of the diaspora--spread all over the world, and rarely welcomed where they have been "home" for generations.

How does that relate to today? I am the big, bad Ole Miss professor who expects things of them that others have not expected, and they were afraid. This is a new world for many of them, and it is a terrifying endeavor that some of them fear they will not be able to do. I spent a lot of the time reassuring them of my commitment to helping them master the skills to do this, and explaining its relationship to social work practice. It is not about failing them for not knowing, but helping them to see what they do not know and then how to master it. I think if we do that in teaching, we leave students with skills that can be used in other ways. Now, true, I do not have much patience with the student who intentionally plagiarizes and cheats, and I have no problem in giving such a student a failing grade.

I also have no problem correcting, showing, enabling, discussing, revising, re-reading, etc, as often as it takes for the student to learn whatever it is she needs to learn. I hope that came across today, and from their comments, I think it did. The problem with the online is that there is not that human interaction. Online works with motivated, self-directed learners who read and comprehend, but it may not be the best approach for students who are new to education, and certainly new to advanced education.

The reason we decided to do online was because we had no faculty willing to teach the research writing class on the satellite campuses. Most of the faculty do not like to teach it or just will not teach it. True, it is a lot of work. Doing it online was an attempt to make it doable, since I not only like teaching it and constantly try to figure out better ways to teach it, but also was willing to take on the online and evaluate its usefulness as our student enrollment keeps growing and the faculty are stretched thinner.

While it was a day of travel for me--for which I do not get paid nor reimbursed, and a loss of a research day for me--but will still be expected to produce my weekly research, it demands a lot of me. I don't resent the loss of money, nor the loss of time as I feel it was beneficial. I will do it again in two weeks. I hope the face-to-face helps them to feel more comfortable with it. As I shared with them, if they do not communicate with me, I am operating from what I assume and anticipate. So, in two weeks, I will go do it again. At that point, we are at mid-term, and it is a good place to evaluate where we all are and what we need to do next.

I well may end up over there every week, or at least every two weeks, for some of them. The majority of the students are doing fine, and have had no problems since the beginning of the class. I guess as long as it is only one hour away, and I have the time and ability, I will do what it takes to enable them to pass when it seems they are trying and desiring to master the class. It kind of looks like it is going to be a long semester...the times they are a changing, and this well may be one of them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Where have all the flowers gone?

Reading the news this morning, that phrase came to mind for some reason. I think it was because I was hit with a sense of despair. I have been in opposition to my normally optimistic self of late. It seems--in the words of Willie Nelson--"a world spinning hopelessly out of control." Of course, he goes on to add that "my hand's on the wheel of something that's real, and I feel like I'm going home." I can take some comfort in knowing that at some point, I will again right myself and get my hand back on the wheel so to speak.

But whence the sense of despair? We had the Global South speakers series this week--the last from the three year period in which we have been working. Professor Desai from Tulane University was our Thursday night speaker. Born in India, raised in Tanzania and Kenya, and a well-respected scholar on Indian and African identities, he brought the history and culture of the Indian Ocean and the later trans-Atlantic migrations to life and how they connected with North America. He also dwelt on Indians and Africans in Cape Town, and that resonated with my own research and interests in the parallels between South Africa and the US South.

Friday, Professor Gomez from New York University was the speaker. His focus was African identities and the African diaspora, and it focused very much on issues related to the African experience in the south, particularly Mississippi and South Carolina. One comment he made was powerful: He said that community organizations were the positive influences positioned to lead in regard to not only change, but the transnational and migration issues which consume us all right now. He said that they are committed to a grass roots movement, and motivated by altruism; this would be in contrast to that of many so-called leaders in the world today. He then went on to speculate about what President Obama's election signified in regard to his early experiences as one of those committed leaders. Of course, President Obama has been criticized for his hope, his vision of what is possible.

Afterwards, we had a working workshop where the Global South faculty members engaged in discussion with the two scholars about our own plans for developing the Global South focus in Mississippi. I tend to see it in a pragmatic way, because social work does much of the things already that are unknown to the other disciplines--primarily humanities and social sciences, with a few journalists and Africanists in the mix. I am the lone behavioral, applied science member. For example, as they discussed their desire to go into the community with service learning, and I have been doing that for years, it fills me with the excitement of possible joint work. Imagine, for example, if English professors, or Modern Languages, or journalists, or whomever could and would partner with me in the Riverside after-school work?

I always end up being very quiet, though, rarely speaking--which is quite unlike me actually. I think it is because I feel I am speaking from a different language, even though social work builds its knowledge base on humanities, and draws deeply from sociology, and very much utilizes cultural identities in our practice, for example. When I first began with the group, I thought I was clear on what the mission was, but the longer I am involved, the less I seem to grasp where the group wants to go.

In that atmosphere of questioning--which I do not see as a bad thing or a wrong thing, just a concept with which I am grappling, I came home exhausted after a very full and busy week of early hours and late hours every single day. Then, I opened my email to find one of those forwards that can send me into either fits of laughter or raise my ire to the point of wanting to move to another country. It would make me laugh, but for the consequences.

It was the forward of the alleged "constitutional lawyer" who claims to teach at universities and claims to have read every sentence of the health care bill and proceeds to then provide "proof" that the bill indeed contains plans to abort all our babies, have death panels to deny services to all our old sick people, and so on. And that this is "scary" and we should not delete this but pass it on.

I responded that the only thing scary was the fact that people believe this crap. Being true to my curious nature, I looked up the so called constitutional law professor. He isn't, of course. He offers an internet course, not connected with any university, called "learn it today, use it tomorrow" and while he may be an attorney, he clearly is either illiterate (if he claims to have read the health care bill--oh, wait! We don't even have a clear proposed health care bill yet, do we?) or a liar, or both.

Where it all ties in to my sense of despair is that I simply find it difficult to believe that people will believe all this nonsense out of fear. The reality is that vulnerable populations (like poor white Southerners who jumped on the conservative, fundamentalist Republican bandwagon to escape the "evils of integration") typically are the most harmed by that rhetoric, and yet so supportive of it. I read today in the Times where 14,000 people in the US lose their insurance coverage every single day--and yet we continue to clamor for no government interference. Cuba and Sweden, for example, have better health and education outcomes than the United States, no death panels sitting around executing Grandma and Grandpa, no overwhelming uneducated drop outs or children having children and ending up in life long poverty, but let's don't consider that in our debate.

I met a young Swedish woman who is studying at the University of Mississippi this semester and engaged in an interesting conversation with her. I was telling her about my experiences with Swedish (and Danish and German and Belgian) social work students in South Africa and she was sharing about how their doctors work in exchange in research and practice with doctors from South Africa. She was knowledgeable of the world outside her own borders in a way my students seldom are. Most of my students cannot even discuss policy issues related to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina's effects, let alone anything related to South Africa.

I just deleted the email, reminded yet once again that the folks who get their news from email forwards seldom read a variety of sources of information and are much more interested in supporting their embedded belief system than they are seeking out new information or engaging in the challenge of pursuing knowledge and useful ways to use it. I don't say that out of any sense of superiority or disrespect, but rather, out of sadness that so many folks have such a foreclosed identity.

Why is being an intellectual, a rational and thinking person so frightening to people? Because he isn't John Wayne riding into town to blast the bad guys to hell and back? I was thinking this morning of President Obama, and how much he is starting to remind me of President Carter--a man whose skills and intelligence have benefitted us greatly in his years since his presidency. Will President Obama end up like that as well--because his altruistic and charismatic leadership will be better suited to the grass roots work where real change often comes? Will he be invited to join the Elders, even if he is a young man?

I don't know where all of this is going--it's just my trying to put some of my thoughts of this week into a forum where I can begin to try to make sense of it and shift back into my normal optimistic self. I don't like being in the valley, but sometimes, one needs to just stay there and go through the experience to be able to move past it. I can't fake my way back into idealism, I can't isolate myself from the nay-sayers, and at least for right now, I can't not let them affect my sense of what is possible. I hold on to the knowledge that based on history, I will move past it, and I will re-engage, and I will emerge with better understanding and capacity for the work I try to do.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fall is here

Sitting outside a couple of days ago, I noted these flowers had bloomed. The first year here, they bloomed in April, but it seems to be later each year. Normally profuse, only two have emerged in this spot.
There is a small patch of them in the woods next to the driveway as well. I cannot imagine anyone planting them in this location, so have often wondered how they got there.
The dill is going to seed finally, and the bugs have eaten lace into the leaves of the morning glories--which have also taken over the dill. I kept them off it while I was still using dill, but it is pretty well gone now, so I have let the glories do as they please.

Sunflowers peeking over the fence.
The miniature roses bloom profusely right now.
My latest addition to Libby's kennel--some fall asters. Libby said she did not really care, but if I would hang some hot dogs or a picture of Kate out there, she could really go for that.
The birds seem to like the new location for the birdbath, and the mums are going strong, even if the alyssium is waning, along with the basil.

The sunflowers in front of the house are about to bloom. These are a different variety, and quite short.

While it can still get quite warm during the day, the mornings and evenings have a chill in them and this is coming up on my favorite time of the year. I tend to get a lot accomplished in the fall as well, so I hope to shift into an improved production in the next week. School is pretty much under way and going adequately. Research is slow going right now due to all the administrative responsibilities for starting a new semester, but that will even out soon, too, I hope.

Alas, time to get back to cleaning house--a never ending chore for me it seems.