An intersectional day in the life

An intersectional day in the life

Do something.

You might not always feel called to anything in particular, so your way might not always be clear.

If nothing else, do what you can.

Yesterday I arrived at work to find a copy of Ghana must go resting on my desk, a gift from the Postcolonial Literature Fairy. No time to read more than the back cover (glowing reviews from Oprah, Sapphire, and Teju Cole) before my first meeting, the first ninety minutes or so of my day’s work on the search for a new program assistant. I was heartened that all four of us on the hiring committee came to pretty speedy agreement on our top choices, and that over the next seven hours I was able to slot all of the interviews in the middle of next week.

I returned to my office after our meeting and found one of our Honors students, Preeta, about to leave me a note regarding the four tiny tomato plants she was delivering. She’d asked a week or so ago if my partner and I would like them, and we’d said yes. They’re alive. They’re potent. They’re healthy and strong.

I set the plants in the window sill and spent a few minutes reviewing Honors Program candidates. A few withdrawals had left us with a couple of open slots to offer to other hopefuls. I hope that the news we sent these folks made their days.

Offer carrots, not sticks. You may run out of carrots. Resist the urge to pick up sticks.

In the early afternoon I met up with a former student, Sallie, to talk about life plans. A sudden turn of events (one that’s caused her to rethink the post she’d already drafted for this blog, by the way) has left her thinking about what’s next for her: a career change? back to school? new town, new state? She’s drawn to teaching, but isn’t sure yet. We talked about how easy it is to let school institutionalize you, how easy it is to do something because it’s the easiest next step.

Be intentional, but beware of best intentions; we know where those can lead.

We also talked about pets. She has a new dog. My partner, Candace, and I have two crazy dogs. And two cats. And two rabbits. And a snake.

Watching a roughly-two-year-old dutifully deliver scrap of paper after scrap of paper to the wastebasket while every adult in the room watched adoringly, we talked about children. “How are you feeling about being a soon-to-be-stepfather?”

“I’m loving it,” I said. I told her about how I’ve grown into the role, taking each step carefully, eyes wide open. I told her about how my partner has helped keep my eyes open, every step of the way, knowing that step-parenting is coming to me somewhat late in life.

On the way back to campus, I took a twenty-minute detour to seek out the resting place of Isaac Dickson, a local historical figure after whom Candace’s children’s elementary school is named. Dickson had come up in conversation the other night when Candace’s son told me that my university’s library has a copy of Dickson’s “letter of recommendation,” spurring me to think of ways one might bring this man to life for a group of third graders.

DicksonMarkerIsaac Dickson was a freed slave who played seminal role in the development of our city’s public educational system and in the foundation of the Young Men’s Institute, a local organization that’s advocated for black youth for over a hundred years now.

“We the undersigned citizens have bin acquanted with Isaac Dixon for years past and have ever found him to be an honest and upright man,” his rec letter reads, the above claims attested to by seven “persons of good character & standing” in Cleveland County, North Carolina.

Riverside Cemetery was peaceful, high old trees rasping the cloud-free sky. I wound down the hill, following the curve of the earth. Groundskeepers on riding lawnmowers kicked up clouds of dust. Around a sharp left bend near the bottom, I paused, knowing Dickson’s marker was near. It took only a minute or so to find it, a four-foot-high obelisk with a cross-gabled peak.

Urban renewal in the 1960s claimed Dickson’s home, near what’s now the eastern edge of downtown.

Coincidentally, Candace spent an hour or so this afternoon with her son’s class as his school took part in a demonstration downtown, Stand Against Racism. The procession to the demonstration site took them past the monument (a much taller obelisk, standing roughly seventy feet) to Zebulon B. Vance, Confederate general, politician, and slave-owner. Vance, too, is interred at Riverside Cemetery.

Resist the urge to pick up sticks.

My last task on campus was an appearance at the afternoon’s meeting of the Academic Policies Committee, one of the standing committees of our faculty senate. This body is charged with helping folks to shepherd curricular changes through the legislative process. I’d been called to testify in my role as the current transitional writing coordinator, a position created a few years back to help faculty in the changeover from the old general education writing requirements to the new ones. Writing intensive courses were scrapped, department-specified writing “competencies.” The latter term is, in practice, construed quite broadly.

When asked whether I felt my current position should be made permanent, I answered with an emphatic “yes.” I cited my concerns that assessment is currently patchy at best and nonexistent at worst, that once-jam-packed historically writing-intensive courses are not so jam-packed anymore, and that many departments, while intending to offer solid instruction in disciplinary writing, simply are not doing so.

Beware of best intentions; we know where those can lead.

As I left the meeting and walked off campus, I thought about how the tone of conversation had been civil, balanced, inviting. No mansplaining, though several men had been present. I thought of a comment I’d seen my colleague Will Banks make on one of his own Facebook posts earlier in the day: “If I could have a professional goal, it would be to stop [men from taking credit for women’s ideas in meetings], but I don’t even know how you’d start that project…maybe teaching is my best intervention on a future generation?”

Several years ago, I admitted to one of my calculus students (a wise woman a few years my senior who was coming back to school to jump-start a second career in engineering) that I felt frustrated by my seeming inability to make a macroscopic difference in society in my role as a math professor. “What can I do, really? Am I doing enough?”

“Of course you are!” she assured me. “You’re doing what you can, and you’re doing it well. Teachers have a greater impact that you think.”

Do something. If nothing else, do what you can.



slorp. slorp. slorp.

slorp. slorp. slorp.

Let it be said that summer colds suck.

Spare me the lecture on how it’s not yet summer, that it’s not even halfway into spring. The point is that it’s beautiful outside and I’ve got just enough of a cold to take the edge off.

Yet the end of the semester slows for no one, and the last few days have had me at various timely tasks, some more salutary than others, that have sucked up my days like one of those little algae-eating aquarium fishes.

slorp. slorp. slorp.

Salutary: I always dread completing my annual faculty record (my “brag sheet” of accomplishments throughout the past academic year), but in the end it never takes as long as I think it will, and it’s a healthy reflective practice. I’m always interested to see which of the goals I’d laid out for myself last year I’ve managed to accomplish, and which are still dangling, undone. (I swear that this summer is the one I’ll find time in to write up that paper…)

Salutary, too: I spent several hours yesterday and another hour today reviewing applications for the Honors Program Assistant position that will be vacated at the end of next month. Though, as anyone who knows her knows, no one can replace my current assistant, I now have higher hopes of finding a solid successor.

Salutary, too? You bet!: Two evenings ago we fêted our senior students graduating with Distinction as a University Scholar…and I actually managed to make it all the way through bestowal of the Distinction certificates, all the way through bestowal of our new award for Honors Program Citizenship, and 95% of the way through my statement on behalf of this year’s Scholarly Excellence awardee before crying. A new record! It’s truly been a wonderful experience to grow alongside this particular group of students these past four years. They are, after all, “my class,” the students who entered the program at the time when I was taking over as its director. I will miss them much.

Hmmm…now that I think about it, not much I’ve done the past several days has seemed purposeless or void.

Certainly not my colleague Samuel’s 478 students’ workshop on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which took place earlier this afternoon. These students adopted a somewhat narrower focus than students in most past iterations of the course, choosing to bring in experts to speak specifically on local racial inequities as manifested in the public educational system and food justice communities. Moreover, this was the first and only of so-far-eight 478 workshops, five run by my students and three by Samuel’s, to feature outside speakers. It made for some solid presentations, but it also raises the question: is this the intention of the activity? Do we short-change the students if we do not insist that they are the architects of the ideas shared in the workshop? Do we deny them authentic engagement with important questions surrounding diversity and equity should we allow them to rely on trained voices to carry the chorus? Ought we not ask that they, however inexpertly, sing along themselves? What, ultimately, do we expect our students to learn from this exercise? I have no definitive answer to these questions; I only wish to keep them in mind as I move forward in assigning this activity in future versions of this course.

Little remains between me and the end of the semester; my MATH 280 students are working through their third of three take-home exams, and my own 478 students are busy at planning their own workshop, to be run this coming Tuesday morning on the last day of finals. I’ve got one more meeting with my math students, and only a smattering of official meetings or events. Beyond, summer lies languorously, plump with juicy joys ranging from writing up my analysis of our WAC/WID requirements to the summer’s WNC Postcolonial Reading Group’s consideration of Taiye Selasi’s Ghana must go.

And rest.

For now, too, a bit of rest. I’m going to go and nurse this edge-dulling cold. If you need me, I’ll likely be lying under a cat or two.


Rating the readings

Rating the readings

As part of the program for today’s final regular meeting of 478, I asked the students to take a moment and “vote” for their favorite readings from this past semester, including both the texts we read in their entirety and those we read only in part. In the order we considered them, they were

  • Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s A small place
  • Salman Rushdie’s Two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights
  • Robert Chambers’s Whose reality counts?: Putting the first last
  • Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the oppressed
  • Jonathan Kozol’s The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America
  • Michelle Alexander’s The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness
  • Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it

I asked the students to rank-order these if they could, or at least make piles of “keepers” and “tossers.” In all, seven folks gave a full rank order, four placed every reading into either two or three piles, and two gave incomplete lists, one of which I interpret as a top and a bottom and the other I interpret as a “Top 4.”

As we’ll talk about ad nauseam in my voting theory class this coming fall, there’s no perfect way to compile these data. Knowing this, but wanting to do something anyway, let’s ignore the two incomplete lists for now, do a straight Borda count on the 7 full lists, and do a modified Borda count on the 4 “groupies,” wherein each member of each group gets the average of the number of points that would be assigned to that group. For example, in a list of 3 “tops” and 5 “bottoms,” each member of the “tops” would get (6+7+8)/3 = 7 points, and each of the “bottoms” would get (1+2+3+4+5)/5 = 3 points.

The result?:

  1. Alexander (78 points)
  2. Chambers (65)
  3. Kincaid (57)
  4. Freire (54.5)
  5. Fullilove (50)
  6. Kozol (45)
  7. Appiah (27)
  8. Rushdie (20)

The top two don’t surprise me; students are always floored by Alexander, and their written responses to Chambers were hands-down the semester’s best, authentic and engaging. Kincaid came in quite high, too. I think the students were energized by her brutal honesty, and her indictment of the Western tourist hit home for a number of folks, giving them pause for reflection.

The next three are the three from which we only read excerpts (Freire, Fullilove, and Kozol), and I wonder if all three might have fared better in this vote had we read them in their entirety. I suspect that students placed them in the middle because they didn’t get a really good sense either of where the authors were coming from or where the authors were going. I’ve had students read all of each of these books in one or another past iteration of the course, and both Kozol and Fullilove are usually received quite well, especially Fullilove (Kozol gets repetitive after a while). Freire, cover to cover, overwhelmed students the last time I required it.

Then there’s Appiah. He was roundly indicted for his unacknowledged privilege and his often-sanctimonious tone. His book isn’t my favorite, and I disagree with important elements of it. But then, I think it’s salutary to engage with a reading you don’t agree with lock, stock, and barrel.

Finally, Sir Salman. Several folks felt Rushdie’s novel was disconnected from the rest of the course, which is understandable considering I included it mostly because I knew we’d have a chance to meet with Rushdie in an intimate setting when he came to campus and I wanted the students to have something to talk with him about. (Nevertheless, I think there are connections between the novel and some of the big ideas our course considers, most prominently the themes of “home” and “rootlessness” that pervade the book.) I don’t think it’s the fact that the work is a work of fiction that specifically turned the students off. Rather, it’s that it wasn’t the right work of fiction; it wasn’t chosen intentionally to best match the course’s themes. My colleague Doreen, who’ll be teaching the Honors section of LA 478 in the fall, notes that she’ll consider including fiction in her iteration of the course…but not Rushdie.

Incidentally, the two incomplete votes didn’t complicate the above very much: one student listed only “1. Michelle Alexander!!, 2. Appiah, 3. Kincaid, 4. Chambers,” including three of the top four vote-getters class-wide, and the other listed only “1. Alexander, 8. Rushdie,” matching the class’s aggregate vote exactly.

Food for thought. If you’ve read any or all of these books, please feel free to open it up in the comments.

Soooooooo…what’ll it be when I teach the course again next spring?


A privilege check: on confidence

A privilege check: on confidence

Yesterday’s HON 478 class focused on the phenomenon of urban renewal, based on Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s book Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it (New York: One World Books, 2004). Like Michelle Alexander’s The new Jim Crow (our last reading), this book is often an eye-opener, even for my school’s relatively socially conscious and self-critical students. Aside from those students who’ve taken my amazing colleague Prof. Dwight Mullen‘s course, The State of Black Asheville, most are unaware of the dramatic changes wrought by “urban renewal” to this city’s landscape and community. (See, for example, the 1937 Home Owner’s Loan Corporation redlining map of Asheville at the top of this post.) Fewer still are cognizant of similar changes in their hometowns, much as I was in the dark regarding the Model Cities program’s impact on my own hometown.

Unpacking Fullilove always offers us an opportunity to reflect on the role of place in our identities, and to sit with, for a while, the realization that for most of us, our home “place” is and has been a stable one. This stability is itself an artifact of our relative privilege.

I’ve been thinking about privilege in new-to-me ways for the past week or so.

It’s only relatively recently (maybe in the past five years) that I’ve recognized and acknowledged that my white/male privilege is likely what’s enabled me to adopt so easily certain practices in the classroom:

  • allowing students to call me by my first name and not “Doctor” or “Professor,”
  • wearing, when I so choose, shorts, sandals, and T-shirts (and not more formal attire) to class, and
  • adopting a very informal speech register (also known as “code-switching like a mutha”) in conversations with students, in and outside of class.

Could my female colleagues, for instance, get away with any of these without repercussion? Recent studies on gender bias in higher ed suggest not.

I’ve even come to acknowledge that my longtime perception of my university as a place where “you’ll find support for your novel projects and initiatives if you’re willing to work to see them through” likely owes a great deal to the privilege accorded me as a straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male. How many of my female colleagues, my queer colleagues, or my colleagues of color would agree with my past characterization of this college as such a “can-do” place? Do I believe that my institution obstinately resists innovation and change? No, I simply suspect that it’s easier for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered males to affect that innovation and change.

It’s only much more recently that I’ve come to recognize that yet more fundamental aspects of my teaching likely rest on a bedrock of privilege. Take confidence, for instance. Confidence helps a teacher to rest comfortably with quiet in the classroom, silently waiting for a response to a question or for the next voice in a class discussion. Confidence helps a teacher to take themselves less seriously, to act like a fool for a moment, if needed, to make a point through humor or exaggeration. Confidence helps a teacher to respond to a student’s request for more information with “I don’t know.” All of these acts – silence, silliness, and honest professions of ignorance – are powerful pieces of equipment in a teacher’s toolkit, and though all good teachers can wield them, when wielded confidently they’re more effective.

And where does that confidence come from? Some folks are more naturally confident than others, but confidence comes more naturally to those who are propped up by the system around them and to those who are often assumed to be successful before they even begin. This isn’t to say that I’ve not worked hard to get where I am, and it’s not to say that I don’t continue to work hard; it’s merely to acknowledge that I’ve likely received significant unwarranted assistance by virtue of my identity.

As I move forward in life, I hope to stay aware of both my privilege and others’ relative lack of it. I owe it to my students and to myself, and really to everyone I interact with. How can I, for instance, offer a positive role model to my soon-to-be-stepchildren if I don’t keep my privilege in sight?


Moore is more

I’m wrapping up a full year of straight-up Moore method* in MATH 280 (our department’s “intro to proofs” course), and it’s only in the last week or so that I’ve noticed something interesting: in neither of the last two semesters have I received significant push-back from students regarding this form of pedagogy; only one student out of the 37 I’ve had in the class the last two terms has expressed the slightest hesitation.

In contrast, my past attempts to use this method (in lieu of the moderate forms of inquiry-based and problem-based approaches I typically adopt) have been met with widespread resistance, “widespread” defined as roughly 25-30% of a given class. “I don’t learn this way,” “I need someone to show me lots of examples before I get it,” “my friends aren’t as good at explaining things as you are. I mean, you’re the professor, after all.”

What’s changed?

My guess: it’s possible that I’m seeing a new generation of students in my classes, students who are more used to the student-centered experiential learning, inquiry-based learning (IBL), and problem-based learning (PBL) I rely upon. I know that more and more K-12 educators are employing IBL and PBL approaches in mathematics courses, and it’s inevitable that those students, once they’ve made their way to college, will be more receptive of the Moore method. Though it’s “only” been about four years since I last used the Moore method (see this wrap-up post from my Spring 2012 semester), four years offer a fair amount of time for developing math majors to accustom themselves to new pedagogical practices.

Notably, by the way, the one student who lodged any kind of complaint this time around was a non-traditional-age student. I urged him to give it a chance, and a few weeks later he thanked me for the encouragement to keep at it, admitting that I was right about its efficacy.

Before I go, a slight, sad update: owing to a posh event being put on today by UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy (well, lah tee dah), I had to take down the Plate House after it had stood for only 44 hours. A few folks helped me to dismantle it into four chunks, which we laid alongside one another in the lobby of my building’s basement floor. There it now rests, looking like an earth-colored origami coral reef. I hope to piece it together again…maybe in a dull moment or ten during finals week.

*Note: For those who aren’t familiar with the student-centered inquiry-based practice known as the “Moore method,” you can find a quick primer on the Legacy of R. L. Moore’s website.


Eero Saarinen, eat your heart out

Eero Saarinen, eat your heart out

Almost a year and a half after the project began, we finally got this damned thing together. About a third of it, anyway, two of the six arches we’d planned. Time will tell if we finish it. It’s big as it is, spanning about fifteen feet from base to base. Not very mobile. The pharmacy school that shares our floor has an event slated for this weekend, and they’ve already asked us if we might be able mask it behind a large black drapery they’re planning to bring in.

I don’t mind saying it was a pain to put together, and it took a team of several of us, typically at least three working at once, about three and a half hours to assemble the portion we finished. By way of comparison, the designer’s website brags that one person (the designer himself, no doubt) was able to assemble their prototype in seven hours, without propping.

We needed propping.

We also conjecture that he may have been using better materials and more slickly produced plates (made, no doubt, with a nice CNC router).

In any case, it stands, and it looks pretty nice, if you look past the mangling of the cardboard flaps that stick out every foot or so.

As scheduled, UNC President Margaret Spellings came by about halfway through our construction, flanked by our chancellor, a small security detail, and a dozen or so camerapersons. We chatted briefly about the project, and she got to meet a couple of the students helping with the construction, including Nehemiah. Our short conversation was tightly scripted, and I had no chance to say anything about HB2, the recently removed Board of Governors meeting that’ll take place over the next two days in Chapel Hill, or anything else controversial.

Many thanks to Nehemiah, Bert, and all of the other students who helped make this project a reality, and to Joe Gattas, the original Plate House designer. Your work was inspiring.

P.S.: President Spellings visited one of our spacious and clean all-gender bathrooms immediately before our meeting. No report on how it was received.

Updates: origami and organized dissent

Updates: origami and organized dissent

I’ve just spent the last hour or so working with origami all-star Nehemiah, the veteran of the Fall 2014 origami course who is largely responsible for the success so far of the Plate House refugee shelter. Nehemiah and I met today to make sure we know what in the hell we’re doing when it comes to putting this thing together. It turns out that we do know what the hell we’re doing, though it took us some time to figure it out. After all, hell has many circles, or, in our case, three layers. After 45 minutes of fumbling and sticking numerous little cardboard flaps through equally numerous and even littler cardboard slots, we managed to piece together one copy of the base unit from which the shelter is built. I’m very happy that we didn’t try to fudge our way through it on Wednesday when all eyes, including those of UNC President Margaret Spellings, will be upon us.

Speaking of President Spellings: since my last post on this blog (many thanks for the reposts! It is now my most-read post ever), Ms. Spellings has come out with a clarification of the memo I linked to previously:

You all would be mistaken if you thought we were not concerned about the kind of chill this is having as it relates to the climate, the culture, the goodwill that we attempt to engender on university campuses as it relates to free expression, diversity and ability to recruit students and faculty of all types from all over the world.

Spellings makes clear in the News & Observer article I’ve linked to above that she does not support HB2 and was looking to offer a quick down ‘n’ dirty reference on the law for the sake of the individual campuses. Hmmm. I still plan to talk with her about the matter when we meet on Wednesday.

There will be no meeting with the UNC Board of Governors, however. The BoG had originally planned to meet on our campus, but on facing the threat of multiple large-scale protests organized by off-campus groups, they pulled out and decided to meet in Chapel Hill instead, so that their presence “will not result in campus disruption at a critical time in the academic year” (email from our Chancellor’s office, sent 54 minutes ago).

Meanwhile, we’ll forge ahead with our Plate House plans. I’ve produced a one-pager on the project and on the basics of refugee crises around the world, so that passersby might learn a little more about the shelter.