Knowing Students

I don’t know how this is possible but this quarter seems more overwhelming than the previous two. A very real possibility is that I’m tired and ready for summer. Last week, I went to bed before 11 almost every night, which is pretty rare. Finally, it occurred to me that my exhaustion was caused by teaching. I love teaching, and I feel terrified of teaching.

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Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

“Teaching” in my class consists of leading a thirty minute discussion twice a week, during the latter half of class. 19 students and I crowd around an amalgamation of tables. The space feels cramped. The students work very hard; they exude excellence. Given my background in dialogue facilitation, this should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. First of all, there was no baking soda in the time of Jesus, so cake probably didn’t happen. Second, leading a discussion about a subject that is not my expertise feels wrong, in a way. Who am I to make judgments about whether someone makes a good point, or needs to be pushed further? Very gradually, I have relaxed into the role knowing I will never feel like an expert, and that saying “I don’t know” will be an essential phrase in the next two months. Maybe on the last day of class, I will feel like I got the hang of this discussion thing.

Just when things began to feel smooth, a handful of students turned in papers for me to grade. Grading is not something I have much experience doing, and so I feel even more overwhelmed by the activity. This week, three papers sit on my desk waiting for assessment. I’ve read each one twice already and tried to utilize a rubric, only to feel more confused. You see, I find it impossible to separate the writer from the writing. Even with the limited knowledge I have about my students, their contexts influence my perception of their writing.

One student, for example, diligently sent a rough draft two days before she turned in her paper. She explained that English is her third language, and she likes when readers can ask questions of her writing to improve it. Even from the draft, I see improvement in her writing. Do I ignore the few missing articles and some awkward tenses? Another student explained that he wanted to turn in the paper early because his team would be competing in national championships during the week. Without expressing too much enthusiasm, I felt so excited for him. Who gets to compete in national championships?

The framework of college chaplaincy never stopped influencing how I see the world, and especially how I see students. This means above all else, my commitment to students is to learn who they are. It’s not just skills or exciting news, I need to know how they learn, what makes them excited or upset or discouraged, and how to push them outside their comfort areas. The key warrant is that students don’t enter a classroom having left the rest of themselves outside the door. Though perhaps more exhausting, knowing my students actually makes me feel like I can grade their work. It’s not about excuses, it’s about particularity. Good thing, because reading 20 papers with the exact same thesis would be pretty darn boring.

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Reflecting on Better Together Day

As we celebrated Better Together Day yesterday, I felt exhilarated by the photos and social media posts from around the country. Folks in their stylish shirts attending gatherings, sharing what they appreciate about different sources of wisdom, and especially getting outside (weather permitting!) to cultivate a presence on college campuses across the country appeared throughout the day. I even took a selfie with my shirt because I wanted to feel included in the celebrating 🙂

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Happy Better Together Day!

This past week has been full of interfaith happenings on Stanford’s campus. On Monday night, I watched a Buddhist leader speak about mindfulness meditation to a crowd of almost 1000 people in Memorial Church, the heart of the Main Quad. The Office of Religious Life prepared an Open House to celebrate the CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-religious Community, Learning and Experiences) 10th Anniversary. We also worked to finalize readers for an interfaith service that will take place this Sunday as part of University Public Worship. Last night, I got to moderate a fantastic panel of four professors in the Religious Studies Department speaking about “faith and feminism,” which took place at Stanford’s Hillel House. Over 50 students showed up on a Tuesday evening to learn about women in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. What I loved so much about the panel was the panelists’ commitment to complicating the history of women in these traditions- they reflected on the term feminism within different contexts and why the word doesn’t necessarily help us understand women’s roles or agency- we must consider a variety of experiences. The students asked really difficult questions, especially related to oppression and equality.

What really moved me, beyond the wisdom I took from the panel, was representation. The crowd held many religious and non-religious identities, some of which caused me to reflect on difference as the basis of contention. Some of the questions roused deep emotion because they stemmed from a fundamental disagreement on what a sacred text tells us, or how women should function in a particular community. That contention helps us to be honest about difference. Further, it opens an opportunity for hearing. In that room, we heard each other, even if we didn’t agree.

For me, Better Together Day is about hearing and seeing each other. It sounds simple, but in a world where intolerance quickly leads to ostracizing and violence, seeing and hearing matter deeply in creating communities that can center learning as a way to build relationships. Though we may not remember the content of events and activities on the particular day, we do remember who is present and thus know that we have possibility for community. I will remember not only the panelists from last night, but the audience as well- how we showed up to a space together, listened, and acknowledged that we each carry questions important enough to ask out loud. Better Together Day reminds me that community can be built on difference, because a shared commitment creates the starting point for a contentious but deeply meaningful space. And of course, we all looked pretty great in our blue shirts.

 

 

When Someone Asks You About the Bible

So today, I did something magnificent- I led my first section as a TA! The class is called Exploring the New Testament. You can probably guess what it’s about. Let me preface this by noting that I laughed way too loud exactly twice in class because the professor made jokes that were hilarious to any religious studies graduate student. Perhaps no one else. So much for keeping my cool.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Teaching felt similar to starting a half marathon. When I looked around the room at 35 faces, I started to feel nervous. Then we divided up into our groups and I felt SO nervous. In my mind, I babbled on like a broken fountain. Hyper-awareness of who spoke and what they said and was it smart and what did they say again swirled around me. At one point I did challenge a student to define what he meant by “sacred” and he finally came to the conclusion that the term was ambiguous. Silent high five! It was a fascinating experience.

Our purpose in class today was to problematize how we “know” what we do about the New Testament. We talked about textual criticism, issues with linguistics and language, and the evidence we have- manuscripts don’t match. What do we do with all of the conflicting information? More importantly, what do we do with silences? Our professor passed around papyrus and animal hyde so we could understand how manuscripts survived. We talked about garbage. Not a dull moment occurred in the hour and twenty minutes of class.

The discussion went fairly well, I think. The students seem eager to learn and talk to each other, even argue their points in productive ways. After we wrapped up, a student asked me a question I failed to answer well. In essence, she asked, “How can I treat the Bible as a moral compass when I haven’t spent years learning Greek and Hebrew and studying texts- basically, when we don’t know?”

This is a question we could apply to any text that exegetes truth claims. How can we use a text as an ethical guide when what we believe about it is upended? I sent the student off with some reading suggestions and an enthusiastic “you’re a budding religious studies scholar!” However, I don’t know if I really answered her question because there isn’t an answer. The answer is that maybe we derive morals from asking questions, not listening to what one text says.

I think I’ll enjoy teaching and probably be exhausted by it in no time at all. For all the theory and strategies and activities to implement in each class, ultimately the material masks what students really need, which is to find their voices and feel uncomfortable. I have a feeling more questions that have no answers are coming my way. What is awesome is how it makes me reflect on why I love this subject. The stakes can be high. It’s cool to be a curator of conversations that matter.

Horrible People (Or Not So?)

This past weekend, I traveled all the way across the bay to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley for the American Academy of Religion Western Region Annual Meeting. That title sounds intimidating to me, but the meeting itself was great.

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http://www.pegasusbookstore.com

Why was it great? Well, there WAS a bookstore around the corner. First of all, every panel I attended had more POC presenters than white people, more non-men presenters than cis-men, and the audience felt empowered to participate in deep conversation after each presenter finished their paper. The papers all mattered- they told stories from unheard actors, suggested how the way we do things in the academy and elsewhere is perpetuating harm, and offered alternatives. Keynote speaker Dr. Jane Iwamura led us through meditation in her talk on kindness. The audience members told their stories to gentlely tweak or further a presenter’s point of view. People didn’t feel afraid to put themselves in their work. Overall, I found myself at home in this space as a listener and learner (and especially an un-learner).

I also found something bugging me, that I myself need to unpack and unlearn. While the meeting was one of the least-white of any academic I have been to, whiteness still permeated the spaces. That isn’t surprising. One of my classmates developed the hashtag #maleconferencing a few weeks ago after a particularly egregious all-white, all-male panel responded to all-white, all-male audience questions. That hashtag definitely surfaced here too. Beyond the visible panel-audience relationship, I have found that white people who feel “aware” or perhaps as allies or “hopeful allies” find ways to confide in other white people to whom they feel “safe” admitting things. Better than putting the burden on a POC. The problem is when we separate ourselves and our “knowledge” from “those people.” We lift ourselves up by putting others down.

This comes in a few forms. At the meeting, I presented a paper on college chaplains and how they cross boundaries to serve students. What my research showed was a lack of real intention, in some cases, toward students’ racial, ethnic, gender, ability, and other identities. In my paper I didn’t make a value judgement on this because it is “research” and I was channeling what my subjects shared with me. But the audience rightfully didn’t buy that. They wanted to know who served students without thinking about this. “Maybe this is obvious, but mostly white men,” I told them. “White men, white women, and Christians.” The people for whom the institution of chaplaincy was built. After the panel ended, a few folx found there way to me. They started telling me about “a terrible person who did ____.” How heartbreaking and shameful. In doing this, we white people uphold white supremacy. We just do it a little differently.

I struggle with this because something I’ve been socialized and taught to do is “be an expert.” Not to mention focus on strengths and not weaknesses. Skills not growing edges. The idea has always been to further hone what I’m good at and forget what I’m not good at. Most all white people are not familiar with admitting their own harm and reflecting on it. I definitely avoided it for a very, very long time. My goal was always to prove “how much I listened.” Truly, the only thing I prove is how much privilege I hold in being able to learn from the folx who taught me. It seems so laughable now, but I write this because I hope to nudge the folx that look on disgusted at white people who perform acts of racism to self-reflect more. We all perform them, and letting go of our need to separate ourselves begins to break down supremacy in ourselves.

 

 

Ceasing to Know

This past week we lost two prominent scholars. We lost two vastly intelligent, innovative, field-changing teachers, mentors and researchers. And most importantly, we lost two among many, many more great people who also died this week. I’m talking about Saba Mahmood and Stephen Hawking.

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Photo by _ HealthyMond on Unsplash

I remember reading The Politics of Piety, Dr. Mahmood’s first book, in college and finding it really difficult to understand. It was my own immaturity that caused this. When I read the book again as a graduate student, I began to realize how groundbreaking it was to study Muslim women in a way that didn’t pity them or espouse suspicion. Unfortunately, that was not the norm. Dr. Mahmood cast Muslim women with agency and showed us why we should pay attention.

Dr. Hawking’s research eludes me, but as a brilliant scientist who also worked the majority of his life with a rare disease that affected his physical being in the world, I have always admired his passion too. He talked about change as inevitable and necessary for us to use our intelligence. That speaks so well to a choice we have every day, to see the world as hopeless or to recognize injustice, but act as if we can change it.

What happens when a legacy of knowledge ceases? This happens every day, perhaps every minute- by living just a moment in the world, some kind of experience shapes a person, and yet every person ends. Even when people leave communities or change roles, a chain of knowing falls away.
These two experts spent their lives both accessing and creating knowledge. Their jobs required certain tasks: writing, experimenting, researching, communicating that research. But the internalization of ideas and beliefs, even when explained through in writing or other forms of communicating, vanished when they died. This isn’t just true for academics. My question is really about how we keep the chain linked, even if the wire is cut.
In the academy, I am learning that scholarship is a way to alleviate anxiety around finitude. Don’t we all worry, in some way, that the hardest part about our non-existence is the non-existence piece? Not just physically, but in terms of memory, legacy, influence. We write to communicate beyond bounds of time. Sometimes this makes us hesitant to challenge memory- what someone put into the world should remain until it no longer serves us. But memory isn’t lost when we no longer invoke someone’s work directly- the endless chain of ideas and evolution means existence is still possible.
Part of this question lessens my own tension around producing work that will cease to serve purpose. Perhaps it is helpful to replace “cease” with “assist,” so voices of influence change. As the poet Gary Snyder says, “Our job is to move the world one millionth of an inch.” In the scheme of things, that sounds like a pretty good accomplishment.

Women Who Grieve

Happy International Women’s Day! I love the outpouring of pictures and writing and speeches about the women who have trail blazed and led and mentored, those who are, and those who will.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’m going to say something bold. This week, it seems like grief and death have surrounded me- from Coco winning at the Oscars to thinking about empathy in end of life care in my class to an interfaith memorial service to…the horrid violence that can occur when grief goes unchecked. Now, this violence is also rooted in toxic patriarchal and white supremacist attitudes. Grief can play a role in exacerbating this. In my short life, I have encountered lots of grief and found that frankly, often women deal with it better.

On Sunday my partner and I watched a live performance of “Remember Me” at the Academy Awards. The song was up for best original song (and it won!). I think many people would say it’s easy to cry- the premise and the melody remind us of friends we have lost. We cried too. This morning my partner texted me saying that he listened to the song while looking at pictures of his father, and he didn’t understand why he did that. It only made him cry again. “It’s been more than a year, why am I still doing this?”

I’ve written about death and grief a fair amount. In my work, we think about memorial services, funerals, and other ways of ritualizing death quite often. I think what goes unnoticed is not the raw grief from more “fresh” loss but the grief we carry through the rest of our lives. We often hold this idea that at some point in time, grief will exit, it will leave us. We “get over” it. But that’s false. Several people that came to to the interfaith memorial service grieved for people they lost five, ten, or even thirty years ago, and perhaps their grief looks different than someone with raw pain, but the entity is there. Grief becomes a part of us as soon as we experience loss, and it stays with us- it morphs and changes and takes different forms. This is why we wake up crying, or feel empty, or sometimes even laugh out loud for no reason. The other day I was thinking about my grandmother who loved to tell anyone, much to their chagrin, who visited her house about these dolls she had- King Henry VIII and his wives. It was one of those moments that explodes with joy and pain and yearning and sorrow all in the same instant.

I think it’s crucial to talk about grief often. Grief is not always related to the end of life, but it is always related to death as an end. The end of a career, the end of a relationship, the end of living in a particular place. Is grief our friend? I think we might discover different ways to relate, but knowing it exists within us is helpful and actually soothing, sometimes.

Today I am lifting up the women in my life because they hold grief in ways that push them. My mom, my sister, my friends, my classmates, my professors, the activists and teachers and writers I admire- we all hold grief for loss. Some of this loss is what should be and simply isn’t because women constantly fight for space. Our grief can be shared by the space women make for each other.

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Last week I had a fabulous time with college chaplains in DC. Not to mention, I got some research in and nerded out HARD at the museums. I also got to see some old friends, which really made me consider how much pain even young people have experienced. Relationships that fail, struggling with work, and even the time for parents passing is by no means far and distant. I felt really proud to hear that in the midst of struggle, my friends committed to taking care of themselves through therapy, running, and the occasional night out to let loose. Being “an adult” has never made sense to me as I sit here typing in my star leggings and hot pink vest, but these commitments showed me one piece of adulting.

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Outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

I got to talking with one old classmate about the widespread influence of hetero-patriarchal norms that affect how we live- and how we believe we should live. We talked about a church pastored by wife and wife. The congregation feels overwhelmingly supportive and happy to have this couple as leaders and teachers. Of course we can never assume that means queerphobia doesn’t exist in this community, for it most certainly materializes. The main paradox we found was that the congregation would find fault if one of these pastors were seen out drinking with a friend- something that resembles “a date.” Pastors often take on the role of creating boundaries that form a moral compass. In preaching, in pastoral care, and especially in living a life that models this set of morals, pastors can certainly challenge their congregations and create discomfort. I think that’s important for growth and community building.

What feels more difficult to assess is how morals still abide by this hetero-patriarchy. The need we feel to categorize in order to still translate the norm onto new subjects. Example: a woman marries a woman; we accept this as “love means love,” and their relationship continues to be loving, sustaining, and monogamous. This can translate to the heteronormative family ideal through roles and emotions (love, not desiring another). But…what about people who build relationships that challenge the dichotomy between romantic and platonic? What if you love someone so deeply, and yet feel love just as intense for three other people? The reason this strains our moral compass, as opposed to a same-gender marriage, is that we lose the categories that work to uphold the hetero-patriarchy, even when it doesn’t look quite the same. When we cannot deliver a name for the emotions we feel, and the subsequent relationships we build based on these emotions, the moral compass falls apart.

I am certainly not saying we should abandon our marriages and partnerships and friendships, these really do form the foundation of our lives. I think pushing to live without category sometimes shows the boundaries that need to be challenged. As a practicing Buddhist, what most makes sense to me is to question how the morals I explore may be harmful to myself and others. On the other hand, noting where living in grey areas brings liberation is a sign to pursue the uncomfortable.