Tuesday, December 21, 2010

life plans are open to change

When I was in middle school I wanted to grow up and live in New York City. I wanted to be an actress or a model. I wanted to dance, to sing, to be in front of a camera, or on a stage. I even had the hotmail email address to prove it: nycbaby624@yes,iamthirteenandemailjustgotcool.

But now, after my fourth or fifth visit to the city, I am sitting on the bus going back to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania and feeling very excited to be out of the crowds, in my own place, with my kitties, feeling settled, cozy, and like I have time to read. What I realized on this trip is that so much time is wasted in the city. What did we do while we were there? We ate a lot of good meals, walked around some, but mostly, we waited for trains in the cold, and then sat on the train for the hour commute from Flushing to anywhere in Manhattan. All of that waiting started to really make me appreciate how nice it is to live in a manageable town or city. I’m a big fan of efficiency, and that was not an efficient way to get around.  I always had it in my mind that anything you could dream of is available in the city. That may be, but it could take all day to get it. And then you have to carry it all the way back on the train.

So, maybe I don’t want to live in New York after all. I’ve thought about going back to the west coast a lot. Seattle. Portland. San Francisco. They are at the top of my list.

But so is Colorado. Over the past couple of months I have been missing Colorado more and remembering how much I love it there. I miss the Colorado clouds, the sky, the ever-present sun, the mountains, the sunsets. I miss the rivers and the trees. I miss Fort Collins. I miss the culture of Old Town, the breweries even though I can’t drink much beer, the small restaurants, the many local coffee shops, the hippies and the hipsters, the locals, and the music. I miss my friends who are still there. I miss the houses on Mountain Ave. I miss the bike lanes. At times, I even miss the fucking freight trains that blow through the center of town.

The not-so-secret plan that I have had ever since graduating from Colorado State was to go back and be a professor in the philosophy department there if they need to bring in a young, feisty feminist. I doubt this is the path that will make me an actress, but I am okay with that. In the four years that I spent in Colorado, but more importantly during my last year there before graduating, I really experienced what it feels like to be at home. I settled into a community.  I identify with Colorado. I love Fort Collins. A piece of my heart is still there.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I may not be a Doctor, but...

Some people get really pissed at universities that use and abuse their graduate students and force them to teach all the mundane low-level classes to undergrads who, often with a strong sense of entitlement, don't care about class, don't try, and certainly don't appreciate you or the fact that you have your own work to be doing as you go through the motions before they get their easy "A."

As a graduate student in the third year of my program, I have already taught about 150 students of my own in four classes (not to mention the 60 or so others I TAed for in a class that even I struggled to really appreciate). But for me, I view teaching as an opportunity and I am so happy to have had experiences in the classroom that have helped my learning, thinking, and growing more than almost any class I have had as a graduate student. That I get to teach is one of the only reasons why I have made it this far in my program (and by constantly reminding myself that my life was literally changed after taking one philosophy class from one of the best professors, so I know that it is at least possible to make a difference, even if my students don't become "philosophers" themselves).

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to put together my own syllabi for classes that I have been genuinely interested in teaching. In "Basic Problems of Philosophy" I focused the course on four questions: What is philosophy? What is the purpose of philosophy? Who is the philosopher? What is the philosopher's task? I loved the 6-week intensity of teaching "Philosophy, Love, and Sex" this summer. Seeing my students every day was very conducive to the continuity in conversations that I think is essential to deep thinking. And finally, I have just concluded my course "Philosophy, Race, and Diversity." We started with one of my favorite essays by George Yancy on philosophers as "trouble makers" and read some excellent books--Charles Mills' 'The Racial Contract,' Linda Alcoff's 'Visible Identities,' and Ladelle McWhorter's 'Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America" (go here for a recent interview about the book). This class was by far the most challenging of them all. At times, I was fearful that the class would end up a complete failure, worst of all, because my students were so often reflecting RACIST views, not anti-racist views (obviously, the latter are my preferred perspectives).

My goal in teaching is always to help my students cultivate the skills that will allow them to be more critical thinkers, not just about society and problems around them, but to understand themselves better, too. Just like any other kind of interaction, if students put their defenses up or are unwilling to be honest with themselves and others, we don't get very far (sometimes, as I have just learned, it takes a whole semester for people to put their guard down...like life, I suppose, some people don't ever get there in your time with them). Listening to others is crucial, being able to write and speak in ways that express your views is important, and the ability to be self-reflexive is completely necessary. And I don't teach material just so they will know what so-and-so said about "x." My methodology and selected content are intended to provide students with insights, perspectives, and questions that will enable them to be better students, better citizens, and better people (I am hugely influenced by hooks here). Pardon the redundancy, but I don't want to just open them up to philosophical lesson. Ideally, I hope that by being more philosophical, my students will also uncover some life lessons that will help them as they move through the world (it's philifesophy). Clearly, I have high hopes for my students and high expectations of myself!

Given the challenges of teaching, the highs and lows, the adrenaline rushes and great disappointments, the moments of insight and spells of insecurity, and the open-endedness of it all, which can often be devalued as just the cover of ineffectuality, I have to keep some record of the rewards. I don't want to let myself get carried away in worries that this is worthless work or catch a spell of the contagious skepticism that is always circulating among philosophers (and academics) about what we do.

At the end of each semester, it's always a bit scary to wait and see if any of the students "got it" (and not just if they adequately comprehended the arguments. I mean the point of this whole learning thing in general). Fortunately, after this go around, my students papers demonstrated that many of them did end up "getting it"--which is HUGE given that we had to bust through some seriously thick commitments to epistemologies of ignorance (Mills, 18). I am re-energized by the notes and emails that my students give me. Because this semester was especially challenging, I write some of the final reflections from students below:

"...I discovered a feeling that I had not had at the conclusion of other books. It's not that I had it all figured out, but I did finally see the big picture. Instead of just trying to fix racial differences overnight, McWhorter stressed that we keep challenging what is normal and abnormal, as my classmate Ray pointed out. She wants us to keep "doing likewise"...While she--and I--knows that it is not a guaranteed that we can get [to a world without racism], for now this is all that we can do. At the beginning of our class, I was one of those people that thought philosophy really was about old white men and their ridiculous ideas. Now, I am one of those "trouble makers" myself, and I am damn proud of it."

In a later email, this student also wrote,


I just wanted to thank you for this semester. I truly enjoyed every class that we had, and always looked forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays because of our discussions. This is a class much different than my others, not only because it was an elective, but also because I will be able to take so much from what we've talked about all semester. I really enjoyed our conversations, which led me to discover a few things about myself. I wish that all of my classes were like this one and hopefully we can meet up again in the future."

"The semester before I had just taken Sociology 119 which had dealt with race, so I thought the course would be easy and that I would already know everything. I was very wrong. One can never know too much about racism, there's always something to talk about and learn about. This is one of the things I have recently learned. I learned many things about racism including what the word actually means, how identities are formed and interpreted, and how many people think of racism itself. Along with what I have learned about the subjects taught to me the past semester, I have learned about myself.


I spoke in a way that reflected my confidence of me not being racist, and that I knew everything about racism. Outside of class I talked in a way that I was not racist and in a way that I knew all about the subject matter. Whenever I had a conversation about someone being racist I put them under the bus and defended my actions. This is much like 20th Century American and what they did to Hitler. After reading Mill's (sic) book I had still not realized all the things I did and the way that I am still racist. Ironically I was a perfect example of Mill's main point; I was part of the epistemology of ignorance. It is a term that I had never heard of before reading his book, but it is a term that I will use many times after. It 's a very ingenious term which describes the 'White' person's ignorance to racism. I think the reason why at first I did not realize that I fell into his theory is because I had defined racism in a narrow way. I defined racism in a way that made me not racist.


I have enjoyed this class and am happy that it has allowed me to look in a mirror. It has allowed me to think in a different way, in a way that will make me a better person. Earlier I used the phrase that I was wrong with my thoughts, but I think that was a little inaccurate. (The sensitivity he demonstrates here blows me away!!-CW)I did not use those phrases to say that I am right now. That would allow me to quickly slip back into the epistemology of ignorance. I will never be right, there will always be something to learn or to adjust in my thought process. From this course forward, I will continue to learn, and I will do my best to make myself a better person especially when it comes to my ideas on racism."

"After learning the genealogical account of our history along with ideas fostered by you, Cori, I feel today compared to the first day of class, that there is now something that I can do to help get rid of racism and racism against the abnormal.

Overall, this class really did broaden my horizons on things that actually happened in history to what the common beliefs are about such events...I did not realize it until the end, but I thought McWhorter's book did a great joby to get us see that some of our values are flawed and that being more critical is necessary. Well, there you have it, these were many of the things I learned and that changed how I think and view society now. I was glad to have participated in a class that generated this much thinking, and really do feel my horizons have expanded from taking this class. Thanks, Cori, and hope to still see you around campus."

Though shout-outs of appreciation warm my heart, the truly rewarding moments are when I see my students becoming better writers and better thinkers, and especially when they start making connections on their own!

I am immensely grateful for the work of those thinkers who write amazing books who give my students and me lots to chew on. I am also grateful for what I learn from my students and what I learn from undergoing the process of thinking through big questions and important issues with them. They help me grow, and they also motivate me to keep doing what I am doing because they prove to me that teachers DO important work, regardless of whether or not this happens in a classroom.

Teaching is a skill and an art form that I hope to continue cultivating in myself. It's been my dream, my goal, and what I have wanted to do for a very long time. And I must admit, that I am quite pleased that at the ripe old age of 24, I have already had been able to do what I want to do, how I want to do it. Whatever happens after I actually get my degrees, I will be satisfied with what I have been able to accomplish as a graduate student. And I will, like some of my students, always try to keep in mind the lessons that I have learned and use them to help me be a better teacher, a better student, a better philosopher, and a better person.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What I Learned and Why It Was Worth It.

I have three days to write a term paper on Plato. For some reason, as I sit in my room trying to write, I find myself hitting a pretty firm wall. I can't bring myself to write it. I have a good idea of what I WANT to write, but getting the words out and stringing together sentences just doesn't seem appropriate. Isn't that just writing!? This is only a hunch, but I think the strange kind of hesitation that I feel is related to what I want to write. Since the paper itself isn't happening, but I know that I need to be writing to process the ideas, I have decided to write here about my process of writing this paper.

This paper is a big one for me and not just because it's worth the entirety of my grade. Actually, I have come to care much less about my grades. Probably because this is also the last paper that I will ever have to write for a course. That's right! I am three days away from no longer being a student who has to sit in classes for requirements, do readings according to a set schedule, etc. etc. And I get why people are so excited for this moment. I am nearing the stage when I get to read and write all of my own stuff. This will be a true transition in my career, a new phase, a new experience, and a new way to do philosophy. I am starting to feel very grown up (or something) in this field.

It's also a big paper for me because it will represent the end of a very difficult semester. I've struggled through each semester of graduate school for various reasons, and this semester was ripe with stress. Taking three classes, two extra seminars, teaching one class of my own, doing an internship, taking on an assistant ship, and becoming a mentor was quite the load. Not to mention that I spent the past four months working harder then ever before to stay in my relationship, to challenge myself to approach my latent fears differently, and to grow. I always grow. So, even though I have work and meetings already planned for Tuesday and beyond, turning this paper in on Monday will feel like the end point of a big, semester-long journey.

Despite all of that "stuff," this has been a very rich semester for me. I learned a lot from teaching my class this semester on race and diversity. I learned a lot about my girlfriend and what she can help me learn about myself. And there are MANY, MANY other things that I learned that I can't quite place. In all of that learning, there were as many upsetting, disturbing, unsettling, and troublesome moments as there were inspirational, impassioned, encouraging, and "right" ones. I can't say it enough. This was quite the semester!

I know that I have grown and changed dramatically since the summer. The way I feel is different. The way I think is different. The way I speak is different. The way I listen is different. I read, I engage, I teach, and I write differently. Even my signature has changed. Over and over again. Each week it's new (isn't that significant for something?!? Dad? Don't you know something about this?).

One thing that I felt changing for me this semester was my presence in the classroom as a peer and student. I wasn't especially excited about any of my classes this semester. One in particular I absolutely abhorred. But in each class that I went to, I spoke up. I asked questions. Most of the sessions were so boring and dry anyway that I figured there was nothing to lose, only something to be gained, if I could muster the attention span to formulate a question that I was actually interested in posing to the group. And I asked a lot of questions. A LOT. And when the question that I asked started a lively conversation, I was always pretty pleased with my effort. I was also really pleased to learn something from what came out of it. I wasn't asking from a place of already knowing the answer or having my own opinion (and I decided to abandon awhile ago any idea that I know better than anyone else)-I found myself asking genuine questions because I really wanted to think about them. And I found that I really gained from hearing other people's views. Sometimes their comments were illuminating, other times confusing, and most of the time, they helped me think again. Sometimes it wasn't even what they said, but how they said it, or how they approached my question, that was the most interesting part of it.

My experience of asking real questions in all of my classes was rewarding. I was proud of myself for starting conversations. For initiating a group reflection and sustaining my own. I started to realize that I might actually have a knack for asking questions and getting others to think with me. I felt something that, in this dimension of my life, used to only happen on very rare occasions. I felt a sense of confidence.

Once I identified that this was what I was doing in my classes, I realized that my ability to ask questions has also been one of my greatest strengths in teaching. Like many people I suffer from the "imposter complex": "I'm only a grad student! I don't know enough to be influencing young minds! What if mess it up? Or get it wrong? What if they see right through my facade?!?!" So to counter this, I dropped the facade. And I started to "teach" by asking questions.

I know that I don't know what I am teaching- I am not an expert, I don't have the answers, and I don't want for my students to think that I am expecting them to regurgitate what I say. But I do know that I can present a problem to the class as it is raised in a text or lived in the "real world" and I can ask them questions that get them to think about them. My favorite days in the classroom are those when we have group presentations because I don't come with a prepared lecture or even knowing what the students will present, and I know that it is my task to identify themes, isolate problems, highlight key ideas, pause to create space for discussion, and facilitate a process that develops organically. The whole process is very unexpected and spontaneous. On those days, when connections are made through responding to what others bring to the table, I sometimes feel magical. Seriously. It's what others call "flow." I'm in it, things are moving, and stuff is happening. And I am the one directing it while my students are the ones propelling it.

This has all started to generate some new thoughts about how to proceed. New strategies are in order. Those that are different from the old ways of saying, "I'm right, now just listen to me." As I prepare myself for my first major conference presentation and talk to experts about things that I don't know anything about (law and Irigaray, for example), and as I hold on to my desire to keep making videos on youtube, I am trying to pay attention to the great value of keeping things open. Instead of reading from papers to make sure that I get all of the points right to show what a strong argument I am making, I think I will do better (whatever that means) to present the issues, offer my thoughts and the connections I have made, and raise more questions.

And what does this have to do with Plato again?

Despite my general disinterest (to put it lightly) in the things that are most frequently associated with Plato- especially all of his talk about the Forms and our souls--I have had a hunch over the years that I would need to go back to the Greeks. I mean, all of my homeboys have. Nietzsche did it. Foucault did it. Husserl said that we must do it. And at the beginning of the semester I was not thrilled to be reading Plato. I just don't get it. I don't like talking about souls as if they really exist.

As it turns out though, I really didn't get HIM.

Plato, the philosopher, the writer, the author (maybe) of so many famous dialogues between Socrates and his interlocutors, is amazing for what he did, not just for what he said (and Socrates--but their true identities are complicated). Plato/Socrates wanted to compel people to make the philosophical turn, to turn toward philosophy, to live the examined life, to critically reflect on their lives and themselves. The dialogues are often contradictory, they leave questions unresolved, and the arguments within are often quite poor in terms of logic and viability. But to focus on those things is to miss the point. Plato/Socrates engage people to think. They engage us to think. They don't leave us with answers, but rather move us in the direction of a philosophical way of life. Plato/Socrates were after the same thing that I am after.

It's what I call, philifesophy.

Who knew that Plato and Socrates would also become my homeboy(s)? And how the hell am I supposed to write a paper with an argument about Plato now without somehow attempting to ENGENDER a contradiction in action?!

Now more than ever I have an openness to not-knowing my position (and I have a deeper appreciation for what that means). I have a great sense of humility because there are so many things that I know I do not know. And I have more respect for those who help me learn how to put myself into question. My peers, my students, my philosopher-friends.

So, it seems to me, that the real reason why this semester has been so big and significant and incredible and challenging is because it has been a semester of integration. My philosophy has been informed by my life. My life has been shaped and influenced by my philosophy. It feels good. I feel open. I feel content with the groundlessness of it all and excited about the possibilities that this brings.

Now, as I turn back to my books and attempt to write this Plato paper and turn it in a for a grade in just a few days, I realize that there is a sense of gravity around bringing this semester to a close. With it's submission I will officially be moving into a new phase of my program, a new phase of my career, and I will have time to appreciate that I am in a new place in my relationship.

I am deeply grateful for this semester--It has changed me. I feel like I am a different person now. And, more than that, I think I am a better person.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Existential Themes and the Meaning of Life

I've now recorded the fifth video for my "Think for a Change" channel on Youtube. I think some of the earlier videos went more smoothly, but I appreciate my cat's presence in this one, even if he is distracting to me.