How mindfulness can help you procrastinate more!

As summer ends and deadlines close in, I, like lots of professors, am tempted to twist the basic principles of mindfulness out of shape, to use them not to come into greater contact with reality but as a trick to avoid it. It goes something like this: Though I really do know that it will not be too painful to complete once I get started on it, I push time sensitive work to the bottom of my list again and again. Eventually I come to dread even small tasks. The faux mindfulness dodge — which I’ve indulged in more than once — encourages me to analyze my feelings of aversion, to fan them into full visibility, to take them as seriously as the work itself that is waiting to be done.

IMG_4819But even when I frame my work aversion in high toned psychological or spiritual terms — as “taking my feelings seriously,” or somesuch — it is, at bottom, nothing more than a more palatable procrastination technique. As avoidance techniques go, it sounds more sophisticated than abandoning my work responsibilities in favor of shopping or of scrubbing the grout, but when I am more deeply mindful, when I am more honest, I see that it is the same thing. Forays into genuine mindfulness practices have left me with real tools and techniques to honestly face life, but they have also provided me with some high falutin’, New Age tinted scripts for more complicated forms of procrastination.

At a discussion on campus a while back, an audience member asked the panel to share favorite tools and techniques for completing tasks efficiently. A doctoral student, she was surprised at how consistently her dissertation could slip to the bottom of her priorities. I shared my experience with what I’ve come to think of as The Package, a small box that I had been charged with delivering to the post office some years ago. It sat there day after day, I described, for weeks, taunting me with its unmet need and my own incipient failure. Though my car and legs worked fine, and though I had the six dollars for postage, The Package became my nemesis, and led me both to elaborate self-examination and self-recrimination. My problem was instantly solved, though, I explained, when I invested the seven minutes necessary to get off my ass and mail the damn box.

The graduate student chuckled gamely at my little story and then repeated her request for anti-procrastination tools and techniques. The conversation veered to subjects such as how to better sync calendars and what time to get out of bed each day. It was, I thought, like when I read books about quitting smoking rather than quitting smoking. I used the very tools meant to overcome my addictive bad habit as delay tactics to permit me to continue doing it. Apparently, as reasonable creatures, we humans are also rationalizing creatures, shamelessly willing to put even the most noble spiritual practices into the service of our immediate whims and cravings. Because let’s face it, elaborate calendars and organizing systems have served at least as much to help postpone work as to facilitate it.



“Shut up and teach!” The fear of being too political in the classroom

Taking care not to be “too political” or “too ideological” helps maintain a superficial peace at thanksgiving tables and in classrooms, and is probably a necessary part of sensible social self-regulation. But such self-censorship can also disempower those most vulnerable to political vicissitudes and neuter our teaching effectiveness. Not coincidentally, it is almost a truism that “mere political differences” should not impede friendship, family love, collegiality, or the dispensation of one’s professional duties. And yet it is clear that what is, for some, a matter of life and death urgency, can indeed look like “mere politics” to those who benefit from, or are only distantly impacted by such matters.

The question of how political to get in the classroom is one faced routinely by thoughtful teachers at all levels. To what extent is it our educative and moral responsibility to face critical contemporary issues head on? And when does a teacher’s silence or “neutrality” devolve from being a tool to facilitate respectful, candid discussion to a tacit endorsement of positions that are racist, xenophobic, or just plain nasty? And how often are we tempted to police ourselves, to err on the side of caution, avoiding these “political issues” for fear of being singled out by students or conservative gatekeepers as having ventured into unsuitably ideological territory?

If there has never been a more urgent time for teachers in the U.S. to ask these questions, it is precisely because the normal boundaries of secular democracy have already been beaten into whimpering submission. The distinction between religion and state, vitriol and argument, and truth and falsity, while always fuzzy in U.S. public life, is blurring to a degree that may be unprecedented. And what adds salty insult to injury is that those most shameless about violating such lines, for example, the white supremacist kleptocratic theocracy now steering the ship, are the quickest to cry foul when they sniff out a supposed boundary violation.

It is, then, precisely those who have most enthusiastically injected personal morality into political policy that object most strenuously when others speak in ways that reflect this overlap. That, for example, abortion has been framed in the U.S. in such dramatically political terms, rather than as a personal, medical choice, is a quite deliberate result of conservative extremism. And, of course, once an “issue” has been successfully constructed in such terms, discussion about it is easily interpreted as always already political. Most of the battle has been lost, then, when so much that is basic to our well being, and that of our students — for example, the shape of our families, our ability to access clean water and medicine, our freedom to buy Starbucks coffee or wedding cakes without being harassed or refused — gets labeled “political” by those also committed to policing the bounds of appropriate discourse.

We teachers might, then, want to focus less on whether or not the topics we’re discussing are, in fact, political or ideological, than on the very deliberate, and political strategies according to which these themes have been politicized in the first place. With politicization itself as their most insidiously political tool, conservative extremists can effectively commandeer all classroom discussion. It’s a pretty simple recipe: My “think tank” pours energy and money into anti-choice, anti-gay, or anti-immigrant initiatives, buying politicians and campaign ads, and then censors those who dare disagree with our position on the grounds that these others are inserting politics where it does not belong. Controlling access to the very conversations that might be used to engage with these life and death concerns is a masterful stroke by conservative extremists precisely because it keeps so many moderates and progressives from speaking for fear of fear of being seen as “ideological.”

We progressives want to be tolerant, of course, and this laudable aspiration comes to be used against us by conservative extremists who understand quite well how invested many of us are in our ethical self-concepts. But by implicitly agreeing to honor the lines of tolerance and civility adopted by these extremists — and it is a double standard of the highest order — we effectively tie our own tongues. It isn’t, then, just that we may have both a political and moral duty to discuss critical issues, but that we have an even more basic responsibility to challenge where they have drawn the lines of politics and ideology in the first place. As usual, our easiest choice will usually be to remain silent. And, as usual, such silence will translate into a crescendo of support for conservative extremists who, with practiced, spittle inflected righteousness, will continue to shout at us as they have for years: “Shut up and teach!”

Nostalgia, Fantasy and Telling the Truth

Maybe it goes without saying that the vague sense of longing that most of us experience from time to time is for a home that never really existed. We live with echoes of pleasures and pains from gifts and wounds that we never received, at least not as we remember. It is both poignant and silly — the stuff of tragedy and comedy — that we become so intimately bound to pasts that never were. How much of my own longing and grumpiness about higher ed is based on an idealized past that never really was?

For those who, like me, earned public institution degrees in the 80s and 90s, and have since taught mostly at regional public institutions, the ivy threaded, romantic idea of college life has always been mostly fantasy. While I can actually recall intellectual epiphanies on the grassy quad, and the occasional fire-eyed professor, the bigger picture is more anodyne. There were, for example, buckets of beer, mind-numbing part-time jobs, and more than a few barely-competent teaching assistants. Grad school was an improvement, as was my post-doc at a more elite east coast university, but The Dead Poet’s Society it was not.


Whatever hallowed illusions about undergrad life I still harbor were born as much from wishful thinking as actual experience. This vague longing I’ve felt, then, this irritating sense of mismatch between my experience of higher ed and what “should be,” is grounded partly in fantasy. And the still larger truth of the falsely rosy picture of higher ed becomes even more obvious after a quick peek at, say, the early days of Harvard Medical School, a grisly, disorganized affair. It turns out that histories of U.S. education are a powerful antidote to the most sentimental fits of nostalgia.

Paradoxically, I find that I’m now best able to resist my tendency to rail against the current state of higher ed when I’m at my most nostalgic. Then I can see that at least some of my resistance — to online teaching, “flipped” classrooms, and the like — reflects my middle-aged crankiness: Students today! Why aren’t they more like we were? The truth, though, is that they are a lot like I was, and in some remarkably annoying and admirable respects. Though I don’t entirely trust online education, nor do I have full confidence in my aversion to it. Of course there are grave problems with higher ed and we may well be in the midst of a genuine crisis, one swirling with questions about its affordability, accessibility, and status as a public good. But this incipient catastrophe is awful enough without our piling on false, sweetly scented memories.


With this in mind, I try to focus my complaints about higher ed on actual problems and losses, instead of imagined ones. Although this requires an ongoing, ruthless level of self-scrutiny that I’m not entirely capable of, I’m motivated by the fact that the potential rewards extend well beyond higher ed. It is possible, after all, to live the whole of one’s life in worshipful service to bygone pain and resentments. And, of course, the tragedy here has much less to do with the original wound than with one’s dedication to suffering over what are, effectively, mere memories. Obviously not all new opportunities should be embraced, and even the best ones promise disappointment as well as delight. But at least the pain will be honestly earned, the price of actually engaging with contemporary life, rather than making excuses to avoid it in favor of what never was.

Maybe we should just eat the children? When students really, really don’t care

As a professor and scholar of ethics for some decades, I have had more occasion than many to come to terms with the complicated, clumsy, and sometimes repugnant, ways that students relate to moral quandaries. I am not surprised, then, that as our nation continues its ethical free fall, a significant number of white people either support the move to seize and warehouse immigrant children, or are ambivalent about it. At least a few of my students would echo the views of their families, insisting that these refugees should have planned better, followed the rules, or some other sentiment indicating an almost complete lack of empathy or compassion.

Accepting that others sometimes just don’t care is a challenge I first fully recognized as a TA in the early 90’s. A clever student responded to my presentation about genocide with a survival of the fittest argument. From a population standpoint, he cooly explained, such things don’t matter. Even then, I was skillful enough to engage with an entitled eighteen-year-old, but this wasn’t about facts or logical prowess. The fact that he didn’t care forced me to reconsider the value of the philosophical tools with which I’d been entrusted. But after all these years, as I am jarred by the vision of white people rationalizing or shrugging while brown toddlers sob themselves to sleep, my instinct is to focus on reasons why this policy is both foolish and cruel. Part of me forgets, and, yes, wants to forget, that the tools of my trade have no currency in the MAGA universe.

While there surely are failures of critical thinking at play here — these inhuman policies are also demonstrably stupid and short-sighted — reason is almost certainly not the primary vehicle for getting truly apathetic people, including our students, to change their minds. We are, rather, as our nation has always been, confronted with with epic lapses of empathy that are probably explainable only by the deafening static of white rage. There are, of course, proven methods to help develop empathy in classrooms and city halls, and we must employ them, but they are slow fixes, woefully insufficient to help people quickly awaken from mass hysteria. In this protracted moment of national shame, I am reminded that I cannot rely on the methods and sensibility most central to my identity as a professor to push through these clouds of cruelty.

While terrorized children have been wetting themselves under foil “blankets,” I see that I have been wasting precious time as I struggle, yet again, to accept that this is happening, not because of a lone, crazed tyrant, but with many reasonable peoples’ approval and complicity, some of whom, surely, have passed through my classrooms. As both a teacher and a member of the human community, I resist the heartbreaking truth that, sprinkled all around me, more or less intelligent white people, including, surely, acquaintances, friends, family members, and people in line at the post office, are quite pleased with it all. And, of course, my ignorance has been enabled by my own privilege and the fact that few MAGAs are likely to directly share with me their support of these brutal measures. A cloying veneer of polite civility, much of it in the form of silence, has allowed me, and lots of other progressive white people, to remain disingenuously ignorant of the full extent of the racism, sexism, and homophobia all around, including in our classrooms.

Socrates taught that those who do wrong, at some level, just do not know any better. When I had more faith in him, my life was a bit more straightforward. I could try to influence or shape moral perspective by exploring empirical and logical approaches. And, of course, I still believe that some people sometimes are capable of growing morally through intellectual growth, especially young people. I will never abandon this belief. But I can also see that it is willfully naive to imagine that a bigger pile of facts or logical analysis is going to sway those who have lost access to, or never developed, their own basic sense of compassion. Driven by fear and anger cravenly cultivated by conservative extremists, many of them will wear MAGA ball caps on their death beds. Given this reality, my inclination to fall back on reasoned argument is more a reflection of my own comfortable identity — this is what I most know how to do — than about what is actually going to change this situation.

That morality is both simpler and more complex than I imagine is a lesson a wise, beloved teacher tried to teach me in high school. My journalism instructor, Barbara Robinson, had me read “A Modest Proposal,” by Jonathan Swift. As you may recall, Swift satirically argues that the “Irish population problem” might be solved by serving up Irish babies in all sorts of elaborate recipes, from boiling to fricase. Ms. Robinson wasn’t just trying to sharpen my rhetorical skills; she was also helping me mature morally, to understand that I could not assume that others would appreciate or share my ethical sensibility. “Some people thought Swift was serious,” she warned me, “and they thought he had a pretty good plan.” How much time did I really want to spend barking up those trees?

If I cannot fully face the fact that some not insignificant number of people are prepared to eat these brown babies, I cannot really appreciate the size or nature of the job before me. While only a few MAGA Republicans may actually have the courage to wear jackets celebrating their apathy or to go on record ridiculing the cries of traumatized children, the callously apathetic and complicit are all around us. If they were not, then this train could never have left the station. While I will continue to hope that these folks change course — no one can be written off — I will no longer spend time wondering if they care, wishing they cared, or responding point-by-point, even in my head, to their exhausting rationalizations. At some point, the most reasonable, effective tactic may well be to avoid the trap and distraction of elaborately reasoned arguments altogether.

About that fundamentalist student hiding behind her bible

Some years ago I worked with a capable philosophy of science student who one day revealed his devotion to “creation science.” His was the fully blown variety in which the earth is declared to be six thousand — rather than billions — of years old. It’s the one that has God manufacturing and hiding dinosaur bones as a trick to test man’s fealty to His Word. I’ve lived and worked in the Midwest nearly all my life, so I’m used to the confidentially Bibled up, but this young man actually expected me to help him shore up his Bible pseudoscience. Even though we’d been learning to carefully distinguish mythological and magical thinking from empirical science, he assumed that my commitment to religious tolerance could be leveraged to help him remain in the cocoon of his childhood Bible world.

The situation is similar in any class that may challenge students’ religiously tinged, politicized moral views, for example, about abortion or gay marriage. Few things are more frustrating for instructors than a student’s assumption that a conservative belief’s religious cloak should exempt it from challenge or commentary, like a safe zone in a child’s game of tag. Such students may even equate their ideological positions with their identities: “That’s how I was raised. It’s the kind of person I am.” In my classrooms, each semester fundamentalist Christianity is offered by some students as both an explanation and justification for unscientific claims about reality, or for reactionary moral and political views. The message I get is that “for the Bible tells me so” is a buck-stops-here line that I cross only if I am willing to be vilified as a religious bigot.

Indeed, one of the greatest harms to eduction from politically active fundamentalist Christian zealots is that they have commandeered the very discourse of religious tolerance such that any defense of reason, evidence and secular ethical principles may be quickly repackaged as an attack on religious freedom. With their quivers stuffed full of supposedly “religious” beliefs about nature, culture and values, they are primed to become epistemological bullies, effectively declaring themselves utterly unaccountable to evidence and mature good sense. Tying a belief to fundamentalist Christianity — even if it actually has little to do with religion — is supposed to mark it as exceptional, as beyond the intellectual scrutiny of we mere mortals in the college classroom.

With loathsome MAGA extremists having seized control of key national offices, the power such students and their families wield in classrooms is genuinely threatening to academic freedom and to our very jobs. But, of course, for us to fail entirely to challenge claims that the world was poofed into existence the day before yesterday, or that the gays should burn in hell because Pastor Ricky said so, would be to fail at our jobs. And, yes, Pastor Ricky’s say-so really was offered by one of my students as a refutation of a reputable social science study about same-sex parents.

I wouldn’t raise this issue if I were not, at least sometimes, influenced by this push to privatize and personalize reason and evidence. But I feel myself being swayed sometimes by these attempts to frame belief as a mere matter of personal choice and individual conscience. Though the very spirit and purpose of education is perverted when reason and evidence are desecrated this way, I have become, like Galileo and Descartes and Kant, ever more willing to hold my tongue as the forces of ignorance threaten violence and exile. And how much greater this temptation must be for more tenuously employed instructors!

Usually, I rely on pragmatism to navigate these waters, but it’s tricky. I may begin by reminding my students of their right to believe whatever they want at church, but insist that, in the classroom, our currency is reason and evidence. I explain that we can challenge aspects of rationality and empiricism, to be sure, but only with inquiry that is itself grounded in more reason and evidence. I also point them to the venerable intellectual and scientific luminaries present in the history of each of the world’s major religions, including Christianity. And I may carefully explain how the fringe beliefs that they find to be so normal — because in their fundamentalist homes and churches they are — can come to marginalize them as they try to advance in their professions. In other words, I try to help them appreciate that a grown ass adult who refers to Noah’s ark as a historical fact will, in many contemporary milieus, be regarded, at best, as a curiosity and, at worst, as a goofball.

But, of course, since some fundamentalists delight in seeing themselves as martyrs to beliefs that have become “unpopular” — recall that this is a crowd in which crucifixion has its romantic appeal — I must be careful not to nourish that drama. If I take the bait and get drawn into playing the role of Pilate, I can hardly be surprised if the passion play ends badly for me. It may, then, generally be more skillful to give Noah, Jonah and the transmutation of beverages a wide berth in our classrooms, focusing instead on the nature of critical thinking itself. We must surely be flexible about how we handle such moments and not be too discouraged even when a student chooses to crawl under her Bible and fall into a deep sleep that lasts all semester long.

As a more straightforward academic strategy, I assign readings about current and past pressures on scientists by fundamentalist Christian extremists. Unfortunately, I find many students — even those who aren’t especially religious — to be so cowed by the fundamentalist cooptation of religious tolerance, that such discussions are difficult. And it’s when I see that lots of reasonable folks have ceded this ground out of sheer exhaustion, fear or habit that I really worry. As fundamentalist forces continue to claim our public spaces, our political and judicial policy, and our classrooms, we cannot permit children’s Bible stories to stand in for mature good thinking. We must not agree to the terms that they have laid out: that whether our current configuration of fauna owes its existence to Noah’s trusty hammer or to evolution by natural selection shall be decided by one’s particular upbringing and personal conscience. Talk about sucking the light right out of the Enlightenment….

About that relentlessly sunny colleague with the perfectly darling students

When I hear another instructor announce at every turn how utterly terrific her students are, how brilliant that last batch of essays was, how very splendidly the semester is going, I wince. Over time, such announcements begin to sound less like a celebration of students and more like proclamations of how fabulous the instructor herself is. And it quickly begins to seem like a thinly veiled rebuke to we teachers who sometimes struggle with student performance; the problem is with us, we are reminded, and not these awesome students.

Instructors who are chronic complainers are at least as hard to take, those who carp and grouse endlessly. These instructors delight in cranky generalizations about this generation’s poor work ethic, attention spans, reading skills, etc. They may gripe nonstop about international students, commuters, students in the military, and on and on, taking little responsibility either for the impact of their own negativity or for the imperative to meet their students partway. Instructors who seem to delight in churning out grinding complaints about whole categories of students — with, perhaps a few beloved, exceptional protégés sprinkled in to prove the general rule of crappiness — are exhausting and depressing.


But complainers are a well acknowledged occupational hazard as hyper positive teachers are not, despite the fact that such optimists may paint teaching so brightly, treacly pink that it can hurt everyone’s eyes. It’s kind of like a cancer support group member with such an assertively single-minded commitment to positivity that others can feel shamed that they, themselves, continue to suffer. “Am I doing cancer wrong?” they may ask themselves. So too, chronically affirmative accounts of teaching can contribute to a competitive environment in which any admission of difficulty makes one feel like a whopping failure.

Of course, different instructors have different temperaments. It’s fine that some of us are more inclined to vocalize our optimism (or pessimism) than others, and surely some of these tendencies are powered by social and cultural forces. Such style differences are not an intrinsic problem, I am certain. But to what extent are over-the-top expressions about our amazing or crummy students actually meant to establish or firm up our own identities and reputations as this rather than that kind of instructor, both in others’ eyes and our own? How much of this habitual Pollyannaism (or Mr. Crabbypants) is a performative schtick we indulge rather than an authentic response to a complicated reality?


Even in the best of times, of course, our experience with students is not all prancing unicorns in clouds of fairy dust. Other people — and this is one of the things that students are — can be difficult, as can we ourselves. But nor can college teaching be fairly represented as a steaming pile of doo-doo that must be carried by hand across red hot coals in bare feet. The truth of this human endeavor, like most of those we are invited to undertake, is some messy mix of pleasant and repugnant, stuff we love and shit we don’t. Reflections about one’s teaching life that fail to reflect this ambivalent reality will ultimately fail to ring true.

If I had to choose, I guess I would prefer to endure instructors who celebrate themselves (in the guise of celebrating their students) than to suffer through complainers’ endless litanies about all that is wrong with “young people today.” But in my book, exaggerated optimism only beats out suffocating negativity by a nose. This is probably because I can’t help but see these as two sides of the same (performative) coin. And I am reminded that when professional or spiritual hubris tempts me to present myself as smilingly above it all, as impervious to the crap that gets those other, er…, less evolved folks down, I should close my pie hole. The “Song of Myself as Teacher of the Millennium” quickly transmutes into a parody of optimistic confidence that reeks of desperation and denial, a schtick that others can often see through even when we ourselves cannot.

The Joy of Tedious Planning

Backpackers know that the trip begins long before the hike starts. Depending on factors like a trail’s length, popularity, and degree of isolation, planning may begin weeks, or even months, before the big day. Casual campers make fun of those whose fetish for low pack weight impels them to saw off toothbrushes and leave luxuries, like deodorant and clean underwear, behind. As a partially brainwashed lightweight backpacker, I’m immune to such ridicule. For me, the pleasure of intricately planning my precious load is part of the point.

Parallels between backpacking and online teaching became clear to me early on. As I began to design an online gen ed course fully seven months in advance, there was a level of choreography and previsualization I had not experienced with my teaching before. It was as if I were preparing to lead 25 inexperienced, trusting companions through a dark and remote wood, to facilitate adventure, sacrifice no one’s safety, and to complete the mission on time. By contrast, teaching face-to-face was often more like car camping, with its cushy sleep pads and five pound cook stove, all sorts of just-in-case luxuries tossed into the trunk at the last minute.


Backpacking demands that each necessity and comfort be accounted for in advance, including each meal, each liter of water, each layer of clothing and each bandaid. How well spaced are the streams and creeks? Do I have rain gear, a plan for storing food safely at night, backup battery power for the smartphone that will also serve as GPS? Have I accurately estimated each day’s distance, or will altitude or sandy soil slow me down? Backpacking invites the imagination into the future, to previsualize the faulty lighter, the leaky water pouch, the angry blister as it emerges on the left big toe.

With online classes, too, the journey must be meticulously planned and paced, with assignments and topics nesting neatly into larger course objectives and goals. There’s little room for excess, spontaneous tangents or last minute route changes, since our students — some of whom are a few steps ahead or behind — utterly depend on our map or trail of crumbs. Even the opportunities for spontaneity must be coordinated — not so spontaneous after all — and must obey the established course rhythms. It’s not impossible to find one’s way after straying from the syllabus, but the process for doing so — the burst of ad hoc communications, special dispensations and improvisations — can make for grueling backtracks and, worse, shake students’ confidence.


It’s easy enough to feel oppressed by all this regimented planning and to want to rush through it to get to the good stuff. In the traditional classroom, the promise of face-to-face magic often becomes the motivating carrot for the tedium of planning. But, obviously, there’s no such dessert waiting at the end of the online buffet. In fact, in online classes, the good stuff must often be coaxed into removing its disguise. It is often overlooked altogether.

I sidestep the misery of online preparation only when I manage to embrace the puzzle of it enough so that its creative character begins to emerge. As with crosswords, learning the ukulele, or backpacking preparation, whether the process is experienced as a satisfying challenge or as torture depends on one’s point of view. For those who crave the high of a spontaneous face-to-face romp — and this describes some of my most memorable traditional classes — I doubt that the grind of online class prep will be worth it. For such teachers, camping beside a car chock full of equipment, food and beer is probably a better choice. On the other hand, tasting the trials and rewards of backpacking makes the delights of car camping even more apparent.

The wisdom of being a hopeless professor

Sometimes we professors feel as if we are dumping the precious contents of our life force into a gaping void. We do our research, prepare diligently for classes and spend hours hashing out difficult concepts with just one of our many students. A professor’s lament, and it is perhaps as old as the profession itself, is that we are usually left without a very full picture of how our work impacts students or our disciplines over the long haul. Some professors respond by orienting to the future with plucky optimism, adopting faith that their efforts will surely leave tangible results down the line. I prefer, instead, to embrace the insecurity of not-knowing, to teach and write without hope, not nihilistically, but radically rooted in present reality as much and as often as I can manage.

In the U.S., to question the desirability or wisdom of hope is tantamount to outing oneself as un-American. Hope is the great motivator, we are assured, without which we cannot possibly expect to act with vigor and deep purpose. As a ray of light breaks through the clouds, or the comatose patient finally blinks her eyes, hope is held up as the answer for everything from cancer to climate change. That Barack Obama embraced and leveraged the trope of hope so successfully in his campaigns is to the point. A presidential candidate whose very existence challenged a reactionary, racist status quo cloaked himself in the innocuously appealing, downright patriotic trappings of optimism, and it worked. The loathsome MAGA slogan is a reminder, though, that hope can also be rallied to harm and exclude.


And it is some of the very facets of hope that make it work in slogans — its potentially insipid, numbing, soothing quality — that also make it worrisome. Hope is right up there with thoughts and prayers on the efficacy test, and it is often what one cleaves to during moments of greatest quietism. It is, perhaps, not the worst attitude in the world if one has a loved one (hopelessly) lost at sea, but far less appropriate in situations that invite, or admit of, intervention from us in the here and now. At its most innocuous, then, hope is nothing more than an expression of one’s preferences about the future. But when hope takes on a quasi magical status, as it so often does in conversations influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, it risks becoming a childish distraction from reality, one that, like Santa Claus, is created and maintained to make us feel better as we, perhaps, do nothing to reevaluate or adjust course.

This is not an objection to optimism, then, but, rather, to the pie-eyed version of it that has one teleporting into the future by way of magical thinking, usually leveraging assumptions about the inevitability of moral or intellectual progress. In such cases it strikes me as a quintessentially immature orientation that can lead us to make excuses for present failures or mediocrities. The comforting trope that, as a scholar and teacher, I plant seeds that will eventually come to fruition is one that I have certainly relied on in dark times, but I don’t regard these as my finest, most authentic moments. I am far more proud of the times I have confronted the existential bleakness — “What if nothing I ever do ultimately makes one iota of difference to the planet or to humanity?” — and still found a way to continue my work with enthusiasm.

In my best moments, I find optimism in the present, a sturdy-booted, minimalist version that emerges from facing the reality that is rather than one created by my fears and solipsistic fantasies. And with respect to teaching and researching from the current moment, whatever future outcomes I may wish to manipulate from engagements with students or ideas is secondary. The paradox is, of course, that very often it is only from this commitment to the present, with its lack of emphasis on consequences, that quality future results can emerge. It’s no wonder that such radical presence is difficult to achieve; we are creatures of time, after all, and in some ways the present itself only makes sense to us by reference to past and future.


Though hope may be useful as a stopgap measure in desperate times, then, it is ultimately a shallow basis on which to build one’s ethical or professional platform. I avoid those Hollywood movies about charismatic, brilliant professors, then, in part, because I find the romanticism of hope they are premised on to cheapen the slogging, consistent labor that actually propels mature teaching and research. The fact that we must choose to make meaning, moment by moment, and do not find it waiting at the end of a rainbow is, for me, the most meaningful aspect of the work that we do.

I no longer imagine, then, that, as a teacher, I toss bottles containing precious messages into the sea that one day, someday, will be plucked from the rocky shoals by receptive hands. Instead, I see myself standing in the desert, pouring all that I have into the arid night, knowing full well that it will almost certainly evaporate before it hits the sand. Because creating meaning in full awareness of my part in this Sisyphean drama strikes me as essential to being a human being, a human professor. If I can manage to do my work in the full knowledge that it will all come to dust, as it surely will, then, by my own reckoning, I will have achieved a greatness worth celebrating.

On being a feminist, pragmatist professor who embraces labels

My students hate labels, or so they tell me: “Why do we have to put everything in boxes?” they ask. It’s one of the points about which they seem to all agree, right up there with individual freedom, color blindness, and cute puppies. I often like labels, though. In fact, I have a label maker. And I began to indulge my penchant for labels about the same time that my students agreed labels were bad. I am, then, for now at any rate, quite content to label myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.

My students — almost to a person — profess to hate labels because they see them as constricting, and, of course, they can be. Being labeled by others as a slut or a jock in the ninth grade can come to define a kid to the exclusion of deeper, more nuanced identities, affinities, and aptitudes. And it’s surely no accident that it’s this oppressive definition of “labeling” that students focus on and then (sort of) reject.


They have learned that tolerance (in which we all just “get along” in a melting pot of insipid bliss) depends upon a rejection of labels. And reactionary conservative extremism reinforces this misunderstanding through its shallow critiques of “identity politics,” according to which I am an entitled whiner if I insist on living as a self-identified “lesbian.” In short, the very idea of labels has gotten a bad rap and been willfully misused.

But labels are indispensable and can serve liberatory and expressive aims. As I sit here, I see them all around, dials on my stove that denote high and low flame, and a Sharpie squiggle on a repurposed peanut butter jar marked “half-caff” (very important). They help create temporary order and can often be altered at will for either playful or serious purposes. I can peel off and restick labels, change my canister of oats to quinoa just like that. From this point of view, labels are not essentialist identifiers of fixed natures, but practical, shifting markers that can make life both easier and more fun.

It is in this spirit that I’m quite happy to say “I’m a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.” The words point to features of my aptitudes and inclinations that connect to social justice, and ethical and metaphysical minimalism. Once can infer quite a bit about the sort of teacher, scholar, and interlocutor I will be with only these labels to go on. But, of course, it is part of the point that the labels I have taken up, at least in the classroom, are open-ended, leaving much to the imagination, both of others and of myself. Other labels, by contrast, that also accurately apply to me, limit me in the minds of others which is, of course, precisely why it can be so powerful sometimes to announce ourselves too as gay, or agnostic, or socialist or vegetarian or some other label that might challenge the preconceptions of those around us.


But labeling myself isn’t something I do only, or even primarily, for the sake of others. Naming myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor is a shorthand way of reminding myself of some of the basic, sometimes aspirational, values that guide my professional practice. When I stick these labels on my forehead, neatly printed from my Epson machine, I am announcing a commitment that I have to certain pedagogical, intellectual, and ethical values that both I and my students can hold me to. And, importantly, such labels can encourage students to be curious; “What exactly does it mean to be a pragmatist anyway?” I can feel them wonder as they look at me.

I am, then, in favor of reclaiming labels, of embracing the undeniably useful and even playful quality of them. The trick, of course, is to move away from the Judeo-Christian image of God-the-Labeler supplying identity to objects and beings as he names each one “in the beginning.” I am, then, offering a pragmatist, feminist approach to labels to explain why I am comfortable calling myself a pragmatist feminist. When it comes right down to it, in any case, I have noticed that most students are still quite committed to labels even as they decry them. Many still declare themselves as Christian, as tolerant, and, increasingly, as gender fluid. And there is perhaps no label to which contemporary students are likely to be more attached than that of being beyond labels.

Am I Part of the Problem?

Probably most of us who love working in higher education are also critical of it. But the shifting intersections between universities and big business, public disinvestment, and the now common view of students as customers have all brought new urgency to our worries, guilt, and grievances.

With this in mind, the ambivalence many feel about online education may be obvious: Is online education merely enabling or exacerbating some of the worst trends in higher education? With the machinery of higher ed racing ever faster towards cheaper, interchangeable instruction, have I become part of the problem? For example, unlike most online teachers, my labor is not inexpensive — I have the increasingly rare luxury of being a tenured professor on a campus with a strong faculty union — but I am enabling an on-the-cheap infrastructure, one in which offices, classrooms and on campus amenities need not be calculated in at all.

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Asking tough questions about online education against this bleak backdrop seems like an ethical necessity, especially for those who, like me, have the privilege and relative security of tenure: How can I justify participating in, and benefitting from, a system that aims to cheaply reproduce educational credits? Isn’t higher ed reproducing a caste system in which privileged kids, mostly white, enjoy an enriched physical experience, complete with attentive professors, ivy covered walls, and intramural activities? Meanwhile our online students hustle to complete their discussion posts during breaks from their jobs at Chipotle and Walmart.

We tell ourselves, maybe, that we’re providing a special service to students who might otherwise have no access to college, and this is undoubtably true in some cases. Many of my students juggle jobs, family responsibilities and heavy class loads, a teetering balancing act that online convenience makes possible. But while it matters that some students benefit in exactly this way, their frenzied lives are are also partly caused by an ailing system. Why in the world is college so damn expensive? Why aren’t child and elder care more affordable? Why aren’t classes offered at times more convenient to working students with families? My point is the fairly obvious one that public higher ed is limping along within a social system that exemplifies values and priorities that aim to thwart it.


Because the broader social context is part of what makes online education an attractive or necessary option, I wonder if we online teachers don’t have a special duty to question the role and value of online classes even as we provide such options to our harried students. It’s not that I think online education is inherently inferior to face-to-face, but surely working class students should not be forced into it. If we want to do our online work with integrity, then, we must not become defensive about online classes, but should actually encourage our colleagues and students to question it as well, even as we diligently serve our students within its limitations.

This is not a satisfying solution, but I’m not sure we can do much more than encourage and engage in higher ed activism. After all, the outsized emphasis on online education (which makes online ed an easy target), is merely one symptom of higher education’s decline. We also hear its gasps in the ever increasing number of courses taught by shamefully-compensated part-time instructors. It is not, then, as if our hands are somehow clean if we insist on teaching only in our physical classrooms.