Cruel Optimism


Cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life–with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality–despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives ‘add up to something.'”

–Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

Painting: Paul Klee

Skyboxification and Democracy


“It’s no longer true that when it rains everyone gets wet. I call this skyboxification… Something similar has been happening in American life throughout American society throughout this last three decades. Against a background of rising inequality, putting a price on everything, commodifying every aspect of life, has the effect of driving people apart, leading the affluent and those of modest means to live increasingly separate lives… This isn’t good for democracy, it’s a corrosive effect, this relentless commodification and inequality, together are corrosive of the sense that we are all in this together. Democracy doesn’t require perfect equality. It does require that people from different social backgrounds, different walks of life, encounter one another in common spaces of everyday life. This is what teaches us to negotiate and abide our differences. This is how we come to care for the common good, to feel that we’re all in this together. So in this subtle but cumulative way, the relentless commodification of life, together with rising inequality, have undermined the social solidarity, the commonality, that democracy in the end requires. This is one of the dangers of the unquestioned embrace of market thinking and of market logic.”

–Michael Sandel via The Partially Examined Life #98

Photo by Andrew Thomas (via)

Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

Education in the Headlines: India and Finland


Cross-posted at

International education issues do not always hit the headlines or trend on Twitter, but one day a couple of weeks ago, two such stories did.

A striking image from Bihar, India momentarily trended on social media. The photo in question depicted dozens of adult men desperately scaling, by hand, a multistory brick building. The accompanying story explained that inside the building, students were taking their Grade 10 year-end examinations. Outside, parents–mainly fathers, apparently–clambered up the walls to pass answers on to their children. As far I could tell, in the coverage, much ire was directed toward the “cheating” parents and their audacity to break the rules so blatantly in broad daylight. Embarrassed authorities made arrests and promised to crack down and prevent any further scandalous cheating incidents. In one article a father was quoted as saying that “the only way [to] get out of this poverty trap is through education.”

Meanwhile, that same week or shortly thereafter, educational authorities in Finland announced that the country would be replacing subject-based teaching with teaching by “phenomenon.” Instead of organizing schoolwork around traditional subject areas–literature, mathematics, science, etc.–classes would be organized around topics, like “cafeteria services” or the European Union, in order to encourage a cross-disciplinary approach. The Independent‘s coverage of the reforms included words like “small groups,” “collaborative learning,” “playful,” “prepare children for the future,” “safe, happy, relaxed, and inspired.” The redesign of curriculum was meant as an alternative to systems that “push kids through ‘exam factories.'”

The image of Bihar children, sitting inside exactly such an exam factory, placed next to the Finnish children “rushing around corridors” playfully and collaboratively, struck me as a cruel juxtaposition, and the ire toward Indian parents horribly misplaced. Maybe if the education on offer in Bihar’s schools were meaningful, it would not be so easy to scam. Perhaps, if formal schooling in India addressed children’s cultural backgrounds and changing economic realities–as it does in Finland–then parents would not feel the need or compulsion to cheat.

It reminds me of how, in the newer research and literature on educational development and domestic education reform, the term “drop-out” is increasingly being replaced with “push-out.” To say a student “dropped out” suggests that leaving school was an autonomous choice, and a wrongheaded one at that–a student who drops out is labeled “a dropout” and all but handed a dunce cap. To say that a student was “pushed out” poses a different idea and connotation–that the student put forth genuine effort to attend and remain in school, but that the inhospitable, or downright hostile, environment of the formal educational system forced him/her out of the school. The student is not at fault; the school is for undermining students’ learning through unfair, inequitable, or simply inept policies and practices.

In other words: if Black high schoolers in Philadelphia are disproportionately targeted for expulsion and other disciplinary action, and they leave school before graduating, can they be said to have dropped out–or has the school all but told them they are not wanted there? Likewise, if children in Bihar are forced to learn through the medium of Standard Hindi or English–both foreign languages to many learners in Bihar, who at home speak Urdu and other dialects of Hindi–can you blame them for cheating? Or are they resisting linguistic submersion and assimilation?

We could reframe Bihar parents’ cheating in a similar way. Are parents “cheaters”? Or are they engaged, concerned parents who care enough to miss out on a day of wages and risk a criminal record for the sake of their children’s futures–children who have already beaten the odds by attaining a secondary-level education? It may be that I am romanticizing and excusing corrupt behavior, or that what I am saying is a version of cliche “hate the crime, not the criminal”-type thinking. But I believe that in the context of education, this is not cliche but is the type of thinking we desperately need more of. We need less focus on students’ deficits in relation to school and more on their assets and resources; less focus on how students and families are failing to conform to the strictures of schools, more focus on how schools are failing to serve the needs and realities of students and families.

Finland already knows that this is what is important, and it has reformed its schooling in line with that idea; now India, and most of the rest of the world, including the U.S., needs to realize it as well.


Strategic Formation

“The media is right to go after [Brian] Williams like this. Imagine if you let lies slip into news stories, like a huge pile of them that was disseminated in say the New York Times, and meet the press, and sometimes in the New York Times just so that the administration could go on meet the press and say this… And the crazy thing is, the Bush administration are the ones who planted the fucking story in the New York Times in the first place!” —John Stewart

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Strategic formation is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and a way in which groups, types, genres of texts acquire mass and referential power among themselves (Source). Edward Said introduced the idea of strategic formation in the introduction to Orientalism. Just as everyone who writes about the Orient, he wrote, must be either associated with the West or the East (strategic location), anyone who considers the Orient must create a basis for whatever argument or position they assume (strategic formation). The intellectual basis of their position is composed of referential knowledge that relates to other works (Source).

In other words, by amassing an authoritative body of literature on a subject (such as the Orient) and referencing those works, you can create a self-referential web with the trappings of academic rigor and scientific rationality, but no accountability to acknowledge other viewpoints outside of that textual discourse or to accurately describe reality.

We can see strategic formation majorly at work in the American political landscape, as John Stewart noted in his show last night. We also see it in my field, educational development. A couple months ago I signed up for an online course called “Educate Girls,” sponsored by Teachers Without Borders and now offered as a “free public course” at Johns Hopkins. I was immediately turned off when I saw that every item on the reading list was either authored by the founder of the organization Teachers Without Borders or by one of the major Western international development NGOs. “Educate Girls” was not a course on the educational situation of girls and what’s best to be done–that was a course on what a narrow segment of the world, analyzing the issue through a particular ideological frame and solipsistically turning inward to each other for authority, thought of that issue.

Of course, one could say the same for all of academia.

For more on girls’ education and strategic formation in development, see Frances Vavrus’s Desire and Declinequoted above. For more John Stewart quotes, see the Daily Show.


Social Justice Arguments for Working at a Rich School


Two years ago, I accepted a position as a curriculum developer at one of the most prestigious and affluent K-12 schools in Istanbul. It was a departure for me because up to that point (apart from a stint at a well-to-do preschool) I had only worked in under-resourced schools or at educational centers serving at-risk, minority, or poor populations. Even when I worked at a huge public university in central Turkey, many of my students came from lower-middle-class families, had a hard time meeting the costs of living, or could barely afford the IELTS or TOEFL fees.

My choice of where to work was by design–like many of my idealistic young peers of our generation, my self-proclaimed mission has been to increase educational and life opportunity for marginalized individuals and communities, no matter how problematic or quixotic that endeavor may be in our prevailing world order. Such a mission means making the intentional choice to work in poor schools in some sense of the term: schools in poor neighborhoods, schools with many poor students, or educational centers lacking in financial and material resources to serve their students.

The school I worked at in Istanbul was decidedly not poor in any meaningful operationalization of that descriptor. The school did offer several need-based scholarships each year to a few students with academic merit, but scholarships were not a central aspect of their mission. Most students came from elite or well-to-do families and spent their summer breaks in England or Switzerland or the Gulf. Yearly tuition was over the moon, and my starting salary put me in the top 11% of earners in Turkey at that time.

For the educator whose self-proclaimed mission is to serve the most at-need students, is there any way to rationalize or justify working at an affluent school? After my experience, I could come up with two arguments for working at a rich school. The first one is weaker and more problematic, while the second one is potentially more robust.

1. Impart values of social justice and service to future leaders of society. The assumption is that children from affluent backgrounds who attend elite institutions will eventually end up in positions of power in society, whatever those may be in the given society, so we should try to influence their ethical mindset while they are still young and malleable. In fact, this is how I ended up in education, nonprofits, and development. I attended elite secondary and post-secondary institutions where I was made aware of the various injustices of the world and implanted with the urge, and the skills and connections, to address those injustices. The value-driven nature of my Jesuit university education influenced me to pursue education as a career.

But the effect wasn’t consistent–not all of my classmates who were subjected to that same education went into jobs or careers focused on social justice. And in any case, it’s a problematic notion that the way to achieve change is by means of the prevailing power hierarchies and elite networks–this is not really a transformational approach to the realization of a just and equitable society. And ultimately, if the educational institution as a whole does not happen to be aligned with the mission of social justice, and is not receptive to it, then there’s very little a single instructor can do.

Still, there’s always the central tenet of faith at the heart of teaching: you never know what a kid will take away from a lesson, and what can happen by getting through to one child.

2. Learn how the rich kids are educated so that you can bring that high-quality education to poor kids, or empower them to counter it. At this rich school in Istanbul, I worked alongside some of the most talented and experienced language educators residing in the city at that time, worked under some very effective leaders, and worked on ambitious projects that stretched my skills and my technical abilities. Now I can take all that cumulative experience and share it with students and educators in more vulnerable and marginalized communities who can’t afford to buy that kind of talent and expertise. (This is based on the assumption that elite schools make use of high-quality, progressive pedagogical practices–not necessarily true. Some elite North American private secondary schools are known to be held together based on stringent traditionalist discipline and the ability to expel troublesome students at whim. However, assuming that you’re working at an institution as I did that offers high salaries to attract quality candidates, and which makes an attempt to follow educational research and trends, you’ll probably learn something useful.)

I also, at this school, potentially witnessed or heard of some ethically murky practices such as padding numbers so that a parent wouldn’t complain about a student’s low grades. Such phenomena are of course related to contextual or social factors that an individual teacher or school, even a rich one, has no power over (high-stakes tests, nationwide ubiquity of cheating)–but basically, if that’s how some rich kids are getting ahead, then it’s worth being aware of it and considering the implications for the children and communities we are trying to serve and empower.

These are the two arguments that stuck out to me and, in the end, I was motivated by both of them. When I had the chance to write lesson plans at my old school, I would integrate or emphasize topics related to urgent world issues or pressing human needs. And I am currently using the curriculum development skills that I honed at that job, to write curriculum for a school serving refugees in Cairo.

Of course even children who happen to be born into well-off families deserve a great education, and there are many ways to “serve” in our local and world communities besides teaching or direct service. But thinking specifically about myself and fellow social-justice-oriented teachers who have interests in teaching abroad, the international schools and elite private schools are often the only viable option, given the high degree of visa bureaucracy support required just to be employed abroad and the American-sized debts and needs we bring with us when we immigrate (very much out of proportion to the average teacher salaries in the places we immigrate to). For educators with social missions, it’s worth reflecting on how this might put us into the position of enforcing power structures abroad that we might not stomach at home, what that means, and how we can counteract or transform it.

Note: Terms like “poor” and “rich,” “affluent” and “needy” are problematic and need to be problematized, and certainly mainly of the communities we consider “at-need” are only so in relation to our prevailing ideologies, and in fact have deep funds of knowledge. I only used such crude terms to get my point across more quickly–and to speak frankly about frankly stark divides.

Above: Detail of a school mural. Photo by me.

Anecdotes from a YouTube ban

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“Yesterday was April Fools Day,” I told my sixth-grade English class earlier this week. “Did you play any tricks on your friends?” One student, a tech-savvy kid in the Lego Robot Club, raised his hand. “I told my friend Facebook was going to be blocked. He believed me!”

His friend believed him because a few days earlier the Turkish government had played its own trick: instituting a nationwide ban first on Twitter, then subsequently on YouTube, and later threatening to shut down Facebook as well.

Why were they banned? One second-grade boy had a theory: “They banned Youtube because of Erdogan’s voice!” he asserted confidently. As children can be, he was both far from and humorously close to the truth. It was true that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s voice gave out, reducing his voice to a hilarious squeak at a couple of party rallies. But the real reason for the ban on social media was a series of incriminating leaks, disseminated via Twitter and YouTube, implicating the Prime Minister and other high-ranking party members in scandals and corruption.

The YouTube block in particular was a nuisance. After the ban went into effect in the evening of March 27, I wrote angry rants to my friends about how I had planned to use videos in my lesson the next day, and how upset I was about all the teachers who would have to re-plan their lessons and all the students whose educational experiences would be affected.

This complaint might seem extravagant considering the indulgent nature of most YouTube content, but YouTube is more than cat videos, and videos of all kinds are crucial in today’s ELT pedagogy. Videos are engaging “lead-ins” to introduce a new topic or grammar point. Videos show language in context with properly contextualized facial expression and body language. Videos show different cultures and cultural norms. They also give a means to transcend limitations of the classroom. One teacher cannot have a discussion with herself, but she can show a video of a group of people conversing and use that to demonstrate conversational strategies. One teacher cannot reliably reproduce a wide range of accents, but a video can show different accents. Videos are a life-line for teachers who want to reward their students with a fun activity or who have a few minutes to fill after the lesson material is completed. For these reasons and more, there are several popular ELT blogs dedicated solely to designing lesson plans around videos: Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals and Film English to name a couple.

And of course, YouTube is the most comprehensive and most-user friendly repository of videos. My colleagues at school offered workarounds. Change the DNS. Use a VPN, download the video using a YouTube downloader on your computer, put the video on a flash disk, then show the video on the school computer. Paste the YouTube video link into Google Translate, “translate” the link, and then it will play–a handy “Easter egg” he had learned from a student. But it doesn’t change the essential infuriating issue–that it is no longer as easy to utilize a useful educational tool.

The Twitter ban was lifted on Wednesday of this week but the YouTube block continues. It makes me wonder how teachers in other countries that ban it–China, Iran, Pakistan, and a few others–make do, and how unfortunate it is for Turkey be (once again) included in that list.

Photo: Screenshot of a video demonstrating the speaking portion of the Cambridge Flyers exam, which I had planned to show to my students who are preparing for that exam.

Boys, girls, and curricula


Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers

Cross-posted at

A few weeks ago, the time came to select textbooks, workbooks, and readers for the upcoming year. My working group had already held several meetings to discuss books for the students in our grade level. It’s a torturous process complicated by the need to identify books that are at the same time thematically and linguistically appropriate for our students’ age and their English level. It’s also complicated by the fact that many wonderful English young adult books, which would be appropriate for our purposes, are simply not available for distribution in Turkey.

On each occasion, I have made an observation and a request: Most of our books this year had boy protagonists and male themes. For the upcoming year, can we include some books with girls as the main characters? And I suggested a few possibilities. Each time I got the same answer: That’s a nice idea, but imagine how the boys would take it! If we did that, we would need to provide another choice for the boys, and that would be unwieldy.

In this situation, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, girls are measurably more successful in school while boys are less engaged and more at-risk for low achievement, low attendance, behavioral problems, and dropping out. Christina Hoff Summers wrote that this is because the “scales are tipped…against boys” in schools in terms of institutional social pressure and that school policies are “hostile” to boys. Schools, as Summers insists and as my colleagues intuit from years of experience, are  challenging places for boys because they “punish the distinctive, assertive sociability of boys” such as competition and heroic play. Boys’ alienation leads to misbehavior in the classroom, in turn degrading the teaching and learning experience for everyone, both boy and girls. Catering to them, my colleagues presume, reduces classroom conflicts–improving the educational experience for boys and girls alike–and raises their achievement, while the girls will still do well.

On the other hand, we don’t want our curricula to perpetuate biases and social injustices. Why should it be acceptable for girls to tolerate boys’ themes, and boys’ perspectives, and boys’ experiences, but boys cannot do the same those of girls? We criticize society for privileging male narratives, and male characters, and assigning men the status of “default” human while women are considered supporting actors in the drama of men’s lives. We criticize this, but how can we change it if that’s how children even experience it in school? And anyway, what kind of standard are we setting for boys–that we believe they are not capable of empathizing with perspectives different than their own?

Part of the problem is systemic: most English-language young-adult books available for distribution in Turkey are about boys, and the ones I indicated with prominent female leads are not available. Thus the market gives society what it wants, society takes it, and two create a mutually reinforcing cycle of privilege. And it is privilege–as author Walter Dean Myers wrote recently, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Of course, this is not an either-or–either use boyish books or girlish ones, either have a girl-friendly school environment or a boy-friendly one–and some of the most progressive schools in the world such as those in Sweden even downplay and reject the terms “boy” and “girl.”  In the near future many other factors will play in, such as the expansion of e-reading platforms which will extensively expand the readers a school has access to and obviate the challenges of hard-copy book distribution. But the debate in my mind showed me the current challenges of sustaining a gender-balanced curriculum and the many factors. How do you maintain “balance” on the scale when the weights you are working with are irregular and misshapen, or when you can’t even agree on the relative weight of one thing to another? The scale will tilt to one side or another according to someone.

In the end, my working group submitted almost exactly the same book list, still dominated by books about boys, soccer, and fighting.

Photo: Readers and books in the English Department in the Primary School.

“Are you Christian?”


Note: this is a cross-post from my teaching blog

The other day I taught a fifth-grade lesson. As usual when I enter a new classroom, a torrent of questions flooded out: Where are you from? Do you know Turkish? Do you know Obama? And this time: “Are you Christian?” asked repeatedly and energetically by a boy in the front of the room.

That one gave me pause. There were realistically only two possible ways I could have answered: ”That’s not important right now” or “Yes I am.”

Each option had its advantages. “That’s not important right now” is a stock phrase to remind students what is urgent (learning) compared to what is not urgent (randomly blurted out questions). But on the other hand, “Yes I am” happened to be true, and I believe in being honest with kids. (Whether or not I believe or practice the religion is irrelevant. By this society’s standards of religious identification, I am Christian by virtue of being American, ethnically European, and celebrating Christmas on December 25.)

But each option had its drawbacks as well. The former –”It’s not important”–seemed like avoidance, given the obviousness of the answer. The latter–acknowledging it openly–I recoiled from instinctively. Religion is both intensively public and a taboo here. One politician recently called religious practice a “knife’s edge” in her speech, a precarious balance between freedom and oppression. And I just heard an interview with a Turkish author where she warned about the harshness of identity politics in this country. Should I acknowledge such a risky topic? If I say something, will it get back to the kid’s parents, or to my boss? What’s the policy about talking about religion in a secular school? I had to deal with a touchy subject once before with students, when a Turkish tutee brought up race in one of our private lessons. It occurs to me that my discomfort with these situations is not vis-a-vis the students themselves, but rather the parents whose ideologies I might unintentionally conflict with.

But something flashed into my mind. Educator Vivian Paley wrote a book, White Teacher, about her experience in a multicultural and multiethnic preschool in Chicago. In the book, she vividly describes the situation when she started teaching: bullying, teasing, self-doubt, the classroom gradually becoming more and more acrid. Paley eventually confronts the elephant in the room: all of the students were acting out the racial stereotypes that they saw played out around them in daily life. Only when Paley leads her children to open, safe dialogue about the taboo subject she was avoiding, race, did the classroom become harmonious.

So I just said, “Yes, I am. That’s why I’m excited for Christmas!” The boy responded by pumping his fist and exclaiming, “Yes, I’m Christian too!” as if he had won something.

After that, I refocused the class and everything went smoothly. In the end, whether or not I answered one boy’s question probably did not have a major effect on the outcomes of that one lesson. But children sense taboos as well. If the student was eager enough to ignore the taboos and bring it up, then it was probably important to him, and worth acknowledging.

How do you deal with taboo subjects when they come up in the classroom–particularly when there isn’t enough time to address them in detail?

Photo: Fresco inside of a cave church in Cappodochia, defaced by later Iconoclasts or Muslim invaders

Travel and challenging assumptions



In my previous post, I mentioned a couple of times here when my assumptions were unexpectedly challenged. This is actually one of the things I cherish about traveling and living abroad: it forces you to confront and examine beliefs you thought were steadfast and unassailable. Often those beliefs are relatively benign and harmless either way (like weed and the moon landing). But sometimes those beliefs are less harmless, as I discovered last week during a tutoring session with two high school students.

We had somehow gotten around to speaking about Africa when one of the girls chimed in, “I don’t like the black people.”

“Oh, really? You don’t like black people? Why is that?” I asked, dearly hoping she had made a mistake and would self-correct. Instead, she giggled, “Yes. I don’t know, I just don’t like black people. I don’t know why.”

Clearly not a mistake. “Well, you do know that’s racist, right? You know, ırkçılık?”

Her friend gleefully jumped in. “I’m not racist! I love n—ahs.”

Again the gear-stopping mental sensation, overwhelmed at the sheer amount of political incorrectness crammed into that one moment. From an American perspective, race is an impossibly historically loaded and sensitive topic–even writing down these anecdotes, and thereby transmitting the explicit racism, is problematic and difficult for me, socially programmed as I am to politely avoid any possibility of racial discrimination.

That’s not necessarily the case here in Turkey–there simply isn’t a parallel social category or history to race (the closest thing might be religion, or ethnicity.) Consequently, Turkish students’ flippancy with race always catches me off guard. Today wasn’t nearly the first time that I’ve heard the n-word uttered in an academic setting–I’d even heard it out of a colleague. Another time, in a class earlier this year, a student announced gushingly, “I love the black people! They very attractive. Barack Obama very handsome.”

These kinds of statements and behaviors are problematic in obvious ways that I don’t need to mention to this audience, but how do I explain it to an audience unfamiliar with the nuances of American history, our shared tragic past and history of injustices which still shape our attitudes and worldviews and language today?

In the end, the student and I had a conversation, in which she admitted that she didn’t know any black people (there weren’t any in her çevre, she said) and suggested that that might be why she doesn’t like them. I agreed. “In university, or when you travel abroad someday, you will meet people who are black from Africa, America, and other places, and you will see that you like them just as much as everyone else.”

But how could I begin to approach, within short one hour tutorial, the nuances of the n-word and the concept of verbal repossession by minority groups? All I can hope is that my students have their assumptions challenged as much as mine are, and that they too can start to imagine living within a different history and a different paradigm.

Photos: Top: student and stray on the Bogazici University campus. Bottom: students doing boardwork at Anadolu 


Block center in one of our preschool’s classrooms.

As a senior in college, I have been in the throes of applying for all the jobs, fellowships, and scholarships I can get my hands on. All of those fellowships, etc., are teaching-related, because I know that I want to teach for at least a year after graduating. Copied below is an excerpt that I have been using in my applications. The story attempts to explain why I like teaching and why I think teaching is meaningful in general.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to have an observable positive impact on people besides teaching, but it was through a teaching role that I first experienced the feeling of helping to change a person’s life for the better and realized that my efforts could truly change a person–even if it was just one little person who loved Dora the Explorer and Hannah Montana.

“¿Qué, um—cuál libro quieres leer?” I managed to blurt out after Circle Time. It was my first day with my partner child, Estephany. She was a four-year-old attending class for the first time, at a public HeadStart preschool center in Washington, D.C. I was also there, working for Jumpstart, an Americorps program for preschoolers from low-income families. I was one of the only members of my team who had taken Spanish classes, so I had agreed to partner with Estephany, an English language learner. This was the start of a rocky, but ultimately fruitful, one-year relationship during which Estephany learned to be a student, and I began to learn how to be a teacher.

Over one year later, I was working for DC Schools Project, a literacy program for the DC immigrant community, at another public school. It was a Saturday morning; Spanish-speaking adults were taking free English classes in the classrooms upstairs while I offered enriching learning games to their children downstairs in the gymnasium. I had set out books, pencils, crayons, worksheets, and long strips of butcher paper. A dozen children of all ages trickled in, and to my surprise, Estephany was among them.

Seeing her again was profound. By this time, I had assisted and tutored in two more schools with other English language learners. But this was Estephany, my very first student. And no longer was this the fickle, bossy, anti-social Estephany pouting in a corner and crying when she heard English. Instead, she was beaming, skipping, laughing, and nonchalantly chatting with her cousins in English. She was drawing a picture on the butcher paper and writing her whole name next to it. She was even writing down numbers and adding them together!

It made me dizzy with pride for her and for myself, because I remembered being there, coaching and coaxing her along, when she wrote her very first E, then S, then T, then, finally, the rest. I remembered racking my brains to discover ways to make writing those numbers novel and interesting for her. I remembered scouring public libraries for Spanish-language books that would appeal to her capricious interests. I remembered consoling her in Spanish when she cried because she was intimidated by hearing English—and feeling like crying myself because I, too, was learning to communicate conversationally in a second language, and it really is hard.

Seeing Estephany again was when I genuinely committed myself to teaching. It was clear she was doing well and that I had a part in her positive development. In all the other organized endeavors I have given my energy to—printing newspapers, creating artwork, working in offices, building websites—I had never been so sure of my positive impact on the world as this one little girl made me.

PS: Other things that make teaching worthwhile include witnessing a three-year-old write down the names of Transformers characters in almost perfectly-formed letters. Learning can be powerful and magical and awe-inspiring.

Nacirema and Racs

Below is an excerpt from Horace Miner’s 1956 article “The Body Rituals of the Nacirema.” In the article, he relates the culture, practices, values, and beliefs of a seemingly exotic and strange people. Skim the whole thing, and then continue reading below to find out where this strange and exotic Nacirema live.

Read backwards, Nacirema spells “American.” Instead of describing a far-away and exotic tribe, as readers expect, “The Body Rituals of the Nacirema” describes very “normal” aspects of American life–dental hygiene and medicine– using language like “magical powders” and “medicine men” that frames them in a very abnormal way (source). In this sense, Miner’s article was a satire on anthropological papers about “other” cultures (source) and shows how ethnocentrism can affect how we see a culture (source). You can read the entire piece here.

A similar article is “The Sacred Rac” by Pat Hughes. Like Miner, he uses words such as “sacred,” “tribe,” “rite,” “tribesman,” “temple,” and “ceremonies”–vocabulary we associate with “primitive” cultures–to describe a central part of American lifestyle and culture. He then concludes:

Despite the rac’s high cost of its upkeep, the damage it does to the land, and its habit of destructive rampages, the Asu still regard it as being essential to the survival of their culture.

What is a rac? A car. (And “Asu,” of course, is “USA” backwards). “The Sacred Rac” was meant to show that just as we might think the importance of, say, cows in Indian society is weird and abnormal, others might think the same of the centrality of cars in American society. Such ethnocentric perspectives obscure the fact that both the car in America and the cow in India evolved as responses to different historical social pressures. (Regarding the history of the cow in India, see Marvin Harris’ “India’s Sacred Cow.”)

Both articles help us see how things we take for granted as natural, normal, and necessary, such as cars, can from a different perspective be interpreted as unnatural, exotic, abnormal, and unnecessary. In this sense, both “The Body Rituals of the Nacirema” and “The Sacred Rac” are illustrations of the “sociological imagination”: stepping out of our own culture, trying to look at it through the eyes of an outsider, and recapturing the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted (source).

More psychology fragments

Society is an insane asylum run by the inmates.

–Erving Goffman, sociologist

Situational ethics: The idea that rules for behavior may not be considered rigid but depend on the circumstances involved. This position is based on the notion that any action may be considered good or bad depending on the social circumstances. What is wrong in most situations might be considered right or acceptable if the end is defined as appropriate. See this paper about student cheating and situational ethics.

Moral licensing: Past apparently virtuous behavior may give us license to be less virtuous later, as if we can withdraw from moral bank accounts. One outcome of moral licensing is that small, seemingly moral acts may prevent us from doing further good deeds and may actually increase the odds of us doing immoral deeds. See this Washington Post article for examples.

Decision fatigue: The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, with the result that the brain begins to look for shortcuts–becoming reckless or doing nothing–in order to ease mental strain. Decision fatigue is based on ego depletion, the theory that willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted. Via this New York Times article.