Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community

A conversation with Nimisha Barton, historian, educator, and diversity practitioner.

Nimisha Barton will lead a workshop for NetVUE members on October 27th on Bias, Privilege and Educational Freedom (see below for more details). As we finalized the details about her workshop, Nimisha generously agreed to be interviewed about her work and career trajectory and how her experiences in graduate school have informed her approach to mentoring. At the end, Nimisha suggests texts and other resources for educators who are committed to supporting undergraduates and unlearning the damaging messages into which we have all been socialized.

Describe the work you do now and how you engage with students, either as a consultant, teacher, mentor, etc. 

I consult with colleges and universities helping faculty and staff around the country find ways to improve their relationships with their entire community. This may look like inclusive teaching workshops for faculty or inclusive leadership development trainings for students. At the end of the day, I seek to highlight existing norms and practices and suggest new ways of thinking that might enhance our relationships with one another. Often, this means thinking through how historical and sociopolitical realities have conditioned the ways we currently relate with one another and imagining new ways of being in community. 

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A Call for Care in the Academy

As self-reports of anxiety and depression are on the rise for our students and suicides continue to impact small and large college campuses alike, we have hit a moment of reckoning: how mental health is viewed, represented, and accepted in the academy. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, administrators, staff, professors, and students are being asked to stretch themselves in new and inventive ways. Uncertainty surrounds us all. The silver lining might be officially recognizing and naming the need to care for ourselves.  

Self-Care: What it is and why you should do it.

As we are being asked to radically accept this new world order of teaching, whether it be over Zoom or behind glass shields in masks, we too must come to terms with the need to stop and care for ourselves. How often have you viewed caring for yourself as a form of professional development? Therapy can be a tool for self-care and an official way to care for yourself. A yoga app that you use at your leisure or a mindful meditation can be your self-care ritual. Self-care can be focusing for 5 minutes on your breathing—just thinking intentionally about your breath in and your breath out. I am extending the invitation to you all to add a small shift in your day, of either extending your care rituals or starting a care ritual (however long or involved) as a way to sustain us on this voyage of teaching and learning amidst a global pandemic. 

If I do not provide deep moments of care for myself, I won’t be able to extend that care to my students. Creating a culture of care for myself also allows me to model that care to my students and encourage them to take time for care for themselves. I have adopted a form of self-care pedagogy where I define, normalize and institutionalize self-care in my classroom. I insert self-care days, so students see that it is as important as the content I am teaching them. We talk of self-care as a form of ritual and practice, a way to center ourselves for the learning before us and to rejuvenate from the learning behind us.  

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Cultivating Dissent as a Tool for Vocational Discernment

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2016 portrait

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR interview, May 2, 2002.

This insight from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated with me in these weeks since her passing. The social movements in the name of justice that characterize our present moment require us to engage in a deeper reflection on the meaning of dissent and its effectiveness in shaping vocational direction. Dissent, used wisely and with integrity, forces us to clarify the deeply held convictions at the heart of our oppositional response. In the process of that discernment and clarification, we can discover greater purpose and meaning in our life.

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Of Casseroles and Community

Suvi Korhonen, Creative Commons

This fall semester I am teaching a course on theology and suffering. The course is titled “Sin, Suffering, and the Silence of God.” It is a course I teach every few years, so it was on the schedule for this fall long before Covid-19 swept across the world. The students in this class are amazing–they always are. It is a seminar for upper-level Religious Studies majors and it is cross-listed for Counseling students. The students who take it want to be there; the class gives them a space to ask questions they want to wrestle with.

This year, as we have begun the fall semester in a hybrid format, meeting in small groups, once a week only, masked, and socially distanced, a course on suffering takes on a different level of meaning. We began the semester acknowledging our individual and collective losses. We have, in only a few short weeks, lamented and grieved together.

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The Pursuit of Happiness and the Common Good

In the movie Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks’ character Chuck is on a plane that crashes and finds himself relatively unharmed, alone, in a life raft. The raft washes onto the shore of an uninhabited island. He quickly learns to provide for his basic survival needs–food, water, shelter, fire. But he soon realizes that surviving means something more than having just the most basic of physical needs met. Several FedEx boxes wash up on the same shore; Chuck opens one that has a “Wilson” volleyball in it. He paints a face on the ball and begins to talk with Wilson as a real person. As the movie moves forward, Wilson becomes more and more of a real character. One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Chuck has built a raft and he and Wilson are out at sea. Wilson blows off the raft and is moving away from Chuck and the raft. Chuck risks his life trying to save Wilson, crying out desperately for him. And when he cannot get to him he sobs, “Wilson, I’m sorry!  Wilson!!”

Cast Away provides a powerful metaphor of our very human need for community. We are not, and cannot be, discrete individuals detached from those around us. And yet, community does not happen simply because we are surrounded by people. Urban loneliness is a serious and growing problem. Community needs to be crafted and nurtured; despite our need for it, it does not appear to be our default setting.

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Comedy or Tragedy: Some Shakespearean Wisdom for Vocation

© Jan Kacer, Dreamstime.com  

Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.  

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“Learning to Do it Well:” Life, Love and Work in Middlemarch

Middlemarch was published serially over twelve months from 1871-1872

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was published nearly 150 years ago, in 8 installments from December 1871 to December 1872. Victorian readers would have had plenty of time to speculate on the characters’ decisions and lives as they awaited the next chapters to be published.  Waiting, you see, was part of serialized reading.

Taking a year to read a novel is an elusive experience for contemporary life centered on binge watching serial television or listening to episodic podcasts.  Immersion has its place, certainly, in a world that is fragmented and demanding, but reading over a period of time affords insight and transformation that compressed immersion does not.

“What is the quality of your waiting?” I once heard a spiritual leader ask.  Academic calendars don’t encourage waiting but our vocational discernment clocks, which should be set for a longer, more deliberate reflection, can. The quality of our waiting can allow us to respond with purpose.

Middlemarch is a novel about vocation—some might even argue, the novel about vocation. It portrays life slowly unfolding before us. Many have seen the novel as a guide to deliberating a professional path, to navigating adulthood, to choosing a marriage partner, to surviving small-town life. More broadly, a recent BBC poll ranked Middlemarch as the greatest British novelContinue reading

Local Heroes

When she was 16 years old, Deirdre Sullivan’s father insisted that she go to the funeral of her 5th grade math teacher. She complained and resisted, but her father was adamant. Always go to the funeral, he instructed her: “Do it for the family.”

Her father’s advice is the focus of Sullivan’s widely read “This I Believe” essay, part of the collection assembled by National Public Radio between 2005-2009 when it rebooted the 1950s series hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Hundreds of similar essays, written by famous artists, scientists, educators, athletes and politicians as well as by unknown people who responded to the invitation to compose an essay, can be accessed through the This I Believe website. It is a treasure trove for short readings that can be used to prompt discussion about life, meaning, and purpose. Asking students to write their own “This I Believe” essay (and then to share them aloud with their classmates) can be a very effective exercise. It’s especially powerful when the professor shares his or her own essay. Continue reading

Back to the Future I: The Prolepsis of Vocational Discernment

“Prolepsis” is not a commonly used term, but it is helpful when talking to students about vocation. After all, what is college if it is not an opportunity to learn new vocabulary words?

Prolepsis connotes a present and active anticipation of a future reality. Said otherwise, to live proleptically is to live in the present in a way that reflects or is oriented toward an assumed future.

The DeLorean Time Machine in “Back to the Future” (1985).

To illustrate this, I ask students to take an imaginary journey back in time in my own life. While my parents’ generation might picture such an exercise through an H.G. Wells time machine, and I see myself jumping in a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor (at least if I can obtain some uranium or time things well during a thunderstorm), my students often choose to imagine a time-traveling drone equipped with a GoPro that can be controlled from the comfort of home. Any apparatus will do as I invite them to visit my fifteen year-old self at home in the suburbs of Philadelphia on any evening in August or September of 1982. I then tell them what they are nearly guaranteed to see. They will see my tall, lanky frame outside dribbling and shooting a basketball in the driveway until it is too dark to do so. (The full picture of my teen-self includes pre-Jordan tight shorts, socks pulled up to the knees, a headband, and Chuck Taylors.) Continue reading