Day 337, February 15, 2020

 Relentless Optimism

Today's soundtrack:The Miles Davis Group, Norway, 1984

I met with a wonderful group of transfer students today and their instructor asked me, given all my experience working with students in higher ed, what are the three things I would want to pass on to these students in their first year at UMass. 

I look like a cartoon shadow of myself.

First, was the idea of coming from an asset based perspective. I come to this from J.K. Gibson-Graham, but also Kretzmann and McKnight's Asset Based Community Development. Often, when we talk about an asset based perspective, we share a photo of a glass of water and ask what do you see? Is it half full or half empty? The reality is that it is both, simultaneously. If you allow only one perspective to dictate the reality, then you are ignoring half of the reality. Within higher education, as in many other realms, we are often driven by a deficit based perspective of the glass being half empty. We worry about low test scores, failing grades, struggling students, and non-existent budgets. When you start by looking at the deficits, it is much harder to do anything except dwell on what is missing. It is extraordinarily hard to create more water unless you have access to a river or it is raining. But, with half a glass of water, you can still do many things, you can quench your thirst, water a plant, or rinse your hands. You can start with the skills you bring to the table, for this group of students, a strong work ethic, pride in balancing work and school, a knowledge of how to seek out help, and multiple examples of creativity. If you start with your assets, then you can use those to strengthen what you already have, and then you can use those assets to start to work on deficits. 

The second thing I shared was the idea of intersectionality, that we are are all made up of multiple perspectives. That no one thing defines us. Our sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity, age, class, ability, religion, life experiences, all these things shape who we are in different degrees. We are all a sum of these different identities and if we recognize that we are each an amalgam of these different things... and that in different situations we privilege or prioritize certain aspects of our identities, then we must recognize that the same must hold true for other people too. Our identities are constantly shifting and altering our priorities. When we understand the malleable aspects of each other's identities, we are no longer fixed in how we see ourselves and how we see each other. It allows for us to have greater empathy and understanding. 

The last thing I shared built on the idea of intersectionality. I joked that it sounded like a hippie idea, that multiple realities exist simultaneously. But, if one recognizes that all of those aspects of my identity, and the collective accretion of my life experiences shape my perspective of reality, if I can recognize that my reality is shaped by all those things, then I must also realize that other people's realities are shaped by entirely different experiences and identities. Their reality may be shaped by an entirely different set of circumstances and identities, and for them, is no less real than the reality I inhabit. So, the question then becomes, not about trying to fix one reality as being the only reality, but learning how to translate and communicate between these realities. How do we learn from one another? How do we add to the richness of one another's realities?

It is a epistemological stance of relentless optimism, which I think some people find taxing. But it is also potentially intoxicating in its allure, particularly in a time like this when we are all seeking something to hold on to, something that will help carry us through these days of the continued pandemic. For those of us in the United States, we are recovering from a particularly divisive political era, which taxed the most kind hearted of us. But, I remember early on, before the former president was elected, a high school friend engaged in a whole hearted conversation with me about how he disagreed with my political perspectives on social media. Neither of us had any idea of what the coming four years would bring, but even then it stood out to me as a truly open hearted and honest conversation. I don't know what my friend retained, because true to his word, he quit social media, but I do know that the conversation lingered with me. I didn't want to chase away friends who had different perspectives, I wanted to engage them in conversation. I wanted to learn from them, and I hope they would learn from me. Of course, there have been times that I failed to uphold what I hoped to maintain, most recently I replied to a former colleague's post a little brusquely. She asked, If they called it the Spanish Flu, why can't we call it the Chinese Flu. Feeling too tired that day, I just typed out 1918 vs. 2021. Thinking better of my reply, I went back to try to erase it and maybe give a kinder response, but I found she had unfriended me. And that was fine, but I did feel disappointed in myself for not holding up my end of the bargain I had made with my high school friend, that I would try to keep an open mind and listen.

I hope you are all well,


Franklin spent a little time staring at himself in the mirror the other day.


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