Tuesday, February 6, 2024

My Gut Tells Me

“…still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”


That line from Paul Simon’s The Boxer has been on my mind a lot as I consider a world where many folks only hear what they want to hear.  A new idea can be simple or complex, but the challenge when encountering that new idea is always the same at one level:  We make decisions whether to disregard that idea.  Folks can come to ignore what they hear in favor of what they want to hear.  So how does that happen? 


I remember when I was teaching junior high students in a semi-rural area early in my career.  I was puzzled that so many students couldn’t spell the difference between “which” and “witch.”  A significant number of students interchanged the words in their writing; and the problem persisted with seventh and ninth graders who’d had lots of opportunity to learn the difference in prior grades.  That problem extended to a lot of other words that had “wh” sounds in them, and I realized that the students and their parents pronounced words that started with “wh” the same as words that began with just the letter “w.”  “Which” and “witch” sounded identical to them.  It made sense that students would constantly confuse the spelling of two words that they pronounced the same. 


I figured I’d be able to solve the spelling problem by pointing out that some people pronounce “wh” differently than they had gotten used to hearing it.  I didn’t approach it as a right and wrong way to pronounce the sounds.  Instead, I explained the sound variation as a way to make sense of spelling conventions.  In class session after class session, whenever I tried to explain the sound differences, my efforts were to no avail.  Students laughed at my funny accent and didn’t believe that I knew what I was saying.  They had heard these sounds all their lives in a specific way, and no one was going to convince them that there was another way that these words could be pronounced.  “Wh” and “w” made identical sounds.  Decision made. 


That’s the way it was throughout much of my career in education, whether I was trying to convince first-year college students of a logical fallacy they had made in an essay or university administrators and faculty about how online learning might be done in a way that improves education.  Getting people to see what they don’t see is, I’ve decided, what education is.  The obvious doesn’t need to be taught since people figure that out by themselves.  However, what they don’t see takes some skill to get them to see.  I guess I could be frustrated by that.  Instead, though, it’s always been an interesting component of my work – to tinker with a problem, find a solution, and then get others to see what’s possible.  Because education is about people, the challenges and their potential solutions are infinite. 


Current societies seem faced with this challenge as some want to make truth and knowledge malleable to their beliefs.  People can begin with a belief and then find reasons to support that belief – no matter how bizarre or outrageous that belief.  It’s how Couy Griffin, a county commissioner at the time in Otero County, New Mexico, could refuse to vote to certify the county’s 2020 election votes with no evidence supporting his decision.  His explanation?  “My vote to remain a ‘no’ isn’t based on any evidence. It’s not based on any facts.  It’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition.”  Couy Griffin is also someone who was convicted and sentenced for his actions at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.  He says that he went there believing that he was under divine orders to counteract the 2020 presidential election result he believed was wrongly decided.  Perhaps he's not being honest about this claim to intuitive reasoning and godly guidance.  Perhaps it’s a convenient explanation for motives he’s keeping to himself.  However, that a public official offered this response, despite whatever motivates it, is startling.  We’ve come to a point where someone can comfortably use these defenses and not be laughed out of the room.  Personal feelings are as valuable as facts.


The importance of affect….


Let’s be clear:  Learning and knowledge involve more than rational, cognitive thought.  Our brains are too complex to be thought of as supercomputers that intake ideas and reach conclusions.  Our brains do that, and that’s typically categorized as “cognition.”  But a significant part of coping with new ideas also involves “affect.”  Affect is a combination of instinct, reflex, intuition, and emotion – components of the brain that are as much an active part of processing new ideas as our ability to rationally process an idea.  We hear a new idea or encounter a new experience, and we cognitively process it to see how it fits with what we already know.  But we also react on that affective level where we’re filtering the idea through our instincts, intuition, and emotions.  Those comprise affect.  The affective part of reacting to new ideas is as important as the cognitive part.  It’s a pretty complex set of neurological tasks that the brain does so quickly and consistently that we don’t often think of the components of what’s happening. 


As neuroscientists have learned more about the brain, those of us who study learning have come to appreciate how the brain operates as a complex web of networks where any thought requires interactions from multiple regions that store and manage different components of any one thought.  It’s much more complicated than the phony “right brain/left brain dominance” myths that have been debunked for decades and still make the rounds online.  Our brains use a lot of parts all at once to produce a response to novel ideas.  That complexity involves rational thinking, but it also involves reactions that engage the deepest part of our brains where reflex, instinct, intuition, and emotion lie.  That complex response has helped us survive as a species, and it continues to do so. 


How our brains manage ideas is really a marvelous feat of biochemical reaction.  We like a new idea or don’t like a new idea, typically without asking ourselves if we’re responding from a purely affective response.  Each new experience, idea, or even person gets processed through this complexity.  We take immediate liking to someone and decide to be friends with them, and then later realize how much they remind us of a close friend from the past.  Conversely, we can confess to a new friend that, “I didn’t like you at first,” because that person looked, or talked, or acted in a way that caused a negative affective reaction that we had to overcome.  We juggle affect and cognition to make decisions every moment of every day.  In that juggling act, we use what we experienced from the past (both affectively and cognitively) to interact with what’s happening in the moment.  So reflex, instinct, intuition, and emotion are central to who we are.  They’re part of our learning process occurring with rational cognition.  There’s even more to the decision process that just affect and cognition, though.  Along with our cultures (customs and beliefs that are passed along to us from the groups to which we belong) and our physical senses (how we hear, see, taste, and touch), we constantly use both cognition and affect to churn, infer, adjust, and affirm new ideas.  That’s not just for the big ideas we encounter – it happens with even the small ideas, like when I was trying to convince my young students of the sound difference between “wh” and “w.”  Something seemingly that simple involved their ability to process the idea, what they knew about the world, and their perceptions of the person who was telling them the idea.  And balancing all that is how we make important decisions like whom to believe and who gets our vote. 


So maybe Couy Griffin, the former county commissioner from New Mexico, is onto something when he made decisions from his gut intuition?


Not really.  While it’s natural to have an affective response, when we unthinkingly rely on it, we’re perceptible to falling prey to prejudices and biases.  If you never step back and ask why you don’t like someone immediately or why you immediately believe a statement, you may never have a chance to later discover the cause of your reaction.  An over-reliance on affective responses can also be manipulated by the right message presented in the right way.  “Charismatic” leaders figure this out quickly and know that if they can get enough people to affectively connect to them, they can overcome that group’s cognitive processes that would warn them of danger or misdirection. 


Look at any of these leaders from any group and you’ll see some common traits, whether it’s Jim Jones leading the People’s Temple into the jungles of Guyana or Benito Mussolini confidently declaring that he, and only he, could successfully govern Italy.  These leaders learned to appeal almost completely to the affective part of decision making – that intuitive part of my junior-high-school students’ brains that told them I was an outsider and when I told them how words sounded, my explanation made no sense in relation to the world they experienced daily.  It’s how Donald Trump could make his now infamous comment about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue.  From his decades as a huckster and grifter, he learned how to appeal to people’s affect.  As he gained prominence, he successfully appealed to his followers’ fears of people different than them, and their fears of being replaced.  He knew that the resulting connection he would make with his followers would be unshakeable.  He didn’t study history deeply, but he studied human affect well – just as all grifters and con artists do. 


An appeal to affect is more than an emotional appeal.  It connects to that which is familiar, that which forms the basis for intuition, and that which, as a result, feels comfortable based on past experiences.  If learning were simply about a rational, cognitive processing of information, teaching would be simple because all a teacher would have to do is to present information logically and then know that learners would adopt whatever new ideas the teacher provided.  But any good teacher will tell you that won’t work, whether the topic is spelling, calculus, history, or any subject.  Learners bring the totality of their learning brains to every course and every learning.  Effective teachers learn to weave affective connections to content so that learners are as engaged as possible.  Effective teachers get people to see and hear what they don’t immediately want to see and hear. 


This complexity also impacts public dialogue.  Candidates spend a lot of money learning about the issues that move people to immediate action by bypassing cognition and appealing to affect.  The extensive mining of online data, focus groups, polling, and interviews that go into informing even the smallest political campaign is staggering.  The result is what passes for political discourse these days.  We have ads with scary images that rely on tropes to affectively connect a candidate or idea with voters’ positive or negative feelings.  A pro-candidate ad shows that person with children and puppies and soft music.  That same candidate’s ads about an opponent show images of dysfunction and disorder.  Instead of open debate over the merits of policies and beliefs, we have forums where candidates work at tying their opponent to disfavored images evoked by images that stand in for ideas.  By the way, this is how brands are sold, too.  If I can get you to smile when you see that cute gecko with the British accent, I get you to form a pleasant memory of both the gecko and my brand.  It doesn’t mean you’ll immediately go out and buy my product.  But that favorable smile helps when you encounter the opportunity to purchase my product.  Same thing with candidates.  Instead of giving your cognitive mind ideas to wrestle with, it’s easier and more effective to give you a strongly positive or negative image that will later be there as you’re deciding your vote. 


The result is not good.  The belief that the U.S. is exceptional allowed the U.S. to fantasize it was immune from the mass hysteria that produced cult-like followers who carried out horrific acts.  That belief has always been based on myth.  The U.S., throughout its history, hasn’t been immune from demagogues who used affectively targeted persuasive techniques to gain support for war, mass murder, mass enslavement, forced mass relocation, and more.  It’s a mistake to see those as the past from which we’ve grown and to which we are no longer susceptible.  I grew up with Japanese children whose older siblings and parents were forced into internment camps.  My family lived on the Whites-only side of the real estate red line that had been reinforced by government implementations of housing regulations – so I grew up learning about bigoted hate first-hand.  I lived through COINTELPRO where the FBI kept files on people like me because our ideas were thought to be dangerous.  I was alive when George Bush convinced Congress and the country to initiate the nation’s longest war, based on a lie. 


The list of the nation’s oppressions in my lifetime are long.  Each of these actions, whether they were in the past or are in the present, are supported by affectively based opinions that the majority of the population was encouraged to keep.  Those opinions developed from an appeal to affective beliefs that Native Americans needed to be civilized, African Americans were prone to crime and should be kept away from innocent White folks, Japanese Americans would always be more loyal to Japan because of racial affinity – the list goes on.  None of these are rationally developed arguments.  The provided rationale comes from an initial affective bias that is deeply rooted in intuitions fueled by fear and prejudice.


So what do we do?  It seems to me that awareness is the first solution.  Start questioning the basis of what you accept.  If you’re believing ideas based on your intuition, your intuition may be right.  Or it may be wrong.  Take a moment to step back and question your beliefs and let those parts of your brain that look at ideas rationally explore those beliefs.  Questioning your assumptions can help you avoid supporting the next mass-developed idea that will create the next national mistake.  You shouldn’t be afraid to question your beliefs, but you should be afraid not to question those beliefs.  It’s that lack of inquiry that has led nations, including the U.S., into intolerance and danger.  You have nothing to lose to ask yourself to look for clear and unassailable evidence to support what you believe.  And people in the U.S. have the world’s longest-standing experiment in democracy to lose if they don’t. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Reading Internet Addresses – a skill you need to keep from getting scammed



I’ve been seeing folks I know on social media who’re getting scammed by fake sites.  These are sites that look real and act real.  The links that take people to them often have the official logo and look of the site they’re supposed to represent.  But they’re not real, and they’re looking for ways to scam people.  How can you tell?  Sometimes, you can’t.  But most times, you can before you go to the site


You can tell most of the time where you’re going by learning to read the address, (often called the “URL”) of a site.  So I decided to write some notes about how to read URLs for folks who don’t have degrees from CalTech.  That advice is what’s here.  I avoid jargon as much as I can and try to break this all down so it’s understandable.  My goal is to help you know where you’re going as you follow links.  If you don’t know this information, your chances of getting to a scam site increase.  A lot.  What I’m sharing won’t keep you 100% safe – I’ve been fooled recently by a site.  But knowing this will keep you safer than if you didn’t know it. 


A site’s URL is in the address window of a page when you get there.  But you can preview the URL by hovering over it with your mouse’s cursor on the page that’s directing you to a site.  When you do that, somewhere on your browser window the URL where the link is directing you will appear.  Don’t click on it without hovering over it first to see where you’re going.  Every browser and a lot of programs show the link in different places, so look around your page to see where the URL pops up as you hover. 


A really important rule:  Don’t follow a link without knowing the address where you’re going. 


Step One to Reading a URL


First, you read sections of a URL.  You do that backwards, from right to left.  Start at the right edge of the address and see what’s there.  Reading from right to left tells you what you’re accessing.  Look at this link:


Forward slashes separate the sections of an address.  The last part that’s separated in this address is:





That’s telling that this address is pointing to a .wav file called “So-Long-Westland.wav.”  It’s a specific file because it has a file extension – a period followed by three letters that identify the file type.  A “.wav” file is a specific type of sound file that gets played over the Internet, and this address is pointing to a specific .wav file called “So-Long-Westland.”  There are lots of different kinds of files you can get directed to, and each type has its own extension name.  The most common is a “.pdf” file.  PDF files are generally documents, and sometimes forms.  Check out this link to the IRS’ 1099 form that you can complete online:



By looking at the far right, you can see what kind of file you’ll access by seeing the file extension (“.wav” or “.pdf,” etc.).  If it has a file extension that you don’t recognize, you should think twice about following the link because it may be taking you to a site where it’ll download a file you don’t want. 


Most times when you click on a link, though, you’re going to a page, not a specific file like the examples above.  Again, reading right to left can help you see where you’re going.  Look at this example:



The final section isn’t a file name.  Because there’s no file extension at the end, the link is taking you to a page.  The URL provides directions that tell the browser where to look for the page.  The name of this page is “lyrics-slw” and it’s put into a folder on the server that’s called “songs.”  It’s like how you use the folders and sub-folders of your own computer to track files.  Reading backwards, you can see the subfolders and folders where they’re embedded.  You can see the IRS using a similar strategy for where it puts its 1099 form.  That file is in a folder called “irs-pdf” that itself is in a folder called “pub.”  This is all a way for the developer to manage files and folders. 


Step Two


Continuing to read right to left, then, the next section of the first URL above is: 



That points you to the specific location on the Internet where the sound file resides.  Many times, you can strip out the last section(s) of an address to take you to the main page of a site.  If you type just, that takes you to the main page for that site. 


Sometimes, you’ll see “www” preceding the address.  You can get to the same main page as above by going to:


Whether or not the link has “www” depends on how the designer sets up the address. 


This is a point where jargon can’t be avoided.  So let’s get it over by explaining the concept of the “top-level domain.”  The folks who manage the Internet (yes, they do exist) decided that each type of Internet site could be categorized within a specific top-level domain.  These are broad categories of types of sites.  You can recognize the top-level domain for any site by its extension.  It was simple at first with just a few top-level domains like commercial sites in one category (.com) and higher education sites in another category (.edu).  Over the past 35 years, though, that’s expanded so there are over 1,500 top-level domain extensions available.  In the example above, the top-level domain extension is “.link.” 


Carefully reading the core address of a site and looking for the top-level domain can help you avoid going to scam sites.  Again, though, you have to read the information right to left.  Look to see what the final top-level domain extension is in that section.  If you’re expecting a higher education site, it should have an “.edu” as its last extension.  A site that reads “” is NOT Harvard university.  If this were a link you found, the final “.fp” extension would be actually taking you to a site in the Philippines since that’s what the “.fp” top-level domain extension designates.  You might need to read through a few folders on the address to get to the core address.  But look carefully through that top-level domain and address and let them inform you where you’re really going. 


Step Three

The remaining section of the address at the far left is:





That tells your browser that it’s doing an Internet search.  The use of the “http” language in web addresses goes back to the days when people commonly accessed more than web files on the Internet.  However, these days, seeing anything except an “http(s)” file is rare.  There are even some addresses where you don’t need the “http(s)” to get there.  If you just type “” into a browser’s address window, that should get you to the main page of that site since your browser will supply the needed https:// starter.    


However, there’s something important in that part of the address that you need to watch.  There’s a big difference between a site that begins with “http” and “https.”  That added “s” stands for secure.  A site that uses the “https” protocols includes some additional security features that keep it from being hacked.  No place on the Internet is completely safe, but accessing sites that use the https protocols keeps you safer.  Look for it, and be wary of sites that don’t have it.  Most browsers have a setting somewhere that allows the browser to warn you if you’re accessing a non-secure site. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Hand Working

Once in a while, when I create something, I post a picture of it to social media.  I have a purpose:  to show folks in my social media circles that things can be built by marginally skilled folks like me.  That seems an important idea to share because I know a lot of folks who see building things as something that only professionals or talented amateurs do.  Far too many people I know think building objects is for someone else.  It’s not that they see it as beneath them.  They just don’t envision themselves doing it.


I spent my professional life listening, talking, reading, writing, and thinking – all very abstract work.  It’s the work I chose, and I always feel fortunate and grateful that I got to do what I wanted to do.  It had a downside, though: There typically weren’t tangible products at the end of the work.  There were schools I helped launch, programs and projects that I was part of creating, and, of course there were the thousands of people with whom I interacted as their teacher, as their colleague, or as their boss.  But education is about abstraction.  After all, even building a school or new degree program leaves more people listening, talking, reading, writing, and thinking.  It’s purely mental work.  In contrast, when an engineer or carpenter creates something, there are abstractions to that creation (like its aesthetic value or its level of functionality).  But the perceptible part of that creation is unmistakably real.  The builder sees and touches the creation. 


Those builders can experience the joy of creation because they have that creation in front of them.  When I look at my professional creations, they’re not as readily identifiable to me.  Over time, abstract ideas I create meld into other abstract ideas, and they change into what the people interacting with them in the moment experience.  Those abstractions mold into the needs of their current users.  That’s as it should be.  The school or degree or certificate program I helped to launch couldn’t and shouldn’t remain as it originated.  For it to be of any use, it needs to evolve with evolving demands and needs.  The lessons I taught 40, 20, or 10 years ago are out of date, and I hope the students who were in those classes evolved well beyond whatever I taught them many years before.  But the workbench I built 25 years ago is still in service, even though I no longer own the house where it sits. 


It's not about “legacy” or a “leaving a mark.”  Creating something that’s tangible generates a satisfaction that building in the abstract cannot.  When I use the steps or a table or a shelf I built, I see and experience the results of my creativity in ways that I cannot experience with more abstract creations.  I’ve manipulated the material world and have tactile evidence of my work.  There’s a satisfaction in that creation as I develop and use the required skills to synthesize raw materials into something where the sum of those materials is greater than their separate parts.  And the physical product doesn’t have to be complex or ostentatious.  I build to the level of my skills and take enjoyment from whatever I build.


I’m not somehow specially skilled.  I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had opportunities to tinker and build from childhood forward.  And I’ve been around people who were generous with their time to show me new skills.  For example, my greatest learning during my undergraduate years wasn’t in college classrooms.  Because I had some knowledge of tools, I was hired as a maintenance mechanic at a local newspaper.  The manager who oversaw the maintenance shop believed that he could fix anything; so when the press needed to be expanded, he rented a boom lift, and those of us on the maintenance crew came in during down time on the press and installed the addition.  Or when one of the loaner bicycles we kept for carriers to use came back damaged, we’d have use an acetylene torch to weld or braze it back together.  Large or small, we fixed things.  I learned a lot of new skills as a result.  While I learned about abstractions during morning college classes, in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends, I honed my mechanical skills.  In the 40+ years since, I continue to learn and expand my skills so that I can continue to build and create.


One worry I have about the future is that many people don’t cultivate ability with their hands.  Part of the issue is that even the simplest modern device can have complex electronics that require some knowledge of PC boards and microchips – so it’s become easier to replace than repair.  But the other part is that many folks are disconnected from the ability to tinker and build.  These folks are missing the incomparable satisfaction of building something that they can see and feel.  People don’t need to know about PC boards and software design to use a drill or chop saw.  They need a more kinesthetic set of skills that lots of folks aren’t currently developing.  I believe that the proliferation of TV builder shows comes from a yearning to build.  However, although people may watch building shows on TV, they haven’t done it themselves.  Vicariously watching creativity is very different than constructing for yourself. 


I’ve had former graduate students remind me that I always encouraged them to learn to work with their hands.  That encouragement comes from my own joy and satisfaction from building.  It also comes from my belief that it’s an innate humane trait to build.  Leave a child alone in a room with any object, and within moments, that child will be imagining that object as a spaceship or a bridge or a car.  Natural imagination is the root of our need to build.  From years of evolutionary adaptations, imagination compels us forward as a species to create.  While compiling software or building new organizations taps into that creativity, there’s something instinctively more satisfying when we can see and touch a finished product.  The key is to explore and develop those skills that allow us to build. 


I appreciate the “maker spaces” that have popped up in recent years.  They seem like an attempt to recapture the desire to build.  I wonder, though, if that’s just the latest trend in a society that seeks whatever is novel at the moment – a society that’s mimicking the latest Tik Tok dance one moment and going off to a hot yoga class the next.  The good news about maker spaces is that in many communities, they’re accompanied by tool libraries where people can borrow tools for projects.  As people master a tool, they can discover many new applications to that tool.  You can use a skill saw, for example, to build a bird house, but it can also build a full-sized house.  So maybe someone attending a maker course can find a new passion for building and extend that passion into further creations by borrowing the tools to do the work.  I’m completely in favor of anything that encourages people to develop a passion for expanding their skills to build. 

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Unfair Fielding – the lessons of inaction

In my elementary school, during free-time PE, the boys would play a unique version of softball.  There would be fielders, a pitcher, catcher and batter, but no teams.  Because there weren’t enough children or time for two teams to play, the game was intended to be based on individual effort.  The roles of players would rotate, based on a set of rules.  If the pitcher struck out the batter, that batter would be out, and the pitcher would bat.  However, it was underhand, slow-pitch softball where the ball was relatively easy to hit.  A batter could stay at the plate for a long time, so there were other ways to rotate batters.  Kids would spread out over the field and attempt to catch hit balls.  A ground ball was worth a certain number of points, and a fly ball was worth more.  Over time, a player could earn enough points to become the batter, the most coveted role.  If you dropped balls or caught no balls, you wouldn’t get points.  So the key to becoming a batter was to get to where the balls were and catch them. 


There was one other rule:  If someone touched a ball but didn’t catch it, the ball was considered “dead” and not worth any points.  If a fielder caught a ball that had been already touched by someone else, that catch wouldn’t advance the fielder to the batter’s box.  Someone could say, “I touched that one” to any ball, and the fielder who caught it would get no points.  To an adult watching on the sidelines, this all apparently looked like a nice, fair game that allowed everyone the opportunity to participate.  A meritocracy, right?  Ostensibly, everyone would get a chance to bat.


I loved baseball as a kid.  I’d stay up late at night and listen to scratchy broadcasts of Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett calling Dodger games over the radio on a 50,000-kilowatt station from 400 miles away.  I wanted to grow up to be Willie Mays so badly that when I played in a league, I always wanted to be center fielder.  Despite what adults told me about how to catch a ball, I insisted on making a basket catch (Mays’ signature move) whenever I could.  As a Black kid living in an all-White community, players like Mays, and by extension baseball, became an important connection to my identity.  But as a Black kid in an all-White community, I learned about unfairness because of what the adults watching our play time chose not to see.


Like many activities which purport to be merit-based, this one never rewarded everyone’s merit evenly.  First, you had to get to the ball.  That meant that the most valuable spots were in a line just outside the infield between second and third base.  Since most batters were right-handed and most balls were hit on the ground or not very far beyond the infield, those players always caught the most balls.  The most aggressive boys and their friends quickly took those positions.  It was tacitly understood that those places were for certain people – all others were excluded.  These boys eventually all batted.  The ones left standing farther in the outfield got little opportunity unless they caught a fly ball that went over the heads of the ones standing at the edge of the infield or caught a ground ball hit too sharply for one of the closer players to make a play for it.


I discovered how the game was rigged whenever I tried to stand at one of the coveted positions on the field.  Other boys would come and stand directly in front of me and, over time, subtly push me father into the outfield.  Then there were times when I stood in the outfield and caught a ball hit clearly over infielders’ heads or well beyond the reach of any of them and someone would yell, “I touched that one” to deny my opportunity to bat.  No one ever directly told me that I wouldn’t get to bat, but it became clear that was an unwritten rule.  After that occurring repeatedly, I remember being angry enough with the unfairness of it all to throw down my glove and curse loudly enough for a teacher to hear and scold me.  No one saw the transgressions I experienced, but my transgressions were always visible.  After a while, I stopped going on the field completely and chose other activities where I could play alone since, as it turned out, all the group activities were similarly rigged to exclude me.  It was one among many elementary school experiences in unfairness I had as the first Black child to attend that school from kindergarten through sixth grade. 


So life can sometimes be unfair.  What’s the big deal?  And why am I telling stories about a children’s game?  As it turns out, childhood games teach us about life.  On my childhood playground, I wasn’t the only one excluded.  The school community had already determined a hierarchy of power and privilege that gave everyone a specific status – a status they were expected to accept.  The unfairness of a rigged process is a lesson that I, and all others around me, implicitly learned on the playground.  And I suspect that by the time we reach adulthood, far too many people, regardless of race or ethnicity, learn to expect unfairness as normative.  Some even see advantages because they’re the person who gets unfairly rewarded.  When children get so inured to the lessons of inequity which favor a select few, they learn to accept that system of unfairness as adults.  That becomes so normal that they can’t see those systems that perpetuate inequities.  It all becomes just the way things are.  And that’s the problem.  It’s a ”big deal” because too many people have become accustomed to asking “what’s the big deal?” when they see inequities.  So maybe it’s not just a children’s game if the game teaches people to accept inequities – especially as those patterns extend to systems that, when applied to a whole society, decide such important outcomes like who gets educated, who has political power, who gets appropriate health care, or who succeeds economically.  


I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to make that statement.  The U.S. didn’t get here by accident.  A nation where only wealthy, landowning men were franchised to vote at its founding excluded most citizens’ engagement for most of its history.  My African Americans progenitors weren’t even considered fully human during much of that history.  Only in the past six decades has the nation had any serious conversations about being fully inclusive.  As a result of its history, much of the nation developed passivity toward unjustness as a norm.  However, such a passive perspective is contrary to the demand for justice that needs to be at the center of a vibrant democracy.  If the daily lessons of life teach us to passively accept injustice, then we can be assured that injustice will continue.  It’s not just a children’s game if the lesson that children learn is the acceptance of injustice – whether that injustice is on the playground or a courtroom.  I fear that too many of us have learned acceptance instead of resistance.   


This all gets borne out in the statistics about who gets ahead and who doesn’t in the society.  However, it’s at the individual level, too.  People see someone unfairly maligning someone else, and they remain silent.  It’s as if they justify their silence because they didn’t create the injustice.  They see an unfairness being pushed onto someone or a group, and they say nothing – perhaps because they don’t see themselves as the perpetrators of that unfairness.  The problem is that silence is complicity.  People who refuse to confront injustice silently participate in that injustice. 


In other words, for inequity to exist, it takes more than the actions of people who create and benefit from the inequity.  It takes tacit acquiescence from everyone.  The teachers who watched the rigged game that frustrated me as a child didn’t pay close enough attention to see what was happening – or they didn’t care.  And any other children on the playground who were as excluded as I was had already learned the lesson of compliance.  “That’s just the way things are” was a lesson that they’d already absorbed.  It took the inaction of authorities, as well as those affected, for that injustice to continue.  We now see that happening on a national scale.  We have multiple reports of Republican leaders who privately complained about the 45th President when he was first elected and as he grifted his way through four years of his presidency.  Some found their voice briefly after the January 6 insurrection.  Yet they were quickly silenced into compliance and inaction. 


The term “inaction” is key.  If you know something is wrong, yet you don’t act, it’s like you’re standing in a town square yelling “Fire!” and just holding a water hose while the buildings burn around you.  Declaring any problem with no offered solution is always inadequate.  When the topics are injustice and inequity, a commitment to action should be at the start of any discussion.  The end of the discussion should bring a plan of action where people hold each other accountable for those actions.  That plan must include leaders and the communities they lead.  Everyone needs to be accountable not just for knowledge of the problems, but, more importantly, for their participation in actions that resolve the problems.  Being actors against inequity is what children should learn instead of the passivity that children with whom I played learned – the implied lessons that are still too prevalent today. 


As Republican leaders have now discovered, the time to act is when you first see the problem.  With time, the problem can become too overwhelming to address.  Go out and look for other people and organizations who share your concerns and who have a history of upholding rights.  Be part of collective action that counters this latest affront to justice.  Take an active role by volunteering your time and energy to those people and organizations.  If you’ve always been someone who expected that either someone else would do this work, or that nothing can be done, you need to change that perspective.  This is the time to act as if there is no other time in the future to keep our rights unless you act.  Unlike the childhood games that might have taught us passivity and compliance, inaction now has serious consequences for our future. 


Living with injustice is a learned habit, so acting for justice must be, too. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Remembering Eugene

This is an essay that I didn’t want to write.  And if I wrote it, I didn’t know whether I’d share it.  As I write these first sentences, I’m still not convinced that I’ll share what I write.  But I’ll write and then decide.  If you’re reading this, you know what I decided.


I write to honor Eugene Smith, a friend/mentor/guide/teacher who taught me the most important lesson I learned as a teacher.  My almost-40-year friendship with him seems too personal to share – especially since I just learned that he passed away last October.  He was 95 when he passed.  Though we met many years ago and lost touch for a while, we reconnected in 2011.  The last time I had lunch with him was in 2020, just after his birthday and just as the pandemic was starting to keep all of us apart.  Then we exchanged e-mail messages during the pandemic until he stopped responding.  We lost touch during 2021, and while I reached out a few times, I figured the non-reply was because he was getting more frail and unable to reply.  Until that point, he remained vibrant while looking for opportunities to engage in the world around him. 


His retirement years inspired me.  One of the joys of my life was being able to edit one of the books he self-published in his late 80s and early 90s.  He still had words he wanted to contribute to the world even as he transitioned into his ninth decade.  His last book, for which he asked me to write a review and which I read drafts of chapters as he wrote them, was especially meaningful since it was a lightly fictionalized version of his own journey to becoming an educator.  In my review, I wrote:


This book is worth reading because of the connection it makes between the humanity of a teacher and the work of a teacher – and how those two complement each other.  It is not a recipe for becoming a teacher, but it does offer an image of one teacher that is inspiring enough to encourage someone considering the profession.  That image allows the reader glimpses into how that teacher has been able to sustain himself while continuing to teach well into a stage of life when people are expected not to contribute to the world around them.


He gave copies of that book to people who attended his ninetieth birthday celebration.  In its pages I learned much about what shaped him.  That allowed me to discover his life well beyond our professional relationship.  You can read about some of his professional accomplishments in the obituary that’s online.  However, I now choose to write about the personal journey he helped me make from someone who understood the technical skills of teaching to someone who came to see the importance and value of seeing teaching as principally an act of building relationships.


I’d been teaching for five or six years when I met Eugene.  At times, I hear or read someone claim that teachers had a teacher in their life who inspired them.  That wasn’t true for me until I met Eugene – well into the start of my career.  I often comment that the teachers I encountered throughout my own education taught me how not to teach.  I became a teacher to ensure that learners wouldn’t have the same soul-denting experiences I had in elementary, secondary, and undergraduate education.  Within a few years of starting my career, people told me I was successful at the work.  By the time I met Eugene, I’d figured out how to write and deliver lessons, how to organize a curriculum, how to manage a classroom, and how to create engaging sessions.  So I didn’t need anyone to teach me the technical side of the work, though he did help me add to those skills.  What I learned from Eugene was something more significant than the skills he helped me hone, though. 


I majored in English literature as an undergraduate, and that degree left me wholly unprepared to teach secondary students how to write – which seemed more critical than teaching them about Chaucer or Wordsworth.  That’s why I applied to and was accepted in a master’s degree program where I could focus my coursework in composition and rhetoric at the University of Washington.  I took courses in composition theory and rhetoric, and I met Eugene as he taught one of those courses.  In my first year in the degree program, I also applied for the Puget Sound Writing Program’s summer fellowship program where teachers from the region spent six summer weeks focusing on learning about the teaching of writing.  In the year after I finished the PSWP summer fellowship, Eugene became the program’s director.  So we had many common points of contact. 


I learned about grammars from him – and, no, that’s not a typo.  He was the first to teach me that grammar is an organization system, and that there are many, formal organizational systems beyond the traditional, Latin-based system that’s typically (and badly) taught in schools.  He, for example, exposed me to Chomsky’s transformational grammar that remains critical to how I think about how people learn and apply language.  And he taught me about Vygotsky and the connections between thinking and language.  It all revolutionized how I thought about what my students did when I asked them to write – and what I needed to do to support them.  But those weren’t his biggest lesson for me.


Because I was completing the master’s degree in summers and evening, finishing the degree took me a few years.  I outlasted two advisors (one was hired away and the other retired), and the English department eventually assigned Eugene as my advisor.  I was happy about that since I’d gotten to know him a little through his courses and as he became the PSWP director.  I didn’t need career advising since I had a pretty good idea that I’d be a secondary English teacher for the rest of my career (a good lesson to me, now looking back, on the foibles of career planning).  But I did enjoy meeting with him and talking about the work of a teacher.  He always had great insights from his own experiences and passion about teaching.  I’d share what I was doing in my classes, and we’d discuss what that was working and what wasn’t. 


When I met Eugene, I taught in a semi-rural area that was about 50 miles south of the university, and there weren’t any peers with whom I could have those discussions.  For example, I told him about the plays my students were writing, and how I, as a personal exercise, wrote an introductory act for one student play in the students’ colloquial dialect employing iambic pentameter to show students meter while stretching my writing skills.  At one point, he made the trek to my school to see what I was doing and spend the day with me – not as part of a course or as an evaluation.  He wanted to see what the school and kids and classrooms where I taught were like.  For two summers, he hired me to teach PSWP’s summer writing institute for kids.  He and I had a connection unlike any other I’d had with any teacher to that point.  He was genuinely interested in more than papers I wrote and comments I made in a graduate seminar.  And more than the lessons of those seminars, our connection contained the most important lesson he taught me. 


Eugene taught me that teaching is always about those relationships.  It wasn’t that I could or should ignore a course’s content.  Learners came to my class to learn whatever content I taught, and having the skill to create a learning environment that engaged them around that content was important.  But helping students develop a relationship to that content requires a relationship with each student where they see my care for them and their success first.  If you’ve been a student of mine, and you felt that I wanted to know you well enough to understand your needs and to address those needs, thank Eugene.  He was the one who modeled that for me and taught me the primary truth that teaching is about relationships.  I’ve worked to recreate that for the students I was fortunate to have taught because of how much his care for me meant to me.  I may not have been successful at that with all of my students, but it always has been a goal for me, whether I was teaching secondary students, undergraduates or graduate students. 


So this is a note of thanks to an amazing friend who taught me the most important lesson in the profession where I spent most of my working life.  And I decided to publish it because I want that thanks to be public.  Every teacher should be as fortunate as I was to have known and benefitted from such an extraordinary friend.