On Not Being Productive

This summer I’m hoping to not be productive. I don’t want to become involved in any big, all-consuming projects. And I don’t want to do Work. What does that exactly mean? Right now I’m resisting the urge to “unpack” my claims. That sounds like work to me. But, I will archive some recent sources that are currently influencing me.

Beside/s: Remembering and Forgetting

Last week I, along with my husband and two kids, took a road trip to Utah. Starting in Minnesota, we drove through Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado to get there. It was a lot of driving. To endure it, especially Nebraska and eastern Colorado, we loaded up an iPod with a lot of Radiolab podcasts. We included a few This American Life’s too.

I’m so glad that we listened to the podcasts. Not only did they make the drives go by faster, but they got me thinking about memory, longing, nostalgia and the tensions between when we need to remember and when we should really forget. I’m hoping to write a much longer essay about these podcasts and how they connected to and enhanced various experiences on the trip, but for now, I just wanted to make sure that I archive the ideas/sources.

In addition to putting these sources beside each other, I also want to put them next to my reflections on and practices of visiting Utah to relive and recreate past vacation experiences. Last year, I attempted to express this through my video, Double Vision:

For Further Reflection

Quote

Here are a few passages that I’d like to return to or just remember:

From The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion (5).

Empathy is a kind of care but it’s not the only kind of care, and it’s not always enough (17).

From True Summer:

You could call summers like this a colossal waste of time. But that’s what feels immortal about them—wasting time, colossally, as the gods must do. And as energizing and healthy as it can be to participate in society and be a good citizen, I’m greedy for time with the soul, or at least with my brain, the neurons firing fiercely even when I’m sluggish—all those mysterious goings-on, so easy to ignore in the productive life.

And there’s something essential and delicious about getting off the social map of work and school, no one knowing what you’re doing or even really thinking about you. You begin to lose the boundaries of yourself. Part of society’s function is to say clearly: this is your job and these are your accomplishments, this is your family and your social circle, this is what you look like and your general identifiable personality. It’s comforting and necessary to be so defined. And we are social animals, and all of that, and there’s definitely good reason to engage, engage, engage with the world—by which is largely meant, other people. But I’ve always been more drawn to the nonhuman world, to the fringes of knowability—space and prehistory, the first attempts at civilizations, the alien nature of reptiles and creatures of the deep sea. I think most of us are this way, sometimes, secretly, and it’s difficult to engage with such things while on a lunch break at the office, gossiping about the boss. Somehow it’s easier at home, wearing a sloppy shirt. And even easier on a walk in the dead heat of summer of your college town, just you and the senior citizens out there, having a few stray thoughts. The self free of the fetters and comforts of occupation and so taking up as much space as it cares to, so much space that it might seem a bit scary. Roaming and thinking or not even thinking. Nothing glamorous or romantic about it at all, but somehow, sometimes, closer to the unknowable and the elusive. One minute you’re eating a tomato and red onion sandwich off your belly while loading up Netflix, and the next you’re pouring a glass of water and feeling somehow closer to God.

 

On Bad Babies, Moral Education and Care-as-Generosity

Note: I originally started this blog post in mid April. I decided to finish it up today. Originally, this post was intended to be far more ambitious…maybe that’s why I never finished it. In completing it today, I’ve decide to focus less on offering up every insight that I can think of, and more on just getting it done. 

I miss writing in this blog. Why did I stop? I think it’s because I’ve been too busy working on other projects: writing/editing two ebooks, researching and developing an interactive documentary about my family’s farm (and writing about it on another blog), experimenting with digital storytelling, and learning how to collaborate with my son on an epic video game project. It’s also because I was burned out on critical thinking and making trouble. I wanted to create, not just critique. And finally, it’s because I’m still working on figuring out how to maintain a healthy distance from the academy. I’m trying hard to not get sucked back into it and its highly toxic values.

But this spring, I find myself wanting to return here. To write. To critique. To ruminate on theories/articles/podcasts/media that connect to my primary areas of research interest: moral education, caring, curiosity, troublemaking, virtue and ethics. Today’s post is inspired by an article I found on Facebook about kids and moral education: Raising a Moral Child by super/over-achieving Academic Adam Grant.

Instead of writing a straight-forward review of the article (which I may do in the future), I’d like to let my mind wander and wonder at how the topics raised in this brief opinion piece for the The New York Times connect to other things I’ve recently (and not so recently) read. I also want to use this post as a space for both talking back to the article and being curious about the implications of some of its claims.

First, a brief summary: In “Raising a Moral Child,” Adam Grant poses the question, “What does it mean to raise a good child?” and ponders whether focusing on good practices or good character is more important for helping children to become “kind, compassionate and helpful.” Drawing upon several psychological experiments involving kids, Grant makes the following conclusions:

  1. Praising character (you are a generous person) is ultimately more important than praising a kid’s actions (you did a generous thing).
  2. In terms of negative responses to their failure to be kind, kids should feel guilt not shame. Parents can encourage this by expressing disappointment in the action instead of in the kid.
  3. Modeling generous/caring actions as parent is more important than lecturing to kids or telling them to be generous or caring. Character is shaped by actions: kids see how to be by what we do.

I appreciate Grant’s focus on character and the relationship he sees between character and action. I also appreciate his focus on caring, generosity and moral education. But, as I was reading this article, I found myself repeatedly asking: What does he mean by caring? Being kind? Being generous? Is generosity, in the form of kids giving their extra marbles to “poor children” (the primary example Grant offers), the most effective basis for determining what is/isn’t moral/good/caring? (My implied answer: No, it isn’t). These questions reminded me of a variety of things I’ve read or written about in the last few years.

What is care?

How do define care? While Grant assumes that we all (who is the “we” here?) share an understanding of care, I’m not so sure. Especially when that agreed upon definition seems to be reduced to generosity in the form of giving to the poor. I appreciate how Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher offer a more expansive definition:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (103).

Care and generosity come in many forms, some of which aren’t always as caring and generous as we assume them to be. The paternalistic care that giving to the poor (marbles or money) often engenders may feel caring to the one giving it, but what does it do to the object of that giving—the “poor”? Here I’m referencing Adam Grant’s discussion of this study in which 7-8 year olds could give some of their marble winnings to “poor children.” Sadly, since I’m no longer an academic, I don’t have access to the whole study. I’d really like to know how the researchers describe “the poor children.” Part of the focus on raising caring children should be on discussions/working through of what caring can/does/should mean. And on resisting the impulse to see “the poor” merely as objects (and not subjects) of your giving generosity.

Way back in 2010, I wrote about kids and learning to care in Linking care with Troublemaking.

what does it mean to be kind?

In What does Mean Mean, Kate Bornstein writes:

And why didn’t I simply write, be kind. I almost did.

But people have ruined that word by calling for a kinder, gentler nation and then effecting a nation that’s very close to the opposite. Another example: someone could consider truthfully that they’re being kind to you when they stop you from being a homosexual… because then you won’t go to hell. It’s become too easy for people to convince themselves that they’re not being mean when they simply call themselves kind. Nope, the word kind can be stretched way out of shape. So, be kind couldn’t be the rule.

I think that treating others with respect in ways that doesn’t do violence to them or deny them of their dignity is very important. Perhaps that’s part of the kindness that Grant is calling for. But, instead of only training kids to be kind, we should also focus on helping them to develop ways for not being mean and for standing up to others who are mean. This can provide kids with some valuable tools for resisting/fighting back against people who try to treat them, and those around them, like shit (or, as I’ve started telling my 8 year old daughter, people who “try to dim your light”). And, it doesn’t restrict the “good” behavior that we promote to some narrow form of kindness.

I was reminded about “not being mean” this morning (May 27th), after clicking on and reading through the link that STA sent me about kids (especially girls) and relational aggression as a form of meanness that is affecting younger and younger kids: Little children acting mean

BONUS

Right around the time I started writing this post, back in April, I listened to an episode of This American Life called Bad Baby. Here’s the episode description:

They’re small. And they’re cuddly. But sometimes it feels as though our babies were replaced with demon replicas — controlling, demanding, or just downright awful. This week, stories of infants and children who dominate the adults around them with their baditude, or whom adults have painted with the “bad” brush from early on. We also ask the question: at what age does badness begin?

Anxiety, Curiosity and David Sedaris

Yesterday morning, I was listening to an old This American Life, Americans in Paris. In the first act, Ira Glass follows David Sedaris around Paris. While talking to Glass about the anxiety that he feels, living in Paris and struggling to speak in French, Sedaris says:

It’s that thinking that makes me feel alive. And it makes me notice everything around me. When I become complacent like I was in the United States…you know, you just get used to things, so you don’t think about them….Whereas now, with me, the anxiety starts early on and I’m always afraid that someone’s gonna throw me a curveball and ask me a question like, what sign are you? Just ask me a question like that out of nowhere and I’ll appear foolish. So it keeps me on edge. But really, that edginess, has always made me feel alive. [When that anxiety] is removed for me, then I probably won’t be interested in living here anymore. I’ll probably leave.

Glass describes Sedaris’s life of curiosity and wonder in Paris:

For now, things are good for David in Paris. He still feels curious about everything, about figuring out what it all means. And that makes everything so interesting, all the time. The mystery has not ebbed from everyday life.

I’m struck by the connection that both Sedaris and Glass make between wonder, curiosity and anxiety. It reminds me of my discussion of Avital Ronnel and her valuing of anxiety in The Examined Life:

I want to spend some more time thinking about these ideas. Although, I must admit, it’s hard to think about anxiety right now as I sit outside in my backyard on a beautiful spring day.

A Troublemaking Anthem

Troublemakers spend a lot of time confronting (encountering and challenging) bullshit. This is exhausting. And it can make you really, really angry. What can you do with that rage so it doesn’t consume you? I was talking with one of my favorite troublemakers, KCF, over lunch about this question. At one point, I suggested listening to (and singing and dancing along with) some Fuck You songs. Here’s a great one to start with:

trouble needs a home

I heard this trouble song on The Current a few days ago:

Trouble needs a home girls,
a covert abode
from Tucson to Ohio
back through Tobacco road.
And she is armed and will fight for the souls
of girls around the world.
Standing up to Satan,
dancing on st. Michael‘s sword.
I’m on her side, in this brutal war.
Don’t cry baby…

On Pranksters

Aside

51S1GkMY1cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Here’s a book that I’m interested in checking out: Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World. It was published on April 1, 2014, of course.

Invoking such historical and contemporary figures as P.T. Barnum, Jonathan Swift, WITCH, The Yes Men, and Stephen Colbert, Kembrew McLeod shows how staged spectacles that balance the serious and humorous can spark important public conversations. In some instances, tricksters have incited social change (and unfortunate prank blowback) by manipulating various forms of media, from newspapers to YouTube.

On Being Capacious

Last year, J Butler spoke about the continued need for the humanities. I was particularly drawn to her use of “capacious.”

Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world — in short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and our acting.

To be capacious is to be generous when listening to others’ perspectives, to be willing to take seriously ideas and experiences that we don’t understand or with which we don’t agree. I love the idea of valuing capaciousness. It fits with making and staying in trouble because being capacious (creating/inhabiting roomier, more generous spaces of understanding and engagement) demands that we push ourselves to think deeply and critically, especially about our own actions and ideas.