Friday, November 20, 2009


While catching up on my New York Times, I came across 36 Hours in Rajasthan, India. I can't believe it's been almost three years since I traversed the route this writer recommends. In planning the next steps of my life, I hope that I make time for travel. There is nothing so perspective-granting as a visit to another culture.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Worth a Read

Postcards from America: The New York Times asks four writers to report on their local economies. I was particularly struck by the Iowa story, which, after seeing Food, Inc. recently, really resonated with me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Marvelous Chaos of Applying Methodologies to Daily Life

Professor Harrington sits on the table, eying the 14 of us encircling him. He uses his hands to steady his aging frame on the table's edge, turns slowly towards me, and quietly asks, "What's happening here?" Taken off-guard by the non-rhetorical nature of such an obvious query, I quickly respond, "we're students sitting in a room, about to learn." He grins and asks, "is that what's happening, or what you think is happening?"

And so begins my dizzy spiral into the world of ethnographic methods. The prefix title of this class, the part before the colon (often described as "the category of interest"), seemed meaningless when the class appeared on a list of requirement-fulfilling courses. "Methods of Inquiry." It sounded like it would offer an overview of a particular research method and provide an opportunity to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and premeditated choices of the research I've been reading in other courses.

As I've now learned, one of the core features of ethnography and participant observation is triangulation, the merging of multiple methods of gathering data and the cross-checking of this data through these multiple sources. To get triangulation, we ask three questions: What do people say is going on here? What should be going on here? (Or, perhaps, what do people say should be going on here?) And finally, what's actually going on here?

The funny thing about answering these three questions on the same topic is that the answers are rarely synonymous, despite the fact that we arrange our lives on the presumption that they very often are. It's both disorienting and liberating to know that what's supposed to be going on is very rarely what's actually going on, and often not even what the participants say is going on. Does this mean that we are constantly deceiving ourselves? Are we resistant to seeing the real occurrences of our daily operations, our societies, or our behaviors? Which of the sources or answers holds the greatest truth: our reality, our perception of it, or our expectations (essentially our understanding of the order of our activities and our world)? Finally, how do we ever really assess what's actually going on here, when that assessment is almost always human-determined, and every one of us brings a lens that forms a unique perception of the situation?

I couldn't help but write down Professor Harrington's comments on the first day of class regarding the absence of truth in science. He said, so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest comment worth saying, that scientific inquiry is about building connections between truths. Not discovering the ultimate truth, not uncovering anything at all, but building--taking two things that already exist and developing a model for understanding their relationship. Ethnography, of course, is exactly that.

In learning about ethnographic methods I am also learning how covertly I've been trained to think as a sociologist. When told to "do research" my mind immediately runs toward random samples of large populations, surveys, statistics, and ways that we can quantify our questions despite their focus on abstractions like "race" and "learning." In this course, we're learning how to sit down and talk with people, to build a big picture from a very small one instead of the other way around. Our ethnographic methods rely on spending lots and lots of time in the community or institution that we're studying, with the aim of answering the three questions above through direct observation and participation. At a very basic level, this makes sense--what better source of information than the participants and the settings themselves? Go straight to the source, take good notes, and build yourself a model of that tiny universe to help you understand some things there and even beyond.

This alternate role of participant-observer has, in my own life, presented an entirely different vantage point from which to consider all the relationships and scenarios I encounter. Out I go each day, examining and hypothesizing, asking questions of all the things I have historically taken for granted. Why do drivers stop at a red light? Is it because it's the law, because they don't want to hit a pedestrian, or because they don't want to be hit by cross-traffic? Why do children who fight in the classroom play together on the playground? Why do small, mixed-income immigrant communities flourish in pockets in this city where neighborhoods are so stiffly defined by socioeconomic status? Am I suddenly asking these questions because of the exciting prospect of field research, that golden gem of ethnography, which would require me to get out there and experience the scenarios behind these questions? Or, am I now realizing that every procedure, every situation that's part of our daily operations, has a story behind it and a logic that may not be what it seems? It's all chaotic and wonderful, wondering and questioning and theorizing about the best way to get to the bottom of this and that. I'm on my way to the train, a ho-dum process I engage in twice daily, and oh, I spy a curious scene!, off the brain wonders to consider triangulation.

Taking Harrington's advice and looking at scenarios through all the theories I've learned, I now want, or perhaps even need, to ponder, "what's happening here?" Playing detective like a five-year-old, I am rediscovering the beauty of the hidden methods and patterns of our crazy, unconsciously orderly lives, and it's marvelous.

On Old Subway Cars, and Growing Up New York

The subway seats are orange on this train; surprising, because the facade is sleek and clean, digitized, the kind they introduced in the early 2000s on all the lines we never take. When we'd venture onto the 4 or R platforms, we encountered these beasts like modern aliens, their interiors lined with light blue bench seats. Now they've permeated the outer lines like ours, the A and the 1, these high-tech warriors ready for the repetitious battle of the evening commute. On this A train with a modern exterior enclosing those old orange, classic three-toned seats, we take standing room amidst a mezcla of New Yorkers speeding uptown, past the slow stuffy stops of the Upper West Side, directly from 59th to 125th. We will stay on a few more stops beyond this gateway to Harlem, but as the doors open here our eyes drift across the station in silent homage to our haunt of earlier New York days. When the doors close we return to our activities, writing and reading, reflecting and learning, two things these four-eyed sisters do best.

We both wouldn't mind slipping into an orange seat right now and feeling the cool plastic on our tired backs, dropping our bags from our shoulders to our laps. Most of the seats are occupied by bodies we may never know, despite the familiarity some of their faces present from previous travels along the A.

It's been a year and six months since we moved further uptown and to the west. Though we've switched our primary train (a life status change for a New Yorker, akin to divorce or an empty nest or a new job), we seem to be plotting our old patterns, tattered, tried, and true, onto this new map. To get to the places we've grown to love, we simply walk farther; to continue our quest for a moment on each inch of Manhattan, we venture deeper. Along these new routes, we grace the same orange seats, hosting us for the mere minutes between each of our destinations, the traverses of our concrete geographic pattern.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Framework for Summer

My words are words of a questioning, and to indicate reality;
This printed and bound book...but the printer and the printing-office boy?
The marriage estate and settlement...but the body and mind of the bridegroom? also those of the bride?
The panorama of the sea...but the sea itself?
The well-taken photographs...but your wife or friend close and solid in your arms?
The fleet of ships of the line and all the modern improvements...but the craft and pluck of the admiral?
The dishes and fare and furniture...but the host and hostess, and the look out of their eyes?
The sky up there...yet here or next door or across the way?
The saints and sages in history...but you yourself?
Sermons and creeds and theology...but the human brain,
and what is called reason, and what is called love,
and what is called life?

-Walt Whitman

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Amazing Things Are Happening Here

Following the blocks from the 1 train to my apartment, I can tell what time it is by which stores still have their lights on. I know it's late when even Starbucks, after the midnight hour, has closed. For the most part, the streets are deserted, except for the smokers escaping crowded, merengue-and-salsa-filled bars, nurses leaving awkwardly-timed shifts, mothers returning home, weighed down with groceries and kids' clothing and burdens.

Each morning, heading back towards the 1 train I am greeted by the sun streaming through transparent, lofty walkways connecting the 8th-10th floors of buildings over Fort Washington Avenue, igniting a huge red canvas that screams: AMAZING THINGS ARE HAPPENING HERE.

Fighting crowds just to walk down 168th Street, I examine my enemy warriors and wonder where they're going. What amazing things will they accomplish today? How are they contributing to what's "happening"?

Here, on 168th Street and Fort Washington Ave, is the Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. What goes on inside its towering buildings and interconnected walkways is all but invisible to passersby, whose glimpses are limited to the wear on the face of a tired surgeon in scrubs grabbing 5 coffees at Starbucks or the quick transfer of a person on oxygen from the back of an ambulance to the hospital's emergency room.

This city is filled with these microcosmic concentrations of activity. Within the Medical Center's towering halls, scientists are building new vaccines, grandmothers are receiving their final doses of long-time medications, hungry student eyes are watching with careful attention procedures they must learn by rote. Further south and east, somewhere between the giants of Park Avenue and the art beat of the Lower East Side, the NYU Medical Center pursues the same activities, building another medical force and affecting another subset of our city's population.

These massive functions of institutions and structures so tiny within the grand scheme of this city keep me in constant awe of New York. Thousands of minute interactions build hundreds of daily rote processes and dozens of new discoveries all within this one four-block radius where, as it also happens, I make my home with hundreds of others who take their daily activities beyond the short limits of this neighborhood.

The interconnectedness of these tiny spheres forms the glue of this city. When a patient arrives from downtown or the Bronx, he brings his mother, who cleans houses in Queens, and his brother who used to own that beloved corner deli down the street. All the neighborhoods that comprise this city become intricately connected through the movements and alliances of the people who inhabit them. And so it goes, in all the many definitions of that vague word of place, its meaning rooted in the mind of the listener or speaker, amazing things are happening here.

"Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thursday, April 23, 2009

From Berlin, 3.18.09

A City Divided, united by the tearing down of a wall twenty years ago, struggles to build one cohesive identity to present to the world. More so than culture, economic realities perpetuate two worlds, one modern, progressive, western, the other the recent aftereffect of communism and inhibited progress.

This city serves as an excellent case study for tourism. The physicalities that so recently defined this city now provide more learning, cultural and commercial opportunities for tourists than for locals. We have been so quick to objectify these places, to historify them, that they have become fossils, informative and dead. Yet these places are remnants of an immediate past. 1990 is within the living memory of the majority of the world’s population. These places shaped day-to-day life for many of our neighbors, colleagues, friends and leaders—their footsteps remain in the annals of their rememberances—crisp and vivid and alive. Such quick memorialization quiets the immediacy—it puts these days in the bucket of the past. Yet it is apparent in Berlin that there were too many years of separation. How do they begin to participate in the same economy? What are their municipal priorities? Who does, and who should, this city serve?

Still, Berlin is alive—it is in that earlier, grungy state that once characterized London’s Brick Lane and New York’s East Village. Giulia raves about the inexpensive, inexplicable nightlife, the cultural energy, the constant flurry of parties and galleries and delicious food and watching the sunrise on a balcony in a new neighborhood each night. Much of this has been fueled by Berlin’s lack of cohesiveness, its inability to pull it all together into something subject to clear identification and resulting gentrification. Much of it hinges on uncertainty and perplexity at how to handle East Berlin. This is a unique situation that may prevent Berlin’s trajectory as a London or New York or San Francisco.

Yet for all the glamour and grunge, I don’t think Berlin is for me. In its youthful population, this city is dominated by floaters and dreamers, artists and thinkers who are driven toward a lofty aim or who are adrift, passionate yet uncertain of their ultimate direction. I thrive in cities that demand competition and competence—I need to be surrounded by creative energy that’s being funneled into targeted, meaningful production. There are elements of Berlin that I would cherish in any city—lazy Sundays, six languages being spoken at a bar, partying until dawn without spending more than five Euros, art everywhere and always, buildings with history, neighbors with incomparable stories, the fusion of cultures from Europe, Turkey, and the world beyond. Take all this and couple it with a city with unmatchable global power, with a city that demands a place on everyone’s map, if not as a destination than as a place that absolutely must be known, and that, that place is my city.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reflections on Berlin

A few weeks ago, I visited Germany for the first time. I haven't written about it in retrospect yet because I wasn't sure just what to say. That Berlin is bohemian and grungy? Quiet and orderly? What do you say about a place that feels so familiar but remains entirely foreign?

An article in last weekend's NY Times Week in Review pretty much sums up my impression of Berlin, and of Germany more generally. While visiting, I was amazed at how everything seems to operate on the honor system, and how rule-abiding everyone is, despite their personal circumstances or the reasonableness of the rule. This kind of culture can't be bred out of thin air; it stems from deep roots in a culture's collective memory, from a shared goal of mutual survival grounded in the experience of selective alienation, and from a slew of interacting situations that countries like ours may never be able to relate to.

Beyond the orderly rule-abiding, I loved Berlin's neighborhoods. Like New York, Berlin feels like a series of pockets sewn loosely together, each with distinct contents and made out of slightly different fabrics. Part of this stems from the division of the city into East and West Berlin until the early 1990s, and part of it flows habitually from the nature of a large city.

Most especially, I appreciated Berlin's late-night conversations--the quiet exchanges between friends and neighbors at casual bars where you pay what you like or at places like Gramophone Bar, where all the pieces fit perfectly together into an irreplicable ambiance. In Berlin, life feels as though it will take its natural course, and that's just as it was meant to be. While Paris is for lovers, Berlin is for thinkers and seekers, for artists building amorphous representations of life and philosophers drowning the hours away in pensive reflection on the reasons behind the state of things, while life goes on within and beyond this creative, conscious city.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why I Love New York

We are a web of small communities, connected by the moments we share in the public places that shape our daily lives.

Despite having a hundred native tongues, we speak a common dialect.

Thriving on anonymity in our constant interactions with strangers,we learn the most personal things about our neighbors and the people who surround us, even if we never learn their names.

Friday, March 27, 2009

New York Is a Friendly Town

In the Student Service Center at Columbia, black and white pictures of New York line the walls. At one end, a high-contrast shot of Grand Central depicts the calm in the station before rush hour. At the other end, the columns and statues of the New York Stock Exchange loom over students awaiting transcripts, the processing of a request to drop a class, and other administrative steps that build and categorize their education here. How many of these students were once destined to hallow the halls of these New York giants? How many of them were to be passing through the terminal to a hedge fund or a bank, or turning a close eye to the trade floor with each day's opening bell?

As this New York crumbles, what are their destines now? Will courses in Greek civilization and Western humanities equip them with alternate paths? Will they put their heads together and, moving full-force through the gates of their alma mater, begin something that is thus far undefined?

After September 11th, this city thought nothing would be the same. Together, we acknowledged a crisis and we began to pick up the pieces, to re-build our homes, and to fight to make it to a better time. We took pride in being a city that accepts difference and used the irony of the attack as an opportunity for empowerment and for return to the comraderie that defines this city. For two years this city felt shell-shocked, but over time we began to put a new face forward, storing that frightful day in our permanent memory banks and continuing onward as soldiers in the most powerful metropolis.

This time in New York's history is different. After months of newspaper headlines screaming crisis and failure, I am surprised at how much we continue to operate as if business is usual, as if nothing has changed. I can feel it when I turn any Manhattan corner that this is a farce, that we are players in a game that has surely run amok. When outsiders imposed tragedy on our city we embraced it and joined together to fight it, facing it head on as our truth. Yet now, when we impose it on ourselves, we are less willing to confront it. When will we acknowledge a new chapter in our history? When will we begin to re-imagine our destinies? When will we take all this to heart?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can Education Save Us?

Obama’s invitation for questions yesterday brought over 100,000 inquiries from people across the country. Among the top categories was education, with over 13,000 questions voted on by 28,000 people. In times of massive layoffs, complete financial insecurity, and national struggles with homeownership and health care, why are Americans asking about education?

For starters, we’ve gotten to a point where we require or expect a costly and time-consuming college education for the majority of our workforce. With this expectation, Americans want to know how they will pay for college, or how they will get out of the debt they accumulated when they attended college ten, five, or even two years ago. These questions hinge on financial concerns, but they speak to a larger issue. In the last 20 years, we’ve turned to colleges and universities as a critical contributor to individual success. While this can be partially explained by the increase in specialization and growth of the knowledge economy in a post-industrial society, I don’t think this explains it all. Perhaps we’ve transformed higher education into a nearly mandatory task because these institutions aren’t as regulated by the government and therefore don’t seem to be failing us in the same way that our K-12 schools are. In some ways, we are unique in this situation; in many countries, secondary education is sufficient schooling for individuals to be deemed able to participate and engage in society in an informed and articulate way.

In the underbelly of all these questions about college loans and elementary school music programs, I think that Americans want to know how education might save us. An inadequate education system, in which students continue to fail against our nation’s own measures of success, can only hurt us. But an adequate or even innovative system, one that empowers all citizens with the ability to be productive, to think critically and creatively, and to master new tasks will make for a better equipped, more efficient workforce, a globally competitive American population, and, perhaps most importantly, a broader base of Americans able to say, “what were we thinking.”

As a superpower, we have very few colleagues to check us. We are able to behave irrationally or irresponsibly without too many peers to talk us down or call us out. What if we were able to check ourselves? What if within our population, we had diverse constituents equipped with the tools and the means to provide our own balances? This is the formula we rely upon for our government—why not rely upon it for our society as well?

Maybe America is sensing this. If we can turn our schools into 13-year breeding grounds of citizenship and articulation, rather than holding pens for rambunctious or starved (in any sense of the word) children, we may see one of the central social welfare mechanisms of our society transformed into the great arbitration tool of our nation. If our financial bailouts fail and the quality of life that most of us experience suffers, could our schools, the place where we train the next generation how to behave responsibly and act civilly, be what saves this nation in the long-run?

In my next post I’ll make some recommendations. These are lofty goals that require innovative thinking coupled with tangible reform. I’ll focus on how we can tweak our approach to school financing to ensure appropriate taxpayer contributions to education, and how we can reform how we use these dollars to ensure that the most valuable resources in schools are prioritized. It’s a meager start, but if we are to reverse the trends that got us to this awful place where we are now, we must begin at the beginning.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Initial Impressions of Berlin

Many people are unconventionally employed or unemployed here. Berlin is so cheap that they spend their days in cafes and galleries, their evenings in beer gardens and clubs, and the wee hours in large, dark flats in five-story walkups, whose vast windows flood with early morning sun when it’s time to begin the whole circuit/routine again.

Trams and bicycles occupy the majority of street traffic, but not to the same extent as in Copenhagen or Amsterdam. The U-Bahn and the S-Bahn offer compelling, cheap, and comprehensive train transport.

Many things operate on the honor system. At cafes and many restaurants, food and drinks are served at a promise to pay before leaving. On public transport, sporadic enforcement of payment does not deter people from paying anyway. In a few bars, you pay what you like for as much as you drink and eat.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Some Food for NYC Thought

The New York Times has published the results of a survey of thousands of New York City residents. The results are interesting but not surprising. Here's a quick summary and brief analysis:
  • The areas that indicate the lowest satisfaction with NYC's government services are also the poorest, meaning that they are the ones most likely to utilize government services and most likely to need them.
  • Measures of sidewalk maintenance, playgrounds, street maintenance, rat control, and neighborhood cleanliness all get the lowest ratings in the poorest neighborhoods, suggesting that the city concentrates its efforts in more affluent areas.
  • While only 33% of NYC residents surveyed are satisfied with NYC's public after-school programs, 57% of those who have attended a NYC public school after-school program in the last 12 months give good or excellent ratings to the program's service. This suggests that the data presented here don't tell the full story--in other words, as usual, statistics are misleading.
  • 78% of those surveyed gave excellent or good ratings to the way the City of New York provides services in "your language." This suggests that either the survey was offered in multiple languages, or it was only given to those who speak English or Spanish.
  • New Yorkers are dissatisfied with NYC's public housing, its services for protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect, its services for addressing homelessness, the NYC public schools, air quality, and the way NYC spends tax dollars.
  • However, New Yorkers are very satisfied with, the city's public libraries, 311, 911, citywide fire protection, neighborhood emergency services, Medicaid, public senior centers, and subway daytime safety.

On Our Generation, and Optimism in Recessive Times

I have mixed feelings about this article from today’s New York Times Magazine titled “Generation OMG.” I recall learning about an era called the Roaring ‘20s, a time right before the Great Depression when life was lavish, parties were like dreams, and the future seemed wide open for anything to happen. Is it really true that a generation on the brink of entering this possibility-filled world, a generation so close to this recent forgotten time that they can see it in the tired eyes of parents and older friends, abandoned all ideas that the prosperous life that those before them had lived could become a possibility for them too?

In this article, the author quotes an English professor as saying, “The ‘30s challenged the whole idea of the American dream, the idea of open economic possibilities…The version you get of that today is the loss of confidence on the part of both parent and children that life in the next generation will inevitably be better.”

I think there are some crucial cultural differences between our generation and the one that came of age during and immediately following the Great Depression. For one, we are significantly more connected. We are in communication constantly and we participate in digital forums where we bounce ideas off each other, form interest groups and partnerships before we even meet, and develop programs before we acquire the resources to support them. Additionally, overall we are significantly more educated. We have the social, human and cultural capital to understand the economic situation and how similar situations have played out historically; further, we have the tools to make the best of our situation and the ability to balance risk with safety and security while pursuing innovative courses of action.

For our younger counterparts, those whose parents are seeking to put them in daycare because they’re working longer hours or those who are just learning to read and write in Kindergarten, those who are learning life through the lens of an economic downturn, I think there is actually great hope. For all the reasons cited above, the youngest of our citizens have resources and tools at their disposal that were unfathomable in the 1930s. Further, these young people ten or twenty years behind us will come of age in a world that is being redefined by us. They may face more of the “psychic scars” that Kate Zernike discusses, but couldn’t they be mediated by the unabashed optimism of impressive innovation, young leadership, and bold assertion of new approaches?

Zernike acknowledges these possibilities toward the middle of her article. She writes:
Surveys have shown young people becoming more civic-minded in the last four years, and those who study them suggest this will increase, if only because the jobs will be in creating the public institutions and infrastructure of a new economic order. And with the assumptions of the past decade now popped, the older among the recession youth might feel bolder striking out in more creative directions.
Through questionable stimulus bills and excessive layoffs, through the closing of companies and the changing of mindsets, we, the 20-somethings, wild and smart, are poised to re-frame the American economic and social order. Perhaps we saw this coming--many of us have been trained to think outside the box, to push the limits of the way we understand the world and to seek creative solutions to problems we identify. We have been building this capacity and this energy, almost as if we have been waiting for this moment to throw it all out there into the world and start something new. Whether we repeat the trends of the early 20th century or we define a new world order, unique from anything seen thus far, has yet to be determined. As we break up the forms and feel new things, to use the words of Michael McClure, we must declare ourselves the shepherds of change and the leaders into the brave new world. For our peers and for those who tread lightly behind us, soaking up the world through our schools, we must fearlessly build a future full of days that are definitionless and open, that prioritize creativity and maximization of talent over commitment to routine and safety at the expense of innovation.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I wonder if I should have taken the one less traveled by.

If I weren’t sitting here right now, reflecting after a class at Teachers College and a long day at my desk at Columbia, I would have just returned from Spain, exhausted and exhilarated from a year of teaching English to 2nd graders and living in a rural, coastal town quietly distanced from the epicenter of this global financial meltdown.

It’s incredible to me how much single decisions shape our lives, and even more so how those decisions are rarely made on the impact they will have on our lives long-term. Instead, they are often made by prioritizing one tiny factor on which they hinge: a friend in town who we could always spend more time with, the immediate appeal of a higher salary, the weighing of two options when each should be considered independently, the fleeting priorities we think we will live by indefinitely. Our daily lives are defined by these individual components that we consider in isolation, though they collide in every moment to build the beginning and end of our days, the thoughts that preoccupy us before sleep, the frameworks with which we understand our purpose.

As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, I am one of the floaters. I do not have a predefined path or even a clear, distant end goal—instead I have diverse interests, competing priorities, and at times an inability to balance rational thinking with emotional investment. As a result, the individual factors of a decision play heavily in my selection; without a clearly defined purpose, I rely on the sub-components to understand my choices.

After graduating from college, I spent the following summer weighing two options: accept a one-year position with the Spanish government, imparting my native tongue on youngsters in a small town, or begin employment at a prestigious university in a global city, in a position requiring an ironically vague specialization and carrying an equally vague indication of where I could go from there. I picked the latter, partially because I thought that if I picked the former, I would spend the next summer engaging in a similar decision-making process, having spent a year doing something fun but not career-advancing, engaging but not necessarily skill-imparting. To prevent a wasted year, as it seemed at the time, I opted for the safer, more standard choice of immediate salaried employment in New York City.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen when I started this real life, full-time job. I couldn’t fathom being there for long, nor could I imagine where I might go next. After learning the ropes for a few weeks, I began to apply my old patterns of behavior to this new situation. I sought immediate advancement, rapid and incremental change, and new challenges. I scoured job postings without any sense of what I was looking for—I wanted significance, I wanted growth, I wanted a change of scene. I wanted agency over my own status. For a year and six months now, I have remained in this position, changing projects, acquiring new responsibilities, building relationships. I frequently wonder what my days would look like had I gone to Spain or taken a risk or chosen a challenge over safety. I look at the graduate program I’ve committed myself to, a spin-off of my job and an excuse for keeping it, and measure out the months until I’m through with this phase of my life. Yet in all these daydreams, in every calculation, the next destination remains unapparent.

Though I believe in the power of individuals to overcome obstacles and remedy effects of poor decisions, I’m cautious about this next one. Each step we take as young adults plunging forward into the world shapes and defines us—what happens if the next step poorly defines me? What if I place too much weight on the individual pieces of a decision without understanding the greater implications? What if I’m unable to holistically, strategically, wholeheartedly understand what I truly want to do?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I’ve been thinking a lot about change and the contexts in which we engage in this process. Change, of course, is not a measurement but more of an infinite continuum. The seasons change, people change, we make change, we live through change.

If everything changed all the time, we wouldn’t know how to behave. Organization is essential to our society making progress. Maybe that’s why we keep ending up in the very same kinds of situations that we’ve staged revolutions and decades of counter-force against. It sometimes makes me wonder whether our world is just on auto-pilot cycling through forced changes. How much of an impact do our maneuvers really have? As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

Yet T.S. Eliot’s contributions to thinking on change weren’t all grim resignations to everything returning to its natural course, despite the disrupting fluctuations we inflict. Eliot also wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

How can we read this through a lens of understanding the paradox of change?

The example I almost always use is education. Having lost significant portions of their endowments and braced for even greater losses in the coming years, private universities, in the face of this immense disruption to carefully balanced finances, are being encouraged to take risks. Marketing consultants and politicians alike are telling them to engage in unprecedented innovation and exhibit creative and forward-thinking leadership. What is the goal of this direction? Is it to seek stability in the face of utter uncertainty? Or, is it to take the lowest point in recent economic history as an opportunity to instigate reforms that would have previously been unimaginably bold?

It’s unlikely that anything that happens now in direct response to the economic crisis, at least in terms of education, will have a profound impact on the way we understand and implement education as an institution in this country. If history holds true, this is one bump in the ongoing cycle of ups and downs, reforming previous reforms by returning to the reforms that came ever before them. But what if Eliot is telling us something—what if this time of economic concern is our exploration, this is our learning journey, and at the end of it, no matter whether our system looks the same or the battle we fought seems to have been in vain, we have gained a greater understanding of how we and our institutions work? Through creativity, innovation, and leadership, we can take meaningful steps towards a more in-depth, comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of our long-lasting institutions and the way we interact with them, and maybe one day, we will find the tiny pinhole in the cycle, and we will know, for the first time, what to do.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mathilda Is

Facebook and the rest of the Web 2.0 world have changed a lot of things, revolutionizing the way we communicate and how we maintain our social networks. To keep up, we are living dual lives. We constantly interrupt our engagement in the physical world that surrounds us by logging on to this massive other galaxy, accessed through the tiniest pieces of equipment and existing somewhere that no one has ever really been, a place where we remotely build and maneuver representations of ourselves.

There’s been a lot of talk about the social network side of this whole phenomenon. I spend more than enough time thinking about how to appropriately merge my real life exchanges with what are quickly becoming the social norms of the e-world. Should I “friend” that person I just met? If I friend him too soon, will he think I’m weird? If I wait, will he forget me?

Though at times eliciting confusion, the social functions of these relatively new internet communities are unfolding fairly straight-forwardly. But what about their impact on self-perception? Facebook and its step-child, Twitter, have changed the way I think about myself on a moment-to-moment basis. The Facebook “status” feature, the sole component of sites like Twitter, invites people to state not just what they are doing at that particular moment, but also what they’re thinking about, what they need people to know, and what they want people to wonder about.

This “status” indicator has disturbingly permeated my life. I find myself walking down the street thinking, “Mathilda is going to the grocery store. Mathilda is very pleased with her grades. Mathilda is so happy that winter is ending.” My thoughts, these very personalized bits (most of which I never utter), are transferred into the third-person for easy digestion by friends, colleagues, and lots of other people who I barely even know, whether I ever even post them on Facebook or not. By constantly conjugating my train of thought, I’m directing the timbre of my own self-perception for another audience.

And so it goes: Mathilda is thinking about Paris. Mathilda is avoiding the question. Mathilda wonders why we can’t just talk face-to-face.

I want to take a step back. What are all the things that we’re not saying on these sites? And for all the things we are saying, why are we so willingly and excessively disclosing them? This constant status update is part and parcel of the transformation of social networking and the reframing of communications into instant headlines, but how much does this venture into how we define ourselves individually?

Mathilda is walking home wondering.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Remembering John Updike


It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.


Published January 28, 2009 in the New York Times

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Remembering Structure in Progress

I’m so happy to have come across this recent article by David Brooks. In October, I wrote a piece for on the value of an Oberlin education. I wrote about how Oberlin equips its students to be fearless thinkers, to be innovative, to affirm that there is endless knowledge to gain. In this ode to Oberlin, I neglected to explore context, and to question whether Oberlin prepares its students to be all of these things while navigating the institutional frameworks that define our society.

I’ve talked a lot already about what it means for a school to prepare its students for the real world. This point comes close to home for me because I’ve never felt fully equipped to work within the institutions that shape the structure of my life. Whether this is a fault of the educational institutions I attended or my own is not really relevant—what does matter is, did Oberlin do the best that it could to build my awareness of institutional persistence? Did it appropriately prioritize individualized agendas and critical, innovative thinking against the way our world actually, mechanically, works?

When I started at Teachers College, I had a general sense of the kinds of things I would learn and the arguments I could expect to hear in the classroom. What I didn’t expect was to encounter readings by Tyack and others that remind us of the immense challenges of educational reform based on the permanence of our institutions. As recent college graduates with fire in our eyes and passion in our hearts, former teachers empowered by too many years of lacking power in their schools, and mid-career changers seeking a new spark, we are buzzing with thoughts we think have never been uttered before. We are scathingly, unforgivingly critical of the very system that brought us to where we are, picking apart the details of a school day, the educational units that define and bind a degree, the notion that children sit in a room together to learn. Yet as one apt writer once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Institutional theorists, those brave, seemingly negative souls, strive to bring us back to the base, to remind us that the system just doesn’t change as much as we think it will. Radicalism may be what it takes to see the change we need, but the change we need might not come from a total restructuring of the institution of education itself.

David Brooks’ words offer an important reminder. “In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us.” He continues:
“As we go through life, we travel through institutions—first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do…New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve.”

At the end of his article, Brooks calls for renewed faith in these institutions. In a way, he’s telling us not to bite the hand that feeds us. These institutions are here to stay—just as a writer derives her argument from engaging in another’s and a teacher structures her lessons around the core curriculum that has shaped millions of students before hers, we live in our world through constant engagement with the past and the present and the future via these institutional mechanisms that contain our interactions. Our institutions don’t ask us for complete conformity; they ask us to acknowledge the progress of our ancestors and to pass on a usable framework to those that follow us. In doing so, they allow us to continue forward, learning ever onward, finding comfort and strength in consistency and in our ability to critically, thoughtfully, and wisely understand where we stand against where we have been and where we could be.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Where Is Prayer?

The brochure for Paris' Sainte-Chapelle says it is meant to "create a feeling of entry into the Heavenly Jerusalem." It is apparent that this chapel's creators have not been to Jerusalem, where history and faith are gritted with the dirt of everyday life and the thousand steps of pilgrims trodding narrow walkways by rote. What strikes me more, though, is how so many of these masterpieces were created for private eyes. Resources were utilized so furtively; private sanctuaries scream glory to God in brilliant, sheltered silence, so clandestine that it makes me want to scream for the world beyond these thick, heavy walls.

What does it feel like to pray in an ornate private chapel, inaccessible to the people and lacking any resemblance to this life? The creation of such an elaborate space relies on worldly goods to create the atmosphere--excess defines access to God here. Hundreds of tired, worn hands built this space. In private prayer, hands folded pointing to the heavens in a dusty room somewhere far beyond this sacred space they built, these workers engage in the same rituals without the decorative supplements. Which is more holy? Which has more access? Who, in their prayer, is getting closer to God?

Not far from Sainte-Chapelle, on Île St-Louis, Rue St-Louis en I’île bustles with the business of everyday life. Curious shops peddle playful housewares, Moroccan furniture, and French travel literature; cafes tout famous ice cream, providing respite for tired souls. Here, today, no one is thinking of how to build a place so private and so stunning that it will nearly guarantee better, more direct access to God. Here no one aims to create a feeling of entry into the heavenly, otherly destination. But is God absent? Is God not present in the details, in the glorious meticulousness with which the cobbler mends a client's shoes or the attention a bookshop owner pays to the request of a child for a magical story? Is our devotion to private religious space, to proclaiming glory to God in an ornately adorned room, a thing of the past? Or has it become even more private, hidden in smaller, more secret spaces, disguised as living rooms or parlours, bookstores or conversations, absent the tall beckoning gray walls of yesterday’s grandest chapels?