Key lessons from my first semester as a PhD student

The list could go on for miles (as can academics, sheesh), but because this was a final paper due on Thursday, I limited my insights to those listed below…Hope it helps anyone out there considering doing or in the process of a PhD.

I would say that the key lessons I learned from interacting with faculty and students during my first semester include the following:

  1. Being an academic is a joy as well as hard work, a labor of love in every sense. Loving what you do in academia is a driving force of inspiration that will get you through the times when your work seems pointless, when no one seems to understand what you’re talking about, and when you’re not even sure what you’re talking about.
  2. Your colleagues can be just as inspiring and instructive as the most prestigious speaker or the most seasoned professor.
  3. There are all different ways to define the PhD process, and it is different for everyone. Trying to adhere to an external standard does a disservice to your growth as an individual and an intellectual; while we all must push ourselves at times, the priority must be also be on rigorous self-care, self-awareness, and self-love in such a transformative process.
  4. The more human we are, the more connected we can be to those around us. And the more laughter we have, the more we can bring it out in others! We can be Serious and Intellectual and Important but at the end of the day, we all live in the same achy, weird existence that is Humanity. Our colleagues around us share, consciously or not, their humanity with us, and I take this as advice which is paramount in becoming an academic: BE HUMAN, AND IN DOING SO, LOVE THE HUMANS AROUND YOU!!!
"School for the Gifted" by Gary Larson

“School for the Gifted”
by Gary Larson

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The Philosopher and the Pragmatist: Common Sense, Nonsense, and Rightness in the Modern Conversation about Non-Profit Adult Education

Modern debates about American education have addressed important topics including the growth in public schools of standardized testing to monitor student progress, of value-added measurements designed to determine the “value” that teachers contribute to their students’ education (the term is placed in quotation marks to indicate the subjective nature of such a prospect), of the purchase of prepackaged materials and curriculum designed by “edu-business” (Ball, 2013), of private takeover of public schools and of the charter school boom. These new modes of analysis, delivery, and corporate involvement have been introduced via a relatively recent trend in education, that is, a market-based way of managing schooling. Such a trend stems in part from the Great Recession of 2008, though policy-making back in the 1970s, when globalization and technology expanded rapidly. The modern market-based response to social ills is nowadays considered a commonsensical way of resolving problems according to a capitalist viewpoint – often typified by the ethos a free market is necessary for a healthy economy and, thus, a healthy and free nation – and it attends to concerns at the highest level of our national existence, including that of education. Questions about the widely lamented “failure” of American schools, first documented in “A Nation at Risk” (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), in comparison to those in other countries vis-à-vis the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores are being discussed at all levels of governance, from local school districts up through the U.S. government, and it seems that at the core of this conversation is a strong desire to maintain American preeminence in economic and geopolitical terms in the face of rising global challenges to our empire. The messianic free-market proposition, which prioritizes competition, efficiency, accountability, and predictability, has thus been welcomed at the table of politicians and power players as a silent partner in negotiations across board rooms and budget meetings in the education world; such a viewpoint has, increasingly, seeped into common consciousness in the media through punditry, advertising and persuasive journalism on all channels. (McChesney, 2001)

This slow, yet powerful, sea change in thinking reflects the growing dominance of what is known as neoliberalism, an economically-based mode of thinking rooted in Milton Friedman’s work in the Chicago School in the 1950s, which has come to dominate conversations about a vast network of issues in American society, including the topic of education. (Lipman, 2006) A well-known progressive and public intellectual, Henry Giroux decries American neoliberalism as “the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; [and] the celebration of profitmaking as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship.” (Giroux, 2014) Critiques like this are often met with counterattacks from conservatives and corporatists claiming that such a perspective is “political” and even anti-American. (Guerlain, 2002) In the field of education, too, progressives are finding themselves faced with an American public increasingly blasé about the influence of corporate moneys and fiscally driven decision-making in schooling. Such resistance to perspectives that seek to interrogate the dominance of neoliberalism may be due to the fact that such widespread acquiescence occurs when an ideology is raised from the “supra-social” status of a hegemony – Gramsci’s (1971) term to describe a self-replicating set of morals defined by the powerful, which in turn act to establish social control over the functioning of the rest of society’s members – to the even-higher level of a doxa, that is, “an unquestionable orthodoxy that operates as if it were the objective truth” as described by Chopra (as cited in Patrick, 2013).

The fact that neoliberal solutions to putative problems in education and other industries have become the commonsensical response of an America stepping back from the precipice of the Great Recession indicates that those who seek to interrogate the logic, relevance, and ethical implications of “neoliberalism-as-savior” are suggesting an almost Sisyphean feat in challenging the public to see from a critical perspective what they assume is true and good. Such important critical thinking is often undertaken in philosophical circles; reflection, according to John Stuart Mill, is the means by which we avoid “intellectual pacification” and attempt at all times to think freely so as to break the “mental despotism” of whatever age we happen to be in. (Mill, 1860, pp. 36-37) It must be conceded, though, that this absence of vision among the hoi polloi is not without an understandable explanation due in part to membership in any particular society; Russell Means (1980), for example, might argue that because we are members of Western society, our views are necessarily restricted to the options that fall under the Western ideological superstructure (a cultural history perhaps deserving the term “doxa” as well). But in the face of many crises in modern American society, an unrecognized crisis might in fact be a general lack of philosophical thinking as a common activity among both leadership and its constituents. It often seems that our decision-making around issues of unemployment, poverty, crime, prejudice, and other problems has lacked vision, especially in the last decade, except insofar as the dollar is concerned; we’d rather simply aim at short-term economic targets than consider the long-term impacts of decision-making in social, cultural, educational, economic, and even historical terms. A prodigious question that is notably absent in these broad-based and widely impactful decisions made by our government in terms of the environment, the role of policing and prisons, taxation, democratic representation, social programs, and of course education is this: What sort of nation are we constructing?

The original prompt for this paper was to write about what we learned from doing the presentations of our findings and network charts in our class with Dr. Spring, especially as this learning could assist us as PhD candidates, academics, and/or professionals in the future. My network chart (see Appendix A) reflects the political and ideological connections between the power players – various funders, corporate partners, local governance, and educators – through my previous employer, Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, MA, and their potential impact on the coursework, pedagogy, program design, and outcomes provided to the low-status students who take classes there. In creating the chart, I sought to establish that not only was it important to consider the connections between these power players but also focus on their communication through the discourse of philanthropy (specifically charity and service work) and on the resulting prioritization of neoliberal outcomes over all others (e.g., democratic, advocacy/social activist-minded, etc.) in adult education in non-profit organizations like JVS. (The concept of discourse as mentioned above will not be further explored here; however, the concept as it is intended here is derived from Michel Foucault’s theories as outlined in his 1966 publication Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things, published in 1970 in English).

Two particular outcomes of this project held great significance for me. Firstly, I found myself resisting the simple drawing of connections between single entities in the chart, preferring to consider the discourses within which each entity was nested. The power circles of local, state, and federal government, the world of philanthropy, and the business world overlapped under the heading of mainstream American society, and I found that some actors could be placed into several categories at the same time (e.g., government and business, etc.). I suggest that these entities interact through the broader discourse of philanthropy, establishing relationships and influence over the educational projects within the non-profit organizations they support politically and/or financially. Further, I argue that because non-profit organizations like JVS have corporate partners that will potentially hire the low-status students – who are most often immigrants from north and central Africa, Latin America, and South and East Asia and who are low-income, have disabilities, may be living in a shelter or even homeless, and often have children to support – that study in these non-profit organizations, the form of education that takes place there prioritizes the market-driven need of these corporate partners for low-status workers (line cooks, retail workers, certified nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, etc.) over all other potential needs, goals, or potential these students might have.

As I write of this first outcome, it is important for me to recognize the ineluctable influence of the doxa of neoliberalism as it creeps into my mind. Why not help these students find a better job? such a voice asks, reminding me of the Platonic view that any progress should be embraced, that the improvement in the lives of struggling people is a good one. What harm is there in wanting to help them improve their lot? And if the byproduct of this is to help high-growth industries in our economy like health care, food service, and others meet their needs, why should this be seen as a negative thing? The chiding voice continues: Why do academics always have to critique, theorize, and break down what is working well?

In fact, when I presented this network chart to the rest of my class in Dr. Spring’s class, I feel I received a polite version of this very response, which leads me to my second significant outcome in doing this project. My classmates, who are often more pragmatic than I am, were certainly interested and appreciated both my work as an adult educator in non-profit organizations and on the project itself. However, I think many of them couldn’t see the point I was trying to make, a fact which I suggest stems from the very reason that the neoliberal doxa has made itself the objective lens via which we perceive our choices in education. This was my point, made more clear perhaps in written form: Why should the education of adults in the non-profit world contain less of the critical thinking we progressives are attempting to apply in addressing the consequences of rampant standardized testing, teacher evaluation through value-added measures, the charter school boom in public PreK-12 schooling, and other forms of privatization and corporate involvement? Why is it that non-profit adult education is perfectly acceptable as a form not only of training, but also of subordination, of preparation for low-status employment that largely benefits the wealthy? These questions spawn many more: Is this form of thinking due to the fact that we see adults as already fully formed, so to speak, socioculturally, emotionally and cognitively? Is it perhaps because of inherent biases that we may have against immigrants and other low-status groups, because we believe (perhaps unconsciously) that they are a burden on the social safety net and even take jobs from native-born Americans? (American Civil Liberties Union, 2008) I believe that these questions are of great significance in considering the relatively apolitical (or, better put, politically overlooked) world of adult education in non-profits; equally important is the fact that few have asked such questions because neoliberalism has taken such a firm hold on the American consciousness.

Thus, I will end this essay with a vow that I make for myself, for my fellow educators, and for my students: I promise to continue to think philosophically about the important and often overlooked field of non-profit adult education, all the while building my own fluency, my own form of “critical sociopolitical literacy,” for building bridges and better understandings with the pragmatists, while working to mediate and change the relationship between the power holders in society and those who are subject to their will. As academics we, too, belong to a powerful sociocultural group, able to act as bridge-builders and communicators as well as critics of the neoliberal status quo. I must understand that within the powerful hegemony/doxa of neoliberalism rest many enshrined “truths” that cannot be easily moved from their thrones, including the powerfully influential discourse of philanthropy as a form of apolitical good. I must be clear in my use of terminology and be willing to understand things from the other side; I must be clear, too, that in seeking to understand what education is and can be – no matter whether it be for children or adults, native-born people or immigrants – my role must be to remind my colleagues that our goal is educating within a democratic vision (if not a truly democratic version yet) of our society. Just as we progressives argue that American children are not simply future workers but future participants in a(n) (ostensibly) democratic nation, so too must we remember that immigrants – including some of the parents of these American children for whom we so passionately advocate – who come to live in our community, society, and country deserve more than a dehumanizing, prescribed, circumscribed version of a neoliberally defined future.

Works Cited

American Civil Liberties Union. (2008, April 11). Immigration Myths and Facts. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from https://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/immigration-myths-and-facts

Ball, S. J. (2013, June 19). Global Policy Networks, Social Enterprise and Edu-business: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary. (1st Edition). Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. London, U.K.: Tavistock/Routledge.

Giroux, H. (2014, October 19). Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism. Truthout.org. (M. Nevradakis, Interviewer)

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Reprint ed.). (Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Eds.) International Publishers Co.

Guerlain, P. (2002). Americanization and Globalization: The Power Behind the Words. Annales du monde anglophone , No 15.

Lipman, P. (2006). “No Child Left Behind”: Globalization, Privatization, and the Politics of Inequality. In E. W. Ross, & R. Gibson (Eds.), Neoliberalism and Education Reform (pp. 36-37). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

McChesney, R. (2001). Global media, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Monthly Review , 52 (10).

Means, R. (2012, October 22). For the World to Live, Europe Must Die. Mother Jones. San Francisco, CA.

Mill, J. S. (1860). On Liberty. Harvard Classics Volume 25. P.F. Collier & Son (Copyright 1909).

The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC.

Patrick, F. (2013). Neoliberalism, the Knowledge Economy, and the Learner: Challenging the Inevitability of the Commodified Self as an Outcome of Education. (T. A. Betts, T. Carvalho, & R. Pasnak, Eds.) ISRN Education , 2013.

Conclusion: A commitment

This is the conclusion for an essay I just finished tonight (I’ll publish the rest tomorrow, as it’s still in the finalization process):

Thus, I will end this essay with a vow that I make for myself, for my fellow educators, and for my students: I promise to continue to think critically and philosophically about the important and ignored issue of non-profit adult education, all the while building my own fluency, my own form of “sociopolitical literacy,” to building bridges and better understandings with the pragmatists, while working to mediate and change the relationship between the power holders in society and those who are subject to their will. As academics we, too, belong to a powerful group as well, and we must act as bridge-builders and communicators as well as critics of the neoliberal status quo. I must understand that within the powerful hegemony/doxa of neoliberalism rest many enshrined truths that cannot be easily moved from their thrones, including the powerfully influential discourse of philanthropy as a form of apolitical good. I must be clear in my use of terminology and be willing to understand things from the other side; I must be clear, too, that in understanding what education is – no matter whether it be for children or adults, native-born people or immigrants – my role must be to remind my colleagues that our goal is educating within a democratic vision (if not a truly democratic version yet) of our society. Just as we progressives argue that American children are not simply future workers but future members of an (ostensibly) democratic nation, so too must we remember that immigrants – including some of the parents of these American children for whom we so passionately advocate – who come to live in our community, society, and country do not deserve the dehumanizing, prescribed, circumscribed version of a neoliberally defined future, either.

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Black lives matter

I went to the Millions March Boston demonstration in downtown Boston today. What an incredible experience. I’d never participated in something like that before: strangers raising their voices in unison to call for justice (“No justice — no peace!”), an end to racist profiling by police across the country, and solidarity among disparate groups with a common cause. We marched from the State House to the Suffolk County Jail, where inmates banged on their windows to let us know they heard us…

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Seeing fists striking solid plastic from the inside, men sitting and watching from high above, brought tears to my eyes. What a luxury we enjoy walking through the streets protesting and hollering. We have our freedom, our lives, things that neither Michael Brown or Eric Garner, nor these inmates have. What a strange thought that we can just pick up a sign, get on the T, and go anywhere we want to meet with new people and form a march. What power in this freedom that we rarely truly understand.

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Sign of the times?  

Another picture from the environs of New York…I took this one on the subway, as you can see from the orange seats and metallic wall and handrails. The New York Post splashed quippy signs like this all over the train I was on, though this one in particular caught my eye:

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Known for telling stories in brute, black-and-white ways (sometimes quite literally, as I wrote about in another post recently) supporting a conservative and often nationalistic viewpoint, the Post barks out its allegiance to the world here: “We make money off of you for not thinking.” It screams “down with background knowledge, down with introspection, down with reflection!” It tells the reader that too much depth is dull, and more than the minimum time spent on learning anything is, well, a waste.

You may be right that the American public is less resistant to lengthy writings about thoughtful things, New York Post, but we’re not dead in the head yet. And your weakness is that you, too, depend on the consumer to sustain yourself. Without us, you are nothing but a rag barking in the wind. We are still readers and thinkers beyond your word count and your belief that you tell us what’s important and what’s dull. And maybe we’ll look back down at our novels and our Kindles and take some more time to define what stories we want to learn about, and how they should be told.

Country of origin, country of destination

I didn’t post yesterday, though I’m not going to count it as a missed day for my writing commitment (365 days starting October 1, 2014); I still wrote for my finals, as I have two papers left to go. Almost there…

Media literacy is an interesting topic that I’ve written about before and would love to study in the future. This week at CUNY I saw a simple, incisive sign that in little space spoke in important ways:

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I interpret this to be a commentary on immigration. People who leave their countries do so often times because their lives or those of their loved ones are at risk; in countries like Honduras and Mexico, this is not so much a metaphor as a sad fact. For those who are not living under the shadow of an axe, there are still dark forces like prejudice and economic disadvantage that squeezes out dignity and freedom like a vise; this is true in Palestine and Kurdistan. Hence their problematic relationship with their country of origin.

These newcomers move to a new home – a place like the U.S., for example – in the hope of finding a way to build a better life for their family. Yet they are often stereotyped and demonized for bringing crime to their new communities or stealing jobs from native-born workers (both of which are untrue). Because prejudice is easily spread about strangers from a strange land who speak, look, eat, and think differently, society’s ills are cast onto their shoulders. They are easy targets for conservative officials that need a unified enemy to focus on, especially when homegrown problems trouble the country’s constituents; they are a useful distraction to draw fire away from poor decision-making and corruption at the highest levels of leadership. Thus the complicated and difficult details of their new life in their country of destination.

Simple, beautiful, tragic, effective. All in a little cartoon.

Dehumanization through torture: victim, interrogator, nation…and reader

Dehumanization is a topic on many journalists’, pundits’, academics’, and bloggers’ lips of late. It’s applicable, unfortunately, to a wide variety of current situations – the discussion about the treatment of Black men by police forces across the United States, the swath cut across western Africa by the Ebola epidemic, even the overuse of standardized testing in public schools (of course to a much lesser degree) – and brings the reader face to face not only with the sufferings of his or her fellow human being, but also with our own capacity to feel pain, either as victims or those watching.

We may ask ourselves: how does torture dehumanize the individual? In today’s shocking report about widespread and widely concealed tortures that took place in CIA prisons all over the world, we have learned of new ways to torture a human being into prostration, humiliation, total degradation to the point of becoming animal (some inmates looked “like a dog,” according to witnesses). There is total removal of control of self, including even one’s ability to refuse food in protest (and what the CIA interrogators did as a result is yours to read about), and normal human social, cultural, and physical boundaries are obliterated. Basic rights to food, rest, mental calm, and sense of safety are called into question, constituting the psychological forms of torture concomitant with the physical ones in the case of these awful, undercover prisons.

How do these acts, in turn, dehumanize the torturer? In the case of the places examined in the report, the interrogators had been instructed to get information from suspected terrorists, which provided the no-holds-barred excuse that predominated in the earler stages of the interrogations. But the information obtained, according to the committee which reviewed the reports from the CIA and others investigating these prisons, could have been “obtained through other means.” Which means that the humanity each interrogator ostensibly has within him or her was consulted, and then rejected, in favor of…what? Power games? The opportunity for acting vengefully and with impunity toward suspected terrorists? The freedom to sexually abuse and destroy the health and dignity of over 200 men? I suppose one could plead that they were following orders, or that they had succumbed to groupthink and were not thinking rationally…but this is a tough line to toe.

Okay, bad men found. Case closed…or is it? I would suggest that we as a nation, also, are becoming increasingly comfortable with the dehumanization of others through such gruesome and sensationalistic media representation. The way I first heard about this report was through the following headline: The Most Gruesome Moments in the CIA ‘Torture Report’. I felt like I was reading about a new TV show, in the vein of The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. The first line of the story, written in The Daily Beast, went like this:

The Senate Intelligence Committee is finally releasing its review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. And it is brutal. Here are some of the most gruesome moments of detainee abuse from a summary of the report, obtained by The Daily Beast…

Great. A well-organized, section-heading-ed story that prioritizes the particularly brutal parts of the torture for me in an easily readable form.

What is the goal of writing like this? Was the story of any of the detainees told, beyond his torture? If we really value human life, freedom, and dignity, shouldn’t we consider that regardless of whether or not these men were involved in terrorism, not a single one deserved to be treated this way? And such treatment shouldn’t be a spectacle for us all to gawk at in obscene, morbid curiosity. Truly seeing these men as human beings, we would act to change it…not see it as another, pornographic form of entertainment. And the media has a role in this, as do we: one feeds another in a frightful ouroboros of supply and demand.

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To drive the point home, consider that this story rests just below another document of human suffering: the story of the kidnapping of Yazidi girls by ISIS in Syria. After the introductory backstory, the following lead-in appears:

Below—courtesy of the Washington, D.C.-based the Middle East Media Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that monitors extremism—are some highlights of the ISIS rules governing the enslavement of women and how slaves should be treated.

Highlights, indeed. I felt less human reading that story, more like a media-consuming beast who could see humans writhing, burning, dying miles away as nothing more than a slight rise in the pulse before sipping my wine. I don’t know what the answer is to finding anew one’s sense of humanity among such profane images of the worst we can do to each other, but it might mean considering that the media’s version of the story can contribute to the very dehumanization process it purports to decry.