Deep Listening

Dear Reader,

This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts.  As in broadcasts for the iPod.  My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004.  Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end.  One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.

And now you’ve seen my nerd card. Photo on 4-29-16 at 10.33 AM

For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest.  Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.

But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life.  Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt.  If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening.  The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee.  Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing.  (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial.  Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach.  Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused.  This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.

The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes.  When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.fullsizeoutput_ce0

Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.

Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point.  I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look.  He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system.  Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it.  My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor.  A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students.  His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students.  I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students.  She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection.  My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.

In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle.  If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local

ear hustle
The Ear Hustle Crew (l-r) Williams, Poor, & Woods (Photo from Rolling Stone)
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison.  One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held.  SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him.  His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released.  Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.

Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate.  The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected.  The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.

The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening.  I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather.  Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe.  We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in.  Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them.  Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.

In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):

And I’m always looking for more.  If you are already a podcast lover, tell me: what are you listening to?

 

© Ryna May 2017

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Teaching in the Time of Trump

Dear Reader,

I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.

angry trump
Trump speaks to supporters – photo by Politico

I am hardly alone in feeling the negative vibe in the air – most people in our society (70 % according to recent polling) feel that the country as a whole is more negative since the last election.  As the saying goes, the speed of the group is equal to the speed of the leader. You could restate this as the tone of the group is set by the tone of the leader. The leader’s tone is dangerous, angry, toxic. Horrible.

It has not been easy to resist the tone.  It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom.  How does one teach in the time of Trump?  It’s not easy.  First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum.  Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there.  Nothing feels quite normal to students these days.  They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression.  We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.

One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.”  In current political discourse, this is what is know as “Alternative Facts.”  In plain truth, alternative facts are lies.  One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential.  Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best.  That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream.  Is chocolate ice cream the best?  Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream.  Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument.  But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference.  It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument.  It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true.  There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.

As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it.  The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.

macbeth
image from BBC

When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster.  The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding.  He looks for a place to belong.  But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others.  Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature.  The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated.  This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated.  At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm.  Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.

But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character.  Their resistance is shown in small and big ways.  For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena.  He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game.  Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts.  It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate.  In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue.  When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone.  Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity.  What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.

When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.

The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try?  Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is.  Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try. Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it.  Try compassion.  Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.

This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.

© Ryna May 2017

Change is Gonna Come

Dear Reader,

Of course, this is the time of year when everyone makes resolutions to make changes in their lives. Most of the time, these changes fall along the lines of losing weight, saving money, getting fit, quitting smoking, etc.  However, as we well know, most of us do not keep those resolutions – why not?  Maybe we think changes are impossible.  Maybe we just aren’t ready for change.  I know it’s a cliche, but the only constant in life is change – so I want to think more about how to embrace it.

Dr. Art Markman, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says we don’t keep our resolutions because many of us who make resolutions fail to make a realistic plan to achieve our goals.  Perhaps we believe too much in the magical power of January 1st, as if putting up a new calendar on the wall wipes the slate totally clean.

Dr. Markman recently wrote an article for Time wherein he laid out a few pieces of practical advice for keeping those resolutions.  In summary, here they are:

  1. Prepare before New Year’s Eve.  Oops – too late for us on that one because the new year is already here.  But perhaps the point is to make a decision to start something and not worry about what the calendar says.  As the saying goes, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
  2. The only way to really change is to change our habits.  Our lives are governed by routine.  If you want to jumpstart your career, you can’t just binge on Netflix every day – you have to change some behaviors.  You won’t get healthy by ordering pizza every week – you’re going to have to shop and cook.
  3. Focus first on positive goals rather than negative goals – a positive goal is something you want to do whereas a negative goal is something you want to stop.  This is perhaps my favorite bit of Dr. Markman’s advice.  It is much easier to gain some momentum toward things you want to do – such as taking more walks.  I love the idea of creating some success that will give me confidence in tackling some of the more difficult behaviors to change.
  4. Be specific about your plans.  This is also important.  It’s why we have schedules and calendars.  If you want to read more, choose a night that is the night you plan to read and schedule it.  This is how something becomes a routine.
  5. Change your environment to accommodate new habits.  The idea is to make it easy to do desirable things and hard to do undesirable things.  So if your goal is to eat better, don’t buy junk snacks for the house – instead buy, say, apples and carrots.  That way, when you want a snack, the desirable behavior will be easy.
  6. Finally, Dr. Markman advises that you should not be too hard on yourself.  Change is difficult for everyone, so odds are even if you plan well you won’t end up keeping all of those resolutions.  But maybe you achieve one or two of them. It’s best to celebrate the ways in which we are successful rather than beat ourselves up for the times we fall short.

The fact is, whether we resolve it or not, change is going to come in some form to all of us in the coming year.  Some of it will be good and some won’t be.  In looking back over the past year, there were some definite high points and some definite low points, but life is definitely not the same as it was one year ago today.  I was not always ready for change to happen, but we can’t always control things in our lives – change happens whether we like it or not. All we can control is how we react. And when circumstances do change in ways we don’t like, we have the power to decide what we are willing to accept and what we won’t stand for. 

I normally don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions because I think they are destined to fail, but this year I do have some changes I’d like to make.  I’d like to return to health.  This time last year I was training for a half-marathon and running up to six miles at a time.  After the half-marathon

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At the starting line of the Rock N Roll Half Marathon in DC, March 2015
in March, I backed off running to give myself some recovery time, and then I had a freak encounter with a stair that left me with a torn meniscus in my knee.  I have not been able to exercise for months and I don’t feel terribly healthy.  So I’d like to be able to exercise again.  I never thought I’d miss running, but I really do.  I don’t think I’ll ever run a half-marathon again, but I would love to do some more 5ks this year, and I’ve always wanted to do the Warrior Dash.  If I can keep recovering from the knee injury, I would love to do that this year.  I think the Maryland Warrior Dash is in May.  That’s a specific goal I can challenge myself with.  To get there, I have to focus on things other than running for the immediate future so I can start to regain some strength.  Nothing is going to happen overnight, but I have to have some specific plans in order for anything to happen at all.

The other change I want to make this year is to be open to change.  A lot of us have had that feeling in life of being in a rut or staying in a pattern because it’s easy or comfortable.  I don’t want to do that this year.  I want to be more Zen about what has been and let go of regrets and things that disappoint me.  This year, I want to be open to the possibility of new things, even if the new things seem scary. Everything changes eventually: jobs, people, locations, dreams.  As Hamlet said, “the readiness is all.”  This year, I want to be ready.

© Ryna May 2016