Thursday, June 30, 2005

Manipulation and Liberation

A couple of days ago, I attended a workshop on writing for the web, since I manage a couple of websites. It was a good workshop, and I learned some important web-writing principles, most of which I violate in this blog (but I already knew that). For example, it is not good to have big blocks of text on the web. Physiologically, people actually read differently on screen from how they read on paper, and usually do not want to read big blocks of text. Breaking up the big blocks by using titles, subtitles, boldface type, and short paragraphs (and of course, pictures) is very helpful. And I do try to apply such principles to the web pages I maintain (though there is room for improvement) -- but I do regard blogs as different. So, I don't mind others' blogs having big blocks of text, and I know that I am one of the very worst offenders in this respect.

But, that's not really what I wanted to write about today. One point that especially struck me in the workshop, and disturbed me a bit as well, was that the presenter referred to a book entitled Don't Make Me Think, by Steve Krug (Que Books, 2000). Our presenter (Merry Bruns) described this book as pointing out that the whole point of web design is to pull people in without their having to pause in puzzlement over how to find what they need. It should be obvious. People should be able to naturally find their way to what interests/helps them without having to think about it. She admitted that this is about control. In designing web pages this way, you end up controlling how viewers use the web pages.

I found this a little troubling, but very illuminating.

What I found troubling was the very notion of engineering things so carefully that you end up controlling someone else's mental processes. The very expression "don't make me think," appeals to mental laziness, and exploits it. It's a way of blocking awareness, but is so clever that the person whose awareness is blocked believes that it was really their choice, and they really don't mind -- in fact they are helped rather than harmed by having their awareness blocked. Yet, even all of this is not conscious, but dwells just under the threshold of consciousness.

I think there is much in our (U.S.) culture that operates this way. Advertising manipulates our thinking in subtle ways like this. The design of stores manipulates human behavior in subtle ways. We are being controlled, and the manipulation is so effective that we are even convinced that we make all of our choices with full consciousness and intentionality.

In my classes, we sometimes talk about cultural influences on thought and behavior, and often the issue of violence on TV comes up. Students always start off by defending the violence on TV, saying it is harmless, and also saying that the reason there is so much violence on TV is because "we want it; we like it; we watch it." Then the fun begins. I ask them questions like, "How many of you actually do specifically like watching violent scences on TV? Do any of you avoid seeing movies when you hear there is a lot of violence? Would you watch other kinds of programs if there were more choices? What would you watch? What would you really like to see?" It turns out that those who specifically like watching violence are very few. Most put up with it in terms of how its presence supports the overall plot, but once they really start thinking about it, they admit that although violence does rivit one's attention, that doesn't mean they actually like watching it. Or, if they do, it is in order to learn something else.

Once my students have seen that in our admittedly small sample size there are very few who actually like how much violence there is on TV, then we revisit their earlier assumptions: "Why did you initially think that there is so much violence because people like it?" and they begin to realize that that belief, which may in fact not be true at all, has itself been thrust into their belief system without their evaluation or consent, and has shaped their perception of human nature (humans are violent by nature and are attracted to watching violence). They get very uneasy at this point, wondering how much else that they believe, that seems like "common sense," may in fact be questionable.

The more we can learn about how beliefs seep into our thinking unevaluated, the more hope there is that we can liberate ourselves from their subtle but powerful influence on us.

So, the amazing question that emerged for me after this web writing workshop was this: can teachers and writers use these very same principles of subtle thought-control to liberate our students and readers from such subtle manipulation?

If so, is it ethical to do this? To manipulate people into claiming their liberation?

Actually, I don't think it is possible to manipulate people into claiming their liberation, because the point of liberation is having choice. People can still choose not to accept their full liberation, their full freedom. (Unfortunately, I see this happening all too often in my teaching.) So where liberation is genuine, it happens through awareness, choice, and consent.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Peacemaking and Effectiveness

I thought I would include a report or two from the conference (Friends Association for Higher Education) I recently attended.

Joey Rodger, from the Pendle Hill Peace Center, led a very interesting session entitled, "Effective Peace and Justice Work: Why and How Activists Need Academics." I'm not attempting to give a comprehensive report on this presentation, but wanted to highlight what I found especially striking.

Joey Rodger is concerned about a present danger she sees among spiritually rooted peace activism: such activists often care greatly about being faithful but do not care so much about being effective. Many seem to adopt the attitude, "All I have to do is be faithful; I'll leave the rest up to God," and then don't even bother to assess the effectiveness of their actions. Such activists want to be sure to "do something," and tend towards impulsive, flashy actions, but often do not think those actions through very carefully, or research the issues thoroughly; nor do they consider other possible strategies that may be less flashy but more effective.

Her point was that being spiritually faithful must include trying to be strategically effective.

Peace activists need good information, and access to good research. She would like to see a system of every city having a nonviolent agency, akin to agricultural extension agencies, to provide information to everyone interested in addressing problems nonviolently. The way that the agricultural extension agencies work is that they act as intermediaries between academics doing research into effective agricultural practices and farmers. Farmers can get information about new techniques and new varieties of crops being developed, and then can give feedback, through the extension agencies, about how well the techniques or new crops actually worked. Researchers then take this feedback into account as they continue their research.

What if there were similar agencies for communicating peace research to peace activists, and also giving feedback from activists to researchers? And it wouldn't necessarily just be activists who made use of such agencies -- the police might seek their advice about how to reduce violence in a neighborhood; school officials might consult them for advice about reducing school violence, etc.

The follow-up discussion to Joey Rodger's presentation was very interesting as well. One of the points that most struck me was the observation that just providing information is not enough. So we academics cannot rest content with just researching and writing. Just because we've written something insightful does not mean that it will be read and put into practice. We all need to study how change actually happens. For example, most people know that smoking is unhealthy, yet many people still start smoking and/or refuse to even try to quit. Just knowing something is not enough to guarantee change.

Joey Rodger also made the point that in her own study, she is convinced that approaches designed to change people's hearts and minds are not actually very effective -- systems need to be changed.

There is much that is thought-provoking here.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Stability of Triangles

I'm back from my trip! And it was thoroughly wonderful! I lived fully in the present and enjoyed every moment, including the travel itself, and even the waiting in airports. I felt very little of the travel anxiety I used to feel. Maybe it was that I thorougly knew how important this trip was -- this was exactly what I had to do right now in my life.

I won't go into all the details, but I do want to share some of what this trip was, and what it meant to me. The conference I attended was the Friends Association for Higher Education conference. This organization exists both to support the institutions of higher education that are historically Quaker, and also to support people like me: Quakers who teach in non-Quaker colleges. I love these annual conferences. The conferences draw together a great group of people, and the conferences offer wonderful series of presentations and workshops. Often, the presentations and workshops can feel like -- well, they are -- "gathered" Meetings.

The theme of this year's conference, "Centering on the Edge: Intellect, Spirit, Action," was especially meaningful and relevant to me. Now that I have tenure, I realize that I have a responsibility to use my academic life well to address the needs of the world, and so I have been deeply re-thinking my academic identity. I entered into the conference a little worried that I was facing a crisis: an agonizing decision of whether to turn my back on some of the philosophy research I have been doing in favor of a more serious turn to peace research.

But as each session I attended at the conference ministered to me in its own slightly different way, a new image of my academic life started to come into focus. It crystallized in a conversation with one of my friends. I realized that I have three major research interests that initially seem very different, and so I keep thinking I need to simplify by focusing primarily on just one or two. But I suddenly realized that all three feed each other in important ways, and in my attempt to "embrace complexity," I need to just accept all three fully. Those three, for me, are philosophy of science (and, more generally, issues dealing with knowledge, meaning, and language), peace studies, and Quakerism.

So, how do they feed each other? If we make those three into points of a triangle, then look at each side of the triangle:

The "philosophy-peace studies" side, for me, is about the relationships between knowledge, language, and power. I am interested in the power of words to resolve problems nonviolently.

The "peace studies-Quakerism" side may seem obvious at first, but someone at the conference said that his (Quaker) college had a hard time finding someone well-qualified to teach both Quakerism and peace studies -- there are excellent Quaker scholars, and excellent peace studies scholars, but surprisingly few who directly combine the two in scholarly research today. This astounded me, and struck a deep chord in my soul, because there is an intersection there that I feel led to explore more deeply: the history of Quaker involvement in peace issues. Immediately upon the conclusion of the conference, I began to research what has already been done on this topic, and I very much look forward to continuing!

The "Quakerism-philosophy of science" side may be less obvious, until one notes that Quakerism arose at the same time as the rise of early modern science. There are scholars who have already begun to explore this connection, and I would like to join in this research as well. I am also fascinated by the contrast between the Quaker acceptance of forms of knowledge that cannot be put into words, and the analytic-philosophy emphasis on limiting knowledge only to what can be put into words.

Now, back to the story: when I mentioned to my friend that I needed to keep all three arenas of research, she noted to me that a triangle is the most stable shape. (Stools made with three legs never wobble.)

Then, later, she surprised me by speaking of "my" triangle in general terms as if everyone has a similar triangle: a triangle of spirituality, activism, and study. "All three kinds of people," she noted, "those who primarily define themselves as spiritual, those who primarily define themselves as activists, and those who primarily define themselves as scholars, really need all three if they are to do their work well."

And only just now, in writing this, do I notice that the very subtitle of the conference expresses the same idea: "intellect, spirit, action."

So, no wonder! What I thought was my personal, private revelation was instead a mirror of the very intent of the conference itself! We were all helping each other to define for ourselves our particular triangles, and to nourish and strengthen the interconnections between the triangles' points! No wonder it was such a powerful and inspiring conference!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Poised to Travel

I'm departing for a conference tomorrow. So, during the past few days, I've been caught in that strange world of being here but not being fully here. The process of being here but preparing to be somewhere else for a time is a strange state of being. I love my home, and in a certain way wish I could just stay put. But all year I have been looking forward to this trip, because it gives me a chance to re-connect with really important friends. I need this. So, all day today, as I've been getting things together, I've been happy!

There are people who travel so much that they take it in stride -- or are there really such people? I have had periods of extended travel, and so I know that you can adjust to that special mode of being. You learn to really appreciate exactly where you are. Travel is both exciting, and unsettling.

This summer I am going on several short trips -- three short trips that will each last a week, in three very different places, each presenting its own unique configuration of excitement and challenge. A friend of mine once confessed to me, before a big trip, "I don't like traveling, but after the fact, I like having traveled. I'm stressed out about this trip now, but I know that in the long run, I will be glad to have done this."

At first I marveled because this was such a brilliant description of how I've come to feel about traveling. But more recently I've remembered that there were times when I was totally thrilled to travel -- everything about the experience was exciting to me. And I'm starting to regain that sense again. I think travel got stressful when I was flying out to intensive academic job interviews. Now that I feel more secure in my work, I can relax back into the excitement of being in new places and meeting new people. It gives you a different perspective on your life. The travel itself provides valuable spiritual reflective time.

I'm not sure whether I'll have the chance to check in on all the blogs I'm now reading! But I look forward to catching up when I get back!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Crossroads

As I begin to study the lives of important peacemakers, I have noticed that there seems to be a stage when their lives suddenly take a quantum leap in complexity. They begin their peacemaking modestly, but their first major success is quickly followed by a flood of new requests and responsibilities. At this point, the peacemaker takes pause and goes on a brief, but intense, spiritual journey, carefully considering whether he or she is up for the task of following through for the long term.

There are probably many more stories of this than we actually see, because a good number of people who experience this may in fact decide, "no." There are good reasons to say "no." Saying "yes" is full of risks. It can be easy to glorify the "yes" choices, because the "yes" choices that are most visible are the ones that were in fact successful. But the success in these successful stories did not come easily. Success is not inevitable. To say "no" from the start is to exit quietly, gracefully. It can be rooted in an honest and admirable humility. A person can say, "circumstance has brought me to this moment of choice, but not true calling. This is not mine," and gracefully step aside, allowing others to pick up the challenge -- others who may in fact be genuinely called; others who may in fact have a better chance at success.

But what of those who do in fact say "yes"? They next have to revamp their lives. They have to consolidate their support, re-organize their work in fundamental ways, and face their lives anew. Especially, they need to learn how to share the load with others -- or, to put it in contemporary language, they have to learn how to delegate. A leader of a peacemaking effort isn't doing all the work himself or herself. These leaders have teams of trusted colleagues, and they meet frequently to plan, carefully and strategically. They have good communication systems in place so that they can call meetings at a moment's notice when emergency situations demand it. They are committed. They are disciplined. They are on top of things at all times.

As people call on me more and more often in life now, I find myself thinking a lot about all of this. It is not that I am being called to dramatically important peacemaking work (yet). It is not that I am at this major kind of crossroads that I describe. It is that I am such a sensitive soul that I feel very keenly this modest crossroads-experience that I find myself in.

Realistically, am I up for the task? And, a related but very different question: is the present state of my life up for the task? By this I mean that both matter: my own actual psychological state (how much strength, compassion, and insight I currently have), and what I could call the infrastructure of my life (i.e., the nature and array of my current commitments, and the quality and supportive strength of my relationships).

Some pieces of those questions I can answer. My work life is ideally suited for the kinds of requests I am considering. I am very fortunate in this respect. All of the requests harmonize well with my work-related commitments -- but still there are questions of prioritization and timing. I cannot do all that I currently have before me as possibilities, and handle them all well. Some I will have to put off. The question is how to focus my energies now? What are the immeditate steps that it would be best for me to make now? How do I most effectively sequence my major interests?

Also, I notice a sense of growing strength, but am I far enough along in that yet? I see myself attracted to kinds of activism that others veer away from, and that means something -- but I also see in myself a tendency to take on too much and then, back in the privacy of my own home at night, I panic and crash emotionally. So far I have managed to pick myself back up and piece myself back together again before each next foray -- yet it doesn't feel like a sustainable pattern (nor is it much fun!) -- are there better ways to bolster myself, emotionally, for the demands of this kind of work?

Discernment, discernment, discernment!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Overwhelmed...er, I mean, Embracing Complexity, Again!

I think I have to stop ever saying "Things are calming down at last!"

While I was sitting in my house reading and taking notes and pausing to explore blogs, it did look that way, fleetingly.

Then I went into my office (which desperately needs reorganizing) and checked my campus mail (student evaluations have come in -- eek!), and then my e-mail. And there I found -- a request to take on something quite big. This requires careful discernment. I did not expect this at all.

So, what did I do? I simply shut down the computer and left my office. (I did not even glance at the student evals. One must gather strength to do so. What's even worse is that I'm department chair, and so I really need to look at everyone's, and soon (cringe), so I can get them back to everyone else in time for them to do their annual reports, which I will then have to respond to.)

So, yes, I'm overwhelmed by all of it. My current life, and the mysterious new possibility. As soon as I say out loud what this new possibility is, it will be easy for people to figure out who I am. (Even though I'm not famous.) Ok, kind of easy, for those who are savvy at web surfing.

And my explorations of blog world are starting to overwhelm me. There is so much out there. So many good people writing about so many good and important things. So many people trying to find a voice, and an audience. Some blogs have thousands of links down the side (ok, I'm exaggerating a little) -- do they really manage to keep up with all of those other blogs they list? And how they find the time even to learn how to create those links? I'm excited by the potential of blog world, but I'm also realizing that, while it's relatively new to me, others have been out there for quite some time and have found a kind community for themselves. I'm feeling new, undiscovered, on the fringes -- and, to be honest, ambivalent about that. I know now how easy it would be to make myself known -- just start posting comments to their blogs. I want to step in ... and yet I hesitate ... because I am already overwhelmed with the complexity of my life ...

So: discernment! Of all of these possibilities I have before me about how to take my post-tenure steps into clarifying my calling and identity -- which do I follow?

What is the purpose of this blog? Do I want to branch out from here and connect with others, forming kind of a blogging community? Or do I want to stay enclaved in the lonely predictability of being quiet and unnoticed? Will blogging, for me, turn into a form of activism -- or should blogging, for me, become part of my support system?

I started off life painfully shy; now I teach, give talks, perform in concerts. I love writing; but (to be honest) I've been terrified of getting my writing published. And now in life I keep getting called to take on more and more responsibilities in more and more public sorts of ways. I'm interested, because I care. But what holds me back is that deeply entrenched childhood shyness. Everytime someone asks me to do something, my first thought is, "What?! Little ol' me? But I'm just a 12 year old kid!" Never mind that I've been stalled at 12 for, um, a lot of years. It's still how I feel. I look at all that I've done and I can't believe it. Was that really me? And yet, I'm restless. What I'm more aware of is all I still haven't done, that I feel called to do.

I keep feeling, "I have to get ready to be able to say 'yes' to things like this." I feel like I'm still preparing. But when am I going to feel ready? Does anyone ever feel ready?

I feel a strong sense that I'm holding back way too much. The urgent sense of call I do feel is for some way to project myself more fully into the world -- but is it to be through getting my writing published, or through taking on more visible leadership roles? Or both? (Am I capable of both?)

Embracing complexity... (Or should I rename this blog: "Reclaiming Simplicity!"? Ha!)

Learning About Blog-World

Life is calming down. I'm feeling I've at last moved more fully into contemplative scholar mode. I spent a huge part of yesterday reading and taking notes (in preparation for an article I'm writing). Nice to be back to being able to spend most of my time in this mode!

When I needed a break from that, I did some more exploring of Blog-World, and finally am learning ways to find kindred-spirit blogs. But it still surprises me how clever you have to be to find them. Am I missing something obvious? Are there good pages that organize similar blogs? (I do notice that some people's blogs themselves do a nice job with this!)

I'm especially interested in finding other bloggers interested in Quakerism, contemplation, vocation and calling, early music, or traditional music.

Also, I'm impressed at the fancy things that people do with their blogs. I apologize for not even having a list of links yet! Soon, I hope!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I Told My Mother About My Blog

When I first got started with this, and was reading the "Help" files to learn about how it all works, I was very amused to come across a FAQ page that included the topic, "What to do if your Mom discovers your blog." Of course I read it -- and laughed.

But I actually went and told my Mom about my blog (Hi Mom!) because she likes to write and I thought she might be interested in starting one. Understandably, she wanted to look at some blogs first. Surprisingly, she asked if I had one. This shouldn't be surprising, but the reason I found it surprising is that I've been telling more and more of my friends that "I've been learning about blogs, because I find this whole phenomenon very interesting," and no one has gone on to ask me, "Well, do you have a blog?" Actually, that is what has surprised me.

I think the reason is that most of my friends are not in the so called "net generation," those young enough to be "digital natives." Most of my friends are "digital immigrants." We all are old enough that we have encountered the development of computer and web technology later in life, and learned it all as a "second language" rather than as a "first language." I learned about this during the recent faculty development workshops, because our students are generally "digital natives," and we professors are "digital immigrants." Here is a link to one of the resources we read on this topic, and here is another, to be followed by Part II here. (If these links don't work, that's proof that I'm a mere digital immigrant!) So, I sense that many of my friends are a little intimidated by all of this, and hesitant to get into something new. They've learned a lot already, appreciate the power of computers and the web, are amazed and delighted by some aspects of it, but wary of getting in too deep. And I'll confess to such ambivalence myself, although I've generally been more enthusiastic than not. Still, I appreciate the concerns that people have.

Ok, but I'm drifting off topic. My Mom did ask if I had a blog, because she's my Mom! And moms are like that -- interested in their offspring and unafraid to ask obvious, direct, and perhaps even personal questions! And my Mom has had a kind of spunk about computers that surprised even me. She is a person who hesitated for years even to get a microwave! I could tell that she even balked a bit when Dad proudly got her a food processor, though she did good-naturedly use it ... sometimes ... at first. So, when they got into computers (I encouraged Dad to make the plunge), I was just astounded about how well Mom took to it! (Dad took to it well too, but I expected that!) She loved tracking down old friends and getting back in touch through e-mail. She enjoys surfing the web to find information on topics and activities that interest her. Now she's having digital images made of her photos and enjoys using photo editing software to modify some of the images. Go Mom!

As I've been getting into blogging myself, I've approached it carefully and experimentally. I wasn't sure initially whether to use my real name or not. I have come to learn that it's not a clear either/or question. There are actually layers of pseudonymity. You can hide just under the surface, or you can hide at a very deep level. My decision was to stay near the surface. I decided that I didn't care if people who knew me came across my blog and recognized me at once. I'm not trying to hide from people I know. I'm just cautious about revealing my real name to people I don't know (and I'm not even sure why I'm cautious about this).

But also, this is an experiment in growing into a kind of identity I want to grow more solidly into. The real reason for pseudonymity is that in the initial stages of personal transformation, your new identity can feel fragile. I've appreciated this blog space as an arena in which I have been gradually developing more confidence about this identity. But I should clarify: it's not the identity that is new -- I've been attracted to the identity of "contemplative scholar" for a very long time. But for some reason I've had trouble giving myself permission to fully live into this identity, unapologetically. Our culture discourages contemplation, reflection, solitude. Our culture is into what is quick, active, flashy. The deep, slow movements of soul are often met with impatience and misunderstanding.

But I am seeing that the more I give myself permission to claim contemplative space and time, the more I gain in strength and insight. I am on an important journey.

I have "site meter," and I can see that most of the hits this site gets are very brief -- people glance and then move on to something more flashy and interesting, or perhaps more relevant to their interests and needs. And maybe even my mother and the few friends who do know about my blog will get bored, but I don't mind. I find this quiet corner of a strange kind of "public" space (a space so busy and full that it is easy, after all, to hide in full view), and I'm happy just to be here for anyone who happens to find my musings helpful or reassuring.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

40%

Ok, I feel humbled. I spent the day yesterday playing music with two of the members of the music ensemble I play in (one was the director) -- with some others joining in for several pieces. I rate my own performance at about 40%, though it may have inched up to 60% towards the end. (For a full account of what I mean by these numbers, see previous post at: Concert.)

This almost caused serious damage to my self-confidence. But, in my own defense -- we played challenging music; and ever since our concert, I've been practicing flutes instead of recorders, and traditional music more than early music. So I was a bit rusty on recorders with F-fingerings.

But still. It's only been a month!

So, okay, I was surprisingly nervous as well. And that alters one's perceptions and one's abilities. Why nervous? Because I have very high regard for both of these players. They both have a lot of training and experience in music. They are both excellent sight-readers. (While I'm not a hopeless sight-reader myself, it's easier for me to learn by ear. And in the off-season, that's more of what I do.)

Yet, I regard the day as a new kind of success. After all, my self-confidence did not evaporate. I was able to remember these things about myself and these players, and I was able to appreciate their gracious patience with me, without ever slipping into a kind of negative, grumpy interpretation of the situation. I know them better than that. They just wanted to play through a bunch of music and hear how it sounded. I held them back a little, but not hopelessly. They weren't upset. They enjoyed our getting together to play music. And if there was even the slightest trace of a competitive spirit (which there probably wasn't), it only in the end served to boost their own self-confidence -- but that does not need to diminish my own.

It's taken me a long time to get to this kind of place -- a place of radical acceptance of where everyone is, myself included. I can have an off day musically without falling into a total existential crisis about my musical abilities.

I was just plain out of practice (on alto recorder). C'est la vie.

But I also saw: I would rather be in practice on all of the instruments I play, at every moment, so that I can contribute to making a day like yesterday as good as it can be. No, it is not the end of the world to be off. But it is better to be on, because I and the others get more out of the experience when I am on.

But even being "off" flexes everyone's compassion muscles -- and that's not bad either. Maybe it's actually good for people to have off days with each other every now and then to keep everyone well-practiced in graciousness and compassion.

Friday, June 03, 2005

On Surprise and Transcendence

I keep thinking that things will calm down soon, but life is full of surprises. Things keep happening that I wasn't quite expecting, throwing off my attempts to establish order and predictability into my life.

The things that have been happening are mostly good. Some have even been transcendent moments, injecting bursts of eternity into the corners of a crowded life. It is amazing that this is possible.

It is all good, and yet... and yet... Will life ever calm down and return to normal?

Return?!?

Normal?!?

If I'm honest with myself, the normality I long for was never in place -- or was it? Perhaps in fleeting moments? Can a fleeting moment set the standard for normality in one's life? However fleeting, such moments still are real, hence possible, and so they tempt us into believing that they can become the norm.

Or is that not the point? Is the calm I seek not really dependent on circumstances becoming calm and predictable, but dependent instead on something about me? Can I bring calm centeredness even into the unpredictable surprises that happen, and embrace them with hope and joy instead of anxiety?

Is this in fact what happens when the unexpected becomes transcendent?