The dropping of leaves by deciduous trees is called abscission. It occurs on the cusp between autumn and winter, as part of an arc of growth, maturity, and renewal. In spring and summer, leave cells are full of chlorophyll, a bright, green substance that absorbs sunlight, fueling the process that converts carbon dioxide and water into the starch and sugar that allow the tree to grow. But at the end of the summer, as the days grow shorter and the temperature falls, deciduous trees stop making food. In the absence of sunlight, it becomes too costly to maintain the machinery of growth. The chlorophyll begins to break down, revealing other colours that were always present in the leaf, but which were masked by the abundance of green pigment: oranges and yellows, derived from carotene and xanthophyll. Other chemical changes take place to create red anthocyanin pigments. The exact mix is different for each tree, sometimes producing bright yellows, oranges, and browns, and sometimes displaying as reds or purpose.
But while this is happening, a layer of cells is weakening between the stem and the branch: this is called the abscission zone. Gradually it severs the leaf from access to water, and the leaf dries and browns and in most cases falls off, either under its own weight or encouraged by wintery rains and winds. Within a few hours, the tree will have released substance to heal the scar the leaf has left, protecting itself from the evaporation of water, infection, or the invasion of parasites.
Even as the leaves are falling the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring.
From Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.
This week, during the Thanksgiving Break, I’m giving myself the gift of Sam Anderson’s Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding… Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. Since late September, this book has been sitting near my desk in my office. And since late September, I’ve randomly opened it and read a sentence here, a paragraph there, and marveled at their construction — their energy and their charm and there filled-to-the-brimness. In the world of words, to pull from the world of basketball, the guy breaks ankles.
The book itself has lived up to the hype I built for it. Anderson’s voice makes me laugh and think and forget to drink coffee. Or, rather, it replaces the need for coffee.
Since my teacher brain is still going, I dug around the Internet a little bit to read about Anderson’s approach. (Yes, I’m teaching a class on rhetoric and non fiction next semester, and yes I’m planning to introduce Anderson to my students.) Here’s a paragraph I found in an interview that nicely traces Anderson’s path to writing the way he does. For him, voice is everything, and here’s why:
I think the most interesting thing about any of us is the voice that just plays in our heads all the time. And if you can manage to get that voice onto the page, it’s so powerful. Someone can connect with it in the space of a phrase or a sentence. Someone can be like, oh my gosh, it’s another human. And I think there’s a great paradox in personal writing, which is that the best way to connect, to actually really deeply connect with another person is to put yourself, as strange and idiosyncratic as you are, down on the page. So, it’s not to try to be general and to try to be a kind of everyman. It’s to be absolutely yourself, to be embarrassing, to be ridiculous, to be funny. If you can get it down honestly on the page, then I think another human will pick it up. And that’s the most exciting thing to me, is that transaction. So, it really starts with voice, and then I guess that’s the great opportunity of the genre is that voice is like a little electric current that you can shoot through anything, anything. So, I mean, you can talk about what you had for breakfast this morning. You could talk about your commute to work. You could talk about an interesting pair of shoes that you noticed. I mean, really, anything becomes a vehicle for that electric current, which is like whatever the living essence of being human.
On Friday, the day before Thanksgiving Break, I usually feel about the same as I walk out of my school. My voice is usually a little hoarse, my to-do list is usually a lot unfinished, and I’m usually — no, always — ready for a nap. I’ve been running alongside teachers and students and administrators since late August, at least.
This year is no different and also very different. I feel all of those things, like I usually do, but I’m also holding a sense of loss for things I can’t quite locate or name. I guess, head smack, that’s why loss is loss and holes are holes. You can’t find what you’re looking for; you have nothing around to fill what’s missing.
Before I disconnect for the week, I’m feeling called to make a list to spite those final few feelings. To strike a match of sorts. To not go gently . . . I’m feeling compelled to say what I believe to those working in schools: of course you can find what you’re looking for and of course there’s plenty around to fill what’s missing. Schools are endless in that way, in the meaning making way, in the joy whispering quietly humming way. We don’t always know why we’re going to school these days, whether remotely or in-person or in the hybrid mode, as we now call it. But if we go to school gently expectantly, without all the time filled in our agendas, and with our hearts and ears wide open, then there’s plenty to be found and cherished and heard. There’s plenty that shines and sings.
This year, I was walking the halls at school and found a senior in one of the Biology rooms. After we talked for a minute, he looked out the window and said, “I took this class as a freshman. I just felt like hanging out in here for a little while and thinking about that.”
I met a really cool poet. He’s just a sophomore and we have plans to swap some books after Thanksgiving Break.
While covering my colleagues’ classes when they taught remotely, I picked up a whole education in Environmental Science and Utopian literature. I’ve learned how to run discussions in new ways, how to connect with students in new ways, how to make material come alive, regardless of the medium.
I’ve continued my four year conversation with Jake and Anthony and Karl and started a new four year conversation with Shea and Boris and Leslie-Ann. Imagine a really great, really long Bob Dylan song that you’re hearing for the first time. That’s what these conversations are like.
I’ve had really hard conversations with colleagues as I hoped we would.
I’ve seen each of my colleagues learn and grow and adapt, finding ways to cut through the fog of masks and COVID uncertainty and Google Meets and “you forgot to unmute” and dropped calls and mixed up schedules and plain old tiredness.
Almost every time I plan a new class with my co-teacher, I’ve been surprised by laughter, the kind that forces you to stop what you’re doing because your body is shaking.
I’ve watched my students give brave speeches, submit incredible and thoughtful work, and ask enormous questions. I’ve seen the chat box in Google Meets overflow with thinking and jokes and kindnesses. I’ve seen online, student-led conversation circles about anti racism and the political climate in my country and how to disagree while still being civil. I’ve seen, in other words, the future. And it looks okay, inhabitable, humane.
And just yesterday, completely out of the blue, I talked with a student I’d known for a long time about her emerging dream of working on a farm. I’ll admit, I’ve been seeing her in a different way for the past few years. I thought she might study English in college. How wonderful, I thought, that her dream for herself is so much more original and interesting than my dream for her.
How wonderful, I’m thinking, that this same thing keeps happening as long as we keep showing up, in whatever way we can. How wonderful to live again, in a new way, the great truth at the end of Wendell Berry’s appropriately titled poem, “The Real Work.”
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Over the past few months, I’ve been collecting terms (and sometimes their histories) that have helped me to first see and then act differently. As a language person, terms help me to filter my experience and focus both my reflection and my planning. Sometimes, more importantly, they help me to pause in the moment (or pause the moment) and ask a question or push back or ensure that I’m understanding. So many of us right now are re-learning to see and speak and lend ourselves to causes bigger than ourselves. Language isn’t the end, of course, but it’s often an important part of change.
Here on RW, I’ve logged entries on microaggressions, holding, and emotional and affective labor to name but a few. Today I want to share a brief history of the term intersectionality. It comes from a book called Data Feminism.
The term intersectionality was coined by legal theorist Kimberlé Cresnshaw in the late 1980s. In law School, Crenshaw had come across the anti-discrimination case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. Emma DeGraffenreid was a Black working mother who had sought a job at a General Motors factory in her town. She was not hired and sued GM for discrimination. The factory did have a history of hiring Black people: many Black men worked in industrial and maintenance jobs there. They also had a history of hiring women: many white women worked there as secretaries. These two pieces of evidence provided the rationale for the judge to throw out the case. Because the company did hire Black people and did hire women, it could not be discriminating based on race or gender. But, Crenshaw wanted to know, what about discrimination on the basis of race and gender together? This was something different, it was real, and it needed to be named. Crenshaw not only named the concept, but would go on to explain and elaborate the idea of intersectionality in award-winning books, papers, and talks.
I haven’t really stopped thinking about this short history since I first read it. It reinvigorates the importance of naming. Of seeing to name. Of stepping off the naming of others. Of vigilance and thoroughness. And even of the kind of creativity and imagination, properly applied, that powers the work of justice.
I don’t love the moments of pain revealed in this article from a former colleague. But I do appreciate that, after all is said, Andrew ends with specific moves that we can practice over and over, again and again, to build the kinds of school communities that we aspire to be. Also, notice the breadcrumb trail of graceful actions he leaves for us: lean in, uphold, turn around, help, engage, and again, help.
[We] must embrace our opportunity to create a more socially just world through our students as our “why.” In the moments you might want to recoil from the difficult conversation about the racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic language a politician or media figure used, we must instead lean in and uphold our communal norms. In the moments when a student commits a microaggression and we could plausibly deny that we heard it, we must turn around and help that child to learn through curiosity and compassion. In the moments when a colleague makes a mistake and the thought of the unbearably awkward conversation to come is overwhelming, we must engage and help that educator to be better. This work will almost never be easy and it certainly will not be perfect and yet it is by far the most promising and important work we will do in our respective institutions.
I’ve been interested in the work of Zeynep Tufekci since I started hearing about her book Twitter and Tear Gas. Back then, I appreciated her thinking about technology and society (and just her way of thinking). Lately, though, I’ve heard her name in a different context — when seemingly smart and well informed people talk about someone who has been repeatedly right about important aspects of the COVID pandemic. Tufekci has thought clearly and wisely at a time when the stakes have never been higher.
Over the past few days, I listened to this interview (embedded below). Because the story wasn’t new to me, I listened with a particular focus — particular questions. If we were building a school to produce people who could think as clearly and incisively as Zeynep Tufekci, what qualities would we seek to instill in our students? What would such students know and be able to do when they graduated?
Here’s my list. Our graduates would . . .
- Understand statistics.
- Understand probability theory.
- Know how to work “at intersections” of disciplines or industries.
- Have eclectic training. Be able to think across disciplines. Perhaps more important, be able to apply lessons from one discipline to problems in another.
- Have “learned a lot about a lot of different things.”
- Have “broad interest in many disciplines over time.”
- Have taught.
- Have traveled.
- Have embraced the practical humility of acknowledging that luck will always play a part in success (and failure, for that matter).
- Know to (and how to) read the papers. (By this, I mean the research papers, the complicated stuff.)
- Know to (and how to) read the newspapers.
- Understand how (and why / when) to communicate ideas across different platforms, i.e., social media vs. academic journals vs. popular publications vs. books.
- Combine research and thinking with observation in one’s own “sphere.”
- Have “imagination about what can happen.”
- Understand risk. (Which ones are acceptable / to be tolerated vs. which ones we cannot ignore.)
- Understand how to move between the theoretical and the practical.
- Understand the value of simplicity or simplifying.
- Understand human nature.
- Think about the relationship between individual action and community implications.
- Know to (and know how to) talk to and even debate with different kinds of experts (pHDs, MDs, specialists).
- Watch their own minds / metacognition.
- Go to the research.
- Push back on things that don’t make sense.
- Ask the next question: “what else is going on?”
- Identify (and point to) the “low hanging fruit.”
- Ask, and if need be hire, people to attack their ideas.
- Know how to write, and communicate, for different kinds of audiences.
- Know when to dive deep or seek out deep thinking.
- Know when to look beyond an accepted or compelling story.
- Be able to identify and call out groupthink. (“Group think can’t be broken by the group.”)
- Watch what is happening in other countries.
- Take “big swings.”
- Be brave, be brave, be brave. And humble.
- [This bonus bullet point comes from ZT herself; I adapted it from a Tweet she sent me in response to the post: Graduates of the School of Zeynep Tufekci realize that a diploma confers a certain kind of daily aspiration, rather than the illusion of a finished state.]