A Series of Fortunate Events
After pontificating in my previous post about the process for selecting a dissertation topic in the humanities, I should clarify that my own process was far from straightforward. It was full of detours and unexpected surprises nothing short of serendipitous. At the same time, I had some significant work to do along the way.
“Serendipity doesn’t just happen,” a mentor once encouraged me. “You have to work for it.” I have been blessed beyond what I deserve. I don’t want to downplay that. But I have consistently striven to make the most of the opportunities I have been given – although in a few cases, opportunity had to knock a few times before I answered. I can’t take all the credit. I have received much help along the way.
I never would have written the book if I hadn’t known German. And I kept having more opportunities to learn German in spite of myself. In high school my language goal was to be proficient at French, but the exchange students I befriended happened to be German. Eager to travel, I couldn’t resist when they offered me a free place to stay for a few weeks and my parents offered to cover the airfare as a graduation gift. (I should add that this wasn’t really official until I received a generous college scholarship.) In preparation, as a senior in high school in the fall of 1996, I began learning German. I had space in my schedule. My high school did not offer it, but I got the green light to take courses at a nearby college for free.
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The Release of My First Book as a Crisis of Character
In a month or so, Mothering the Fatherland will hit the shelves. I received my own personal copy in the mail late last week. Despite my erstwhile dreams of becoming a novelist, my first book is a work of academic non-fiction (historical theology, to be precise). As a junior scholar still seeking a tenure-track position, a monograph from the top university press (Oxford) is a feather in my cap… and a thorn in my side.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful. This is a boon to my fledgling career. But I need to be honest about its impact on my soul. I have had the book in my possession for a few days and already I can see some of the ways that it will challenge my character. I contend that these issues threaten virtually all published authors, as well as many public artists, performers, and other creatives.
The struggle can go in one of two directions, with the option of frequent vacillation between the two: insecurity and vanity.
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History is a dusty business. One person’s dust is another person’s dirt. This is especially true when the history in question is that of a living community, no less one that venerates its founders’ memory. What you consider an insight others might consider a scandalous impossibility.
A college mentor told me of a white Southern family that hired a historian, who was to research the family history and share his findings at the family reunion the next year. He did as he was told, reporting nothing until the foreordained moment. After the picnic lunch, he nonchalantly told the gathered family members how their descendants included not one but several African-American fathers and Anglo-American (or, apparently, mixed) mothers. The parents quickly told their children to go play on the playground and demanded their money back. They were not who they thought they were.
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Starbucks as Religion
“Have you noticed the fervor of some of our customers?” I asked, mopping the floor in my green apron with a freshly minted master’s degree in theology. “It’s like drinking coffee from here is their religion.”
“We’ve got tradition, community, and ritual,” replied a fellow barista and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. “It fits.”
To this, I would add an explicit system of ethics, focused on care for all, and implicit belief system: the Cult of the Self.
The purpose of this essay is not to make the case that we can find religion and religion-like phenomena everywhere. To do so would be to risk diluting the term “religion” to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, the significance of this exercise is to demonstrate the potential connection between consumption and the transcendent, both real and illusory. What and how we drink forms part of the self we present to the world, how we perceive ourselves, and, in complex ways, who we truly are. You belong to what your worship, so drink with care.
The traditions of Starbucks are myriad. The stores mark the changing of the seasons. Individual stores trace their lineage nationally back to the mother store and locally back to whichever store came first. Old timers tell of the legend of chantico and the return of orange mocha Frappuccino. Some recall the evolution of the siren, which some hail as a neo-pagan deity, but which most recognize as merely a whimsical mythological creature capturing the spirit of fun and adventure, the antithesis of corporate America. Indeed, there is a distinctly countercultural strain in Starbucks’ corporate culture, though some anti-establishment types might see this as a veneer masking corporate hypocrisy. But I digress.
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How a Year as a Barista Helped – and Hindered – my Teaching
When I feel overwhelmed by a growing pile of papers to grade, I remember once having a growing list of lattes to make, and I smile. It has been nearly six years since I was a barista, but that experience left an indelible impression on me and how I relate to others. I have now spent more time as a college-level educator than I did in the food service industry – but just barely. While wearing a coffee-stained apron, I honed the ability to empathize and listen unjudgmentally; and this has been a priceless asset. But, at the same time, I recognize that the sales tactic of catering to absurd requests does not serve students well.
Few things are more important to teaching than listening. Especially in discussion-based courses, which are all that I currently teach, I know that I must listen and respond thoughtfully to students in order for the conversation to move forward. I have long been frustrated with colleagues who ask an open-ended question and will not accept anything but one particular, narrow answer, for which they have been fishing. By adopting the stance of welcoming any answer as a contribution, no matter how tangentially related to what is correct in the strict sense of the word, I am able to encourage students to participate, even as I engage with them intellectually. Any answer is better than no answer. There is no such thing as a stupid question – and, at least for the purposes of class discussion, I do not believe stupid questions exist.
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(In response to student requests that I provide them with my own answer to a reflection essay on the topic.)
I have no simple answers to the simple questions.
Alaska. Michigan. Ohio. Wyoming. Oregon. That is where I am from.
My father is African-American, apart from some Cherokee and traces of Thomas Jefferson on his mother’s side, and either Quakers or Puritans on his father’s side (hence the last name). He spent twenty years in the Air Force before working for the State of Ohio and retiring again. My mother is Irish-German, probably Jewish-German given her maiden name, but the family secret for a while was that a few generations back there was some Blackfoot, too. She works in early child education. They divorced the year after I graduated college. I have a younger sister who is an Air Force captain. Who they are is a part of who I am.
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