Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Back in India

I am back in India after being away for quite some time. Different location now, different part of the country and the differences are sizable. The South is wonderful but I find the North more harsh--I have to temper this by stating that the people I have been with and met have been nothing but gracious hosts and warm friends. Indian hospitality in my mind is second to none and I appreciate and am deeply grateful for the kindness of my hosts. I think it is the feel of the city, the differences in wealth that just seem more amplified. Perhaps it's the lack of green in places or the punishing humidity--whose evidence can be found on the buildings all around.

Being away for so long I think I forgot many things, lost the sense of belonging. Felt like when I landed here I saw it for the first time again--albeit the transition was quicker and less severe. I am here for a shorter time, and I think that has influenced my thinking. I know home is closer this time, I know that in a few weeks I'll be back in cool weather with my family. In some ways this lets me push some things away--a kind of denial. My jaw hit the ground when I heard about the salary of my driver and I couldn't help feeling the American/Western guilt about my posh accommodations and relative wealth. I wondered if I really ever got over the disparities when I was here for longer. Did I not see it? Did I get used to it? Did I accept it? Did I lose the senstivity to the humanity in it? Like my realization in the farmland outside of Coimbatore, parents everywhere want the same things for their kids--we feel the same desire to protect them, to provide for them, to care for them. I still feel the pang in my guts as I think about this. It is visceral and then it climbs into your throat and eyes if you continue to think about it. I find it seeping into my mind, keeping my conscience and consciousness going as I try to sleep. Maybe this is why I'm going to graduate school--the belief that something can be done and to choose not to is a form of traitorous selfishness. I had to work to get to this position safety and flexibility but, man, I had a lot of help along the way--things that I was just born with and that had nothing to do with anything I did as an individual. I possess no delusions about this.

This isn't supposed to a rant infused with Western guilt. I am happy to be back, and I am constantly captivated by the energy of my colleagues as well as their openness. I am thrilled by the conversations again and the time made for them. I forgot though how time works here--how you need to travel lightly because things and opportunities can suddenly appear. Maybe this is the intensity and energy that is palpable here. Once an idea is out there it is attacked with vigor and enthusiasm.

It feels good to be back on this page--a connection back to India and some patterns that worked. Time to get back to my work for tomorrow though.

Namaskaram. Peace.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22--one long thought...

Been a while since I last wrote anything—it’s been a series of presentations, some drama and just exhaustion now that I’m coming to the end of my project here. In a week my family arrives and I can hardly wait to hug wife and daughter. I have had an amazing time here in India, but I have some ambivalence about being a tourist for a month. I got so used to being part of the city—my routines and hangouts, the people I see each day. In a couple of days I’ll be just another western tourist enjoying the pretty parts of India and shuttling from 5 star accommodation to 5 star accomodation. I know we have homestays and farmstays planned, but instead of the human connection and relationships now it’s guest service. It’s not that I’m complaining—I’ve been dreaming of a trip like this with my family and we are going to some seriously gorgeous places (Kerala-“God’s Own Country”)—but it’s just different from what I’m used to. I feel like I made it past the first veneer of understanding and now I want more. I made it in a city of 7.2 million people on a different continent—I know how to get around, I can function and give directions, I have a social network, the city feels like home. So now I want to get a better handle on the culture and what it means like to really live here. I’m reading Being Indian by Pavan K. Varma and the Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen and I also picked up Nine Lives by William Dalrymple. These are sort of scratching the itch, but I know the only way it will be satisfied is to return. I tried reading Holy Cow! by Sarah MacDonald and it just made me angry. I feel the same way when at an expat gathering and people just whine about how different India is from the US/UK/etc. I usually get myself to lighten up—these gatherings can be a "safe space” for folks to get a shot of home and share frustrations. I guess I just don’t share the views or find the griping cathartic. My existence has been pretty easy here. Sometimes wonder what my experience would have been like if I was living in a different apartment (what if I didn’t have wi-fi, soft sheets, new furniture and breakfast brought to me each day?) and without a good amount of walking around money? What if it had been a longer assignment? Not sure how productive this speculation is, but I do know that I had a very gentle introduction to India. I mean, I did have some pretty bad culture shock at the beginning, but I think a lot of this had to do with having my project fall apart right in front of me at several points and some housing issues. Besides these hiccups I’ve had it pretty soft—good place to live, great neighborhood, good co-workers, access to technology. I am of the firm belief that a huge part of my success here was due to my network of friends and colleagues. Without the people here to lend a hand (even if it was the simple act of listening or meeting for a meal) or help open doors I would not have had the same positive experience. I never really have to eat alone unless I want to (and even then at some of my favorite places the staff and management know me so I always have conversation). The neighbors down the street bring me movies to watch and I get to pet their dogs. One of my best friends has a car and he’s generous with it. I also think that southern India is easier to get along in despite the heat and language issues—not a lot of Tamil resources in the US. The people are friendly and easy-going (though that can be a catch-22 in some cases, but you just have to kind of accept it as part of the landscape and adjust). My neighborhood has green everywhere, relative quiet (despite having some firecracker lunatics next door and across the street during Diwali—and while it’s tough to find any quiet during the holiday, these people were hard core) and good places to eat within easy walking distance. I am grateful. I looked back at a blog post that I wrote when I was in the airport. I never posted it, too painful. I just said good-bye to my daughter at the airport. I can still see her pleading with me not to go, huge tears streaming down her reddened cheeks. Just the memory has me choking up—and I’m stuffing it back down because I know that I’ll be wrecked for the rest of the week if I think about it anymore. I wondered in the car and while I wandered around the sterile interior of MSP what about what it’s like to want something so bad and then when it finally comes you just want to run away from it. I thought about how close I was to jumping back in the car and saying screw it. I am glad that came to India—it’s changed me a lot and I am really happy now. Found some parts of me that had been gathering dust for a while, found some ways of being that are now part of me. My uncle Paul said that everyone should visit India once—I’m not sure if it is for everyone, and maybe I don’t want to fight the crowds, but it is beautiful and contradictory and confusing and wonderful and heart-wrenching and warm and brutal and overwhelming and like home. It’s a part of me, but not in the way that I’ll take to wearing a kurtha or eating only Indian food or becoming a proselytizing (and irritating) yoga devotee when I get home. I’ve fallen in love with a place and it’s under my skin, I’ve got it bad. Without leaving my couch I feel the warm sun on granite under my bare feet as I walk through the ashram, I smell the rain on palms and fresh mud, I hear the jingle of bharatanatyam dancers, the bell between classes, I can taste filter kappi, and I hear the cadence of speech. While all these senses and memories drift in and out I don’t want to even think about what it will mean to say good-bye. It’s coming but not right now. It will be marked by so much that is India—a warm reunion matched with a set of good-byes. 12,000 miles to come back to the beginning of understanding—pain and joy are both fleeting, they come and go. I chose to celebrate the joy. It is so good while it lasts, but it doesn’t last forever. Live in each moment. Be grateful for what you have and remember to share that gratitude with those who made the joy possible. Hang on to friendships and love for even when you have to say good-bye it’s worth far more than a life of cold preparation and distance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Conversation with Ram

Sitting in the library trying to write a speech--glad I was interrupted...
We have a saying in the US: give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime. I think we can apply to education this way: teach a person to think, show them that their mind is hungry and you've enriched their being and the world for a lifetime. Today a student reaffirmed my commitment to teaching and showed me that this was true. We had a question posted to our discussion board--what does it mean to be an American? Indian? The students posted responses and one of my kids here found me today to share his experience. As he read the responses he reflected back to how little he felt that he knew about his own culture. He started to search for more information about his history, his government and society. He read comments by one of his classmates--she suggested that the American students should see a list of films she provided. The student responded that he felt that film was limited and began to search for other art forms. His search went on into the evening and into the next day when he found me sitting at a table in the library. He gushed about how his experience and what he found as well as how the questions had prompted so much thinking on his part--he did admit that he didn't think he'd ever be able to fully answer the question but that it would keep him thinking. He also stated that he was so happy to be in IB and that it was sort of silly that only the IB kids should be exposed to these ideas. The spark was there. Thanks, Ram.

This whole experience in India has been in someways so not about the project (sorry Lamese, Meredith and Maggie). It's been so intensely personal--spiritual in parts, lots of self-knowledge, all balanced by the intellectual and vocational insights. Today it finally hit me thought that in this process of reflection and introspection I realized that I am going to be gone in a few weeks. When I look at my students I feel a pang of sadness. As a teacher we say hello only to say good-bye in a few months. I should be better at it or at least I shouldn't be surprised or that it shouldn't affect me emotionally now. There was a more senior teacher at my school in Minnesota who commented that once I had been there longer I'd get over it. But it still does pull at my heartstrings. Perhaps this was like my experience in Edinburgh--another place where I cut my teeth, learned about myself and that makes all the relationships more intense and meaningful...I can wrap my mind around it but can't quite buy it. I'm going to miss Chennai and everyone I've met: Sudha and my Madras Mom, Lyola, Suyash and his family, Cheryl, Venkat, Br. Rishi, Vidya, Veena, Anil, Prema, Nivas, Praveen, Pratik, Angie, Naresh, Mohan, Boopity, Shiva, Padmila, Meena, Ashish, Kiti, Marcus, Bindu, Sajit, Nidhi, Santosh, my students.... Thanks for so much.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thoughts about teaching and purpose...

Chennai night--back from dinner with friends, my mind is restless. Listening to Colin Hay and Ben Harper. Time to sort out some things.
I think this is the first picture of a person that I've included on this site. It was taken at a pooja and I am ridiculously, deliriously happy in that moment. The man seated next to me is the school's IB coordinator. We had just finished two intense days of meetings, class sessions, trainings and interviews--and I was electrified. Dancing at the pooja was unbelievable--just added to the whole experience. That night as I drove down from the hills and could smell the rain, lotus and jasmine I was physically exhausted and content. All of my senses and my mind felt awake and alive but settled, calm, at peace. Thought about this for some time--during the odd moments of quiet. Lots of incomplete thoughts, some ideas to test out, some dreams and plans potentially... Trying to make sense of all that's happened here, all the conversations, the relationships, the things I've seen.

Yesterday as I was being driven to school I passed a woman standing by the side of the road. She wasn't old but life and the years had taken a toll on her. You could see it in her face and posture--you could almost feel the weight of her cares. Across the street, children played in a school yard. I was struck by the woman's face in this moment of juxtaposition--in the lines the face of the young girl she once was could be seen. Maybe it was her features that jogged my memory--picturing someone from long ago--or maybe it was the longing I thought I saw in her eye as she gazed across the road to the kids running and laughing. In that moment it was pure compassion. Adult life catches us so quickly--and for some kids their childhood is awfully abbreviated--so who are we as teachers to so readily deal out the hard lessons? This woman certainly seemed to have had her share. What about the girl she was? Were people kind? Did anyone see her potential? Can we see the individual not as a mass of behaviors or a piece of our own task-list or fulfillment but as a human being, perhaps even at one point a child who needed to laugh and be accepted and feel competent? The world has so many hard edges, do we add to the number or provide solace? Are we really present in the moment and see the person in front of us as a human being or do we react from what we think we are, all of our concepts of our identities and defenses? Are our responses all about us and our egos as opposed to the situation and what needs to be done? Lots of questions--perhaps there is value in just asking them and reflecting on them without arriving at a set answer. Maybe it really is the question that enlightens and not the answer (paraphrasing Eugene Ionesco).

I know from my own experience that it is so easy to get wrapped up in the urgency of work and to lose sight of what really is important--I've left a swath of wrecked relationships due to my own shortsightedness. Maybe this is the change that India has brought? Finally some clarity--took 12,000 miles to break some cycles and look in the mirror. Picking up and leaving my family back in the states wasn't easy to do and adapting to new culture is both invigorating and frustrating. Living here is not as easy, and I see many people suffering and piecing together a pretty mean existence. However, I am so happy here. When I am with my students I feel exhilarated. It's like I had to leave in order to make contact with what I was really about. Get rid of the old patterns, the institutional routine and relationships to really examine what on earth is really important. Having some great feedback from schools, colleagues and kids hasn't hurt either. I don't really need to prove anything anymore. I found contentment and identity. I can be in this moment fully without attaching any of the baggage that I was carrying around before. I love to compete in triathlon, but I have wondered why I was driven so hard to place. Was it really about proving myself more than the adrenaline rush? Did any of my students care if I was in the top 10 or top 1000? Did it improve anything in my relationships with them as their teacher? Does my daughter care? Will she ever? Does it make me a better dad? My heart feels more at ease now. Krishnamutri wrote to the effect that once you find the true self then work is not work but a clear path of appropriate action. Once the narrative you build for yourself is tamed and you can be in the moment, then you can truly be at peace and do what is necessary with ease. I still want to get my doctorate, but it's not a defining drive or desire for status anymore. Never confuse the moment and what is about with what you think you are all about.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I yell at autorickshaw drivers...

A few Tamil lessons under my belt and I'm dangerous...who is this crazy person? Chennai as home.

Woken up the past week or so and this city feels like home--routine, rhythms, known in my new neighborhood (the people at the grocery store asked if I lived at the serviced apartments down the street--the owner of the apartments also owns the grocery store). I don't feel like a visitor--I can cross the street like a local (for anyone who visits, this is an act of courage, faith and sheer attitude). I finally secured Tamil lessons so I can communicate better here, and this helps feel more at home; however there was an incident to make sure I don't get a big head about this. More about that below. Suffice it to say I wish someone had caught it on video.
If you read the guide books, they warn you about the autorickshaws. I've been taking the autorickshaws since I arrived and feel pretty comfortable with the negotiations--I've walked away from plenty, I've been followed by plenty "Saar, saar--70 rupee...saar, saar--60 rupee). I usually get a good deal judging by my friends' negotiations, but I'm probably still getting fleeced. The whole not getting a good deal used to really get under my skin at times--felt like if I were a true Chennaite I should be able to haggle with ease and get the driver down to the lowest possible price (the iron law of autorickshaws tariffs?). I've softened since I drove past where many of the auto drivers lived on my way to the airport. I don't sweat the 10 rupee here or there. I'm sorry if I'm making it harder for people who live here permanently but my pale complexion makes me an automatic target for a rip-off. This isn't the typical Westerner position--I have much, therefore I can lose some here or there. It's more of the human-hearted compassion thing. Instead of seeing the drivers as the scourge of the city--rats with wheels--I try to see the man and empathize (not pity or sympathize--these are value-laden). I smile more when I approach a driver and talk with them, pay attention to the scenery, try to laugh a bit. It's dumb but why make the world a harder place? My experience here by-and-large has shown that a smile and laugh opens more doors and lightens my world as well.
So back to the incident--what exactly happened? I had one Tamil lesson under my belt and I was ready to use it. In class we went over how to negotiate with a taxi driver and I went home and memorized the dialogue. I was on my way to my gym and then to work. I had my bags slung over my shoulders, Sambas, sunglasses, Adidas basketball shorts--all I needed was a hamburger and an American flag draped around my shoulders to be more of a stereotype. I made a bee-line for a driver outside the Park Sheraton (posh Western hotel here) and upon making eye-contact I fire off "auto veruma?" and he looks at me and says "do you need a ride?" Not to be deterred I keep plunging ahead with my Tamil "Isha Life, Nageswara Park ponum." He continues "Mylapore? By Nageswara Park?" I come back with "evallavu?" and he says "150 rupees" with a broad grin (an outrageous price for a 2.5 km ride--its about a 30 minute walk). "Jastee--40 rupees" I say and he comes back with "No, it's a very long way and I have very good service..." The two of us were going to use the languages we needed to practice and neither one of us would be deterred. I'm sure the people around us were getting a laugh out of all of it--the American persisting in Tamil, the driver continuing in English. I was the first to break--I had run off my map--and I lost it. "I go this way everyday it's 2 km, the rate is 14 rupees per km!"--then I storm off and find another driver. Yeah, I'm the lunatic yelling guy on TTK Road. Kind of a bad couple of days with the autorickshaw--the following day I was going to the Krishnamutri Foundation for a seminar. I got an auto and had an agreed on price. As we were getting up to speed, the driver looks over his shoulder, smiles and ups the price by 20 rupees. I grab my bag, mutter that I'm outta here, and make to jump out of the taxi. The driver freaks and says "okokokokok, I'm not in this for the money. When do you want me to pick you up?" What have I become? Life is weird but fun sometimes if you just stop and look around.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rotary Speech--October 26, 2010

Dr. Ranganathan asked me to speak about my capstone project to her Rotary Club. Here's the speech if anyone is curious about the project and my motivations.

Introduction and DAT program
Namaskar, Vanakkam, Hari om--
En per Douglas Kennedy. En oor Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States. Enge veede Alwarpetle, Chennai irukke. Enakku Tamil konjambadhaan theriyum.

My name is Douglas Kennedy and am a Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching grantee based here in Chennai. My capstone project is entitled “Theory of Knowledge as a Bridge for Cultural Understanding.” I come from Minnesota, where the snow will be flying in a couple of weeks and will be hip deep in a month. Here are some pictures of my town—it’s a very green place with lakes both in and surrounding the city, lots of walking and bike paths (later ski trails in the winter). People live outdoors in the summer—mainly because winter lasts for six months—you’ll see families boating, biking and playing sports together. The Mississippi River runs through it as well. I’m as you can see a proud family man. My wife and I have been married for 14 years and we have a 5 year old little girl who is crazy about animals, books, dragons, beautiful dresses and swords. My family will be joining me here very soon. We’ll be pulling my daughter out of her International Baccalaureate school and my wife will be taking a leave from her job to come and experience south India. My daughter Madeleine is particularly excited about seeing elephants and a beach.

A little background on my program and we’ll get into the project—the Fulbright program I am part of is new and is only in its second year. For the 2010-11 school year, 12 highly qualified US teachers were chosen to undertake research projects in India, South Africa, Finland, the UK, Argentina, Mexico and Singapore. 17 international teachers were also selected and are presently studying and housed on the University of Maryland campus. Projects for all of us range from the use of toys in physics instruction, application Vedic mathematic principles to my project on cultural understanding.

This project is a crossroads on a journey that started 6 years ago with a novel. In my Theory of Knowledge classes, the students read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—a popular book in the 1970s that many of their parents read. The book is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the author wrote the book in Minneapolis and his many motorcycle rides took him around the lake where most of my students live—they recognize the landmarks. Second the book raises some interesting questions about knowledge—the differences between the artistic mind and the scientific, Eastern vs. Western, emotion and intuition as opposed to reason and rationalism. Many of the students have not questioned the bases of knowledge—for example, the science that the learned from their elementary years was Truth, with a capital T, timeless and unwavering in its certainty. They read this book and suddenly their world is in flux. It’s like the solid ground under their feet suddenly started to shift. Most students find the book a challenge and intriguing, especially after we dissect and discuss it. All these questions are now swimming through their heads and they see that this class is going to be different. Two questions really stick with them.

The first question deals with identity and I start every year with it. On day one of class I ask “Who are you and how do you know it?” The course is often referred to as intellectual narcissism—perfect for 17 and 18 year olds, they get to think and talk about their favorite topic, namely themselves. However this question stumps them. The body and mind they’ve owned or inhabited for their entire lives now is being looked at in a different ways. They talk about their physical characteristics, their gender, their birth certificates, parents. By and large the responses are pretty shallow—they haven’t had to think about this topic. I up the ante by following it with “Why should you care about this question if at all?” Now the quizzical looks begin, some stock answers and borrowed wisdom (a couple say “Know thyself” of “To thine ownself be true” but can’t really say why it’s important). We turn to the text for guidance. In the book, two narrators lodged in the same body compete for the reader’s attention and control over the narrative. The students begin to question: who is the narrator? Is he sane? How would he know? Who deems whether an individual is sane or not? Which voice is credible? The pieces start to click together.

The other question that arises is about culture and knowledge—the baggage that the we all carry around with us but may not necessarily be conscious of until we travel abroad. The author studied Oriental philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi. The experience had a tremendous impact on the author and it marks the beginning of a transformation in his thinking (quote on p. 141). The passage later goes on to talk about how these ideas would stick with him. The narrator who was dominated by logic alone starts to wonder about the roots of his knowledge and the limits of it. In essence he is questioning the underlying assumptions and beliefs of his knowledge, the cultural components. How can different views exist about truth? Why is reason so entrenched in the West? This questioning, according to the narrator at least, leads to him being deemed insane. The personality or the side of the narrator that sought to find the limits of reason and reconcile Eastern and Western knowledge is eradicated by electroshock therapy. I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone, there are a couple of interesting twists and turns in the rest of the novel, but you’ll have to find out what happens next on your own. I know they have the book at Landmark (an engineering friend of mine just purchased a copy two weeks ago). The students at this point start to wonder about what ideas and beliefs they haven’t examined, and why they see the world the way they do.

It was my students who pushed me. I wanted to do a better job teaching this novel so I started to read—first a companion to the novel, then Eastern philosophy. The students wanted to know more about the local connections and many of them had seen the Zen Center on one of the lakes in the city and had questions about connections to the novel. I sent out e-mails asking if anyone knew about the context of the novel or would be willing to be a community expert on the book or Zen beliefs and practice. A former college professor answered my query. Erik it turned out was Pirsig’s friend and one of the founders of the Zen Center along with the author. He knew the book well and many of the stories associated with it. He comes each year to speak to the classes about the author, its context in history and then takes them through a Zen meditation session. From conversations with Erik, I pursued a course in Zen meditation and philosophy and even began to meditate at his house. I learned a lot, but still I felt like I could do better at walking the walk as we say. Had I really examined what I knew and what lay behind these ideas and concepts? Had I modeled appropriately the curious mind or what it means to critically examine ideas?

Wondered about the course as well—what was the purpose? What were the outcomes for this international curriculum and why put a course like ToK in the center of it? I had my own opinions about it, but I knew that perhaps these were laden with some assumptions. As these questions, both from the novel and my, I guess we could call them meta-thoughts, thoughts about my thinking and teaching craft the idea for this project were devised. I wanted to see how the course was taught in a setting much different from mine, if possible in settings where cultural values were explicitly part of the mission or curriculum. I wanted to talk to teachers and administrators about how they saw the course and its purpose. More importantly I wanted to connect my students to the experience so they could learn. This latter part also stemmed from my students’ lack of knowledge about India but also a more idealistic place as well. I believe it is far more difficult to misjudge or misunderstand someone if you know them. Hate is built out of ignorance and peace is a product of understanding and the ability to empathize with another. I see my students as the future leaders in the world—they go to Ivy League schools, emerge as business executives and researchers. The world, as Thomas Friedman has successfully penned, is flat and our students will come into ever increasing contact with people different from themselves. I wanted to help ensure that the future would be in good hands—even if it was in some small way, I wanted to do something. To not, given my capacity, was ethically irresponsible.

The project
The project has 3 components: site visits, online platform for discussion and assignments or the curriculum piece, assessment of learning. Ideally, and this is still in the works, an exchange program between schools will result. For the American students this would take place in the late summer or early fall, and for the Indian students this will take place in May (they thought this would be a great time to be in a cooler climate).

The site visits are to gather data about other IB programs and their approaches to teaching Theory of Knowledge. While at the sites, I interview principals about the nuts about bolts of their program, their vision for the role and placement of ToK. I also interview the ToK teachers about more curriculum specific items such as how they address self-knowledge and culture. For some of these schools, like Chinmaya, the cultural component is an explicit part of the school vision and program. The question then becomes, what is the outcome of the program and how do you balance seemingly competing interests? While at the schools I also conduct teacher training sessions on Theory of Knowledge, writing workshops, teach and observe ToK classes and interview groups of students about their ToK experience. The site visits help formulate a spine of sorts to my project—models for how different schools approach the curriculum. I also visited non-IB schools that address the cultural issue or that utilize alternative approaches—schools like The School and the Isha Home School. I have also met with teacher training programs to see how Indian teachers are prepared. Again, all of these provide a grounding in the structure and variety of education in-country.

The next component is the work being conducted right now with the students at M. Ct. M. Chidambaram Chettyar International School. In conjunction with the Theory of Knowledge teacher at M. Ct. M., an online platform was set up to connect students here with my students in Minnesota. Each student has a profile post with their picture and a short writing assignment to introduce them to the rest of the group. The website also has a place for students to post photos, links, an online assignment drop box and a discussion board where they can respond to questions and each other’s writings. Right now we are incorporating themes about culture and cultural adaptation to our classroom work in order to get the students to think about the things that make them who they are and how these influence knowledge claims. The students will be responding to questions like:
• Examine the ToK diagram—the knower is in the center, why?
What can we know about ourselves?
Types of evidence?
Is the knowledge reliable? Why/not?
Are the sources reliable? Why/not?
• IB is an international curriculum—what does that mean?
• How do societies value the individual?
What about groups, like families or tribes?
What are the gender roles?
What about familial roles?
What is the relationship of the individual to society?
• How does the past influence the present?
What are the big events or who are the significant players and how they
fit into the consciousness?

Additionally, the students will be working on readings and participating in seminars to help them push their thinking about what can be known and the influence of culture such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” (and the film by Akira Kurosawa “Roshomon”) and an excerpt from Pirsig’s novel about ghosts. Periodic smaller assessments will be added to help the students identify knowledge issues and to shore up weaknesses.

Their final assessment will be a knower’s profile. This consists of a paper or portfolio (could also be a presentation) that answers the following questions
• What are the sources of our knowledge?
May consider parents, culture, race, school, friends, books,
media, authorities…
Sources must be explained—what knowledge do they give us?
• Why do we trust them?
Responses require explanation for why we consider the source trustworthy
• Where do these sources get their knowledge? Where does it come from?
And by extension, this implies my knowledge
May want to consider traditions, beliefs, prophets, holy books, primary
sources, teachers, the media…
• What are some of the knowledge issues that arise?
The assessments will be graded based on the level of reflection that goes into their responses and attention to the implications of their points. The papers and the online responses will be analyzed for changes over time in the students thinking—how well do they see themselves at the beginning of the unit, versus the end, for example. Ideally, the connections that the students build up over the year from the online component (discussions and presentations over Skype will be undertaken after I return to the US) will facilitate an exchange of students where they can really interact. Meeting face to face is different than writing on Facebook or our site. Just the amount of time together provides an opportunity to continue the discussions and really get to know the people who were on the other side of the Internet connection. There’s something profound about breaking bread together or the pride that comes in sharing your home that deepens the connection and understanding between people.

To close this evening, I wanted to share two quotes with you that helped motivate me as I’ve encountered stumbling blocks and doubt along this journey. Both were cited in a book I just finished, AJP Abdul Kalam’s Ignited Minds

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” (Goethe)—from the chapter on Visionary Scientists and Teachers

“Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.” (Mahatma Gandhi) –from the chapter on Role Models

I dream about a world for my daughter where conflict, poverty and disease are handled by a community of individuals who can put understanding first and divisions second. This is a starting point for my contribution to that vision. Thank you for letting me speak with you this evening. Pranams. I believe we have some time for questions.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Culture questions and self-knowledge

Incomplete thoughts--October 14, 2010. Heading to Coimbatore again...

Phone is sick and in surgery in Bangalore, spent 4 hours (plus one other person doing the same) with customer help, felt sick—no sleep for weeks, night sweats—still not much help on the ground here. I feel fine now.

What is it and what defines it? Can talk about the easy stuff—the institutions, the food, the traditions. However, the role of it inside the individual and how it affects their outlook and life is a wholly different matter. We usually see culture when it is in collision—trying to understand why the standard for punctuality is different, for example—but rarely do we take a look at our own culture as the source or at the very least a contributor factor, of that collision. It seems that this lack of awareness of our selves leads to conflict, but we lack the ability or practice to see what we are and then make reasoned and clear-minded comparisons. Perhaps this is best seen as the difference between a reaction and an exchange or conversation. The latter leads to understanding—there is a reference point (the self), the ability to or platform to ask a question (conversation), and perhaps then an implied openness to see difference and experience it—the former, misunderstanding and confusion or frustration and even aggression.

So here’s the problem—where do you get the self-knowledge? Where do you learn to understand who you are and what makes you you? We are taught in social studies classes about our history and government, but that seems to be without the necessary reflective component. Sometimes values are talked about, but how is this made to be personal—where does the culture meet the person and how does it resonate or fill them?

When we travel and live abroad, we encounter things that are different and our colleagues look at our behavior and mannerisms and try to make sense of them (is this a boor or just an American—where does the culture end and the person begin?). It’s in this collision that some of what makes our culture apparent—the housekeeping staff’s horror at my reaching for the trash bin under my sink or fetching towels out of my bathroom, my hosts insistence that I sit at the table and not move an inch and allow myself to be waited upon, my reaction at how societal superiors treat those beneath them…

The value that all men are created equal resonated with my sense of justice when studying the American Civil Rights Movement, but I didn’t realize how ingrained it was—a part of my culture and identity—until I came to India. This value of mine bumps up against some cultural and historical obstacles—but I had to think about why it was painful or confusing to see. This reflection—thinking about what it means to be an American—helped me to digest what I was seeing rather than just being horrified or repulsed. It is neither good nor bad--this is not for me to decide--it is different and needs to be understood. It’s the value judgements--repulsion or rejection--that leads to problem like stereotyping (“such and such culture is barbaric…look how they treat x!”) and even conflict. I've started reading more about India--Abdul Kalam's autobiography and Ignite Minds, Sen's The Argumentative Indian: writings on Indian culture, history and identity.

So what makes a culture? What can we take away from situations where we react to differences? How do societies value the individual? What about groups, like families or tribes? What are the gender roles? What about familial roles? What is the relationship of the individual to society? How is property viewed? How are guests to be treated? How does the past influence the present? What are the big events or who are the significant players and how they fit into the consciousness? Which subjects are taboos? What about behaviors?

Stuck between two—range of things have been said to me: we’ll make an Indian of you yet, you are already mostly Indian, now you see the India beyond the exotic, my countrymen fall over themselves when they see white skin (present company excluded for insight? Am I “in” so you can tell me this, or is our friendship suspect?). So what does this mean?

Fulbright experience
Read an article about Greg LeMond today--was waiting for a haircut. He's a local guy in the western suburbs of Minneapolis (I see him occasionally skiing) who just happened to be the first American who won the Tour de France. Forgot that he had been shot in the back and won his second title with 37 shotgun pellets still in his back (including several lodged in his heart lining). This hunting accident also was followed by two surgeries to fix other issues like tendonitis in one of his legs. He was expected to maybe place in the top 20, but he won that year. I think that article was there for a reason--it's not the hardship that makes the person, it is the recovery. Even the small mishaps in our daily lives like a crap day at work or fender-bender or an argument with a loved one—it’s how we recover and what we do differently to show up for those that we care about and be the person we which to put forward. I really think this is what makes us happy—you really live for those whom you care about and must respect who you are. Human beings have an incredible capacity to remake themselves and to control their happiness to a large degree. I was worried about barking at a couple of friends as well as focusing on the negatives of this journey. I got so bogged down in the immediate problems and the stresses that I lost perspective of what was really important both for me personally and for this project. I had a steak and mango ice cream for dinner, then in the morning I made sure I meditated, a worked out, and had some talks with a couple of friends to apologize for being jerky. Recovery attained. The issues that had me bent out of shape were over (one is at least manageable—I hate Vodafone), my friends are still my friends and I am grateful for them, my trip has been an amazing experience. I learned. As a friend pointed out in an e-mail—remember, you are here which also means that someone else did not get the experience. One of my other friends commented that he lives sort of vicariously through my updates. It’s not that I have an obligation to these others to be superhuman, but it did help pull my head out of the mud and really look at the big picture. My wife has commented to co-workers about the conversations that have happened as part of this journey—they are stunned and amazed by them. I’ve seen temples and stunning wilderness, met interesting people, dined on amazing food and learned so much in such a short period of time. How can I be blue over the trivial? Ah, yes—life lesson learned.

In one a text message frenzy today a friend wise friend who has been my guru and patient listener wrote “…if the big things feel like they are not happening, the emptiness and small things have a lot of potential.” When I was in Pondicherry I went through a bout of pretty profound traveler’s melancholy and could feel myself withdraw. This experience in India has had frustrations with housing, some isolation (I arrived, made friends, set up a routine and then we had a 3 week vacation), some issues with my grant and difficulties getting access to research sites. So what do I take away from this experience so far? Well, maybe not to sweat the small stuff as much. I have a choice—explore and realize my time is limited here or hide in my routine and miss out. With the small stuff, I can’t let my irritation get the best of me—I know that I was not good about this at MHS especially as department chair. I let other people’s issues weigh on me and I ruminated over and over about things. I really only hurt myself. I’ve learned to be a lot more outgoing—not really an issue before, but being several thousand miles from home does bring out the more gregarious side for some reason. Found that I am much more of a people person than I thought I was—and I’ve been much more open to others and what they have to offer. Some of this is probably from finally being able to emerge from the stress I had put myself under for the past 10+ years. Really thinking I don’t need to race anymore. I like the competition and maybe I’ll enter a few tris or ski races for that reason, but I don’t really have to prove anything to anyone. I don’t think it made me a better teacher or a better husband or a better dad. It just made me busier and added some stress. Why add more? The other thing that has been made very apparent is how this trip has solidified my place in teaching. In an unfamiliar place, the students are the constant or the connection to what my life in the US was like—they are familiar and grounding. My best moments here have been when I have been with kids or see a student of mine on the street. I’ve been welcomed by other schools and recognized for good work—this helped ease some of the self-doubt and pressure I had been putting on myself for a long time. Teaching last year—especially the ToK classes—was fun. But this feels different. It’s a lightness of being. It seems to hit the big aspects of my being and the work or extra time is not effort it is just done because I can do it. When I was in Pondi, I heard about a former student that was having a rough go with homesickness. This was the time that I was experiencing it myself—traveling by myself, missed my daughter, just coming off some drama, needed routine—and I had just had an amazing conversation with my sister about how she dealt with the same symptoms when she travels alone on research. I sent the student and e-mail talking about my experience and extended an offer to talk if she wanted it. It was not a question of time; it was not a question at all. I had the capacity or ability so it is done.

I seem to have come half-way around the world to learn more about myself as I study how others teach others about learning about themselves (deliberately scrambly). There are a couple of people reading this blog who are probably grinning (do I detect a smugness?) when they read this. I am different now. I’ve perhaps got a better sense of my identity, the meaning of fulfillment and the ability to let go.