Expertise and Humility

Every year, when research paper season rolls around, I always have a few students that want to cite themselves, use their own ‘knowledge’, or consider themselves experts in their chosen topic. It takes a bit of convincing before they’re willing to acknowledge that maybe they’re not experts in their field at the age of 16 or 17. And yet, something about being a teenager often combines a few years of experience at something and a cocksure attitude and turns out a world full of young ‘experts’. I know this not only because I see it in my classroom, but because I was exactly that same kind of teenager.

I tell students that there are two things I remotely consider myself to be an expert in now that I’m in my mid-thirties, and even then only a beginner expert: teaching secondary English at American curriculum international schools and the field of Octavia Butler studies (within which I wrote my masters thesis). For one, those are very specific fields, because the more expertise we gain, the more specialized we become. Also, while these are the fields I know the most about, have the most experience in, and could readily hold an in-depth conversation with other experts in, they’re also the ones I best know my own deficiencies and areas of necessary growth.

Through the ages, those that we consider the greatest thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and other brilliant people, almost always hit upon this truth. The more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know. Socrates, Aristotle, Einstein, John Lennon, and so many others came to this realization. We’ve got the Dunning-Kruger effect that charts this phenomenon, and so it only makes sense that teenagers especially often fall into a place where it is easy to overestimate their knowledge and understanding; they’re not young children anymore, after all.

Unfortunately, way too many adults don’t grow beyond that either. I know that in some areas, I fall into this category as well. If I’m watching a parkour video, part of my brain is saying, “yeah, I can probably do that” or I’m very convinced that I could have easily scored that goal that the striker so blatantly missed. I was certain it couldn’t be that hard to drive a Formula 1 car until I saw Richard Hammond (a guy who earns his living driving cars) barely manage to get one around a track. I was also convinced I knew how economics worked and what each country was doing wrong, right up until I read up on some basic economics and realized how little I actually knew. We see this happen in everything, from governance, economics, health, and business, to the arts, athletics, and religion. It all seems so simple from the outside.

This is where humility comes in. Maybe we should all approach new topics or areas where we have little experience with a posture of humility. It’s very hard for most of us to admit we don’t know something and so we bluster our way through. Often, we teachers have been very bad at modeling humility for students; I’ve had to be very intentional about responding to student questions with integrity and saying “I don’t know that yet” or “I’m not sure, maybe you should look it up and then tell me.” Because my natural instinct is to answer each question with my gut intuition and make myself seem more knowledgeable than I am. Humility is a prime virtue and we’re not always doing a great job of teaching it.

Similarly, there is a glut of pseudo-experts in every shadowy cranny willing to hammer half-reasonable theories and skewed knowledge into unquestioning minds. When we don’t acknowledge the relevance of expertise in all areas, we easily become puffed up demagogues. A friend of mine recently re-posted this and it rang very true:

“Confirmation bias exists, and only fools think they are free of it. To paraphrase Asimov, your ignorance is not the same as their experience. Genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves. Only ignorant people believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.”

Appreciation of expertise then allows us to hold our beliefs and convictions more loosely. In so many areas, it’s not what people think or believe that bothers me, but the way they hold that belief. When our ‘Truth’ is oozing out, dead and bloodied, from clenched fists, there can’t be much life left in it, no matter what it once was. Instead, we should hold our values and beliefs in open palms, with humility, so that there is room for our understanding and faith to grow, expand, change, and become better. That’s how we hold with humility.

Student Autonomy and the Vulnerable Teacher

I had to have a little chat with my eleventh graders last week. I decided to take the first 10 minutes of class and explain to them two core convictions of my teaching philosophy and how there is often a tension between them.

We had gotten to one of my favorite units, in which we read Lorraine Hansberry’s spectacular play A Raisin in the Sun. It is the only play we read in the American Lit. class and I firmly believe that drama is meant to be performed. So, first we read it as a class, having different students and myself reading the parts, and then we watch a film adaptation (the 1961 version with Hansberry’s screenplay and the amazing Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee).

Over the years, I’ve taught this unit numerous times and I recognize that there are many students who are reluctant to read out loud. Perhaps they don’t feel confident, or they are shy, or they had a bad experience with being required to read in a previous year. But I’ve always had enough students volunteer that we’ve had someone for each character. I tell students they’re not stuck reading that character the entire play and that we’ll switch it up between acts. I tell them that I hope everyone will read at list a little bit, but that no one will be forced to and that I will not be putting anyone on the spot.

This year, I didn’t get enough volunteers when we started Act 1, across both of my English 11 sections. In both, finally one student reluctantly raised their hand to take the final role. But I was already dreading the beginning of Act 2 when we would be reassigning roles and there would be more characters that needed reading.

So I explained to them why I did it this way, and how that is rooted in those two core convictions I hold about how my classroom should operate.

Firstly, I believe we learn best in community. Humans are communal creatures; we like being around each other (even those of us who are more introverted don’t do well in prolonged solitude), and we build on and feed off of each other. The classroom is a prime example of what that can look like and explains in part why online-learning was so difficult for many students and for myself. Each section I teach has a different feel, a unique atmosphere, and it’s because there are different people in the room. We contribute to that culture through our actions, our words, and the choices we make in each moment. I explained to my students that in many ways, they are in charge of the classroom atmosphere, and that the communal learning is beneficial to us all. Nothing encapsulates that quite like a dramatic performance which is an intricate blending of individual performances into a collective production. When we act with our neighbors, our community, our classroom in mind, rather than only looking to our own individual preferences, we can be far more than the sum of our parts.

Secondly, I believe in student autonomy. I hated being called on when I was a student, so I vowed not to be that teacher. Students must have choices, must be allowed to have a say in what and how they learn, and must be allowed to determine their level of investment. That’s how we get intrinsic motivation, rather than carrot/stick education. There are numerous assignments I’ve designed so students can choose how they want to meet the requirements, which topic they want to focus on, or whether they’d like to work individually or in a group (that last one is especially tricky to do well). There are minimum requirements I need from all students in my classroom, and if a student is not meeting them, I will push into their autonomy and obligate those minimum requirements. But beyond those, their level of investment, engagement, and motivation are up to them. And while some students skate through my class doing the bare minimum, others have discovered a love of literature and critical thinking and gone on to study literature in university. I’d say that’s more than worth the trade-off. Because that’s student autonomy.

But student autonomy can be very risky for the teacher, and is often a lot more work. I confessed to my students last week that I’m a person who has to be prepared, to have a plan (and then several backup plans and contingencies in place), and I don’t like like uncertain situations. And when I’m standing in front of a room full of students, asking for volunteers to read, that’s a very vulnerable position for me. There’s no plan B. I’m standing in the tension between the communal aspects of learning and student autonomy and it’s not a comfortable place. But I value them both so highly that I know I need to let go of the control and hand it over to my students, hoping and believing that they will choose to invest in the communal learning.

I think we as teachers foster disengagement, lack of motivation, and an apathy for learning when we hold on to the reins too tightly in our classrooms. Of course how tightly or loosely we hold them is determined quite a bit by the age of our students and the particular needs of each individual class. But many of us (particularly those of us that like to be in control of our surroundings and know what’s going to happen) need to learn how to give an appropriate amount of that control over to our students. Because only then can the learning be truly authentic and intrinsically motivated. We’re the adults in the room and so we should model that vulnerability, rather than being yet another authority in their lives that only ever tells them what to do and doesn’t let them grow into their burgeoning autonomy.

The students heard me. I got numerous volunteers after that, some from among my very quiet students. And I don’t think it was because they felt guilty or pitied me, but because they saw and valued why I had to lean into that awkward moment of waiting for volunteers. They want to be treated as individuals, as human beings with autonomy, and many are willing to overcome their own experiences and inhibitions when we give them the freedom to choose.

Your Brain is Lying to You

I want to know things, understand them, poke and question them until they make sense. I rarely accept something as-is and instead have to critically examine it from multiple angles and determine what it is and how it functions. My mind puts together a complex web of interconnected ideas and there is so much satisfaction when something new slots into place. I place a lot of value and weight on thinking and what my brain tells me. And the more reading I do on how the brain works, in psychology and neuroscience, the more I’m having to admit that my brain lies to me—all our brains do.

Once upon a time, I was completely convinced that I liked the cold. I had a friend who liked the cold, and I hadn’t had any particularly negative experiences with cold (growing up in Kenya near the equator will help with that) and so I just assumed I disliked heat as much as those who complained about it and that I liked cold. Then I moved to western NY for a while with its abominably long winters and realized that I despise the cold: scraping ice off the car, blue fingernails, gray skies, icy roads, and getting up in the morning. After moving first to a desert in the UAE and then to the tropical island of Penang, I’ve realized I love warmth. But if I could tell that to teenage Jens, he’d think I was crazy. He was convinced he liked the cold and his brain would not let him believe otherwise.

We can convince ourselves of a lot of things. Brains are very malleable and have this amazing capacity to make sense of a very confusing and complex world. I’m so thankful that my brain filters out stuff that I don’t need (sometimes, I wish it would filter out a few more things, like annoyingly loud motorcycles and high-pitched whining sounds). But this filter also means we miss stuff, sometimes crucial information that might alter how we see the world. It’s like when I learn a new word and then suddenly see if several times the following week while being convinced I’d never run across it in my life up to then. I used to think that was a crazy coincidence (or providence) but now I know that word had been around all the time but my brain had just been filtering it out.

How many important details has my brain filtered out? And how many erroneous frameworks has my brain detected, then reinforced, because the brain likes patterns? This sort of confirmation bias—the tendency the brain has to readily adopt information that confirms something we already think and reject things we don’t think—shapes the pathways of our thinking, our choices, and our personality.

The problem is we’re all so convinced that the way our brain has taught us to make sense of the world is right. I know I often think that.

And so learning more about how malleable the brain is has actually been very freeing. It has allowed me to question not only the world around me but my own response to it. I’m learning to not take my own thoughts as a base-line but to distance myself from my instinctive reactions. I really like how my brain works, but I also need to keep learning how to tell when it’s lying to me.

I may like the sunshine more than an overcast sky, but when my brain tells me it’s going to be a terrible day because of this, I can call BS. When a piece of information seems to confirm something I already think, I now know that I need to dig just a little deeper. And when something seems really hard (like trying to sit still and NOT think) I know that I can train my brain to become better at it.

I Run ‘Because’ I’m Skinny

“Why do you go running? You’re already so skinny.” I’ve heard that sentiment, in a variety of forms for many years now. The assumption implicit in the question is that exercise, particularly longer-distance running (though I probably wouldn’t count my 5ks as ‘long-distance’), is primarily about weight/metabolism control.

I’ve always been skinny, scrawny even. And I never participated in any concerted sports or exercising up through high school that required me to be in any sort of physical or cardiovascular shape. Every year in middle school, the day of the one-mile run was bound to fill me with dread.

No, I don’t go running three times a week to stay skinny. No, I’m not training for any fund-raisers, fun-runs, or marathons. No, I’m not running off the ice cream I eat. In fact, the reasons I go running several times a week have little to do with any of those. Of course I know I that getting some form of exercise is healthy, and that plays into it as well. But I have primarily two purposes for running. The first, is the mental space it provides while my body is occupied. I explored this a few years ago:

The second is more complex in that it seems counter-intuitive.

When I get busy, when I experience more stress than usual, during times of transition, and sometimes just because, I lose my appetite. The idea of eating seems repulsive, nothing really seems like it would be tasty or nourishing, and the whole process of finding food, ingesting it, cleaning up afterwards seems like a big waste of time. And when it’s for a single day, it’s not a big deal. But when it happens for days on end, it can get dangerous.

When we moved to Al Ain in the UAE in 2012, I didn’t eat for about a month. I’m sure it was partly the heat, but the transition to a new country, the stresses of being a first-year teacher working under less than ideal conditions meant that every bite felt like trying to swallow a dry sponge. I knew I had to eat something; the human body doesn’t function well without food. I lost a ridiculous amount of weight and my frame can’t really afford that. I looked pretty haggard and gaunt for a while there and it wasn’t until I was able to settle into our new home, school, routines that my appetite slowly came back.

I also wasn’t running then, partly because it was difficult to make the time and because of the intense Al Ain heat. But once I was able to take it up again, I realized perhaps one of the most significant benefits of going running: it means I have an appetite. When I regularly go out and physically exhaust my body through running, my appetite doesn’t disappear. It may ebb somewhat, but it doesn’t go away entirely, because the physical activity reminds my body of what it needs.

So no, I don’t go running to become or stay skinny. I run because it assures me of having an appetite. Which is why comments about my skinniness in relation to my running are not entirely welcome. I mean, it doesn’t really bother me, but it is part of a pattern in which people assume the motivations of others. We all have our own goals, hurdles, motivations, and journeys to go on. And it’s generally not advisable to put our own expectations (even implicitly) onto the actions of others.

A Rich Tapestry

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” ~Maya Angelou~

For a number of years, I’d been sort of vaguely keeping track of the authors I was reading. I wanted to get a sense for what authors I naturally gravitated towards and how diversely I was reading. Most years, my reading was about 60% male and 60% white. As a white male, I decided it was time to be more intentional about my reading selection, so for 2021 I set myself the goal of reading at least 50% of my texts from perspectives/experiences different from my own.

Not only was this a very worthwhile experience with regards to the texts I discovered and read, but also in what it taught me about my own reading habits and preferences. For one, I rarely read books due to their physical proximity—I don’t just walk into a book store or library and find something that looks interesting; for many years I’ve been carefully pulling together my reading list based on recommendations, references, and my own research and growing interests. With such an approach, it wasn’t hard to add a paradigm of authorial diversity to the books I bought or borrowed.

Over the year 2021, I learned much and had a number of realizations:

1. I like to think I’m a person that is willing to question my personal assumptions and beliefs. I believe that holding our positions, values, and ideas with humility not only makes for richer, more authentic interactions with others, but also allows us to grow. No matter how far I think I’ve come, I recognize that there is always more to learn, and most of that recognition comes from reading texts by those who have different life experiences from my own.

I deeply resonated with the identity war taking place in the narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I’ve been caught in that awkward limbo between cultures, drawn in multiple directions and not quite fitting into any of them. Yet the context of the story, both in Vietnam and in Los Angeles was foreign to me, the choices the narrator makes are heavily contextual and so watching him struggle not only with his identity but also with how that impacts his allegiances was eye opening. I would not have made the choices he did, but nor am I able to fault him for making those choices within the situations he was placed.

2. I cognitively know that across the human species, there is a multiplicity of experiences. And yet it is so hard for us to not automatically take our own experience, background, culture, and values as the norm and measure all others against them. I think the human mind is very good at making judgments and sometimes that is a crucial skill, a matter of survival or deep insight. But judgment, measuring, and seeking to categorize always happens from within our own familiar context which necessitates that those are often subjective. Yet we think of them as objective, even subconsciously. That’s not so say that we should not evaluate the world around us, but rather that doing so with a desire to only quantify, to always put into smaller boxes, to wrap our tiny selves around the largeness of other cultures and different experiences is a futile and misguided effort. It is a constant reminder to me when I read from varied perspectives that my way of seeing the world is not the only right one—I know this, but I often find myself forgetting.

For example: I come from a culture where we love and respect our parents, and those parents give us tools and encourage us to decide our own future paths. There is a lot of value in this but it can also come with anxiety and uncertainty about that future. In numerous instances, particularly in Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, I came across interactions between children and their parents that differ from that. Respecting parents includes obedience to the ways that parent has planned and provided for their child’s future. Li Lan is responsible not only for honoring her father, but for their family’s standing in Malacca. Her own desires are important, crucial, and central to the story, yet they cannot and should not take precedence in her relationship with her father and Amah. This is a good reminder to me that many of my students interact with their parents in different ways than I do with mine: not better, not worse, but different. And that will change the way they interact with them, with the world, with the decisions they have to make. It helps me to understand them better.

3. No single place, culture, religion or tradition holds a monopoly on the full truth. There is truth (or wisdom, to use a perhaps less fraught term) to be found all over the place, even in traditions and ideologies that we disagree with or that do not resonate with our circumstances. It is very easy to dismiss writers, thinkers, and artists, with whom we disagree wholesale, as though nothing they have to contribute contains value. But that’s a reflection of essentialist, simplistic, and closed thinking that does not believe it can learn from other traditions.

This past year, I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. A number of his concerns, arguments, and approaches are closely situated in the class and liberation struggles he’s engaged with during the 1960s. I see numerous flaws in his primarily Marxist approach to understanding power dynamics and resistance. And yet, what he offers on the balance between individualized learners and the power of collective engagement with a topic is truly revolutionary (pun most definitely intended). His ideas on bringing students into their own learning process rather than having education be something that is done to them gave words and definition to a primary aspect of my own educational philosophy. And his insistence that collaboration with peers can lead to significant education gains as opposed to the more individualistic approach of western education have helped me to better understand the value of classroom culture, group work, and peer coaching.

It was such a valuable experience last year that it was definitely worth the extra time, effort, and money it took to not just read the works that were more easily accessible, but to be intentional about the authorship of what I was reading. I plan to follow a similar pattern this year and look forward to what new authors I will discover, what new ideas I’ll get to mull over, and which new worlds will unfold themselves through the writings of those who are different from me.

Jacket Art of 'Elatsoe' by Rovina Cai

Reading Native American Literature

I’ve been teaching my American Literature class for a number of years, tinkering with it, switching out texts, and trying to find the right balance of stories. Originally, the only Native American stories in the curriculum were some myth retellings from the first chapter of an old literature textbook. And those retellings were not by Native American authors.

I began a quest to read more Native American fiction, to explore that rich field of literature. It started as a way to better include their voices in my classroom, but has since introduced me to new favorite authors, more wholesome ways to see the world, and has taught me numerous important lessons. Firstly, I learned that there is no commonly accepted terminology for referring to the indigenous peoples of the American continents. Some prefer Native American, some American Indian, and others First Americans, Indigenous Americans, or First Nations. And yet all prefer to be closely associated with their tribe, rather than to be lumped together with others that often have very different beliefs, customs, and ways of living.

Trauma and Healing

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa writer and winner of a Pulitzer prize made for a great starting point in my reading. His novel House Made of Dawn and his folklore collection The Way to Rainy Mountain were not only very well written but utilized a dream-like language that provided both a distinct distance from where I sat reading but also a strange intimacy.

I learned that trauma is not only a thing of the past, but something that continues on into the present. The repercussions of tragedy in the past rippled into the present and the future, are passed from generation to generation. Leslie Marmon Silko of the Laguna Pueblo likewise captures this in her excellent and heart-breaking novel Ceremony. What I loved about it is the focus on healing through reconnecting to ones roots, and that the internal wounds of war need not require more violence.

A Different Kind of Justice

One of all time favorite authors is Louise Erdritch, an Ojibwe writer from Minnesota/North Dakota. Hands-down, she’s one of the best writers I’ve encountered in the last few years, with novels such as The Plague of Doves and Love Medicine. But my first introduction to her writing was The Round House which absolutely captured my admiration. I found the portrayal of justice in the book a poignant and timely reminder that we don’t all define justice the same way and that we don’t all experience its privileges and deficiencies the same way. The main character’s father is a judge on their reservation in North Dakota, and so watching young Joe grapple with what happened to his mother while navigating the overlapping justices of native vs non-native lands is a stark reminder that what we value and our position in the world colors how we view justice.

The Present Matters

Most people do not think of Native Americans in the present. Their names, cultures, and triumphant achievements are often relegated to the past and when we do think of them in the present, we often bring up only images of poverty on reservations, casinos, and alcoholism. Yet this is an unfair and hugely detrimental portrayal. Tommy Orange of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma writes specifically about lives of urban Natives, setting his novel There There in Oakland, California. While I found the number of characters a bit disjointed, the blend of stories, the mixture of personality types, and the powerful experiences in the novel were not only eye-opening, but inspiring and hopeful. I so much appreciated his conversations around cultural identity, adapting to changing times, finding family, and speaking out stories.

Similarly, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, who is Ojibwe from Michigan, traces a vibrant native community in modern day Sault Ste. Marie. Her main character, 18yr old Daunis is biracial and is navigating multiple worlds while also being a teenager trying to find her place. Many of the elements of the book are reminiscent of so other YA novels but are heightened by her journey of finding out what it means to be a Native American woman. The combination of well-trodden teenage concerns and unfamiliar cultural navigation make for an unforgettable mix. This was not my favorite of the books I read, yet Daunis and her journey keep coming back to mind.

Wisdom of the Elders

A common image that runs through almost all these stories is the wisdom of the older generations. We from most western countries have lost some aspects of the role that older people can and should play in our societies. While the world moves on and changes, their experience and wisdom can attain an ageless quality if we are willing to listen.

Perhaps my favorite discovery was Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe. She is Lipan Apache, which infuses her story through her main character, Ellie, and her family. Besides just being a fantastic story, what stood out to me was the role of the whole family. So much young adult fiction is about teenagers going out and making dumb decisions, trying to cut the strings to their families, and striking out on some individualistic quest. Not so here. Ellie constantly comes to her parents and elders for advice, uses their wisdom, and as such makes wise and mature decisions. This was such a refreshing book in that it reflects the capabilities of a smart teenager and does not rely on gimmicky plot devices to provide tension.

There are a lot more excellent Native American stories out there and I’m looking forward to discovering them. Any recommendations are heartily welcomed. This only reaffirms my belief that when I read outside of my own experience and upbringing, I learn a lot more about the world and the many different people in it.

*Image is the Jacket Art for Elatsoe drawn by Rovina Cai*

The Joy of Rereading Books

I’ve been blessed with the ability to read very quickly which enables my desire to plow through all the books I find interesting and those that are recommended to me. On the flip side, the pace at which I read means I rarely remember the details of a text beyond closing the back cover. That helps me sympathize with my students who do the assigned reading but have a hard time recalling what they’ve read.

This combination of quick reading and low recall means I get to enjoy rereading good books over the course of my life. Very frequently, I get significantly more out of a book on a reread than I did the first time and it’s in the balance of vague-remembering and rediscovery that the joy washes over me. I love that moment of dawning realization that is part recollection and part new insight.

One of my criteria for a good book is whether it is worth rereading. I encounter plenty of texts that I breeze through once, might even enjoy, but will never pick up again. Either the writing did not grip me, or there just was not enough depth to warrant another extended engagement. All the best works are ones that reveal themselves in all their glory only upon multiple readings, such that each is like a new layer, building upon the previous readings and showing a new angle or perspective.

Many of my favorite works are ones that I have lost count of the number of rereadings. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings certainly falls into this category with the intense Consolation present in his storytelling. Herbert’s Dune is very tricky to really grasp on just one reading (and I was gratified to see that the new film will also bear multiple viewings) and I have the hankering to reread Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo every few years, despite its length.

This is also true for many of the works in the curriculum of my classes. I will usually have read a text at least twice before I teach it and then I often need to reread them every few years as the details fade so that I can best guide students through their first reading. One reason I love reading plays out loud in class (aside from how it brings a text to life when students read the individual parts) is that I also get to reread. Each year, I get to encounter such wonderful plays as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Margaret Edson’s Wit, and Shakespeare’s King Lear. It reaffirms the worth of these texts that I see new meaning every time, even when it’s my ninth or tenth read. And then watching a film/stage adaptation gives my students the opportunity to also engage with the language of a text more than once.

Unfortunately, many of my students don’t get the experience of rereading a text. For that reason, one of the novels of choice options in my AP Literature class is that students may choose to reread a text that they haven’t read in at least a year. It will usually be a favorite text they studied in another English class, though sometimes students request a personal favorite that they’ve been meaning to reread and just haven’t had the time to (I of course have to make sure that it is one that they could use on the exam if an essay prompt is suitable).

Because a book is different when we come back to it at a different time in our lives. As a young adult, I necessarily identified far more with Paul Atreides than with Stilgar, (more with Sam and Frodo than Theoden). But now, I’m drawn to Stilgar’s steadfast leadership, (and to Theoden’s weight of responsibility). Further knowledge, life experience, and understanding help me to see texts and characters in a new light. I initially only felt the holy vengeance of Edmund Dantes and did not really see the beauty of the hopeful ending until my third reading of Monte Cristo.

And it’s a comfort to know those books will always be there. I enjoy discovering new authors, different styles of writing, new ways of telling stories. But there is also the comfortable familiarity of returning to a beloved text. I’ve recently begun a rereading of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which spans ten monstrous books. Far from seeming like a massive undertaking, it’s a joy in part because I know exactly what I’m getting into and I anticipate seeing so many details that I missed the first two times.

Dear Angela Merkel

Dear Angela Merkel,

Thank you for leading our country these last sixteen years. I’ve admired your poise, your steadfast leadership, your resolve and courage, and the balance you brought to each difficult situation. While I by no means agreed with you or your party on numerous issues, I nevertheless am grateful to have lived in this world as a German citizen during the time of your chancellorship.

You’ve been a strong role model for us young Germans to look up to. You embody your values, live them out with charisma, and stand for what you believe in. Earlier this year, when you apologized to the entire country for a blunder on the part of your administration, I tried to remember ever seeing a world leader ask for forgiveness in such an unequivocal and humble manner. I came up short. It takes a great person to admit their mistakes and that humility is one reason that we trust you. It is easy to see that in everything you always put the good of others, the good of the people (German or not) above your own desires and aspirations. You have in many ways redefined the qualities we look for in a chancellor now, and you’ve left some very big shoes behind.

When looking at the world stage, it is easy to find so-called leaders that believe power and strength are the sources of their leadership and that they can only lead through bluster and bullying. Your approach of finding nuanced balance and carefully brokered compromise while standing firm on your values is an inspiration. Through some very difficult crises, you showed that collaborating with those that we might disagree with is always the better strategy over storming off in a huff, casting blame, or getting our way through might. We must all get better at not only acknowledging but also accepting the differences and differing viewpoints of others and finding solutions across those divides, rather than erecting walls or barriers. You’ve shown that this is possible on the large stage of world politics.

I’ve never been more proud to be German than in 2015. We younger Germans have grown up learning about the brutal history of our country, have seen the films, the concentration camps, the yearly memorial services and it is not always easy to find the right balance between knowing the atrocities committed in the past and finding value in our culture today. Germany stands for something different now, a place of opportunity, a land that strives to uphold everyone’s dignity no matter their origin. The way you handled the refugee crisis in 2015 will always stand out as the greatest moment of your leadership; you broke ranks with many in your own party because you knew that in this instance, something more important was at stake. It was your compassionate, warm-hearted embrace of those in direst need that showed the world that Germany is and always should be a welcoming country. I’ve rarely been so moved as watching ordinary German citizens cheerfully welcoming and embracing those who had been forced to leave everything behind. That’s what we should be known for; thank you for making that way possible.

My sincerest gratitude on your many years of service to our country. You’ve helped to reconcile me to being German, you’ve provided a strong model of leadership that others can emulate, and you’ve given us hope that change for the better is possible.

A Grateful German

Teaching Dune

Speculative fiction makes for an excellent teaching tool, in particular with how it requires our minds to be flexible when reading. In stretching the bounds of our every day realities, fantasy and science fiction writers are still exploring themes common to the human experience (to the best of my understanding, most authors are writing for a human audience). The changes in perspective, the hypothetical realities, the extrapolation of ideas, all allow for a unique and valuable approach to teaching.

A few years ago, I convinced my school to let me add Frank Herbert’s Dune to my AP Literature curriculum. As it’s a longer text, I have students read it over the summer and then it’s the first text we study together. Some students love it, some struggle with it, and a certain number don’t quite get it until we start our discussions in class. It makes for a powerful beginning to our year together, setting the groundwork for much that is to come.

1. It helps to break the notion that there is a massive disparity between ‘genre fiction’ like SF and what we study in school: ‘literature’. Literary quality can be found in all manner of books, and it meets many students where they are. For so much of their schooling, they’ve differentiated between the stuff they’ve had to read for English class and what they read for fun. Numerous students, after reading Dune, mention that they appreciate being able to study a different type of text, something they might have picked up for fun, and that it has changed how they approach all their reading.

2. Structurally, it taps into a number of common narrative patterns, though without being too obvious. Yes, it’s a bildungsroman; yes, we can trace the hero’s journey; some of the non-linear components to the storytelling allow for really in-depth discussions about narrative purpose. What’s up with Princess Irulan’s epigraphs? Why do we get to know who the traitor is way before the protagonist does? These structural insights set the stage for many conversations to come about other texts.

3. Once students adjust to all the weird names of places, characters, and objects, it’s an incredibly vibrant and well-crafted sub-creation (to use Tolkien’s word). It lets me introduce setting as a significant component of the story; too often when we discuss setting in other classes and about other books, students can explain the times and places but have a much harder time actually showing the significance it brings to the text. And the planet of Arrakis, painfully forced into the position as a volatile nexus in an interplanetary conflict, readily provides lots of analytical opportunities; students see the role of the Spice not just for the Empire, but for the characters. The lack of water on a desert planet is closely tied both to the threat of death and the hope for an ecologically flourishing future.

4. Dune provides us with a shared text that we keep referring back to. I quickly lost count of the number of times it would show back up in our discussions last year as students made connections and saw similarities. When introducing new concepts or when I needed a ready example, it was easy to relate it back to Dune and I knew the student would be familiar with it. Christ-figures, symbols, passage of time, plot vs. story vs. narrative, contrasting characters, foreshadowing, and plenty of others. It was also an excellent book for teaching students how to discuss themes in a knowledgeable way, setting them up for seeing the topics that they’ve been taught to recognize in works of literature and having them grapple with how they introduce meaning into the text.

5. Much later in the year, when we get to post-colonial criticism, we’ve got other texts we focus our analysis on (Things Fall Apart & Heart of Darkness), but even here, students keep coming back to Dune. They may not have recognized the colonial impact on Arrakis by the Empire when they first read it, but they do later; it helps them to see the pattern of how these questions and a lens like post-colonial criticism can be applied to multiple works, yield different answers, and yet still be bound around a similar topic or concern.

6. It allows me to readily introduce a running theme of my class that is vital to being successful in AP Literature: oftentimes, to make sense of something, we must be willing and able to hold different—even contradictory—ideas simultaneously and muddle our way through the complexity between them. Many of the questions posed by literature are not about finding the ‘right’ answer, but about identifying the areas of complexity and dancing in the tension, reveling in the ambiguity, and learning to articulate nuanced thoughts in areas where there is no simple solution. In Dune, the topic that most easily lets us begin talking about this is whether Paul Atreides is bound by the prophecies that surround him, by his own prophetic visions, or whether he is in fact free to choose and chart his own course. Questions of fate vs. free will, of determinism vs. choice, are never simple. By engaging with what Herbert has to say on the topic, students can take a step into the treacherous realm of literary analysis, where there is not the comfort of turning to the back of the textbook to check for the ‘right’ answer.

I love Dune. I really enjoyed it when I first read it back in high school (not so much the ones Herbert wrote after) and have found new details and ideas to appreciate with each rereading. I’m excited to share this experience with my students each year, and based on their responses, the discussions in class, the papers I get to read, they’re finding it as engaging as I do. This year, as we completed our final discussion on the text, a student said, “Thanks for having us read this.” I call that a success.

Dear Cats, I Promise You Won’t Starve

My dear cats,

I’m writing to inform you that our daily feeding rituals have become untenable. I ask that you consider my concerns and hope that we can come to an agreeable understanding moving forward, so that our cohabitation can continue to be a benefit to us all.

(I should probably get you a new scratching pad so you can trim those claws down a bit)

Findus, you joined our family almost 9 years ago. I appreciate very much how friendly and affectionate you are, that you like to sit on our laps, and your little toy-in-mouth yowl is incredibly cute. However, you are also a slow, picky eater and as you’ve aged, we need to adjust your food intake somewhat for your own health. I know you like to graze and that previously we could leave a bowl of kibbles out for you all day and you could snack whenever you wanted. I know you don’t like the wet-food packets here in Malaysia quite as much as the ones we gave you in the UAE, but we can’t get those here. I’m glad we’ve found a flavor you mostly seem to like so that you’re no longer leaving little crusty bits in your food bowl.

(You’re the reason that carpet always looks like the inside of a shearing operation)

Pixel, you’ve been with us almost the whole six years we’ve lived in Penang. We like how much you enjoy have the fluffy white underside of your neck stroked, your little meeping sounds when the tiny birds are on the balcony railing, and when you decide to sleep next to us. But I must be frank and say that you’re a whiny, hungry monster. I’ve promised you many times that you won’t starve in this house, and we’ve never given you the slightest indication that that is likely to happen. Your continued panic at missing a meal (unfounded since you were born into a loving foster-home before coming to us) is a bit insulting. You’ve never had to scrounge for sustenance, the world is not going to run out of food for you, and it really wouldn’t kill you to slow down a bit. The loud, slobbering, vacuum-like noises are a bit disconcerting, to be honest.

We’ve settled on fixed feeding times, even increased those from two to three times a day; just for you, Pixel. These times are very consistent and I must refer you to the clock; contrary to what you might think, just because you start whining at a certain time does not mean it is feeding time. I will make you wait, but your monotonous, annoying crying (sometimes up to one and a half hours non-stop) is very taxing. But it will not get you fed any sooner. I’ve tried waiting you out but you don’t seem to be getting the message that your meowing will not affect either the timing or amount of your feeding. And you’ve even infected Findus with this whining disease, though he is not quite as insistent as you are.

Just because you eat faster, Pixel, does not mean you can steal Findus’s food. You know that you have a weak stomach and should eat slowly and not too much in one go. That’s why we need to soak your dry food and mash your wet food into little pieces. That’s also why I’ve placed the rounded rock into your food bowl so that you have to eat around it. Do you remember why that was necessary?

No? Well, it was the vomiting, Pixel. Without my interventions, you eat so fast that you then proceed to throw it right back up. And sometimes it upsets your stomach for an entire day. I’m tired of cleaning up after you and so I must regulate your intake. Again, your insistence to the contrary will not change that.

(Rock is not edible)

Findus, stay at your own food bowl. And finish all your darn food because otherwise Pixel will come over and finish it for you and then start vomiting. I’m sorry about the more fixed feeding schedule, but it’s because you were getting chubby and your little brother was eating faster than you. It means you just have to eat when I feed you. There’s no need to follow me into the kitchen every time; sometimes, it’s my feeding time and not yours.

Between the whining, the vomiting, the picky eating, and the unnecessary underfootness, I must lodge my complaints. I love living with you and hope that we can come to a workable solution. As always, I promise you won’t starve.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Your personal poop-scooper

(At least you’re both really cute and fuzzible)