Sunday, November 22, 2009

Making Room for Each Other: My Position on the "Science vs. Religion" debate

The Short

The New Atheist movement criticizes religion based on the worst actions of its so-called adherents. My largest problem with the New Atheism is that of scientifically trained people going out of their way to insult religion. Being a Catholic school refugee, a friend of anti-Islamophobic activists, as well as a biology major, I have some experience with both scientific and religious cultures, and find value in both. I also claim to be an anthropologist, or someone who tries to understand how sets of ideas influence the thoughts and actions of people that are exposed to them. In addition to being a statement of my personal position between these two approaches to making sense of the world, I like to think this is also my humble ethnologic critique of what is popularly known as a “culture clash.”

This treatise on my current beliefs is based on a refutation of scientific determinism endorsed by the New Atheists, whose poster-boys such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens insist that the world would be much better off without religion. I am a scientist, but I believe that science has limits as to how much it can inform the individual search for truth, and the pursuit of social well-being. I feel similarly about the dogmas of religion, who for the everyday individual are just as believable as those of science. I am also a spiritualist, or a non-materialist, or an extra-materialist, or maybe just a hopeless romantic when it comes to literary interpretations of the world, in that I believe that reality is ultimately subjective for the individual, and that every person will inevitably fill in the gaps between their experiences of the physical world and the “objective” reality of science with constructed narratives, and that these narratives are necessary for all individuals to function in the world.

I should also mention that I have not done much reading on the science-religion debate (though I intend to), and that many of my philosophies arise from reflections throughout my general educational, personal, and cultural experiences. Over periods of time and series of relevant events and occasional readings, I have been constructing a view of reality that is nervous-breakdown-resistant, which I imagine to be the goal of everyone’s personal epistemology. I intentionally did not refer to other sources for this writing as a meager act of rebellion against flanking my own thoughts with those of others’ as though they belonged to someone else first (that's what's awesome about blogging).

Making Room (The Longer of It)

Why I am not “religious”

Many people will die a lonely death. No religion, science, or spirituality can alleviate the pain of this truth. People who profess to the major “Western” religions tend to trust in a heaven, an afterlife, or a judgment day that will redeem or make up for the void created by such miserable events. I do not believe these things, so in turn I believe there is very little possible redemption for the actions and circumstances of the individual beyond his / her time on this earth. I believe the only after-life is the story that living humans preserve for the deceased and the legacy of one’s living choices, and their impact on the living’s actions. There is only one stage (in the Shakespearean sense) of life as humans can ever understand it. For a “non-believer” like myself, this realization is hard to grapple with, so that every other belief about finding and creating redemption in any stage is banked on hope.

I also do not believe in an interventionist God who makes optimal decisions about how to run the universe based on some plan he’s created for himself, or at least not one that I could ever count on knowing. This (for the most part) saves me from being angry at a God who lets people die miserable or alone. Thus you could say that I believe that humans are alone in their decisions, and, barring natural and cosmic events, the sole determiners of their own fate as a species. I think most atheists agree with me on that point, but there are also many things that I am specifically not saying. For example, it is not to say that all self-identifying religious people believe in that particular idea of God. Nor that I don’t believe in other metaphorical understandings of God. Nor that humans do not inherit a certain legacy of fate that is defined by our nature, and has been described in so-called religious texts such as Genesis. Nor is it to say that I don’t ask for things anyway.

The limitations and responsibilities of science

I am a scientist. That means, in addition to having a degree in biology, that I understand and believe in the [need for an] idea of an objective reality, and in the ability of science to provide us with knowledge about that objective reality. Science, to me, is a method of understanding the world by induction through repeated observation and falsifiable experimentation. Problems begin when science presents itself, like many religions, as a system of belief.

Most people, including scientists, do not typically acquire their understanding of the world scientifically. Just as most of us will not scientifically investigate whether or not our parents are our parents, nor will we have the interest, time, or resources to investigate whether the sun is a star, or whether basketballs and golfballs fall at the same rate, but we will continue to believe what our families and scientists tell us because we have been raised to trust them. To the extent that the individual does not participate in the scientific process of acquiring knowledge that does not directly impact his everyday life, the universe as told by science is a narrative that functions similarly as religion.

Even if we were all able to learn about the world scientifically, it would still not produce a knowledge that humans can fully comprehend. For example, materialists contend that there is no reality outside of the physical reality, and that thoughts, feelings, emotions are simply the products of neurons firing in the brain, but this, while intellectually comprehensible, like many scientific facts, is not within the grasp of human physical experience. I know that my body is made of cells, because I have seen them under microscopes (and didn’t rack up a $30,000 debt for nothing), but “I” don’t consciously participate in their processes. Ultimately, the physical world to me is the one that I can physically manipulate, which, compared to the one they say is out there (or in there), is not very much. This is not to say that I believe that there is an “extra-physical” reality that is simply undetectable by any group of the human species (though I could argue the existence of an “extra-physical” reality for myself in the case of the planet Neptune, underwater volcanoes, and China, because I have never directly experienced any of them except in pictures). This leaves a huge, intangible space to be filled in with ideas that are as consequential as our physical interactions with the world. Material / shared objective reality exists, but it is not the only realm of human experience.

Science and religion are both motivated by the instinctual human need to understand the universe outside one’s very superficial physical experience of it. Humans, including scientists, have an instinctual, unavoidable tendency to fill in the void beyond their sensual experience with their own narratives. We interpret the world through fluidic, illogical abstractions that are clumsily expressed in words. I believe that these narratives are powerful, necessary, consequential to the actions of humans in the physical world, and therefore, real. Science has contributed significantly to these narratives, but they are not limited to what science has to say about them. However, science, as a culture, must recognize itself as a piece of that narrative whose contributions are limited to what can be measured, falsified, detected directly or indirectly by human senses, and translated into numbers, and that there are many things very relevant to the human experience that science may never explain due to these limitations. Furthermore, scientists, as humans, should not imagine themselves immune from this constantly negotiated story, and should assume some moral responsibility in the impact of advances of scientific knowledge on their social and physical environments.

Science need impose itself on religious doctrine only insofar as it claims to be scientifically founded (and wrong). I support every effort to make sure that “intelligent design” and 10,000 year-old Earths never get taught in a science classroom. However, it is wrong of any member of the scientific community to make sweeping judgments about everyone who professes a non-materialist creed based on these strict (and rather unfaithfully materialistic) interpretations of religious texts. The scientific community could do better to 1) present science as a method of acquiring knowledge rather than an alternative system of belief, 2) be a little more sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of its students, since some of its greatest achievers come from many cultural and devoutly religious histories, and 2) fill in the void of social responsibility left by Tuskegee experiments and atomic bombs, i.e. make science look a little more human, even if it many don’t like to believe it is. In turn, religious institutions have no place in trying to push unscientifically founded claims as science, because 1) its epistemology is not rooted in the material world, 2) what can be proven physically is no longer a matter of faith, and most importantly, 3) choking the dissemination of scientific knowledge will allow scientists the exclusive ability to manipulate the world and society without the scientifically-informed will of the public. Instead of hurling insults at one another, both “sides” could do much, perhaps better on the community level, to create a middle ground of open inquiry about how to understand the world and the group and individual’s places in it, which is, when it’s not about selling books or keeping paying congregants, is what concerns most people.


What I have written here will likely become much more refined as I read more, but I wanted to write myself an introduction to these cross-cultural epistemological and social problems. I meant mostly to talk about epistemological limitations of science, and why I am not a scientific fundamentalist-zealot. There is much more I hope to cover in terms of its not-so-scientific relationship with society. Why do I pick on science? Most simply, because I have been more indoctrinated by scientific culture in recent years than religious, and because I believe that the sophomoric, proselytizing style of the New Atheists pose a new threat to the responsible integration of scientific knowledge into society.

As for me, I am absolutely fascinated by the universe as it exists around me, and I am grateful for the methods and tools that the scientific tradition has given us to understand it more than superficially. At the same time, I think it was a trick of God (or evolution) to give us the mental and physical tools to access and perceive of worlds beyond our own that we can never directly experience, so that we are destined to forever question, live in doubt, and in turn, faith. My understanding of this world is constantly modified, through interactions between my internal-emotional, superficial-physical, and extra-physical worlds, and I try to keep myself open to this negotiation. The more I insist on things being a certain way, chances are better that contradictory experiences will produce destruction or delusion, and progress will fail. Similarly, when science and religion abandon doubt, they both fail.

Friday, October 30, 2009

putting myself in their shoes

There's nothing like getting into my literacy students' heads and experiences by way of trying it myself - learning a new writing system in a second (or third) language. Learning Arabic definitely puts me in their shoes. After trying to make my way through a short article in Arabic, I notice that the words I read in Arabic break into three categories of non/comprehension:

1) the 98% I sound out and don't understand
2) the 1% I sound out and do understand
3) the other 1% that I can recognize without sounding out, like السلام عليكم (salam alekum) and such

For some time I have stressed phonics on my ESL students, I now believe, at the expense of word-recognition strategies. That is until I realized how much we really read by recognition of words.

Do we really have a library of thousands of words in our heads so that we don't really read letters so much as word shapes? According to the National Institute for Literacy website:

Rapid and effortless Word Recognition is the main component of fluent reading. Words that beginning readers initially sound out through Word Analysis or phonics come to be recognized as whole units after readers encounter them repeatedly in connected text.

At least I can say that I figured it out on my own before checking with other sources (like I probably ought to have done...). In any case, I think regardless of how much formal training teachers go through, that is, more than any other way, how we learn to teach.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Everybody has a car...

... but my grandpa has a donkey...
- Children's Arabic song (supposedly)

Unemployment reading project #2 (after Foucault's History of Sexuality Vol. 1) is finish my Teach Yourself Arabic book. Even though I teach ESL, I underestimate how mind numbing trying to learn a new language can be. (Sorry, students! May I have more mercy on your lesson plans!)

In the interest of trying to mitigate the pain of rote learning, I tried out this Arabic song lyrics blog. While it can be very helpful, I found it is only really good if you a) already know the sound of the song's lyrics or b) are willing to learn them. Let's say I am not huge Arabic-pop music fan, and appreciating the better music is more likely to come with learning more Arabic...

Let's not hurt ourselves, I say. I found this humble gem of a Lebanese children's tune. Indirect objects, old words, new verbs, all in less than 6 lines, and put into a sing-along-able mp3.

kelloun andoun siyyarat wou jeddi 3andou hmar
bi rakkebna khalfou wou byakhedna mechwar
woul bolice bi safferlou
bi idou bi acherlou
siyyarat bit zammerlou: pap pap pap!


Everybody has a car but my grandpa has a donkey
He lets us ride behind him and takes us for a walk
And the policeman blows his whistle at him
With his hand he makes signs to him
All the cars honk at him : Pap Pap Pap.

Friday, July 24, 2009

new great way to waste time online

If you're a girl, maybe you've Googled things like "how to look good,""how to meet nice guys," and "am I pregnant?" Or you've checked out Cosmo's articles on what men REALLY want, etc. But have you ever considered looking from the inside out? Say, by way of Googling, "how to meet women." It's a great way to get some insight into (or a great laugh out of) how men are told to think of women, not to mention themselves. This is how I spent the last hour or so of my day.

The first results page presents:

Meet new women -
whose probably best-intentioned advice is "plan how you're going to physically and emotionally respond to a woman who ISN'T interested in talking to you" (Tip #8), but later offers more guidance on this point in Tip #2: If she says "No, I don’t have e-mail," you say, "Well, do you have ELECTRICITY? OK, you can give me your number then, but it's so hard to reach people these days." And if she objects to giving you her number, no worries… just tease her with "You're going to be OK, just write it down. It's only an e-mail address (or phone number), silly."

The best part about this one, and any other similarly done, is that it's written by a man, although you could argue that shallower articles written by women on the same topic can be just as interesting....

WikiHow after giving steps on how to plan and execute "the hunt," recommends getting a dog or borrowing a cute younger family member to provoke conversations.

Honestly and interestingly, Yahoo Personals has an article that offered the best advice I came across. The goal is still narrow in relation to the broad-minded strategy they recommend, but the advice is commendable compared to the one-dimensional, single-encounter tips given on other sites.

Also, check out the Friendly Atheist on meeting atheist women, and The Park Bench on nerdy women. I leave it to you to get creative on Googling how men are told to think about other subcultures.

So I can't make this as interesting as your own reading would be, but if you have an afternoon to burn on a Cosmo article on how men really think, you might consider this as an alternative.

Friday, July 10, 2009

So what is anthropology?

- chemist I met at the bar last night. Followed up by "So.. what's the application of that?"

At the Society for Applied Anthropology Conference last March, I was happy to meet a few grad and senior undergrads like myself questioning the entire idea of anthropology. One girl had done an undergrad project in West Africa, had the time of her life, but began wondering about the cultural distances that will always separate her from the people she studied, and that if this alienation would be mutual between the "anthropologist" and the "subject," then what gives us the right to be the ones to speak for them? Another girl was researching tattooing trends in her hometown, for what seemed to be quite that reason. Why go talk about someone else's culture when there is so much to learn about your own? And finally, the most memorable, the guy who, for his conference talk, read aloud a semi-fictional story he wrote which condemned anthropologists as a class of people who profit from the stories of the less fortunate.

When I asked him what he wanted to do for his graduate work, he said probably auto-ethnography, which made perfect sense when he said that he was half (or fully? I can't remember) Latino, like myself. Anthropology has historically demanded that you isolate yourself from your subjects in order to get the most "objective" observations. This illusion might have been easier to maintain when practices and expressions of every day life were radically different between the observer's personal history and the observed's, but it's almost impossible when these alternative practices and expressions are already familiar to the anthropologist through heritage or other personal history.* Now that anthropology has become accessible to that historical "other," and global exchanges and modern communications have led more people to think more reflexively about "cultures," the historical "self/other" dynamic consciously dissolves. It is almost impossible to ignore the fact that the context of the observer is just as complex, fluid and transient as the observed, and auto-ethnography is one way for the anthropologist to reconcile with this realization.

For a while anthropologists could get away with just talking to other anthropologists, consumers of "exotic" cultures, some lofty grant societies and government officials. They could get away with only being one-way translators, but that is sure to change with new media and more "halfies" joining the study. The discipline itself has resisted bursting wide open, I think partly for fears of complete obliteration at worst and the identity crisis that would ensue at best, but more perhaps because the anthro's livelihood typically depends on writing to other anthros more than service, communication, and activism in the communities in which they live and/or study. To me, the only thing that will save it from the circus it would (or has) become is to do just so. Burst wide open.

It's time to start sharing. It's time to stop claiming "multilingual" and "progressive" and "culturally literate" if we can't bring it outside the intellectual class, who tend to be privileged if we have the kind of time to write and publish about the problems of the economically peripheral (though demographically dominant) world. Isn't it ironic that we claim to be so good, we can get in with some other exotic culture on the other side of the world, but we don't know how engage with those in our hometown communities? Back to Anthro 101, everyone. Get on the radio, on the TV, in the magazines, in the libraries and high schools. Talk about the villainization of the Arabs and Muslims in the media, talk about the medicalization of illness, talk about what it takes for someone to leave their home country for any reason. Treat patients, teach literacy, and get on environmental justice projects. We're not talking rocket science, or physics or cosmology, even though Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking all did it.

Although SfAA members are a biased sample, it was encouraging to find people sharing these sentiments at the Conference, who I believe are part of a growing trend. Aside from talk of auto-ethnography, studying up or studying home, doing something different altogether, and most appealing to me, collaborative research, we need to turn ethnography inward, I mean, really inward, not to our own society, but our own culture of anthropology. Is there a way to resist the publish or perish standard? Can we switch out doing a paper or two on, say, a review of Amazonian hunting practices for presenting a lecture at a town library? Can we find stipends for work at immigrant service centers, or teaching cultural literacy at a local high school? Can we propose a collaborative master's, or even doctoral, project?

Will we ever stop finding ourselves in family gatherings, parties, and bars trying to explain what it is that we do?

* Lila Abu-Lughod, an Egyptian anthropologist who studied Bedouin tribes in her native country, termed such people "halfies."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Back home, you cannot even walk on the same side of the street as your teacher...

... if he is coming in your direction. You have to cross the street to go around him. You must have the highest respect for the one who is giving you an education.
-B, in response to my contemplations of teaching high school

Tomorrow will be Class #5, of Week 3 in our Literacy class. I'll be finishing up with long vowel sounds and basic phonics. I could spend longer on phonics, as they spent several months or years on it when I was a kid. My students may feel like I have breezed over things, nerve-racked by all the words I give them as examples of say, long "a" or "ou," thinking that they have to memorize them. But the run-through was intentional, because we don't have all the time that kids have to learn. Henceforth I will be putting a lot of faith in word recognition through reading, and practice through writing.

Provided that their faith in me is still strong, the majority of students are ready to go forward. Only two of them are behind enough to warrant a more drawn out review of phonics. And even then I am tempted to rush them, because we only have 8 weeks of class left, and I feel like I have to get them at least somewhat functionally literate. I could try word recognition alone, like I did with Gui, which works for a little while with more impatient students, but not for very long without having to go back to phonics. This is why I got it out of the way to start, so that now the only way to go now is "Read." Read every day. Consume words like a fish drinks water. It's how I did it, which is pretty much the only thing I go by. Our training was as good as it could be for teachers that are not getting paid to do it, which is to say, many things are pretty open-ended, but I am all right with that because it gives me freer rein of my class.

I may be getting ahead of myself, but I am pretty convinced that teaching someone to read has more to do with patience, creativity, and some reflexive intelligence than with being trained in certain methods. I don't think it gets much more complicated than phonics and word-recognition approaches, and having the tact to know how and when to use them. What I'm getting at is that I want a TESOL job without sinking another $10,000 for an MA.

Or maybe I will just move to West Africa....

Friday, June 26, 2009

Everything you talk about, you say, "we will do this later."

-B, student from my Literacy class.

In the first week of the ESL*/ EFL/ TESOL Literacy class I am teaching for the summer I realize I enjoy a luxury that many educators can't say they have - that is, my students actually want to learn. Such is the beauty of adult education, which must not delude one into thinking that a career in secondary education is similarly ideal, of which I was reminded by one of my co-workers who is also a public school special-ed teacher.

For 2 and a half hours, twice a week, I sit in a room with 7 sets of eyes on me. Five West Africans, one Mexican, and most curiously, an American student who recently graduated high school. Three women and four men among them. All of them speak English, some with stronger accents than others. The first feelings of actually teaching, nevermind your anticipations before you walk into a classroom, are those produced by those eyes on you. It's not like any conversation that you can excuse yourself from if you get tired or come to a loss of material. They expect me to produce for them some knowledge, to transfer some understanding of the mangled forest of the written English language, just as much the task of a 4th or 5th grade teacher. For a couple, it's kindergarten and 1st grade material. If your audience is unreceptive, the feeling is daunting. If they are receptive, it's empowering. (By comparison, if your audience is one of professors and grad students, as say, at a conference, it's downright nerve-racking) Across the board, whatever kind of day you're having, it's objectifying, because what you are expected to do is perform, and the meaning and meaningfulness of you to your students is endowed by your performance.

Other than having tutored and teach-assisted literacy students for 5 months now, and a knack for grammar and language dating back to my Catholic school English lessons, my documentable credentials for such a task are minimal. They may or may not know that I lack the official qualifications to teach reading and writing in a publicly-funded institution. I don't even have an established syllabus or curriculum (which makes it really more fun for me, having time for such things). In other words, for all they know, I could be as good as any other shlep off the street. But they look at me no less expectantly, as best I could tell in the two classes thusfar.

The perceptions of what I am capable of, between myself and my students, is most interesting for me when it comes to I., my American student. The only difference between us (in these regards) is four years and a bachelor's degree, but for now someone has convinced him that I can do a better job than Philadelphia's public school system. To work up to this challenge, that is, to be such an enabler, in his life as well as my other students would be, well... an honor. This is the word that comes to my mind, and repeatedly. At first I think of it as a little clumsy, but if asked, what do you call it when people entrust you with something invaluable? It's current inappropriateness has mostly to do with the fact that I can't yet say that I have fully earned it. In the meantime, we can settle for warm and fuzzy.

As of now, I have no tools to measure success, except perhaps my class attendance, because to me not showing up would be the ambiguous protest. Plus, it seems they have already cultivated something of a coherently positive class atmosphere, which is a good sign. At least they're comfortable. Now that I am on the other side of the classroom, I realize how little teachers can know about what is really going on in the minds of their students. You're so busy presenting, trying to make sure that you're being clear, that you can't see yourself or the reactions of your students, so you can only hope that you're not leaving anyone behind. As much as my students' investments in my class are acts of faith, so it is for me. Fortunately, unlike many classrooms, the goal of students and teacher are more genuinely the same, a fact which is the source of my motivation.

* "ESL" is, as has been noted before, an inaccurate, not to mention presumptuous, title as many so-called "English as a Second Language" students, including some of mine, speak more than 2 languages.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Open Water Diver

Three days and 6 dives later, Ian and I have both earned our Open Water Diving Certifications! We set out about 9 a.m. every day to visit different places around St. John, including Calf Rock, Caval Rock, which pirates used to use for cannonball target practice, and Little St. James again.

For putting yourself underwater and surviving, and being comfortable on top of that, there are a lot of things that you need to keep in mind, which you don't realize until you do it. Equipment is, in our experience, safe and reliable. I had more trouble with the small comforts, which can be big discomforts underwater if they're not managed, and a distraction from everything you're trying to see... like mask fit, appropriate weighting, equalizing habits, and mobility skills. All this comes with experience, and I think the nicest thing about having the cert now is that I can take more of my own time rather than having to keep up with an instructor.

All in all, however, it was definitely the highlight of this Virgin Islands trip. Being able to breathe underwater really makes you think about 1) how much the body is like a machine and relatedly, 2) what human beings are capable of. That is, how we can simulate conditions to continue life in otherwise non-ideal or unsurvivable environments, and not for the purpose of survival, but for exploration. I realized that I'll probably never see this kind of diversity of life in eyesight anywhere else. While I hardly thought much about marine life before, I can definitely see now how a person could commit their life to understanding it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

social inquisitions

Yesterday I suffered an episode of intensive social disorientation when Ian and I visited the market to pick up some food. I was blown away by the prices! $1.80 for an orange, $4 for a bag of onions, $8 for a box of cereal. My mind was then flooded with questions as soon as I asked myself: Can the natives afford these prices? Or do they pay cheaper prices at "local" markets? Then: How big really is the economic disparity between people that vacation here and those who we might loosely define as local (read, for my interest in this case: black) natives? If there are much fewer tourists than native Islanders, is there enough income generated by tourism jobs to sustain the living of all the natives, plus the non-natives that live here? When a house like the one we are vacationing in is on the market for $3.5 million, surrounded by dozens of houses like it in, how is this wealth distributed among the multi-generational residents of these islands, and its more transient labor and inhabitants?

For other places, namely Colombia and Morocco, I would have some answers to these questions. What makes this place unique for me is -

a) I know next to nothing about any inhabitants here, and
b) these are islands, very small, fixed geographical areas with limited resources and living spaces
c) these are U.S. "territories," implying a political relationship with the U.S. government that I know only vaguely.

Although I come with a lot of intellectual baggage, knowing almost nothing I would like to know about a place, like the who's and the how's and the why's, can actually be kind of fun. I was too lazy to research (it is a vacation, right?) before coming, but it has actually been convenient for my social inquisition. I've resolved to not look up anything on the internet til we get home, and now it's almost like detective work.

So last night I got a local newspaper, the St. John Tradewinds. There's a constitution of the USVI that's recently been passed, and no one seems to be happy about it, at least no one who wrote in the editorials. One reads: "The argument that only defined 'natives' of these islands will protect the integrity of government and the interests of average citizens is a grievous falshood." Another calls it a "discriminatory document." It's meant to go up shortly to Obama and Congress to be passed. I wondered what the so-called "natives" of the islands have to say, or if they are the same ones complaining....

When we went sailing with Captain Bob today, I asked him about this proposed constitution, and he said that the language is very questionable and controversial, with some elements of racism that gives the "locals" certain privileges, and disregards the variety of people (ex., 1st and 2nd generation whites and blacks, Puerto Rican labor, etc. etc.) that have a stake in the islands. I also learned that the black locals that one can loosely define as natives (I'll call them multi-generational inhabitants) are referred to as "West Indians," and that the language they speak is a variant of English, but can readily sound incomprehendable to us Continentals.

I have yet to talk to a "West Indian," as much as I would like to, about island life beyond the Bahama Breeze version. Chances are that I won't, but I'll keep my eyes and ears sharp for more insights.


Today we spent the day on a sailboat. Aside from Jersey's tall ship the A.J. Meerwald back in April, this was my first day-charter sail. A 39' sloop-rigged Pearson named Spree, home to Michigan-born Captain Bob. We were out from 9 a.m. til about 3 p.m. I spent the couple hours or so with my eyes closed, with either seasickness or indigestion, praying that it wouldn't get worse. Fortunately it passed.

On the way we sailed by this island. It's called Little St. James, entirely owned by a billionaire philanthropist currently jailed in West Palm Beach for sex with underage girls.

We moored at Lovango Cay to snorkel. Although it was cloudy for most of the day, the sun shone through enough to get some good underwater views. Here's another photo courtesy of Pete, this one with two blue tangs and a school of French grunts:

I am building a repertoire of underwater life. So far I have seen and identified (using Pete's marine life picture book):

brain coral, southern sting ray, spiny sea urchin, trumpetfish, blue tang, French grunts, foureye butterfly fish, bearded fireworm, and yellowtail damselfish (my favorite so far!)... and the list keeps growing.

Tomorrow Ian and I start Day 1 of diving for our Open Water certification, where we'll get to see even more fish.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I wake up early on vacation, this morning at 7:30, like it's my job. This morning's charge is to get some geographical orientation. Ian and I eat breakfast and set off to cover nearly all the drivable perimeter of St. John. Roads are maximum two-lanes, two ways, and mandatory 4WD, or at least some hardy transmission, and aside from Cruz Bay, walled by tree and bush, and graced by an occasional donkey. There are no taxis, which I think unwise for an island with so many cars and so little road, but who am I to say.

(^ This is Trunk Bay from an overlook from the road, my photo this time! - check your cellphone, M!)

By 12 we have settled into the beach in Hawksnest Bay (pic on right), under a broad-leaf bush for some shade from a mean sun. The water is paradise blue and green, and the sand is white and soft. Shortly after the family arrives with the snorkel gear, the clouds creeping over the hills from the west break. It sprinkles, and then pours, and then 20 minutes later the sun is shining as if nothing happened.

I set off in the water with mask and snorkel. Even though I've been diving, I've never snorkeled, and it wasn't nearly as sunny when we dove. And how spectacular! So many fish! Blue, yellow, silver, striped, big, small. The only life I could recognize from Pete's marine life picture book was the brain coral, tube sponge, and spiny sea urchin. Fortunately, he got some great underwater pics. Here's his photo of a school of blue tangs. There's a spiny sea urchin on the left corner. If you step on them, the spikes are impossible to remove and you have to wait for them to dissolve in your body.

Monday, June 8, 2009

beachbumming in the USVI

Tomorrow (more accurately, 2 a.m. tonight...) Ian and family and I will be setting off for their yearly vacation to the US Virgin Islands. This will be the first time going away without having to worry about virtually anything (thanks G & J!!!). No hostel reservations, no language barriers, no conferences... a genuine "vacation."

I don't know much about the USVI, and maybe it's ignorant to say that I don't know if there's much to know, because I only picture it as some kind of idyllic place as presented in all the pictures. I never met anyone from the Virgin Islands, and know nothing about what it's like to live there. I've heard of an "island culture" that consists mainly of Calypso music and spicy food. Naturally I'm curious to know how much of it really is about Calypso, spicy food, and peace and love, but since it is a vacation, I will allow opportunities for such insight to come to me more casually than not.

For better or worse, I don't think that culture tends to be the main selling point of the islands, and it's certainly not our reason for going. The pictures speak for themselves. I am imagining it as being Tayrona x 10, at least area wise, but with internet and cell phone access.

We'll be staying on the island of St. John. Ian and I, after our intro to SCUBA in Colombia, will be looking to get our Open Water diving certification. Most of St. John is national park land, which will give us some other outdoor explorations to do. Other than that, it's eat, sleep, beach, snorkel, Mating (the book! - see below), and iPod. Will hopefully be posting pictures!

P.S. the above pic, Trunk Bay on St. John, is not mine.....

Friday, June 5, 2009

on feeling useful

On the SEPTA bus. A tall, white man with glasses walks on. Jeans, t-shirt, and a backpack. The bus driver tells him the fare. He pulls out his wallet, and after sifting through it, he asks the bus driver for change, which no SEPTA bus has. I also detect an accent from where I'm sitting. The bus driver lets him go with a dollar and coins.

You're not from around here, are you? I ask. Cliche, but, in the spirit of everyone else who has helped me in the same circumstance, that is, being disoriented in another country, I couldn't resist. I figure now is a good time to return the karma.

I learn he's a German scientist touring the area in the days he has free before a conference downtown. Today he's looking to visit Valley Forge Park. He's equipped with maps and bus schedules, like the good European travelers who seem to be so much more directionally gifted than myself. He has a strong accent, and struggles just a bit to speak and hear English clearly. The funniest part was when he asked if I could tell when he got on the bus that he was not from here. To which I said that, aside from barely hearing his accent from that distance, most people who live in Philadelphia know that SEPTA buses don't have change, so at least he wasn't from the city.

We talk about different things, how to get to D.C., what's good to do around the city, how hard it is to understand English, and how American breakfast portions are excessively generous, and how, so long as I call myself an American, not everyone eats in quantity or quality the same as a typical diner fare. I help to clarify some things about his itinerary and orientation, and tell him he can call me in case he has any problems.

I helped a helpless tourist! I tell everyone. Ok, not helpless, but if the situation were reversed, I definitely would have been, and it was nice to be on the other side for once.

Monday, June 1, 2009

...what I was trying to do with my anthropology was first to get a job in a halfway decent university...

...and then get tenure. This was a marxist analysis of my situation but it was correct. Along the way, of course, I was going to be adding to the world's knowledge of man, no doubt. But there was already a lot of that, to put it mildly. Possibly there was enough.
-Norman Rush, Mating

With an upcoming vacation later this month, I went to The Book Trader this weekend with the mission of finding a good beach read. As with movies once in the movie store, it took a long time before I could think of a good book that I really wanted to read. Eventually I remembered Salman Rushdie's interview on NPR about his latest, The Enchantress of Florence. To my surprise, not one of his books lined The Book Trader's fiction section. Still browsing around the "R" authors in disappointment, I picked up a book by Norman Rush, titled Mating, whose central character is a woman anthropologist recovering from a disintegrated doctoral thesis in Botswana who is supposed to find herself infatuated with some hyperidealistic cult founder in the south African jungle. At first, I was skeptical about a male author's ability to write from the first person perspective of a rather introspective female character, but the page-browsing I did (and my reading thus far) was convincing enough. So in a sort of parodying twist of fate after not finding Salman Rushdie, I walked out with Norman Rush. With 460+ pages and small type, it might be a long haul, but the comical and self-conscious style with academic terminology of the first 50 pages should make it as much fun as interesting.

btw, The Book Trader, a used-books store in Old City, is definitely one of my top 5 favorite spots in Philly. Not that I have any tour-guide credentials, as I don't live in the city, but I do love book stores. With 2 floors of crammed shelves overflowing with books and boxes of books strewn on the floor still to be filed, I'm like Paris Hilton at the Mall of America, or like a trick-or-treater at a chocolate factory. I'm just in awe of all the browsing to be done. While books are categorized by subject and genre, the poor organization within them makes the place like a gold mine where you could find several copies of the same book on different shelves, or serendipitously come across something you didn't expect, like a 1951 travel account of Morocco by Rom Landau, or a 1901 print of George Eliot (or Norman Rush instead of Salman Rushdie, for that matter). Fortunately, I have the discipline to keep my spending under $15, and to remind myself that I have too much clutter at home, that I can only read about one book at a time, and that I can always come back.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

CNN's Holy Week mini-series

Sneak Attack: Rogue African pirates hijack an unarmed American cargo ship.
Sacrifice: Captain valiantly offers himself as hostage in exchange for the well-being of his crew.
Suspense: a breath-holding, three day stand off between 4 black sea-bandits holding the captain and U.S. Navy, complete with destroyer and drones.
Climax: American snipers, with stunning precision, pick off 3 pirates, leaving the 4th to surrender shaking in terrorized defeat, and freeing the captain just in time to seal the Easter holiday.
Happy Ending: Captain returns home to a hero's welcome.
Sequel? African pirates vow revenge in future hijackings.

Reality TV couldn't have done better.

Illegitimi non carbarondum.

- new mantra to combat my anxieties about grad school, job prospects, finding something useful to do with myself, and how to properly order such things.

Friday, April 10, 2009

On blogger's block

I don't suffer writer's block, as far as I can tell, by any means. I always have something going on in my mind that I could write on. At least, there's always something on NPR I can put my 2 semi-Marxist cents in.* But I suffer some anxiety about choosing something to write about, and the struggle between writing to get something out of my mind and providing it due context results in a typically stagnant blog. Fortunately, I am reminded that this sense of "it's not enough" is not only a phenomenon of bloggers, who have no imposing editors or deadlines, in that academic and professional writers are no more immune to that sense of incompleteness. Rex from SavageMinds writes:

There is a saying that works of art are never finished, only abandoned. This definitely seems to be true of academic works as well—or at least the ones I right. I don’t think I’ve ever ‘finished’ something such that I’ve read it over, thought it over, and said “there is nothing more to be done to this—it is finished.” Instead, I finish projects in one of two ways: first, the deadline hits and I have to send it off or, second, I wake up one morning and realize that I have just stopped caring about it and it is done.
I write mostly for practice and as an outlet for my cluttered mind, but this is often to myself, which if presented as decontextualized as it would be to an outsider, it could be read as poetry or nonsense. And really, it just is so much work to make something consistent and readable. In the interest of having something that others can see, I have to a) stop being lazy and b) let go of the anxiety of putting myself out there without sufficient disclaimer. And fortunately for blogs, you don't have to post complete works, or even complete thoughts. For the umpteenth, I tell myself I have no excuses to not write more than I do on this thing.

Does anyone else suffer from these blogging anxieties? While some discretion is managed through the content, the medium of the blog is quite expository, so it's best that you not write anything that you wouldn't mind just anyone knowing.

And some questions for academics: I believe that, typically, academic writers publish in a highly specialized, often impersonal, language in sanctioned media so that they are often, though I understand not all the time, coccooned from that sense of raw exposure. Which leads me to: Do academic writers feel a similar vulnerability when they move to writing about themselves in more open, public sphere, i.e. blogs, or are they more grateful for a less restrictive outlet? Are they apprehensive about exposing
themselves to their peers, or do they see it as an opportunity to be more open with eachother?

* I consciously acknowledge the irony and/or sense of this phrase.

Thursday, April 2, 2009



My story with Gui began in January of this year, about 3 months ago. I came across this ESL / immigrant services organization over the winter, loved their set up, and signed myself up as a volunteer to teach-assist ESL / TESOL classes. When there weren't any spots for me at the times I was available, I was asked if I would like to tutor a unique case, rare enough apparently that there weren't yet classes targeted at his level. This was Gui, an illiterate student from Central America whose English language levels were too low for any of the beginner classes. Although there was a literacy class offered, it was usually geared toward students who already had at least an intermediate speaking level. And because he spoke hardly any English, my Spanish would come in handy to tutor him.

Gui presented a challenge from the start. For all the sorrowful circumstances of Central America in the 1980s (I'm not sure how old he really is), he never had any formal education. He speaks a rural dialect of Spanish so informal that many other native speakers, let alone I, can't understand him. On top of that, he is shy, and self-conscious at the times that his lack of education stands out by say, not knowing how to spell words in his own language. He did have a couple things going for him, his desire to learn not the least of them. He was already familiar with some of the alphabet, and some of the sounds associated with the letters in Spanish, which allowed me to skip ahead only a little bit.

The truth is, his issues make up only half the challenge, and it has been a learning experience just as much for me as for him. I had virtually no teaching experience starting out, and just a glimmering concept of the needs of an illiterate student. Consistently being prepared for each lesson, rather than and winging it on a loose framework of methods so that lessons would devolve into translate-and-memorize sessions, is something that I am learning to appreciate as I get better at it. I began with only lofty ideas of what it means to be a teacher, and only recently have I realized that effective teaching defies many democratic predispositions. Fortunately, the knowledge and educational gap between Gui and me is so wide, and his commitment to learning is high enough that I don’t believe that he had lost any esteem for me as a teacher by the time I did come to this understanding.

As you can imagine, I watch for evidence of progress through a hazy shield through which I cannot distinguish what is only momentarily understood and what has been ingrained, what is deduction and what is simple repetition. My inexperience, or lack of knowing exactly how to measure this progress while teaching at the same time, only makes the vigilance hazier. So today when, Gui, of his own accord, read a caption from a magazine cutout and pronounced the word “dare” correctly, perfectly, long “a”, silent “e” and all, rather than “da-ray,” as I would expect him to, I jumped happily on the inside. Two weeks after suffering through a 2 hour session on the long “a” sound which at the time seemed hardly productive, this pronunciation today showed something definitely stuck. Yes, any other time, he might have gotten it wrong, but it was in his brain somewhere, and I know he didn’t get it from anywhere else but one place.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

If a Western scholar does not understand colonial affairs, he will never understand the world.

-House of Glass

There is almost no place on earth that has not been touched or shaped by colonialism. Despite the [to say it generously] liberation of many colonized societies, colonialism, or the philosophies and attitudes of difference that sanction dominance and subordination, has not died. And to put it more radically, colonization has not died. Because colonialism is about power based on illusory differences, and because illusory differences continue to be nurtured in our day-to-day life, understanding the relationship between the two is pertinent to understanding how our own political and social encounters operate on that relationship, so that ultimately, hopefully, individually and collectively, we can challenge those illusions and their consequences.

A crash course can be found in The Buru Quartet, set in Dutch-governed Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. It was told orally by Pramoedya Ananta Toer during his political imprisonment in the 1950s in Indonesia, and put in writing with the help of his fellow prisoners once he was allowed pen and paper. The story is nothing short of exposure, from the inside out, of everything you didn’t get out of middle school about colonizers and colonized, which is why the books were banned in Indonesia until 1999. Over the course of the quartet, the author profiles nearly every imaginable character in the colonial setting, from the mixed-blood children of Native concubines, their fathering Dutch officials, to the most educated Natives. Toer chooses two special cases to narrate the rise of Indonesian nationalism. The first is Minke, a privileged, educated Native Javanese man, who rejects the career path of a government doctor to open the first Native newspaper. The second, who continues Minke’s story in the fourth book, is Jacques Pangemanann, a Native police officer, born and educated in France, who is hired as a colonial government researcher and shadow policy writer assigned with the task of keeping Indonesia’s organizations and nationalism in check, by whatever means necessary. The comparison is clear: both are Natives, educated with the same European values of equality and empirical knowledge, but they consciously choose different paths. One challenges the hegemonic structures around him, and the other works for it. The reader is left to judge each character for how they handle their burden of knowledge, in light of the exposed hypocrisy of Western civilization of which they both become conscious - that the values of education and equality are only good for some people, and not for others.

And the reader is left to contend with relativistic idea #1, that maybe Indonesia and other pre-colonial societies would have been better off without “European values,” colonization aside. This is highlighted more by Minke’s comparisons of the brutality of Dutch colonialism to that of the kings of his Native ancestors. Self-determination is not simply a European value, but a human value, that simply happened to be most articulated in history by the French Revolution. It is not the dream of lofty intellectuals, but a living struggle, and you can choose to be on either side of it, educated or not, as long as you have some semblance of morals, like Surati, who intentionally inoculates herself with smallpox so that she would infect the Dutch official taking her as a concubine (see Chapter 2 of Footsteps for a beautiful, though sad, story of hegemony and resistance). And so there is no excuse for relativistic idea #2, that Pangemanann might be forgiven for his choices, even though they contradicted everything he had ever learned, despite being a student at the Sorbonne, because he ultimately felt guilty. It is not enough to be educated, and it is not enough to know that your actions are wrong and feel sorry for them. Was he a good man? It seems he asserts for himself, that, despite his self-abasement, history, or the world outside of his own conscience, would ultimately be his judge.

In novel form, the Buru Quartet is a study in the psychological and social workings of hegemony and resistance. Psychological because it reads like personal notes or a journal, internal and reflective throughout the actions of the narrators and the characters around them. Social because each character, and his/her actions, is positioned in the context of the colonial setting - how they adopt it, speak it, take advantage of it, or resist it. What is also unique is that it feels so close to real life. Minke does not climactically “awaken.” Rather, he learns slowly (for a book), through a series of events, conversations, and personal reflections, in the same way that we really do learn new ways of thinking. Pangemanann struggles continuously through his choices, as a morally conscious person would, but distinguishes between what he thinks and what he does. The reading is thick, but the exposure of our cultural history and human character is highly relevant as long as there is anyone who is oppressed by other human beings.