Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Open Christmas Newsletter to the World

It's funny to me that there are people who hate the genre of the Christmas newsletter. They seem to hate it for two reasons: (a) it's superficial, trying to capture the entire year in MAX, one page, front-and-back, and (b) it's overly optimistic, phrasing even sad events as if they were fantastic ("Frank lost his job this year, which means more time to play with Kitty!"). I think that these are actually interesting genre conventions to work with. Think about it: how often do you write a summary of the entire year in your journal? How often are blogs just grumblefests? I say, bring on the newsletter. So without further ado, and apologies to those of you who will get this twice:


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, all! This has been a great year for me, personally, and I hope it's been good to you, too.

I'm now in my second year of my PhD program down here in Austin, Texas. I'm getting far more comfortable down here and am getting used to the rhythms of the seasons (August=leave town or stay inside, November=go kayaking) as well as the unique culture of the hipster southwest. I went to my first music concert series in early November, and, earlier, I went to a taping of Austin City Limits. I bring my own bags to the grocery store in anticipation of the bag ban and I bought my first pair of skinny jeans this spring. I haven't bought Toms, though; the line must be drawn somewhere, usually around $70 canvas shoes.

School-wise, everything is going great. I read over 70 books this summer in anticipation of my field exam, where, naturally, my committee only asked me about one of them. Still, if you ever want to feel as though you really belong in a discipline, have someone make a canonical list and get cracking. I now finally know exactly what people are talking about when they mention Vygotsky and Feire and Murphy. Of course, this is all in addition to the standard school things I've been doing like taking great classes and teaching undergraduates writing, both of which I adore.

It hasn't all been work, though! I got into running this spring and in July I ran a half marathon with my sister, Emily. Granted, it was downhill and overcast, but it was still a wonderful experience. Five years ago, I wouldn't have thought I could do it. Now I'm gradually working on writing a novel. My friends and I meet each month for "Book Club"--where we write a book, not read one--and by the end of the next year we should have a full manuscript! There are plenty of things "I've always wanted to do" and it's great to actually do some of them.

(I considered a section here about my lack of relationship and encouraging other people to set me up with their brothers, cousins, classmates, etc. but decided that asking for favors in a newsletter was totally desperate)

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season! I enjoy and value our relationship, and the role that you have had in my life. Please keep me updated on how you're doing.

Best wishes,

Mary

Friday, November 25, 2011

Total Rant I Wrote at 6:00 am, to be taken with grain of salt.

During the weeks leading up to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, there was a lot of discussion about changing social attitudes. A law that had been generous at its time for allowing gay soldiers to serve their country was now oppressive because soldiers weren’t as intolerant as once they were; many soldiers in the same barracks as openly gay men have teachers, aunts, friends who are also gay. The law could progress to match social attitudes.

There’s another place where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is still thriving, though: surrounding religion in public universities. One prominent class-discussion scholar calls the discussion of religion in academia “the last great taboo” and one of my professors described admitting her religious persuasion as “coming out of the closet.”

Why are we so anxious about the idea that academics can be religious? There’s a persuasive view in academia, like there once was about gays in the military, that all religious people fit an undesireable stereotype: unthinking, pushy, anti-intellectual. Sadly, to paraphrase the bumper sticker, when only anti-intellectual people openly identify as religious, the only religious people you’ll know will be anti-intellectual. I had a roomful of colleagues express utter shock to hear I was Mormon. In their comments was the underlying assumption that I didn’t fulfill their expectations of what a Mormon, or perhaps a person of faith should be.

This power of embodiment, of just being allowed to be who you are, is vital. Many people’s stereotypes are formed around a floating concept that isn’t actually present in the people around them. Whether in the Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign, or in the way soldier’s attitudes towards gay comrades changed with each openly gay person they actually knew, seeing the way lives are lived, the way we have more in common than not, is the most powerful force for acceptance. But not letting academics openly profess their faith, we are perpetuating hate and ignorance.

I’m not talking about preaching here. I’m talking about the way a room of PhD students freezes when I use the phrase “church potluck” in describing my weekend. Any admission of religion in a culture where we academics routinely sit around and mock the people who believe in the rapture or protest gay marriage is to open yourself up to the burden of prejudice. And do you want to know about the worst thing with our casual Evangelical-bashing? Many of our students come from that religious background. As professors, we’re comfortable calling our students idiots for believing what they believe. Some religions are more protected than others. Muslims are generally okay, because the Evangelicals in our minds are intolerant towards them, and Jews, if they’re not too religious. Mormons are probably not, because they’re all Republicans (there’s another whole blogpost in academic intolerance to the right-wing), and the worst of the worst are the many shades of Christianity right outside our door, particularly in the form of the Young Conservatives and the Texas Legislature.

The result is that ugly stereotypes are perpetuated and no one even knows that they’re stereotypes. One of my students recently wrote “Republicans and Christians would be against sex education” and she had a hard time believing that (a) those terms aren’t necessarily synonymous and (b) neither group is necessarily against sex ed. Another student wrote that “Christians all think that everyone’s going to hell.” No, we don’t. As a matter of fact, my religion says that very few, really bad people go to hell, and only then after multiple chances to repent. But I can’t say that. I have to just suggest that she is more thoughtful and research her audience. When I’m listing untenable, but still viable, claims, I can’t list the existence of God along with, for example, the declaration that all men are created equal or that animals deserve compassion. The most powerful evidence that I can give that religious people can be smart, articulate, restrained and tolerant is my ownself (aw, shucks) and I’m not able to share that.

I am, of course. (I think) there’s no law prohibiting me from letting my students, or my colleagues, know that I’m “openly” religious, but the social atmosphere is prohibitively icy. In addition to deep-rooted stereotypes, we’re terrified of anything like religious instruction going on. As Porthoro ???? points out, though, there is a crisis of religious ignorance in this generation. People seem to have no idea what Muslims actually believe, or who those guys with turbans are, or, as demonstrated when a cocky young thing graffitied “Jesus lives—Easter is cancelled,” the basic premises of Christianity.

This is a problem. First off, if college is about learning new things about the world around us, religion certainly out to be a part of that education, because it’s a big part of that world. And if college is also about expanding viewpoints and becoming tolerant, then people of all religious backgrounds should feel safe in identifying who they are. Finally, there are real dangers about our country becoming so alcoved that academics feel comfortable assuming they know what religious people think and religious people assuming they know what’s going on in the universities (yes, this door swings both ways).

I generally play my persona close to the chest. I don’t tell my students my political views (incidentally, I’m a registered “undeclared” who spends a week before elections with the League of Women Voters’ pamphlet) and I don’t talk about my personal life. But when, chatting with a sports journalist student, I mentioned that my school was the one whose player got ponytailed, there was a moment of tension as he put it together that I went to BYU, or when another student asked me what I did on a Saturday, and I answered kayaking, Comic Con, and church meeting, and of those three, Comic Con was not the most embarrassing.

Let’s just be cool about this, guys. That’s all I’m asking for, in the end.