Friday, July 18, 2014

Dogs, Blackberries, and Homeless Men

While walking back from taking our dog ,Harley, to his weekly playgroup, I spied a neglected blackberry bush to he side of our local school and found several ripe ones--and was reminded once again of what a bizarre relationship I have with nature, money, and my own history.

We had a succession of dogs and plenty of blackberries when I was growing up in the late 1950s through the mid-1970s in rural Clatsop County.  Most of our dogs wandered off.  One was hit and killed by a logging truck.  They all got plenty of exercise without us sending them to a play group, so their social skills were rough, and their lives weren't exactly sheltered.  (Come to think of it, this description also fits the boys of that time and place, one of whom hanged himself, and two of whom were soon sent to Maclaren's School for Boys.  But most of the rest of us took care of ourselves pretty well.)

As for the blackberries, some of my earliest memories are of spending hours at our extensive blackberry bushes, filling silver buckets and my belly with the dark fruits.  You could sell the berries to a buyer at Miles Crossing for what even then seemed like a small amount of money for all the work it took.  Now, unless I find a neglected bush, I pay what probably amounts to a dime a berry at our hip little local grocery story.

Outside New Seasons Grocers, homeless men sell newspapers for $1.00 each, the price of about 10 frozen blackberries, or the equivalent of about 10 minutes of Harley's play time at his doggy day care.

When I ponder these incongruities, I think there is a very good chance I'll be spending eternity in hell.  And I wonder what the grandmother I never met, who left school in 4th grade and died young, in the 1920s, would make of this life.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reflections on the World Cup in Ghana and the U.S.

Ghana and the U.S. have very different reactions to how their national teams did in the World Cup.

For Ghana, the "Black Stars" are the source of great pride.  Two years ago a very deferential university student became expansive when our conversation shifted to soccer.  "In that sport, we are the big brother, and you are the little brother," he enthused.  "We always beat you."  In school yards all over Ghana, like the one picture here, boys dream of leading the Black Stars to international glory.

Of course that didn't happen this time around, as the Black Stars compounded poor performances against the U.S. and Portugal with bickering with the coach and reports of corruption off the pitch.  Several opinion makers have identified "indiscipline" as the key problem, which commentators link to the broader failings of youth in general and politicians in particular.  The national team's shortcomings prompt a sort of national soul searching.

The U.S. not only beat Ghana; it advanced out of the group stage and put up a good fight against two teams that were clearly much better--Germany and Belgium.  People who follow the U.S. team closely are generally pleased.  But more casual fans are irritated that the U.S. is still so far behind so many teams.  Why is it, they wonder, that the U.S. can field a military about the size of the rest of the world put together, dominate sports such as basketball and American football, then be such a minor player in the world's most celebrated sports event?

I am sure that this irony is not lost on Latin Americans.  I have been especially intrigued by the American fan who goes to matches in Brazil dressed up like Teddy Roosevelt, the quintessential racist and vulgar American expansionist.  Given the wide gap between the state of soccer in Brazil and the U.S., I suspect that  if the actual TR were somehow pulled out of the grave and restored to life he would stay away from soccer.  As a commentator on a sports radio station put it: soccer can't be that important if we aren't much good at it.  The rest of the world cannot help but smile.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A person is not a palm tree, that s/he should be self-complete

Last night we had our first meeting of  (most of) Yo Ghana's Portland-Area teachers.  Eight local educators and three board members/volunteers got together.  And it dawned on me again--before, during, and after the meeting--that Yo Ghana! is primarily about relationships.

In our living room was Jane, who three years ago decided to take a chance on an organization that was little more than a vague idea.  Now she is offering advice and encouragement to teachers contemplating sharing letters with Ghana classrooms.  And Julia who despite putting in twelve-hour days jumped in with unmatched enthusiasm with her second graders a few months ago.  And Brando who talked with me about education and development in Ghana for two hours straight when we first met a year ago and has been devoting himself to Yo Ghana! ever since.  And Essan who is going to school and working two jobs to support himself and his family back in Ghana but is always there when we need to work out an issue with the Ghana school he was once headmaster of or when a teacher calls on him.

I am accustomed to approaching non-profit work as a series of tedious tasks to be performed so that some greater good will eventually result.  Yo Ghana! is prompting me to re-think that assumption.  Last night one of the teachers asked about the role of development in our work.  Brando replied that if we took care of relationships, of learning about and caring for each other, the development would take care of itself.

"A person is not a palm-tree, that s/he should be self-complete."  Akan maxim.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Teju Cole

Teju Cole's profile rose considerably a couple of years ago when he was one of the main critics of the "Kony 2012" youtube video.  In a series of tweets widely re-published, he criticized the "White Savior Industrial Complex" that the viral video expressed, the widely shared belief that Africa is a blank slate on which western humanitiarians can self-actualize and sentimentalize without much consulting the people they are purporting to help, let alone examining their own motives or privileges.  Cole is part of a growing number of African intellectuals living in the U.S. contesting our stereotypes about the continent.

I'm well into Cole's 2011 novel, Open City, in which an Nigerian-born protagonist records his impressions of New York City.  Part of what makes the novel so intriguing is its relative lack of concern with race and ethnicity.  To be sure, race matters to Cole's protagonist.  But he seems more deeply concerned with birds, music, architecture, and other features of urban life.

Cole's cosmopolitanism is, in and of itself, a critique of the notion that the U.S. and Africa are completely different from each other.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Captain Phillips" and Crazy Africans with Guns

I watched the film "Captain Phillips" with a certain amount of hope.  The trailer suggested that the film would feature some empathy between the white American (played by Mr. All-American Tom Hanks) and the Somali pirate who took him captive for several days.  Alas, it was not to be.

"Captain Phillips" is merely the latest in a long installment of recent Hollywood Films depicting young African men as unhinged maniacs waving around semi-automatic weapons.  In fact in some respects "Captain Phillips" represents a step back from "Blood Diamond," which featured a noble if crudely rendered black African protagonist among blood-crazed Africans.  Of course the deeper problem with these films is that they aren't about African men at all; the black men are just props for the journeys of white men (Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hanks).

Kaiser Matsumunyane is a film maker interested in redressing this imbalance.  He is proposing to do a documentary of the surviving Somali pirate who held Phillips captive: Abduwale Abdukhad Muse.  Matsumunyane's film would explore aspects of the episode and of piracy more generally that western media seldom addresses: that Muse may have only been sixteen when captured; that the pirates were shot and killed while trying to surrender; footage of his mother addressing his determination to help his younger siblings; the role of the West in devastating the Somali fishing industry.

None of this will necessarily exculpate Muse.  But it is essential that white Americans, especially, begin looking at Africa through new lenses, that we learn fuller and more complex stories than those featuring crazy Africans with guns.

But we may wait a long time to see the "Smiling Pirate."  The fund-raising website stalled with the total raised to support the film at $886.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why Writing Letters to Ghana Appeals to Struggling Students

The (all volunteer) staff at Yo Ghana! have been somewhat surprised that the schools in the U.S. most interested in working with us tend to be those with students who are struggling in some respects and who often come from families living below the poverty line.

Having done a fair bit of tutoring with struggling students over the past decade, I of course have some theories as to why this is the case.  Children whose families are struggling with poverty often feel as if they have no sense of agency, that they live in a world that is beyond their control--and beyond the control of their parents.  They may also be reluctant to show vulnerability, as that is likely just to bring more pain.  It often feels unsafe to hope or to care, much better to adopt a "cool pose."

Sharing letters with a pen pal in Ghana offers a way out of this.  First of all, many Ghanaian students are also struggling with living apart from one or both parents.  Most have far fewer material resources than their counterparts in the U.S.  In fact Ghanaian students are often stunned to learn that students in the U.S. routinely fail to take advantage of reading the many books most are surrounded by.  So the Ghana students commonly model determination and optimism in the face of adversity, a point of view in which school is deemed to be a prized opportunity, not some sort of refined torture.

Ghanaian students also tend to be more earnest and less guarded than their American counterparts are.  West Africa, to be sure, is changing fast, becoming more urban and saturated with media.  But it still a part of the world in which most people reside in a dense network of interpersonal relationships in which a "cool pose" is not necessary.  They therefore offer American students a venue in which it is safe to be vulnerable and to care.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Professors, Publishing, and Teaching

One of the great mythologies at public universities, especially, is that students benefit from taking courses from scholars who are involved on the cutting edge of their fields.  I can't speak to the sciences, and I think there is much merit to this argument when one is talking about graduate students, perhaps even majors who are headed off to graduate school in that particular subject.  But I have become convinced that the greatest service that most professors could provide for the general public, let alone their students, would be to focus on their teaching.

The problem with researching scholarly articles and books is that they take a great deal of time.  So does excellent teaching.  The best teachers at universities I know are always reading or re-reading in the fields they teach in and actively seek out new technologies or practices or readings.  They have a relentless desire to figure out what it is that their students should be learning and how to help them to learn it.  They also think about how to spend more time with students, from requiring them to come in for one-to-one attention, coming to class early or staying late to hang out, even calling them at home.  This adds up to a lot of time--leaving little for researching and writing the specialized scholarship that bring raises, promotions, and status.

It also seems to me that the sort of research that universities most esteem, original research, is much less useful for teaching than more synthetic or "popular" articles or books are.  My first two books were specialized monographs that consumed many years of research in scattered archives.  I occasionally use that research in my teaching.  But I am constantly drawing upon the research I did for three books that took much less time and no travel to research, general overviews of Oregon, nature loving in the western world, and the U.S. family, books that in fact largely flowed from (and were tailored for) my teaching.

Of course the field of history, like any discipline, needs scholars who focus on researching and writing materials that are not intended for a broader audience.  But do not the students who are paying more and more and more tuition money deserve to be taught by professors who are primarily devoted to their education?