Dereliction and Fire

Narrative of Frederick DouglassI debated the merits of crafting a preamble to this excerpt, and as I begin typing, I honestly haven’t decided what to say about it. So we’ll see…

I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Early on in my reading, I became angry. I graduated from a high school named after this man. We did not read his words. At various points, teachers or administrators recited quotes of his, or summarized the “highlights” of his life. Our mascot, school paper and yearbook were all symbolic of him. But we did not read his words.

We did not spend time in an English class, nor a history class, nor an extracurricular making sense of his life. Glaring omission seems too quiet, too meek, too gray to describe it. Dereliction of duty is how I framed it in a brief note of complaint to a friend. And perhaps it was our fault, incurious teenagers that we were, we didn’t seek him out on our own accord.

I don’t know why it was not mandatory for incoming freshmen at the very least. Not just to find out more about Douglass as a historical figure, but also to help us begin to understand his fire to free both his mind and body. For him, the two were interconnected in ways that may not seem as obvious now. But we needed that. We need that.

I don’t know whether its apathy or rebellion, but it seems the fire has gone out in many quarters. Whether we blame government mandates, institutionalized oppressions, our families, ourselves, somehow we must at least acknowledge that smoldering embers and cooling ashes are often found where fires once roared.

I have more to say on the matter, but for now let us read his words:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ʺIf you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master‐‐to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,ʺ said he, ʺif you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty‐‐to wit, the white manʹs power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

~Frederick Douglass

I am a Renaissance Soul

The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just OneThe Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed rediscovering this book. A friend (Ratogi) suggested it years ago when I was having a bit of a professional identity crisis. I bought it right away, but I didn’t get very far for some reason. I held on to it the past six years, never giving it a second thought. As of late, I’ve found myself at a professional crossroads (again) and without intending to, I stumbled across this book on my shelf. I flipped to the introduction and recognized myself in the first few lines:

  • Do you feel a pang of envy when you hear someone say, “I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do ever since I was a kid?”
  • Do you get down on yourself for being a “jack-of-all trades, master of none” because you are fascinated by many subjects but have never become an expert in any of them?
  • Or are you an expert in one or more areas but feel trapped by other people’s expectations that you will stay in your current field for the rest of your life?

And on it went. Right from the start, Lobenstine identifies key traits that makes one a renaissance soul, and I found them to be a welcomed affirmation of self.

Lobenstine has written a practical book, chock full of specific steps renaissance souls can employ in designing a satisfying life. I read the book rather quickly, refusing to get bogged down in some of the longish sections, and ignoring those which were obvious or irrelevant (the chapter dedicated to undergraduates, for instance). She has lots of exercises, some of which I’d figured out on my own over the years, and others which will be great additions to my repertoire of strategies.

I recommend this book for anyone who has wildly divergent or ever-evolving interests, and yet feels unsure of how to proceed in life without starting over or sacrificing self.

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Another Step in Autoethnography

The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about AutoethnographyThe Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography by Carolyn Ellis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciate the author’s effort to make research methods and ethics more accessible to novice scholars. Unfortunately, the attempt fell flat. There seemed too much attention to making this a “novel,” when the text was not about characters. The characters (a mix of composite and actual people) were used as a vehicle to explain the history, methods and challenges of doing autoethnographic work, but more often than not, writing “through” them got in the way of the very information the author was trying to get across. It was stiff and stilted, and eventually I gave up reading it as a novel.

In a moment of frustration, I turned to the table of contents and located a chapter and subheading of interest. Voila! Treating the work as a traditional textbook or reference book proved much more useful. Dr. Ellis’ writing is clear, easy to understand, and full of helpful information. Informative gems once hidden in “I look down at the notes prepared on the issue” and “Jack raises his eyebrows showing interest in the conversation,” now easily came to the forefront. I hopped around from section to section, finding the information I wanted contextualized by the human interactions.

Having read through the text in this way, I still get the impression that autoethnography might be a good method for me, although I don’t have a deep enough understanding to be sure. I’ll need to read some examples of it, and thanks to Dr. Ellis’ extensive notes, I know where to start.

I would strongly recommend that readers begin with the front matter and Class One to get a feel for the text, then skim and skip around as needed. It does not work as a novel, but I do think it’s a helpful text for someone who is completely new to autoethnography and needs a quick introduction to the basics.

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Now Reading

Cognitive Psychology and InstructionCognitive Psychology and Instruction by Roger Bruning

So far so good. I love this kind of stuff and have since elementary school (Not kidding). At any rate, thus far I find the material accessible and interesting. Definitely not light reading, but a good review for those who’ve had some introduction to the topic. Also good for educational researchers wanting to better understand (and design research to test/improve) instructional strategies. Lastly it’s a good foundational text exploring principles that learning designers need in order to be most effective. Still early on in the book, so we’ll see if my thoughts change later.

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Adding to the Toolkit

I just completed Seidman’s Interviewing as Qualitative Research. It was everything I didn’t know I needed. I’m grateful.

I am teaching Qualitative Research Design this semester and as a first time prep, I’ve had to review/reread materials I read as a student of the course and investigate new resources. Seidman is someone I’d seen cited often by fellow doctoral students who were conducting in-depth interviews for their research. As I wasn’t, I never thought much about him or his work.

My advisor, Janette, has taught the course previously and she graciously offered to help me with the course design. She shared her readings, and his text was on the list. I’d read Patton’s work as a student, but found it wanting. I went with Seidman and was instantly glad. His words resonated with me again and again. As Louise Hay would say, I felt and heard my “inner ding.”

For the unfamiliar, Seidman discusses in-depth interviewing; specifically phenomenological interviewing. He interviews to understand people’s stories. To get their subjective experience through their own words. It hit home for me as I am seeking to develop a new conceptual framework and clarify my niche. Narrative has been a stable interest of mine, but up until this point, my focus has been on participants (physically) writing their own.

This will be a nice addition to my toolkit. Although not everyone is suited to interviewing, I have a hunch it may be a good methodology for me.  When I get the chance to try out my first series of phenomenological interviews, I’ll let you know if this is indeed a good fit. Fingers crossed.