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What are academics for? (Or why I am in Hufflepuff)

The main thing I want out of academics is friends. No seriously.  I am here to make friends.

I don’t mean that the intellectual stuff – the classes, the books, the library card, the conferences – are just excuses to make friends. I mean that I love all those things because, to me, they are about making friends. Sometimes the kind I go to lunch with, sometimes the kind I only interact with through books. Sometimes the books themselves.

When I first arrived at Duke to do a PhD, I was disoriented. I had meandered into academia and biblical studies through a series of accidents and rabbit holes, whereas everyone else seemed to have a plan, with binders and spreadsheets. Everyone was busy with work, at all hours. I wanted to have dinner parties, but couldn’t convince anyone to show up. It made me feel terribly unprofessional, and also lonely.

When the feeling that I had been let in by mistake became too strong, or when I couldn’t remember why I wanted to be here in the first place, I would read a reference letter written by my university chaplain. Goeff said I had the perfect disposition for academics for three reasons. First, I loved my academic work. I spoke of my thesis with unflagging enthusiasm. Second, I didn’t stay put in my academic discipline. I was generally interested. And third, I could always be counted on to bring food.

Geoff spoke of the things that made me feel unprofessional – enthusiasm, a bit of scatter brain, food – as strengths. He described someone I wanted to be, even though I knew that I am often more competitive, less generous, less at ease, than the person in the letter. It wasn’t enough to drown out my imposter syndrome, but it was enough to convince me that my values and priorities were worth sticking with. Now, almost a decade later, I think of that letter as a gracious piece of wisdom, and an excellent guide to what intellectual life can be.

First week of classes is over, syllabi have been handed out, assignments are becoming due. Academics are competitive and we are constantly evaluating and being evaluated. It is easy to feel like the point of it all is to be the smartest. But the drive to be the smartest is not, I think, a good way to learn. I tell my students that a critical reading always starts with the question “What does the author say?” Not “What do I think about this?” Not “Where is the author wrong?” Not “How could I write this better?” A critical reading starts with an effort to understand, to give another your full attention, with the assumption that you might learn something. A critical reading begins by listening to a book, an author, a talk, with the kind of attention you give a friend. “I want to understand you,” not “I want to be smarter than you.”

I can think of other examples of how a disposition towards friendship is essential for good thinking, but metaphors aside, I am always looking for friends. I often tell myself this is naïve, that people are busy and important and can’t be expected to take the time. But more and more, I try to choose collaborators based on whether they will be friends. I make an effort to correspond with people who extend friendship with me. I try to remember people’s names. I am grateful when people remember mine. I consider projects I feel unsure about because friends suggest them. I don’t have a clear utilitarian reason for this, but I believe it is a good way to proceed. It beats networking, if only because when things don’t go well, at least you have people to have drinks with.

kenan insider friendship and hufflepuff

All this used to embarrass me. I still have qualms about telling the whole internet that I am here to make friends. The part of me that gets embarrassed is the same part that scoffed a bit when the Pottermore sorting ceremony put me in Hufflepuff. Shouldn’t my PhD at least earn me a spot in Ravenclaw?! But then I thought about it. Hufflepuff values “hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play.” Me too. Hufflepuffs are fierce friends. Me too, or I hope to be. Hufflepuff wanted to “teach the lot and treat them just the same.” That is the kind of teacher I want to be.

I am here to make friends. That may seem like a cop out, a soft-brained diversion from real thinking, a failure of ambition. I don’t think so. Making friends and being a friend is hard. Treating people you disagree with like friends is hard. Listening is hard. Making delicious pies and sharing them with people…actually, that’s not hard, that’s just fun. When I encourage you to consider friendship as the point of academics, I am not saying that the time you spend out of class is more important than the time in. All I am saying is you might get more out of this time, these years spend reading and arguing and thinking about things you might never think about again, if you are on the lookout for friends. Friends to have lunch with, friends from long ago whose words seem to be for you specifically, books to keep you company.

I am here to make friends. I hope you are too.

 

 

Familial Climate Literature

Familial Climate Literature

The first sentence of ‘Ghosts and Empties,’ the opening story of Lauren Groff’s terrific Florida, does not bring to mind climate change. ‘I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.’ It sounds like the opening of a story about the ways in which parenthood can trap women, about frustration with no acceptable outlet.

climate change

‘Ghosts and Empties’ have moments along those lines (bent mothers ‘scanning the floor for…the people they once were, slumped in the corner’), but the dread that brings its narrator out into the streets is ecological: ‘During the day, while my sons are in school, I can’t stop reading about the disasters of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.’

The other beings she observes on her walks – a pair of black swans, a homeless couple – try to provide care for others under desperate circumstances. Otters eat two of the swan’s four cygnets, and the other two die of fright when the wildlife service tries to move them. The homeless couple disappears, their camp among oaks the site of a controlled burn and the mall plaza used for sleeping fenced off ‘for construction, or so the sign says.’ People and animals trying and failing to protect their families, the narrator caught in the terror that everything is rolling towards an inevitable end. The plastic pull tabs she sees in the aisles of a drugstore are not just pull tabs, but pull tabs ‘that will one day end up in the throat of the earth’s last sea turtle.’ 

Amitav Ghosh, in The Great Derangement, argues that fiction, especially the kind we consider ‘serious,’ has failed to depict climate change. Its events – big storms, unpredictable seasons, unprecedented fluctuations – are too unlikely-sounding for realist fiction, and so do not fit within its genre requirements. Groff’s story includes no such spectacular events, and yet she narrates climate change. Not as natural disasters, floods, or tornadoes, but as anxiety that she is not able to care for her children.

Thinking of the missing homeless couple, she writes, ‘Please…please let my couple come by, let me see their faces at least, let me take their arms.’ Her approach to the difficulty of writing about climate change, to make carbon parts per million into compelling narrative, is to write about climate change as the end of care. It is an end she feels responsible for (she passes up the Epson salts she means to buy because ‘I am not ready for such easy absolution’) and one she cannot by individual effort avoid. Like Ada Limón, in her poem ‘The Leash,’ also a reflection on climate and care, she finds herself unable to do much more for her family than Limón does for her reader, a desperate ‘Reader, I want to say: Don’t die.

This may sound fatalistic and unhelpful, fruitless despair at the end of the world. But that would be an uncharitable reading. The power of Groff’s story is that she depicts climate change as intimate and familial. Narrating climate change need not be about big events (though there is space of that too), but can be about the small and familiar: two swans trying to have babies, a homeless couple looking for somewhere to sleep, a mother hoping to make it through the bedtime routine without yelling.

‘I hope they understand, my sons’ she writes at the end of the story, ‘both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep…and that…I climbed the creaking old stairs and at the top split into two, and heading into the boys’ separate rooms, I slid through the crack under the doors and curled myself on the pillows to breathe into me the breath that my children breathed out.’ Nothing very grand, no great spectacle. Just a woman doing her best to manage anxiety about a future she fears, a future that is not yet unavoidable, and yet one that no amount of good intentions and parenting excellence can shield her sons from. A story about climate change in which the millennial comparisons and the lists of data settle in to the small, suburban spaces of a home.

The Luce Anthropocene Working Group: Newts and Air-Conditioning

The Luce Anthropocene working group is a gathering of scholars from diverse fields meeting annually during the Facing the Anthropocene grant.  They discuss the need for individual academic disciplines and the university as a whole to address climate change.

Thinking about humanity’s place in and effect on the world is difficult, because it can feel like thinking about everything at once. The stakes are so high, the causes so many, the people, animals and plants affected too numerous to count. One way to address this expanse is to tell stories, to put into human terms that which feels too massive and chaotic, which is just what the Luce working group members did when they met on June 3rd-6th. They told stories from their research and from their lives, and by so doing tried to put words to where we are, how we got here, and what hope for the future might look like.

Douglas Kysar told a story of the time he and his daughter happened on a newly hatched batch of red spotted newts in Vermont. He remembers his own childhood as being full of animals, but this encounter, the pond full of tiny red creatures, feels like an event. His four year old daughter is enchanted. Usually boisterous and rowdy, she gently cups a newt in her hands. Holding the filmy alien, she becomes completely calm and whispers “She must think I am a giant.” Then, after a pause, “I hope she knows I am a gentle giant.”

Radhika Khosla told a very different story. India is currently going through the largest urbanization event in history. Between 2020 and 2030, India will build a new Chicago each year, and 100 million people will enter the workforce annually. The largest growth in energy demand is going to come from India, and much of the demand will take the form of air conditioners. It is projected that the AC energy will triple in the coming decade. The electricity required to cover this is equal to the current energy usage of US, Europe, and Japan combined.

It might seem like these stories have little to do with each other. One the one hand, a child cupping a newt, on the other, charts about projected energy usage and CO2 emissions. The first story is about a child realizing that a nonhuman other is a subject, with its own perspective, but also that there is a gap between her and the newt. She can’t know exactly what the newt knows. She understands that to the newt, she has awful power and yet she imbues this relationship with an ethics that exceeds power. The second story is about the trade offs between development, the quest for a certain quality of life, and the preservation of the earth. It is an effort to think through built environments as sites of intervention, in a context of rapidly changing patterns of human dwelling and consumption.

In different ways, Kysar and Khosla are trying to diagnose both what has gone wrong, why we are in the middle of an environmental crisis, and also how we might get out of it. Set side by side, their stories illustrate the many-faceted nature of climate change. It is both an issue of how we understand the world, how we think of our relationships to newts, trees, rivers, and daisies, and also how we use the world, the stuff we consume in our day-to-day lives. Together with the rest of the Luce Anthropocene working group, they are exploring how bringing together scholars from different academic fields sheds new light on environmental degradation and environmental hope. They are asking what the academy has to offer, but also how the academy might have to change in order to be adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene. Newts and ACs: thinking about everything, a little bit at a time.  Kenan Senior Fellow Norman Wirzba sums up this problem by saying, “The exercise of certain forms of freedom in the present has resulted in such mastery over nature that the future freedom of many is threatened.” 

Facing the Anthropocene will be holding a public conference/festival in March of 2020 – open to public and Duke community.


Supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Facing the Anthropocene includes a multidisciplinary working group in which scholars engage in conversations surrounding the human impact on the planet. The group studies how political, legal, and economic orders have shaped landscapes and ecologies through global patterns of human habitation and use.

Unintended Thrills

Kenan Insider - Unintended ThrillsI love blue candy. I don’t mean I love whatever flavor blue is supposed to signify, I mean I love candy that is blue. Because it is blue. I love blue candy the way gardeners love the Himalayan Blue Poppy, a poppy so blue it looks unreal. Something in my brain giggles and fizzes when I bite into blue gummy dinosaurs, acidic-blue frogs, blue M&Ms.

This color preference is the result of a combination of international travel, national regulation, and risk perception. When I was growing up in Norway, blue candy was not allowed. The compound that makes candy blue is carcinogenic in high doses, and this was considered a significant enough risk that the dye could not be added to food sold in Norway.

The regulation of food dyes was different in the US, where blue candy was plentiful. If you were lucky enough to have a relative that lived in the US, commonly known as an “America uncle”, or a parent who travelled for work and was willing to buy you treats, you could have blue candy. I did not have an America uncle or a parent who bought me candy in the US, but I had friends. Friends with blue candy. I remember licking lollipops that turned my tongue azure, feeling both excited and a little worried. The experience combined sugar with the thrill of doing something rash. Irresistible.

Blue candy is not a major topic in ethics and blue candy is now allowed in Norway. It turns out you have to eat ridiculous amounts of blue dye for it to do you any damage. The sugar will kill you before the dye does. My sense that blue candy is both delicious and dangerous depends on my age, my geographic location, and my parents’ determination to limit my intake of high fructose corn syrup.

That said, blue candy is an illustration of the words on Kenan’s website, “Ethics matters everywhere.” Risk management is about ethics, and so is regulation of what goes into our food. Many people now feel that our food is not sufficiently regulated, that the antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones in our meats and plants are damaging to human health and the environment. Similar concerns about food dyes determined what hues of candy my childhood self could buy at the store. The purpose was of course to protect the health and safety of Norway’s population. The actual result: a grown woman who can’t resist blue candy.

Dear Future Generations: Sorry

Dear Future GenerationsDear Future Generations: Sorry
 
Sometimes scientific names, their dependence on Greek and Latin in particular, can feel confusing and opaque, jargon intended only for the specialist. At other times, they make things painfully clear. Take for example the terms heterotrophs and autotrophs.
 
Humans are heterotrophs. Hetero = other, trophos = feeder: we must be fed by others in order to survive. Plants are autothrops, self-feeders. They make their own food by turning sunlight, air, and water into sugars. Implicit in these names is a connection between humans and plants. Autotrophs feed heterotrophs. We need sunlight and CO2 to take the forms of sugars, fats, and proteins in order to eat them, and plants are the crucial first step in this transformation. If I stand outside with my feet in the dirt and my face towards the sun, all I’m likely to get is a sunburn. Plants, in the same situation, get busy turning carbon and light into tasty treats.
 
I thought about this as I watched Prince Ea’s piece “Dear Future Generations: Sorry.” Prince Ea is standing in a desert landscape, and he is apologizing to future generations for the damage we’ve inflicted on the earth. “The Amazon desert,” he explains, used to be called the Amazon forest, and then he realizes that he needs to explain trees to his audience, because they have no experience of trees.
 
This part of his piece strikes me as absurd, and that, I think, is his intention. Though apocalyptic movies may suggest otherwise (think of the sandy setting for Mad Max, for example), we humans will not make it without plants. Prince Ea lists what trees do for us: they purify our air, store carbon, filter water, provide us with food and medicine. Long before the earth is denuded of its last tree, humans will be gone. Trees make their own food, and we need them to make ours. If plants go extinct, not only will we realize we can’t eat money, we will also realize we can’t eat sunlight. And Prince Ea knows this. “To betray nature is to betray us. To save nature is to save us. If we don’t all work together, we will be equally extinct,” he says at the end of his piece.
 
This week has been a week of climate protests and speeches. In Brazil, Indigenous people and allies are protesting the destruction of the rainforest. In the UK, Swedish Greta Thunberg addressed MPs at Westminster, and thousands of Extinction Rebels gathered in London, disrupting traffic, staging die-ins, getting arrested. A group of young activists took over a roundabout outside Heathrow, holding signs with the question “Are we the last generation?” It sounds a bit melodramatic, but it is a question more in touch with reality than the idea that we can do without the Amazon forest.
 
We are heterotrophs, we are fed by others. If we do not act so that those who feed us can live, we will have nothing to eat, nothing to breath, and nothing to drink. There will be no future generation unaccustomed to trees, not because this exaggerates the scale of our destructive behavior, but because we are utterly dependent on trees. We need them so much more than they need us.

Citizenship Kimmerer

citizeship kimmererThis year, Team Kenan and Project Citizenship have been considering the meanings and purposes of citizenship. Thinking beyond voting and electoral politics, students have asked questions about health care, immigration, race, political formation, civil disobedience, food production, etc. They have investigated how citizenship is expressed through music, advertisement, and language.

As an immigrant, citizenship is both central and marginal to my day-to-day experience. I spend more time than average worrying about and applying for papers – visas, travel permissions, residence cards – and more time than average getting through customs whenever I enter the country (the automatic passport reader always marks my slip with a giant X, meaning “you need to see a real human.”) But I can’t vote in the country of my residence; since I gained the right to vote, I have only lived and worked in the country of my citizenship for about 6 months.

Even though I am now eligible to apply for US citizenship, I have not seriously considered it. In part, this is for practical reasons: Norway, the country of my citizenship, does not allow dual citizenships. If I were to become a US citizen, I would have had to renounce my Norwegian citizenship. (This is about to change; the relevant law has been passed but has not yet come into effect.)

The other reason is emotional, personal. In order to become a citizen of the US, I would have to speak the citizenship oath:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

The oath contains much I am not sure about. Would I take up arms to defend the US? Do I renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to foreign sovereignties? Do I bear “true faith and allegiance” to the United States of America?

The oath also fails to contain much of which I am sure. That I love my friends here, that I would defend the river by which I walk most weeks against harm, that each spring I wait for the dog woods and red buds to flower, trees I have not known before.

In her essay “Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide,” Robin Wall Kimmerer thinks about the form national allegiance takes, and how it stacks up against her other allegiances. The US, like Norway, looks askance at dual citizenships – they want you to choose one. Kimmerer says that if she were forced to do so, she “would choose Maple Nation,” maples being the most common tree of her rural home in New York State:

“If citizenship is a matter of shared beliefs, then I believe in the democracy of species. If citizenship means an oath of loyalty to a leader, then I choose the leader of the trees. If good citizens agree to uphold the law of the nation, then I choose natural law, the law of reciprocity, of regeneration, of mutual flourishing” (Braiding Sweetgrass, 173). 

In the contemporary world, citizenship is so much the prevailing way of managing the connection between populations and territories that it is hard to remember that we could choose to structure and rank our allegiances differently. Citizenship oaths could ask us to protect and participate in the biodiversity of a country, to commit to become familiar with its species and landscapes, to swear to preserve its beauty and bounty for generations to come. Or we could commit first to our local communities, to cities and towns, rather than to nation states. We could commit to a group of people, to be an active member in its daily doings, rather than to sovereignties and armies. I wonder how our lives would be different, if these were the kinds of allegiances we prioritized, if our citizenship oaths highlighted the kinds of relationships Kimmerer speaks of. I wonder what parts of life would change the most – what topics would Team Kenan still consider relevant to citizenship, and which would no longer seem important.