I’m a Fish in a Tank (aka The Estate’s Seafood Festival)

This past Sunday was a much different day at the studio. My usually silent, but breezy residency/studio at the Deering Estate at Cutler was rambunctious, primary-colored and glittering with coconut shrimp.

I had the pleasure of welcoming visitors into my studio. I joked with my fiancé, “They look at us artists in our studios like exotic fish in a tank.” It was a not-a-cloud-in-the-sky day. Reggae beats drifted in the sea air. Kids ran around with hot pink snow cone mustaches dodging through the buzzin’ grownups.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

To give you some context, this area is normally a vast green meadow-like area.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

This is the entrance to my studio which used to be the Estate’s carriage house.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

A completely different view from the studio.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

I put some glitter on my business cards for the kids; it was a hit.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

Living the Life of an Artist in Residency in paradise.

It was just another Sunday in paradise…



The Female Professor’s Irrational Thinking

For an essay assignment in the Paradise class, my students are reading Rebecca Solnit’s “Thirty-nine Steps Across the Border and Back” from her collection, Storming the Gates of Paradise. I had never heard of Solnit before coming across this book on Amazon while looking for some interesting course materials.


Typically, when I start the work of a new author, I like to show short interviews of the author from YouTube to humanize these names they’re reading and to give background on the writer’s obsessions or agendas. So, as usual, I looked around YouTube for an interview with Solnit. What immediately struck my eye was an interview of hers with the words, “Santa Barbara Massacre” in the title. What massacre? One that took place in 2014? I googled. It was the news story about a twenty two year old who went on a shooting rampage with “retribution” on his mind. He targeted college students, women in a sorority house, and men, that he perceived as, sexually active and overly rewarded.

With the last two days of Women’s History Month left, and with the introduction to Solnit, I took the opportunity to show the interview in class. I explained that Solnit’s argument focused on misogyny and pointed out that many of the surrounding issues were diluted for the purpose of the feminist agenda. Indeed misogyny was a perpetrator in the shooter’s frame of mind, but so were many other distorted ideas. Misogyny alone did not cause the rampage, however, it played a part.

Before starting the video, I emphasized that this is Solnit’s voice, not mine, that it’s Women’s History Month and that I had no idea that Solnit was a feminist when I chose the reading. I had to provide excuses. I was nervous. I worried I was not making enough links for why this is a relevant video to watch. On paper, the links are there…an interview with our next author, women’s history month and the rhetoric of our landscapes. So why did I feel so tense? I still feel tense. I feel, to be honest, sort of ridiculous, like a cliché of the female professor. I’m carrying around this headache that throbs with the idea that “I’m just another woman professor with a feminist agenda,” but I’m not. In fact, the class readings are all written by men, except for this one essay. Our topics are literally gender neutral like the philosophy of environmental restoration, the idea of paradise as afterlife and political corruption, so why should I feel weird about showing them this interview with Solnit?

One way to separate my intellectual awareness from my guilt-ridden concerns was to imagine a male professor showing this interview. There are many male professors who dive into the crossfire of gender relations either whole-heartedly or with the aims of provoking critical analysis in controversial discussion. “If I were a man,” I find myself thinking, “and I showed this video, it would still make sense. In fact, if I knew a male professor made students watch this, I’d be really impressed. I bet students would be impressed too.” This train of thought gave me the motivation I needed to keep loyal to today’s lesson plan. By envisioning the video in the lesson plans of a male colleague, I could give my lesson the approval stamp it needed from me.

Holding on to this vision of a man showing Solnit’s interview to his class, I showed the interview with a follow-up discussion to all four of my classes. While I gave myself permission to use this “feminist” video based on the story of my fictional male colleague that would also use it, behind the actions of the lesson, within me, remains my heavy insecurities and innate resulting shame of seeming like a cliché. By sitting down and self-analyzing what the heck happened to me out there today, I see that– I degrade the intellectual content of feminists just like some of my male graduate snooty professors did. Though I’m not out there sounding like a complete jerk (as they did), my mindset is just as subconsciously polluted.

The more I give excuses to my classes anytime I show anything slightly resembling feminist theory, the more I apologize, the more I limit myself from discussing woman-related issues, the more I enable the rejection of women’s theory in the classroom, the discussion of woman associated topics in the mainstream culture gets more silenced. But– to put it embarrassedly frank– I’m scared of being type casted by academics and even students as a feminist. In order not to be “boxed in” I purposefully try not to sound feminist. I’m sometimes harsher on certain materials because I fear the undertow of a feminist theme. The stigma against feminism is so powerful that I self-censure across the fields. However, when looking at all the realms of my life, I fear feminism the most in academia, where it rests at the bottom of the barrel of academic apples.

Without any sugar coating, feminist theory is a joke in academia. Unlike the studies of a nation’s economy or the analysis of Shakespeare’s wrung dry double meanings, feminist stuff, no matter how layered in complexity, intellectual rigor or opportunities to practice metacognition (Oh and of course, layered in– least importantly–social development, progress and equal rights), it displays a giant label that reads, “WARNING: if you pay this any attention, you must be a woman with hairy arm pits, with no real intellectual ambition that points her finger at man, society and everything great for all her problems. In other words, you must be a weak, whiny, b#$ch).

I’m really not trying to be feminist here, I swear! (I would never stoop so low ). I’m simply trying to sort out my unreasonable thoughts because as an intellectual being, I know that today’s lesson went well and that it offered an engaging intro to the next reading. But, as a female professional today, I’m apparently overly-preoccupied with not being a feminist, which perhaps inhibits my performance as much as my potential to help younger women not live with an irrational fear of feminism.

The Civil Rights Movement is Not Over

This blog post might be one of those I worry about later. I’ll go ahead and call it a freewrite, so I don’t feel guilty about its chaotic form. I try to keep my emotions out of my blog posts. This is especially the case with productiveprofessor. I envision it as one of those blogs that colleagues, employers, family, other teachers, writers, professors can read. So, I strive always for this goal of appropriateness. I also have an envision-able line of intellect I try to stay above for this blog. But, I’m learning now, this is not such a straight line.

A blog (as I’m experiencing first-hand) inevitably carries the semblance of a journal. Journals subconsciously cross the line. I’m not sure if I’m about to do that or not, but in remaining loyal to my poet-side, I’m gonna write about it.

The Civil Rights Movement is not over. I think (I never let my students write “I think” in their papers, but here I am using it) Vietnam, sex, acid, Hunter S. Thompson and good, groovy music caused a major distraction–all causes for distractions. And all along of course, there’s always been booze–it makes you feel like you’re living no matter what the conditions are around you. It gives its drinkers a break from the dry dusty world they live in.

Frederick Douglass said on Sundays slaves would get booze (this was a routine in the places he had lived through). I remember as an undergrad, reading Douglass with awe as he unveiled all the slave holders’ strategies for keeping slaves in line. Douglass explains that getting the slaves wasted on Sunday would make them feel really good (wouldn’t you want to escape your mind if you had this life?), and totally lame (in the literal sense). When I think about how hard my work routine can get, and how, come friday night, I’m ready to plop down for hours, I realize I can’t even fathom the level of exhaustion slaves were in. So, they had their distraction, which was plentiful on Sundays. This enabled the slaves to just take it easy when they weren’t being tortured, and reasonably do things like pass out, sleep, drink water, let themselves be depressed for a second, slink back into memories, pray, or get wasted (not a bad idea, considering).

Anyway, then people like Douglass came with a brain that had a chance to catch its breath and started stirring and steering things in a healthier direction; then, a few decades later, boom, a new level of brave men stormed field, like King Jr. and X. The water started flowing; there was even a rush right there before its immediate and unexpected stoppage (aka lives and politics dying left and right).

The Civil Rights Movement Continues today

Right now though, I suddenly feel that a bright new social spotlight has been aimed on these types of issues again. I experience it sometimes in the classroom, and it scares the hell out of me.

I remember when my dad used to tell me, “people are not white or black; those aren’t even the right colors!” He used to say, “light brown,” “dark brown,” “beige.” It seemed silly, and it used to embarrass me, but now I see that it gave me double vision. Part of me is a visual artist, and I recognized that these “black,” “white” colors were all wrong. I also recognized that this was the script I had to follow when bringing skin up in any form of conversation.

Another memory that won’t ever leave the reservoirs of my mind takes place when I was seven at a summer baseball camp. There were two girls on my team: me and I can’t remember her name, but we were great friends–us against the boys. We were outnumbered, but we had each other, and we both liked baseball. We were actually pretty good at it too (we had great survival instincts). We practiced pop flying. All of us, including the boys, made a circle. Baseballs were popping like popcorn. I remember thinking that the coach was surprisingly nice at this camp, treating my buddy and I like real baseball players. My friend sometimes had to use that T-ball stick thing, but it didn’t affect us, we all just kept playing the game.

On one water break, we were all in line. My friend and I were chatting about who knows what, maybe keychains, or Barbie, when a boy from our team turned around and said to whats her name, “you look like you fell in the mud.” I hoped that before she could feel any pain, I could spit something back at him quickly enough. Out of pure subconscious reaction, I said, without any hesitation to him, “you look like you fell in a vanilla cake.” What a silly thing to say! Yet–the boy took it seriously, and turned around. We didn’t say anything about it ever. We just felt it.

What really intrigues me about this memory is how one can easily assume I looked like I fell in a vanilla cake too because my technical skin color was the same as this kid’s, but I didn’t. It was not about skin or the cake or the mud. It was about feelings. The kid said some stupid thing to my friend. So, I, like a shield, let it bounce off me and right back at him. He felt it. He felt that skin didn’t matter when he experienced my loyalty, that I wasn’t afraid to disconnect from the color of my skin and insult him back. The skin thing was a mental weapon.

We kept playing baseball, but we felt different, and I know my best baseball friend felt it worse.

You know where else I feel it? In my classrooms, and around the stats I keep coming across. I’ve taught at a wide range of colleges. The first one was extremely diverse, like so diverse that skin was not a thing, but then again most of the kids that go there are locals that grew up in Miami, where we soak up bright colors, languages, big flowers and flags. There was a perfectly made rainbow in that college.

Then I taught at a college where the diversity was not as well organized. It was less balanced. With fewer colors, but larger groups. It was also the first college I taught at that features dorms. So most of my students were from all over the US living there, from parts of the US that don’t mix together as well as they do down here. At this college, I felt a great deal of pressure to gain the students’ trusts. I had to prove always that I’m on their sides. Only then, would they start performing well. It was draining, but every semester I always broke through this liner by showing my vulnerabilities to them as well as my respect for them. Still, there lots of hostile rip currents ran throughout that many of us tried to avoid–those of us that didn’t see skin. A few kids in the class would bring these currents with them, making it incredibly choppy and uncomfortable. Very distracting, but still we stayed on course.

I’ve taught at another school that’s much less diverse, where they trust me immediately, where we delightfully jumped right into our brains and enjoyed the little ripples we each made. But, there was such little movement, in our pool. Perhaps even an academic paradise, though a paradise, can grow stagnant with no currents.

In a quiet pool, everything is perfect. These swimmers know how dangerous choppy the surrounding seas really are, so the pool’s walls thicken and tighten their crevices for protection. Meanwhile, the noise outside won’t stop, but one swimmer peaks through a crack out to the sea, and starts wondering what he/she should do.

Teaching Writing with Paradise

To be continued…

Facing Discomfort in the Classroom

So many of my students don’t like to be uncomfortable. This inevitably develops into a large obstacle. As soon as a student feels uncomfortable, I see he/she shut down. Immediately, a smirk envelops their face or the classic eyebrow compression that seems to shout at me, “you’re nuts” gets tossed my way. Today I encountered these faces and this discomfort…it made me very uncomfortable.

Facing Discomfort in the Classroom

I showed them facts and stats on race and offense ratios in American prisons. Immediately, I saw the faces. A few classic rationalizations bravely came forward– that crime and drug use is entwined with poverty– and that most minorities are poor, so this is why minorities outnumber whites in jails. It was a sweet thought, however, the students’ faces changed to a now disoriented discomfort when I explained that white people do and deal drugs as much as minorities do, so how does the poverty theory then hold?

I tried to tell them that someone’s words are uncertain, but that facts are indisputable, that going out into the streets and talking to someone out there is how you can gain real knowledge. I fear so many sit back and absorb. I tried to tell them how simply because someone calls his/herself an “environmentalist” doesn’t mean he/she actually is. I emphasized how rhetoric and reality don’t always coexist. I explain that by investigating on their own time and gaining knowledge, they are empowering themselves. Still, I feel this reaction of discomfort.

No matter how many times I repeat it’s for their own good, they still appear annoyed, with a kind of “don’t ruffle my feathers!” look. Why don’t they want their feathers ruffled? I assume many are skeptical when I say that the prison system carries more than just a “good for society” agenda, however facts are facts. They can’t look away from a graph because it makes them uncomfortable or because they don’t want to see it or hear it. They seem to want to sit and learn, but what exactly do they expect to learn about if not things they don’t already know?

Love & Hate: Cell Phones In The Classroom

“Someone look it up on their phone!” I holler while scribbling some notes on the dry-erase board. We are really getting somewhere now, and a quick denotative understanding of this 19th century word is necessary. Thank goodness they have their smart phones, I think. Not only do we get exact answers and definitions on the spot in class, but also I feel less of a burden to know the definition of every single world in the world.

Then, there’s a day when you might find me huffing out to a class, “Okay, guys, get off your phones. You think I can’t tell you’re texting under your desk?! Well, I can, and it’s completely rude.” It drives me crazy when I’m trying to explain some layered concept and I can see their knuckles bouncing about like piano keys, not to mention their eyes glued to their laps, rather than the visual aid I spent an hour working on. Inevitably, when they’re done with their post or text or email, and they decide to look up and tune in, they have no idea what I’m talking about. They expect me to repeat myself. And the pathetic thing is I do, even though I’m beyond annoyed. So, this is why I call my relationship to smart phones in the classroom a “love and hate” one.

I’ll admit, I don’t lay out tough rules or consequences for phone use. I guess the only consequence they face is dealing with my annoyed face. Then, on the other hand, when someone finds the exact year of some event faster than everyone else, he/she is quickly rewarded. Am I like a bad parent? One of those parents that laughs when her kid says a hilarious joke with a cuss word, but then shouts at the kid when he spits out, “shit!” after he’s dropped a glob of jelly on the floor? I know I can’t have my cake and eat it too. Perhaps I should ban any cell phone use in the classroom. But, then we would miss out on our spontaneous quiz show moments that seem to enliven the entire room so quickly. They must think I’m crazy, I always think.

However, if I do ban cell phones from my classrooms, while the world out side the room is cell phone obsessed, what type of cell phone finesse would I be teaching them? The fact of the matter is, today, in professional settings, employees do rely on their phones heavily. My boss might even text me if she’s in a hurry to reach me.

I might need to check my calendar for a deadline, my contacts for an email address, my dictionary for a definition. All of these tasks were considered completely acceptable to perform in an academic or professional setting during the pre-smart phone era. The only difference is, we used to open our daily planners or pocket dictionaries. By banning cell phones from the class could also be barring my students from being able to access these helpful organizational and informative tools.

On a planet where phones are as attached to our beings as our minds are, I feel that it’s okay to have this kind of cell phone insanity in my classroom. I know their minds wander as much as their finger tips during class which also can bring about rewards like critical thought or nuisances like totally zoning out. It’s my job to help them develop their critical thinking skills. I hope this higher order thinking ability will translate to their cell phone usage. I figure that by reading my reactionary feedback they can naturally learn when cell phone use is appropriate and when it’s not—essentially some old fashioned good cell phone etiquette is.