Monday, June 29, 2009

The Stuff Dreams are Made Of

Patchi at the Middle Years is hosting Scientiae this month. Her theme is "Mirror, mirror on the wall" which almost served as the title to this post, but I thought I might try for something original.

The last year or so has involved rediscovering my dreams. I have some dreams where people consistently told me that I had no business having them. These dreams are too directly personal to blog, but they shape what I do. These dreams shape my understanding of myself and my understanding of my work. In a word, my dreams are missional. And they're back.

It is interesting to watch in the mirror when people tell you have no business dreaming your dreams. The spark once in your eyes fades, and you collapse into a sea of dullness, a sea of apathy. It is uncomfortable to be in your own skin as you think you're a freak for wanting the things that you want. The mirror becomes a painful place as you know that you're selling yourself out in the interest of keeping the peace with the important players around you.

But occasionally, major players in your life start asking you what you want. Sometimes these people even care about how you answer. And what is even rarer is when these people pledge their support. Perhaps you have gotten better at describing your dream to someone else, or perhaps the people looking at you see the spark return to your eyes when they ask their first question.

Going after one's dreams is different than simply following one's heart. A true dream provides an energy of its own and invites you to run, to run for all your worth and try to pursue the dream as closely as possible. A true dream gets you out of bed in the morning and invites you to live your life just a little bit differently than everyone else. A true dream allows you to be yourself. A dream has a crazy power of its own. Connecting with a dream seems to connect you with the divine.

Dreaming dreams like these is hard work. All around us we find people who would rather we live according to the status quo. And a dream does not have to be wackily non-traditional in order to be a true dream. One of my best friends is living her dream right now as she raises her family (she had her first child in February). I know she is living her dream because I see the spark behind her eyes. And who am I to try to extinguish that spark?

When I look in the mirror and see the own spark in my eyes, I know I am on the right track.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Can We Speak of Communities?

A commenter asked me if we can speak of such thing as a community. It's a decent question because more than anything, we encounter boundaries. For instance, can we speak of the academic community? Of course we can because we do, but what assumptions do we make? At least from how I have caught the parlance, the academic community typically involves the PhD holders and pursuers doing research to add to the corporate body of knowledge. Yet, this statement reflects both a broad and narrow definition. For instance, this definition excludes undergraduate students, even if these students participate in undergraduate research. Moreover, this definition also excludes PhD holders working outside of research&development. However, these features of exclusion speak to the reality of the academic community; without such features, it would be difficult to theorize of the academic pipeline as leakage represents a key feature of this image.

On one level communities make sense, but something as broadly configured as the "academic community" does not offer enough description for significant utility. For instance, STEM communities differ from your humanities communities. Within STEM, you have science, technology, engineering and mathematics communities. The gradation continues to the point of sub-sub-sub-sub-fields to the point where individuals can make a difference. So while we can be in error to unilaterally ascribe features to an entire community, boundaries help us understand the rules of the game. Within several academic communities, one must hold an advanced degree in order to participate fully. While particulars vary within various sub-groupings, generalities help us help one another.

To be sure, much of human activity relates to categorizing and ascribing labels. We can debate the particulars of who can employ what labels to describe themselves and others.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Where is the Summer Going?

I cannot believe that June ends next week. Like many other people, I made my list of what I want to accomplish in the summer, but now I realize how unrealistic the goals are. Granted, six projects are non-negotiable, but I only had one additional project of my own choosing. More than anything else this summer challenges me to streamline my processes. Currently I am one week in to a two week project where the two week project could very easily be a semester project. I need to work much more efficiently, but I thought I would share my exasperation with the blogosphere. Anyone else with me on these feelings?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

There's More than One Way to be Something

This post represents a departure from my typical schtick on the blog, but I do hope that my regular readers can see connections as I attempt to make them.

Today, 24 June, is New Directions' Synchroblog where authors from widely variant perspectives attempt to weigh in on the cultural divide between the gay community and the Christian community. Over the course of my entire blog here at Academic Crossroads, I have attempted to describe an academic's life course even through places of uncomfortable dissonance, whether that dissonance exists within a person, within a person's community, or within a person's wider social context (hence the large number of posts here tagged as "cultural insanity"). The gay-Christian debate represents another flashpoint in society that can be just as charged as the creation-evolution debate, the Republican-Democrat debate, or even the women-in-science debate. Culturally, we exist in a sea of flash points characterized by either/ors; and logically, the insistence of these absolute zones of no-overlap do not and cannot exist through looking at the lives of people who try to live in the non-existent middle ground.

You cannot be a scientist if you are a woman is just as repugnant as you cannot be a Christian if you are gay.

I always laugh when people ask me about my "gay lifestyle" because I wonder what everyone thinks I am doing. I'm quite happily single (intending on remaining that way too), and I cannot stand going to bars. I'm a graduate-level academic trying to understand what it means to write in such a fashion where I can publish, and I spend my time thinking big thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. I prioritize my Christian spirituality as it helps ground me in the midst of an incredibly crazy world and invites me to come and rest. When I look at the so-called "gay agenda" I am supposed to be propagating and recruiting, I see very limited overlap. With regard to GLBT issues, I tend not to be political with the exception of asking people to consider that GLBT persons exist.

To be sure, I am in no way, shape, or form perfect at what I do. But I am comfortable in my own skin...most of the time. I try to let my "Yes" be "Yes" and my "No" be "No" even when the hectic tenor of the academic world incites me to burn out because I tend to say "Yes" to too many projects. I struggle to live within my moral compass, but I think moral compasses tend to be a bit like the gimbal in the famous Apollo 13 burn: dancing around between idealism and pragmatism.

For me, being gay is more about the pragmatic consideration about how to get my family to back off about me finding "the perfect guy" and about realizing that I have to live in my own skin today. I do not consider this to be the "ideal" life configuration, but the perfect ideal situation does not exist in the world marked by tensions of all sort.

I have been involved in all sides of the gay-Christian conversation. For a while, I thought people could change because I knew some people who would describe themselves that way; for a while, I thought being gay meant pursuing gay relationships apart from any sort of Christian community; and for a while I thought one could pursue gay relationships in a Christian community. But now I rest in the tension between my pragmatism and my idealism, wishing that people did not force the issue through mouthpieces that suggest that people like me are out to destroy the fabric of society as we know it.

Yes, there is more than one way to be gay just as there is more than one way to be straight. You can be single, you can be married. You can live by yourself, you can live with a roommate. You can have a rich community, you can isolate yourself from everyone around save a few choice people you let close. You can investigate your own life and see what fits within the identity matrix you choose to accept. As people we have so many choices that extend into every reach of our personhood. And the only thing we have to do is live within the consequences of our choices.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Free to Run

I just discovered this fantastic article about what it means to be gifted in the sense of a global intellectual capability. The article, by Stephanie S. Tolan, makes an analogy to cheetahs.

Is it a Cheetah?

It's a tough time to raise, teach or be a highly gifted child. As the term "gifted" and the unusual intellectual capacity to which that term refers become more and more politically incorrect, the educational establishment changes terminology and focus.

Giftedness, a global, integrative mental capacity, may be dismissed, replaced by fragmented "talents" which seem less threatening and theoretically easier for schools to deal with. Instead of an internal developmental reality that affects every aspect of a child's life, "intellectual talent" is more and more perceived as synonymous with (and limited to) academic achievement.


The child who does well in school, gets good grades, wins awards, and "performs" beyond the norms for his or her age, is considered talented. The child who does not, no matter what his innate intellectual capacities or developmental level, is less and less likely to be identified, less and less likely to be served.

A cheetah metaphor can help us see the problem with achievement-oriented thinking. The cheetah is the fastest animal on earth. When we think of cheetahs we are likely to think first of their speed. It's flashy. It is impressive. It's unique. And it makes identification incredibly easy. Since cheetahs are the only animals that can run 70 mph, if you clock an animal running 70 mph, IT'S A CHEETAH!

But cheetahs are not always running. In fact, they are able to maintain top speed only for a limited time, after which they need a considerable period of rest.

It's not difficult to identify a cheetah when it isn't running, provided we know its other characteristics. It is gold with black spots, like a leopard, but it also has unique black "tear marks" beneath its eyes. Its head is small, its body lean, its legs unusually long -- all bodily characteristics critical to a runner. And the cheetah is the only member of the cat family that has non-retractable claws. Other cats retract their claws to keep them sharp, like carving knives kept in a sheath --the cheetah's claws are designed not for cutting but for traction. This is an animal biologically designed to run.

Its chief food is the antelope, itself a prodigious runner. The antelope is not large or heavy, so the cheetah does not need strength and bulk to overpower it. Only speed. On the open plains of its natural habitat the cheetah is capable of catching an antelope simply by running it down.

While body design in nature is utilitarian, it also creates a powerful internal drive. The cheetah needs to run!

Despite design and need however, certain conditions are necessary if it is to attain its famous 70 mph top speed. It must be fully grown. It must be healthy, fit and rested. It must have plenty of room to run. Besides that, it is best motivated to run all out when it is hungry and there are antelope to chase.

If a cheetah is confined to a 10 X 12 foot cage, though it may pace or fling itself against the bars in restless frustration, it won't run 70 mph.

IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?

If a cheetah has only 20 mph rabbits to chase for food, it won't run 70 mph while hunting. If it did, it would flash past its prey and go hungry! Though it might well run on its own for exercise, recreation, fulfillment of its internal drive, when given only rabbits to eat the hunting cheetah will run only fast enough to catch a rabbit.

IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?

If a cheetah is fed Zoo Chow it may not run at all.

IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?

If a cheetah is sick or if its legs have been broken, it won't even walk.

IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?

And finally, if the cheetah is only six weeks old, it can't yet run 70 mph.

IS IT, THEN, ONLY A *POTENTIAL* CHEETAH?


A school system that defines giftedness (or talent) as behavior, achievement and performance is as compromised in its ability to recognize its highly gifted students and to give them what they need as a zoo would be to recognize and provide for its cheetahs if it looked only for speed. When a cheetah does run 70 mph it isn't a particularly "achieving" cheetah. Though it is doing what no other cat can do, it is behaving normally for a cheetah.

To lions, tigers, leopards -- to any of the other big cats -- the cheetah's biological attributes would seem to be deformities. Far from the "best cat," the cheetah would seem to be barely a cat at all. It is not heavy enough to bring down a wildebeest; its non-retractable claws cannot be kept sharp enough to tear the wildebeest's thick hide. Given the cheetah's tendency to activity, cats who spend most of their time sleeping in the sun might well label the cheetah hyperactive.

Like cheetahs, highly gifted children can be easy to identify. If a child teaches herself Greek at age five, reads at the eighth grade level at age six or does algebra in second grade we can safely assume that child is a highly gifted child. Though the world may see these activities as "achievements," she is not an "achieving" child so much as a child who is operating normally according to her own biological design, her innate mental capacity. Such a child has clearly been given room to "run" and something to run for. She is healthy and fit and has not had her capacities crippled. It doesn't take great knowledge about the characteristics of highly gifted children to recognize this child.

However, schools are to extraordinarily intelligent children what zoos are to cheetahs. Many schools provide a 10 x 12 foot cage, giving the unusual mind no room to get up to speed. Many highly gifted children sit in the classroom the way big cats sit in their cages, dull-eyed and silent. Some, unable to resist the urge from inside even though they can't exercise it, pace the bars, snarl and lash out at their keepers, or throw themselves against the bars until they do themselves damage.

Even open and enlightened schools are likely to create an environment that, like the cheetah enclosures in enlightened zoos, allow some moderate running, but no room for the growing cheetah to develop the necessary muscles and stamina to become a 70 mph runner. Children in cages or enclosures, no matter how bright, are unlikely to appear highly gifted; kept from exercising their minds for too long, these children may never be able to reach the level of mental functioning they were designed for.

A zoo, however much room it provides for its cheetahs, does not feed them antelope, challenging them either to run full out or go hungry. Schools similarly provide too little challenge for the development of extraordinary minds. Even a gifted program may provide only the intellectual equivalent of 20 mph rabbits (while sometimes labeling children suspected of extreme intelligence "underachievers" for NOT putting on top speed to catch those rabbits!) Without special programming, schools provide the academic equivalent of Zoo Chow, food that requires no effort whatsoever. Some children refuse to take in such uninteresting, dead nourishment at all.

To develop not just the physical ability but also the strategy to catch antelope in the wild, a cheetah must have antelopes to chase, room to chase them and a cheetah role model to show them how to do it. Without instruction and practice they are unlikely to be able to learn essential survival skills.

A recent nature documentary about cheetahs in lion country showed a curious fact of life in the wild. Lions kill cheetah cubs. They don't eat them, they just kill them. In fact, they appear to work rather hard to find them in order to kill them (though cheetahs can't possibly threaten the continued survival of lions). Is this maliciousness? Recreation? No one knows. We only know that lions do it. Cheetah mothers must hide their dens and go to great efforts to protect their cubs, coming and going from the den under deep cover or only in the dead of night or when lions are far away. Highly gifted children and their families often feel like cheetahs in lion country.

In some schools brilliant children are asked to do what they were never designed to do (like cheetahs asked to tear open a wildebeest hide with their claws -- after all, the lions can do it!) while the attributes that are a natural aspect of unusual mental capacity -- intensity, passion, high energy, independence, moral reasoning, curiosity, humor, unusual interests and insistence on truth and accuracy -- are considered problems that need fixing.

Brilliant children may feel surrounded by lions who make fun of or shun them for their differences, who may even break their legs or drug them to keep them moving more slowly, in time with the lions' pace. Is it any wonder they would try to escape; would put on a lion suit to keep from being noticed; would fight back?

This metaphor, like any metaphor, eventually breaks down. Highly gifted children don't have body markings and non-retractable claws by which to be identified when not performing. Furthermore, the cheetah's ability to run 70 mph is a single trait readily measured. Highly gifted children are very different from each other so there is no single ability to look for even when they are performing; besides that, a child's greatest gifts could be outside the academic world's definition of achievement and so go unrecognized altogether. While this truth can save some children from being wantonly killed by marauding lions, it also keeps them from being recognized for what they are -- children with deep and powerful innate differences as all-encompassing as the differences between cheetahs and other big cats.

That they may not be instantly recognizable does not mean that there is no means of identifying them. It means that more time and effort are required to do it. Educators can learn the attributes of unusual intelligence and observe closely enough to see those attributes in individual children. They can recognize not only that highly gifted children can do many things other children cannot, but that there are tasks other children can do that the highly gifted cannot.

Every organism has an internal drive to fulfill its biological design. The same is true for unusually bright children. From time to time the bars need be removed, the enclosures broadened. Zoo Chow, easy and cheap as it is, must give way, at least some of the time, to lively, challenging mental prey.

More than this, schools need to believe that it is important to make the effort, that these children not only have the needs of all other children to be protected and properly cared for, but that they have as much RIGHT as others to have their needs met.

Biodiversity is a fundamental principle of life on our planet. It allows life to adapt to change. In our culture highly gifted children, like cheetahs, are endangered. Like cheetahs, they are here for a reason; they fill a particular niche in the design of life. Zoos, whatever their limitations, may be critical to the continued survival of cheetahs; many are doing their best to offer their captives what they will need eventually to survive in the wild. Schools can do the same for their highly gifted children.

Unless we make a commitment to saving these children, we will continue to lose them and whatever unique benefit their existence might provide for the human species of which they are an essential part.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

1 Pinch, 1 Chance

Increasingly, I see things that speak to cultural insanity. Yet, one form of cultural insanity transcends national boundaries: the entrance exam as a mark of prestige. Today, the New York Times relayed a story about the Gao Kao, the SAT of China.'

More broadly speaking, we tend to value the expedient nature of single identification. If someone can do X (and really, only X), then that qualifies them to do alpha, beta, gamma and 7. Not only do these claims fly in the face of causal formal logic, single gateways deny equitable opportunity. When I speak of single gateways, I speak of admissions procedures that have only 1 form of evidence. By evaluating people only on one or two snapshots does not serve either the person being evaluated nor the entity doing the evaluating.

I find it unfortunate that the need for quick identification stems from the magnitude of the evaluative task. Any form of evaluation for entrance stems from making a judgment call regarding perceived trajectory after gathering a collection of some sort of snapshots taken over time. But people will always defy any sort of predictive power, especially when we ask them to be creative.

But how can evaluative behavior service creative individuals?

Monday, June 1, 2009

An Open Letter to Republicans...

Dear Sir or Madam (but mostly Sir from what I can tell),

There are times that I want to like you. I even tend towards agreeing with you on a lot of things. I think that government is best accomplished on local levels where people can have a say in the various programs, needs, and activities that they live with on a day-to-day basis. Large federally-sponsored programs tend to be full of red tape and conditions that can block getting various jobs done. The national deficit is a huge issue, and it's unfortunate that our current economy demands war-zone style management owing to the financial instability of the government. If General Motors can't hack it as a company, I'm more than willing to see the giant fall and hope that more agile small businesses wind up in its place.

I can understand concerns about various pieces of legislation getting railroaded through Congress on the wings of the Democratic majority. I would like to see considerable more line crossings on behalf of both parties that would suggest you're casting the vote on the issues at hand and not merely voting with the party. Certain things, while arguably imperfect, are truly better than nothing and are called for at this time.

But I'm actually writing this letter with one request: stop pretending as though you own Jesus. Over a hundred years ago, we established that it is socially and morally unacceptable to own a person. Let Jesus do His own thing and be who He is. It's arguably the biggest turn-off to see social conservatives assert that Jesus would be a Republican. Such a mantra stops conversations about the real issues because I see people getting all riled up about things that, in my opinion, the government should never be involved with from the get-go. You also turn this rhetoric in a way that erects an ideological barrier for a lot of people to attend churches near them because you define a lot of "us/them" where it is much easier to be a "them" than an "us." I'm tired of seeing my friends hurt by such political posturing and unholy alliances so knock it off.

Sincerely,
Academic