TinyLetter

I started a TinyLetter in June. I’ve written two letters so far. I imagined that I might write a letter weekly, but my imaginings don’t often sit well with the reality of day-to-day life. Part of my slowness to write these letters is to figure out how they are different or similar from my other writing. I’m not sure I have a good sense of whether TinyLetters are a particular genre or not, so I’m treating them as tiny personal essays about two topics that dominate my thinking (and writing), bodies and books.

I’m writing to you, dear readers, because I want to write more and think more about bodies and books. Also, I would love for you to write back. Let’s have a conversation. Some of you have already written to me. Thank you.

For those of who haven’t subscribed, here are excerpts from my first two letters. I hope you’ll let me write to you too.

My first letter is on writing, motherhood, and Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway and Nearby:

When I first started reading The Faraway Nearby, I adored it. I read the book while I was still rocking my youngest to sleep for two naps a day. While he snuggled close, I followed along as Solnit pondered apricots, fairy tales, leprosy, Che, Frankenstein, ice, memories, empathy, and family. My eyes strained in dimly lit nursery. My Kindle glowed illuminating his chubby face and balled fists. I was drawn to Solnit because of her essay that spurred discussions of mansplaining. I hoped to mimic the lovely intermingling of personal essay and researched explanations. The baby nursed; I read. The close proximity of motherhood and writer’s aspirations felt meaningful. I could only read about writing while he slept. I could only write while my oldest was at preschool. I was pulled into two different directions, motherhood and writing. The tension felt distinct and inescapable. 

My second letter is about my anxiety about parenting and my attempts to let my children become who they want to be:

On the drive home, fear punched me in the gut. I just agreed to let my six-year-old go to the beach without me. I imagined everything that could go wrong in intimate detail. Sunburn. Drowning. Car accident. Drowning. Jellyfish stings. Drowning. My breathing became shallow, my stomach bottomed out, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Chris could tell something was wrong,  but, I couldn’t speak without making my sobbing obvious to our kids in the backseat. I took a deep breath and tried to reign in my panic.

What if something bad happened to her?

Here’s the link to subscribe. A new letter is coming soon.

 

My Teaching Philosophy

I’ve received a few emails asking about my approach to pedagogy. These are mostly in response to my “Dear Liberal Professor” essay published at Vitae, in which I call for empathy in the classroom and take down the silly suggestion that students are the center of all that ails higher ed. I haven’t written about pedagogy in awhile because I’ve been out of the classroom for two years now, so I’m posting my teaching philosophy statement from 2012. I still stand by most of what I say here.

Teaching Philosophy

“The human capacity to injure other people has always been greater than its ability to imagine other people”—Elaine Scarry

“We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.”—Avery Gordon

Teaching is as much art as it is embodied practice, engagement, and content knowledge. This craft is flexible and variant, and it shifts from class to class, student to student, evolving not only from worn lecture notes and expected PowerPoint slides but also to our shared performance as students and teacher. Pedagogy feels like some sort of happening that appears as experimental and meaningful as it is multi-variant and chaotic. No classroom experience is ever the same as I describe, redescribe, and recreate my content, my expertise, to mesh with the interest, the varying levels of student expertise, and the classroom atmosphere.

Yet, my courses, no matter what the content, share a common emphasis on empathy and critical thinking. To imagine what life is like for other people is the first step for engaging their lives, and I would argue it is first step toward critical thinking and close analysis. If we cannot imagine what their lives might be like, we cannot begin to comprehend the historical and cultural forces that place them and us where we happen to be.

If we cannot imagine, we cannot analyze.

Empathy becomes a crucial component of work in the humanities. The ability to imagine one’s self in the space of another is not a vapid, disinterested act, but rather a conscious attempt to comprehend what the world of another is like. The ability to imagine, to conjure and receive what it is like for those who are not you, is valuable skill in a world increasingly strange, fragmented and intimately connected. We start with empathy, not sympathy, to imagine what the world might be like in other places, times, and cultures. To imagine is to connect.  This is not an individual enterprise. It takes collective effort to create new visions, new performances, and new approaches to knowledge. I am not a singular auteur (seriously, 2012 Kelly, seriously?), but rather the curator of our collective knowledge and experiences. Imagination, then, becomes the gateway to analysis, critique, reflection, and comparison

My pedagogy hinges on creating a community for each of my classes where we know, respect, and engage one another. This engagement with students as individuals and as communities makes them my colleagues as we do cultural interpretation together.  Collegiality, respect, empathy, and a good dose of humor allow us to connect and work together to create a space to foster and encourage knowledge as well as keenly needed interpretive skills. Treating students with dignity and compassion means that we can discuss the thornier issues of religion in American life together with less conflict and strife as a community of interpreters working together. I understand that students can only participate in empathy and respectfulness, if it is modeled for them. To trust one another in the classroom means that we learn together from each other. My goal is to not only to share my expertise, but also to teach them how to analyze religious people, objects, history, and events with careful attention to encourage them to become cultural analysts as well.

To accomplish this classroom environment of collegiality and analysis, my courses are all multi-modal including smaller lectures, required discussion, class debates, media analysis, group work, and group research projects.  Working in groups and focusing upon discussion creates a more approachable classroom climate as they get know one another and me more directly.

Additionally, my scholarly research further molds the style and substance of my courses. In my own work, I make use of ethnographic methods to enrich historical study and to scrutinize and recreate the worldview of historical actors. Ethnography is a valuable tool for students as well as me because it complicates historical methods with the emphasis on in-depth engagement of a culture and the world of another. I employ ethnography to introduce my students to religious worlds of various individuals and religious movements to showcase the diversity, logic and contradictions of these movements. Moreover, my interest in media and content analysis appears most clearly in my upper level classes, in which students complete a media analysis project. The media project cajoles students into analyzing what is at stake not only in how media is constructed from newspapers to advertisements to music to fiction to film but also what is at stake in our consumption of media. My syllabi reflect not only the necessary knowledge of the subject matter but also the scholarly trends in interpretation of this material, so content and method become equally important.  There is also malleability to my course planning and strategies, so I constantly evaluate which material works best for my students.

Outside of the classroom, I make myself available to students as well to foster relationships and provide guidance and encouragement. At the University of Tennessee, I advise both the Religious Studies Association and the Muslim Student Association. I have moderated and participated in panels about religious intolerance and Islamophobia. Last spring, I moderated a series of campus discussions of religion and race, a student-driven initiative to find better ways to discuss and engage one another about diversity. Relationship building has become of my key strategies in and out of the classroom to make students know that their scholarly work and their concerns are important to me. I want them to become better students and better people, and this engaged relationship hopefully allows this to happen.

Here are some additional posts on my teaching:

“I’ve tried to recover a sense of humanity…”

Conspiracy Theory in American religions

Creating Boundless Classrooms

Gender Matters

Gender Me, Gender Religion

Embodying Identity

Teaching Bodies and Embodiment

“What’s belief got to do with it?”

 

To muse

To muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

A muse is a person, usually a woman, who is the source of inspiration.

In May of 2013, I hastily decided that I need a new name for my blog, something that would signal the break I was taking from academia. I wanted a name that evoked transition and open endings. I settled on “In Progress” because it suggested that I was a “work in a progress” without a clear end. It also reminded me of blaring television announcements that we would be joining the program in progress. I hated these as a kid because I would miss the beloved beginnings of favorite television shows for some urgent announcement. The action started in the middle. In progress adeptly summed up how I felt. Transition whether I wanted it or not. A brief hiatus that dumped me in the middle of my life ill-equipped to handle what was next.

My blog was a lifeline in those early days of transitioning out of academia into anything else. My anguish in the posts about my grace period still feels raw and real, though I’ve long recovered from much of the hurt and confusion. I’m in progress, I would say aloud, to calm my anxiety about what would happen next. I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to become. I just knew that I was transforming from one vision of self to another.

In those early moments, the focus on transition was a balm. I tried (and failed) to embrace uncertainty. As the last two years have gone by, transition as a theme chafed rather than healed. I found myself blogging less and less while wondering about the utility of this space for my writing and my life. I picked up more and more paid writing, so blogging felt like a distraction with no real goal. What did I have to say about my progress? What was I working toward? Who the hell was I going to be?

These are questions that I still don’t have good answers for, but I thought more and more about my blog’s place in my life and work. I’ve been blogging since 2007. I started out writing posts for Religion in American History with the hope for conversations about how and why we did our scholarship. I started my blog here in 2010 as a way to cultivate my own blogging voice separate from the group blog that I helped found. Blogging has always been my way to work things out. Short posts that explain what I’m thinking, but also longer almost-essays that work out particular problems in my research. Blogging gave me a casual way to voice concerns and create my opinions. It was my method to work through my scholarship in a public way.

Maybe, I needed to give blogging up. Maybe, it wasn’t working for me anymore. The thought of no longer blogging, however, bothered me. So, what was my problem? Why wasn’t I writing at In Progress with any frequency?

The title and format of the website no longer worked for me. They shut me down rather than inspired me to write. I was unsure of what the goal of my blog should be, but really, I was unsure what the blog did for me.

Then, I realized (with some serious help from Chris) that my blog should be whatever I wanted. This blog is my place marker in the wild world of the Internet, so it should free my creativity rather than stall it.

First, I changed the look of the blog. I chose a minimal design that forefronts writing. My blog should have never really looked like a magazine because that’s not really what I do.

Second, I changed the title to Musings, which has long been my favorite tag for my posts here. As a verb, to muse means to think thoughtfully about a topic. As a noun, it means either a dream-like state or a person that inspires you. After suggesting a particular idea for an essay, Chris likes to say, “you’ve been mused!”

Thinking, inspiring, and dreaming are excellent goals, and musing covers all three. Musings evoke dwelling with ideas, topics, and events, which is the best part of my job as a writer and essayist. Why not make my blog a place where musings are standard fare?

I hope y’all enjoy the redesign and follow along as I muse about whatever speaks to me. Hopefully, my musings will speak to you too.

 

 

 

Writing Motherhood

While finishing an essay on the Tooth Fairy and childhood beliefs earlier this week, I realized that I’ve been writing more about motherhood than I have before. At first, I was unnerved. Why was I suddenly writing more about my life as a mother? What was to be gained, or lost, by presenting my understandings of my children to the larger world? Why was motherhood looming large in my writing? And why was I bothered that my writing had taken a new direction?

I’ve mulled this question all week because Mother’s Day is upon us. Yesterday, my son’s preschool hosted Muffins for Mom (dads get donuts for Father’s Day). E and I ate muffins and played on the playground together. We climbed on tires, in boats, and on cars. We had fun. There’s even a souvenir picture.

Today, my daughter’s Kindergarten class is hosting a Mother’s Day Tea. She was beyond excited about this event. She was up early to get dressed in a fancy red tutu because her teacher instructed all the students to look nice for today. Motherhood is celebrated on one day despite all our struggles and efforts through out the year. We tend to ignore what our mothers do for us in the day to day.

I’m ambivalent about the holiday that celebrates an idealized vision of moms and our supposed sacrificial natures. Mothering is complex, as our relationships to those who mother us. Our parents cannot always be easily celebrated in cards, gifts, or meals. Many have lost their mothers. Others have strained relationships. Celebration of motherhood is not an inherent good.

I also chafe at the suggestion that motherhood is the sole force that defines me. I am a mother, but I’m also more.

Why, then, am I writing so much about my experiences as a parent? Being a mother feels unavoidable in what I’m writing. My relationships with my kids are making me think about different things than before. I want to figure motherhood out. I want to dwell with my children’s questions and observations. It is just where I am right now. I look forward to where it takes me.

Catalog of Wounds

Fever
Sore Throat
Rash covers his face, arms, legs, and tummy.
Tears
“Nah” on repeat as he swings his arms wildly
More tears
Flinging himself on the ground in protest
To the doctor
“Rock baby,” he says, “rock baby”
He cuddles close.
“Mama, up! Up, Mama!”
Strep throat.

Fever
Sore Throat
“My tummy hurts,” she says, “and so does my head.”
She mumbles and forgets to pay attention.
“Can you hear me? Are you listening?”
Hearing loss
Everyone speaks louder and louder.
To the doctor (again)
The nurse washes the wax from her ear.
She cries quietly.
“Can I sit in your lap?,” she asks.
She climbs up and barely fits.
I refuse to recognize what this means.
Ear infection.

Dogs fight outside.
Gashes
Growling
Cuts and blood
The old dog limps.
To the vet
The young dog howls and whines.
Clean the wound.
Feel her leg.
The vet assures her leg is not broken.
Staples seal the wound.
The old returns home and promptly sleeps.

Sore throat
Headache
Tears
Anxiety
Stomach ache
Fatigue
Worry
I catalog the wounds of our week:
Bumps, bruises, bug bites, scraps
Aches, pains, and general distress.
Gashes, infections, and viruses.

Their bodies heal.
My children play.
I give motherhood a chance for one more day.