Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Plan...

Philosophy PhD Husband and I are planners.  We made it through grad school because we had a plan for how we were going to get through our respective programs, and hey, it worked!  My plan for finishing the dissertation involved writing "a page a day."  I chanted that to myself each morning, and made it a mantra in the evening; "page a day" became almost a second version of daily prayer.

So naturally, now that Philosophy PhD Husband and I have jobs, we still make plans.  Of course, now that we have kids, our planning takes on a different kind of tone, and of necessity, we have to change our plan each semester because our teaching schedules vary quite a bit.

 At the end of this fall semester,  I can give you a pretty good sense of how this semester's plan went:

THE PLAN (the Fall 2011 Version):
6:00 am: Wake up, get ready before kids wake up; dress kids, eat breakfast
7:30 am, M-F: Leave the house; drop off the kids at day care; arrive at work by 8
8am-4pm: Work a full day.  Do course prep, grading, committee work, meeting with students, writing, meetings and teaching as much as possible in this time block so that when we are home with the kids, we are with the kids and not divided in our attentions
4:00 pm: Meet at the car; collectively pick up the kids
4:30 pm: Arrive home.  Play with kids for an hour before starting dinner
5:30 pm: Make dinner; eat
6:30 pm: Play with kids some more; the parent who did not cook does the dishes
7:00 pm: Begin getting kids ready for bedtime
7:30 pm: Kids in bed; lights out
7:30-9:30 pm: Finish up on day's work, do some housekeeping, paying bills and so on
10:00 pm: Bed, for that full 8 hours of sleep

Now, as with all plans, this plan needed some flexibility and some changes - specifically about a day into trying it out.....

THE PLAN - The "Day after the Semester Started, What Were We Thinking?" Version
6:00 am: Wake up, get ready before kids wake up; dress kids, eat breakfast
7:30 am, M, W, F: Leave the house; drop off the kids at day care; arrive at work by 8
(BUT, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I am not teaching till 9am, we sleep in a bit because inevitably we get to sleep a bit too late and need a bit of extra catch up sleep. So we aim to leave the house by 8 am.)
8am MWF/ 8:30 am TR-4pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Work a full day.
4:00 pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Meet at the car; collectively pick up the kids
4:30 pm MWF/ 5:00 pm TR: Arrive home.  Play with kids for an hour before starting dinner
5:30 pm: Make dinner; eat
6:30 pm: Play with kids some more; the parent who did not cook does the dishes
7:00 pm: Begin getting kids ready for bedtime
7:30 pm: Kids in bed; lights out
7:30-9:30 pm [NB: Or till necessary work is done]: Finish up on day's work, do some housekeeping, paying bills and so on
10:00 pm as an ideal; more like 11pm: Bed, for that full 8 hours of sleep

A few days into the new, revised plan, I realized that it wasn't working for a couple reasons: a) I was writing a book; b) the baby refused to get into the act.  Half an hour of bedtime prep just wasn't her thing and we were getting more and more tired by the day.  So:

The Plan - The "Why Won't You Go to Sleep, Sweetheart, I'm Going to be Up Till 3 am" Version
7:00 am: No, really, we can get ready in half an hour....
7:30 am, M, W, F: Leave the house; drop off the kids at day care; arrive at work by 8
8am MWF/ 8:30 am TR-4pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Work a full day.
4:00 pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Meet at the car; collectively pick up the kids
5:30 pm: Make dinner; eat as early as possible
6:30 pm: Play with kids some more; the parent who did not cook does the dishes.  Philosophy PhD Husband lovingly watches kids while I madly write on my book.
9:00 pm: I surface for air.  Kids not in bed, though not for lack of trying. Husband running ragged.  Run through the "I'm going to start counting if you are not in PJs in three seconds" mantra.
10:00 pm: Four year old in bed; baby still crying.  Spend an exhausted half hour debating with spouse about whether to do "cry it out" or whether to rock baby.  Baby falls asleep on shoulder in mid-debate.
10:30 pm: Try to clear path to kitchen.  Noise of doing dishes wakes baby.  Repeat 10 pm convo.
Midnight:  Dishes done; maybe just a few more minutes to work on book.

Thankfully, the book got finished six weeks into the semester.  I had thought that would mean we could revert to an earlier plan, but Philosophy PhD Husband decided to apply for a few jobs and simultaneously we both began having to attend some evening meetings for work.  Only occasional meetings, but still....

The Plan: The Mid-Semester (Now Things Are REALLY Starting to Happen) Version
7:15 am: No, really, we can get ready in half an hour....
7:55 am, M, W, F: Drag selves to car.  Drop off harried and annoyed husband at work so that he can dash to class even later than his students.
8am MWF/ 8:30 am TR-4pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Work a full day.
5:00 pm: Notice clock and wonder why spouse has not called to figure out who will arrange for the school pick up.  Call spouse.  After 5 minutes of complicated sorting through schedules and figuring out who has to do what before leaving, one of us leaves to pick up the kids, promising to "be back in half an hour to pick you up...."
6:15 pm: An hour later, spouse shows up.  Go home (finally).  One person makes dinner; the other chases after the toddler.  I mean, the other plays nicely with the kids.  Or, if spouse has evening meeting, dinner is boxed mac and cheese made while chasing toddler around.
7:00 pm: Dinner on table
8:00 pm: Begin bedtime process
10 pm: Phew.  Kids in bed.  (NB. If spouse has evening meeting, kids will not be actually asleep till spouse arrives back at home.) Work. Work like mad on the varying job apps, papers, grading, assessments, and so on.
Midnight:  Oh, heck.  The dishes.  Spend 15 minutes tiredly discussing whether to just leave the darned things till morning or not.  Finally do dishes.  (The impetus for this by the way is quite simply that regardless of lack of sleep we just do better in the morning if there is a nice clean sink there.  Hence, dishes usually done but not without some pain.)

This plan actually served us well through most of the rest of the semester.  Until, that is, it got to final exam week, wherein the whole plan had to be revised.  

The Plan: The Final Exam and Grading Blitz Week Survival Version

Ha ha ha ha ha.

Ah, well.  How nice for us that a whole brand new semester awaits in 2012 and we get to have a whole brand new plan.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A TV Flashback

While I was in the shower this morning, I had a sudden flash of insight - at least as much insight as can be had at that hour of the morning.

I was thinking about my favorite '80s TV shows, namely The Cosby Show and Growing Pains.  I had never before thought of the following fact: Both of these are families with greater-than-average numbers of kids, with moms who work in fabulous jobs outside the home, and with dads who are not only - get this - doctors, BUT they are at home for the kids.  They do their doctoring at home.

Wow.  Two career families that have the best of all possible worlds - lots of kids, immaculate house, and parents with precisely the right (aka - socially acceptable jobs) AND one of them gets to do their work at home. I've never met a doctor who had their practice at their home, but hey cool idea.  It's just that while both of these dads did depict life with their patients occasionally, their work never seemed really to conflict with their family.  Dr. Cosby could say "How far apart are they, Mrs. Herman?" and rush off to the hospital while Claire conveniently came home (no late night court cases or briefs to finish at the same time Dad had to be at the hospital).  Same thing with the Seaver family, living out there in Long Island.

It's not like I ever thought the shows were "real" - but on my childhood view, they did depict "real" things.  The fights with brothers and sisters, the attempts to do creative things that mom and dad would definitely not appreciate, were all part of my life. So was the "both parents working" motif - but not in an arrangement like that.  My experience of a dual career couple in my growing up years matches up with the experiences I have now, as an adult in a dual career relationship.  It's chaotic and a constant struggle to keep things relatively sane - just as I imagine my non-dual career friends experience - and it's also filled with a lot of joy, amid the busyness.

So I am left wondering two things.  Why the need to sugarcoat a dual-career family in the ways both of these shows did?  Why make kids believe that a doctor and lawyer can make a family of five work without (apparently) any other help?  The show doesn't need to be real, but at least it could set up some realistic expectations and expose the problems, as well as the good things, about being dual career.

Which leads me to my second, kind of related thought: people often raise questions about media's effect on culture.  Here's one where I wish media had had more influence - because I think it'd be great to have "doctors at home" or "lawyers at home" or other trades and professions operating in this way.  I think it would be healthier, on the whole, for people.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What kind of parent do they want, anyway?

As a college professor, I am very aware of the critiques of helicopter parenting.  I have seen it happen with some of my own students.  One particular gem was the time I had just finished discussing FERPA (education's equivalent to HIPAA, I suppose) with some parents during New Student Orientation, discussing how educational information is not automatically available to parents when their children are 18 and older. If they wanted to know how their kids had done on an exam, for example, instead of calling the professor, they would need to talk to their children directly.

(As a disclaimer, I don't know the ins and outs of this law, I was parroting what I'd been told to say but the basic point of the talk was: develop good communication with your children now that they are adults.)

I was pregnant with #1 at the time, and a nice, well-meaning mother came up to me after the session and pointed at my belly.  "Is this your first?" she demanded to know.  I admitted that it was, to which she replied: "Well, obviously.  Because you would never, ever say the things you just said if you had children yourself."

So apparently being a parent puts you "in the know" in a way that trumps anything else, or anyone else, including whatever the legal ramifications of becoming 18 and an adult are - including me, a professional educator trained to be aware of college students' developmental needs.

So of course the interesting thing is, now that I've had a couple children, I still don't get it.  Of course there are ways in which I know my children better than their daycare provider and preschool teachers do.  But the thing is - there are also ways they know my children better than I do - or at least they can see certain things more clearly than I can.  They see my kids for 6-8 hours a day, and they particularly see them interacting with their peers.  I see them more individually, interacting with each other as siblings, and occasionally with one or two friends for a play date.  Whole different ball game.

The other interesting thing about all this is the subtle way in which even preschool seems to reinforce a kind of hyper-parenting that I see linked to helicoptering.  Hyper-parenting: my term for trying to achieve parenting perfection while simultaneously discussing "other" ways of parenting that aren't quite mean, but that aren't quite friendly either....

Before the baby ever came, I remember having dinner with old friends who themselves have three kids: "So, where are you going to send her to day care?"  "Um, I don't know yet," I replied.  "Oh - you've got to get a jump on that, or she won't get into the good schools.  First it's day care, then it's preschool, then primary and so on.  But you have to start right, or you get derailed."

Or the nurse who was taking out my IV after I'd just delivered a 6-week early preemie who was, at that precise moment, on oxygen in another room: "You'd better be breastfeeding this baby," in a rather accusatory tone.  And then I got a lecture about how breastfeeding is better.  If she'd taken a moment to ask me nicely, I would have said, yes I'm going to breastfeed.  (Of course, this whole conversation was made rather stupid when, later, the pediatrician required us to formula feed for a while.  Just as an aside: I did eventually get to breastfeed my daughter after formula, so it is possible but difficult - and my desire to do it had nothing to do with what the nurse said....)

Believe me, I know that some things are better for my kids than others.  And I'm very aware of the fact that I could be a much, much better mother than I am - and that seeking improvement is a good idea.  But I find the hype about parenting, and especially that every choice I make is an ultimate choice where if I make the wrong move, my child is DOOMED - well, exhausting.  And I'm exhausted enough.

So I also always have in mind that college student's mother and I think too: this linking of EVERY.SINGLE.ACTION a mother could possibly take with her children is part of what gets us to that point of being helicopter parents.  When we think that our children's grades, choice of occupation, study habits and so on are so entirely linked to what we did or didn't do back in day care, then of course I'm also going to care about FERPA.

So, Mrs. Mom X: I do understand better now that I have my own kids, just a little bit. And I'm going to be pushing back every chance I get.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contemplative Child-Raising...

Most of the time, as a professor, I am busy with meetings and photocopying and reports and classroom preparation and writing and so on, and then when I come home, I am inundated with housework and cooking.  Throw in a few other non-home or non-work commitments, and you could say I have a rather busy life - non-stop.

You might think that one of my non-work commitments, working as a Catechist of the Good Shepherd at my parish, would be one of those things that just adds to the busy-ness.

I suppose in a way, it does.  My atrium started up again this week, and I am exhausted from doing the cleaning and maintenance of the space that I must do to be ready for the children.  For my readers unfamiliar with the terminology, the atrium is the name for the environment I set up for the children in my Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program on Sunday mornings.  I am a catechist for 3-6 year olds.  I hope one day to add the next level (6-9 year olds) and perhaps even 9-12 year olds.  It is an "atrium" because it is meant to be not quite church, not quite home, but a place that opens up both of those spaces.  The word is a recognition that children receive most of their catechesis from their church and home families, and only a small bit from the 1.5 hours they have with me on Sunday mornings.

Not that what we do on Sunday is unimportant - quite the contrary!  The atrium is a place where children can come and learn about the mass using small replicas of the altar table, chalice and paten that they see in church.  They think about the mystery of life and death by growing wheat seeds and thinking about Jesus's saying: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain...."  We use 2-D wood figures of a good shepherd and sheep to think about what Jesus means when he says "I am the Good Shepherd... I know my sheep and I call them by name...."  How great it must be to be known that way, to be called by name!  All of these are ultimately aimed toward helping the young child fall in love.

Ah, but it's a way for me to fall in love too.

Because the atrium is a time for me to remember to be contemplative too, to recover my practices of prayer that went out the window with all the activity of the summer.  Just as I show the children that they cannot move quickly or suddenly, so my own pace becomes slower.  And I always have to remember not to speak and move at the same time - for younger children get distracted if you do too much.  Being with the children  is an unschooling of my multi-tasking ways, which is a very good thing.  It turns out, pretty much anything I want to do turns out worse if I multi-task than if I can focus on it long enough to do it well.

At the end of each week's atrium session, I turn out the lights and light the candles; I might read a short Psalm with the children, and we just sit.  We enjoy the light and the silence and each other.

I'm always amazed that the children are able to sit still for so quiet and so long - but maybe I'm even more amazed, these days, that I can sit still for so long too....

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Industrialized children?

Last week, I was at a theology conference, hosted by Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame (yes, I brought my baby, while Philosophy PhD Husband and my three year old went to a family gathering).  This was one of those lovely conferences where the papers are good, but sitting around the table at dinner (or while sipping an after-dinner wine) is equally as good, if not better.

One of the topics of conversation around the dinner table one night was children and having parents that work out of the home.  We all agreed that the idea that a woman should stay at home and raise the kids was largely a product of the nineteenth century and that in previous centuries, both parents had worked "at home" and raised the children in more complex patterns than our modern world allows.

Then we turned to the topic of raising children.  Several of my interlocutors were pressing the point that even if women are working outside the home, one of the spouses should be staying at home taking care of the children and that this has generally been the way people have raised kids through the centuries.  It is only now that we are seriously screwing up our children.  But kids, they maintained, are only really loved by their parents and it is the parents who need to be there full time.

My initial response is that something in that history seems a bit off to me - I'm thinking not only of an upperclass world of governesses, nannies, nurses, and boarding schools, but of middle and lower class apprenticeships or being sent away to work in service.   I think there were few times and places that children were actually being raised directly by their parents every single day.

Of course I have a bone to pick here: I am paying for the modern equivalent of nurses and nannies as I drop off my kids at the on-campus daycare.  I drop in 2-3 times a day to nurse the baby and check in on the three year old; my day becomes a patchwork of nursing and day care drop off, two hours grading, nursing, two hours writing, nursing,  two hours doing more writing, day care pick up, coming home and cooking, playing with the kids, doing the bedtime routine, and then at the end of it all, another 2-4 hours of writing or other work.

As I watch other people respond to and help raise my kids, I see them often teaching them good things that I would never have thought about, and I see them giving hugs, kisses, pats on the head.  This doesn't diminish the fact that when I come to the day care, I too, will be called on for hugs.  But it isn't an exclusive thing or a limiting thing in my view: I'm not the only one who cares for and loves my daughters.  They do too.  I recognize that it's different, and that for all sorts of good reasons, I'm the one who stays home with a sick child or who takes them to the doctor.

All that said, the conversation at that dinner table got to me in later reflections, because I think they're (perhaps unknowingly) alluding to something else very important about raising children - something that has only cropped up in the past couple centuries - and that is the way children's lives are being engulfed in industrialized patterns.

Day care of the kind that I send my kids to is possible only in a world that conceives that it is reasonable to group children into classrooms by single ages - showcasing a desire for efficiency.   After all, changing a baby's diapers isn't a very efficient enterprise when I, at home with the three year old haranguing me to do puzzles, discover that the diapers haven't yet been washed so I scramble to find something, anything to cover the baby's bum.  But diaper changing is very efficient when, in a class of twelve babies, three teachers take turns in whipping down the paper diaper from the appropriate cubicle.

The work day, too, is institutionalized in an 8-5 time frame (a far better cry from the early factory days, of course, but still institutionalized).  So it is interesting, too, to reflect on the ways in which office space arbitrarily demands my time during those hours and not others; of course, there are plenty of jobs in our late modern culture that demand more (to what end, I always ask?).  (I hasten to say here - one of my reasons for going in to academia is precisely that it does not cater to those same time frames - there are good things about the fact that academia is largely based in medieval institutions.)

And I could take it further still to all of life: eating is industrialized, so is elder care, so is clothes shopping, or anything else we would want to buy.  Nearly everything we have is predicated on sleek efficient machines having brought our stuff to us.

At what point does it end?  At what point would I say, "Now I am really responsible for the care of my children" and this industrialized world has been staved off?  It doesn't happen.  Even if one of us stayed home and homeschooled, and we grew all the vegetables and raised the goats and the sheep and the chickens (I have actually long had this kind of dream and maybe someday I will buy just such a house in the San Luis Valley in Colorado), at some point there would still be points of complicity in modern culture.  The people I know who try this still have hard decisions to make - and still end up participating at some level.

I think it is highly legitimate to ask where the point is that we want to try to over turn that industrialization or at least stave it off.  I think my friends sitting around the dinner table make some really good points.  Maybe they're right and I'm too defeatist about it - maybe the way to get around the industrialization of children (and ourselves) is to opt out in just these ways.  Wendell Berry fans unite.

But in the end I'm not sure how far that goes because I'm not convinced that we can stand apart from that culture. Would it be better, instead, to try to find evidence of God's handiwork here even in spite of ourselves, in the chinks of this life?  Like, for instance, the day care worker I saw the other day - she did not know I was there, just outside the door, watching as she hoisted up my baby with a look of joy, and my baby laughed too.  I loved seeing two people laugh - it was good salve in the rather depressing times we live in.  And, laughter, thankfully, does not operate on a scale of scarcity.  For when I opened the door, they both turned to me, and I got "that look" too - and we all shared in some joy and laughter.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

For potential eating pleasure - A Cake Pops Remake

This post is really quite unrelated to theology, except for the fact that while I've been writing my latest book, I've also been hankering for a snack around 3pm.  Often, the snack I most desire is one of the new Starbucks cake pops.  One little one, once a week, is not terrible for my bank account or my waistline ($1.50/190 calories for one of these yummy treats) but 2-3 a week is.  Even more disastrous if I were, oh, to cave in to these desires every day.   (I suppose here I could cue in a post on desires, versus true desire for God, but really, I'm feeling very much a member of the earthly city here ;-))

So I decided to try to remake these.  I used a chocolate cake mix, and some Weight Watchers' tips for making the cake lower in fat - applesauce, egg whites, water, instead of whole eggs and oil.  Once the cake was completely cool, I crumbled it up and stirred in 2 cups of whipped cream, to make the cake totally mold-able.  I rolled this dough into 45 small balls and froze them overnight.  (Tip: I HAD wanted to put lollipop sticks in them, but forgot to do that until they were frozen.  Ah well, next time.  Those of you who want to do real cake pops, be sure to put in the sticks before freezing.) (Edited to add: the sticks I bought were actually reusable party drink stirrers in different colors that I found in the picnic section of the grocery store.  I am told that lollipop sticks are available at hobby stores but those are rather far away from where we live....)

Then, I got my preschool helper, and we chose some toppings for our cake pops.  We put out coconut, nuts, and sprinkles.  Then we melted chocolate candy coating in the microwave for about a minute and  15 seconds.  We dipped the frozen cake balls into the chocolate and then rolled them in the topping(s) of choice. The result was delicious yumminess that adds up to about 20 cents a pop/70 calories.  And they are really good and really, really rich.

Added bonus: it was a great kid project for our morning.

*** Store these in the freezer, not the fridge.  I'm planning to take one or two to work every day for that 3 pm craving. :-)

Thursday, June 30, 2011


In honor of yesterday's Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, we ate poached fish and melon risotto.  (I got these recipes from this fun cookbook - and yes, melon risotto is actually really good!)

Anyway, we cajoled L. into trying a bite of the fish.  (She scarfed down the risotto.)  She took just a teeny, tiny piece of fish, one that would fit on the head of a pin and still leave some room, and then declared, "I don't like fish...yet."

It was the "yet" that got to me.  She really does see herself as growing bigger and bigger every day, and there are some things she wants to like in the future but she knows she's know quite there: dogs and cats are on that list, so are bicycles, and now, apparently, so is fish.

It makes me think about moral theology and all the times I've heard people declare an entrenched position with no possibility of movement (from both the "left" and the "right").  But so much of moral theology is about practical reasoning, about learning the right thing to do from moral exemplars and learning while doing. It's about being able to turn and turn till you are faithfully following God, to learn not to have hard hearts, but ones open to God.  And it takes a lifetime.

So I really admire L's "yet".  It speaks to the practical wisdom we all need to cultivate - for a long time, a lifetime -  as we navigate our way toward God.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"It's Their Choice..."

I'm watching "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" courtesy of my sister who wants to change careers and go into food science (or something).

If I hear one more phrase to the effect of "Look, I know this isn't the healthiest thing but this is what people want.  It's their choice..."  I'm going to turn off the show.  (So pretty soon, I imagine....)

People seem to be conflating "my choice" with "so I'll do naff all about anything about food because I'll just leave everyone's choice up to them".  Even if they are passionate about getting people to think differently about food.  Even if children at the schools are clearly unable to make the same kinds of choices their parents are.  Even if the food choices we adults have today are shaped by governmental food policies dating to the '50s.  Even if (as Philosophy PhD Husband pointed out) the highly touted "French Way of Eating" is partly that way because of no-snacking policies developed during the Third Republic.

Which is just to say, sure people have choices.  But they're limited ones - limited by both lack of vision for the future (what, really, do we want for our kids) and our lack of depth perception about what has gone before.  Policy does affect what people do.  And now people, individuals with, yes, "choices," want to change the policies, and, I guess we could say, are making a choice to try to change the policies.  But this has weirdly devolved into arguments about "You can't do that because you're messing with MY choices." 

It's just a zero sum game.  There're only losers in that scenario because there's actually never any room to maneuver.  One becomes a slave to "the choice" regardless of what that "choice" is.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: #PoisonedChalice

Upfront and wholeheartedly: Jennifer Woodruff-Tait's book The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism
 is a very clear, well-written, friendly book that has made excellent use of a range of sources.  Though this is an "academic" book, I can easily see non-academics reading it and finding it understandable.  I have already recommended it to several friends who study US religious history, who have promised to order it for their libraries.  But I think anyone who has wanted to think about "why grape juice" will find this a great read.

Indeed, I would have benefited from this book had it been around in my seminary days. As a junior MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 90s, an argument arose about alcohol use on campus because some found it unfitting that students studying for the ministry should be drinking alcohol in any context, including communion.(For the record, there were always two cups available - one for wine and one for grape juice...) "Gee," I remember saying rather snidely, "I'd hate for Jesus to work a miracle on YOUR water." 

Jenn Woodruff-Tait discusses how grape juice advocates read the Wedding at Cana (through something called the two-wine theory) and also shows how science, reason, immigration (and anti-Catholicism), and a desire for good hygiene all colluded in making grape juice necessarily the drink of choice at the altar table.

In reading this book, I am reminded very much of Amy Laura Hall's book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction Religion & Spirituality Books)
, which similarly uncovers Protestant sensibilities (this time in the early twentieth century) to show how Protestant sensibilities colluded with particular middle class ideals. 

Woodruff-Tait is "technically" a historian; Hall is "technically" a Christian ethicist.  But perhaps this should suggest to us two things: 1) the separation of "fields" really makes very little sense in our days of being interdisciplinary; 2) Woodruff-Tait's book should rightly cause all Christians to reflect on the ways in which our cultural standpoints merge with our theological understandings in helpful and unhelpful ways.  Our moral imaginations are captivated by things that seem "common sense" even when these do not (necessarily) reflect the gospel.

As a one-time Methodist (indeed, as one who was on the General Board of Discipleship and present at some of the discussions of the Eucharist that Woodruff-Tait mentions in chapter 7) and one who has now come into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, partly because of the Eucharist - this book causes me to reflect on the ways in which my understanding of the Eucharist (both then and now) might be colluding with non-gospel sensibilities.

Thank you to Jennifer Woodruff-Tait for a fine book!  I look forward to reading more from her!

Note: I was provided a copy of this book by the University of Alabama Press.. This review was not influenced by a free book - just in case you (or the FTC) were worried about this detail.

About The Book:
This work examines the introduction of grape juice into the celebration of Holy Communion in the late 19th century Methodist Episcopal Church and reveals how a 1,800-year-old practice of using fermented communion wine became theologically incomprehensible in a mere forty years.

About The Author:
Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait is Adjunct or Affiliate Professor of Church History at Huntington University, Asbury Theological Seminary, and United Theological Seminary.
You can find more about her at:

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I'm in the midst of writing this book on theology and the internet, and so I have precious little time to post these days.  I'm typically found hunkered down in my office, typing furiously, except when I take little breaks to walk over to the day care and nurse Baby G.   It's summer - so I don't see a lot of people, and that's a good thing as far as work goes - less good for me and my stress level.

But I had a mini-opportunity to think about other things today.  I ran into a couple students on campus that I haven't seen in a year or more- both calling out, "Dr. Bennett!" 

The title "doctor" always makes me blush a bit.  After all, I am no "doctor" wearing a white lab coat.  And I still have a bit of first-year-out-of-grad-school feelings about being a "doctor of theology": really?  I mean, really?  (As with the "Master of Divinity" how can anyone really claim to be a "doctor" of theology?)

Nonetheless, there it is, and that's my name here, at least among my students.  After the first round of blushing, I remember, "Oh yeah - I'm an adult - and a professor."  It makes me feel different, respond differently to people.  I remember to treat myself with a bit more respect because they treat me that way.  I've had to grow into that name a bit, and still, I am learning how to be 'Dr. Bennett'.  Crazy how that works.

Not coincidentally, the use of this name makes me reflect on other names - particularly the fact that I am currently trying (in vain, I know, I know!) to get my six month old daughter to say Mama.  "Mama - you can say it!"  All I get is a raspberry - she's getting quite good at those, actually.

"Mama" is another name I've had to grow into.  Despite the fact that my three year old is now at the age where she says "mama, mama, mama" constantly - Mama, look what I can do! Mama, I'm hungry!  - I still feel a bit weird thinking of myself as a "mama".  Oh yeah - I'm an adult, and a mama.  I'd better act like it.

Some would argue that the only actions that have real meaning are the ones that we "mean" to do.  But I don't think that's it at all - I think I'm constantly learning how to live the words I speak and the words that name who I am.  Love - that's another word that I'm not quite comfortable wearing yet, though I say it and try to live it all the time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Better and Worse Ways of Managing Work and Family?

 Baby G. finds herself in day care starting this week, and I've decided that I'll be heading over there 3 times a day or so to nurse, at least through the summer.  I suspect some of the people at day care and at my work place think I'm crazy, judging by the looks I've gotten.  I appear to be too attached to my kid, perhaps?  Or not attached enough if I'm putting her in day care?  Either way, I appear to lose and maybe, on some accounts, so does Baby G.  But I have to say I myself think I've got a pretty good hybrid situation going on: someone else changes the poopy diapers while I write my book, and I get to take breaks by sitting in a rocking chair and nursing.  At least initially, this arrangement is seeming like a good compromise in the whole thorny work/family balance issue.

I was speaking to graduate students yesterday about this very issue, so I thought I'd post those remarks here and see what conversation ensues.  Is my apparent "balance" the best thing?  Are there other ways to balance this?  Is balance even possible?  One of my colleagues also speaking yesterday mentioned that she thinks there's no such thing as balance - that word implies that there are scales all equally weighted down.  In reality, she says, some days are more work and some days more family needs.  So read and please weigh in!

Men and women both have always had to find ways to juggle work – as in putting food on the table – with family. That’s called real life.  Work and family are simply part of life.In this era when we think of work chiefly as something we do away from home, and raising family as something we do at home - of course I think there are better and worse ways of finding a work/family balance.  I’m an ethicist after all.

 One of the reasons I first started thinking about academia in the first place was because I saw my undergraduate professors being moms and academics and I thought, this looks like a good gig.  My undergraduate adviser, a medieval historian, had two kids and was clearly very involved in their school and activities.  In fact, I remember doing a project for one of her courses that involved developing a medieval history program for her daughter’s class at school.  And, I thought that it must be great to have a job where you have the summers “off” to spend time with your kids.   My undergraduate mindset was a bit naïve, especially regarding summers off, but I’ll get to that a bit more later in my talk.

Later on, while doing doctoral work at Duke University, I came across professors who were waging a protest against what they saw as an established effort to separate work and kids too much.  Duke is an R1 institution – meaning it is highly research oriented – so that faculty always feel pressure to publish, even when they’re not at the office.  I remember one of my professors putting it this way: “I feel like I have to choose between baking chocolate chip cookies with my kids or working on my book.”  I thought that was really sad and so did they – and it helped that this was a theological institution, and so they thought that particularly a place concerned about Christian life and church ought to be more concerned about children and their parents.  So they began to protest a bit – one professor brought her adopted young baby with her when she taught her classes, until the baby was about a year old.  Other professors petitioned for, and got, a paternity leave policy complete with stopping the tenure clock.

So all of these encounters with other people trying to balance work and family in academia helped me figure out how I wanted to try to balance things in my own life.  Following, in no particular order, are some of the things you will probably want to consider as you finish your doctoral work and make it into the wide world of academia:

1.      Consider carefully the kind of school you want to work at.  Most people do doctoral work at research institutions like Duke, and research institutions tend to try to perpetuate their own. Thus it can seem like research, research, research is the best way to go.  That’s just not necessarily so.  If you love research, then go for it – but just know that if part of your goal has also been to live out in the country in a big house, do organic gardening and raise eight kids, you’re probably going to need to hire a lot of help. 

For my own part, initially I thought that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts school, which is where I had my first job.  I looked specifically for jobs that seemed to be good places to raise a family.  My first job was at a lovely liberal arts college, small, and community-centered.  Its faculty frequently entertain each other at their homes and it’s the kind of place where faculty feel free to bring their kids who are on school vacation and their dogs to work. They have one of the best maternity leave policies in the country – a full semester paid, with no teaching or other duties.  When I interviewed there, the committee, as well as many other people, made particular points to bring up their families, where the best schools were, what day care options there were, and the like.  Those were all indications to me that here was a place I wanted to work, because here was a place I could envision having a satisfying life that included both my vocation and my family

2.      Now I was lucky.  I had a few job offers on my first go-round in the job market, so for me, I had a choice, and I made my decision on the basis of family friendly policies.  But I recognize that academics don’t always have choices about the schools they’ll work for.  Which brings me to my second recommendation: when you land a job, negotiate a contract that is family friendly.  Check out a school’s website and see if you can find their maternity policy.  If you can’t, learn to ask veiled questions about “leaves” when you get to your on campus interview to see if can learn more.  If the maternity leave policy is non-existent (which is the case at a surprising number of schools, even though the lack of a maternity leave policy is illegal) – or if the maternity leave policy is meager at best, negotiate for a full semester off from teaching.  It’s healthier for both you and your baby.  For men, negotiate paternity leave, especially if your wife is planning to go back to work.  Negotiate a reduced course load even if you can’t get a full semester off. 

And always, always, negotiate for stopping the tenure clock. Having leave is not enough: taking care of a baby full time means you really don’t have time to do research or service, both of which count in getting tenure.  By stopping the tenure clock, you push back getting tenure by another semester or a year, but that’s often (though not always) to your advantage.

One of the things I negotiated too, was my husband’s job.  We had decided we’d go wherever one of us got a job, and try to negotiate for the other one.  It’s key in trying to maintain family balance when you’ve got young children– because we didn’t want a situation where we were working on opposite sides of the country. 

3.      And the final tip I’ll share here is: academia is always a pressure cooker.  You’ve got to take your own breaks and not apologize for them. This is how my undergraduate self was naïve about summer vacation – the dirty secret is that faculty aren’t really “off” in the summer.  They’re catching up on the review essay they promised a publisher, or teaching a class to try to earn a bit more money, or working on the book or articles so they can get tenure, and so on.  The pressure to keep going and going never quits, even at a teaching school.  At my first school, there was some pressure to apply for faculty research grants in the summer because having good faculty who do premier research is one of the ways a small school keeps its name known. 

One thing I discovered pretty quickly,though, was that I truly enjoy doing research and so I made a move to work at a bit more of a research-oriented institution with a master’s and doctoral program.  It’s not as high-powered as Duke, which is good.  I realized early on that I don’t want to work at a Duke or a Harvard or a Notre Dame.  So I moved here – and I immediately became even busier, what with master’s and doctoral committee work, and MORE research requests from publishers, in addition to the pressure to give our doctoral program a good name by being a good researcher and teacher myself.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in that, and sometimes I get caught up too much I think.  But here’s what I aim to do – I aim to leave my work at the office, or at least not touch my computer or work till the kids are in bed, once I am at home.  I take my kids to my academic conferences and I bring them to my office when I’ve got to.  I keep my weekends as free as possible for hanging out with my family.  I don’t go to as many evening functions as I would if I did not have a family.  I miss out sometimes on meeting some great people – and it may, in some corners, also mean I don’t get to “advance” in my field as quickly.  But I think that’s part of life.  So to go back to what I said at the beginning: I don’t think I ‘have it all.’  I’ve made some choices over others and that affects both the job I seek and the family life I can have.  My priority is finding a way to make this academic work that I am called to do – being a theologian – go along with the other work I am called to do – be a wife and mother.  It’s not like one of those is more part of who I am than the other. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Clearly, the fact that maternity leave is over has impacted my ability to post on this blog.  Well, that, and the fact that I am assistant editor to the new blog.  (Check us out - 15 or so North American theologians comment on news, liturgy and other reading...)

But today in the communion line, I was definitely confronted with one of those issues that confound both the mom and the theologian in me.  As I was herding my children in the communion line, I looked down to discover that my three-year-old had her hands held together in the typical Eucharist-receiving gesture.  It was clear she wanted some - and equally clear, as the Eucharistic minister leaned down to say (I am quoting) "Hello there, little girl!" - that she was not going to get anything in the communion line.

That makes my heart hurt.  That is not to say that my experience here should govern what we do theologically - while I think that experience has some kind of place in theological questions, I get concerned when experience becomes a driving force for theological thinking.  That said, in this particular case of Eucharistic communion, I don't really get why, in the Roman Rite, children younger than seven can't receive.  I actually tend to "get" arguments about closed communion because of theological disagreements between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox much more than I get refusing communion to young children.

I know that one of the standard arguments is the "Age of Reason."  Numerous people have made jokes about how strange it seems to proclaim an "age of reason" for Eucharistic communion when one of the things we believe about the Eucharist is that it is mysterious - that the Paschal Mystery itself is bound up in our theology of the Eucharist.  Mystery, here, means something that is not plumbable by human rational standards, though of course we can think about the Eucharist (and we do).  But it isn't clear, ultimately, what an "age of reason" is supposed to confer in this case.

Perhaps we could say it is analogous to driving cars or drinking - both of these have age requirements for our children because we know that certain levels of mechanical skill, experience, practical wisdom, and  mental acuity are required, in varying degrees, for these activities.  But the Eucharist, to me, seems much more analogous to a fine dining experience than to driving cars.  Yes, we want to take care with the fine china and the tablecloth - and there are specific gestures and rituals that go along with fine dining that we wouldn't encounter in the drive-thru.  And maybe that IS the working analogy here, for I know that many families do not use their fine china with their younger children.  Babysitters are called for when some people invite others over for fancy dinner parties; young children are excluded.

That is arbitrary, though.  It is not a given that young children cannot learn to use fine china and cannot care for special table linens. Paul says not to take the Eucharist unworthily - can children equally be taught to respect the Eucharistic table without necessarily understanding it (which is a lifelong process in any case).  I think here of the work I do in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS)- a Montessori-based religious ed program for kids from ages 3 to 12.  In the early years, it is clear that everything the children learn is moving toward Eucharist though it may not seem so at first.

An entering three year old in my Atrium (the name for CGS classroom space) will spend the first few weeks doing what we call "practical life" - lessons in rolling and unrolling mats, walking slowly and carefully, and pouring - first pouring dry beans from one pitcher to another; then pouring liquid.  If they spill, they learn to sweep up or sponge up the mess.  What they are learning is how to control their bodies so they can do the things they want to do (just as in potty training, around the same age) - but more than that, they are helping to create an environment with other children that allows for prayer.

After those first few weeks, then the children learn about the altar table and see, touch and name the objects that are on an altar table - like the chalice and the paten.  A bit later in the year (early in Lent in my Atrium) my three year olds will begin learning some of the mass gestures, with the hope that they become more engaged with the mass they attend.  One of these lessons is called "Preparation of the Chalice".  Here, their pouring exercises come in handy, for now they are pouring wine and just a tiny little bit of water into a chalice.  (When they are four or maybe five, they'll continue to meditate on this mass gesture by learning the words the priest says and thinking about what these mean.) 

This past year, I asked a group of children about the chalice.  "Why is there so much wine but only a little tiny bit of water in the chalice?"  Hmmmm, the children thought.  A couple of them knew that the wine would become Jesus' blood, so they talked about the wine being God.  Ah, I said.  "But what about the water?"  "Maybe the water is us," a shy girl said.  "Yeah, and maybe there's more wine because God is THIS big [his arms stretched as far as they could go] but we're only this big," shouted a boy. 

Indeed.  And they were three and four years old.  (Now I know that some theologians among my readers will take issue with the idea of the bigness of God, as though God could be adequately described in human terms - but I hope you'll at least give my preschoolers the benefit of the doubt - after all, Augustine, for a while, spent time thinking about God as a big man, and he was far older than these kids....)

So isn't some kind of "age of reason" rather arbitrary? 

But more than that, if we believe that the sacrament is about God's grace - and is more about God than us - then it isn't clear to me that the Eucharist requires some kind of "reasoning" about it, nor a minimum age. 

Philosophy PhD Husband and I have thought about this before.  At one time, we considered attending a Byzantine Rite Catholic Mass, which does commune anyone who is baptized, including babies.  For a variety of reasons we have not done that - but seeing my daughter's open hands at mass today made me want to think about it all again.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

In Which I discuss the Importance of Novels for Doing Theology

My PhD advisor has often suggested that fiction is good for theologians to read.  Until I met him, I had generally thought that my reading mystery novels when I was supposed to be reading Barth IV.2 or, heavens, the Summa Theologica, was a big vice. But who am I to argue with my Doktorvater?

Truthfully, some of the mystery novels I read were not worth the pulp they were written on, but most of the greats are worth any ethicist's time.  You can read one and call it an examination of motives, intentions, consequences, and all those other wonderful parts of action theory.  It is no mistake that many theologians were also mystery writers: G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown), Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), Ralph McInerny (Father Dowling - and I used to love the tv show, shot in my very own beloved Denver), to name a few.  Can I count Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael) in there too?  I guess she was more a medievalist than a "theologian" in the modern sense, but let's face it - most medieval historians also have to be theologians to one extent or another. Some day I want to write a book about them.

But it usually isn't a novel by a theologian that captivates me or that says something theological.  I continue to be mesmerized, years later, by Nick Hornby's About a Boy (which has also been made into a decent  movie version).  This is a book about two "boys" - one a thirty-something man who acts like a boy, and another a twelve-year-old boy who acts more like a man than boy. 

Hornby plays with names - Will Freeman, the adult, has no responsibilities.  He has no family left and is independently wealthy (because his dad wrote a popular Christmas song, no less).  The first time we meet Will, he talks about what it means to be cool:
How cool was Will Freeman? This cool: he had slept with a woman he didn't know very well in the last three months (five points). He hadn't spent more than three hundred pounds on a jacket (five points). He had spent more than twenty pounds on a haircut (five points) (How was it possible to spend less than twenty pounds on a haircut in 1993?). He owned more than five hip-hop albums (five points). He had taken Ecstasy (five points), but in a club and not merely at home as a sociological exercise (five bonus points). He intended to vote Labour at the next general election (five points). He earned more than forty thousand pounds a year (five points), and he didn't have to work very hard for it (five points, and he awarded himself an extra five points for not having to work at all for it). He had eaten in a restaurant that served polenta and shaved parmesan (five points).
Will is the quintessential "free man," to the point that he meditates on what it is to say "No man is an island," but finds himself as a wonderful island, thankyouverymuch.  Moreover, in what sense is he free?  He is free to buy as much as he can, and exactly those things that make him cool.  But he is not free in what I call the "riding the waves" kind of free.  (Meaning: I used to go river rafting fairly often; there's something really amazing about being on the river and going with the rapids.  I've never tried surfing so no idea if my view of it is similar to that....)  He does not find himself able to enjoy life except insofar as it wins him points. 

Hornby contrasts Freeman with Marcus, the son of divorced parents.  Early in the book, his mother attempts suicide, so Marcus finds himself in the role of parenting his mother and worrying about all the things about his life that most parents hope their children wouldn't worry about at such a young age.  So, he finds himself an outcast at school because he can't be a boy.  He is as isolated as Freeman and as un-free as Freeman.

 Hornby's novel aims toward making the man a man, and the boy a boy.  That requires that the two "islands" become related to others.  Communities - weirdly shaped communities that don't look necessarily ideal, by the way - get formed in the course of this novel.  What the characters find is that being related is scary - Freeman speaks of being a newly hatched chick, bewildered by and vulnerable to this world in ways that his consumer-island self had not been. 

The novel is therefore rich in theological themes and in themes theologians ought to be interested in, even if not inherently theological: freedom, what it means to be human, one's purpose in life, consumerism, gender, identity. 

A good book is thought-provoking in so many ways - this one's worth a read if you haven't yet done so.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Considering the History of Three Year Olds

When I was a sophomore in high school, my history teacher asked us to write essays on the subject, "Why do we study history?"  It was a good question to ask us, as I think most of us had, by that point, long since entered the realm of "WHY do we have to learn these dates?  History is boring."  If Harry Potter had been around then, we would totally have identified with his view of history classes.

I cannot now remember what I said; I don't guess it was very interesting.  Yet the question has stuck with me throughout the years - particularly when I became a history major in college and studied a medieval monastic community known as the Gilbertines.  I also had to take historiography classes then, and started seeing all the varied reasons people study history (and the varied ways they study history).

Motherhood apparently offers yet another view on the question.  Yesterday, we were telling our three year old about being children once ourselves, she looked thoughtful, then asked, "Where was I when you were a boy, Daddy?" "Well, you weren't born quite yet."

It was clear that was disturbing to her a bit.  How could she not have existed? She exists now!  The mystery of life is very present to her... The question made me realize that I don't think about where I was before I was born anymore.  That's actually rather a scary question, in much the same way that contemplating death is for most adults.  It seems like a great nothingness.

 Then I realized: I don't really think of World War II or the Protestant Reformation or the patristic period as "before my time" anymore.  I know I wasn't there, but it has still become part of me and who I am.  History found a way of creeping in and becoming my story.

Our three year old is starting small: first we'll tell her the family history, about Mommy and Daddy and Grandmas and Grandpas.  But then, I don't know, shall I pull out some of my medieval stories? ;-)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Babies: A Movie Review

Here's another movie review that continues in the "grand" tradition of this blog - reviewing movies that are really not that new.  Babies is a documentary film that came out in 2010 and is about four babies' lives from "first breath to first step", one from Namibia, one from Mongolia, one from Japan, and one from the USA.  I remember seeing reviews of this movie and thinking, "Really?"  It didn't strike me at the time that it'd be such a great concept.  I mean, I'm a mother - I watch my baby do stuff all day, and while I occasionally find it fascinating, more often than not I find it, well, normal and therefore rather boring. 

This must be one of the reasons why the director had to push this idea to several people before finding someone else willing to work with it.  It must also be one of the reasons why the videographer would travel to these places and spend days there, only to return with one "good" short worth putting in the film.  (Though of course, this isn't unlike the process of writing - I aim to write a couple pages a day, but much of it is definitely not staying in the book...)

I was all set to view the documentary as some kind of social commentary: you know, Western industrialized nations versus less industrialized nations and how babies do, comparatively.  Or, people with "stuff" versus people without "stuff".  Or, time spent versus lack of time spent.  The Japanese and American mothers do very similar things, for instance: song and dance classes for their young babies; day care situations, et cetera.

About ten minutes into it, I stopped thinking in this way and just started enjoying the process of watching these babies.  The director creatively pairs film shorts together and it makes a satisfying collage of love and care for the smallest members of our human clan. (Or, should I even say, it makes an interesting board book movie?  My 3 month-old "watched" parts of this film and was fascinated.) 

The US family is a "green" ecologically-minded family; the Japanese family lives in one of the busiest sectors of Tokyo; the Mongolian family is a relatively well-off herding family, and the Namibian family seems mostly to consists of mothers and children - the men are off herding and farming.  It's an eclectic group; you wouldn't expect to find much in common necessarily, except that these babies are loved and cared for with very obvious joy. 

Viewers who have always been curious about breastfeeding will see fantastic images of babies nursing, including the Namibian mother tandem nursing.  And, I was curious about how people who don't use diapers manage - very well, as it happens.  

This is also a funny film - as one might imagine with babies, there are plenty of moments that made me want to laugh.  One is when the American baby is eating a banana and very painstakingly picks off each bit of the peel before eating it.  Then she bites into the wrong end and finds herself chewing on that bad-tasting end bit of bananas, and spits that out.  Another is the moment when the Monogolian baby, swaddled and lying on a bed, all of a sudden finds himself surrounded by a rooster that is at least twice his size.  The rooster just dances around the bed.  Still another is when the Namibian baby has learned to walk and starts balancing something (the end of a plastic jug, I think?) on her head - I was highly impressed by her walking and balancing skills.

Ultimately, the theme of the movie seems to be one that contributes an argument to the Western "mommy wars" problem.  (So okay, I am going to find a point here - but not the one I was originally looking for...)  Here was an array of parents and cultures and parenting styles, and they all work.  The Namibian mother was the one who was most obviously with her baby all the time, in a very relaxed way - more relaxed than I think sometimes the pressure of being a "stay at home mom" feels in Western culture. But her husband and sons were often gone many days out of the month.  "Work out of the home" moms were represented by the Western mothers.  The Japanese mother worked out of the home and so we saw a day care scene but we also see her and her husband taking care of the baby at home.  The American parents tried to work as a team, and it seemed that they did more trading off of parental duties, around their office work, than the others. 

And a different way of running the family shows up in the the Mongolian family.  They, too, tried to pair up their parenting, probably by necessity.  Both the mother and father were doing work with the herding animals and so would intersperse child care with animal care.  That meant the baby was left alone fairly often - and we see him crawling around outside, enjoying the weather, and investigating the broad world while the parents are off at some distance.

Maybe the point was: you do what you have to do to make a living and care for the kids.  None of these represents an "ideal" for parenthood except for the common thread of desiring to care for the babies so that they are healthy, have some freedom to learn to crawl and walk and talk, and that there is something joyful about nurturing a baby. 

The movie is not really about the parents, though, but the babies themselves and that is ultimately what makes one become mesmerized: their extraordinary growth, their wonder, their joy.

One final funny moment, for me anyway: at one point, the American father takes his daughter to a song time, where they sing 'The Earth is our Mother." The chant threw me off at first because it starts before you see that we're in the US and I thought, "Huh, this must be in one of the non-American countries - maybe they do chant there."  And then I was laughing at myself because I saw the American father, AND I remembered singing this song probably when I was three years old myself.  I think of it as a very, very "hippy" song.  But what made it even funnier is that the baby stands up, walks out of the singing circle and tries to open the door.  "Let me out, please!"  Exactly what I'd be doing anyway, if I found myself having to sing that song again.  (Hey, I like being ecologically friendly but I'm not sure that's what this song is really about....)

Anyway, if you haven't had the chance to see Babies, I highly recommend finding a copy somewhere.  It will give you hope - a good thing to have these days.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The School, The Church, The Society as a Business....

Which would you rather work for:

1) a company where managers assess your skills by giving you a "benchmark" - a set number of items to sell, or cases to process, or things to build, or money to make;

2) a company where managers look at the total group of workers and develop a company plan based on its workers' strengths, allowing for those workers to voice concerns?

For me, it'd be the second.  That model seems much more to respect me as a person with dignity and worth.  The first has the advantage of being easier, but also seems more arbitrary, clearly less concerned about me than about reaching a certain kind of "output" for which the workers, rather than the managers (and certainly not the CEOs) can be blamed.

I was thinking about this because, as many of you know, Philosophy PhD Husband is going back to school to get a degree in accounting, and one of his (rather awesome, in my opinion) business school profs was discussing the differences between many contemporary CEOs in American corporations and the so-called Toyota Way - especially Principle 4, 'Level out the workload.  Work like the tortoise, not the hare".  I do not claim Toyota is perfect - last year's recall is an example of that.  And it remains to be seen how well the company will pull out of the earthquake and residual crises.   His professor, among many other business guys at his school, think very little these days of CEOs making hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not way, way more) while not according dignity to their workers.  (To say nothing of the fact that if workers' pay had risen the way CEOs' pay had, on average, workers ought to be paid $50 per hour. Ahem.)

And yet, at least as a starting point and on paper, Toyota seems to respect its workers' intelligence, and the general ethos is that a company is not there for itself alone, but that to help workers is to help the whole.  By contrast, many American corporations work from a top-down, micromanagement sensibility - one that kills peoples' thinking and doesn't respect their free will.

The prevailing tendency in nearly every place of work these days is to assume a "business model."  After all, say people I've worked with on church committees, businesses are known for efficiency and getting things done while still turning a profit.  Surely those are things that schools and churches can learn from? 

I admit to be adverse to considering the church or the school or the public library as fundamentally "businesses" because human society is not for the purpose of efficiency and turning profits - but as a thought experiment, I'm willing to run with this analogy for a bit and consider that if we are going to see places where we work as "businesses" perhaps there are better and worse ways of understanding "business"?

Guess which way also functions in many school districts, churches and other groups that are part of American communities?  We do not go "like the tortoise", but expect schools and churches to show improvement within three years.  If that doesn't work, fire the lot and put in a new philosophy designed to help the students, or change out the pastor, or get more marketing techniques in to reach the seekers.  It's too fast - it doesn't respect that human life requires a bit of time to process, to fine tune, to think and reflect and, dare I say it, learn from our mistakes. 

Let me take the time to focus a bit more closely on schools, though I think I could write similarly about churches here. A friend of mine was a librarian in a school that was closed and completely "restarted" because of its lack of performance over three years.  Since she was fired along with all the others, she had to find another job in the school district, but all the librarian jobs were taken, as were all the jobs where she felt she had experience and qualifications.  So she took a job as a third grade teacher.  That meant she was the "new kid" at the school; the other third grade classroom teacher knew all the students (and in fact had taught most of them the year before as second graders in her dual 2nd/3rd grade), and so made a claim on all the kids who did not have ADHD or learning disabilities, who were not from impoverished families where a kid might not have breakfast in the morning, who were generally high performing test takers.  At the end of the year, both classrooms were assessed the same way, and my friend was deemed to be the "worse" teacher though she had all sorts of knocks against her to begin with.  She felt she was lucky to have helped the kids improve their reading and  math skills in any way at all, since she spent most of her time doing behavior reviews and separating kids who were being dangers to the other students.

My friend's case is not an isolated case.  The school district lacks the ability to think creatively about where to place an experienced librarian.  The school district itself is at the mercy of politicians, who want the US to be "like" other countries in terms of success at math and science and who simultaneously see teachers as the enemy because of their unions and their high cost wages.  The problem is, politicians aren't in the thick of things and can't really *know* how to fix the mistakes teachers themselves see.  School administrators, who are closer to the ground than the folks in the capitol, can often barely see the individual problems because they're looking at a different set of problems. 

That's why I like the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity - the idea that accords respect to every one by recognizing that everybody's got some gifts others don't. When it comes to society, each level of society can deal with certain problems that other levels of society do not need to be part of.  The local soccer team should not be a matter for the President of the United States to deal with.  I think when it comes to the question of unions, and states, and schools, subsidiarty has been run over roughshod.

The proverb suggests you can't win the race by being a hare.  We've been trying to be hares - we've been trying to fix "problems" that did not develop overnight, by too quickly aiming for the institution and trying to fix it, top down. But study after study suggests that all sorts of things might be causing problems for our children today that have little to do with good or bad teachers: diet, video games, lack of parental involvement, parents' divorce at an early age, entitlement, helicopter parents, societal values that do not value children or that value them too much, et cetera. 

If I were going for a business model, I'd rather aim for one that had a "hare" approach.  A model that focuses on workers' dignity and ability to contribute in relation to their specific skills (even if those skills are put to creative uses) is better for society than one that ignores the unique capabilities of people in favor of "outputs" and assessment, regardless of the person.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Form and Content DO Matter

I loved this piece by Alison Miller on "fresh expressions" of church. (Thanks to Debra Dean Murphy for the link, by the way.)  Those of you who are familiar with ecclesiology will recognize "fresh expressions" to be, well, not so fresh -rather reeking of an old, old paradigm of "church growth movement" combined with "marketing tactics".  Well obviously - isn't the church a business?  (I snorted out loud in class in a very unbecoming way the day a student of mine insisted that the church was the oldest business there is. Ahem.  There was no convincing him otherwise, even though his hypothesis is achronistic, at best, and certainly a-theological.)

But what I especially love about the Miller piece is its suggestions further down the post: "Using Wittgenstein, we argue that form and content of faith are not so easily separated. In seeking this separation, the language and identity that forms us communally is quite lost because the meaning lies in the practices and not beneath them."

Yes!  I love it when things I tell students in class actually have theological (and philosophical) import as well.  I also love it when I can annoy Philosophy PhD Husband - he happens not to love Wittgenstein as much as I do ;-).  I hadn't made this particular connection till reading this essay, but readers of my blog will know that I do emphasize both form and content in my classes.  Form matters because it relates to content. Like Marshall McLuhan famously wrote: "The medium is the message." 

I know this about my writing: I use far too many commas and in the wrong places.  When I was working as a writing tutor, my supervisor was forever telling me "NO COMMA!" but I could never see what the difficulty was.  I use commas like I speak - where I would put a pause in my speaking, so I do in my writing.  I recognize that can make my writing difficult to read and probably also makes any presumed content seem hesitant, like I'm afraid to make an argument.  Secret revealed: I do fear staking my claim sometimes.  It's something I'm always seeking to overcome.  I think conversely that means my arguments come across more strongly than I'd want (and with less nuance) precisely because I'm working so hard against that fear of having nothing - gulp - to say.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, proclaims Miller.  The law of prayer is the law of belief.  Form and content both matter.  Or rather, isn't this the theological equivalent of the chicken and egg argument?  Which came first - the prayers we pray or the beliefs we proclaim in the creed?  As we might expect, liturgical theologians often say that it is liturgy and prayer that come first, and so they emphasize this theologia prima.  Others, canon lawyers in my acquaintance especially, emphasize belief as coming first.  How can one pray if one doesn't know how to pray rightly?   Geoffrey Wainwright does notable work in providing substantial doctrinal discussion in relation to liturgy and so avoids this impasse.

My students prefer to jump over the impasse rather than work through it.  They will sometimes say, "But I don't believe everything in that prayer" and therefore they won't pray it.  Just as in Miller's article, "The "Fresh Expressions" movement sees Christianity quite abstractly as a set of ideas, which can be separated from their embodiment and then inserted into a new culture."  Somehow on their view, the doctrines are just old-fashioned things that don't really relate to their lives, and the prayers are therefore useless because they contain the old-fashioned doctrines.  (And on this, see this article on Facebook killing Churches in relation to doctrine...)

I get that, I do.  I used to think that evolution and creation conflicted and so I couldn't "believe in" creation, or in any hymns, prayers or homilies that related to creation.  I think it is God's funny joke that I now spend good portions of every.single.class I teach discussion Genesis 1 and 2.  Somehow it's always important, whether the class is medical ethics, or Augustine, or sexual ethics, or contemporary theology.

But I also have seen how important habits of the church are.  Kneeling DOES make my three year old respond differently to her world, see it in a different way, act in different ways.  And truth be told, the more often I kneel, the more I do too. (I'd like to think I'm becoming more peaceful and humble, but since I'm telling you this, that is probably not yet quite the case ;-))  This is not simply a question of doing something by rote - in the beginning each individual action seems a bit like a chore, like a constriction.  But the longer one does a practice, the more it becomes part of who you are and the more you begin to see how to use those actions rightly.  The narrow door does become quite wide; the "freshest" expressions are also the ones that have that kind of depth perspective in them.

I am reminded of the day a friend came to tell me that his mother had died.  At such intense moments, when we don't have the luxury of supposing a separation between doctrine and practice, or form and content, the importance of our practices are all that make sense.  I heard the news, and immediately he and I knelt as we had often done, and prayed together.