Sunday, November 28, 2021

Best Life

"Living my best life" is one of my favorite contemporary expressions. I had one of those best life moments recently, sitting at a brewery that I already count as one of my happy places. The name or location doesn't matter, but the association is a positive one going back to my first visit there on a hot summer day after a baseball game. A bunch of us converged on the brewery after our kids finished playing a baseball game, so together we drank beer and listened to a cover band play some classics from the 70s and 80s. The recent "best life" visit was a few weeks ago when my wife and I happened upon trivia night at the brewery. We had 24 hours to ourselves while our kids were at her parents house, and made good use of the time together. We visited a few wineries, checked into a hotel, then made our way to the brewery. Sharing pretzels and a burger with your person, that's already a win. And then getting destroyed in trivia night as a bonus. I mean, seriously, being unable to answer almost every question and hearing your team name announced last, what a thrill. How can the two of us, joining forces, be so bad at trivia?? Who cares. We finished our drinks and went back to our hotel. We got some very forgettable dessert at the hotel bar, but we did have a nice chat with a friendly bartender who is a fellow Buffalo Bills fan. When we got back to the room we felt glamorous wearing the cozy hotel robes. In the morning we watched the sun come up, almost like a movie. It all felt great and I'm thankful to have had the feeling of escape and a short period of fun with my person. Getting our ass kicked in trivia while having a drink and a pretzel really was a living my best life moment. Even in a pandemic. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Are You Sure of Your Perception?

Are you sure of your perception? I love this question. Sometimes I ask it of myself, and occasionally I ask it to someone close to me. I borrow it from Thich Nhat Hanh. The question is in the "Wrong Perceptions" portion of The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh. In this story, he tells of a man who had to leave home for a long time, unaware his wife was pregnant. Upon his return was a boy, whom he suspected was not his: "He hated him. He saw the neighbor's face in the little boys face." Years later, the man's brother visited and clearly saw his brother's face in his nephew's face. The man felt better about his wrong perception. But only after years of suffering. "We have to be very careful with our perceptions, otherwise we will suffer." 

It's a great reminder to check ourselves, and to check each other. If I text someone and don't hear back, why assume the person is mad at me? There could be another explanation. Maybe I run into someone at a store and I perceive they are cold to me. But how do I know what is going on in their day? 

Thinking about the power of perceptions reminds me, of course, of The Thomas Theorem. If we define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Rather than run with a wrong perception, it's best to slow down until we are sure about what we think and what we believe.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

How's Your Semester Going?

As the pandemic goes on and on, I find myself increasingly tired. It's been hard to maintain good spirits in the classroom. There's something about masks that is messing me up. A mask is hard to talk through, it's uncomfortable when I quickly get sweaty teaching face, and I can't see students' facial expressions. I feel like my humor is missing this semester. Every step of the way, it all feels different to me.

The students are doing their best. They are tired too. Some have reminded me that they spent last year learning remotely, and the transition back to the classroom has been a challenging one. In my intro classes, I don't see much interaction between the students. I think the masks are a barrier. They make things impersonal and uncomfortable. Masks are required for all of us when indoors on campus this semester. I fully support masks as a safety measure. But they are tough to deal with when it comes to teaching and connecting with students.

My thinking as the pandemic drags on is that I don't want to add stress to their lives. They are already over stressed with 5-6 classes, one or more jobs, and all the other stuff of life. I think sometimes we look at them only as students. We forget they are full human beings and being students is just one part of who they are. This semester a student told me she can relax in my class. It was a great compliment to me. I try to create a low stress learning environment. Maybe that's a luxury I have as the easy going sociology professor. But truly I don't want to pile on stress.

There are other approaches to take and ways to cope. I suppose others would seek to tighten the structure. It might come from a firm belief that structure is vital and that we all need to push through. This approach might come from a sincere belief that this is the way we prepare people for the rest of their lives. The thinking might be we aren't doing students any favors if we are too accommodating and flexible. There might also be the concern about rigor. That is to say, if we ease up too much, where is the academic rigor?

But I come back to the thought that different times call for different measures. I'm not hurrying up to make things feel like they used to, or trying to have "a normal semester," whatever that means. I'm looking at things and feeling through things and adapting to things as they are right now. 

And how's your semester going? 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Good for Me, I Stopped Watching Cable News

Where does one turn if intensely interested in politics? For me, it was convenient to fall into a habit of watching cable news. So much cable news. Years of listening to pundits and bullshit. Knowing all of the contributors and seeing what directions channels took to secure viewers. Noticing endless hours spent on some topics with next to no time spent on other topics. But still, I tuned in, because I follow politics, and cable news is where you can catch some coverage of some aspects of politics and society. 

We all know that each station caters to different views, and taps into particular politics, and each channel drives home a narrative for days and weeks at a time. You follow politics like sports and choose a team and come to dislike or even hate your opponent. 

In late 2020 following the presidential election I tapped out. I couldn't take it anymore. I had watched too much cable news and was sick of it. I decided to stop caring about talking heads and to not care about who said what and stopped paying attention to daily controversies. I still care about politics and I'll never stop wanting to know about politics and society. I don't need cable news as part of my information gathering. It was never the case that I was entirely dependent on cable news, but it did take up too much of my diet. 

I'm not a better person since I stopped watching. I don't sleep any better. I just stopped watching something that wasn't worth watching anymore. I wish I had stopped sooner. The sun still looks the same, I still like trees, but I didn't gain extra appreciation for nature or life or my loved ones. I did cut out a lot of bullshit and I'm not told by a TV station what to think about or how long to think about it and that's good for me. 

Sociological Readings on Dollar Stores


Much has been written about the proliferation of dollar stores. Here's a starter pack:

How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing - Alec MacGillis

‘Everything Going the Wrong Way’: Dollar Stores Hit a Pandemic Downturn - Michael Corkery

Food Options in Dollar Store Nation - Yours Truly


We're all exhausted, right?

Last fall I was teaching class in my bedroom using Google Meet, with my kids in their bedrooms doing school remotely.

This fall we're back in the routine of going to school.

I didn't miss the commute. 

I'm an early bird so I teach M/W/F. I teach three classes beginning at 9:00 and ending at 12:05. I leave the house by 7:20 a.m. 

Yesterday after finishing class I was in my office for office hours until 2:15. I then went to the grocery store on my way home. The kids came home on the bus. 

My wife got home at 4:45 from work. I was making dinner having just finished taking in a meeting on Zoom, camera off. 

Our 13-year-old had a soccer game at 7:30 at a school thirty minutes away. It's required he take the bus with his team to the game, but then he can be driven home. I dropped him off at school by 6:00 and went early to where the game was, sitting in my car, doing class prep, trying to get ahead a bit. My wife ran errands with our 10-year-old and mowed the lawn.

The game ended at 9:00 p.m. I don't think my son's team managed a shot on goal. I lost track of the score but the other team scored close to 10 goals. They've lost every game except one this season. I stopped counting the losses but it's been a lot of them. It hurts to see your kid's team lose so much.

We drove home and chatted and listened to a Sirius XMU session with José González. We got home at 9:30. I had a beer and popcorn while talking with my wife until 11:00, then crashed. I was up around 3:00 after a weird dream in which I was forced to be involved in a drug deal. I took to the couch, looked at my phone, and read "The Myth of Asian American Identity" by Jay Caspian Kang. It was probably around 4:00 that I fell back asleep until 6:00. 

My head hurts and I don't know whether I'm under or over caffeinated. In any case, I'm going to make more coffee and see what I can make of this way, and see what this day becomes.

Class Prep

Back in graduate school when I was a teaching assistant, I remember asking a professor how long it took him to prepare for class. "About 10 minutes," he said. I didn't understand. I was in the process of learning how to put classes together myself, and each session for an Intro course would take me several hours to prepare. Sometimes it would take all day. How in the world could someone stand up there for an hour in front of students with only 10 minutes prep? It helped that he'd been teaching the course forever, so he would take his already prepared notes and review them before class. Observing him as his assistant, I could see him go off the cuff and comfortably field questions from students. He'd taught this material 100 times before. 

I get bored easily. I can't teach the same material over and over. I retool and update my courses constantly. So I'm not in the practice of reusing one set of notes each time I teach a course I've taught before. But I do have lots of notes that I can work from when doing class prep. I still start from scratch, often, but I also can count on a library of examples and notes that have worked well before. 

The main thing for me these days, when possible, is to finish my class prep as early in the day as I can. When teaching on a M/W/F schedule, as I'm doing this semester, I try to have my class prepped the prior day as early as possible. That way I can spend portions of the rest of the day thinking about how I'm going to teach the material and thinking about new questions to ask. It's less about the feeling of being overprepared with more notes than I need. It's more about thinking how I can present the material in a way that will engage students. And it's always about composing questions in my head that I think students will be interested in answering. 

I'm thankful to my students for always inspiring me with questions of their own, and for supplying me with new examples to consider. Even while teaching these days masked up with a sweaty face and struggling to hear students in the back of the room, it's a joy to establish connection with students and to see them thinking through the material.