The Integrity Diet

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?
The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

Throughout this year I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about what it is I am actually supposed to be doing. For about 8 more weeks I will still be working, living and learning entirely on my own dime. Time away from the classroom has brought an astounding degree of freedom and plenty of thinking and dreaming space. As this designated phase draws to a close, I am looking for the list of achievements I can hang my hat on; evidence of my productive use of this precious time. I keep asking myself: so where is the evidence? What have you actually done with yourself this year?

A valid question, yet not the ideal. Rather, to ask about what I gained, how I grew and which capacities I strengthened – these are the questions that bring me closer to understanding the value of this time better than lists of what I did and made. And on closer inspection, I see that above all – I changed my diet. I paid closer attention to what I was taking in, how it affected me and this in turn changed what came out. I didn’t realize it while it was happening but now I see that this year had everything to do with my integrity – how I live my life as my whole self and how I express and share that whole self with the outside world. I treated myself to an integrity diet.

I recently shared one of my biggest revelations on Twitter:

I joined social media, specifically Twitter, to “hang out” in a sense but instead got “caught up” as I described in a recent post. The deeper and wider my education-related conversations became, the greater my interest and focus on the very things that school and education, in and of themselves, can hardly fix or solve. In fact, the more I engaged with educators, journalists, activists and academics around these topics, the more keenly aware I became of the potential for school systems and political systems to harm students, exacerbate disparities and claim ignorance about how such circumstances (i.e., school-to-prison pipeline, excessive police brutality against black and brown people, also in schools) could come to pass. Internally, I note a shift in myself from accommodating to critical. While I love the idea of speaking to a broad audience,  it has become more important for me as a person, as a writer and as an educator to speak out and speak up and accept that not everyone will feel included, or comfortable, or agree with what I have to say. I am now willing to run that risk. My ego may take a hit but my integrity finds sustenance.

While I feed my integrity, where does the time go?

It seems to me that I read for hours on end each day: books, articles, blog posts, e-mail. I read and I seek to become wiser, better informed. I read in search of nuance and depth. I read in search of examples of healthy daily coping. I follow my friends’ recommendations. I develop opinions and then read on to have those same opinions challenged. When I find nuance and depth, I am grateful and compelled to share. One think piece that struck me in particular was Why Women Talk Less because the author did not leave well enough alone. Rather, she  examined research and arguments from various angles refusing to sum up her findings in tidy tweetable bullet points. She let the reader grapple along with her as she laid out the complexity and stickiness of the options that women appear to have in choosing to speak out and up. This type of reading is like a good workout. It leaves you a little tired and mentally sweaty but satisfied. And stronger; ready for the next solid think piece to come along and start something. And there goes the time. I read,  feel edified, and wonder where all this reading may be leading me.


Into the arms of writing, it would seem. The other chunk of time when I am not reading, I am seated at my laptop, pecking my thoughts out onto white screens with hyper-interactive sidebars. I used to write in journals, on paper. I do less of that now and tend to go straight to the screen. Since June 2014 I have published 65 posts on this blog and about a dozen on Medium.  At the outset I was fairly sure that I would be writing about coaching and teaching. But the most passionate pieces are best characterized as responses. Something I read or saw or thought about struck a chord and affected me. Like when a post by Audrey Watters nearly sent me over the edge (in a good and slightly revivalist way). Or when I  needed to dissect the reactions I was seeing on Twitter and elsewhere to a NYT piece on Success Charter Schools. Or most recently when I felt a little out of my depth venturing to take higher education to task but I did it anyway and am glad  that I did. In all of these pieces there was an emotional boiling point which made writing imperative and allowed me to push past the weighty apprehension I typically feel before I click “Publish.” Writing this year has meant jumping over my own shadow. Repeatedly. And with bigger and bigger leaps.

What did I do with myself this year?

I grew and I learned. I have found that my interests extend far beyond where I thought my borders were. In my reading and writing, in fact, I’ve gone abroad. I have ventured into unfamiliar and often uncomfortable territory. I have gained a new appreciation for this wonderful brown skin I am living in.  I have come to better understand and value the ways in which it interacts and intersects with all the other aspects of who I am and how I identify.  I have explored aspects of my otherness while finding commonalities in likely and unlikely places. Opportunities to get down on the ground and truly wrestle with my most stubborn biases and blind spots have been multiple and recurring. I have made many friends and so far, very few enemies. I have come to value questions and responses over supposed answers and solutions. I have found a deeper desire to connect not simply with people but to their ideas and  connect those ideas to other people who may not be seeing the same things.

At the end of this year I have no product to market, no book to pitch, no course of study to offer. What I do have is the well nourished integrity of my intellectual, social and artistic pursuits. Perhaps I have never been as fully myself as I am right now. My integrity has never been in better shape.

Learning to Push Back

image via
image via

As a kid, I was the proverbial “good girl,” a rule follower, a goody two-shoes, and I liked it that way. Truth be told, I still like it that way. Not surprisingly I put a lot of stock in correctness and being polite. In high school I avoided debate, opted for tech theater instead. Crafting arguments and counter-arguments has never felt natural or pleasurable for me. Yet, in the course of my academic career, I certainly learned to write convincing prose; to back up assertions with data and evidence.

When I encounter a position with which I do not agree, I mentally prepare my pushback, yet hesitate miserably before I dare to write anything.  My disagreement is usually real, has both an emotional and intellectual anchor, and something in me wants to speak out.  As I hash out my thoughts, I often second-guess my ability to build a coherent and air-tight rebuttal.  I talk myself out of using my voice with conviction. Instead, I wait until someone else – who is braver, more eloquent, given to snark – posts the protest I wish I had written and I piggy back on it with a modest retweet.

I could stop there and say, well, it’s a case of individual choice. Which it is. And it is also indicative of a larger pattern.

Since I have become active on social media, on Twitter in particular, I have learned to pay attention to the dominant narratives and what constructive pushback looks like. To do that I had to find some  models and there are plenty.  And in choosing my models I have been highly selective: I have sought out women of color who comprehend intersectionality;  who understand from the get-go what it means to be more than “just one thing” in society, most often from a marginalized perspective.

For both artful and substantive pushback I turn toTressie McMillan Cottam @tressiemcphd, Melinda D. Anderson @mdawriter, @RafranzDavis, @nicloecallahan, @arissahOh, Shireen Mitchell @digitalsista,  and Nicole Sanchez @nmsanchez. These women regularly point out weak argumentation, demonstrate skillful presentation of evidence, employ sass, snark and nuance at will, and tirelessly remind whoever will listen about the issues which mainstream media typically neglects,  higher ed research may sidestep, and industries would rather gloss over.

Some worthy examples:

Tressie McMillan Cottam points out that while everyone rushes to quote Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed, he’s not the first to make the case that education is not the great equalizer:

Because of course, she has said as much and more so often in her writing about  inequality in higher education with a special emphasis on the for-profit sector.

Or Melinda D. Anderson raises questions about what appears to be white paternalism towards civil rights groups with regards to educating children of color:

On another note, Arissa Oh diplomatically distances herself from the widespread Oscar kerfuffle:

And following an exhausting exchange over the wage gap comments of Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, Nicole Sanchez tweeted  a series of portraits of women of color at the top of their game and in conclusion offered this as a positive reset cue:

The lessons here for me are several:

As I cultivate my own voice of dissent, I need to

  • Pay attention: to the message, the messenger, the power dynamics, who is speaking out and who’s voice is missing.
  • Know my intention first and then think about how I will speak my mind.
  • Be clear about what is at stake and prepare to be heard (and also misunderstood).
  • And if I think my voice doesn’t matter, I must know that someone else who is not in my corner is counting on precisely that.  Here is where I have to give myself the benefit of the doubt, rather than defer to the status-quo.
  • Finally I have to recognize that baby steps count. Each teaspoon of resistance contributes to the next. Pushback can be learned and accommodated without becoming a default stance.

It seemed to take a long time to get this post out. And the more I write and participate in social media, the more I think of that as a good thing. I want to remain wary of knee-jerk reactions and the tendency to pile-on after a celebrity misstep. Role models are important throughout our lifespan and I take great pleasure in seeking out new models in new territory.  These mavens of artful pushback provide me with guidance, inspiration and positive examples of meaningful social media engagement. No doubt, I too, will learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable, to bravely push back rather than holding back.