Trying to make some sense of the Covid-19 pandemic

In times of stress, I turn to writing as a way to process and gain some semblance of order.  After the 9/11 attacks, I started a file labelled “World War III.” This didn’t fully come to pass, although we are still fighting in Afghanistan nearly 20 years later.  Since then, I have focused more on the harm and prospects of catastrophe from climate change and other aspects of life in what is now being called the Anthropocene.  In regard to either the war on terror or climate change, I have tried to get a sense of just how bad these situations are, and so again now with the COVID-19 pandemic.  As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, what might have been an opportunity to redouble our efforts on behalf of saving the planet, has instead found us in the midst of the unexpected.  The randomness of evolution and viral mutation, zoonosis (this year’s vocabulary word, meaning the transfer of disease from animals to humans), the contingency of life, has again become readily apparent.  It is a time for the serenity prayer, a time for helping each other out, and a time to reflect and, for me, to write.  The realities change so rapidly that what I have to say here will be undoubtedly be out of date in a week.  What the world looks like in a year?  Well, we will see.  On March 13th I was in Chicago visiting friends, thinking I might be heading south to New Orleans.  By March 15th I was back home and scrambling to get classes online.  In the meantime, this is one attempt to make some sense of the past month.

What, in timely fashion, Karen Hirschfeld terms the “microbial insurgency” has arrived.  Like fugitives from the law (of nature), we hide away in our compounds, hoping the invading viral commandos don’t find us, as even ISIS tells its commandos to avoid COVID hotspots, and the mighty U.S. aircraft carrier Teddy Roosevelt has to evacuate its crew, with a third of them infected with the virus.  Everything from terrorist attacks to traffic and air pollution are down, and we are in the midst of another historical “boundary event” marking the transition from the post-9/11 era into the post-COVID-19 age (see Ben Rhodes, 4/4/20 article in Atlantic).  Hirschfeld writes “Since the end of the Cold War . . . there has been a dramatic reconfiguration of governance in many parts of the world, and these macro-level changes are accelerating ecological destruction and fueling armed conflict in ways that will reduce the range and effectiveness of public health methods and prevention technologies that were successful during the 20th century. The combined effect of these institutional and environmental changes will increase global pandemic risks in the Anthropocene, even for infectious diseases that are easily preventable today.”  To this we can add that many of the same dynamics that have ushered in the Anthropocene and climate change are contributing now to the pandemic (Vijay Kolingavadi, 3/30/20 Op-ed in Al Jazeera).

Thus the pandemic is not so much a manifestation of the Anthropocene per se as it is a manifestation of the vulnerabilities of  an increasingly interconnected, hyper-mobile, urbanized global system.  This increased level of human mobility and trade and the increased disruptions of wilderness areas (thus bringing more humans into contact with novel pathogens) can lead to the rapid spread of a virus, if it has the right characteristics.  COVID-19 has that set of characteristics—airborne and deadly, but not too deadly.  As the global population has sky-rocketed, humanity has come to constitute a very inviting set of 14 billion petri dishes (our lungs), all connected by the dense web of pathways that constitute globalization.  Once the lung-loving virus makes the jump into the human community crammed together in cities and coughing on each other, then it is off to the races.  Given how much more closely we now bump up against the natural world (to the extent that there is even any boundary at all), the chances for new infections likewise increase.  As invasive species have devastated native species in ecosystems around the globe, the Corona virus now constitutes humanity’s “invasive species.”  We have crossed a tipping point of sorts, as humans now constitute their own kind of “mono-crop.” Lacking biodiversity, we are opened up to biological attack, just as the huge mono-crop fields of corn, soybeans, urban elm tree forests, and cotton are so susceptible to pathogens.  We have already been living in what Anna Tsing has called the condition of precarity and this has only added to this sense that we live a “life without the promise of stability.”  The pandemic has led to the latest “hockey stick” graph, that will peak and eventually recede (and in some places has already done so, at least in the “first wave”).  This is then overlaid on top of all the other such graphs of the “Great Acceleration.”

(As of Apr. 18th, new deaths in the U.S. have finally begun to level off, at least for now.  It remains to be seen what kind of “second wave” happens once we start to gather again and go back to work.)

With inadequate social safety nets and public health infrastructure, we now face a microbial foe without the adequate tools or institutions to respond.  The most at risk are those living at the margins in countries with inadequate public health systems.  China now has one of the lowest per capita rates of infection, a remarkable feat in some sense given that it was the site of the first outbreak, and reflective of the high level of state control and powerful norms around individual sacrifice for the public good.  The U.S., in contrast, has seen the disease run wild in its urban centers, hitting communities of color—who already bear the burdens of many chronic health conditions—particularly hard.  This is the result of some abysmally poor choices, ineptitude, and lack of preparation on many levels, most notably from the Trump Whitehouse.  But the roots of this problem go much further back, and reflect decades of underinvestment in public health and social safety nets.  We should point out, for instance, that the $650 billion annual defense budget has almost nothing to offer us in this “war” (witness the woefully inadequate role of the naval hospital ship in NY harbor).  Although this is nothing new, that obscene amount of spending seems woefully misplaced, never more so than now.

Putting this into some kind of perspective

What constitutes a crisis?  (Well, I guess we know now.)  How bad is this one?  How does it compare to other problems out there?  For those, like my sister, working on the frontlines in the healthcare system, this is all to scary and real and immediate and personal.  For almost everyone, this is indeed frightening.  For all those who have lost family, friends, or loved ones, there is, of course, sorrow and loss, as with any deaths, particularly those that come in the midst of such uncertainty.  Listening to first-responders in New York City will lay to rest any doubts that this is far from a regular flu season.  These recently released graphs of the higher than normal number of deaths in the hard-hit areas, certainly show that this is a deviation from the norm.”  For instance, as shown in this graph of deaths in Spain so far this year, normally there might be around 8,000 deaths in a week, in late March there were almost double that number.  This rapid spike is what has overwhelmed the healthcare system and hospital capacity.

Viewed from a perhaps overly philosophical standpoint, in any given year around the globe about 60 million people die (and, we should note, 130-140 million are born).  Currently, lifestyle-related diseases (like heart disease and diabetes) are the leading cause of death, and, for example, 1.3 million people die in car accidents each year.  We consider these deaths normal—as non-events, or at least certainly not crises.  Almost none of these deaths made headlines in 2019.  The typical annual flu kills around 250,000 – 500,000 globally.  The Our World in Data site reports that “the annual number of deaths from influenza are around 400,000 deaths per year . . . [or about] 0.0052% of the world population – one person out of 18,750.”  As of April 18, COVID-19 has killed 150,000, with the eventual death toll still very much uncertain.  The University of Washington’s Health Data site (very useful, if grim, reading), predicts around 60,000 COVID-related deaths in the first wave in the U.S. (global figures are much harder to predict, given the lack of good data about the situation in many countries).  Should the virus take hold in India or Nigeria (densely-populated countries with few ICUs or ventilators), the number of global deaths could quickly start to rise again.  In the U.S. the death toll could be as low as 40,000 or as high as 140,000—pointing to the importance of sticking to current efforts at social distancing to keep that number as low as possible.  How does this compare to the annual flu outbreaks and to the 1918 flu pandemic?  In the U.S. the annual flu seasons leads to between 10 – 60,000 deaths.  Even in comparison to the low estimate for the death count of the Spanish flu (17.4 million) this pandemic, more than a century ago, caused a death rate that was 182-times higher than today’s baseline. This amounted to a total of somewhere between 1-4% of the world’s population at the time.”

As but one point of comparison, total deaths in World War II were around 60 million (20 million soldiers and 40 million civilians).  Today, absent the draconian social distancing practices now in place, according to the epidemiologists at the Imperial College London, COVID could have infected up to 7 billion people and led to 40 million deaths—a staggering figure by any measure.  Is this an over-reaction? alarmism?  We are currently far from this level, but that is almost certainly only because of the global lock-down now in place.  Opening up the economy again would undo that certainly lead to another rapid spike.  Numbers like that should provide enough motivation for us to put down any guns we might be tempted to pick up, and get the hell back into our houses and start sewing face masks.  Please.  As of April 18th, existing measures appear to have dramatically slowed the spread of the virus with the increase in global cases beginning to slow:

Another way to look at this is in terms of “Years of Life Lost” (YLL), defined as “the number of deaths multiplied by a standard life expectancy at the age at which death occurs.”  Similarly, Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY) “is a health gap measure that extends the concept of potential years of life lost due to premature death (PYLL) to include equivalent years of ‘healthy’ life lost by virtue of being in states of poor health or disability.”  This site gives a variety of ways in which this can be represented and has helped me to get a sense of the relative burden of various diseases or causes of death (given that we’re all going to die sooner or later).  The death rate for humans is, after all, 100%.  The things we need to be concerned most about are those that lead to untimely deaths.  Although we do not have any calculations of the DALY for COVID-19, given that it tends to kill the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, its impact in terms of the “disease burden,” will be relatively low compared to other conditions that disproportionately strike the young and otherwise healthy.  So, this is obviously a bad situation, and one that would be much, much worse if not for the all the current heroic efforts to limit the spread of the disease.

Although there are far too many unknowns and, if the past month has taught us anything it is that we should not get too confident in what the future holds, but it seems now that the total deaths from the first wave will not exceed one million globally, amounting then to something like 2-3 times the typical flu death toll, but a small fraction of those lives lost in the 1918 pandemic.  In 2020 we will likely have a slight increase in the global deaths (going from a total of 60 million dead in 2019 to, say, 60.5 dead in 2020), which is to say this is not the Black Plague (which killed off a third of Europe) or like the plague of diseases introduced to the Americas by the “Columbian Exchange,” which nearly wiped out the entire indigenous population of the Americas; so not World War III, but likewise not just another flu.  Unfortunately, the press and public discourse have a decided tendency to swing to one extreme or the other, viewing this in either apocalyptic terms, or brushing it off as nothing to worry about. It is somewhere in the middle, requiring a response proportionate to its severity. Is this any consolation?  Hopefully this might allow us to respond with an appropriate level of vigilance and concern, avoiding both the Scylla of paralyzing panic and the Charybdis of foolhardy complacence. Things are bad, could certainly be better, but also certainly could be worse.  We should be worried, and mourn the dead, and take this seriously and respond appropriately, and also know that life will go on, that there will be good work to do, and perhaps take some comfort in knowing that, despite this particular virus’ ability to damage our lungs, we humans are still very good at replacing ourselves.  Even COVID-19 won’t stop there from being something like 60 million more people living on the planet by the end of this year than when we started.

On denial, reality, and the partisan divide

Given the aforementioned number of young lives lost in things like car accidents, gun deaths, “deaths of despair,” and other preventable deaths resulting from poverty and structural or “slow” violence, it is strange that we respond so differently to these dangers.  All these deaths are bad and terrible losses, but we respond to them very differently.  Poverty and lack of adequate supplies of potable water and basic healthcare kill millions each year as well, mostly children, and yet this has come to be little more than “background noise” in the daily lives of most people, relegated to some brief mention buried in the paper or news feed.  Part of the difference could be that we accept car accidents as the price for the glories and benefits of mobility and speed (and that certainly is how they have been sold to us through the multibillion-dollar ad campaigns).  We accept deaths related to our unhealthy lifestyles (from obesity or smoking), since these are things we willingly choose to do (and, by extension, could choose not to do) rather than things that are forced upon us.  “Live free and die young from making bad choices!” would seem to be the slogan.  A big part of why COVID-19 is a crisis and there is pandemonium could well be that this is just new and unknown, and is not something happening “over there.”  As such, it pierces the veil of willful denial of our mortality, the existential dread lurking always in the deep recesses our mind and which we manage to ignore during normal times.  The 60 million deaths that normally occur each year are cognitively quarantined; they rarely make the headlines, and, if they do, it is in terms of the deaths of “others” about which most of us (particularly the privileged classes) don’t really have to worry.

In the 19th Century, communities facing typhoid or yellow fever, thinking that these diseases were spread by poisonous miasmas or “foul air,” would fire cannons into the air in the vain hope that this would somehow drive away the pestilence.  In a move that seemed to share some of the same causal logic, the April 17th “patriotic protests” in Michigan, Minnesota, and elsewhere by gun-toting Trump supporters was a particularly troubling and vivid manifestation of the political right’s response to the crisis, and speaks to this right-wing populist response to a range of “new realities.”  Would those guns allow them to magically drive away the corona virus?  They see the government as the proxy for the virus itself, eliding the difference between the message and messenger.  There is fear and anxiety there, and a particular way of responding to that fear.

A fair amount of this kind of response comes, I think, from the fact that the pandemic is layered now on top of a number of other longer-term trends that are particularly unsettling for those whose way of life is grounded in the mainstream culture constituted by things such as the manufacturing economy, blue collar jobs, and heteronormative patriarchy.  This demographic, which forms a large part of the Trump base (and in similar ways the support for other right-wing populist governments in Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, etc.), have already experienced a decline in their standard of living, and have a sense of foreboding about what the future portends for their basic values and way of life.  As Arlie Hochschild puts it, they are “strangers in their own land.”  For American Indians, African Americans, and other marginalized and historically persecuted peoples, this is nothing new (see Kyle Whyte’s writing on Colonial Déjà vu).  No one knows better the havoc that a new disease can wreck than the original inhabitants of the Americas.  Again, these marginalized communities of color are bearing the brunt of the COVID pandemic, with African-American communities having infection and death rates close to triple those in the population in general.  The response in these communities is not one of willful denial, but déjà vu and long familiarity with suffering.  And it is these communities that should be the highest priority for healthcare resources.

But conservatives and Fox viewers have consistently downplayed the threats (see Dave Roberts Vox piece on the partisan differences in response to the pandemic), and continued to deny the seriousness of the crisis, as they have with climate change (and problems of poverty, mass incarceration, and economic inequality).  For conservatives and those attached to the “traditional” values of white, heteronormative patriarchy, property rights, and free market capitalism, the future is troubling.  Resonant of Reagan’s turn to the supposed glories of a mythic American past, they want America to become “great again,” and somehow believe that by ignoring the trends and pretending that we can go back in time that they can make it so.  But the trends, far from being some left wing conspiracy foisted upon the public, are the result of global economic, demographic, and technological changes that are clear and evident—increasing diversity, erosion of patriarchy and heteronormativity, challenges to traditional religious authority by secular cosmopolitan liberalism, the digital revolution, shifting economy leading to more unemployment and underemployment, climate change and mass extinction, and the beginnings of our transition away from fossil fuels.  In the face of these facts, the only way to engage in the cognitively conservative practice of denial is to deny science itself.  So, rather than reading the writing on the wall and adapting to changing cultural norms and environmental realities, many on the right now create their own social-media-fueled alternative facts and reality.  Belatedly, the corona virus has come to constitute a kind of scientific reality that even Trump cannot ignore, even though he continues to want to do so and keeps tweeting out wishful thoughts that imply that none of this really happening.

Eventually climate change, and the other demographic and cultural shifts at work, will get to this point of crisis, requiring action as well.  We are not there yet, but we are getting closer, and can take some solace in the fact, that for every gun-toting white guy calling for “freedom!” there are hundreds more who recognize the seriousness of the current situation and are responding appropriately to minimize the loss of life, gaining new-found appreciation for the sober facing of facts, and helping each other out.

What might come out of this pivotal moment?

As happened during 2008 with the so-called “Great Recession” (which now pales in comparison to what we’re heading into now), we are seeing a rare downturn in carbon emissions as the carbon-fueled global economic freight train temporarily hits the breaks, and people get a little feel for what a post-carbon world might feel like, at least in certain respects (see Gambuto’s Apr. 10 piece in Medium).  Nothing short of a pandemic (or similarly dire global crisis) otherwise seems to have the ability to slow down the fossil-fuel-chugging consumer capitalist juggernaut, further highlighting the urgency of decoupling our economy from fossil fuels and other sources of environmental damage.  We are now in a moment of uninvited disruption that opens up both dangerous and potentially hopeful and game-changing new ways of living.  If Trump, Bannon, & Co. came into office with a disruptive agenda, we are certainly in a moment of unexpected disruptive change now.  This is one of those rare moments of potential transformation, and everyone will be scrambling to shape what comes out of this.  As happened after 9/11, we can expect about a year or so of heightened public spirit, followed by a return to something approximating the status quo ante.  But this could help bring about some longer-lasting changes.  For those not in the confused vortex of anger, blind faith, and mindless denial, there is likely to be some greater respect for scientific expertise and our shared responsibility for each other.  The social media-fueled “post-truth” era we live in won’t be killed off by the virus, with trolls, propagandists, and partisan bloggers still able to sow seeds of doubt and discord; but it may lose a little steam.

On the more mundane level, it appears we will have an increase in online and virtual work, travel, and teaching now that we have all gone down that rabbit hole, gotten somewhat accustomed to it, and seen some of the value in it (as well as its serious disadvantages).  The separation and isolation (bowling alone and streaming our movies in the privacy of our living rooms) that has eroded our store of social capital in the past decades is being accelerated.  This will be another challenge to take on as we get back to being able to work and socialize in person.  Perhaps having seen more clearly how impoverished our lives have felt during the “stay-at-home” period, we will have a greater appreciation for the rich communities to be found under the cosmopolitan canopy.  In all this, there is room for us to shape the world that comes out of this.  We have a moment of pause here, have had to give up many things we normally took for granted, and have now the opportunity to reclaim and strengthen those parts of our communities and lives that we perhaps see more clearly now as important.

At a minimum, with some leadership and any luck (and depending a great deal on the outcome of the U.S. election in November) we should see some meaningful improvements in global health preparedness (particularly needed in poor areas), a “medical reserve corps,” a ready supply of face masks and other PPE, testing, equipment (like ventilators), and more lab and hospital capacity.  We won’t be able to avoid future outbreaks, but we can at least do our due diligence in being prepared with increased global coordination, if not actual a working global public health system.  This would include heightened monitoring of future bio-threats and infectious outbreaks with varying levels of social distancing called for to modulate the spread of any future pathogens.

The current crisis highlights the need to increase our resilience, so that we are better prepared for the next one, and for the impending crises that will accompany climate change and the range of other global stressors, as population grows and resource scarcity and cost of living continue to increase.  Andrew Zolli (who spoke at Augsburg last year) outlines some of the characteristics of systems and people that can respond to shocks while maintaining core values.  Characteristics of resilient systems include real-time, accurate monitoring; early response systems; informal networks and systems redundancy; and a rich diversity of ideas, sources, species in any given system.  Successful navigation of crises such as this one, Zolli argues, requires deep trust and authentic relationships, and “translational leaders”—those that weaving together the wisdom and resources in our communities and develop adaptive forms of governance.  We need to collaborate in response to a crisis and need to think about the “connected whole” (inter-scalar) living systems as models of resilience.  Whether we come out of this crisis with more resilience or not is yet to be determined, but if there was anything we should be focusing our policy making now, it would be this.

The economic downturn has “exceeded expectations” (to the extent that there were any expectations to begin with).  To have oil trading at negative $40 a barrel is certainly “novel” as well!  The lack of resilience in the economy, trade, and vulnerabilities of so many people living on the fringes of the economy has been striking, to say the least.  It’s complicated, and there is much more that could be said about this, but the roar of the global capitalist machine has ground to near halt, brought low by a microscopic bundle of RNA.  Lo, how the mighty have fallen! as the usual titans of industry come back begging for multi-billion hand-outs from the government trough once again.  Were this pandemic on the order of the worst-case 1918-version, the economic consequences are hard to imagine.  But suffice it to say that a more resilient set of economic communities, with great local self-sufficiency and much stronger social safety nets, will also have to developed coming out of this crisis.  We should be working hard on building an economy that could weather future such pandemics (or other disruptions).  Should we muster the political will and groundswell of grassroots support for such efforts, we could really move the needle here on creating an at least marginally more equitable economy.  One can dream.

But, as Naomi Klein argues, as in past periods of disaster, capitalist imperatives remain and there is also likely to be a gold rush in health-related and other disaster profiteering.  This can be countered by a corresponding increase in government power, both to restrict this economic opportunism and exploitation, but also to improve public health and social safety net infrastructures.  With the authoritarian tendencies in many capitals around the globe, there are already signs that the crisis is being used as a pretext for a ratcheting up of state power.  The tracking and surveillance of the general public’s movement and health, such as is being done via smartphones (although understandable from the perspective of public health) begins to look downright Orwellian.  An army of big brothers is watching.  Big data, big data companies, and the national security apparatuses around the globe are rapidly gaining access to a rapidly expanding torrent of data that can be put to all sorts of uses, either benevolent or totalitarian.  On this front, vigilance and care for our freedoms and democracy are more than warranted (thought strangely the libertarian right seems less concerned on this front).  So, we should all take care, rest up, stay safe, stay connected, and get ready to do all we can coming out of this painful period to realize whatever good can be built up from this period of disruption, and guard with all the vigilance we can muster against the potential for the kind of troubling developments that likewise lie waiting, like a political corona virus, ready to spread among an unwitting and complacent public.

Why a River Semester?

As we live into a new millennium and what scholars are now describing as a new geological era–the Anthropocene–with human impacts and technological changes increasing, it appears that there is real need for changes in how we teach and learn.  The standard model of education has been one defined by insularity, separation, disconnection, and over-simplification.  Rooted in monastic and ecclesiastical structures of the Middle Ages, our current educational system is not well suited for a world experiencing rapid urbanization, the internet revolution, a population approaching 8 billion, massive species die-off, and the need for the fundamental reorganization of our economic, political, and social systems to cope with the threat posed by climate change.  With evidence of disruptive climate change steadily mounting, everyone, including those of us in higher education, needs to grapple with the transition away from fossil fuels and the high-impact, resource consuming lifestyle.  2016 was the hottest year on record, and the scientific community is reporting a growing litany of impacts resulting from this increase in solar energy being trapped in the atmosphere by the steadily rising levels of greenhouse gasses.  Academics have, for the most part, done their part in sounding the alarm and educating our students about the threats posed by climate change.  We have, however, done very little to change how we actually teach our courses, run our campuses, travel about, or live our lives.  To reduce the disconnect between word and deed, colleges and universities need to move toward ways of running our campuses and classrooms that minimize the use of fossil fuels and provide our students with the knowledge, skills, and lifeways needed for transitioning through what is very likely to be one of the most significant social and economic transformations in recorded history. This is an enormous challenge, but it also offers us opportunities for new and exciting ways of teaching.

The standard model of education has had several basic components–a teacher trained in a specialized discipline, in a hierarchically structured classroom, on a campus generally separated from the community around it.  The world is studied through highly segregated disciplinary lenses, broken down into discrete parts and simplified in order to facilitate research and comprehension.  Classrooms and campus buildings separate students from the world, while modeling old, fossil fuel-intensive designs and lifestyles.  Students report increasing levels of mental illness (anxiety, depression, hopelessness), staring at screens, prescribed more and more pharmaceuticals, and being bombarded with grim news while sitting in sterile, artificial spaces.

In order to really address these challenges of global climate change there will need to be major policy changes and treaties at the national and global levels (with the Paris accords offering some signs of hope, despite the Trump administration’s willful and abysmal reversal of U.S. policy on shifting toward renewable energy). But we also need to shift how we live, teach, and learn, including here at Augsburg, where I teach.  Not surprisingly, students are leading the way.  For example, our student government has stepped up by passing a campus greening fee that is supporting energy conservation and renewable energy projects.  But we need to think about more fundamental shifts in how we operate.

One way we can start to shift toward a less environmentally harmful way of living and learning is by really rethinking how we teach and deliver our courses.  This means both thinking of ways to get fossil fuels out of the classroom (by redesigning our buildings and reducing energy consumption), but also getting us out of those classrooms themselves.  In Fall 2015, a really fortunate group of students had the opportunity to explore the Mississippi–one of the world’s iconic rivers–in a unique, low-carbon off-campus learning expedition.  The second expedition launched in August 2018.  Very quickly this second cohort experienced climate change firsthand–in the form of record-setting rainfall, extreme weather, flooding, and unseasonable cold (due to the unsettling of some of the jet stream patterns).  The third expedition in Fall 2019, focused on climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene, the claim that we are living in a new geological era defined by human (and particularly industrial, imperial, capitalist) impacts on the planet.

The program challenges students physically (and gets them a Health & Physical Education credit) as the group paddles the 24-foot voyageur canoes and loads and unloads thousands of pounds of gear from them each time we set up or strike camp.  Most nights the group camps along the river, cooking their meals, and spending the evening with discussion, songs, and stories around the campfire (with occasional stops at motels and hostels with showers and laundry).  Travelers on the trip explore local culture, cuisine and music in countless small towns and major cities such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.  It is a thorough mix of wilderness and “civilization” through a part of the country that has an amazingly rich, and troubling, history.  Much of our work along the way involves surfacing and exploring the history or settler colonialism, slavery, and various ongoing forms of injustice; and seeing the amazing work being done by organizations and activists along the way to counter and help to undo these historic wrongs.

The tuition for the program is the same as a regular semester at Augsburg, plus a program fee of $7,500, which covers room, board, and travel costs for the trip.  These is a lot of money, but financial aid helps, and we are working on sources of scholarships or other funds to make this experience available to anyone wanting to participate.  We also have room for guest lecturers and fellow travelers, and have had high school students, graduate students, visiting faculty, river researchers, and other interested parties join us.

In the face of challenges and transformations swirling around us, we need dramatic rethinking of educational forms, epistemologies (ways of knowing), and ways of living.  Marginal or minor changes are not going to be enough.  I would argue that we need similarly dramatic changes to how we teach.  After twenty five years of teaching, I find myself drawn increasingly to new and different pedagogies and curricula, that embody a set of values and practices that, I would argue, are much better suited for preparing our students for the world they are inheriting.  This has led me to the Mississippi River and the River Semester.  These are experiments in a new way of teaching, that includes the following characteristics:

  1. Reconnection
  2. Radical interdisciplinarity and holistic, site-based learning.
  3. Resilience, adaptability, problem-solving, and resilience, reflecting the need to build up the toolkit for personal, social, and ecological sustainability, innovation, and low-carbon living.
  4. Agency and hope.  We need to show that there is a way forward, and that we can undertake the grand challenges called for in this time.
  5. Authenticity: walking the walk
  6. Healing and joy.  We are in need of some healing, and have found that being on the river lifts our spirits in powerful, and much needed, ways.

The River Semester has been guided by these principles in the following ways.


This disconnect between rhetoric and action mirrors a general tendency to disconnect and separate ourselves from the world around us.  And we need schools that reconnect us to our local communities and environment, instead of isolating and separating us from them.  One of the main reasons why I began thinking about a River Semester was the fact that, despite the fact that I was teaching just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, there was so little coursework or research being done on the river.  I believe that a vital part of the shift that is needed now is toward an intentionally place-based pedagogy.  But it also needs to be a pedagogy grounded in transforming how we power our lives and organize our communities.

Higher education is also witnessing the increasing use of online tools and “virtual classrooms” that can both connect us to each other, but also disconnect us from the world at large.  On the river semester, students are fully immersed in all aspects of life in the American heartland, literally swimming in the river, speaking directly with people working and living along the river, and eating food gathered from it.  But we also recognize the incredible value of online tools and availability of information. Participants on the trip are also connected to the web, with students blogging, doing online research using mobile internet connections, solar chargers, and field laptops.

The Anthropocene Curriculum: radical interdisciplinarity

This is a form of an “Anthropocene curriculum”—one that requires a thorough rethinking of disciplinary categories. The Mississippi River provides a particularly rich and evocative setting within which to explore these complex interconnections.  Need to learn from the river itself.  There is a dire need to connect with the world and understand what is going on there—both what is problematic and troubling, but also what is encouraging and hopeful

Students on the River Semester choose from a range of classes, including a course on the current state of democracy and grassroots activism in the American heartland, a course on the impact of farming and cities on the river ecosystems, comparative natural history and conservation biology on the Mississippi, a stream ecology course, or set up their own curriculum with independent study or Keystone options.  Students are encouraged to pick a project–documentary film, field research, political organizing–that they can carry out over the course of the semester and report back to our community at the end of the term.

Resilience and problem-solving skills

Students on the river trip learns all sorts of other things as well—how to tie knots, cook pizza on a camp stove, juggle, forage for duck potatoes, organize a town hall meeting, write letters to the editor, analyze food webs in a big muddy river, identify constellations, sing river songs, pitch a tent on a rainy night, and pick up a little Cajun vocabulary.

Agency and hope



The River Semester students, with guides and equipment from Wilderness Inquiry, and two faculty depart from the headwaters at Lake Itasca  in canoes, headed south, spending around 100 days traveling southward to the Gulf of Mexico.  To my knowledge, this is the only program of this kind on a major river, and students in the program have the enviable opportunity to travel the length of the Mississippi as part of a full semester program.  We are outfitted with solar panels that generate enough energy on sunny days to power all our electronic equipment (including a set of laptops, lab equipment, and everyone’s cell phones).  The group uses a little propane for cooking meals, some gas for the van shuttles along the way and for the ride back, but this is about the best education to carbon ratio we can come up with for a semester in this part of the world.  For our 2015 expedition, one of the students kept track of our direct carbon footprint (from propane, gasoline, and electricity consumption) and estimated that our carbon footprint was around 2% of the U.S. average.

The impetus for the program came from a growing realization that most off-campus programs have a high environmental impact, and that there are amazing learning opportunities right in our own backyard.  There is enormous educational value for off-campus and international courses, but these also come with a high carbon price tag.  Study abroad programs almost always involve air travel and have a heavy ecological footprint.  For instance, in 2010, the air travel for U.S. study abroad produced over 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide–the equivalent of driving 80,000 Hummers around for a year.

The rapidly rising cost of college also places strains on personal finance and raises questions about the over-all value of higher education.  One large part of these higher costs are the rising expectations for life on campus—from fancy gyms and housing to the needs for increasingly sophisticated and high-tech classrooms and labs.  My experience on campus seems to be taken up more and more in just dealing with and navigating complex electronic devices and interfaces, rather than interacting with students or the world itself.  In contrast, study on the river offers the richest of learning environments, available for us to study for free.  All we have to do is be willing to paddle a bit, know how to pitch a tent, and swat a few mosquitoes.

Healing and joy. 

There is a certain wistfulness and longing from those not on the trip

A palpable and undeniable sense of contentment found in being on the water.  In the face of the daunting task ahead of us, and the steady flow of discouraging news, we need this too.

Students interested in the program can visit the River Semester web site at or contact the Program Director at  For students on the trip, it promises to be a life-changing experience.  And hopefully as well it will demonstrate to the world that we can change how higher education can operate in the 21st Century–providing world-class educational experiences without simultaneously producing the pollution that threatens to have devastating effects on the communities and ecosystems upon which we all depend.

Our Work

I wake in the morning, thinking. Usually around five or six; on odd nights it might be 3:00 in the morning, lying in bed, churning over a laundry list of problems that need attending to.  How am I going to convey this idea about international regimes to students studying about the UN?  What do I need to buy at the grocery store today for that chicken soup?  What about that student who is mute, and has to communicate with me on Google chat?  Did I remember to post that latest study guide on moodle?  How are we going to implement new courses that will attract students and teach them without them going broke?  I take on too much, and remain underprepared for a good bit of what I have to attend to.

After breakfast and the train ride to campus in class, on stage, the adrenalin kicks in and we work on various problems and tasks:  how to calculate a standard deviation, how to give an effective speech on the merits of transparency in water management institutions, or investigate the geopolitics of migration in Southeast Asia.  My instinct is to talk too much, which doesn’t work well.  But my old fears about the awkward silences, and some sense of obligation to “give them their money’s worth” keeps me chattering away, as I watch the students disengage, submerged in vaguely formed ideas and inundated with my fragmented presentation.  In between classes there are the countless emails on meetings, worried students wondering about assignments, or the latest form they need signed, or the letter of recommendation they want.  At the gym, I chat with the custodian who is getting in a little workout at the end of the day, and greet the Dutch student from my intro class.  It is a three-ring circus of educational chicanery, cooked up by the jesters, acrobats, and lion tamers here, and it is our work.  It all feels a bit chaotic, and sometimes pointless, but at its core I still believe it is indeed some of the most important human activity that can be done.

Humans are many things, including selfish and short-sighted, and often power-hungry, sometimes viciously cruel.  But I think one central human characteristic is our propensity to seek solutions to problems:  thinking through something, confronting problematic situations, and trying to figure out how to solve them.  We try this or that and see how it works.  Fail repeatedly.  Reject those options.  Try others.  Homo sapiens–the gatherer of knowledge.  A learner, waking early in the morning, mind turning over the problems of the day before, looking for some way to do things a bit better on this new day.

For me this started early on when my young life was blown apart by the machinations of the world.  Things fell apart, and I then set about trying to understand why humans behaved as they did, and to work to try to a fuller realization of justice.  I set my mind to work as a form of self-defense and survival.  The world confronted me with a series of deeply troubling and confusing phenomena—humans who did hurtful things to children, wars, nuclear weapons, insanity, pollution.  I joined in with those seeking to do something about some of these things, as something that just clearly needed doing.

I’ve tried to think of a metaphor for this slow, steady work, the daily grind.  Expanding the realm of peace and justice.  We chip away at the stone in the dark, with some blind faith that our work amounts to something.  Not moving mountains, but slowly carving out spaces of marginally greater freedom, or dignity, or happiness.  Still, mountains of pain, huge piles of sadness, remain–their weight great enough to crush out hope or optimism.  But still great, grand vistas stretch out around us, broad expanses cultivated by a million bright and passionate souls, who, along with us, have fought and sweated, and given their all to create that space, little by little, and often with setbacks, but never giving up.  This sense of tempered optimism is neither utopian nor naive; and it is profoundly important not to lose sight of.  It is the work we do everyday of simply getting along with each, and subtly shifting how we interact.  7 billion human beings doing this every day creates the world we live in.

Being able to imagine our work as part of this greater effort, this human project, and not just a futile, lonely effort, is one of the greatest challenges.  We must be able to imagine.  Not some impractical, unachievable future, but something at least a bit better than what we have now.  We need to remember as well that we have come a long way.  Spend a little time in the 15th Century and you would have to agree.  We can mourn all the violence in Syria and the Congo and in America’s inner cities, and the gun deaths, and all the people that die in car crashes, or the prospect of climate catastrophe, but for all that we are immensely better off in many ways than almost anyone was a few hundred years ago.  Poorer in other ways that we still need to work on.  But our work in the past has helped.

We had a young campaign worker in our Political Statistics and Methodology class recently, talking about his work on a few campaigns in the last few years.  He put in 120 hour weeks, for almost no pay, pouring everything he had into a Wisconsin Congressional campaign that ended up going down in a wave of Republican, anti-government sentiment in the 2010 election.  He was disillusioned and found that experience clearly disheartening.  But then he went on to work on the Minnesotans United for All Families campaign, which was one of the most successful grassroots organizing efforts in recent history (rejecting the Marriage Amendment that would have prohibited legal recognition of same-sex marriage).  They were chipping away at the edifice of prejudice and discrimination, and that time they won, and thousands of people in this state felt more accepted for being who they were.

But regardless of the outcome of a particular campaign or election, we have to carry on, with the most important of qualities:  patience, diligence, humility, and with this general sense of restlessness, that things aren’t quite right, which is the price we pay for attentiveness.  So I wake, early in the morning and start over again, think about what went well yesterday, what didn’t go so well, and try to do a little better.  Seeing what we all can learn from what we messed up yesterday, and collectively trying something different today.  That is our work.

Democracy education and the civic arts

Most college classes start with a syllabus drawn up by the professor with a set structure that primarily reflects the set knowledge expected by the discipline.  This is the norm–the taken-for-granted way a college course is run.  We are to read the canonical texts, and learn the arcane analytical techniques, and thus gain access to the specialized knowledge that only our particular discipline has mastered.  It is a form of education and an epistemology with a long and sordid history–the idea that a select few know a highly specialized and powerful form of knowledge, and are then entrusted to pass this along to a select few who will then go on to get access to the privilege and power that comes with that knowledge (and from the connections made through your education with other powerful people).

But we need not accept that as the best way to teach.  After all, each class is different.  Each group of students has their own particular interests, skills, challenges, history, and group dynamics.  And each year, we are faced with new challenges and issues in need of our attention.  The question then becomes: do we set up our classes to reflect the traditional power structures and entrenched ways of teaching? or do we set up the class together, in (what do they call it again?) a democratic way?  Is that a better way to teach?

The primary purpose of teaching about politics, I would argue, is to critique existing power structures and empower ourselves to create own own social and political realities.  At each point in history there is a given order and structure that works to the benefit of some to the detriment of others.  It is our work to make ourselves aware of the fact that the world as it is presented to us does not necessarily have to be the way it is.  It has not always been this way, it can be different, and in fact it will be different, and we can always do better at counteracting the workings and abuses of power.  But setting up a class with a hierarchical power structure (the syllabus as constitutional), does not help.  Rather it reflects the way power has been institutionalized within higher education.

This semester in the “Political Methodology and Statistics” class, we’re trying something a little different.  We are starting the class with an open structure that allows students to craft a curriculum that hopefully fits best with their particular learning style, goals, and areas of interest.  I’ve found in the past that some students take to statistical analysis quite easily, while others clearly struggle with that particular way of understanding the world.  Some work better visually, some with words, some with numbers.  We will all have to grapple a bit with numbers and quantitative analysis in the class (which is vitally important in a world in which these numbers have become increasingly important).  But some will be able to gain this basic competency and statistical literacy, and then work on the skills they are better suited to.

We each have our own skills and aptitudes, and each see the world in a particular way.  Education, to a large degree, is about establishing some common standards and expectations of conformity.  We establish basic requirements for competence in language, math, public speaking, and so on.  But education is not about “producing” something, in the same way that businesses produce commodities.  What we are doing here is working with human beings, inspiring them and being inspired by them, learning together, finding our way through the world.  And changing that world in the process.  So we need to find that balance between providing the skills needed for anyone to be a fully engaged member of society, while at the same time giving students room to create the educational experience that is most useful and meaningful to them.

This makes for a bit of a mess in the classroom.  A set order and clear expectations are nice.  You don’t have to think about them–just do them.  Many students want to know what is expected of them, so they can just do the work, pass the class or get the “A” and go on to get that good-paying job.  So having unclear expectations, or having expectations that the students themselves help establish can be unnerving.  But civic education involves citizens who have their own values, and whose work is to create the world in which they live.  So civic education needs to be structured accordingly.

In this class, students are having to keep a set of notes and reflections on what they are learning in the class, either in the form of a notebook or a blog.  These are part of writing their own textbooks in a way.  They have choices to make about what kinds of topics they want to research, how they are going to do their research, what kinds of methodologies they will use.  There are different tracks in the class they can choose from (either the statistics track or civic arts track).  The goal and set of limitations I have set up for the course is that we learn as much as possible and leave better prepared to play our roles as citizens and effective problem-solvers.  How we all get there is up to all of us.

We’ll report back at the end of the term on how we’ve done.

The Dead Canary

graph of declining sea ice

The decline in the volume of arctic sea ice, which has accelerated in recent years.

The graph above shows the decline in the volume (total mass) of sea ice in the Arctic over the last 30 years.  Prior to this that volume tended to be around 15,000 cubic kilometers, which is a lot of ice, even by Minnesota standards.  If this precipitous decline continues, the arctic could be ice free by September 2015.  There’s a 1 in 20 chance it might actually be ice free by next summer.

The arctic has been seen as the most sensitive region when it come to climate change, akin to the canary in the coal mine, and thus of particular concern and study by the scientific community.  The Antarctic, which has actually seen a slight increase in sea ice of late, is much less sensitive (in part because it is so much colder and there is so much more ice there), although scientists are observing changes in wind and ice patterns that indicate that climate change is having an impact there too.  But if we want to get a sense of how much effect pumping a few billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has on our planet, the direction to look first is northward.

Predictions just seven years ago from Arctic Climate Impact Assessment were that the Arctic would be ice free by “late in this century.”  I remember showing students slides of what the arctic would look like in 2080, with barely any ice left, and what a shock that was.  A planet radically changed. Now, if the trend show in the graph above continues, we’ll be there, not by the time of my great-grandson’s graduation from high school, but my son’s.

This is but one indicator of many, and we know the climate and weather are incredibly complex.  No one can claim to know for sure what is happening here, or what the future holds.  Humility is certainly the order of the day when thinking about patterns on this global scale.  Maybe this is a fluke and we’ll soon realize that the “relentless working of things” will bring these dynamics back into some kind of balance.  The same, of course could be said when a canary drops dead in a mine.

The miners might claim, like Monty Python’s infamous pet shop owner, that it’s not dead, but sleeping, or pining for the fields.  Some skeptical miners might argue that the bird died of natural causes, perhaps an avian heart attack on account of an overly rich diet of sunflower seeds.  The possibilities are endless.  But it might also just happen to be because of a lack of oxygen in the mine shaft and that is time to make like sheep and get the flock out of there.

In looking at the latest figures about the amount of ice left at the north pole I have been struck by the contrast between what this data is saying and the complete lack of mention of climate change in the current election season.  Humans, particularly Americans, seem to need some brutally tangible and visceral evidence before they respond to a problem.  We are pretty myopic when it comes to this kind of thing (other countries, like Germany and Denmark, seem to have much better long-range vision than us).  For the American electorate however, apparently it will take more than some remote development to spur the kind of outrage that can only be elicited now by a 25-cent rise in gasoline prices.

We will eventually experience some “Pearl Harbor moment,” that spurs us to action.  Once we realize there is a problem, then we’re very good at getting to work.  There is already lots of great work being done and all sorts of new technologies that we can use to help transition away from the fossil-fuel-based system we now have.  Unfortunately it always seems that we have to have that attack or crisis or disaster first, and then respond (even if, as with both Pearl Harbor and 9/11, we had some good evidence ahead of time that it was coming).  It is the job of anyone who can understand the implications of the above graph to try to increase the public awareness of the potential seriousness of what this means.  The faster we can shift our economy away from fossil fuels, the less we will lose in terms of arable land, coastline, floodplain, or endangered species.  How much agricultural productivity we will lose remains unknown. How much heat-related health problems, forest fires, and tropical diseases increase is likewise entirely certain.  But, falling in a smoothly curved arc, the canary is just about to hit the bottom of the cage, and to you other miners out there, I’d say it’s time to start moving, in a calm and orderly fashion, toward the exit.

Are we better off?

The Romney campaign is asking if we better off now than we were four years ago.  From where I’m sitting, it seems a patently easy question to answer.  So easy, I’m really puzzled as to why Mitt Romney is asking it.  By almost any measure (see the list below, which, I’ll admit, reflects my particular set of priorities and values), we are doing vastly better now than four years ago.  Clearly Romney in posing this question wasn’t really thinking of me, or any other folks who would rather sit down to dinner with the Obamas than with the Romneys, or who tend to favor community organizers over corporate take-over maestros.  My sense is that for that key demographic (undecided voters in swing states) this is not so much a carefully reasoned choice about the over-all “state of the union” and public good, but more a matter of “gut choice” about whether they like the guy now in the White House and how their personal finances are now, compared to the glory days of the last illusory financial bubble economy (when people with no money could live in mansions, if only for a year or two).

The next eight weeks will see two huge political machines spending millions of dollars and all their energies on trying to sway this roughly one percent of the American electorate who are still undecided and who can swing the battleground states one way or another.  A huge number of people have been helped by the Obama administration’s policies, and they will be voting for him in November.  Obama has solid support from people of color, those making less than $30,000/yr, gays, people with a graduate education, environmentalists, unions, teachers, the previously uninsured, and those under 30.  The committed Romney voters include the faithful conservatives and Republicans; people drawn to the image of a wholesome, white, wealthy, church-going businessman and his “all-American family;” oil companies and those making money by burning fossil fuel; health insurance companies that don’t like the new healthcare regime; billionaires and corporate cowboys, like the Koch Brothers, who would have to pay higher taxes under an Obama administration and who want capitalism to be as unfettered as possible; homophobes, or those opposed to gay marriage; xenophobes (who don’t like the Dream Act);  those still just somehow uncomfortable with the idea of an African American with a strange name in the White House; and those Ayn Rand fans eternally opposed to the government doing anything at all (even if it is doing something as obviously necessary as saving the country from a catastrophic economic depression).

Those still undecided (a group about whose existence I continue to be puzzled), in Ohio, Florida, Iowa self-identify as “middle class” (hence the endless references to this vague category in every campaign speech and ad), moderately educated independents, who look at the current unemployment rate of just over 8% and see that as unacceptably high and, apparently, Obama’s fault.  In 2006, largely as a result of the housing bubble, we had unemployment down below 5%.  When that bubble burst and the economy went into a death spiral, that rate shot up to 10% in October 2009, nine months after Obama took office (an increase that obviously Obama had nothing to do with).  By now the rate is on a steady downward trend, with every indication that this will continue.  But obviously there are still millions of people unemployed, or under-employed, who would answer Romney’s question in the negative, which is, I suppose, why he and his campaign strategists are asking that question.  To anyone still undecided, even if you are unemployed, I offer the following rough comparison of 2008 and 2012.

Four years ago, among other things:

  •  our economy was heading off a huge cliff, thanks to the failings of unfettered free market capitalism which had cooked up a series of gigantic Ponzi schemes (for which both Republicans and Democrats can take plenty of blame).  But we need to remember that crisis was not the result of “excessive government regulation,” or, as one Heritage Foundation analyst put it, an “environmentalist jihad(!)” or taxes being too high.
  • our health care system was a complete mess—the most costly and one of the least effective in the Western world;  people didn’t have coverage, insurance and big pharmaceutical companies were raking in huge profits, and our infant mortality rate was worse than Cuba’s.
  • we were fighting two futile and utterly counter-productive wars and spending more money on obscenely expensive weapons and other ways of destroying people and civilizations than most of the rest of the world combined (over 40% of the world’s total military spending).
  • our economy and federal policy were doing nothing to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the Federal government was in total denial of the realities of climate change
  • there was a steadily increasing deficit, the direct result of the taxing and spending policies of the GWB administration, with no clear plan of how to address this problem.

Now, after four years of slogging it out in one of the most dysfunctional political environments on the planet, with so much entrenched power vested in a set of special interest programs and huge amounts of money corroding the very fabric of the place:

  •  the economy is not heading off a cliff, but is on a stable footing, with new regulations and consumer protection in place to reduce the chances of future crises;  the housing market and real estate banking practices are on a much more stable footing;  this is a huge improvement, and I challenge anyone to say how, in the context of today’s political environment, they would have done any better;
  • we have a vastly improved healthcare system, with cost containment, many fewer people being uninsured.  It is not perfect, but it is much better than it was, and it is a minor miracle that we got any legislation passed at all (just check in with the Clinton’s or any of the last eight or so Presidents on the challenges of trying to reform healthcare);
  •  there are now a range of policies helping to shift us away from fossil fuels, including more funding for renewable energy and higher CAFÉ standards for our cars;
  •  the war in Iraq is about as done as it could be, given where is was in 2008 and we have an exit strategy for Afghanistan;  military spending has not yet shrunk, but the groundwork has been laid for getting our spending back down out of the stratosphere (whereas Romney’s proposed military budget would increase the DOD budget even further);
  •  on non-economic issues (about which people can disagree and which may not be key is swinging undecided voters, but which in my view are hugely important) gays can now serve openly in the military; children of immigrant families can stay here to go to school and serve in the military and become U.S. citizens; the cause of women’s rights has been strengthened; students are getting more help in paying for a college education, and America’s image around the globe is vastly improved.

Now this comparison may still not convince the undecided voters, but given this record, one would then have to ask further, would Mitt Romney do anything to actually improve whatever problems remain?   He can only offer a vision of more tax cuts (meaning more deficits) and increased military spending (which is just about as misguided as anything I can think of).

But elections I think, for all their seeming modernness, are still to some degree akin to ancient ritual.  On some deep, unconscious level for many Americans, the Presidential election becomes simply a referendum on the “good fortune” of the previous four years, regardless of what the actual policies and wisdom and leadership of the President has been.  They are not that different from what the high priests of old used to do when it appeared that the Gods were not favoring the kingdom—make a new sacrifice to the Gods to try to appease them.  Having no real understanding of how the economy or general state of affairs was to be explained, they had to blame it on someone.  Find a scapegoat, imbue it with all the ills of the community, and ceremonially dispatch it.  Today that someone is the President, and he (and someday she) will be blamed regardless of what they have done.  So if it appears that Obama has not been “favored by the Gods” and has not had the supernatural ability to magically and instantly give everyone good jobs, nice homes and cars, and big screen TVs just by “being President,” then he will have to sacrificed on the electoral altar and a new king chosen, in hopes that the Gods will then smile on him.

Should Romney be elected, the economy will almost certainly improve.  But it will not be because of either divine intervention or anything Romney has done.  It will be because (like Clinton before him) the Obama administration, working with an incredibly uncooperative Congress, put in place a series of imperfect, but sensible, policies and economic reforms that have helped the economy move forward.  I am certainly hoping that at least 51% of the electorate has the good sense to see that we are indeed better off now than four years ago, and that we would be foolish to think that Romney would really do anything to actually to improve the situation more than Obama has done, and would continue to do.

The politics of the ordinary

How are we to translate our political ideals and ethical values into reality in our everyday lives?  How do we move from present realities—an imperfect world in which there is plenty of good, but also far too much that could be improved upon—to realistic future possibilities—a world towards which we think we should be moving, and toward which some movement is possible.  These questions are based on a sense of optimism and hope about trying to change the world, without lapsing into utopian or unrealistic thinking.  It is not an easy path to follow.  We have limited powers, and the issues we are talking about here are big ones:  injustice, poverty, war, environmental degradation, Martin Luther King’s dream of racial harmony and equality.  These are not issues we can just “take care of” in some immediate, tangible way, in the way we can do things like finish a term paper or cook a meal.  This reality of our limited powers is integral to the modern experience—how individuals with limited powers can take meaningful action in a very big and complicated world full of much sorrow and unspeakable horror. (I’m drawing here on Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, Arendt and The Human Condition, and her notion of “thinking what we do,”  and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism and call for embracing the “sublime madness in the soul” that inspires action in the face of the seemingly insurmountable odds.)

The aim of this project to provide guidelines for taking action that is not pointless or useless, but fits within a framework that provides one with a sense of agency—the feeling of empowerment and direction. These are issues many of us are grappling with or, if not now, will be grappling with over the course of our lives.  It is grounded in an ethos of problem-solving, and the sensibilities of a builder.  Human are, among many other things, builders and problem-solvers.  Regardless of our political affiliations or ideologies, we mostly want to live decent lives, free from pain and disease and privation and oppression.  We experience these things, and try to find new ways to avoid them;  some of these new developments work; others fail miserably.  We try new ways.  Those that really work, last and become institutionalized.  Like the pyramids, certain human structures stand the test of time;  others (like the six other “wonders of the ancient world” that no long exist) don’t fare so well.

We can think of various institutions that have thrived: the major religions, for instance, are popular and work well at providing their adherents with answers to “life’s unanswered questions.”  Anesthetics and antibiotics—keepers!  Fossil fuel—jury’s still out (a mixed blessing with mounting costs).  Cities seem to all the rage; indoor plumbing, the internet—likely to be around.  The idea of limited government and accountability; the nation state.  And so on.  We come up with ideas and see how they work, and if they work well, we keep doing them.

Typically, in political science, and in public life, we think of this kind of project (seeking justice and world peace and ending hunger) as “political”—as something that takes place in the realm of the polis, the public forum, the halls of Congress, or at the ballot box—and certainly much of it does.  This is the view of politics generally characterized as “small-r” republican;  of action taken in a republic, or a society of self-governing citizens.  This is the kind of virtuous civic engagement promoted by Aristotle, by Machiavelli in his Discourses on the Roman Republic, by early American political theorists and practitioners like Jefferson and Paine, and in a very different vein by revolutionaries and leaders such as Marx & Engels, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Luxenburg, Lenin, Che, Sandino, Mao, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the youth of the Arab Spring.

This is a view of political action with which I have great affinity and which I encourage and support and for which I have great hopes.  After Tahrir, I made it a priority to bring students there to experience what a place in the midst of dramatic political upheaval is like.  I in no way want to denigrate or discourage or downplay the importance of this form of political action and engagement.  But, back on campus in Minneapolis in the early 21st Century, I have not always found this form of political action satisfying or sustainable.  It is marked by periods of intense activity:  what we might call a politics of the extraordinary—the march on Washington, the quadrennial election, the big conference, the next revolution that never seems to arrive quite yet (at least here in American, or here in this cosmopolitan corner of the Upper Midwest, even with the “Occupy” movements of 2011-12).  This is the “contentious politics” that Sidney Tarrow analyzes; the politics of the movement, that rises and falls in long cycles, driven by large-scale historical dynamics.  At certain times in history this kind of huge change is possible.  It is difficult to know when those big changes will come, when, in Marx’s poetic phrasing, “all that is solid melts into air” as happened at the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Even after the revolutions, we find that not all that much has changed–just a different set of despots–Napoleon replacing the Sun King.

And in many ways, this kind of action can also be a distraction, sometimes hypocritical or unreflective, something that is hard to maintain over the long term—a flash in the pan. We go to the protest or write the letter to the President, and then “go back to our lives,” perhaps feeling that our work is done and obligations as a citizen met.  At their worst, these actions can in fact work at counter-purposes to efforts at more meaningful and effective political action.  The grand, and ultimately futile, effort undermines the work of making more meaningful progress on more manageable tasks.   Talking with people in Egypt after Tahrir about the effect of the revolution, a common response was that nothing really had changed.  The real work of helping address the problems of poverty and marginalization remained to be done.

The sturm und drang of protest is also often driven by a divisive and Manichean animus that demonizes some Other, and retreats from genuine collective action back into the safe ground of self-righteous indignation.  This kind of partisan hate has poisoned American politics today and rendered the polis a kind of “free-fire zone” in which only those with thick skins and a lot of spit and vinegar thrive.  This extraordinary politics can run the risk of being all about blaming someone else, and angrily trying to make someone else change what they are doing.  Although we need protest and criticism, we need also to look at ourselves and be sure we are doing what we can to fix the problem (or at least not contribute to it).  The carbon footprint that Al Gore has racked up in alerting us all to the dangers of climate change reveals some tensions in this regard.  At a minimum, we should avoid the sense of self-righteousness that plagues many social and political movements.

Our political motivations, the underlying source of frustrations and anger at “authority” can be complicated.  Protest and rebellion can reflect the often unexamined or subconscious personal issues of those involved;  protest then functions as a mix of therapy and genuine political action (cite sources: Harold Lasswell; political psychology).  The concern and outrage about injustice is, of course, real and not to be dismissed, but sometimes the more effective (albeit less exciting) response to injustice is not shouting in front of the White House.  There is almost always a mix of these two elements—the authentic political action and the therapeutic function of it—but we need to be very careful not to have the latter overwhelm the former.

There is, however, another kind of the politics—the politics of the ordinary—of the day-to-day actions we all take, and generally don’t think of as political.  We need to balance out our actions at these various different levels and apply ourselves at different times and in different places in the ways that we can be most effective.  Some people will have lots of power to influence policies at higher levels, and others won’t.  At some times, like in January of 2011 in Egypt, mass protest is clearly the order of the day.  But even when there is not a revolution afoot, all of us make a hundred small decisions, and have developed a complex web of daily habits, and will consume and communicate and work every day.  And all of those actions and decisions have inevitable political repercussions.  Collectively those decisions in fact constitute the vast majority of politics–part of what is called the “social construction of reality” (Berger and Luckmann).

A number of scholars have examined this kind of work and explored how politics happens at the fringes or in the local interstices of society.  James Scott has looked at “weapons of the weak” and “everyday forms of resistance” amongst peasants and the rural poor, particularly in SE Asia.  Asef Bayat, in his Life as Politics, describes a similar, although distinct, conception of the “art of presence” and the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” on the streets and amongst the youth of the Arab and Muslim world.  Their analyses point to the various ways—overt and covert, conscious or unintended—that ordinary people resist and fight back against oppression, poverty, and injustice.

But what about “us”?  What about relatively affluent residents of the world’s most powerful country?  What is “life as politics” and resistance look like for a college student in the Upper Midwest in 2012?  There is another realm from the overtly political one we observe in the Occupy movements and the national political party conventions, and it is a realm which is looming increasingly large at this place and time—at the end of the Cold War, in this incredibly wealthy country we live in, in this era of globalization, in this media-saturated society.  That is, of course, the realm of the market, the realm of economics and of our daily lives and routines as members of a community (in this case a college campus and its surrounding urban neighborhood).  The word economics from the Greek word for “home,” relates more to our private lives, to the decisions and actions we take when we go home, after the election or the protest.  It consumes far more of the time of the average American than any strictly political form of activity, but I would argue that it is even more important.

It is important to focus on this ostensibly private decision-making, in part because it seems that we are living in a time that is moving in that direction:  toward what is called “privatization.”  We are living in a world in which this economic realm–commercial transactions, and commercials, are making their way into more and more corners of human existence (including higher education), and so it is incumbent on us to pay more attention to those developments and respond to them.  This is a move with huge ramifications, and one, I believe, we should be resisting strenuously (see Naomi Klein, Thomas Friedman, Joe Steiglitz, and the globalization debates).  There is the important question about resisting this trend, about fighting privatization, and attempting to retain public control of the marketplace.  These are worthy questions, with which we will need to grapple as well.

This privatization is of course a highly political development—in Charles Lindblom’s sense of politics as the process of determining who gets what, when, where, and how.  For these global trends, like them or not, have huge implications for the distribution of wealth, equity, the state of the environment, and so on.  It is not as if the “triumph of the marketplace” means an end of history (a la Francis Fukuyama) or of politics.  But it does seem that for the time being, more and more of our political actions will take place in the market place, and that we ought to pay some attention to the implications of our actions in that arena.  No matter how this larger struggle between governments and corporations (public vs. private) turns out—whether it is the “American Dream,” or what Jeremy Rifkin is calling the “European Dream” that triumphs, we will still have our private lives and our daily economic choices to make.

In making the distinction between politics of the ordinary and of the extraordinary, we are talking here about a basic difference between political action aimed at changing the structure of the political system, the rules of the game so to speak, and action taken within that system and set of rules, although the line between these two arenas is blurred.  Again, we need to pay attention to the structure and attempt to improve it:  that system profoundly shapes our actions, provides incentives and disincentives, shapes our reality (see Marx and other structuralist theorists).  But these political structures:  particularly the political culture within which we operate (what we consider natural or acceptable or appropriate politically) are shaped by individual actions and behavior.  The politicians respond to changes in the polling data, and the marketplace responds to changes in consumer values.  As we continue our way through this inquiry we’ll want to keep this distinction in mind and explore the ways in which effective action can occur in either the political or economic realms.

Some (Chomsky, Klein, McKibben) might see this as a retreat from political engagement, a giving up on the revolution, or a surrender to the corporate-media-special interest conglomerates.  I think it can seen as something entirely different—as bringing politics into the marketplace and into the day-to-day lived realities we all inhabit.  That includes the classroom and the campus, where we should start with these efforts.  The market is a place that many are trying to de-politicize—like the move by Target to remove the Salvation Army bell-ringers from their front doors as an unpleasant reminder of the reality of poverty, which isn’t good for sales.  This focus on our daily economic decisions may not be so dramatic or so exciting as storming the Bastille, but I think it has more profound implications and places greater responsibility and greater demands for self-reflection, than some forms of political activism.  From this kind of politics there is no rest or escape—it is about what we do each and every day.  It requires patience and perseverance and real commitment.  Politics, as Weber put it is his odd but evocative phrase “the strong and slow boring of hard boards.”  It takes time and effort.  I like to think of it like a long construction project, at which we are all working.  Like the pyramids, these structures take a long time to build;  we may not be around to see the final product—in fact, there is no final product, just an ongoing process of building, repairing, rethinking, learning, and building anew.

Every day, revolution or no, we rise and consume, discuss, make choices, think of the world in particular ways, make assumptions about what is normal;  each day we make a hundred choices, each of which ripples out across the economy and society.  And these choices are the ones we make ourselves.  They require us to examine what we do, rather than shout at the “corrupt politicians,” “lazy welfare recipients,” “greedy capitalists,” or what have you.  In looking at these aspects of our lives, we have to walk the proverbial walk, we have to practice what we preach.  Not easy stuff.

We also have to watch out here, as is always the case, for the problem of self-righteousness and hypocrisy mentioned above in regard to the more militant forms of political action.  At the same time, we need not be ashamed of attempting to make the world a better place—a project often rejected as naïve, self-righteous, or “politically correct.”  Working to address some of the world’s most pressing problems can be done in a way that is neither naïve, self-righteous, nor falls into the trap of sanctimony.  We all need to be on the look-out for those problems.

So this is something in which we can all participate, and which we can and should do every day, and that includes right here on this campus, in our classrooms and dorm rooms.  If we’re going to take this subject and project seriously, that means teaching our classes along the lines of the philosophy being developed here.  What does that mean?  Well first it involves not just doing things the way they’ve always been done, but reflecting on the things that go into putting on this show.  And it means having some idea of where we want to be going and thus what might be a problem with how we are doing things now, here on our campus, in our daily lives, in our communities.

Four views of grading

As each new semester begins and we draw up our syllabi and contemplate the gathering of a new group of students, it is worth asking why we are here and reflecting on the role of higher education in society at large.  In particular, the prospect of grading and evaluating the work of the students (one of the more problematic aspects of our work), prompts some digging into what functions that central part of our modern educational system serve.  There are a few possibilities, and they relate to a conversation we’ll be having on campus here, over the nature of higher education under the title of “Shaping our Future: How should higher education help us create the society we want?

Our educational system is deeply enmeshed in our political and economic systems (and becoming more so), thus necessitating careful reflection on the relationship of our work to the larger power structures, economic dynamics, and pressing problems of our day (war, poverty, environmental problems, etc.)  How might we begin to categorize or sort the possible (and actual) functions that colleges and grading play in all this?  Here are a few possibilities: the sieve, the mirror, the coach, and the whip.

1. Perhaps the most problematic function of grades, class rank, honors programs, and so on, is to sort and rank students, so as to allow companies, government agencies, or other graduate schools (which function as another filter that will again sort out and rank its students) to pick out the most capable individuals.  These individuals then generally gain access to the higher income jobs or other avenues for economic advancement, such as knowledge of the inner workings of the modern financial system (e.g. mortgage-backed derivatives).   This has become a larger part of the educational system as the modern, industrial economy, mass armies, and increasingly technical jobs proliferate.  With the rise of these modern institutions, the demands of productivity, and the need for large armies arose in the 19th Century, many in industry and government looked for ways to select those most qualified to serve in those capacities, and the educational system was molded and shaped by many of these prerogatives.  Chris Loss’s book Between Citizens and the State: the Politics of Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton U Press 2012) does a good job of documenting this process.

This is a view of higher education as part of a system of meritocracy and hierarchy.  Its central metaphor is that of a sieve.  Note that in this view, there is almost no mention of educating or increasing the knowledge of the students.  What is most important is to pick those who are naturally or demonstrably most capable.  Test them, see who scores highest, and then send them off to the top law firms, medical schools, or government agencies.  This is a particularly powerful element of the educational experience of our students–waiting to see what grades they got on the last paper or exam.  An “A” and you potentially move up the ladder, new prospects opening up for you.  A “D” and your future looks dimmer.  It is a powerful piece of behavioral conditioning (rewards and punishments) that certainly shaped me throughout my education, and clearly still exerts a powerful effect upon our students.

2. Taking a more benign view of grading, we could point to them as a way to indicate to students their strengths and areas in need of improvement; in this view, grades are a kind of mirror that helps students discover their calling by understanding their particular gifts.  In this case, the grades are not meant as information for outside institutions, but for the students themselves. To the extent that the feedback that students receive from faculty includes some substantive recommendations for career paths and so on, this can be a positive aspect of getting grades.  Getting a B- on a calculus midterm alone may not be too helpful in this regard.  What does that mean?  Should I go into accounting? Maybe not NASA.  Might do OK as the manager of a retail outlet (but maybe not).  Providing this feedback requires getting to know students beyond simply what the do on exams or papers.  It means getting to know how they interact with their peers, how they handle challenges (including how they handle getting a low grade on an assignment), and seeing them as a whole person.

To play this “mirroring” role takes a lot more time, and may often not be possible.  The career center and academic advisor can of course play a larger role here, but faculty in classes can as well.  If student and faculty get to know each other well enough, this can lead as well to letters of recommendation (although these also blend over into the “sieve” function), and suggestions on future options in areas where this student is likely to find meaningful and rewarding work.  Faculty limiting themselves to giving letter grades on quizzes and exams won’t be able to play this role much, but the more we can provide constructive, substantive feedback to students about their strengths and talents, the more likely that students will have the self-knowledge they need to find work that feeds them.

3. Crazy as it might sound, one function is actually to educate: provide feedback so that students can improve.  The assumption here is that there are standards and bodies of knowledge, correct ways of doing things, and our job as teachers is to work with students to help them acquire those ideas and techniques. In this view, grading is like coaching, and this metaphor works relatively well in fields or in regard to skills where particular standards and best practices have been well established.  Civil engineers and doctors, we would hope, need to know what they’re doing, and that there are better and worse ways to build bridges or perform brain surgery.

This view works less well in regard to knowledge that is inherently subjective, contested, or  political (which, in my view, covers a lot of real estate in academia).  To a degree, this is the “banking model” of education critiqued by Dewey and Freire, that students are empty vessels to be “filled” with the professors wisdom.  To the extent that professors know things that students don’t, there is some value to this approach, but we need to be very careful about cultivated the active involvement and dialogue with students.  There is a balance to be struck here between the importance of sharing wisdom accumulated over the ages, and the need for open and mutual dialogue.  The dance between these roles, when done well, can make for some of the best kind of teaching, where youth meets experience and both are enriched by the exchange.

The coaching metaphor also brings up the importance of practice, repetition, and work.  The much-touted “10,000 hour rule”–that experts need to put in 10,000 hours to reach that peak level of performance (such as a concert musician, Olympic athlete, or chess champion)–has some relevance here, even if we’re not looking to produce world-class graduates.  But we want people to be as good as they can be at whatever it is they’re doing (and we hope they feel the same), and to get there, like getting to Carnegie Hall, takes practice, which brings us to the last function of grading.

4. A fourth possibility sees grading as another kind of behavioral modification:  to motivate students to work, and provide some consequences for some of the alterntives, such as playing beer pong and/or video games all night.  When I grade papers, I will mark students down when it is clear they haven’t put in the work. This seems like the most basic requirement and way to give credit where credit is due.  In part this stems from a sense of justice:  people should be rewarded for their own actions.  Students can choose to do the work or not, and teachers can reward those who do.  Sometimes I’ll find that the student had good reasons for a lack of demonstrated work, and so will try to work with them to find some arrangement that will take account of larger factors that affect the amount of time they can put into studying or writing (such as caring for a family member or working long hours at a job needed to pay for school).

We would hope that students wouldn’t need grades to motivate doing the work, and some students have expressed that the grading seems a bit condescending.  Unfortunately I’ve found that if I’m not attaching some kind of “points” to doing a given reading, somewhere around 80% of the students won’t have done the reading (and that’s on a good day).  Maybe I need to assign more exciting reading, but unfortunately this often isn’t possible.  Grades are another way of signaling to students what is important.  If I say that a reading will affect their grade, it is one way for them to know that it’s important.  Again, ideally, they would just know that any assigned reading is important (why else would it be assigned??), but there are always competing claims of students’ time–from work, to social engagements, to re-runs of Family Guy.

In Augsburg College President Pribbenow’s annual welcome to new freshman, he urges students to “show up, pay attention, and do the work.”  Giving some feedback on how well they’re following that good advise probably isn’t the worst function of grading.

I don’t know if we can separate out or isolate any of these functions of our contemporary educational or grading system, but we can work on minimizing the “sieve” functions, and highlighting the coaching and motivating functions.  At its best, “grading” is a human encounter and an opportunity for genuine dialogue, in which all participants learn something about themselves.  Ideally, a “grade” could be seen as reflecting a measure of the harmonization between the student and the world, in which their potential and spirit are most fully engaged in creating beauty, justice, and sustainability.  The instructor would help to guide that work, to elicit what is best and strongest in the student and to help them come to an understanding of their place in the world.  If the instructor can see hints or signs or where this person can be of most use and where their strengths and passions lie, then they can give this feedback, this kind of work would be much more constructive and humane.  Some faculty on campus (including those who have worked on the Integrated Term or I-term) have used narrative evaluation with extensive written feedback but no letter grades on the students work.  The more we can use this approach to teaching, the more we can move our work toward the truly valuable work of lifting up and empowering our students, as part of our collective work of addressing the needs in the world which we need to address–poverty, healthcare, environmentally sustainability, human rights, and building a healthy democracy.