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.