How to be a (Real) Citizen

Riding “The Loop Trail”, a bicycle path encircling my city

Lest my title mislead you, this is not a “how-to” post; rather, this is a blog entry about my own fumblings toward authentic citizenship. Now that I am semi-retired (or rather, I “work for pay” only part-time), I have more time. I have more time to explore ideas and landscapes. I have more time for friends and family. And I have more time for crafting words (like these ones!). I also have more time for a citizenship that demands more of me than simply casting a vote or reading a news story.

I use the term “citizen” broadly, to encompass political participation, community involvement and environmental stewardship. Also, I do not mean to imply that citizenship has clear geographical boundaries. ‘Global citizenship’ is important, too (perhaps the most important, in our increasingly global world). For the time being, I practice global citizenship through “conscientious consumption” – e.g., challenging unthinking consumerism by using renewable energy, recycling and reusing, eating a plant-based diet, buying used, bicycle commuting, researching the environmental and social impacts of particular products, and purchasing goods that perform multiple functions. (For example, I make my personal care products and cleaning agents with five simple ingredients: fair trade coconut oil, baking soda, vinegar, zinc oxide and castile soap!)

Of course, conscientious consumption is only the start; for failing to have a negative impact on the global environment is not the same as having a positive impact on the global environment. Nevertheless, conscientious consumption has helped me strengthen my values and sharpen my awareness, even if I am not (yet) sure what robust global citizenship looks like for me.

In any case, I believe citizenship starts with inhabiting the place (or places) I live, with getting to know what, and who, lives in my town. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially in modern times. Being present in the place I live requires resisting the technologies, or even the career, that, over and over again, transport me away from home. It also requires a willingness to enter spaces in which my particular identities or beliefs are not represented, reflected or even respected. I believe this is where true citizenship starts, at home, respecting the place and the people you live with, whether or not they respect you back.

My own sputterings toward citizenship:

Earlier in the summer I took a bicycle maintenance course through my city’s local bicycle cooperative. Recently I was asked to volunteer my time and (clunky) skill. I spent an afternoon fixing kids’ bicycles and teaching them how to fix their own bicycles. And they taught me a thing or two!



I was asked if I wanted to join the writing group at my local independent bookstore — a beautiful shop that is solar powered and employee owned. I joined. Complete strangers shared deeply personal poetry and essays, reading their work out loud. Even though it terrified me, I read my work out loud.

I was asked to teach a class on nature writing to retirees. I agreed. In December I will spend a day at a retirement community, with people who have much more life experience than I.

I participate in free community yoga in our local parks and businesses. It is open to everyone.

I hike or bike in the desert, acquainting myself with the native plants and animals, getting to know and respect species that were hitherto unknown to me.

Starting next month I will attend all city council meetings. In the course of a year of attending these meetings, I hope to come to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the issues my city faces. And at that point I may raise my own voice.

Real citizenship is a lot more demanding — and a lot more special — than simply casting a vote or consuming mass media. It is a lifelong practice requiring lifelong commitment. But I think that if I am open to real citizenship, it will come to me. Most of the time just being here (and being present) is enough. I am asked to help. I am asked to participate. And all I have to do is say “yes”. And then show up. 🙂





Photo Credit: Anonymous


Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.


Me and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)


Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)


Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!