Me and Teddy Trying to Figure Out Me, Grand Canyon Version

 

 

 

 

Yesterday afternoon Teddy and I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We camped along FSR 688, which is dotted with large dispersed campsites. The next morning we hiked along the South Rim (pictured above).

2/2/2018 — Groundhog Day (Journal entry) 

I pitch our tiny tent alongside a giant Ponderosa, but Teddy stakes out a spot farther down the dirt double-track. I drag the tent to Teddy, who squats under another Ponderosa, HIS Ponderosa. We take a brisk walk at dusk, enjoying the last little bit of light and warmth.

In the evening Teddy burrows into my doubled sleeping bags, keeping me warm as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost gathers on the tent, and the nearly-full moon lights up the sky. Every now and then I emerge from the sleeping bags for a sip of freezing IPA, a Tucson delicacy.

Lately I have been reading two new books a week. I cannot stop reading and thinking! Tonight I am reading Yuval Harari’s, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Coyotes howl in the distance, causing Teddy to stiffen beside me. I learn that Homo Sapiens likely exterminated a related species, the Neanderthals, after mating with a few of these caring homos (a situation canines seem to have avoided!). I pause on Harari’s reconstructed picture of a Neanderthal girl:

Neanderthal-girl

She looks so peaceful.

I do not romanticize our hunter-gatherer past, as some men do. Rather, the story of how we emerged as the triumphant species tells me something about what we might be in the future. Also, I am curious about what I, Sarah Jansen, might be. How do I live in a way that is more true to the story of an evolving, improving humanity?

To some extent, most of my adult life has been unusual: eating vegan, having few possessions, limiting my exposure to the mass media, studying and conversing deeply, eschewing dogma (both religious and scientific), and seeking out solitude and adventure in nature. It is the way of life that feels most natural to me. Meat, tons of stuff, an overstimulating and busy environment, casual relationships, superficial ideas and conversation, dogma of any kind, unvarying routine, constant company — these are my worst nightmares!

Tonight I am trying to imagine a somewhat different form of life — something that works for me but is still recognizably human, perhaps even recognizably American. I do not know what my life will look like, but I do know that time is the only valid currency in life.

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a human desire?”

Leo TolstoyFamily Happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Scrambling and Reflecting on 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.

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

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Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit my baby niece. (What do I do when I camp alone? I drink beer and read books. It’s awesome.)

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Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on all the ideas and arguments they studied fall semester. 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 just talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). I plan to try this next fall, when I teach Intro to Philosophy again.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy at a university, 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, quite frankly, has no place in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more human and more free. The entire grading system militates against this project, which is one of many reasons why academic humanities is increasingly irrelevant. I feel like I spend half of my teaching energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. It is exasperating sometimes. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own standards. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

It has been a long journey getting to this place myself, but, at 33, I can honestly say that I mostly measure my success by my own standards. I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I rely more and more on observing people, institutions and my own self. I make my own judgment, thank you very much! And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think, which makes me a pretty poor professor sometimes. I do not like “professing”. I do not like playing the part of the expert or the authority. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it. Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in academia, but I soldier on. I’m not actually sure I will continue teaching after next academic year. I may “retire” in 2019, leaving a budding academic career behind me. Or I may teach part-time. It depends on whether I believe I am doing something truly valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, a good car (which takes me to amazing places), 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 made me miserable. I tried to find ways to get rid of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationship, etc. But all this scrambling just made me miserable. Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing. And since I have always wanted to write books, I am going to write another book. And then maybe another and another. Why? Because I can and because I want to. 🙂 And if nobody reads it, I will not be any poorer for that!

Happy 2018!

Sarah

Interview with “Snuggles”, Nomadic Adventurer and Author of “The Snuggle Diaries”

While doing a Bright Side Bookshop book signing as part of Arizona Trail Day Flagstaff, I had the great joy of meeting Snuggles and her husband, Darwin. The lively duo (plus dog!) are traveling around the country in their 5×8 camper, adventuring and backpacking. They are chronicling their nomadic life through blog entries and short films.

Ever interested in alternative lifestyles, I took an immediate liking to Snuggles and Darwin, who are authoring a very unconventional life. While I personally prefer a feeling of routine and rootedness, I have come to love camping in Flagstaff’s forests. Nothing beats good conversation around a campfire! 🙂 We can all do (on a small scale!) what Snuggles and Darwin are endeavoring on a large scale.

 

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Tell us a little about yourself!

I go by the name “Snuggles” for anything I do online, but as you may guess this is not my real name. “Snuggles” is my trail name, given to me within the first week of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2015. I was given the name because I was snuggling up with anyone for warmth.

I am originally from Southern Indiana (Evansville, Indiana to be specific). I went to college thinking I wanted to be a Special Education Teacher but left with a BS in Psychology and a Minor in General Art. (This was actually unplanned; I just ended up taking a lot of art electives. Haha!)

I love to read just about anything and consider myself a total bookworm. My favorite author is Helen Hoover. She wrote only a few books, but I feel very connected to her. She and her husband lived a somewhat similar life of adventure, as my husband and I do. She found a home in nature in the early 1960’s when everyone else thought she was crazy. One of my favorite books besides any of Helen’s would probably be Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose and Poetry about Nature. I also really like Bill Bryson’s stuff, along with a little Stephen King and Jon Krakauer. I always enjoy a good Jane Austen book, too. Recent books I’ve read: IT by Stephen King; Painted Blazes by Jeffery “Loner” Gray; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon; Stranger In the Woods by Michael Finkel; and (of course) Pedaling Home by Sarah Jansen! Currently, I’m reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore and A Walk For Sunshine by Jeff Alt. I am a total bookworm!

As far as backpacking goes, my husband “Darwin” and I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2016. We did over 1,500 miles in 2015 but had to leave the trail due to Darwin contracting a tick-borne illness and the death of my grandmother at the same time. Before that I had only been out for maybe three or four days.

I feel like it took me doing a thru-hike to find out I am more of a section hiker. I like to take my time and stop and enjoy the scenery, even stopping early in the day if I like a spot. Thru-hiking doesn’t really allow you to do this. I have backpacked a lot in the Smoky Mountains (my favorite place) and Red River Gorge in Kentucky (my second favorite place). I have done some hiking on all three major long distance trails: the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I have also been out on the Arizona Trail (AZT) and Long Trail. I love to hike around and explore national parks. Darwin and I are super nerds and love to complete Junior Ranger Workbooks together!

Hiking on AT

Snuggles hiking on the AT

Why were you so drawn to the Arizona Trail, a trail not on everyone’s radar?

I think Darwin is to blame for the draw to the AZT! He was already talking about bikepacking it before we hit our final summit on the AT in 2016. At first I was kind of just like “whatever”. I couldn’t even think about life without the AT hanging over my head. Then when we got back to Albuquerque, he started actually planning a thru-ride, and I of course did my own research on it, too. I had no intention of bikepacking it, but I wanted to know more about this trail that Darwin was so interested in. Then when I dropped Darwin off to start the trail at the northern terminus, we drove through some amazing terrain, which really piqued my interest. When we most recently stayed in Flagstaff, we had no idea how close our camper was parked to it!

I like the fact that there is not a lot of people out on the AZT, so you’re able to really enjoy it by yourself. It seems like everyone is hitting the big three in the last few years: AT, PCT and CDT. Books and movies have made these three trails popular. This is both good and bad for these trails. The AZT is a beautiful trail and is challenging but is also way less intimidating to attempt than a thru-hike of the AT. I’m not sure I would attempt a thru-hike again, but if I did it would totally be on a smaller trail the like AZT. I like that it has a small hiking community around it and goes through some really cool little towns.

How can you not argue for the awesomeness of the AZT without mentioning the fact that it goes thru the Grand Canyon? Hella Cool!

What is it like to live semi-nomadically? How does your life now compare to your life before?

It’s pretty cool to live nomadically. It is awesome to experience different places or to revisit others. It can be a little complicated, as we do not have a shower in our camper. We feel comfortable not showering every day, thanks to our time backpacking. But eventually a shower is needed! We also have to plan to make sure we are somewhat close to services such as a grocery store, gas, Internet, etc. We have found tons of cool places that are awesome to visit but not really great to utilize for longer stays. We utilize solar power, which allows us more freedom with where we park the camper. We don’t have to depend on plugging in as much, which I have found pretty neat-o. It’s always fun waking up in new places!

We traveled a short time in 2015 before and after our AT hike and lived out of a van. Since then we have learned a lot about how to be more self-sufficient. The 5×8 converted camper we have now is pretty spacious compared to the van!

Before our hiking and travel life really started Darwin and I both had really great jobs with great bosses, all of whom really supported us and encouraged us when we told them we were leaving to travel and hike. I still remain really close friends with my old bosses! We also had a house and two cars but found that although we had everything we needed and more, we were never at the house, and we were using the cars to take us other places. Our hometown didn’t offer a lot of things we enjoyed, so we were constantly traveling hours away to backpack and explore. While our friends seemed to take the next step in life (i.e., having children), we felt more and more like we wanted to do the opposite. We were on-again-off-again about moving until the year both Darwin and I lost two very special people in our lives: Darwin’s grandmother and my grandfather. It made us think about our own mortality and what we wanted to do with our lives. Once we made the decision that we wanted something different, the Universe started putting things in motion in order for us to take on the Appalachian Trail.

Darwin and I are accused a lot of being trust fund kids or spoiled millennials, but this is totally not the case. (We just barely hit the generation of the millennial, and neither of us like being considered in this way!) Before we hit the road the first time we saved for two years to make sure we could sustain a thru-hike, travel a small amount, and have a nest egg to come back to. After trail hiking we both worked full-time jobs for almost another two years before hitting the road. We actually seem to work more now than before, just in a different way. We now work remotely doing the things that we could only do on the weekends before. We have turned our passions into a full-time lifestyle.

With all that being said, we also have given up a lot in order to afford our current lifestyle. We don’t have a big screen TV or cable. We don’t have a new car. We don’t shower every day. We don’t have a gym membership or a Netflix account. We don’t have a couch (or really any furniture). We live mostly outside, even in the snow, rain, hail or extreme heat. We don’t have a flushing toilet or a shower. We constantly deal with bugs. We don’t have a washer or dryer, so we re-wear our clothes several times before washing them. (We only have maybe four different outfits each!) We have no electric lighting. We eat a lot of the same things, due to having only a Coleman stove to cook with. We only buy what we can afford to pay for at that time. (No making payments!) We ride our bikes as much as possible to get us places, etc. Not everyone is willing to give up all of these things to travel full-time. I totally have those days where I question my sanity for living the way we do, and I often have fantasies about air conditioning or a couch!

What does an “average” day look like for you? 

It changes depending on where we are parked and camping. Right now I get up around 7 am and start the process of making coffee. I am totally one of those people who finds life easier when starting the day with caffeine. I then start looking over emails and check in on a few blogs and YouTubers I follow. Once fully caffeinated, I start looking over our Etsy Account and Website along with a few other ventures we have going. I continue to check in on these periodically during the rest of the day. Once breakfast is done I usually hit the trail for a run, then I go back to work on whatever needs to be done that day – e.g., uploading new merchandise to Etsy, shipping sold items, blogging, brainstorming video ideas with Darwin, planning our next destination, journaling, reading for a current book review/discussion, helping Darwin film, etc. Later in the afternoon we usually go on a hike (usual filming along the way or taking pictures for media purposes) or hit town for any groceries or other services we may need. After dinner we tie up a few loose ends. We then try to chillax before bed, maybe watching a movie or watching a few of our favorite YouTubers. I sometimes listen to a podcast or read before bed, or I journal if I haven’t already. Playing with Bowie (our black lab) is always a constant in my day as well!

Is it hard to travel with a dog? How do you make that work?

I love her (Bowie) to death, but she can be a pain to travel with. Lots of national parks only allow dogs to be on certain paved paths and usually no backcountry trails. This means we can’t backpack in a park with Bowie. On cooler trips when we were living out of our van, we did leave her there (with plenty of air and water of course!). However, she still limited how long we were away. Bowie personally can be a little naughty if left unattended too long. We also have to make arrangements for her, if we want to hike in the back county or go anywhere without her. Sometimes we use boarding facilities. And if she is hiking with us, this limits the length of our hike. She is not as young as she used to be (8-and-a-half!), so we find ourselves accommodating her needs all the time in our choice of everything (e.g., hikes, campsites, travel in general, etc.) When we hiked the AT she stayed with my mom. Now she is a bit traumatized, thinking we are going to leave her and not come back! She is SUPER attached to both Darwin and me. She is also getting grouchy in her old age. Sometimes she could care less about what we want her to do. If she wants to sleep, she is staying put. If she wants to bark, she is barking. She has also started to become aggressive with other dogs, which creates problems with camping, boarding, hiking, etc. She is a great companion, and we love her dearly. But sometimes it would be easier to travel without her!

What do you do when you or Darwin need some space away from each other?

So, we basically have to deal with each other! We had “those moments” several times on the AT, so we just hiked without each other, but we had to resolve the issue at least by the time we got in our tent together… . Long distance hiking is a great way to really find out who a person is, because you get them at their most raw state of being, and it forces a couple to communicate. We had a really strong relationship before the AT, but afterwards we really knew we can rely on each other for anything and what we are both capable of together and apart.

While living in the trailer, we can take a break from each other by going into a town or on a hike around the area we are parked. Sometimes my working outside and Darwin working inside the trailer is enough distance for us, if we are having a disagreement. Regardless, usually by the end of the day we have resolved the issue just because the small space that we live in forces us to communicate.

Darwin & Snuggles Final Summit

Darwin and Snuggles backpacking the AT together

Do long stays in national forests enable you to disconnect from mainstream media and social media, or do you remain pretty connected? 

I feel a lot a lot more connected to nature and the natural cycle of things when out in the forest. The time we spent out in Coconino National Forest specifically was amazing. I think I personally could be a lot more disconnected, if I chose to be. Unfortunately, since we work remotely now (Darwin more than I!), we have to be connected to mainstream media in some way at least once a day.

Darwin (primarily) makes money off of YouTube by the monetization of his videos using ads. Very, very little money comes in from this specifically, so we also use affiliate links in both videos, websites and my blog. This means that when I give a website link for a product and you buy the product (from the link I presented to you), I make a small commission from your purchase at no extra fee to you. We have a few other small income sources, like Etsy, and we sometimes do consulting for companies.

I am actually totally against social media, but I must admit I find myself sucked into it and living off of it. I hate Facebook and refuse to have a page of my own. I do utilize Darwin’s page to post the Snuggles Diary or some of Darwin’s videos, but he usually has to show me how to do this. I do have my own YouTube account in order to learn from others who inspire me. I do occasionally leave comments on videos (but not very often). Our current lifestyle centers greatly around social media, as much as I hate that. I think it’s great to connect with family and to share media with others, but I prefer a phone call and in-person interaction more. I think social media has allowed us all to be lazy with personal communication, which causes problems. I may read even a text message one way (because I can’t hear the tone of your voice or see your facial expressions), when you actually mean something totally different by the message. I also think social media gives people the feeling they can say and post whatever they want with no appreciation of the consequences. We don’t allow ourselves time to think about something anymore. We simply get pissed and tell the world we are pissed off and how much we hate so-and-so, along with their address and phone number! The emails and comments Darwin gets are insane. We understand that not everyone is going to like our media, and we are fine with that. But some comments are just hateful and insulting. Things you would never say to a person’s face somehow seem okay via social media. There are simply no boundaries when it comes to social media.

Darwin is in front of the camera for a reason. He gets recognized a lot. I prefer to be a little more undercover.

Do you have plans for the future, or do you live day by day? Or a combination of both? 

Maybe a combination of both?  We do live day by day, but we make plans for things like how long we can travel for, stops we want to make, our next destination (if not already planned), etc. As far as the long-term goes, we have discussed buying some land at some point and putting a small structure on it. We had talked about putting some roots down close to a long-distance trail even before we left our hometown. Other than that we have no other plans for the future. Usually when we do make plans we only change them later. Our current lifestyle may change depending on the current trends of the time. If you would have asked us a few years ago if we thought we could go full-time as YouTubers/Bloggers, we would have laughed and asked whether people really do that.

When you choose to stay in a community what features do you look for? What features do you avoid? 

Typically we first look for a BLM area or campground where we can park the camper. We then look at how far away amenities/services are in the area (in particular, showers and Internet). We try to avoid bigger cities and camping in popular areas.

Do you have a good network of friends across the country? How do you stay in touch with them? 

Yes! We have friends and family spread across the US and even a few outside the US. A lot of this is due to the trail community, which is big, loving and supportive. I love sending postcards to friends and family when we hit neat-o places and (of course!) shooting out an email and a phone call to stay in touch.

Ending on a big note — What do you want to make and do in this world, and how do you see your lifestyle enhancing that? 

I think what Darwin and I show with the media we produce is that you don’t have stay in one place and work a 9 to 5 job to be successful or happy. There are lots of ways you can do this! Darwin gets emails all the time from people saying that they feel he has helped them to rediscover old passions of hiking or find new passions for the wilderness in other ways. He has even had someone tell him his videos saved their marriage! No Joke! As for me, I play secretary a lot to Darwin, helping with forming emails, letters, mail, etc. In my blog I think I provide a little humor to the small group of people who follow me. We both have been told we inspire people by sharing what we are doing. When we are in town we try our best to support the local business and donate to local charities when we can. All this is a very small contribution to the world and totally not as meaningful or impactful as what others are doing, but it works for us, and again we try to do more when we can.

I want to experience what the world has to offer. By living a little more on the nomadic side, I do this. Because of the media Darwin and I produce, we allow others to share in the adventure and encourage them to experience the world for themselves, too. Social media can be evil but it can really be a beautiful thing, too. Thanks to the Internet and social media I think the younger generations now not only know what else is out there but can see it, which makes them want to experience it for themselves.

 

Citizenship and Political Community

Tonight I am writing in Flagstaff’s Campus Coffee Bean as part of a community writing group. People of all ages, vocations and backgrounds gather here Wednesday nights to work on poetry, novels, memoirs, screenplays and the like — writing that often draws on their own lived experiences. We begin each session by simply having a conversation for half an hour. Over time the strangers become familiar, and maybe the familiar become friends. Perhaps even a community of friends. Who knows?

We are all having different reactions to the horrible crises of our country. For my part, I have disengaged from mainstream media. I get the soundbite version of the news every morning from my roommate, Margot, a former social worker. We talk about it. We yell about it. We laugh about it. And lately — cry about it. Along with my morning coffees (yes, plural!), this ritual wakes me up. Every week I select a few longform articles to read — because I like lengthier pieces of journalism, which explore various angles and complexities of a single issue. Sometimes I share these articles with friends. Often I do not. Largely I do this for my own well-being. After all, I wrote an entire dissertation on the destructive effects of worthless media on the soul! Seriously.

My relative disengagement from the ‘show-that-is-mainstream-news’ has led me to think a lot about citizenship. I agree with Aristotle that citizenship is an essential ingredient in “eudaimonia” (human flourishing); part of what it is to lead a good human life is to be a good citizen. However, if being a good citizen requires remaining “well informed” on the “spectacle” of reactionary media+politics, then I am no citizen at all. I am what the Greeks call an “idios” — a private person. We get our word “idiot” from this word. It is not a nice word.

The summer before last I traveled to Athens for the first time. After mountain biking the Aristotle Trail (in Stagira, Macedonia), cycling/running up Mount Olympus and off-roading along the wild Mani Peninsula (in the south Peloponnese), I finally landed on Socrates’ stomping grounds, the ancient agora in Athens. Despite the heat and my own exhaustion, I walked and walked. For the first time I glimpsed what it is like to live in a genuine participatory democracy. Imagine if, on your way through the public square, you were to pass a senate assembly house (bouleuterion), a “tholos” (housing chief government officials), law courts, a stone voting machine or even a gigantic placard listing all current lawsuits. Imagine also that you are deeply familiar with most of these spaces and tools, having used them together with your fellow citizens. Interspersed with these familiar structures are religious temples, altars, a public bath, a jail, a theater, stores and more. Religion, recreation, commerce, culture and politics all meshed. And people actually spent time talking to each other in public. Indeed, Plato’s philosophic dialogues are based on the kinds of deep conversations citizens had with each other.

The great joy of citizenship — i.e., what makes it part of human flourishing — is that of being part of a political community. How do we skip the spectacle and embrace the community? What kinds of political communities can we “home grow”? Perhaps we need to broaden what we mean by ‘political’ and also disentangle it from partisan politics — the great divider and conversation stopper.

I will stop here, because I have been at this campus coffee shop for far too long, and all my companions have wisely abandoned me. But I do hope to develop these ideas, because this is just a start. Please comment or write me with any thoughts!

And because a blog post cannot not have a picture, I leave you with a picture from an Arizona Trail Association trail work day at Mormon Lake last weekend (does the trail look less bumpy?):

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A Short Meditation on Teaching Humanities: Dispassionate Reasoning, Passionate Conversation and Friendship

In his essay on friendship Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,–and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words. … For long hours [in conversation with friends] we can continue a series of sincere, graceful, rich communications, drawn from the oldest, secretest experience, so that they who sit by, of our own kinsfolk and acquaintance, shall feel a lively surprise at our unusual powers. But as soon as the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation, it is all over. He has heard the first, the last and best he will ever hear from us. He is no stranger now. Vulgarity, ignorance, misapprehension are old acquaintances. Now, when he comes, he may get the order, the dress, and the dinner,–but the throbbing of the heart, and the communications of the soul, no more.

I will just come out with it. I want my classroom to be a place of friendly, passionate conversation. This is an ideal, to be sure. But given that I teach relatively small classes (28 or less), it is realizable — in part or in full. I want my students’ hearts and souls to be on fire. [I am scheduled to teach Symbolic Logic next semester — a subject that does not exactly lend itself to passionate emotions!]

Is this ideal unreasonable and wrongheaded? Or rather, is it just what we need in order to improve campus climates and to broaden the appeal of the humanities beyond the academy — to hardworking people who do not have the leisure to play vacuous games of intellectual one-upmanship.

I cringe when educators sell the humanities on the basis of “critical thinking” skills. First, the humanities do not have a monopoly on critical thinking. Far from it! Second, critical thinking is only a small, relatively insignificant part of what the humanities teach.

When, in the 1960’s, Northern Arizona University was transitioning from a college to a university its slogan was “to become educated is to become more human“. Indeed, many small liberal arts colleges today incorporate similar notions into their mission statements. And yet — these same institutions tout the classroom as a place of “dispassionate reasoning” and “cool thinking” — a space quite different from the Emersonian ideal of exalted conversation and friendship.

How do the humanities teach us how to be human? They connect us to our human ancestors and to other cultures. They open us up to new ways of being and doing and seeing in the world. The humanities expand who we are. They help us tell better stories about ourselves and our world. They cultivate our awe of beauty. They inspire us to dream big and live large. I have no idea how one would achieve such connection, openness, storytelling, awe, inspiration and dreams in a dispassionate classroom that engages only cool reason.

Perhaps the way forward is to take our cue from Emerson and foster friendliness and friendship in the classroom. Too often classmates treat their peers as nameless strangers. But students can learn not just with each other; they can also learn from each other. How do we foster friendly bonds between students? How do we teach them how to be human to each other?

If my students can learn how to learn from each other (and learn how to pursue the humanities beyond the academy), then I have succeeded. And if not — well, at least I have tried. 🙂

Sarah

Writing from my calm place (Sedona, Arizona). The sun sets near Bell Trail.

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Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert

This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.

I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergrad and graduate school, I always felt a little guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, quite correctly questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Ultimately, it was philosophers who helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s functionalism, which represents the psuche as a set of life capacities or functions.

I have never been fond of psychology. Too often, ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said it better. There is a wisdom in ancient traditions that contemporary psychology only clumsily comprehends. The ancients were not constrained by modern “science” and its supposed moral neutrality. How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?

It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological problems. We are sad because societies and families are sad, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual brains. So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma (as Margot Julian, who has a background in sociology and anthropology, pointed out to me). People are traumatized because modern society is traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community.

 

The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a Pima Community College video course. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the same time, I took a video course in psychology. I instantly knew that I wanted to study philosophy, not psychology. To me, philosophy was the mother science — the study that encompassed all other areas of inquiry.

Since then, I have always connected my commitment to philosophy with Arizona. As a teenager, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.

I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. At UCLA I had professors who literally changed my life. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curriculum, to react to the times and to our individual students.

Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been studying/producing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.

 

Sarah

 

 

One Month in Flagstaff, a Photo Journal

About a month ago I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona — a Northern Arizona mountain town of 70,000 residents, nearly a third of whom are Northern Arizona University (NAU) Students. The town is young not only in population but also in age: it was incorporated in 1928, two years after Route 66 started running through it. Old western hotels and Mexican cafes dot Route 66; a part of the historic highway even belongs to the 800-mile, cross-state Arizona Trail.

Legend has it that “Flag” got its name from a band of Bostonian prospectors who passed through (and passed up on!) the area on July 4th, 1876. In honor of Independence Day they crafted a pine flagpole and raised a US flag. Then they left. Or so the story goes. By the 1880’s Flagstaff was a growing railroad town. To this day trains run through downtown, interrupting traffic:

railroad

In the old days people came to Flagstaff for work or travel on the Pacific Railroad, which connected Albuquerque to Southern California. These days tourists pass through Flagstaff on their way to Coconino County’s more spectacular children: Sedona to the south or the Grand Canyon to the north. Flagstaff is outshined by its siblings. Which is fine with me.

Upon arriving in Flagstaff my first stop was Buffalo Park, which is a local hub of sorts. After work the park’s trails team with runners, hikers and dog walkers (Flag is a dog-crazy town!):

buffpark

Not yet acclimated to living at 7,000 feet above see level, I nevertheless immediately biked two thousand feet higher. This first ride (an attempt to mountain bike fifty miles around the San Francisco Peaks) was a spectacular disaster. July’s infamous monsoons rained on me for a solid hour.

Appropriately named “Waterline Road”:

waterlineroad

By the time I got to Inner Basin trail, the rain had let up a little, allowing me to enjoy the aspens:

innerbasin

In the weeks that followed I joined biking groups. One ride ended below an ominous statue of NAU’s mascot, Louie the Lumberjack:

lumberjack

While my riding companions and I were sprawled out beneath this menacing figure, I got a call from the Chair of the NAU philosophy department: I would be teaching two sections of Introduction to Philosophy. Louie took mercy on me!

Soon I familiarized myself with the campus. The new Honor’s College is a little like having a liberal arts college inside a state university: on-campus housing, small classes and independent study with an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and civic engagement.

New student housing for the Honor’s College:

honorscollege

As is the case in many small college towns, student housing is, well, an “issue”. There is not enough of it. Locals are resistant to it. Rents are high. Personally, I have my eyes on a little RV park just outside town, nestled in some pine trees. 🙂 It has my name all over it.

Until relatively recently, NAU was relatively small. In fact, it started as a teacher’s college and, despite being a research university, it still puts a huge emphasis on undergraduate teaching:

statecollege

THE IMAGE OF ARIZONA STATE COLLEGE

TO BECOME EDUCATED IS TO BECOME MORE HUMAN

Recognizing this principle, we of the Arizona State College faculty dedicate ourselves to maintain the highest standard of professional efficiency in a campus atmosphere of scholarship and friendliness. Furthermore, we feel that within and without the classroom the line of communication between the student and the faculty must be kept open. And the individuality of the student must be preserved.

So, this is what I have to live up to! After all, I would not want to anger Louie the Lumberjack. Did I mention that NAU is known for its School of Forestry? 🙂 It might have something to do with all those trees.

View of Lake Mary Valley from Fisher Point:

fisherpoint

Yes, trees. Lots and lots of trees. And clean air.

In addition to biking and trail running with new friends, I am doing a book promo event with a new local independent bookstore, Bright Side Bookshop.

brightside

Athletic training has not really been happening, but I have found a great running spot near my roommate’s house. I have a habit of running there at sunset, barefoot. I blame my lack of training on the sun setting too soon. Campbell Mesa:

campbell mesa

More soon!

Sarah