toward ‘engaged pedagogy.’

This month I am teaching a whirlwind course on Crime and Punishment in American History at a corrections facility in New Jersey. As I’ve prepared for my course, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from books on the Inside-Out reading list, especially bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. She writes:

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who also believe that there is an aspect of  our vocation that is sacred; who believe that out work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential is we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” (13)

I think this graphic sums up why there is a tremendous need for states to look to classrooms as “a radical space of possibility” (12). I feel fortunate to be apart of the kind of change I’d like to see.


going to graduate school.

Every once and a while the internet provides me with rationales for why one should or should not go to graduate school. They don’t really phase me; I am at a point of no return in my studies, and am deeply invested in the process. Nonetheless, tonight I found myself ruminating on this blurb (full post here):

You do not need to go to graduate school in order to read, to write, to debate, to do intellectual work. You do not even need to go to graduate school to learn from brilliant scholars…

This is true. However, a few summers ago I was in the midst of some travel that would culminate in my move to Philadelphia for a doctoral program at Temple. At the time, the airport televisions ran coverage of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings. I was in the grip of the story, and even more in the grip of my own narrative of mobility. That was perhaps why I found David Brooks’ coverage of  the confirmation so compelling. He writes:

These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships — the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own. You see the strains of a multicultural establishment, in which people try to preserve their ethnic heritage as they ascend into the ranks of the elite. You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.

Yes, I went to graduate school because I liked to read and write, and even more so because I liked the rhythms of the academic calendar and the engaging conversations. I took the leap because my Lutheran education told me to seek a vocation. Nobody told me I would work with people who would introduce me to unanticipated ways of thinking.

Looking back on five years of graduate school, I can see the way my thinking has evolved as I have moved through each semester. My interest in Mormonism became an interest in gender than became an interest in politics. An interest in interest-group politics became an interest in policy, and an interest in policy got completely turned upside-down when a professor assigned Brian Balogh’s A Government Out of Sight. I found myself with an interest in state-building that made a lot of sense when paired with a policy issue a professor introduced me to: mass incarceration.

This process has not been lucrative, and it has not been easy. It’s tiring and yet it manages to keep me up at night. But the journey, and the people who are part of it,  make it worth it. Somehow, after 5 years, it still feels right. I’ll take the “trade-offs” if it means having my “organizing purpose and identity,” and even more, the opportunity to quote Dr. Seuss:

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And then things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.