Listening, Learning, and Vulnerability

During my first semester of grad school, I took a course called Teaching College Composition. The people in that class were my kind of people. People who love reading and writing and learning. Nerds. We were are all nerds. And each week we gathered (and paid for) the opportunity to talk about how we could spread our nerdiness through the art of teaching. Most of it is a nerdy blur, but I remember one particular moment vividly…

Before class even began one evening, we were excitedly chatting about the assigned reading (#NERDLIFE). A friend said, “It’s like, I read it, and now I’m seeing it everywhere!” Our professor, ever the epitome of cool-nerd, sat at the front of the room and nodded, knowingly. All she said was, “Isn’t it awesome?” And for the next few seconds we all drifted into our own inner-nerd world thinking about that beautiful serendipitous feeling of intellectual synthesis. I smile just thinking about it now.

Synthesis is why I teach. A lot of teachers will talk about the “ah ha” moment being their reason for teacher-being, and maybe synthesis is a version of that, but I think synthesis is something more. Synthesis isn’t “I got it!” but, rather, “I’m getting it!” By definition, synthesis is, “the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity.” By Amy Menzel definition, synthesis is “the best.” It requires consideration and engagement and further contemplation always. It requires grappling with ideas and all the intellectual moves that make for learning and growing and developing. FOLKS. IT’S THE BEST.

And I’ve been experiencing it a lot recently.

Over the past couple months, I’ve upped by equity game. It was about time, of course. And, of course, one of my first moves was to create a book club (“of course” because I’m a nerd — you should have gotten that by now). I was feeling good about my efforts until a friend shared an op-ed by Tre Johnson titled, “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs,” and I was like, “Whoa. I represent that.” Among the passages I continue to return to is this one:

The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way — be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art. It starts, also, with reflection on the harm you’ve probably caused in a black person’s life. It may have happened when you were 10, 16, 22, 36 or 42. Comforting as it may be to read and discuss the big questions about race and justice and America, making up for past wrongs means starting with the fact that you’ve done wrong in the past, perhaps without realizing it at the time: in the old workplace, neighborhood, classroom, softball field. Maybe even the book club.

This shifted my thinking and, more importantly, my work. Yes, I’m still reading to learn. Yes, I’m still reading to understand. And I’m reading with the intention of acting, of doing. In this regard, a member of one of my book clubs (yes, I’m in multiple book clubs – don’t act surprised) quoted Maya Angelou who said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” 

So here we all are, reading and noting and discussing and trying to know better so we can do better. And in creeps synthesis by way of Brené Brown. I keep thinking back to what I learned in reading her book Daring Greatly last year. Really, the book is all about embracing vulnerability. That’s the daring move, being vulnerable. “Vulnerability,” Brown writes, “sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness,” (37). This is what I was seeing and hearing in these discussions (currently, on Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, by the way). It was people being vulnerable, being open to learning and considering and reflecting and changing and doing the work necessary to create a more just society. This was exciting to me, not just because I felt that sweet, beautiful high-on-life feeling that comes with synthesis, but because, as Brown points out later in her book, “Vulnerability begets vulnerability; courage is contagious,” (54).

People much smarter than me already know this. Take, for example, Kendi, who writes in the introduction of Stamped, “When I began writing Stamped from the Beginning, I must confess that I held quite a few racist ideas. Yes, me. I’m an African American. I’m a historian of African Americans. But it’s important to remember that racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce them or consume them, as this book shows.” In the preface to the paperback edition of her book, So You Want to Talk About Race (our next book club selection), Ijeoma Oluo writes, “I speak quite often about how important is is to be open to those who are generous enough to tell you that you fucked up–especially around issues of race,” (xiv). What both scholars are doing is being vulnerable, right from the get-go. In sharing their vulnerability at the start of their respective books, they are modeling vulnerability for their readers.

Now, as much as I want to believe that I have thoughtfully surrounded myself with wonderful, open-minded people who are just naturally comfortable being vulnerable,  I really think we’re simply smart enough to follow the lead of these people who are smarter than we are. We see them being vulnerable and we, in turn, approach our work with vulnerability. This makes me think we may approach other parts of our lives in similarly courageous ways, and, since we know “Vulnerability begets vulnerability” and that “courage is contagious,”…well, holy crap we may be onto something.

It’s worth noting that vulnerability and courage come in different forms. And this (as everywhere else) is where books come in (again).

There is so much I love about books, but the thing I love most is that books require people to sit down and shut up for a bit. It’s not the quiet that’s enticing (although, I do find that very enticing), but the contemplation it represents. We live in a world that encourages immediate response. “Like” this, “favorite” that, and comment on everything. It would be exhausting if it weren’t so automatic. And, it’s kind of disgusting. As a society, we don’t encourage one another to listen and consider nearly enough. Too often, we expect and sometimes even insist on a response. And that approach isn’t really working out too well for us.

Enter books. (I told you they keep coming in.) Books are awesome in that they mute the reader for a while. They force us to listen. “But, but…” you might say as you read. And it’s as if the author says, “Hold your horses. You’ll have your turn. But first, let me finish my thought.” And that thought might go on for a few dozen or few hundred pages. You keep reading. You keep listening.

In the introduction to So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo writes, “I hope that if parts of this book make you uncomfortable, you can sit with that discomfort for a while, to see if it has anything else to offer you,” (7). I just love that. Not only does it remind me of the image below, which I share with my students every single term, but it also encourages readers to practice being uncomfortable, being vulnerable. How often do we really sit with our discomfort? (Hint: Brown would say not often enough.) Too often, we avoid it, walk away, circumvent it in ways that, really, are a slightly more mature way of plugging our ears and shouting, “LALALALALAICAN’THEARYOUBLAHBLAHBLAHLALALA!!!”

Again, it’s not an approach that’s working out too well for us.

So we need to listen. Then, we need to do more than listen. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (on my to read list), says “America, This Is Your Chance.” And in her New York Times editorial, she provides some guidance. She says:

  • “We must face our racial history and our racial present.”
  • “We must reimagine justice.”
  • “We must fight for economic justice.”

She reminds us that, “It’s not enough to learn the broad outlines of this history. Only by pausing long enough to study the cycles of oppression and resistance does it become clear that simply being a good person or not wishing black people any harm is not sufficient.”

Alexander actually suggests organizing study groups and book clubs. But this is just the start. 

We need to make sure this is just our start.

I’m not sure I’ve “got it” all, but I am getting it. As I continue to listen and learn and embrace vulnerability in the process, I’m going to keep in mind another truth Brown shares in Daring Greatly

“What we know matters, but who we are matters more,” (16).

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