This is the first entry in a three-part series about Politics, Pedagogy, and Professional Development (PPPD). It’s about my personal journey from complete willful ignorance into horrified unwillful, acknowledged ignorance and a desire to foment political change.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, going to Small Town Public Schools from K-10th grade. I had every-other-weekend visitation with my Ph.D. in geology, oil-baron-before-the-bust, climate-change-denying, Rush-Limbah-listening BioDad. My biology teacher only taught evolution because it was required (but she made sure to caveat that we didn’t have to believe it, only learn it and pass the exam). That’s two mild examples of the environment that surrounded me. Politics wasn’t discussed overtly, because everyone just assumed everyone else was some variation on a theme of conservative with the major differences being which Protestant church you attended. Not whether you attended church, but which one you called yours.
My Methodist family’s favorite joke:
- What’s the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist?
- A Methodist will make eye contact with you in the liquor store.
As a kid I didn’t know anything about structures of power or privilege. I just went about my days thinking I was oh so much smarter (read: better) than my classmates because I liked math and read books for fun while they… I don’t even know what they actually did, but I SURE DID JUDGE THEM FOR IT. I worked for years to paper over my accent and sound “neutral” (although I can still pull it out for emphasis or after having a touch too much fun), because there was so much judgement surrounding how you talked.
I went to the Oklahoma School of Science and Math as a junior and senior. The funding comes from the state, but it was always a fight because so many representatives didn’t want to support what they saw as an elitist institution (“Meritocracy!” many people love to shout, right up until they or their kids aren’t the ones who are considered to have the merit). You had to apply, get accepted, and then be sequestered away from the rest of your life for two academic years while you were taught a completely different curriculum at a significantly higher level than what was available to students in local public schools by people with Ph.D.s instead of credentials. By the time I had graduated high school I’d finished math through multivariable calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and non-Euclidean geometries. What about science? I took five semesters of physics (one of them spending one afternoon a week in a physics lab at the University of Oklahoma), four semesters of chemistry including organic chemistry and biochemistry, and an entire semester-long course on specifically genetics. Not exactly courses available in my home town public high school.
It also was my first ever extended time spent with people who weren’t white and Protestant. OSSM introduced me to Jews and Muslims and Catholics. I made friends with students who were Black, East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern. A few came out to me over the years as LGBT+ which was still hugely not accepted back in the late 90s (and there are still acceptance issues in rural Oklahoma, as evidenced by the fact that it took until literally this year before I came out publicly and claimed my own identity). These are all absolutely political experiences and ones that I had zero access to in my tiny town of 2,500 people and both the stoplights in the county.
I started college at Scripps, a women’s college on the west coast with a brilliant liberal arts program. The curriculum was deep and meaningful, and my steeped-in-toxic-culture self didn’t actually appreciate it until about ten years or so later, much to my chagrin today. The required first-year course was called “Core” and about Culture, Knowledge, and Representation (I genuinely want to go back and take it again now! I know my old reader is somewhere in my parents’ house, but I haven’t found it again). It required three semesters: first a whole-class lecture with break-outs (Core I), second semester team-taught (Core II), and third semester small discussion classes (Core III). I didn’t really understand the point at the time.
The Core II class I took was “Humor in Literature and Mass Media”. Harvey Korman came to talk to us, since his daughter Kate was in the class. That was really cool. It didn’t have a big political impact on my life, but I look back fondly. The Core III class I took still resonates with me today. Entitled “Geeks and Others, Greeks and Us”, it was about how ancient Greek playwrights portrayed the “us and them” dichotomy. We did a lot of rewriting and reimagining the plays in other eras to show how little the “us and them” has changed throughout the ages. It was profound for my little ignorant brain.
I was beginning to understand, but really started to come together in two classes Scripps’ extensive breadth requirements led me to take: The Art of Oratory (Letters and History requirements) and Latina Feminist Traditions (Women’s Studies and Multicultural requirements). Now, I was an engineering major / math minor. I sought high and low in the course catalogues to find classes I thought might possibly be interesting while getting as many requirements “out of the way” as possible, because feh. Who needs that crap? I did. I really, really did. I still claimed I “wasn’t a feminist” and remember being on that side of the discussions that I now have with people claiming they aren’t feminists for the same specious reasons I used in my early 20s. It helps me stay compassionate.
The Oratory class showed me how important it is to understand the arc of history and how much humanity has changed and also how very, very, very little humanity has changed since the origin of the western civilizations we still grasp in a desperate strangle hold as superior today. We looked at rhetoric from Aristotle and his lot up through Lincoln and other politicians on to MLK and other activists. The Latina course introduced me to narratives besides ‘In the year of 1492…’ about the “discovery” of the Americas. Both left a deep impact in my brain, and I could write another 5,000 words on those two courses alone. Knowing what to do with that still didn’t come until my early 30s, but they were vital, and highly political, experiences in my life. The impact of these two courses is a the major impetus behind my championing the humanities along side STEM in schools. The two must be linked!
I transferred to Harvey Mudd after three years at Scripps to focus on STEM and graduated in 2006 with two B.S. degrees in Engineering, one with a minor in applied math from Scripps, the other with a concentration in economics from Mudd. And if you don’t think economics courses aren’t politically motivated, economics textbooks aren’t politically motivated, and the politics of the professor doesn’t affect the explanations given in the course, I’m not sure why you’re reading this, because the whole point is that every single possible course is political. All of education is political. It’s impossible, as well as unwanted, to have a “neutral” education, because that just means it’s comfortable for those who have the power, and there is nothing neutral about having power.
All this time, as I was having these occasional personal flashes of insight, I still ignored “politics” at the local and national level. I also didn’t vote. My hot take during high school was that I wasn’t old enough to vote so I didn’t need to pay attention, and in college it was that I didn’t know if I would live in California forever, so I didn’t think I should have a say, and I didn’t live in OK anymore, and didn’t intend to move back, AND OK is so far from blue it might as well be infrared so I “knew my vote wouldn’t matter” and also didn’t think I should have a say, so I still didn’t need to pay any attention. I was very ignorant then, ok! They were bad takes! I’ve gotten better.
After college, my education was in my own hands. I moved to San Francisco with a consulting job (about more in Part II), and my roommate took me to vote for the first time in 2006 midterms. I was 24. I took a pamphlet from a person standing 150′ away from my polling place who represented some group she liked and voted for the people they supported, because I knew nothing and had no idea how to do research about elections on my own, having never paid a lick of attention to anything ever at all before.
She said a Shehechyano Blessing for me.
When the 2008 presidential race started really heating up, my best friend kept sending me links to anti-McCain memes, and I got super upset because I didn’t care about politics, didn’t want to care about politics, and I didn’t even know enough to understand what the memes meant. She also kept sending me links to articles that I kept refusing to read, right up until the day I didn’t. Whatever that article was had links at the bottom to more articles, and down the rabbit hole of outrage and horror I went. In short, I owe her everything for dragging me out of my privileged willful ignorance by the scruff of my neck, kicking and screaming and complaining the whole way. Thank goodness for amazing best friends.
After that I paid attention to national politics much more, mostly in narrow terms of the GOP being horrible and still without any real nuanced understanding. It was a very “we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys” US-centric level of politics, but at least it was something. In 2009 I had surgery on my ankle and needed to re-strengthen it. I took a gym class at the local CC that summer, and while I was at it signed up for a Cultural Anthropology course. It was super fun and introduced me to a lot different ways of thinking and pushed me further outside my western-centric view of the world and added a touch of nuance to my vision of world politics. However, it wasn’t until 2013, age 30, that I started what I now consider my Personal Political Activation. It changed everything about my life, thinking, and teaching. It was a long time in coming, painful in many ways, and continues to this day.
Tune in to Part II to hear that story.