Monday, December 17, 2007

Three Insights into Right Work & Right Ways

Keynote Address
Delivered at University of Northern Colorado's Graduate Commencement
December 14, 2007

When I was a grad student, I once attended a class in which an aspiring Ph.D. candidate asked our professor to condense his experience into one kernel of sage advice for us. He flatly replied, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." It’s hard to dispute the truth in this statement. It does often feel as though, to get the work done right, you must do it all yourself. Yet I’ve found this adage troubling because of its implication that the “right work” is done in isolation. For that matter, what is the "right work"?

In my view as an anthropologist and educator, the "right work" is never done in isolation from your community because your survival and the survival of your community depend on it. This is one of the reasons why I've woven civic engagement into my career as a teacher-scholar. I believe the university shouldn't be a fortress, or, more accurately, a field of little disciplinary fortresses.

Instead of a field of fortresses, I believe the university should be a forum – a place where people gather to exchange and debate ideas, discover new knowledge, teach, and learn – learn from professors, learn from students, and learn from other community members. And I believe there are many kinds of knowledge that help our communities survive – knowledge of technical skills, academic knowledge, ecological knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, ethical knowledge, spiritual knowledge – and it's our job to teach and learn those kinds of knowledge and, importantly, how to use them in the right ways.

So, now we've got two questions to grapple with - what is "right work" and what are "right ways"? And guess what? That's your job! Now that you are graduating, you are leaving the forum. As UNC alumni, you're always welcome back to share your knowledge and experience (and donations!).

But, you're moving on, and it's up to you, as you pack your bags, to take what you got out of your time at UNC and figure out how it can benefit your communities, wherever they may be.

So, in the spirit of bag-packing, I've got a few things I'd like you to carry with you. Three stories (short and sweet, I promise!), three insights into "right work" and "right ways," and, because I’m an archaeologist and can’t help it, three objects to help you remember them.


This is a piece of chert, worked by human hands, from a river in Texas. Our love affair with stones goes back at least two and a half million years. The poet Carolyn Forché commemorates this intimate and enduring relationship in her poem, The Museum of Stones. She writes, “…this assemblage, taken together, would become/a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred,/like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.”

I have a very good friend and grad school colleague named Chris, who recently started a heritage preservation firm in Hawai’i. There are many places all over the Hawaiian islands that physically represent the traditional worldview and stories of Native peoples. Unfortunately, these places are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Not only are environmental resources going under the bulldozer to build condos and hotels; the reference points for ancient stories and family histories are, too. For European-Americans, it would be like witnessing a colossal bonfire fed with family photo albums, history books, literary classics, and Bibles.

Recently, I visited Chris on O’ahu. He drove me to a house in the countryside and we met a Native Hawaiian partner of his named Alika. Alika’s a man of slim build, but robust passion for his people’s culture and lands. Native Hawaiian culture goes back a couple of thousand years. That’s a lot of families and a lot of history tied to life on the islands. As some of you might remember from obscure literary sources such as Lilo & Stitch (!), ohana means family, and family is very important to Native Hawaiians. They carefully keep track of their lineages and kinship relations and the storied landscapes to which these belong.

Alika told me about his lineage and showed me his family’s connections to the local landscape. From his garden, he brought out a volcanic stone, pointed to the mountain it came from, and put the stone in my hands.

It was about the size of a loaf of bread and shaped like a donut. They are called “piko stones.” Created around volcanic vents, they are regarded as belly-buttons by Native Hawaiians – an ancient umbilical connection between the people and the Earth. Alika’s piko stone had been passed down through the generations of his family. He is a steward of his family’s piko stone – protecting it and the stories associated with it until the time comes to pass them down to the next generation.

Whatever you wind up doing, strive to respect the deep connections between your community and its place in the world. And if those connections are threatened, see what you can do to help protect them. During my conversation with Alika, I mentioned that I was developing a project that might help Native peoples preserve traditional knowledge tied to their cultural landscapes. Later, when Chris and I were saying our goodbyes, Alika took me aside and said, “Mike, I want to say something to you, but please don’t take it the wrong way.” He looked deep into my eyes and, with a broad smile, said “Hurry up!”


This is a vertebra from the backbone of a swordfish. An archaeology student of mine who used to dig for bait worms along the Maine coast to help pay the bills found it in the mudflats a few years ago. We haven’t had swordfish in Maine waters for thousands of years. They were part of the Native American diet about 4500 years before the Europeans landed on their shores.

I came here from Machiasport, a small town of about 2,500 people on the northeastern coast of Maine. If you’ve ever eaten a lobster, there’s a good chance it was caught in waters not far from where I lived. That region of Maine is made up of small fishing villages that have been there for more than 300 years. If you meet someone from towns like Machiasport, Cutler, or Jonesport, if they aren’t a fisherman themselves, they’ll have someone in their family who is. Commercial fishermen are smart and fiercely self-reliant because they have to be, to compete for lobsters in the open ocean. I once met a high school student who told me he started lobster fishing with his dad when he was five years old. He owned and operated his own lobster boat by his 16th birthday.

I have a friend named Steve who’s been a lobster fisherman his whole life and can’t think of anything else he’d rather do. He’s married and has two young boys and I’m sure at least one of them will follow in their dad’s footsteps, too. A few years ago, Steve was out in the back acreage of his land with his boys. He had climbed a tree to put in the final touches on a deer hunting stand, when he lost his footing, fell twenty feet, and broke his back.

His boys ran home. When they couldn’t find their mom, the 5 year old decided to go back to stay with his dad. He told the 3 year old to wait at the house and tell their mom when she returned. His little brother did exactly as he was told. When she got back, she called Steve’s brothers – because family members are much faster than paramedics in a remote coastal town – and they raced out there to rescue him.

Steve’s a paraplegic now. He can’t use his legs and, while he can move his arms, his hands are paralyzed. Fortunately, he can move his head and talk and all his involuntary functions are in working order.

And he’s still fishing for lobsters. Here’s why: Steve’s smart and tough and determined. Also, just about the entire town of Cutler rallied to support him.

To help with the hospital bills, they held an auction where people bid sums of money that far exceeded the value of the items on the auction block. His competitors protected his lobster fishing territory – a profoundly altruistic act – and the town maintained his fishing license while he was recovering. Eventually, Steve had his boat retrofitted so he could steer it from his wheelchair. His wife even worked for a time as his “sternman” (someone who helps haul the traps and process the lobsters).

There are many possible endings to a story like Steve’s, but his is amazing. His is amazing because of his personal strength and because of the selfless support of members of his family and his community. They shared the burden. They are part of his backbone and he is part of theirs.


There’s nothing remarkable about this feather, but it reminds me of another story, and a final insight into “right work” and “right ways.”

I was the academic advisor for a non-traditional college student and former Marine named Joe. Except for his long black hair, tied back in a pony-tail, he looks like the stereotypical marine – powerfully built, lithe, and handsome. Joe also happens to be a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and lives at Sipayik, part of the Passamaquoddy reservation about an hour’s drive from Machias. After leaving the Marine Corps, Joe returned to Maine to finish his degree and give back to his people by offering a traditional spiritual path away from alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

Because of its history of neglect and oppression by the US government, the Passamaquoddy community has a poverty rate of more than 30%. Between 1964 and 1993, Passamaquoddy deaths from cirrhosis of the liver – a disease caused by alcohol abuse – were nearly 3.5 times higher than the state of Maine’s average. Suicide rates are more than double the state’s average and the homicide rate is seven times higher. One study estimates a 60% alumni drop-out rate for students graduating from the K-8 school that serves the reservation.

During the time that I’ve known him, “GI Joe” – as the kids jokingly call him – has been a role model and coach for the reservation’s young men. He helps them get physically fit, teaches them boxing, looks out for them, and every Sunday, leads a traditional sweat lodge ceremony in which he trains them to be warriors – in other words, honorable men who can resist the temptations of anger, despair, and addiction and become wise leaders.

I recall one cold and windy morning last January when I joined Joe, another Passamaquoddy elder named Darrin, and six boys at their Sipayik sweat lodge. The lodge sits on a point of land overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay. It’s a squat, dome-shaped structure, about twelve feet across, framed with saplings and covered by blankets and canvas tarps.

Near the eastern door of the lodge, we carefully built a smaller lodge of logs and kindling. Darrin explained that this was the lodge for the “Grandfathers” – the stones to be heated in the fire until they glowed orange. When the ceremony began, one of the boys who agreed to be the “fireman,” as he’s called, would carry Grandfathers on a pitchfork to the doorway of the lodge, where Joe would place them in a central pit in the floor of the sweat lodge. There would be four “rounds” of the ceremony: one for the women and children; the next for all of Creation; the third (and hottest!) for healing; and the last for forgiveness.

I stood with my back turned to the lodge as we fed the fire and its intense heat began to push back at the frigid northwest wind. I watched the boys horsing around and heard the crunch of Darrin’s feet behind me as he returned from a foray to his pickup truck parked nearby. When I then heard the sound of something being pressed into the thawing earth, I turned around and was startled to discover the head of an eagle, mounted on the top of a leather-wrapped wooden staff a few feet away. I still remember its yellow glass eyes glaring at me in the sunlight.

Until that time, I had never seen nor heard of an eagle staff. Later, I learned that some Native American military veterans and respected elders are granted the right to carry an eagle staff, which stands for the best qualities of a leader – honesty, bravery, humility, wisdom, integrity, and respect. For these Passamaquoddy young men, I couldn’t think of a better example of strength and hope than what I saw in the form of the eagle staff and in the forms of Darrin and “GI Joe.”

So, these are my three objects and three insights for you to pack along with your updated CV and favorite reference books. Stone: Respect and steward your community’s cultural heritage– it’s your umbilical connection to the Earth. Bone: Support community members in need – they are part of your backbone. Feather: If you’ll allow me to take liberties with Gandhi’s famous saying about change, “Be the leaders you wish to follow in the world.”

As an archaeologist, I've "seen" (through my research) whole civilizations come and go across human history for all different sorts of reasons – overexploitation of natural resources and people, invasion, disease – but through it all, through all the ups and the downs, somehow communities of people have survived.

They survived in the past because their members didn't toil in isolation and they didn't harbor the illusion that they lived independently of the others in their community. Because of our ancestors’ right work and right ways, I'm here to share some of my insights with you tonight.

For our communities to survive into the future, each of you must find your right work and right ways. And my final words to you are the same as those my Native Hawaiian friend Alika said to me. Respectfully, I say to you: "Hurry up!"

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Is Empathy a Fad?

On October 25, 2007, the New York Times published an article on page A23 entitled Schools Embrace Environmental Efforts, Though Critics See a Costly Fad (interestingly, the online version of the article has a different title: "Schools Embrace Environment and Sow Debate"). The article's author, journalist Winnie Hu, describes public school-based projects in which students participate in a range of activities, from wetland preservation to light-bulb exchanges. Many see this as a progressive educational initiative, such as Nicholas Dyno, principal of Southampton High School on Long Island, whom Hu quotes as saying, "Students need to learn to give back."

To me, these projects recover empathy (see my first blog posting). Engaged, group activities that raise awareness, restore, protect, and conserve allow us to realize empathy: they (1) foster familiarity with our environment; (2) increase perceptions of similarity with our fellow human beings; (3) permit discovery of knowledge (learning) about threats to our world and ways to mitigate them; (4) develop our personal experience with the issues; and (5) increase the salience, or relevance of problems to our own lives. When we realize empathy, we perceive problems differently. They are no longer "out there"; instead they are "in here." When we have experience and knowledge related to a problem, we develop efficacy, or agency - a sense that we have the desire and power to make a difference in our world.

Contrast this perspective with some others presented in Hu's article. Take, for example, Jane S. Shaw, executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, whom Hu quotes as saying, "Students need very basic skills, and those are so much more important than getting an emotional high because they've done something supposedly for the environment." Or Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association and a former school board president, whom Hu quotes as saying, "The 'ed-biz' is known for faddish endeavors....They pick things up on some new philosophy, and it seems cool and popular, and I would throw being green in with that."

Aside from the deserved response, "Sour grapes!" to Shaw and Cantrell's opinions, I think their statements also deserve to be taken seriously. Shaw is essentially telling us that education should be nothing more than the "3Rs" - Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmetic - (taught to the tune of the hickory stick?); there is no time for fooling around with empathy-recovering, civic efficacy-building, place-based, tree-hugging education. Cantrell is telling us that involving our next generation of leaders in educational experiences that teach sustainable development and architecture is akin to helping them get their tongues pierced or shop for an iPhone.

What should we do instead? Put the kids back in the classroom where they belong (and where they won't cause as much trouble - oops, but have you seen the 11/7 NYT article entitled "Students Call Protest Punishment Too Harsh"?). Inculcate in them time-honored traditions of apathy and over-consumption. Suffocate their youthful enthusiasm under wet blankets of disaffection. Isolate them from their communities within dilapidated silos of academic irrelevance. In short, teach them how to lose hope.

Or, help them plant a tree.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mark LeVine & the Axis of Empathy

On August 14, 2007, faculty from the University of Northern Colorado's Life of the Mind Program (an award-winning program offering a suite of engaging, interdisciplinary undergraduate courses) invited University of California-Irvine Middle East scholar and musician, Mark LeVine, to join us for a two-day retreat.

The discussions that ensued were fascinating and provocative and I've created a short video of relevant excerpts for my Empathy blog. Mark has coined the phrase "Axis of Empathy" to counter George Bush's well-known antipathic phrase, "Axis of Evil." I culled from our conversations with Mark four excerpts that define some of the dimensions of his Axis of Empathy: (1) culture jamming, (2) "militant empathy," (3) empathy and discomfort, and (4) empathy and hope.

Mark raises some key questions and issues. His ideas are politically charged and, of course, controversial, which is why I think it is important to post them on my blog. He indicts "the Right" and its strategy to create antipathy, a climate of fear, and isolation. Depending on your political orientation, you might find his arguments to be affirming or antagonistic (or both!). Regardless of your political orientation, I think it's likely you'll find truth in some of what he's saying. Comments are welcome!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Recovering Empathy

I'm an anthropologist currently serving as the University of Northern Colorado's Robert O. Schulze Chair in Interdisciplinary studies. Every three or four years, enough interest accrues from an endowment to permit hiring a person to serve as Schulze Chair for one year. I feel a bit like one of the mythological Corn Kings, who, in this case, are elected to catalyze thought and action (instead of fertilizing the Goddess) and then sacrificed at the harvest. Carpe Diem!

I created this narrated slide-show based on the Schulze Chair inaugural lecture I delivered last September. It's about 23 minutes long (vs. the 1.25 hours it took for me to deliver the lecture in person!) and lays the groundwork for my work on empathy in education.

In a nutshell, I focus on the emotional fall-out from 9/11 and subsequent events to make the point that, for our communities to survive and prosper, we need to recover empathy. One way to accomplish this is to create opportunities for college students to gain knowledge, experience, and empathy through academic projects that are based in the communities that surround and support the "Ivory Towers" of Universities and colleges.

A text transcript of the Recovering Empathy video is also available.