E is for Education

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I’ve been thinking this week – well, I do many weeks – about education. And what it means. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am fond of formal education.

(With the exception of the year I was not working, every year of my life has been lived by the academic calendar: I was the child of a professor, worked for my college after graduation, started grad school while working for a year in corporate America, and then worked for a school, and now for a college. I work year-round now, but there’s still the ebb and flow of the school year that  changes what I do at work on a regular basis.)

Anyway. I think there’s a lot of value in formal education, when it’s done right. I think that for a lot of reasons. I think that there are a lot of subjects that are huge and massive and complicated, and that working with someone who knows a lot more about them can help us get started with them in ways that make more sense to us. I think that people who have spent substantial portions of their lives with a subject see things about it that someone who is just starting won’t even know to look for or pay attention to. I think that the feedback a skilled teacher can give us is often priceless.

(As I have been known to say, “I prefer to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Which is to say, if people are going to make mistakes – and people do – I’d rather not repeat the same ones more often than I actually have to.)

But I also think – and see above, about ‘librarian working in an academic library, who thinks there’s a lot of good in formal education’ – think that often we can fetishise the process. There is no denying that going to school, and getting a Bachelor’s Degree or a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate is a wonderful thing. (Especially the last one: they take a tremendous amount of work.)

We should not confuse the map for the territory. There are many people out there doing excellent work in fields where academic credentials are not the relevant tool for evaluation. (Any of the creative arts, for example: degrees may be of interest to some people, but you do not magically become a better musician or a better artist or a better dancer or a better theatre director because of your degree: you become so because of work that may or may not be related to anything involving grades or the evaluation of anything other than “Did this speak to your audience?”)

And a lot of the Pagan world falls in here too. There are certainly people with excellent academic degrees doing excellent related work – for which, yay. That’s good for the world. But there are also people doing excellent work, with scholarly rigour, who don’t have a formal degree in the subject (or whose formal degree is in some other topic.)

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E is for Evaluation

[part of the Pagan Blog Project]

Evaluation is one of those words that seems to scare people. Which, all right: people don’t like feeling like they’re being judged. And for a lot of people it’s a word that has a great deal of formality and weight behind it – job evaluations, school evaluations. Senses of being weighed and found wanting.

But at the same time, evaluation is something we do every day.

Do you want to see this movie this weekend? That takes evaluation. Do I want to talk to a friend about going to a concert in a sort of nearby town? What should I eat for lunch? Should I spend twenty minutes working on this project or reading this thing or petting the cat? (The last, says my cat. Always.)

Evaluation, in short, is about making choices. Which we talked about last week. More specifically, it’s about making choices in context.

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D is for Decision

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I was going to go somewhere else with this, and then was talking elsewhere online yesterday about making decisions and choices – that our religious identity isn’t, shouldn’t be a “Well, I feel like I’m X”, but rather a “I choose to be X, I am making a deliberate decision to be X.”

And that reminded me of a conversation in college, when I was very actively Catholic. I went to a women’s college, one of the Seven Sisters, and we had both a priest (male, as per Catholic requirement) who was part-time, and a full-time female chaplain, who could and did everything other than directly consecrate communion. She was awesome. And from time to time, she’d say things that really stuck with me.

In this particular one, she was talking about being at a friend’s wedding (which I think she’d officiated at, but if not, she was actively one of the people making the thing happen) and she talked about the most important advice she’d ever heard or given at a wedding – she’d heard it from someone else, and she passed it on.

Each and every day, you should turn to your spouse, and say “I choose you.” Not “I love you.” Or “I want you.” Or even “I appreciate you.” (though those are also good things to say.)

But instead, something that reminds you that you make a choice to be together, to be part of each other’s lives, and that that is an ongoing thing, an active thing, a thing you choose not just on your wedding day, not just when you get engaged, not just when you decide you’ve got a romantic thing or a family thing, beyond friendship. But that you make a deliberate choice to be in each other’s lives, and you renew that choice all the time.

Clearly, this has broader applicability to life.

I think that religion is like that: that we need to make an active choice, on a regular basis about what we’re doing with that. It doesn’t need to be a big thing, or a formal thing (any more than that “I choose you.” is the same thing as a wedding.) But … we need to decide that we’re choosing to be a certain way when we act in the world, and we need to check in on how that’s affecting us, and we need to at least consider adjustments based on what we’re looking at.

The ways this is like research are fairly obvious to me.

We do not just learn stuff by sticking books under our pillows, and hoping that the information seeps into our brains by osmosis. Instead, we need to make some choices – some active, some more passive or at least habitual – that help us learn stuff. New stuff.

We can choose to listen to the news, or load a news website that gives us multiple perspectives. We can choose to read widely, about things we don’t know, as well as things we do. (I find reading Longform to be great for nudging me to read subjects I didn’t know about, and Ask Metafilter for getting me thinking about other ways people interact with the world.) We can choose to make time in our lives to read on a specific topic (or listen to a podcast about it from an informed source, or to go to a class on something, or many other options).

Or we can choose to use that time in ways that shut down our options, that dull the keeness of our minds, that make us less than we could be. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism now and then – but there’s escapism that makes us more whole, and there’s escapism that weakens us, and learning to tell one from the other is a very useful skill. Likewise, learning to tell what’s manipulating us from what’s engaging us, what’s encouraging us from what’s depressing us, and what’s helping us learn from what’s shutting doors.

We can decide that even in our pleasure watching, our pleasure reading, our pleasure listening, that we’re going to pick things that encourage our curiousity, encourage our engagement, encourage our attention. (I’m currently watching The West Wing while I knit, and let me tell you, it has ethics and how-to-be-competent and how-to-be-a-good-friend and all sorts of stuff in it, in ways that inform my religious life and my professional life, both.)

It’s not that we need to learn all the time – not formally. Just like we don’t need to be doing formal religious ritual all the time. But the more that we choose a mindset of learning, the more that we choose a mindset that opens to the numinous and the liminal, the more that we let the light in – the more that’ll happen for us. And these are all things where practice, where regular attention, make them easier.

Let me leave you with a bit of the quote from the comments I made that got me started thinking about this: These things are complicated: none of us sees every star in the sky at every moment, nor even every planet. But we have to make a choice to look up in the night in the first place. And until you do that – well, you’re not looking at the sky, and saying you have been is going to confuse people who ask you about the constellations. And the planets. And the unexpected meteors.

What do you choose, today?

D is for Detail

[part of the Pagan Blog Project]

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is details. How many are useful. How many are too many right now. Which ones matter.

And I’ve been thinking about which of those details we notice, which ones we pay attention to (but aren’t fully aware of) and which ones just pass us by.

Here’s my theory: we, as humans, build up a vast library of stuff we pattern match against. Some of it most humans get sooner rather than later (this thing will burn you, that thing hurts when dropped on your toe, this furry purring cat thing is pretty awesome unless you’re allergic.) But a lot of them are very individual – we are going to be much much better at dealing with patterns we’ve spent more time around than ones we haven’t. And knowing that, and paying attention to what it means, can make our lives much easier.

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C is for Consideration

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how we talk to people. And specifically, how we ask other people to take their time, and their energy, and their attention, and do stuff that helps us out. And this is relevant to research, of course, because no one knows everything, and so chances are, you too, someday in the future, will find yourself wanting to ask someone for help.

There’s all sorts of ways to frame this that make it sound like you have to be overwhelmingly nice to make that work. But really, it’s not about niceness. It’s about consideration. And I was thinking this week about group dynamics of groups I’ve been around in the past – Pagan and non-Pagan – and how many of these are so very important.

Are you aware of the scope of what you’re asking?

“Help me understand this word in this context” is a much smaller question than “Tell me everything about your religious beliefs, practices, and how I can do them too.” You don’t really need to know that much about the topic to figure that out. If you’re going to ask really big questions, make sure the person is up for that, and has time and energy for it, and make it clear you’re aware you’re asking a Big Complicated Thing.

Related, do you actually give the relevant details? If you’re asking about a term, tell people where you heard it or came across it. (It’ll give them context to give you a better answer.) If you’re confused about something, explain what confuses you rather than leaving people to guess. If you’re looking for a magical or ritual solution, but you’ve got limits on what you can use, put them in briefly up front, so people can take them into account or ask for more details. All of those show that you’re treating the people you’re asking like people, not “give me an answer now” robots.

Do you remember you’re not the only thing in that person’s life?

I’m a librarian, I love helping people find info. And I do that particular kind of labour of love for one of my big hobby projects. One of the reasons I do it – and this is a thing that has people asking me to dig up info a couple of times a day, on average – is that the people who ask me are aware I’ve got other stuff going on. They check it’s a good time. They give me a little time if I say “Wait, middle of something else, give me five minutes.” It’s the times in my life where people take my time and energy for granted (and put demands on when and how I do things that make it hard for me to keep my other obligations) that make me cranky.

Do you leave space for other priorities? 

Related to the above – I’ve spent a lot of time working on community, collaborative projects where one of the things that helps make that thing work is keeping in mind that it’s the *project* that matters, rather than any one individual person’s specific priorities. Yes, we work towards being able to do stuff for people in ways that work for them, but chances are, there will be times when the overall goal wins out over a particular preference. Recognise that it’s probably not someone’s only priority to answer your questions. (Even when I’m at work, where it is my job to help answer questions, I’ve got limits: I’m not going to answer them at 11pm at night, If I’m helping one person, I’m not going to be able to take 20 minutes to stop and help another person. There’s some kinds of questions we should not answer, like medical or legal advice.)

Whose timeframe is it anyway? 

Sometimes, you’ll see someone come into a forum, ask one of the Big Complicated Questions (often with a wall of text, or lots of details, or sometimes with some very specific questions that require a particular background or expertise to do much with.) And no one answers them for a couple of hours, and then they make a sulky “Why aren’t you all answering me?” sort of post. Related to “People have other stuff in their lives than you” – well. People might be sleeping, or at work, or spending time with a sick loved one. They might be watching TV or petting the cat or knitting, to destress from a complicated thing at work. They might be helping someone else, with just as interesting and complicated a question. You get better results if you don’t throw random demands into other people’s timeframes, basically.

Are you clear? 

One of the things one of my current group projects has been teaching me is how to be up front in email in a specific way. I am the queen of long posts, but that project is slowly (good thing it’s running for another 2.5 years!) teaching me to write shorter long posts, and ones where it’s easier for people short on time to do something useful with it. It’s a useful skill in all areas of life, really.

 What does this mean about the Pagan communities? 

Briefly, the impact for Pagans is even more so than for some other religious communities. We rely on a lot of gift-economy labour to make things happen. People to plan events, to run them, to do all the little bits that make a difference in them. On our forums and email lists and blogs, we rely on other people taking the time to talk about things that answer our questions. What makes those spaces work is some consideration.

And the more consideration we can offer each other – not niceness, not ‘you must like me’, but “Hey, you’ve got 24 hours in your day, and I’m glad you’re willing to share some of that with me” – the better things tend to work.