Happy New Year, everyone!
I’m very pleased and excited to welcome back veteran writer Dr. Heidi Stevenson and share with you our new column, “Life-Work with Dr. Stevenson”! Dr. Stevenson’s knowledgeable, insightful mind, big heart, and well-honed writing skills are put to task here to help us grow through “Life-Work.”
Please read her introductory article below to find out how you can join us in this catalytic new experiment for improving our world!
To see where you can pick up a hard copy with this and many more great articles, click here.
Wishing you a very healthy, happy 2018!
Roslyn Elena McGrath, Publisher
Introducing Life-Work with Dr. Stevenson
Heidi Stevenson, PhD
The commonplace practice of judging someone else’s life by its similarity to our own: what is that all about? Where does that tendency come from? Why are we so sure we know what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes when we often don’t? Why are we so sure there’s not more to learn about our fellow humans? We may not always make conscious decisions to think and act this way, but we often do, nonetheless.
I used to teach college composition. And in those courses, I used to assign auto-ethnography papers. Auto-ethnography is part ethnography and part autobiography. It employs thick, detailed description of a subculture by a writer who tries to live like a member of the subculture in order to deeply understand it (think of Margaret Mead or those “I lived with the ____ tribe for six months” articles in National Geographic), and part autobiography because it asks the writing to define a subculture to which the writer really has belonged for some time. So we can think of it as true insider ethnography or highly focused autobiography.
I loved learning from my students as they wrote about their subcultures. I learned about everything from lacrosse players to Xena: Warrior Princess super-fans to money launderers to furries. Something that almost always came out of that writing, no matter who the writer or what the subculture: people felt like outsiders to the rest of the world because of their membership in their subcultures. They felt defensive and disenfranchised. Even the captain of the football team. Even if the team won a lot. Even the investment bankers and Olympic athletes and valedictorians and swimsuit models.
Because they always assumed they were being judged harshly, they also assumed that was a societal modus operandi and judged others harshly. With fear. Suspicion. Confidence in their uninformed, even willfully ignorant opinions.
But through class discussion of each other’s work, they usually learned they weren’t being judged all that harshly, if at all. And then they learned to do the same. To back off. To chill out. To quit judging things they didn’t understand. To listen to each other, and to believe each other. It was a dependable miracle I was lucky enough to witness 5-6 times a year x 25 students per class from 1999-2016.
I miss that, all those reminders that humans can be better. More importantly, I miss the certainty that exactly this kind of improvement is happening somewhere on Earth because I was watching nothing less than society turning smarter and kinder, less judgmental and more informed.
This column, if I’m being honest, will be an incredibly selfish endeavor. Teaching was my passion; now it’s my compulsion. I cannot help but think like a teacher, and I cannot help but think about the systemic benefits a society can reap with a little guided inquiry.
I am not your teacher, and thus cannot assign you homework. But if you want to do a little life-work with me, here’s your assignment:
Think about a subculture you belong to by birth, circumstance, or choice. It could be your heritage (being Native American, mixed race, from Botswana, Canada, etc.), the specifics of your upbringing (lived in a small town, was raised Catholic, was an only child, etc.), a job you do (plumber, math teacher, anesthesiologist, cashier) a pastime you enjoy (playing roller derby, chess, bird-watching, etc.), or any other thing that is a part of your identity (being vegan, being a “clean freak,” etc.)
Think about what people misunderstand or judge unfairly about your subculture. We tend to remember these incidents more than the times we’ve been treated fairly or indifferently. This should be easy. Jot a few down.
Now go out and learn about a subculture to which you do not belong. The less you know about it initially, the better. Feeling brave? Learn about a subculture with which you’re uncomfortable, people that engage in belief systems, activities, etc. at odds with your own. You can gather primary research—talking with members of the subculture—or secondary research—reading published work on the subculture.
Write down what you are learning. Focus on what members of the subculture say is often misunderstood or judged unfairly. Share your sources. And then share it with me; submit 500 words or less (excluding any links or citations for your sources) to me at email@example.com with the subject line “Life-work #1 submission” for a chance to be featured in the next column. Designate whether or not you’re comfortable with your writing being shared under your name, or whether you’d prefer anonymity.
I look forward to learning from you and with you.
Heidi Stevenson is a lifelong Yooper, save for two years earning a PhD in Pennsylvania. She is a former NMU professor, writing center director, and group fitness and yoga instructor, and a current wrangler of house cats, autoimmune diseases, and ideas.
Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2017. All rights reserved.