Doctor/Kake or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Post- modernity

May 26, 2009

By Karen (Kake) Huck, Speech

Kake1kake2If you know me, you may have witnessed or taken part in one of the following greeting rituals.

The writer/artist’s introduction:
“Hi, I’m Kake Huck.”
“Hello, Kate.”
“No.  Kake.”
“Right.  Kate.”
“No, Kake.  With two Ks.”
“Like pineapple upside-down cake?”
“Yeah, yeah, but with two Ks.  And no need to quote Marie Antoinette, thanks.”


The collegial introduction:
“Hello. I’m Karen Huck.  Also called Kake.  Or Huck.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“Oh, you pick.  Whatever you’re comfortable with.” 

The classroom introduction:
“Here are your choices when you want to get my attention.  You can call me Karen.  You can call me Huck, just plain Huck, like, ‘Hey, Huck!’ or, if you really need to put something in front of my last name, you have two choices:  doctor or professor.  I’m also quite comfortable with ‘M’am’ if you’re ex-military or from the South.”

This multiplicity of monikers sometimes gives people pause, especially if they’re introducing me to someone else or talking about me in front of students (who aren’t allowed to call me Kake). 

Well, you may be  happy to know that I have theoretical grounding for all this ego-absorbed label-mania:  I am a self-aware creature of post-modernity.  Unlike the solid, community-bound self of classical thought or the authenticity-seeking individual of modernity, the postmodern self is diffuse, diverse, and dramaturgical — a co-construction created by embodied beings performing in relationship with others.  Postmodern identity is contingent, open, and uncertain.  According to my Utah mentor, Jim Anderson, the last century’s discoveries in psychology and sociology have thoroughly destabilized the unitary vision of the self and shown us that “much of who we are — is the product of social action, not internal character.”[1]  

Others have argued that the postmodern self is a bricolage[2] of potentialities lifted from mediated representations of being.  It is criticized for replacing class consciousness with classy accoutrements.  In a world of multiple opportunities for impression-management, we grasp at selves sold to us by organizations moving product.  Hence all those Facebook apps in which we identify ourselves through some commercial narrative:  “Which House character are you?”

This, of course, is in direct contradiction of my mother’s advice to “Be yourself.”  Or Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  Or that rallying cry of the boomer generation:   “Just do your own thing, man.”  People I respect, however, still hold this belief.  My colleague Michelle Franco celebrates authenticity in her classroom and business, Eloquence Communication.  She inspires her students and her clients by asking that they speak from a true self.  But I’ve challenged her worldview because though it once was mine it is no longer.

For many years I struggled to “be myself,” to become, in Jungian terms, individuated or whole.[3]  But it occurred to me that the famous Shakespearean quote was uttered by Polonius, the pompous old dude in Hamlet who gets stabbed behind the arras.  Not the best source of philosophical mentoring.  And there are at least three other problems with the modernist ideal of the authentic self.

First, as I note above, it doesn’t fit the data produced over the past hundred years by psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and artists.  People are born with certain physical characteristics, certainly.  But what our biology means is a matter of our interaction with members of our culture/family/organization/tribe.  Who we are is who we’re with and what they say about us. 

Second, it isn’t just the social sciences that prove our interior diversity.  Neuroscience reveals the impact of chemicals on both behavior and cognition. [4] When I first began taking anti-depressants in the early 80s,  I changed.  I don’t just mean I was finally able to hold a job or talk to strangers.  I mean that my mind, personality and interior vision of the universe changed.  I not only became happier but many of the things that I considered the core of my being dissolved. This experience, while annoying to those friends who loved my bitter, self-hating wit, was also an intriguing revelation about the indeterminate quality of a thing – my Self – I’d once considered immutable.

And finally, there are pragmatic reasons for enjoying multiple selves.  Sometimes who you really, really are simply isn’t effective for what you really, really want to achieve.  Just ask Dr. David Bruce Banner.

So I sometimes explain to people that I operate (or am operated by) at least two distinct selves:  the artist and the teacher.  Both have experienced the same family and social history but each understands it and re-creates its memories in very different ways.[5]

articleA newspaper article that never appeared.  Photo by Kake Huck.

(click on the icon to read)

The poet and artist Kake Huck, is driven to tell her psychic “truths” of loss, betrayal, destruction and despair.  She looks into the twisted heart of humanity and finds it wretched and perverse.  Child in a family punctuated by madness caught in a world prone to genocide and hate, she is cynical, weary, occasionally enraged and offers little hope that human beings are capable of treating each other decently over the long run. 

Oh, don’t let that poet into a classroom!  She’s sooo scary! 

Of course note here that according to studies done by Nancy Andreason, a lit PhD become neuroscientist, poets are more than 2 1/2 times more likely to be depressives or bi-polar than members of the population at large…[6]

The character who teaches communication, on the other hand, Dr. Karen Huck, is positive, upbeat and relentlessly optimistic about personal change and self-empowerment.  Sure, she’s had the same history as the poet.  But she knows that re-creation is possible.  She’s learned how to live with PTSD and depression.  When appropriate, she mentions them as manageable mountains.  She appears to have conquered her stage fright.  She believes that anyone can give a good public speech or alter their relationships for the better.   And that if life gives you lemons you should request a gol-dang martini glass with a sugared rim!  

I was happy at the convocation on May 8 when VPI Kathy Walsh recognized the positive aspects of socially constructed performance when she noted that I have worked “to analyze the role of ‘excellent teacher,’ to determine what behaviors most assist student learning, and to adopt herself to that role.”

So I’ve learned to be multiple selves.  Is this good or bad?  It’s wonderful, according to America’s great gray poet Walt Whitman who wrote, “I contain multitudes . . .”[7]   Not so hot, according to the Apostle Mark’s story about the pig-infusing demon who screams, “My name is Legion.”[8]  

But postmodernity, at its best, is an ethical incoherence. 

What counts between people must be dependable, even if we change our costumes.   In this way, identity is like architecture.  Postmodern architecture is wild in its multiplicity of influences and fantastic shapes but must be solid and dependable in its plumbing.  The same is true of postmodern identity.  It can be diverse and confusing but there in the moment of our interaction with each other, in relationship, in our here and now, postmodern identity can and must offer compassion, hope, and faith in the protean experience of a chaotic, loving grace.

gehryArchitect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  Photo by Kake Huck

[1] James A. Anderson and Elaine E. Englehardt, The Organizational Self and Ethical Conduct:  Sunlit Virtue and Shadowed Resistance (Fort Worth, TX:  Harcourt College Publishers, 2001) p. 83.  For more on postmodern identity, see also Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991).

[2] For critique of this kind of identification, see Michele DeSilva’s previous entry in this blog.

[3] Psychological types; or, The psychology of individuation, by C. G. Jung…Translated by H. Godwin Baynes.  (New York, Pantheon Books,1962)

[4] What, you’ve never had an alcoholic drink, a cup of coffee or a donut?  You really need proof here?

[5] For more about the physical aspect of memory and its variability, please see the work of Joe LeDoux (Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, Penguin, 2003) and Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Mariner Books, 2008) or check out this episode of WNYC’s Radiolab

[6] Nancy Andreason , The Creating Brain:  The Neuroscience of Genius, New York:  Dana Press, 2005.

[7] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself:” “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

[8] Mark 5:9, the story of the demons cast into the herd of pigs.


Hidden in Plain Sight: Of Barns and Social Networks

May 19, 2009

by Michele DeSilva, Library

I reluctantly signed up for a Facebook account in 2008 at the urging of some college friends.  I thought I’d hate it; I actually love it.  While I’ve been “friended” by the usual barrage of people from the past with whom I have only a tenuous connection, at best, I’ve also managed to keep in closer touch with family and friends who are scattered across the country and the globe (South Carolina, Japan, Africa, Iowa).  Even though I have come to love it, I still have an acute sense of the shortcomings of this particular medium as a means of communication and as a social construction.    

One of my favorite books is White Noise, by Don DeLillo.  Though originally published in 1985, it remains a perceptive view of the modern information society – the modern information society being one in which we are constantly “connected” to one another via various forms of technology.  One of the most humorous passages in the book concerns a trip that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, and his friend, Murray, both college professors, take to the “most photographed barn in America.”  Rather than viewing the barn and photographing it themselves, Jack and Murray disconnect from the scene at hand and display an almost exclusive interest in the other people there who are photographing the barn and, who, because they are so busy taking pictures, never really see the barn, either.  After a philosophical exchange about the phenomenon they are observing, Murray concludes, “We are not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one…We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.”

 barnI think we could say the same thing of the numerous social networks to which many of us belong – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace – we’re not there to communicate so much as to maintain the semblance of communicating, of “connectivity,” as William Deresiewicz writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education – and we’ve all agreed to be a part of the collective chatter, tweets (a Twitter update), and wall postings.  As someone with a deep interest in information and communication and how the two affect society, I often find myself wondering:  what is the overall effect of all of these social networks on our relationship with the real world?  Or, to phrase it in White Noise terms, what about the barn that is the focal point of all those images?

One major effect of the use of social networks is the strain they add to our already information-laden lives.  Why do we subject ourselves to having to keep track of everyone’s mundane thoughts and daily routines via their Facebook statuses or “tweets”?  Clive Thompson, in the New York Times Magazine answers this question by explaining the phenomenon of “ambient awareness,” a process by which we gradually piece together these random bits and pieces of information about the people we know (or don’t know, as the case may be) to create a sense of that person’s identity.  But, the status updates and tweets that many people post in social networks are highly stylized versions of their mundane lives; we do not know the person (especially those people we don’t see everyday) so much as the person’s self-created version of him or herself, as best transmitted 140 characters or so at a time. 

 social network
The relationships developed via social networks, thus, are not always grounded in reality.  Researchers have discovered that the relationships developed via social networks are “parasocial,” similar to the relationships people form with characters in their favorite television shows or celebrities; that is, people feel like they know the person being portrayed, even though all they really know is the public character.  Real relationships are perhaps somewhat obscured by these illusory relationships, just as the most photographed barn in America is obscured by the people photographing it. 

Alternatively, Erika Gordon, in the online journal First Monday, explores the nature of social “performance” in online networks and suggests that the relationships in social networks may serve as laboratories for real world relationships.  Because the demands on our time and attention are so great, we use social networks to “’try out’ emotional engagement and intimacy before dedicating massive social and personal resources to strong ties.”  

The great irony of needing to “try out” relationships with social media is that our lack of time and attention is partially due to all of the various media that require our attention.  We simply seem to have no time to think anymore.  Because we “have” to keep up with so much stuff, our attention span has shrunk.  This also has its effects on society.  For example, a group of scientists at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute  recently discovered that people need more time to process and respond to news stories that require the activation of such emotions as empathy and compassion.  People getting the bulk of their news from online feeds and social networking spent less time processing the stories and thinking about the ethical ramifications of current events.  One of the study’s authors points out the potential impact of these findings on our roles as citizens:  “We need to understand how social experience shapes interactions between the body and mind, to produce citizens with a strong moral compass.” 

While social networks certainly have their benefits, it’s clear that we need to think more thoroughly about how we use them and how they contribute to our participation in and creation of real society  and the “collective perception” of “connectivity” rather than the real thing.  So, please add your comments about social networking to the blog post.  I’d love to know what you think about online social networks and society (and, no, the irony of writing about this as a blog topic, meant to be spread across an online social network has not been lost on me).  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go update my Facebook status.

Of chemistry, soap, and hope

May 12, 2009

by Carol Higginbotham, Sciences/Chemistry

Long before chemists had any knowledge of atoms or molecules, people were improving their lives by performing chemical reactions on the materials in their environment.  Our ancestors did this when they cooked and preserved their food, and when they fermented foods and beverages.  They also did this when they learned to convert fats into soap.

We still use soaps that are produced basically the same way as they always have been, just on an industrial scale.

The recipe is basically this:  fat + base = soap. The base can either be commercially prepared lye, or the naturally occurring base that exists in the ashes of campfires.  Historically the fats came from animal tallow, although plant oils work just fine.

soapProducing a basic soap involves little more than boiling the ingredients and then removing excess base and water.  Producing fine soap, however, is a craft that requires skill and experience.  These high quality products are valuable and marketable.

This market for soap is what recently connected me to, of all places, Afghanistan.

Sarah Chayes was working for National Public Radio (NPR) as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan after 9/11.  But she was drawn away from war reporting.  Sarah witnessed the difficulties faced by ordinary Afghans frustrated by government corruption, an economy dependent on the drug trade, an unreliable infrastructure, and the Taliban.  In response she and a group of locals organized a cooperative to make soaps by hand, utilizing area agricultural products such as pomegranates.  The effort would provide cooperative members with a way to make a living independent of the drug trade.  As a Westerner, Sarah could connect the group to markets in the U.S. and Canada.  They set up shop near Kandahar and named the cooperative Arghand after the region.  

 ArghandArghand had been operating for a while when I heard about them.  My curiosity led me to the web, where I read dispatches from Sarah and discovered the types of support they needed.  I was a bit surprised to see they were asking for consultation with a chemist.  I knew I didn’t know all that much about soap, but I wrote an email to inquire.  Sarah herself wrote me back. 

The cooperative was having difficulty with the natural dyes that color their product.  The soaps were colored with pomegranate, a gorgeous red that unfortunately was fading with time.  I guessed that the problems were likely due to oxidation or exposure to ultraviolet light.   We found some natural products reported to contain antioxidants, and they added them into their recipe.  It seemed to work.

This connection, though transitory, has stayed with me.  When I read news stories or see video from Afghanistan I am invariably thinking of the cooperative, and of the regular people there who are struggling to make a living in that harsh situation.  I am grateful I had the opportunity to make a contribution, however small.  And I am grateful there are people like Sarah who are able to both see what needs to happen and to take up the charge and do it.

Curious about making soap?  Here you can find some suggested links to sites detailing the chemistry of soap and the processes involved in soap-making.

Want to find Arghand body care products?  The Arghand web site lists retailers around the U.S., including Garuda International who distributes them from Oregon.

In a not so black and white world

May 5, 2009

by Tina Hovekamp, Library


For the last two years, Martha Groom, Associate Professor at the University of Washington has been using Wikipedia for her classes requiring her students to submit articles to the popular, user-generated internet encyclopedia as part of their assignment. An article discussing Groom’s  original teaching approach, cites one of her students commenting, “This assignment felt so Real! I had not thought that anything I wrote was worth others reading before, but now I think what I contributed was useful, and I’m glad other people can gain from my research.”

And then there is the battle of Colbert vs. Wikipedia:

So, is Wikipedia  a valuable resource to promote in our classes?  Last year I asked my LIB127 students to try a search on a topic of their interest in order to compare results in Britannica versus Wikipedia. It was the first time I included such a question in their assignment, not knowing exactly what their responses could be. Well, I have to admit, their answers were an eye opener, a good number of them quite well-thought making it difficult for me to dismiss as inaccurate or irrelevant. Here is one of them, an example of what students may often experience searching and comparing such two tools, an “academic” one and another from the “fee” web world:

“I choose to look up schizoaffective disorder which is a psychiatric diagnosis describing a condition where both the symptoms of a mood disorder and schizophrenia are present.  When I searched for schizoaffective on wikipedia [a pertinent result] came up; however, when I put the same thing in on Britannica Online it showed no results.  I had to look up both mental disorder and schizophrenia which was somewhat frustrating.  I also found the wikipedia information to be much more in depth and helpful than the Britannica Online information…  If I had to choose an article to go with for this research topic it would definitely be the one at Wikipedia.”

I have to admit, even being a librarian doesn’t sometimes stop me from agreeing with my students that “traditional” encyclopedic sources such as Britannica or Oxford Reference Online, both of them databases our library subscribes to, may often fail to be as comprehensive or extensive as Wikipedia. Even the display of results and layout of Wikipedia are often much more user-friendly with features such as the inclusion of links to other terms or to other entries which I found useful in so many occasions, especially when doing quick searches.

wikibabel4While helping patrons at the reference desk or in the classroom, I often hear instructors and students summarily dismiss the use of Wikipedia. I myself also tell my students that although Wikipedia could be a decent tool for getting general information on a topic, I wouldn’t use it as one of my cited sources in a research paper; but then, again, I wouldn’t use Britannica either as one of my cited sources for a college level research project. I guess the main difference most people agree on in using Wikipedia versus other more traditional sources is that since the authorship of the Wikipedia articles is unclear, students needing to use the information for a research paper have to take the extra step of finding other more “official” verification of the accuracy of the information. But is this a reason to completely discourage its use? A few years ago a study published in Nature already found that rates and problems of accuracy between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica can actually be quite comparable. Interestingly, Wikipedia itself offers a caveat for its use in research projects:

“As with any source, especially one of unknown authorship, you should be wary and independently verify the accuracy of Wikipedia information if possible. For many purposes, but particularly in academia, Wikipedia may not be an acceptable source;[1] indeed, some professors and teachers may reject Wikipedia-sourced material completely. This is especially true when it is used uncorroborated.

We advise special caution when using Wikipedia as a source for research projects. Normal academic usage of Wikipedia and other encyclopedias is for getting the general facts of a problem and to gather keywords, references and bibliographical pointers, but not as a source in itself. Remember that Wikipedia is a wiki, which means that anyone in the world can edit an article, deleting accurate information or adding false information, which the reader may not recognize.”

Wikipedia seems to have given this issue some thought. But despite its own disclaimer, in a world already dominated by Google and wikis, perhaps the best approach to take may be something similar to Groom’s course assignment that actually embraces the power and benefits of tools such as Wikipedia. Regardless of where information is coming from, being a critical consumer, always looking for ways to validate the quality of what’s been passed on to us is perhaps much more important rather than prescribing the exact rules of what specific tools to use or avoid.

David Parry, assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, last year had an interesting article on this topic, “Wikipedia and the New Curriculum: Digital Literacy Is Knowing How We Store What We Know” (February 2008).  Here’s a quote:

“It is irresponsible for educational institutions not to teach new knowledge technologies such as Wikipedia… digital literacy is so crucial for educational institutions: we do a fundamental disservice to our students if we continue to propagate old methods of knowledge creation and archivization without also teaching them how these structures are changing, and, more importantly, how they will relate to knowledge creation and dissemination in a fundamentally different way.”

What do you think?  Should we rethink Wikipedia’s role in our classes?