Tuesday, June 12, 2012
My email to a famous blogger I respect
Dear "Mystery blogger - I'll post the identity if I am given permission later, as well as a reply should I get one and the permission to go with it",
Fair warning up front, this is pretty long, so I apologize in advance, as I assume you are a very busy person.
I've been reading your articles and blogs for awhile and I like your perspective and ideas. I am curious about your thoughts about being a teacher and being vocal as an atheist. I have been teaching ESL in Korea for nine years, and although I don't really try to hide my (lack of) belief, I am pretty careful and vague during class, especially since I'm being paid to teach a language, not atheism. However, I sometimes catch myself thinking, why should I have to worry about this. In an ideal world atheism should be a perfectly reasonable topic for discussion. Now in September I will return to Canada to do a Bachelor of Education and am considering starting a student secular group at my university but am not sure whether I want to take the leap to being a conscious activist of sorts, or just focus more on my studies and other interests such as music and sports. I was inspired by your article "about states that it's hard to be an atheist in - again, I'll post this link later, if I have permission" to ask your opinions and reflections on this matter.
Here is a bit of background. Before I applied to do a Bachelor of Education I had begun a distance program to complete my Masters of Adult Education at St. FX University ( http://www.stfx.ca/ ) in Nova Scotia, Canada. There was a three week on campus orientation of sorts, and although I really enjoyed most of it, and found the professors in general to be really great and wonderful, and foreward thinking in many respects, with some professors I came up with some resistance (to differing degrees) from some of the professors to having atheism as a central topic. I wasn't outright completely forbidden from studying this from all professors. One professor, who wasn't my advisor was particularly aggressive towards my interest in atheism and verbally gave it to me to the point of my being in tears. I don't cry often or easily these days, but it got to me. The woman who was my advisor was less harsh, but still gave me a somewhat curt warning to "show respect" when I started questioning some aspects of religion in what I thought was not in a hateful but academic way. It surprised me to hear this in an academic institution. It surprised me in particular with the professor who had me in tears. She seemed to be very unorthodox, she was a feminist, used art and poetry as mediums for lectures and academic exploration, so I was really caught off guard when she laid in to me. I have always thought that there are similarities (not that they are the same, but they share some common goals and problems) between the atheist movement and other movements that seek out equality. I think of other movements as role models. One of the other students was black and her area of interest for her thesis (or ideas, we were only beginning and fleshing out some possible ideas) was exploring how she as an educator could acknowledge "Finding her voice as a Black Educator, not submitting to self censorship, while not attacking other voices, or making them feel unduly threatened or guilty for merely being white" That's hugely paraphrased and maybe a little off, my memory is fuzzy, but what I remember turning the little lightbulb on in my brain was the idea of self censorship vs. openly identifying as an atheist. And I realize the similarities break down, but that was what got me interested in a possible area of study. Do atheists self censor, are they afraid to openly identify. I had made it a point during the three weeks to vocally identify, not in an overly threatening way, sort of as an experiment, but more so because I was genuinely interested in other students ideas and input on my ideas, as well as my instructors. I started thinking about some similarities and differences between the situations different groups find themselves in, such as atheist, sexual orientation, skin color they happened to be born with. I noticed a slight difference in situations between me as a 'white foreigner' living in Korea and some of my Western born or raised, but of Korean heritage foreigners when interacting with the locals. I thought about how I sometimes get stared at on the subway, or how occasionally taxis won't stop for me. Then I thought about my Kyopo (Korean word for Korean's raised in another country) friends, and how they didn't get starred at, how they could blend in and not be noticed, until they started speaking English or acting in ways that were more in line with Western culture. And I thought wow, that's sort of a similar situation, or similar dynamics as an atheist, or someone with a non-straight sexual orientation finds themselves in. They have a choice to say, hey here I am and I am such and such, where as a person with a visual disability, or different color of skin doesn't have the choice to either "come out" or not. Anyway, I'm kind of getting on a tangent, to get back on topic. One of the areas of study within Adult Education was "Social Movement Learning" and how education often happens in a non formal way, but happens all the same. So I figured that I could study "Atheism as a Social Movement" as I thought it indeed was one. My advisor pretty much flat out said something along the lines of "I don't think Atheism qualifies as a Social Movement" and when I tried to change direction on my ideas of thesis I still felt like I was facing more resistance to my area of interest than a lot of the other students. I was told there is no research on atheism in Adult Education literature, so I'd have nothing to study. That didn't completely make sense to me. I mean there is feminist and queer theory in Adult Education, research from a "Black perspective" for lack of a better term, and I thought. Somebody must have been the first at some point in Adult Ed history to introduce these sub fields and bring research that was not strictly "Adult Ed" into that discipline. So I was confused. As I read books on Philosophy in Adult Education, I saw many things that I mentioned religion as a possible area of conflict within education, stuff from John Dewey and could see some possible ideas in Freire's Pedagody of the Oppressed. My advisor had edited and compiled an Encyclopedia of Adult Education, and was very intelligent. Why didn't she see this as a possible area of study. I was confused. To be fair, she didn't totally forbid me from using atheist sources or working it into my research, but told me that out of a Reading list I was making that needed I think 50 titles that to include more than three sources that touched on what I was really interested in would be 'getting me off track'. I felt like I was being steered away from researching what I was truly interested in. I suppose I could have fought it more, and maybe even convinced her that I had a valid topic to research, as she was a reasonable person, but in the end, I just sort of gave up and didn't want to feel like I was fighting something that I felt should have been obvious, at least not with my advisors. I could have asked for a different advisor. I could have done a lot of things. Well it doesn't really matter because all that's too late, and perhaps it was not just the time for that to be dealt with in Adult Ed or perhaps I was not meant to be the person. That doesn't mean I've completely given up. It would also be unfair to blame it all on the professors or department or field of Adult Ed. There were many other factors that played as important a role. Although it's true I kind of wanted to get out of ESL and I was being steered towards doing research more in ESL since that's where I was working, and had altered my tentative thesis ideas to be more along exploring the ethics and questions involved in whether or not to disclose 'strong' ideas or beliefs as a teacher in the ESL classroom, I still felt I was getting off track in terms of what I was really interested in. But as I hinted to, there were other factors. Once I left the on campus orientation with discussions with other students and faculty I found I missed that and felt that I didn't really want to do a distance learning degree, at least not if I felt I was compromising what I really wanted to study. Also it was said that this independent research degree could be completed in 2-5 years. I was thinking 5, but was informed that the majority of students took closer to 4, and I wasn't sure I wanted to study for that long, unless I had a real solid passion for what I was studying. I also was planning on returning to Canada soon, and would find it hard to do research on ESL in Korea (my advisor suggested doing a self study of sorts) and that doing a Masters degree in the direction I was going wasn't really in my heart.
In the end I decided to do a B.Ed back home. Of course I'd love to study something more strictly secular like the Pitzer program you mentioned somewhere, but other practical factors also were on my mind. My wife is Korean, and often immigrants find it difficult to find work right away in new countries and I figured studying towards a Masters or PH.D would put a lot of stress on us, trying to move and start a life in Canada with me being a poor un-earning student for a long period of time. I figured doing a one year add on to my BA would be more practical and get me in the work force and I could still be involved in secular groups or activism outside of work. Something the professor that made me cry had said to me has kind of stuck in my mind. This is paraphrasing but "All I hear from you is atheism this, atheism that, you are obsessed, I'm interested in it myself but it in NOT adult education, there has been no research, and you will have no career options if you pursue this obsession, what are you going to be, a professional atheist?" Afterwards, when by myself, I kind of got a bit stubborn and thought to myself, watch me, maybe I will become a professional atheist. So I kind of at that point felt that I wanted to make it a point to become more active and outspoken. I started a blog. Actually I started the blog as a place to keep ideas I was researching, but after dropping out I decided to make it more about atheism, secularism and humanism. I don't get a lot of hits, almost nobody reads my blog, but that's ok. It out there 'published' on the internet publicly, and that's enough for me symbolically, and who knows maybe if I got involved in secular groups and stuff, I'd be more visible, and it might get more traffic. Regardless, it's not important, traffic or not. What's important is I feel good about making a conscious effort to not be silent.
This brings me full circle to where I began, the question of being vocal as a teacher. I still wonder, so many questions, will it jeopardize my chances of getting a job once I complete my B.Ed degree. Should I be vocal publicly as an atheist, write columns in newspapers if I am also working as a teacher. Will it make religious students feel threatened? Will it help atheist students to feel represented. Will I get in trouble with my employers. Are these valid areas of research to some degree that I can explore when I'm doing my Bachelor of Education or should I just avoid it, and look at this degree as a practical way to employment and keep that side of me completely separate from me as an educator? Can I do that even? If I decide to get involved in or start a secular group (from what I can tell there isn't one at the school yet, and maybe none in the town non university affiliated) when I go to study should I make it as a campus group or something out in the community separate from the University? This is not my hometown and I'll likely only be there for one year. If I decide to start something like that, what one would be most likely to survive, and do the most good after I leave, a student group or a group in the wider community? I'm guessing starting both would be over ambitious as I still have to study and whatnot. There are some promising things I've read, Daniel Dennett talked about how in Quebec there is a provision or something that all high school students must me taught 'facts about religions' or at least the religions that are major players in the province, so that all students understand about religions different from themselves, as an attempt to curb religiously motivated prejudice. I don't remember if that also included non religious groups as one of the groups of study, but if they do that might be something I could research, as well as research into whether or not other provinces should follow suit.
As I said, I really like your articles and value your opinion and experience. I would be really grateful if I you ever have time to give me a reply, even if it is a short one. I assume you are a very busy person, and will totally understand if you don't get back to me. I am after all a stranger sending an unsolicited email, and I can imagine since your blogs are well read you likely get lots of emails. I will be posting the contents of this email to my blog (not including any direct mention of you in other paragraphs, until I get permission) as well, but I won't mention that it is a letter to you specifically, unless I get your permission, at which point I will edit it to include that fact. I will merely mention it's an email I sent to a well known blogger and that I'll reveal the mystery blogger in question if I get permission. (Hmmm, an idea just crossed my mind, perhaps I could send a similar email to other writers I admire and respect. Thoughts or advice? Has receiving this email been bothersome? I hope not, but if you did find it so, I'll rethink sending a similar one out to others. If so, sorry that you were that guinnea pig) Also if you do find the time to answer this embarrassingly long letter, I would like, with your permission, to also post your reply, some quotes from your reply, or a link to your blog if you happen to feel the inclination to make this topic a subject of one of your own blog entries. I also give you full permission to quote any or all of this in your blog or other articles if you so wish.
Here are some of my blog entries that are related in some way to the above questions I asked.
On Atheism as a Social Movement - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2012/05/atheism-is-social-movement.html
On the Dan Dennett thing I mentioned regarding teaching about religion in schools - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2012/05/httpwhyevolutionistrue.html
About Secular Studies - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2012/04/secular-studies.html
About having a dialogue with my brother who is a minister, not quite as related but maybe indirectly to the 'self censorship' idea
On atheist ministers, because it also deals with the choice to speak up or be quiet, in a profession that is even more hard to do so than that of teachers - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2012/06/more-on-atheist-ministers-from-greta.html
About Alom Shaha, a vocal Muslim Athiest - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2012/04/shahas-article-muslim-atheist.html
Indirectly about one way to maybe be a 'professional atheist' - to be a secular provider of funerals, this is also a reply to your own post on Humanist Funerals - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2012/03/humanist-funerals.html
And finally, one I wrote about why I quit my masters, and thinking about possible alternatives, this was before I decided to apply to B.Ed programs, but was considering it - http://trevorsquest.blogspot.kr/2011/10/exit-plans-future-home-comings-and.html