Saturday, March 14, 2020

Online Teaching 101

Ready or Not, the Future Is Now—and It Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

Many of us in higher education received emails last week about either taking our classes online or preparing to do so. If you’re anxious about the next several weeks, imagine how your students are feeling! Many of them have avoided online classes or have had a negative experience with one in the past. For context, I teach hybrid, face-to-face, and online classes in an open-access community college where many of my students are already at risk, and last week, I could smell the fear. 

As a teacher, you are likely well aware that current research about online education suggests that distance learning is not as effective as face-to-face classes and that the retention and persistence rates for students are poor. Also, let’s be frank here: some administrators seem to think that online classes are “easy” to teach and that all we have to do is post our syllabus online to turn a face-to-face class into an online one.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and you should be aware upfront that developing and teaching an online course, in my experience, typically takes more time than teaching a face-to-face class (though it comes with added perks like flexibility and the ability to offer classes during a pandemic). For this reason, it’s important to track your labor over the next few weeks.

With those caveats, I want you to know how much I personally love teaching and learning online. As an instructor who began teaching online and hybrid classes in 2010 and completed my Organizational Leadership doctorate in a fully online program in 2016, I have seen firsthand that online teachers can create effective active learning opportunities. With intentional planning and deliberate outreach, an online class can provide a robust learning environment for your students.

Below, I have outlined a few areas that have been important to me as an online teacher, along with examples and resources. I have focused my suggestions on relatively simple and quick ways to transfer your existing face-to-face class to an online environment.

Communicate Early and Often
One of the most important ways to build engagement with online students is to communicate early and often. Communication should take a variety of forms, and make sure you let your students know what your preferred style of communication is. Here’s how I communicate with my classes:
  • Weekly LMS course announcements about assignments, sometimes including a short video I record on my phone and upload to YouTube.  
  • Regular and frequent emails, including a weekly email wrap up of the work we covered. Note: it’s important to make sure that students are checking their student email. Including a tutorial about how to forward their student emails to their phones can be a great way to make sure that they are checking their messages. It’s also really important that you respond to emails as quickly as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. I check for student emails before I go to bed every evening and when I wake up in the morning. Here is an example of a weekly wrap up course announcement/email I created for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology course:



  • “Ask Your Instructor” open forum in your LMS discussion board. Students can post questions that the whole class may have. Subscribe to this board so that you can get back to students quickly. 
  • Video feedback on assignment grades. Both Canvas and Blackboard make this easy to do by incorporating a way to record audio or video feedback directly in the assignment comment box. This way of giving feedback has two advantages: 1) It generally takes less time than line edits or written feedback, and 2) It builds rapport with your students. They will feel like you really care, which will contribute to their ability to succeed in the class. See here for Blackboard instructions: https://help.blackboard.com/Learn/Instructor/Interact/Audio_Video_Recording
  • Weekly online office hours. Some of my friends use these office hours for emails and DMs with students, which is fine. I also host a weekly Blackboard Collaborate live session. Usually between 2-6 students attend. Students have reported that just knowing they have this option makes them feel less anxious about our online class. If you don’t have Bb Collaborate, you could do the same thing through Google Hangouts.
  • Phone calls or live video chats. Sometimes it’s just easier to work with a student individually over the phone or through a video conference. 
  • A “resources” or “FAQ” link where students can look for commonly asked questions, including important information like how to contact the IT help desk and access online tutoring.
  • Student feedback. Treat your students as collaborators in your course development. I use Google Forms to ask my students for their preferences about short stories or potential assignments or to assess how well a particular assignment worked. This helps the students to feel like their voices are heard. Here is an example from my CWID “You Are What You Eat” course, where I surveyed students for their opinions on ethical issues that surround food (this took about 10 minutes to create):

Keep It Simple

You may not have spent much time thinking about UX (user experience). But I’m sure you’ve encountered a website that is frustrating or difficult to navigate. Keeping your online course as simple as possible will be important to your students’ success. In an online guide written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Flower Darby provides a useful glossary of common online pedagogy jargon that may help you as you think about your user experience: https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching

Here’s how I do this:

  • Start by looking at your existing syllabus and lesson plans. You probably already have discussions and assignments scheduled for each week. For each of these discussions and assignments, you’ll need to develop an online equivalent.
  • I recommend using the discussion board weekly for formative assessments. There are a few different ways to organize your discussion boards. Depending on the subject matter, you may want to create a single thread and have students respond directly to the thread. Or you may want to allow students to create their own threads within a forum. Have students post an initial response, but also require them to respond to classmates. It’s also important for you to participate regularly on these boards to build instructor presence—but you can quickly develop a bank of generic comments that can be repurposed. 
  • I use discussion boards in a variety of ways, including peer review on assignments and essays and for discussions that we would normally have in a classroom setting. Using discussion boards is pretty easy for most students, and grading them is pretty easy for you. Create a simple rubric with your expectations. Here is an example from my online Connecting with Ideas course: 



  • Think about how to organize your course as clearly as possible. I use weekly modules, open during the week we are working on them. These modules include links to the course documents, discussions, and assignments that students should focus on each week. All of my assignments are available under an “assignments” link, and all of my course documents are available under a “course documents” link, organized in folders by type of assignment.
  • In general, one discussion board assignment and one other assignment (such as homework, a lab report, or other assignment) should be enough to replicate what you did in a face-to-face class. Keep due dates regular and consistent so that students can plan ahead.

Be Creative and Use Your Resources

Again, using your existing syllabus and lesson plans as a guide, think about how you can meet the same outcomes in an online environment. Do you currently have group projects? So do I, and the online students really have fun with them. In the real world, many students will work on distributed teams, and giving an online group project is a great way to help them practice. You can set up different group discussions and even group Collaborate Live sessions in Blackboard; Canvas lets you set up entire sub-course sites for groups where they can have their own announcements and discussions. Here is an example of a critical edition website of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” that one English 211 student group created using Google Sites (shared with permission): https://sites.google.com/view/futuristic-consequences/home

Do your students give speeches or presentations? Consider using Voice Thread or Flip Grid.  You can also use Flip Grid for discussions. I ask my students for their advice about tools—while I have not used this yet, for example, I would not be at all averse to having students create a TikTok video assignment.

For lectures, I’ve seen many of my colleagues use tools like Screencast-O-Matic or Powtoon. But I am more old school. I use PowerPoints that I created for my face-to-face classes and record narrative in PowerPoint 2016. I then export the presentation to video, upload it to YouTube, and voila! 

One note about YouTube presentations: try to keep your presentations under 15 minutes. Students seem to lose attention beyond that time frame. This may mean breaking up existing presentations into shorter ones. Recording a lecture like this is quick and easy--less than an hour from start to finish. I recommend avoiding specific due dates or saving all due dates for the last slide. It’s easy to record a new final slide with updated due dates each semester—then export to a new video. 

Here’s an example from my Survey of World Mythology class: 

If you have access to Office 365, you have a wonderful presentation tool in Microsoft Sway. A colleague showed me how to use Sway to create multi-media online lectures that are optimized for mobile phones. Adobe Spark is a similar program. Here’s an example of a presentation I created on the Maya for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology class (it took me about three hours).

While I teach humanities courses, thinking creatively can also apply to science courses. For example, my oldest son is in the final semester of his college physics program, and his college made the sudden decision to move everything online. He’s most concerned about his lab circuits class, but his professor is already exploring ideas like getting each student an Arduino to work on at home. I have a feeling that in the current climate, if you have a solid proposal for something like this, administrators are definitely likely to consider your requests.

Finally, the website Amazing School Resources is collecting a wide range of free educational resources to use in online classrooms. You can access the list here: http://www.amazingeducationalresources.com/

In conclusion, you can do this. Make sure you reach out to colleagues and to your institution’s instructional designers (and be patient with them during this time because I am sure they are slammed). Whenever I have a question about how to move something from a face-to-face to an online environment, our college’s instructional designers have provided excellent suggestions and resources, including many of the things I shared above. Program chairs should consider creating a professional development site in your LMS and using a dedicated discussion forum to share assignments and resources (our wonderful program chair already does this, and it’s a lifesaver!). I know many of my colleagues who teach online are more than eager to offer resources and support.

The last bit of advice I have comes from research on growthmindset, something that we all can now model for our students. Many of us have negative ideas about online teaching. But this modality has undeniable benefits. Without online education, I could not have earned my doctorate as a working single mother of four children. Online education means access. It means opportunity. And when done intentionally and with students at the center, online education can definitely mean success. The future of education is now—and it doesn’t have to be dystopian, for teachers or for our students.

If you have other ideas or resources to share, I would really appreciate you linking to them in the comments.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Is This Mic on?


Why I went an entire year without posting to my blog

Well, I mean, no one reads your blog anyway, right?
A year ago today in 2018, I was fidgeting on the examination table at my ob/gyn’s office, a paper drape wrapped awkwardly around my legs. I take these women ‘s health things pretty seriously; in 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage 0 cervical cancer (or carcinoma in situ), which really isn’t as serious as it sounds, but when you’ve just lost your job and your health insurance like I had, anything with the word “cancer” can seem pretty darn scary. I had avoided the dreaded pap smear for six years, too busy trying to balance work and four young children as a single mother, and who had time for self-care, let alone self-health-care?

(Planned Parenthood saved my life. The outpatient surgery was a fraction of the cost at their non-abortion performing clinic compared with other local providers, and they told me to pay “whatever you can, whenever you can.” Just a few weeks later, I had another, better job and health insurance).

Back to 2018. The perky medical assistant wheeled up the EMR cart and said, “I’m going to ask you a few questions about your health.” Sure. Standard stuff.

Then she asked, “Have you noticed a reduced interest in doing things that you normally enjoy?”

The question took me aback. This was a gynecological exam. The etymological history of the word hysteria aside, what did my mood have to do with my uterus?

“Yes,” I responded honestly.

“Are you feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Have you felt that way for more than two weeks?”

“Yes,” I replied, “But it’s situational.”

And that situational depression—its causes and effects—is the reason I haven’t posted to my blog for a year. The situation involves a loved one, and that loved one has a medical condition for which the main treatment method involves the word “anonymous.” We don’t talk about it. We certainly don’t write about it.

After I continued to respond “yes” to each question on a nine-item depression screening instrument, the medical assistant stepped out to consult with my nurse practitioner who came into the room with a concerned smile.

“It’s situational,” I told her.

“I get that,” she said. “How long has this situation been affecting you?”

When did I stop hearing birdsong?

Was it in October, as the leaves changed colors and fell to the earth, as I grieved my dead father?

Certainly, the “situation” was serious by November, when I was a keynote speaker for the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health annual conference. It took everything I had to pull on nylons, slip into my red power dress and navy blue jacket, step on a stage in Houston in front of hundreds of passionate, powerful mental health advocates, and share my family’s story. All I wanted to do then was to sleep—permanently. I felt like a fraud.

Everywhere I went in Houston during that trip, I saw ghosts. In the tunnels, my father, who worked at One Shell Plaza. In the public library, my teenage self, poring over microfiche news clippings about T.E. Lawrence’s death (my first published article, in Brigham Young University’s Insight Magazine, was about Lawrence of Arabia and the problem of modern heroism). In the theater district, my first love, turning to me with bright eyes at the fountains beside the Wortham Center after we saw Prokofiev’s Cinderella on my 18th birthday.

No, if I was being honest, the “situation” and my inability to function at normal levels was probably earlier than that—September 2018, the start of a new term, when I was eligible to apply for promotion but simply could not see how I deserved it. What was the point of gathering student evaluations? How could I possibly write a narrative highlighting my accomplishments in the classroom when I myself could not see them? Wasn’t I just a burden to everyone?

In hindsight, I think that at least subconsciously, I sensed some of the warning signs that summer, and I tried to take proactive measures. I stopped drinking in early 2018 and will never go back. I resumed my regular yoga practice, lying in corpse pose after a strenuous daily vinyasa flow.

In hindsight, it wasn’t enough.

I was first diagnosed with depression in my senior year of college, and the illness nearly derailed me. With medication, therapy, and incredibly supportive friends and family, I was able to persevere and recover, graduating on time.

When depression struck again during my third pregnancy, I was forced to confront the fact that my mental health condition might be chronic. Once again, medication—a risk during pregnancy but a necessary one—stabilized me.

Before my divorce in 2008, as my marriage was ending, I reached a crisis point (I talked about this turning point and stepping away from suicidal ideation in a 2018 Story Story Night performance about semicolons). Yet once I was on my own, despite the challenges, I felt tremendous gratitude for my life, for second chances, for my beautiful children. During the years that my son was sick, I focused my energy on caring for him, and I am so proud of the man he is becoming today. I was grateful for the opportunities that both Eric and I had to share our stories of hope and recovery. Eric's awesome TEDx Boise talk has way more views than mine (I call that a definite mom win!).

But as a mental health advocate, I hate to admit that I grew complacent during that ten-year reprieve about my own mental health.

When did I stop hearing birdsong? All that I know is this: by the time I took the stage in Houston, I was moving slowly through muffled, suffocating silence. The air pressed on my skin, creeping, crawling. I could not escape. What if the worst thing happens? I thought. What is the worst thing?

I survived. Then December 2018 came. The second week of December, when I lost hope, again, forever.

I have to be vague because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of advocacy, it’s that our stories have boundaries. Where does my story end and where does yours begin? If you want to remain anonymous, do I need to remain silent too? What am I allowed to say? 

I’ve decided after a year of silence that I can talk about myself—my own experiences. I can say that in the second week of December 2018, I felt numb, grey, beyond hopeless, because being hopeless would require a knowledge of its opposite, hope, and those were just four letters on a page to me, like love, like self. These words had lost their meaning. In my experience with depression, everything is spoken and heard through thick cotton. Colors fade. Sleep disappears. Food has no taste. If there are birds, they do not sing.

I can say that this depressive episode was situational, but I cannot talk about the situation because stories have boundaries, and words have consequences. I know this more than most people.

I hate December. In my case, the consequences of sharing stories have involved my worst fears: the loss of my children.

In the second week of December 2018, I had 48 hours to find a new place to live. Thanks to white privilege and a good credit score, I was able to do this. And so there I was in my ob-gyn’s office on the last day of December, flunking a nine-question depression screening.

In 2014, after my book The Price of Silence: A Mom’sPerspective on Mental Illness was published, I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet with David Pate, then CEO of St. Luke’s, the largest healthcare provider in Idaho. He asked me, “If you could make one change to our current healthcare model that would promote mental health, what would you do?” 

I answered without hesitation. “Work mental health screenings into all physical wellness check-ups, from pediatrics on up,” I said. Of course, there are numerous other things we can do—more hospital beds for psychiatric care, integrated models of mental and physical health care, etc. But access to care all starts with knowledge and normalization.

And here I was, four years later, at a St. Luke’s women’s health clinic, experiencing the integration of a mental health screening in my own physical wellness check-up.

“It’s situational,” I told my nurse practitioner. “It will pass.”

“But you don’t have to live like this right now,” she replied. She touched my arm gently and I burst into tears. Not because I was sad—my depression is not sadness. Touch—any touch—was painfully intrusive.

She prescribed antidepressant medication, the same one I had taken during my two previous episodes. The medication worked—I could function again—but I didn’t feel like myself. I was productive but still emotionless, an automaton. I could sleep and eat again, but I still couldn’t hear the songs of birds.

“Let’s try something different,” she said.

We did. And the second medication worked. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was discovering a new language—the language of the birds. They were singing to me, warbling the forgotten words: hope, love, self, okay. I was okay.

I have become acutely attenuated to birdsong.

I have almost completed my promotion packet. Reflecting on my Fall 2018 semester has instilled me with a sense of humility and gratitude that makes me a better teacher.

I have accepted that the nameless heartbreak of December 2018 has become a part of me. 
The past can’t be fixed, but the future is interesting to me again. I want to try.

The "situation" is still a major part of my life, and it’s still anonymous, but I am trying to find ways to reclaim my own voice. And I’m trying to appreciate this opportunity to practice radical compassion. I’ve realized that these efforts will be the work of a lifetime and that as long as some mental health conditions continue to require silence and shame, our work as advocates must continue.

Mental health is physical health. In 2020, we have work to do.  

To be fair, I did write a lot in 2019, just not for my personal blog. I continue to blog regularly for One in Five Minds.org, an amazing organization dedicated to children's mental health, and I still write occasionally for Eagle Magazine and  Greenbelt Magazine. I also had my first short story, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," accepted for publication in the 2019 Writers in the Attic "Fuel" anthology from the Cabin. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

American Dreams

Image from http://voteblue.blogspot.com/ 

Why Voting Blue Is the Right Thing to Do for Compassionate Conservative Republican Women

If you ask me why I’m a registered Republican, I can answer with two words: liberty and opportunity. For me, since I was young, liberty and opportunity have been my definition of the American Dream.

While I identify with traditional conservatives on many issues like free trade and disdain for big government, I also consider myself socially liberal, with justice as my main political concern. The truth is, like most Americans, I am actually somewhere in the center, and my values reflect that centrist, moderate approach. I have never voted straight ticket anything. I have always researched the issues and candidates and voted my conscience. In recent presidential elections, this meant a very tough decision to vote for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, a relatively easy decision to support Mitt Romney over President Obama in 2012, and a privilege and honor to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.

My concern for justice and equity meant that I never excused Hillary’s husband Bill’s abhorrent affair with a White House intern, the cover up of which led to his impeachment. I never saw that affair as anything other than what it was: an abuse of power. And I felt betrayed by the feminists who seemed willing to make a bargain with the devil—“but he’s so good on women’s issues!” They were willing to sacrifice one young woman for what they thought was the greater good, an unacceptable sacrifice.

But Donald Trump brags about sexual assault. He seems to sincerely believe that he is entitled to women’s bodies, promoting the false narrative that men are actually the victims of the #metoo movement. As a survivor myself (who has no interest in sharing my story with the world), I am dumbstruck by the lengths to which men like Trump will go to protect their “rights” to control women’s bodies and personal liberty.

With this background, I was actually grateful for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court because we now have absolutely no doubt what the Republican Party thinks about women. Like most women I know, I absolutely believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I am 100% certain that her memory of her assault at Brett Kavanaugh’s hands is accurate. I think most of the Republican senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh believe her too.

So there it is. There’s no mistaking what happened here: when it comes down to he said/she said, no matter how credible she is, he’s the one who wins.

And really, isn’t that what the Founding Fathers intended? The world we live in now—a world where straight, white, rich men control everyone else—is exactly the world that they and their constitution intended to make.


The American Dream was never about liberty and opportunity for women or minorities or poor people. In America, liberty and opportunity—a few inconvenient constitutional amendments notwithstanding—belong only to rich white men. And—a few inconvenient constitutional amendments notwithstanding--that’s who is still in charge.

This country was born from resentment: no taxation without representation. Well, “we the people,” the majority of us, are not represented by the Republicans in charge today.

The messages of the 2016 presidential election and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation are clear: when it comes to “we, the people,” the system is broken.  


So here’s where this college-educated, Republican woman stands on this election day. I refuse to be one of the 53% of white women who is willing to trade my support for amorality and greed in exchange for the dubious privilege of remaining on the pedestal where Paul Ryan and his kind want to put me. I also refuse to condemn Susan Collins for a vote that literally any other Republican man could have cancelled by believing women.

This election is not about who has a brighter vision for all Americans. It’s about checking and balancing evil. 


Candidly, I don’t like Democratic socialism. I don’t believe that big government is the answer to the myriad problems facing society. I could spend a whole essay explaining how I prefer Universal Basic Income and a transparent healthcare marketplace with catastrophic coverage to “the government” providing these services.

But I will vote blue until these rich, entitled white men are gone. Because as long as they are in charge, there’s no American Dream for the rest of us.


Friday, September 14, 2018

Palace of Cards

Madam Mao Tells a Cautionary Tale about What Happens to Women Who Seek Power

The story could have been taken straight from the U.S. 2016 presidential election headlines. A powerful former first lady seeks to follow in her husband’s political footsteps, but instead of assuming the nation’s highest office, she is destroyed by chants of “Lock her up!” 

While Hillary Clinton’s lofty political aspirations merely ended in retirement after a stunning Electoral College defeat, Jiang Qing faced an actual life behind bars after the death of her husband, Chairman Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader who devastated his country during the historical period known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). 

On September 20, 2018, the story of Mao Zedong’s powerful wife will come to life in the American premiere of Madam Mao on the Boise Contemporary Theater stage. The play explores the final weeks of Jiang Qing’s life in a Beijing prison, 15 years after Mao Zedong’s death, using dance, live music, and improvisation as Janet Lo (“Jiang Qing”) interacts with Samantha Wan (“Sergeant/Trickster”) and Amanda Zhou (“Red Guard”), moving from present to past in a stream of stories about this powerful woman’s rise and fall. 

When I spoke with Lo, the play’s lead actor and co-creator, by telephone in July 2018, it was sometimes hard to tell whether she was speaking as herself or as her character. Her role in creating Jiang Qing has immersed her in the story to such a degree that she sometimes speaks as Madam Mao, switching from third to first person without a thought.

I asked Lo what drew her to this infamous woman. Noting that such complex characters are still a rarity for Asian actors, Lo replied, “When I started reading about Jiang Qing, I was immediately intrigued that she led such a complicated life. She was, at one time, the most powerful and feared woman in the world. The question was how did she become so hated? 

No one is born evil, but towards the end, she was accused of monstrous things. Was she evil or has she been vilified by historical perspective? And if it’s the latter, why?”


Jiang Qing’s transformation from young actress to cultural force is a fascinating tale. More popularly known as “Madam Mao,” she used the state-run theater and her control over the artistic community to prepare China to accept a woman leader. “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” Mao famously said, and Jiang Qing, who met fellow Communist Party member Mao Zedong when she was a drama instructor nearly half his age, used the spectacle of theater to create programming that glorified the Cultural Revolution. Her eight “Model Plays” deified Mao and the People’s Liberation Army, incorporating Western theatrical elements such as ballet, orchestral compositions, and opera. The plays relied on simple binary narratives that may also seem relevant to viewers today, with workers portrayed as the “good guys,” pitted in a heroic struggle against evil capitalists.  

Jiang Qing, aka Madam Mao, in 1976.
By Unknown - Dutch National Archives,
The Hague,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=37133170
But instead of assuming political power after her husband died, Madam Mao was almost immediately blamed for the devastating losses China incurred as a result of her husband’s authoritarian regime. Charged as the leader of the infamous “Gang of Four,” she expressed no remorse for her actions during the Cultural Revolution, famously stating at her trial: “I was Chairman Mao's dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite."

When Lo approached renowned Canadian actor and director Paul Thompson about creating a live stage play depicting Jiang Qing’s final days in her prison cell before her 1991 death by suicide, Thompson was already familiar with the story. Someone had pitched it to him in the late 1970s, and though it had all the elements of a gripping drama, Thompson felt that the subject matter would be too unfamiliar to theater goers because despite President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, China at the time was still viewed in the West as an insignificant, backwater country.

Forty years later, the geopolitical realities are very different. With China emerging as a world power, Thompson decided that Lo was right: Jiang Qing’s story needed to be told. Madam Mao premiered in Toronto at the 2014 SummerWorks festival to rave reviews. The production won NOW Magazine’s “Best in Fest” award, citing its outstanding ensemble cast, director (Severn Thompson), and production design. After seeing a 2016 reprisal of the production, author Margaret Atwood of Handmaid’s Tale fame summed up her experience: 

“Excellent performance, three versatile and expressive actors, fascinating story.” 


I asked Lo why this story matters to audiences now, more than 40 years after Mao Zedong’s death. She gave me two reasons: first, the theme of idealism in politics. “I think that Jiang Qing was very idealistic when this all started,” she said. “She was living for the glory of the dream—the dream of a happier life for Chinese workers. The play explores how this idealism gets corroded in politics, and I think that’s a very relevant message.”

The second reason Lo gave me was that Madam Mao explores the role art plays in shaping society’s views. And in fact, this play was created in a way that may seem unusual to some American audiences. Lo’s mentor Paul Thompson was one of the pioneering forces behind a theatrical form known as collective creation, a collaboration among actors, playwrights, and directors using historical documents and facts with improvisation techniques to produce a play. The economic advantages of such collaboration are clear: A high quality production can be staged with just a few actors and minimal sets, and the production can easily travel from one community to another.

This creation method also has advantages for artists. I asked Lo what she enjoyed most about the collective creation process. “There is an energy and immediacy when a play is created this way,” she said. “And we as actors can take ownership of the work. Also, similar to how musicians jam, we as actors jam to create dialogue and story.”

According to Lo, one of the most important messages of the play is that the best ideological intentions can sometimes end in horrific abuses of power. 


But there’s also a cautionary message about women and politics. “In the whole history of China, there has ever only been one female ruler,” Lo observed. “Even though in this country, we have yet to have had a female President, the United States is merely 242 years old, whereas China, in 5000 years, had only one empress from 624-705 C.E.”

In the play, Lo’s character Jiang Qing is asked, “Did you think you would be the next ruler of China?” Madam Mao’s reply, sadly, rang as true for women in the United States in 2016 as it did in China in the 1970s: "Do you think they would have let me?" 

Let’s hope that with a record number of women running in the 2018 midterm elections, a few things change for the better, without the pain, corruption, and destruction of our own Cultural Revolution.

Madam Mao will play for six performances at the Boise Contemporary Theater from Thursday, September 20-Saturday, September 22. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://azureriver.wixsite.com/madam-mao 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Your Hero's Journey

Star Wars and the Hero's Journey by Rachel Scheller

Telling Stories that Matter

This is the text of a sermon I delivered to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (BUUF) on Sunday, July 22, 2018.

I teach a popular online course at the College of Western Idaho called “Survey of World Mythology.”[1] Every semester, my students start the course thinking that they are going to learn about Zeus, Hera, and maybe Thor—and in all fairness, Thor is why I initially wanted to teach the course.

About three weeks in, we get to the part where I introduce Jesus as just one of many examples from world religions of the “dying god” archetype, and there’s the delicious sound of young minds being blown. “What? We’re reading Christian scriptures as myths?” Well, yes.

Stories, wherever they come from, have power. Stories can shape our cultures—and our individual stories can shape our values and our sense of meaning in a world that might otherwise feel like pure chaos.

A possibly spurious[2] quote attributed to British novelist John Gardner famously asserts that there are only two basic stories in the entire world: the hero’s journey, and a stranger walks into town.  Today, we’re going to talk about the first kind of story.

In my world mythology class, I spend an entire unit on the hero’s journey. This universal archetype, a story that exists across all world cultures, was described by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in his seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book heavily influenced George Lucas—so I guess we have Campbell to thank for Star Wars (well, at least the good movies, the ones that the young folks call four, five, and six)[3].

What is it about the hero’s journey that makes it such a powerful story for pretty much every human being?

Joseph Campbell outlines 17 stages of his monomyth[4]—but we’ll be here all day if we try to get through all of them, and I know some of you have brunch plans. So I’d like to focus on just three elements of the hero’s journey and consider how these elements apply to the stories we are telling about ourselves in the world, right now:
  •         Answering the Call
  •          The Belly of the Whale
  •          Ultimate Boon/Freedom to Live

Let’s Start with Answering the Call.
Here you are, minding your own business. Maybe you’re working a desk job. Maybe you are surrounded by small children who are continually asking you “why?” and demanding peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Maybe you’re a modern day Jonah, preaching to people who comfortably agree with you, your Facebook friends, your book club group, your progressive liberal friends.

Suddenly, everything changes. The telephone rings. An email hits your inbox. You see a social media message from a long-lost high school friend.

Campbell says that the call to adventure is:
to a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father's city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man."[5]

When did the call come to you? How did you answer?

If you’re like me, the call has come many times, and I’ve answered in different ways. Sometimes I’ve been like Jonah—Run away! Sometimes I’ve proudly crossed the thresholds and stormed the barricades. But my most important calls have been the last kind Campbell describes—the calling by accident. When an anonymous blog I wrote about parenting a child who had a then undiagnosed mental illness, titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,”[6] went suddenly viral in 2012, I wanted to run away. But I answered the call. I put my name on the story and told our family’s truth about just how hard it is to raise a child who has mental illness, without a village to support us.

Think for a moment about the accidents in your life that in hindsight, changed everything. What truths do you need to tell?

Next, let’s look at the Belly of the Whale.
This idea comes straight from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and I think it’s important to remember that, like Jonah, whether or not we accept the call, we can and probably will still end up in the fish’s belly at some point in our lives.

But it’s not as bad as you think. In fact, Campbell describes the image as one of rebirth. He says:
The hero… is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.[7]

The belly of the whale is where we have to do the hard work that accepting the call requires of us. I suspect that it’s where many of us are right now.

According to NBC News:
Across America today, rates of depression and anxiety are rising dramatically. A 2018 Blue Cross study found that depression diagnosis rates had increased by 33% since 2013—and that’s for people who have health insurance. Our teenagers are especially hard hit, with experts blaming everything from social media to video games to the loss of community.[8]

In the belly of the whale, we are alone, and we feel helpless. Do you feel helpless right now? Does the endless and exhausting news cycle—children in cages, women’s reproductive rights under threat, politicians who sold out our country to a foreign power—feel overwhelming to you?

I think that collectively, what we’re really experiencing is a cultural belly of the whale. We wanted something different for America. We believed in our Unitarian values of “The inherent worth and dignity of every person; and Justice, equity and compassion in human relations”[9] but it all feels so helpless, so hopeless.

That’s why we have to learn to write and revise our stories. We’ll be reborn, and we’ll tell the tale. But right now, we may not know what the meaning of this story is, to ourselves, to our communities, or to our nation. Rebirth isn’t easy.

Finally, let’s look at the Ultimate Boon and Freedom to Live.
The ultimate boon is that grand meaning of life that we are searching for—but it may not turn out to be what we think it will be. Remember that great final scene in Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade, where our hero has to choose the cup of Christ from a whole shelf full of glittering golden goblets? The cup he chooses, the Holy Grail, is made of clay, a carpenter’s cup, simple and unrefined.

Sometimes we don’t know what the meaning is until we sit down later, like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, to tell our story of “There and Back Again.” The act of telling may in itself help us to discover what the story’s point is.

Campbell says:
What the hero seeks through his intercourse with [the gods and goddesses] is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. This is the miraculous energy of the thunderbolts of Zeus, Yahweh, and the Supreme Buddha, the fertility of the rain of Viracocha, the virtue announced by the bell rung in the Mass at the consecration, and the light of the ultimate illumination of the saint and sage.[10]

Grace. I really like that word. I personally define grace, though I don’t completely understand it, as the power of good that pervades the world. Of course, you don’t have to be religious to find your ultimate boon, your grace. This spiritual energy may even exist in the absence of energy, in nothingness.

Ultimately, I think what the story of Jonah and the Whale tells us is that we can run but we can’t hide from our calling, so we may as well find some ultimate boon in it. For me, that boon is the freedom to live without fear

What are we afraid of? Well, first and foremost, the greatest fear of all: fear of death.

Campbell’s hero conquers death by understanding that, as the Latin poet Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses, “Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms…. Nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.' Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.”[11]

In other words, fear not: Death is change, not end. This is the point of most major stories about endings and beginnings, and for the hero, this knowledge is the ultimate freedom.

But now, a warning! We have to be careful how we use our stories.
This impulse to tell stories can be a powerful force for good—but also for evil. As one example, the Nazis were really good at telling stories that gave life meaning—at the expense of 14-year old Anne Frank and six million other innocent people. Stories—especially overly simplified ones--can be dangerous. Don’t think for a minute that it can’t happen here.

In her popular TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,”[12] Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie observes:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.[13]

Do we tell ourselves stories that contain stereotypes? I know I do.

The Atlantic Monthly’s psychology editor, Julie Beck, makes the same point in her article, “Life’s Stories.” She writes:
The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.[14]

In other words, we need to understand that our story is not the only story—and that the stories we hear about others, maybe even about Donald Trump supporters, are also not the whole story, or the only story. 

Listening to others’ stories, especially stories from marginalized people, is at least as important as telling our own, maybe more—and Facebook doesn’t make it easy. We have to look for what psychologists refer to as disconfirming information—stories that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works.

This brings me to the last point I want to make:

We Need to Revise and Retell Our Stories
Sometimes we don’t know the meaning of our stories until years later. Sometimes we have to rewrite our old stories to accommodate a new narrative. This task—telling stories that matter—is not accomplished in a single draft. It is, in fact, the work of a lifetime.

Julie Beck notes that how we tell, revise, and retell our stories affects who we are and how we see ourselves. She writes,
In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you're on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are…. Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.[15]

What are the themes of your hero’s journey? What calls have you answered? Would you answer them differently today?

What whale bellies have you endured, or are you enduring now? How will you be renewed, reborn, when you emerge?

Finally, if you’ve found the ultimate boon and the freedom to live, congratulations! Also, I’m sorry. When I was 35, I thought I had everything figured out, too, and I was pretty smug about it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t have it all figured out, and now I know that I probably never will.

Fortunately, as Beck says,
A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. Whether it’s with the help of therapy, in the midst of an identity crisis, when you’ve been chasing a roadrunner of foreshadowing towards a tunnel that turns out to be painted on a wall, or slowly, methodically, day by day—like with all stories, there’s power in rewriting.[16]

In the end, there’s no right or wrong story, no best path. There’s your story. How will you answer the call? How will you escape the belly of the whale? What will you tell us about freedom to live when you return from your journey? The story may change 1000 times, and the hero may have 1000 faces, but in the end, your hero’s journey is just that: yours. Per aspera ad astra—through hardships to the stars.


[1] I will be teaching ENGL 215: Survey of World Mythology in the spring of 2019 if you’re interested! More information about the course can be found here: https://catalog.cwidaho.cc/course-descriptions/engl/
[2] For a history of this quote and its attribution, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/
[4] Here’s a link to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, where an overview of his life and work can be found https://www.jcf.org/
[5] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 48
[6] Link to the viral essay at The Blue Review here: https://thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/ and to my blog here: www.anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com
[7]Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 77
[10] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 155
[11] Ovid Metamorphoses, quoted in Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 209
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.