Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nuns on the Bus

The nuns had been on the bus less than 24 hours of their 15-day tour taking them from Des Moines, Iowa, to Washington, D.C. when we met up with them in Dubuque Monday evening. Surrounded by sisters of all sorts, here I was, a Lutheran nun, of sorts, (a Lutheran deaconess who is also an ordained pastor) with my pastor husband.

Meanwhile, on the steps of the Michigan State House, Rep. Lisa Brown, one of two congresswomen silenced  last week, performed  the Vagina Monologues to an audience of 2500.  Nuns on a bus in Dubuque and a Congresswoman in the Vagina Monologues in Lansing. What do they have in common?  Everything.  Both events, the same night, open to the public, were  giving voice to those whom others would silence.

I saw Sr. Simone, who has been on the Colbert Show, CNN, and MSNBC, as electrifying and calm, personable and passionate.  A member of the Sisters of Social Service and executive Director of Network, a Roman Catholic movement working for justice, peace and economic and social transformation, Sr. Simone is calling for a “Faithful Budget” as a substitute for the Ryan budget.  

I spoke with Sister Diane Donoghue, also a Sister of Social Service, who had come from Los Angeles to be on the bus.  Sr. Diane has been a social worker and community organizer all her life.  In working with immigrants in the Southwest she is intent in empowering them to have a voice. Then she steps back so that they can speak for themselves in the public arena.  Risky? Yes!

No more risky it seems than elected officials speaking to their own bills put forth on the floor of a legislature.

The oppression of women and the suppression of women’s voices, particularly women working for justice is a growing phenomenon across this land. Women who have been sexually abused dare not tell. Women religious who speak for the poor are “assessed” as not having the correct ecclesial message. Women legislators’ voices are gaveled out.

But women will be heard. And more significantly, their persistent voices in solidarity with those who live in poverty whose lives will be harmed by slashing services must be heard.

The gathering at the State House in Michigan last night and the growing number of people who will meet the Nuns on the Bus signals a hunger for voice in the public world.

Congresswoman Brown who says she was barred from speaking in the Michigan House because Republicans objected to her saying "vagina" during debate over anti-abortion legislation performed "The Vagina Monologues" on the Statehouse steps, together with the author, Eve Ensler,10 other lawmakers and several actresses.

While speaking against a bill that would require doctors to ensure abortion-seekers haven't been coerced into ending their pregnancies, Brown told Republicans, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no."

Brown was barred from speaking in the House during the next day's session. House Republicans say they didn't object to her saying "vagina." They said Brown compared the legislation to rape, violating House decorum. She denies the allegation.

Democratic Rep. Barb Byrum also was barred from speaking last Thursday because she referred to vasectomies during the debate.

The Women Lawyers Association of Michigan — whose 650 members include men — criticized taking away Brown's and Byrum's right to speak: "Representatives Brown and Byrum had a right to have their constituents' 150,000 voices recognized. They were neither vulgar nor disrespectful. When the minority is silenced, justice cannot prevail and democracy suffers."

“No means no!”

Meanwhile, back in Dubuque Tuesday morning, the Nuns introduced local agencies and individuals who would suffer from budget cuts. Sisters, representing some of the 7 congregations of women religious in the Dubuque area, gathered in the hot Iowa morning sun and sang verses they had just composed to a familiar tune:

The nuns on the bus go all around,
All around, all around.
The nuns on the bus go all around.
All through the land.

The nuns on the bus say, “No!” No!” “No!”
“No!” “No!” “No!”
He nuns on the bus say “No!” “No!” “No!”
Ryan’s budget: “NO!!”

The money in the land should make more jobs
Feed the poor, shelter all
The money in the land should be for all.
So justice can be served.

The nuns on the bus speak for us,
Speak for us, speak for all,
The nuns on the bus speak for us
Justice for all.
Those of us gathered this morning in Dubuque outside Maria House for women in need would not be silenced.  Those gathered at the Michigan State House would not be silenced. That, we, and millions more, all have in common.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Grades and Vocation

About six months into my first occupation after college graduation, one morning I realized, “The good news is I do not receive grades anymore.” Then quickly I thought, “The bad news is I do not receive grades anymore.” 
As a teacher I have long advised against using grades as motivation for learning. Well yes, I suppose it works, but I don’t like it that it works.  It should not work that it works.  Not in the long run. Not really even in the short run.  

I know, I know, there are many studies that show the problems schools have when they do away with grades. However, the short and long term effects of that large letter grade on an assignment linger:

·         A student is angry he did not receive the grade he thought he earned, blames the teacher, and drops the on-line class.

·         A student does research, writes a paper for the teacher, motivated only by grade-point.

·         A graduate is both relieved and somewhat lost without those weekly letter grades.

·         You fill in with you own experiences….

So, why should I be making a case for building trustworthy environments where grading (if an institutional necessity) is penultimate? This is a time when companies advertise systems to detect cheating and plagiarizing, and ever more sophisticated systems for ever more rampant and, therefore, expected cheating.

All the more reason to take a counter-cultural approach. To tie successful completion of course work not to grades but to purpose and vocation.  That is different than landing a job (which in itself is uncertain). Vocation, whether being a biologist, a beautician or a banker, is about a sense of identity and clarity of how one wants to make a difference in the world. All people are called to vocation. For Christians vocation is rooted in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. We are called forth to mission and ministry.   I was moved by the service of thanksgiving at St. Pauls’ cathedral marking the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth.  The opening words gave thanks for and to the Queen for carrying out her “vocation.”

Now, of course, after graduation we do still receive “grades.”  They come under all sorts of names:  6-month evaluations; bonuses; reprimands.  Some are fair and some the I-didn’t-deserve-that kind. Senate Republicans again this week blocked debate on pay equity. And cheating is as rampant after graduation as in the classroom. Cynics would say, “Why not prepare people for it?”

But I hold fast to learning towards mutual accountability rather than competition.

Idealism? Naiveté? Hardly. Because I have experienced learning community again this week in a summer one-week Intensive, just as I have in classes I have been privileged to teach over the decades.

We gathered this past Monday on the Wartburg Seminary campus, 20 learners, from 11 states. Key is setting a trustworthy environment for us to be different together in a learning community. Speaking ourselves present, bringing all of our gifts, learning to listen with respect, engaging a variety of methods with high expectations. They were to have prepared two assignments before they came. They did.  As they shared their work with each other, cheating seemed a strange, irrelevant concept. They learned from each other, gaining skills they would use in vocation.

The first morning we walked together to the library.  Here were books on reserve we could invite into our conversations.  “Read from these; you make the choices.” Some might read a lot, others would skim.  No required number of pages. There are varied reading and comprehension skills among adults.  Each was to bring one author’s voice to our mutual conversation.  I didn’t know when.  But already the next morning, three, four, more said, “I read….” Where did this motivation come from?  Invitation. Respect. Expectation. Not threat.  Not grades.

So the week proceeded. Shared work. Challenge. Higher expectations.  “You are not writing papers for me, but for your vocation and each other.  I will read and comment on your assignments.  I will work very hard, with you. Not at you or for you.”

During the week I refrained from asking, “guess-what-I’m thinking-questions,” what some people call, “discussion” but rather we went deeper and deeper into our joint quest as I helped them weave their varied ideas together.

So the week went.  Was it all a dream?   No.  Were these perfect people?  Of course not. Great students, but the class was not some idealized reality.  All of us have potential and also all sorts of ways to hinder and hurt one other. And they will be tested of course, as they go forth into their work in difficult places.  But I believe they will remember not a grade but a communal challenge, and mutual accountability to support them in their lifelong learning and vocation.