slubs in the city

Slub (adj): Maverick; unorthodox; independent in behavior or thought.


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on abusing the concept of entitlement.

Regarding the business of being an American:

Recently, I read an opinion piece called 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America”. I was caught by the title – I thought that the article would uncover some little-known, fascinating facts about our nation, of which I’m sure there are many. In this case my instincts were off. The author of the piece, Mark Manson, is an American reflecting on his home country through the lens of a world traveler, and he uses his platform to address the knowledge gaps he perceives in Americans’ own self-awareness of their place in the world. A quick scan of the article’s comment section reveals that, although Manson tries to stress his own personal biases, his beliefs are highly polarizing.

The list itself is worth the read, but in essence, Manson is driving home an oft-repeated message: Americans think too much of themselves and of their situation.

In summary: we don’t really impress anyone, mostly because other people don’t think about us on even an occasional basis when they’re making daily decisions. We’re ignorant about the rest of the world. We can’t express gratitude or affection because we’ve been socialized against it. Our quality of life isn’t actually that stellar, especially because the rest of the world isn’t actually a slum. We’re paranoid because we fear losing status and attention, which are two of our main life goals. We are an unhealthy population and, moreover, we’re unhappy because we overvalue the ease of comfort.

Manson uses the following video to polish his assertions with a Hollywood sheen:

In the video, Jeff Daniels’s character waxes poetic on all of the things that used to make America great but (according to the character) no longer typify our society, asserting that “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” Manson echoes this piece of wisdom, claiming, “There are things I love about my country. I don’t hate the US and I still return to it a few times a year. But I think the greatest flaw of American culture is our blind self-absorption.”

 While I have many thoughts about the video (most of them negative) and about Manson’s statements (some positive and some negative), my largest reaction to the entire piece was: this isn’t anything that, as an American, I haven’t already heard.

Are we Americans self-absorbed? You could argue the point either way. But I do not believe that we are unflinchingly blind.

To say that we, as Americans, think that our nation is greater than it is would be to put words in our mouths. That is the problem with leveraging generalizations to make a point, however useful or applicable those generalizations may be. We are a people who have a personal awareness of our own, personal situations, and that awareness manifests itself on a more global scale depending on the individual – just as it does for Finns, or Ghanaians, or Turks, or Peruvians. Education is essential to expanding our awareness beyond our front porch, and as a global community, I believe that it is our responsibility to think critically about how our actions affect others. But the beauty and the difficulty of education is that it can be an emotion-driven experience, and we must be careful about how we label the problems we’re attempting to get others to recognize.

I do not believe self-deprecation will induce most Americans to gladly hop onboard the CHANGE AMERICA NOW train. I also don’t believe that shouting at us to wake up forwards the dialogue for the many Americans who would see our generation succeed in a society that we understand as being flawed. What we need now is a way to redirect the conversation towards unburdened progress, a progress that learns from and respects our history but is not strictly beholden to or punished for it. We must recognize that we are a citizenry that has been endowed with a rich set of values which have differentiated and aided us in the past, a values system that has continued to shape our present – but that we are also a citizenry that must actively work to transform our values for the future. This process of metamorphosis is not helped by those who would criticize us; rather, it is nurtured by those who would share with us an alternative path, recognizing that our way of doing things might naturally be different.

I am proud to be an American, regardless of the faults that others perceive to be inherent in that classification. I will be even more proud as our society rises to the occasion and greets the critique of others, not with defensiveness, but with a willingness to learn and the confidence to grow.

con amor,

shan

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a field guide to understanding your introvert: PART TWO.

Do you have a friend, relative, spouse, and/or companion that you suspect of being an introvert? Are you a self-described extrovert that desires guidance in navigating the inner workings of your more reflective mates (we humans are such funny and complex creatures, aren’t we)? After reading Part One of this field guide, are you still perplexed by this quiet yet extraordinary culture of people? Please, take a moment – remember how we did it quietly last time? – to sample this second part of a comprehensive field guide to the introvert, compiled entirely from the author’s own enlightened, first-hand experience with this most subdued of sub-species.

1. Many introverts will complain excessively about their extroverted friends for a variety of reasons. Your introvert may find you to be any combination of noisy, compulsive, judgmental, exhausting, and/or unfiltered. If you are lucky, your introvert will have keen communication skills that she will utilize to explain her complaints to you. If you are unlucky, your introvert will find you annoyingly chatty but will never say so, and you will be left bewildered when she greets your detailed description of the 39 cat videos you’ve watched in the past hour with a disinterested glower.

Note: It is highly likely that your introvert is complaining about you because she is jealous of your social skills. Do not lord this reality over her. In fact, don’t mention to her that you think she’s envious of you at all. Females – regardless of their introverted or extroverted tendencies – do not like to be told that they’re “just jealous”.

2. Like the Moon to the Earth, introverts will gravitate to extroverts in an effort to reap the benefits of their superior social skills. Do you find it strange that your introvert prefers the company of extroverts at the start of a public function, as opposed to settling down on the couch with a red Solo cup and his best brofriend from the get-go? Your introvert, just like you, is highly aware of the social morays that dictate his world, and has no desire to find himself at the bottom of the food chain as a result of his introvertedness. Being a smart and capable individual, your introvert will have at least one extroverted friend in his arsenal of acquaintances who will be able to introduce him to others at parties and whom he can rely on to coax him into various socially acceptable activities throughout the night, like beer pong and spontaneous drunken dance interpretations of Gangnam Style.

Note: The introvert/extrovert relationship, while at times tempestuous, can also represent the perfect balance of yin and yang (SEE Part One, point 5). While the introvert can rely on his extrovert for a wild night out, the extrovert can likewise count on his introvert for a soothing night in.

3. Most introverts can trick others into thinking that they are extroverts by mimicking their extroverted companions’ activities, actions, and vocal volumes. The author of this field guide has surmised that this is because introverts are actually superheroes. By day, the introvert will don her Clark Kent suit and tie, mixing with the public confidently as she outwardly expresses her opinions, doles out her business cards, discusses retirement saving tactics and The Bachelor with her girlfriends over coffee, and busts out a painful rendition of Single Ladies at karaoke night. When she is finally alone in the comfort of her quiet home, however, the introvert’s true superpowers are at play. Donning her super suit (which, to the untrained eye, would resemble a stained t-shirt and a pair of ragged sweatpants), the introvert superhero will thoughtfully and methodically solve every single one of the world’s problems in the hazy twilight interim between asleep and awake.

Note: Introverts really are superheroes. It’s time the world knew.

an effective introvert super suit. [image credit: here.]

4. Introverts have the ability to sit in silence with other introverts and not feel awkward about it. This strange phenomenon is captured very effectively by Emily Blunt and Jason Segel in the movie The Five Year Engagement. Tom (Segel) has just had a fight with Violet (Blunt), and tells her that he needs to be alone with his thoughts for a while. Confused, Violet starts to leave their bedroom to give Tom the space he’s asked for. When Tom sees Violet heading for the door, he stops her, slightly incredulous, and says, “I don’t want you to go. I just need to be alone, with you here.” Likewise, your introvert genuinely enjoys being around other people, but is just as happy to be around them in silence as she is to be around them with conversation.

Note: If you watched The Five Year Engagement and didn’t understand Jason Segel’s character at all during the above mentioned scene, it might be a sign that you are an extrovert. It might also be a sign that you thought the movie was super lame. It is up to you to be the judge of that.

5. Introverts, like extroverts, defy categorization, and as such this entire field guide must be taken with a grain of salt. The author of this field guide, for example, is an introvert who expresses many characteristics that would typically be considered “extroverted”. Human nature is inherently incapable of concrete definition, which means that we are all beautiful and insanely infuriating subjects for science.

Thus ends this current version of A Field Guide to Understanding Your Introvert. The author hopes that it has been somewhat enlightening to extroverts everywhere, and that it will temper their thoughts and feelings about the quieter side of humanity. This list is not exhaustive, however; as such, the author readily welcomes additions and comments to enhance this field guide.

Carry on in peace, my introverted superhero brethren.

— shan


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a field guide to understanding your introvert: PART ONE.

Do you have a friend, relative, spouse, and/or companion that you suspect of being an introvert? Are you a self-described extrovert that desires guidance in navigating the inner workings of your more reflective mates (we humans are such funny and complex creatures, aren’t we)? Please, take a moment – preferably a quiet moment, I know you can do it – to sample this first part of a comprehensive field guide to the introvert, compiled entirely from the author’s own enlightened, first-hand experience with this most subdued of sub-species*.

a wild introvert in her natural state, as depicted by Hyperbole and a Half. fascinating.

1. Alone time ≠ social reject in 9 out of 10 cases of introverts. Did your introvert excuse himself from going with you to a raucous party? Do not worry. He is not being a flake (most likely). Gently remind him that he would probably have fun, because after all, people like him and he likes people. If he still politely deflects your social aspirations, fret not – he simply needs to recharge his battery in peace. In no time at all he’ll be ready to fist pump and white-boy dance with the best of them.

Note: If you decide to go to the party without your introvert, do not be too upset when he texts you later explaining that he made a mistake in staying in and that you were right, he wants to rage. He is only human after all. Permit yourself a sigh and then continue with your life – tension’s no fun.

2. Do try to censor yourself a bitin this way, you’ll be extending the same courtesy to your introvert that she is likely showing to you. Are you trying to bounce a thought off your introvert? If she isn’t saying much, it’s not necessarily because she’s bored or mute or finds you to be moronic (although, to be safe, don’t always rule these options out). Rather, it is highly likely that she’s been internally weighing the value of her thoughts and opinions, and is very precisely sifting through all of her possible comments to present you with the best imaginable response. Value the effort that goes into such internal processing, even if you cannot fathom it.

Note: Understand, extroverted partner, that most often she finds your extraordinary external communication abilities to be endearing and will concede that you often help her to think outside the box. Sometimes, however, you must realize that she genuinely believes that 95% of the words spewing volcanically from your mouth are complete crap and should have remained as mere thoughts in your head.

3. Be thoughtful when pulling your introvert unwillingly into a social situation if he has not placed himself there of his own accord. For example, are you a college professor that subscribes to the Socratic method of conversational learning and requires each of your students to speak at least once a class period, or risk a lower grade? If so, your introverted students do not think you are brilliant and in fact do not care much for you at all. Just so you know.

Note: The author of this field guide has a very large amount of respect for college professors and their mammoth, unenviable task of teaching all students regardless of learning style.

Updated note: The author of this field guide admittedly would have preferred not to have spent money learning from one or two of her college professors. There – that’s my one contribution to today’s discussion. Enjoy.

4. Exercise control over your facial expressions when reacting to your introvert. Yes, it is very likely that she will interact with her world in ways that you don’t understand, but there is no need for ridiculous displays of guffawing or eyebrow-raising. Suppose you are telling your introvert about a movie that you’d like to see with a group of friends, and she mentions that she’s seen that movie and enjoyed it immensely. You were not aware that she’d been to the theater lately, so you ask who she went to see the film with. When she responds, “I didn’t go with anyone. It’s fun to go to the movies on your own, you know,” do not stare blankly at her in confusion. She will not appreciate your judgment. Just smile and nod, even though you could think of about a zillion other things that would be more fun than going to the movies by yourself.

Note: In the name of science, the author of this field guide recommends that you try going to the theater alone at least once in your life. You may even become addicted to the freedom you gain when you realize you don’t have to share your popcorn with anyone.

5. Remove your introvert to a quieter environment when he becomes cranky and no longer finds your off-color Apples to Apples word pairings even remotely amusing. It is likely that he is feeling fatigued by being “on” in a given social setting for a long period of time, and would appreciate a moment in a less stimulating atmosphere (SEE point 1, above). On the other hand, it is recommended that you likewise allow your introvert to help you relax a bit – it’s not always essential for the extrovert to set his or her life meter to Kenyan Runner Warp Speed. Your introvert is a thoughtful, reflective, intuitive and empathetic being; just as you help them to find quiet when they become insufferably bitchy, so too must they aid you in becoming less of a preachy loudmouth.

Note: If your introvert is in need of some alone time but is stubbornly refusing to leave the party, drop the issue and go back to your Apples to Apples witticisms. Being an ass is not a hallmark of the introverted soul – it is simply an indication that your introvert is also (albeit temporarily) an ass. Take heed and proceed with caution. And remember, extrovert, sometimes you can be an ass too.

And now — A Field Guide to Understanding Your Introvert: PART TWO.

–shan

*The author of this field guide would like to concede that, as a social scientist, she is fully aware that not all introverts uniformly act in the above stated manner, nor that all extroverts exhibit egregiously insane social tendencies. The author of this field guide would also like the reader of this field guide to approach all commentary with a sense of humor. Thank you.


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what it means to be America

This past Monday, in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the slubs paid homage to our academic foundations. First, we sat down to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given in the formidable shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 200,000 marchers on August 28th, 1963.

If you have never heard a recording of Dr. King giving this speech himself, it’s entirely worth the 17 minutes to experience. He was a true wordsmith, a master orator, and the way he draws listeners in to the hypothetical and idealistic world of his dreams is an art form. The imagery used in this speech is legendary. His words powerfully unfurl themselves in waves over the crowd and they react in turn, as you will too.

Notice how Dr. King repeats key phrases at the beginning of the sentences of select paragraphs in his speech. He does this to over-emphasize his point, in effect stirring up the audience and clearly driving his message home. The slubs would like to point out that this rhetorical technique is known as anaphora.

After we had spent some time discussing the legacy of Dr. King’s dream and the relevancy it holds for America today, we moved on to watch President Obama’s 2008 election victory speech. This speech, as well, is rich with imagery. Particularly powerful is President Obama’s story of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106 year-old American whose lifetime has witnessed the most drastic events of the 20th century. His speech is a true lesson in election-time patriotism.

As a Political Science major I recognize the craftsmanship in both of these pieces. Dr. King and President Obama take full advantage of our uniquely American brand of civil religion, infusing time-honored messages of American patriotism with (Christian) religious undertones to create a political-spiritual cocktail of words. (To conceptualize American civil religion, examine the text of nearly any speech given by George Bush directly following September 11th – he portrays America as a city on a hill, a super-unique nation where the word “democracy” evokes the same type of spiritual reverence as “righteousness”.) Each section of these two speeches acts as a subconscious cue for the audience to respond appropriately. Based on the textual meaning of a phrase or the tone of the orator’s voice, each listener knows what he or she is supposed to feel – elation, approval, hope, victory, perseverance, thoughtfulness, joy. Dr. King and President Obama guide their audiences through a range of emotional reactions, and by the end of their speeches we’ve all experienced the intangible influence of their words.

As citizens, though, my roommates and I can appreciate the social value of Dr. King’s and President Obama’s message. Each speaks of a nation of freedom and responsibility, where all inhabitants have a right and an obligation to change their worlds to achieve a holistically “better” standard. They extol the virtues of the individual, but they are careful to remind us that our strength as a nation lies in our collective ability to believe in the potential of America. Can Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech still resonate as powerfully today as it did 50 years ago? Perhaps not in the same sense as it did during the Civil Rights Movement, but the idea that we can and must achieve the social vision outlined in the Declaration of Independence is the undercurrent which directs nearly every conversation in our public government arenas. History will look on these two speeches as snapshots of our citizenry’s particular and endearing brand of social capital.

We have so many blessings as Americans, not the least of which is the right to access our own governmental institutions (though this right is not currently extended to every individual living on our soil). Dr. King and President Obama reminded Kat, Anna, Nora and I of this on Monday, and for that we are grateful.

“…Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled…we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red and blue states; we are and always will be the United States of America.” – President Barack Obama, 2008

con amor,

shan


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let’s talk greenbacks.

Two summers ago I read a book by Barbara Stanny called “Prince Charming Isn’t Coming: How Women Get Smart about Their Money”.

In chapter one of her book Ms. Stanny recalls how, on her twenty-first birthday, her parents revealed to her the trust fund established in her name. “‘You’re a very rich girl, Barbara,’” her father explains at the breakfast table. Stanny goes on to recount: “‘ You’ll never have to worry,’ I remember my dad saying that morning. It was the only advice my parents ever gave me about money. ‘Don’t worry.’”

At 21, my experience with financial management was a bit different than Stanny’s. Shockingly enough I wasn’t handed a trust fund document the morning of my twenty-first (although I did climb Mt. Sinai that morning, arguably as cool as any other birthday celebration). Far from neglecting to give me money advice, my parents have tried to instill within me the type of financial wisdom that I’m sure many children my age have received from their own parents. My mother taught me how to use and balance a check book. My father periodically discussed the fate of his stocks and the nature of his retirement account. I was given an allowance as a child and encouraged to handle it wisely. I was gently required to get a job when I was 16 and from then on began to pay for more and more of my expenses, like clothing, entertainment and gas.

When I was a senior at St. Olaf, my father instructed me to personally handle taking out a few student loans to pay for that year of college. I was in and out of the Financial Aid Office so often for a span of two weeks that the advisors began to remember my name and could recall my specific case without the prompting of their notes. It was an incredibly frustrating process, but I learned more about student loans in those two weeks than I had ever learned before. And then, after graduating, my parents informed me that I would thereafter be more or less financially independent.

I am a blessed child. My mom and dad have given me every comfort I could have asked for, and more – very, very few children in this world are nearly as lucky as I have been. Still, like Ms. Stanny (and probably like many of you), I’m finding that it’s a struggle to own my financial stability.

Money is a taboo topic, and yet it makes the world go ‘round. There seems to be a direct correlation between wealth and prosperity, between poverty and difficulty. Like Kat mentioned in a previous post, poverty isn’t simply a lack of financial capital; poverty is very much also a lack of opportunity. To evade poverty, to provide for ourselves and our families, to do and experience the things we enjoy, we find employment in part to reap the monetary rewards. And yet, as a society, we are notoriously stupid with our financial lives.

My experience with Thrivent has opened my eyes to this reality. Part of the beauty of our organization is our commitment to the concept of education. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to tell people that you can provide a learning experience for them based on financial wisdom and best practices; often, we require scare tactics to get us to listen. The facts detailing the ways Americans spend their money provide no shortage of shocks to the system. For example, did you know that…

  • …77% of the workforce surveyed by CareerBuilder in 2010 was living paycheck to paycheck?
  • …according to a 2010 Harris report, 34% of Americans are completely without retirement savings – even though we spend, on average, 20 years in retirement?
  • …in October of 2011, Americans owed $2,457.5 billion total in outstanding consumer credit?

So if our money situation is so universally bad, why do we as a people tend to ignore our financial wellbeing?

Part of my job at Thrivent is to promote a financial literacy program on college campuses. We instruct our student leaders to educate their peers on being wise with their finances now, especially because they’re young and have a lifetime to cultivate the right money habits and make decisions that will secure their financial future. It sounds boring, but it’s vitally important. I know the wisdom of my own advice – I’ve taken major steps, like creating a checking account separate from my parents’, maxing out my 401k match, and establishing an automatic payment for my monthly rent. But I still don’t have my own credit card. I don’t save nearly as much as I could each month for major expenses that will be coming fast down the pipeline: graduate school, a mortgage, a family. I’m lucky if I balance my checkbook bi-monthly. I don’t know what my account balance is half the time – I just know it’s above zero. I’m pretty much a walking hypocrite.

Very few people like to deal with their finances. Like so many things in our life we assume that, if we don’t pay attention to it, perhaps our financial problems will just go away. We spend money that we don’t have in order to obtain the standard of living we think we deserve.

So, is there a solution to our ignorance? I’d like to think so. But the point of this post isn’t to provide you with the answers—it’s to kick-start your own search.

Here are some resources I’ve used to help me begin my own journey to financial wisdom. Who knows – they might prove useful to you too…

smartypig! so cute. so financially wise.

con amor,

shan


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why I choose to serve: living in solidarity

“Volunteerism benefits both the society at large and the individual volunteer by strengthening trust, solidarity, and reciprocity among citizens, and by purposefully creating opportunities for participation.” -UN State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, 2011

I am over four months in to my year as an AmeriCorps*VISTA. For those of you who do not know, AmeriCorps is like the domestic Peace Corps. Its three different branches work to fight illiteracy, provide disaster relief, improve health services, manage after-school programs, aid community development, resettle refugees, and strengthen volunteerism in nonprofit and government agencies across America. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), one of the three branches, strives to fight poverty by increasing organizational capacity through sustainable efforts. I want to take some time, as we navigate our way through the holiday season, to reflect on my experience so far and why I choose to serve.

Living at the poverty line

As an AmeriCorps*VISTA, my stipend is calculated so that I live at 105% of the poverty line. I qualify for and use food assistance. I have a scholarship to the YWCA. I can get discounts to local attractions ($1 for the science museum!).

The intention of this small stipend is to allow us to live in solidarity with the community we serve. The idea is that we will come to better understand the difficulties of living in poverty, so that we can better empathize and better serve low-income communities.

Goodbye lattes…

Practically, this means that I have had to be more conscious of where I spend my money. I have to budget so that I have enough gas money to make it across the Cities and back for work. I have stopped frequenting coffee shops and Banana Republic.  I have been more frugal as I begin Christmas shopping. But, I must stop and ask myself…is this poverty?

Applying for food assistance at Hennepin County may be the strongest glimpse at what living below the poverty line is like, although I would still argue I had an unique experience. Hennepin County is a large, crowded, and confusing building. When a person goes to apply for assistance of any kind, they can expect for it to take upwards of two hours. Luckily, I had the flexibility to spend that much time there. Can you imagine doing it while employed, with children, and lacking access to transportation?

Hennepin County Social Services Building. It is huge, crowded, and confusing.

Laura and I in our business casual clothing stood out like sore thumbs. We received a lot of “why are you here” looks. My caseworker talked to me like a peer, not a client. She told me about her bad day and how they were understaffed, but overworked. I haven’t had a problem with my EBT card or account yet.

While it went smoothly for me, for my roommates and friends it was often times a struggle. We have reflected on the fact that we all had trouble filling out the application and navigating the bureaucracy… and we are college-educated, native English speakers (see how we are constantly surrounded by our privilege?). And this is just a small glimpse into what it is like to live below the poverty line.

Living in solidarity

I am not trying to undermine what AmeriCorps is trying to do. Honestly, I think living at the poverty line is a great experience. I believe it is so important to understand and try to relate to the population I work with.  But, again, do I really live in poverty? Probably not, because poverty is not simply a lack of money. It is a lack of opportunities. A lack of access to the most basic things like healthcare, childcare, jobs, affordable housing, networks… but I have access to those services. I have my parents, who have graciously lent me their car, kept me on their cellphone and insurance plan, given me gifts in the kindest way possible, and always been there for me in a pinch. I have an incredible network of St. Olaf alums. I have a college education. I have met fantastic professionals in the nonprofit field. I have opportunities. I know my situation is temporary.

Yes, let’s live in solidarity. But not a solidarity based on what we earn. Not a solidarity based on the color of skin. Not a solidarity based upon our religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, native tongue, etc. Living in solidarity is so much deeper than that. Instead, let us live in solidarity based on our common humanity. An acknowledgement that we all deserve access to basic needs and beyond. That by working together we can all thrive. This is why I choose to serve.

I want to leave you with a quote for reflection that was introduced to me by one of my favorite college professors, Tom Williamson. This is a quote that really encapsulates how I feel about service and how I strive to serve others. I would love to hear our readers’ comments.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Aboriginal Activists Group, Queensland, 1970s (Lilla Watson)

Thanks for reading. -Kat


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afortunadamente, hablo español

First off, I’d like to give a huge shout out to you readers – Kat’s post last Wednesday has received over 100 views. That is absolutely phenomenal. Thank you all so much for tuning in and keeping in touch with the slubs!

And now, to explain the delay in updating: I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days, trying to think of something to share with you all that could ride well on the coattails of Kat’s beautifully written piece about volunteerism. This is what I’ve come up with…

As many of you know, the slubs graduated from St. Olaf College brandishing sharp minds and hard-won liberal arts degrees. No doubt this is the result of our extremely impressive education as well as tirelessly engaging professors. But the influence of many nights spent lounging in uncomfortable dorm chairs in our Ytterboe pod, discussing our thoughts on the work of this cultural ethnographer or that political theorist, cannot be underestimated. In the slub house, as much as we enjoy spending hours on pointless youtube videos, there is always time for an intellectually stimulating conversation.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read much of anything intellectual lately. Humanities courses at St. Olaf are known for dutifully cramming nonfiction into parts of your brain you didn’t even realize were dormant. I’ve been struck down with an academic sickness: I haven’t been able to finish one book that I’ve cracked this entire summer. So I’ve given up the good fight – for now – and taken to reading the New York Times instead.

Last week, I stumbled across this article.

I know some of you are lazy like me, so I’ll provide you with the summary (although the piece is definitely worth the read and not at all as long as an entire novel): while research in the area is still relatively underdeveloped, scientists are now beginning to unveil the benefits of growing up bilingual.

This is how much cooler bilingual babies are than you and me:

  • Bilingual infants aged 10 to 12 months can discriminate between words uttered in distinct languages. Monolingual babies are stuck muddling through sounds in just the one.
  • Bilingual babies are trained to be more open to neurological experiences, and aren’t as quickly prone to perceptual narrowing as monolingual babies. It’s all peace, love and sunshine for the bilingual babies. Perhaps this means they would make good hippies.
  • Bilingual infants who are 8 months old are able to remain engaged with a silent film in which an actor switches from one language to the next, while same-aged monolingual infants don’t respond to the difference in language. According to Doctor Werker, professor of psychology at the University of British Colombia, “for a baby who’s growing up bilingual, it’s like, ‘Hey, this is important information’”. What’s it like, Dr. Werker? Oh. Bilingual babies are observant and adorable. That’s what it’s like.
  • Due to their bilingualism, babies who learn two languages simultaneously pick up different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking. I will freely admit, as a monolingual child, that I absolutely suck at multitasking. Kathryn, however, is a chronic multitasker and she does it admirably well. Hmmm.
  • Bilingual babies are “more cognitively flexible” and have “precocious development of executive function”. I totally want somebody to describe my baby as cognitively flexibly and precociously developed. There would be no higher honor.

So basically, the argument of the article is: you should probably raise your child bilingual.

Obviously this isn’t the simplest thing to do if you yourself are monolingual and marry someone who is equally as language handicapped. It is my deepest darkest dream to get hitched to a Spaniard, but let’s face it, reality is working against me on that one.

Here’s the sticking point: babies are like sponges. They have to start from scratch with the whole ‘becoming a functional member of society’ routine, so naturally they absorb anything and everything thrown at them. Ideally, this would include communication skills. And research is showing that you won’t permanently screw your baby up if you teach the little one how to speak two languages within the home. Huzzah! My baby will be proficient in Spanish by the time he’s 3.

But what’s the advantage of raising your child bilingual? Well, primarily, you get to be the egomaniacal parent who boasts to the other parents at daycare that your baby is cognitively flexible, and that’s obviously why she’s chewing on two toys at once as opposed to just one. What a proud moment. On top of that, though, there’s this totally random thing called globalization that everyone’s talking about lately. As our world shrinks (what a funny phrase), it’s becoming increasingly important to know more than one language. Many colleges now require students to meet some level of proficiency in a second language before he or she can graduate. Large American corporations have fleets of international business associates who are hired for their dual-language capabilities. Walk down any street in downtown Minneapolis and you’re bound to hear at least four different spoken languages within a five block jaunt. I don’t want to get political here, but it is an inescapable reality of our modern nation that knowing English does not automatically classify an individual as an American citizen. If knowing a second language is such a useful capability, why not teach your child to speak Spanish, or Mandarin, or French, or Swahili, when they’re young and most likely to retain what they learn?

I think I can speak for the rest of the slubs when I assert our house’s solid belief in the beauty of multilingualism. Nora, Kat and I all studied Spanish during parts of high school and college, and are at least conversationally fluent. Anna and Laura have taken French, a seriously undervalued language in our public school system. Anna, Kat, Nora and I all learned a bit of Arabic on our study abroad trip (Anna and Nora more so than the rest of us), and Laura picked up some measure of Italian during her semester in Italy. Think of your own life: how many of you were taught a second language in school? Have you ever been in a situation where you thought, ‘if only I knew another language’? Have you ever traveled abroad and tried to learn the native tongue in order to be more culturally sensitive? How many different languages do you come into contact with on a daily basis?

Like the article argues, bilingualism isn’t a thing to be feared: it should, and must, be embraced.

I’m going to end this on a light note – if you want a more serious and heart-tugging post, you’re going to have to hit Kat up for more of her well-penned prose. Just imagine how cute your child/grandchild/niece/nephew/stolen baby would be if they babbled partly in English and partly in Hindi. I know. It’s almost too much to handle.

con amor (do you see what I did there?!),

shan