Reflecting on a Death in the Family and the Police

On May 15, 2020, at 6:30 a.m, our doorbell rang.  Then there was pounding.  Another ring followed and more pounding.  We got out of bed and made our way to the front door.  I could see two people in dark uniforms through the sidelights. My husband opened the door. 

They are police. Their guns are holstered. One holds a piece of paper. The first officer asks for my husband by name.  Dave confirms.  Then the officer names Dave’s younger son, asks if we know him.

“He’s my son,” Dave replies.

We both know what’s coming.  Over the past several years, it’s been impossible not to anticipate this moment.  Sawyer is 20; he’s been using drugs since 8th grade.  He’s completed more than a dozen therapeutic programs since his junior year in high school.  

“We got a call from the sheriff in Orange County, California.  Sawyer was found dead last night.”

We are both silent.

The officer who spoke hands Dave a handful of pamphlets, the first with a phone number written on it. “You can call that number for more details.  We don’t have more information,” he adds.  Then he points to the pamphlets, “Information on this if you want help.”  Later we noticed that the brochures, all four, were printed in Spanish.  “Maryland Víctimas y Testigos.  De Delitos: Sus derechos y servicios” read the heading of the first.

In the weeks since, the country has boiled over in protest over George Floyd’s murder—a murder that has come to stand for thousands—igniting activism, spreading awareness, awakening many people to realities of racism they had not faced before. 

One critically important outcome of the protest is the attention society is paying now to policing, to the roles and responsibilities of police in communities, to their duties and derelictions of duties, to the exorbitant cost of the growing grasp and militarization of policing, to the racism and racial disparities of the criminal justice system.

The last thing Dave and I needed at 6:30 a.m. on May 15, 2020 was a pounding on the door and a clumsy conveyance of terrible news from a couple of cops who didn’t introduce themselves.  Dave lost a son; I lost a stepson. To be sure, they were just doing their job. But by what possible justification should they have been standing on our front porch soon after dawn? Why had they been asked to cold deliver information and drop off a pamphlet that we might or might not be able to read?  Why are police doing these things?

Writing for The Upshot in The New York Times on June 19, 2020, Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz report that in Montgomery County, Maryland—where we happen to live—the share of police time devoted to violent crime is a mere 4%. Police here spend 37% of their time responding to noncriminal calls. Otherwise, their percentages by category: traffic (13%), other crime (19%), property crime (12%), proactive (7%), medical or other (8%).  The authors note that the categories are locally defined and may not be comparable across localities (

Am I in favor of redefining the roles and responsibilities of police?  Am I in favor of reallocating funding so that police aren’t doing harm when they fail as social workers?  Indeed I am. Policing in this country is broken.  We need more than reform.  We need a new design, a new social compact, a new way of operating, a new philosophy and form of governance.  We need to think of policing as a practice of public health—beyond addressing crime.  This is the concept that we need to discuss and act on right now. A death in the family is not a crime. It should not prompt people with guns to appear at your house and pound on the door as if you’ve committed one.  

We have an opportunity now to seize this moment of societal awareness.  Certainly, we can address crime even as we imagine and build beyond the criminal model.  If not now, when? 

Along with many other people, I have been reflecting these weeks on my own experience of race and racism, on my privilege as a white person.  A Black family would have vastly more cause for alarm when police pay them such a call.  I see that disparity. I can feel it. I deplore it.

Awareness and reflection are necessary at moments like these.  For us, reflection encompasses both the family experience we had on May 15 and its situation in the broader social context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the largest protest movement of our time.  But reflection and awareness are not sufficient.  Communities can approach sufficiency if they—if we—muster the will and courage—to see the criminal model of policing for what it is and change our collective practice toward community health and wellbeing. 

2020 Reflection Spring

Spring is coming too early, implies the quince. It–the quince, that is–prompts reflection. It sets buds, hundreds, opens a few every week, whatever the temperature. Resourceful. A triumph of hope in the absence of bugs. There are no pollinators out. I spend more time thinking about it than most other vegetation, to say the least. More than many more consequential things. Quince, you are my world-change barometer. Two years nearly since my last post, I have all but forgotten how to produce this blog. I am fretting over shapeshifting democracy every bit as much, feeling called to bear witness if voice can serve.

Quince, Maryland, mid-February

Is It the Edge of Democracy?

 Zen Garden, Nanzen-ji, Kyoto (my photo)

Reflection, Spring 2018 

A year later, I am still trying to find my way,  living for and loving democracy, in a country and world increasingly authoritarian.  Two ideas are working in my head, fueled by disgust and dismay, which I am determined to turn into positive action.  Disgust with the  current administration has led me to observe that Trump is a symptom, not a cause.  I think pluralistic democracy needs citizenly grassroots leadership.  Individuals have to do things and say things, daily things, to serve. Disgust with Facebook makes me think about freedom of expression and the press, and that prompts a return to this blog.  Blogs offer hope for people who want to use social media in a way that is open and responsible.  I will therefore start blogging again, for myself and for whatsoever record it produces, in my own voice.


Water Before Religion and Oil

The world looks different from the edge of democracy.

I’m revisiting a post I drafted while traveling in Iran. Originally I published it on Facebook (December 22, 2016).  The post begins with an observation about water, about the river that runs through Esfahan (or Isfahan), Iran.  Click on the video link below for a clip about 15 seconds long.  I took the video from our hotel.  The still photo shows the river as well, but it is much more interesting in the video.


Esfahan sits about a mile up on the Iranian plateau. Jews governed here first. Some have stayed, along with Armenian Christians, who have also lived here for centuries. It’s an old city–dates to 3rd c BCE. Naqsh-e Jehan Square (known now as Imam Square) is fabled, enormous–visited by Marco Polo. The square has two mosques, a palace, and a famous tentacled bazaar in which you can easily get lost (some of us did). Jewish, Zoroastrian, Persian, Armenian Christian, Arabic, and Turkic cultures mix in the heritage. It’s a gritty large city with ancient places throughout, mud brick houses amid modern construction. It’s my favorite of the cities we visited. You can easily get to know your way around. People are welcoming even above the high Iranian norm. All you need to do is walk around the square and make friends.

The river that runs through Esfahan is now dry, has been dry for two years. In the video, you can see people walking across the riverbed. Water could be the most precious commodity in this country and region. If Pakistan or Afghanistan turns off water, central and eastern Iran are in trouble. I have to wonder if, in our complex and fraught relations with Iran (as in the Middle East and North Africa—maybe more broadly in Africa), we pay way too much attention to oil and to misunderstandings about Islam (more later about that) and way too little to water.

Connections between climate change, drought, and migration are already obvious, but mostly we aren’t addressing these connections in public discourse in the US.  That’s an understatement, just a week after the inhumane Muslim ban began its sickening excrescence.

Reflecting on Responses to “As We May Think”

Wondering whether an associative thinking exercise could weave together reflections from bloggers and gain insight into general and liberal education.  Answer is yes.

Information literacy as a learning outcome offers a hopeful vision of creativity and flow as students develop awareness of their own associative trails and perspective on those of others–in other words as they perceive themselves in context of other learners and dare to try collective learning beyond the print book. As they learn in these new ways, they find it easier to cross disciplinary boundaries and go after the kinds of wicked problems so many educators hope they’ll address.  They could revitalize the humanities through collective historical and interpretive work across disciplines and fields. Problem-centered, creative, engaged learning guides college education. How lovely is that!

Below are the passages I used in the exercise.  It was way fun!

Autumm Caines writes “for me it is a call for better general and liberal education. I think the first step may just be in realizing (and getting students to realize) that my internet is different from your internet. Where possible, taking ownership for our own ‘associative trails’ and demanding that ownership when it is kept from us. Finally, simply realizing that there are political forces and companies with lots of your data… which has always been the case but maybe realizing that they are trying to influence you in increasingly intimate ways” writes: “If we work to understand the hows and whys of information creation and flow, what I would call information literacy, then presumably we will be better able to review our shady present. That would  elevate my spirit. Until then, there’s always Aretha” “One for the Hippie Hub.” 

Morris Pelzel: “Jon Udell, I believe, used the phrase ‘context is a service we provide each other.’ I’m still puzzling out what this means, but I’m guessing that it refers to the ideal of accessing and processing information, not in an abstract and depersonalized manner, but within the context of other learners and practitioners in ‘trust networks.’ And that’s the difference between reading ‘As We May Think’ on my own, and working through it in this community, this network of fellow learners.” “Notes and Trails”

Erin Crane, Librarian reflects on actual challenges of working with students who prefer physical books to annotatable e-text in “Are We There Yet?”

Samantha Veneruso imagines ways to help students learn through integrative thinking and problem solving: “I can see how Bush was looking at the depth of information increasing, but as he talks about new forms of encyclopedias because of new associations of knowledge, I think of the idea of solving wicked problems, and the increasing intersection of disciplines– or the break downs of strict disciplines, which I think is characteristic of where we are going today in education or where we should be going today.” “Connections and Associations” 

John Stewart’s “Open Note Databases” observes, “While we certainly hope that our database will be used by and be useful to historians of chemistry, the real point of the project is to enable the collaborative epistemology proposed by Vannevar Bush. History and humanities more generally are dominated by the single-author article and monograph, so a system built to pool research notes may seem counterintuitive. However, we need to remember that the point of these publications is to share our knowledge. If we all share our coffee stained notebooks, idiosyncratic excel files, and shoeboxes full of notecards, we can engage in deeper and more nuanced studies in the history of chemistry and science more broadly. Without sacrificing traditional academic products, we can collectively populate searchable, interlinked reference guides that will accelerate research and model our methodologies for the generations to come.”

Toward Open and Liberal Learning?

Reading “Fifty Shades of Open” by Jeffrey Pomerantz and Robin Peek in First Monday one considers the parallel between the growth of fan fiction and the growth of *open* across the array of meanings the word carries.  It is a tempting if baffling parallel.  Wondering how to grasp a meaning of *open,* I thought of questions for Open Learning ’17.  What do the principles and practices of open learning share with liberal education and undergraduate general education—teaching, learning, and assessment in practice right now?  What utility in bringing together liberal education practitioners with open learning practitioners?  The Faculty Collaboratives project at AAC&U has been supporting and nurturing communities of practice among educators for liberal and general education.  Why?  We want to offer the best possible college education to all students, no matter their program or type of institution they attend.  There is a focused and principled goal for the project.  We’re building networks and infrastructure for educators across states and state systems so that they can in turn do their best work in meeting and reaching all students.  We want to emphasize the learning and success of the large numbers of undergraduate students who have the most to benefit from higher education.  Students who have not been served well by public education are first in my mind and in the minds of many colleagues. Equity in student success is a great goal. That is the story I offered Gardner Campbell in the interview at I hope students will benefit if we do a better job of collaborating as educators across communities within and among states and state systems. As I see it, the experiment of Open Learning ‘17 will give us a chance to answer the questions above.  I confess I want to find stronger ties than I am seeing right now.  It is true that information literacy is one of the outcomes of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise or LEAP initiative  Will we find richer points of convergence?


The Islam of Our Misunderstanding

If I learned one socio-political and religious lesson in Iran last month, it’s this:  Americans misunderstand Iran.  Maybe it’s the country Americans misunderstand the most. Americans often tell me that Iran is a bad and dangerous place, a place dominated by a monolithic and menacing Islam.  Neither belief is correct enough to stand on its own.  Neither is true enough to rise above stereotype.  It’s true that the Iranian government limits freedom.  But there is something else going on, which I want to emphasize. Ordinary people you meet in Iran distinguish between their own values, faith, and practices and the actions of a government many of them do not support. They figure we have the same issue in the US, and they worry it will get worse for us—and hence for them—now. They worry about Turkey for similar reasons.

Iranians also see difference and multiplicity in Islam, and they wish Americans would comprehend that diversity. Politics and Islam do often intersect of course.  But they also diverge. People I met demonstrated by their actions that desire for democracy is alive and well in Iran, and so is secularism.  At the same time respect for Islam is palpable and varied in the way people express it.  Many people showed us by their warmth and welcome, including their behavior when we visited mosques and sites like Khomeini’s tomb, that they see Islam as pluralistic and tolerant.  I learned that the tolerance goes back millennia. (Our guide tells us every story in Iran starts in 5,000 BCE.) Zoroastrianism is tolerant, and it has influenced society, politics, and religion.  True, most people are Shiite. Sunnis also live in Iran, as well as Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Iranians of African descent, Arabs, Turks, and Kurds, semi-nomadic tribes who’ve kept their own cultures, people from across Eurasia, many of whom look Asian. It’s a kaleidoscope of faith, culture, social practice. Yes, the mullahs who govern are Shiite. As for secularism and faith in the general population, you see the array you encounter among Christians and Jews in the US. To me, Shia Islam looks in social practice to be similar to mainstream Protestantism.

Ordinary people are proud of diversity and eager to meet newcomers. Some women dress in ways that signal deep faith, but that may be merely social practice, distinguishing between what one wears in one’s house and what one wears outside. You cover outside; you don’t cover in. Men and women may dress stylishly and yet be secular or devout to one degree or another. You can’t tell unfailingly by the way people dress.

Spend two weeks in Iran and you are baffled by the ignorance behind assertions that Islam is a monolithic thing.  It isn’t.  We misunderstand that fact to a terrible and tragic degree.

Above all, Iranians want peace.  On signposts or murals on nearly every block of every town or city, you find pictures of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. 360,000 dead. They aren’t forgetting that sacrifice.  They do not intend to be drawn into conflict like that again. As the Sunni Arab world spirals out of control, ordinary Iranians hold firmly to hopes that most peace-loving Americans would have no trouble recognizing.


First Post

This is my first post for Open Learning.  I’ve created a blog and am now linking my posts by a feed to the Open Learning collectivist MOOC.  This cMOOC is an  experiment organized by the Virginia Open Learning initiative as part of a project with the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U;  The easy way to understand:  This cMOOC will try an experiment in community building for academics who are devoted to general and liberal education and who want to collaborate in using open education resources.  It’s a crossover project, a boundary-crossing project.  I am hoping that the collective of people who join the MOOC will make discoveries together.  If we do, we can advance liberal education for all students by working within a larger community of educators than we may have been reaching.  It’s all about liberal education, inclusive pedagogies, and open learning together.  That sounds easier than it is going to be!

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