The Cream Cheese Wontons of Expectation

Last night, my husband and I were talking about our trial run chewing the chalky tablet that is lactaid to assist with bowls of old-fashioned mint chip.

Had it worked for him as well as it had for me a few days previous? I asked.

It had, he agreed. Now, I want some [expletive] cream cheese wontons, he added.

Great! You should put some of these packets in your backpack––

The rest of my suggestion, that he could then order cream cheese wontons at work with a take-out lunch order, died without words.

Did you forget? he asked gently.

That’s how this whole week has been. The bizarre familiarity in which my mind is sometimes able to forget what is happening around us. To be clear, it’s not like it hasn’t impacted me. We are both extraordinarily privileged to be working at home and to have spaces and internet and technology where we can do so with relative ease, but I work in study abroad so I have been focused on mitigating the impact for students however I can for most of my waking hours for 3 weeks. I’m messaging right before bed. I dream about this. I wake and check for updates with sleep-blurred eyes.

And yet the illusion of normalacy remains in every normal dinner, in every show watched, and game played.

Hank Green made a video on the Sudden Obliteration of Expectation. It’s 11 minutes long, and worth every minute, so please go watch it.

In the video, Hank Green talks about points in our life where we have to wrestle with realizing that our expectations will not come to pass, that the plans we have are changed, and we have to rethink our assumptions. At the end he asks for suggestions of what we might call this end of expectation, a question that I went to bed on my mind.

Susan Bluck and Tilmann Habermas have written about the concept of a life story schema, a set of fundamental cognitive structures that we’ve built up into a narrative to understand how a life works. Maybe in our culture you are born, go to school for a while, get a job, get married, have children, get that promotion, and someday retire to spend time with your grandchildren. Maybe your spouse is going to the office on Monday, where he can order Chinese takeout and finally eat those cream cheese wontons he’s been craving. We have an understanding of how the small events build up to a greater whole, with sense made of from actions, themes, and events. These structures give us order and clarity, help us to understand were we are in the scheme of things. There’s value to this, in that we can make plans for the future and take action that we think will work toward this outcome.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value to breaking out of theses expectations. Study abroad, for example, is fundamentally about creating opportunity for the disorienting dilemma, in which traveling to a new location is the start of transformative learning. By seeing how are our expectations aren’t universal, we can realize what we have taken for granted, and start to recognize the role we can have in shaping our own and the larger social schema and narratives.

And right now we are all in the midst of this disorienting dilemma.

All around the world, we are all running into what I propose describing as “narrative dissolution”: The expected trajectory of our stories is coming apart, the threads unbraiding into a future yet to be defined. Some of results will be out of our control, especially the larger decisions of governments and the results of a cratering economy. Yet we each have our own threads in this and the chance to come together and consider what new stories are possible now.

That’s not to say that any of this is easy. This is painful and scary, and we must do everything we can to help those who are the most affected by things they can’t control. But as we make the hard decisions that are pulling apart the pre-woven life narratives of 2020, I hope that we can use this time of change to work together to create new paths forward, new narratives of possibility, that embrace this opportunity for a better, more caring world.

I don’t know what is coming, but I am heartened to see where we have already started.

Bluck, S., & Habermas, T. (2000). The life story schema. Motivation and Emotion, 24(2), 122-147. 

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

The End of Forgetting

My point is that there is something liberating about being able to forget the past and reinvent yourself in the present. Much of growing up, I would argue, is about reinventing yourself multiple times, and that requires being able to forget who you were six months ago, three years ago, 10 years ago.

Vox: The End of Forgetting

I can envision a social media world where you can choose to wipe clean your slate at points of life transition, removing the media and the social connections that tie you to that old you.

Or even one where you can engage in role segmentation more effectively, having a work role, a close friends role, a club member role, an online forum role, all at the same time. This would be different from keeping a centralized profile and hiding parts or posts from different sub-groups in that it would be showing different groups different additive information. In today’s world, person is multiple selves all before lunch.

The challenge is in social media typically generating income by shaving off the corners of self to put people into specific and perhaps unchanging boxes for viewing ads. The motivation isn’t there for enabling self-exploration as an ongoing and ephemeral excursion.

The metaphors we use to talk about things are powerful. For example, when talking about the internet lately the “flow of information” is seen as a given. It’s like drinking from a firehose. We’re engulfed. We’re drowning in it.

What if instead information online were a river, continuously available to carry us where we need to go, there to quench our thirst for knowledge, and distract us with cool waters for as long as we want to dip in our toes?

Don’t you feel calmer already?

An old tradition

grad robe

Since I graduated during summer term, I didn’t need to walk in the fall graduation ceremony. I did though, and I’m glad I did. It reminds me of all the heritage we are carrying and how we as people are continually working to improve our scope of knowledge. It’s easy to lose sight of that hunched over a computer, and humbling to be reminded of it.

“It’s More How People See You…”

After more than a year of work, my master’s thesis was approved for final submission to the Graduate School! It has been a challenging project, but a fascinating one due to my own experiences and hearing students’ stories everyday. A big thank you to my committee and–most especially–my advisor, Dr. Christina Weber. Also, my husband, who possesses infinite patience.

Here is the overview in a nutshell/abstract:

“IT’S MORE HOW OTHER PEOPLE PERCEIVE YOU”: SOCIAL IDENTITY FORMATION THROUGH STUDY ABROAD

This research investigated how study abroad affected students’ sense of identity and how interactions between study abroad students and other people shaped their understanding of their identity. While abroad, students taking part in a five-week study abroad program started to recognize having an American self and used behavior and clothing to negotiate their association with this role. The relationships between students and the program leader, other students, friends, and family members were instrumental in the recognition and development of their identity. Students also started creating a study abroad self before departure and used points of discomfort as an opportunity to adjust how they defined this identity. Student responses indicated that study abroad offers them insight into how a sense of identity is related to the context of place and people, as well as an opportunity to negotiate their identity both while abroad and after return.