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Jordan River trip itinerary addresses complexities of region April 10, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Academic Freedom, Israel, Palestine, Study Trip, Water.
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Reproduced below is the letter Rachel Friedman and I wrote to the Miscellany News regarding our 2014 study trip:

 

On March 23, we returned from a two-week study trip to Israel/Palestine called “The Jordan River Watershed.” We feel confident that as a result of traveling to the region and talking with Arab and Jewish Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, our students can now speak knowledgeably about the complex realities of this conflict-ridden place. Our trip epitomizes the methodology of the field sciences, as well as the “go to the source” approach that has long been a defining feature of a Vassar education.

On our first day, we visited the holy sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem. Next, visits to the Arab village of Battir and a nearly century-old Palestinian hilltop farm, Tent of Nations, as well as the Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, provided bird’s-eye views of resource quality and quantity issues in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. After our introduction to the complicated mixture of communities in this tiny area, we traveled north towards the Lebanese border to the contested volcanic heights of Israel/Syria and familiarized ourselves with the water sources that feed the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater body in the region, and the upper reaches of the Jordan River. While in the Galilee, we also visited Nazareth and the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris, remarkable for the archaeological record it provides of Romans, Jews and Christians coexisting peacefully.

Over the next days, we headed south, traversing the length of the lower Jordan to its terminus in the closed basin of the Dead Sea. Throughout the Jordan valley, we encountered the stark reality of dammed tributaries, water in/sensitive agricultural practices, inadequate sewage treatment facilities, wetland reclamation efforts, land subsidence, mineral extraction industries and, especially notable, unequal access to surface water conduits and groundwater aquifers. At the same time, we were humbled by the awesome spectacle of deep geologic time revealed in the limestone layers of the canyons that we hiked to an oasis of Ein Gedi and the storied copper-bearing sandstone mountains of Timna. We concluded our trip in the southern Negev, learning about communities trying to live sustainably in the harsh desert terrain by employing solar power, dry composting, permaculture farming and mud-plaster building.

Throughout our trip we met with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions. Most impressive about these individuals, non-governmental organizations (such as Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Plaestinian territory) and educational institutions (Arava Institute for Environmental Studies) was their demonstrated ability to inhabit the gray area between radical extremes. Despite the charges leveled against them, brave people on both sides consistently asserted the need to sustain conflicting narratives simultaneously. As Sulaiman Khatib—a representative from the binational NGO Combatants for Peace who served 10 years in Israeli prison for armed resistance—put it, “Every stone has at least two stories.” Khatib’s line became our mantra as we repeatedly strove to occupy the murky but potentially productive middle space between binary extremes.

We have, of course, followed the maelstrom of reactions to the trip. We, as the instructors of the trip, have personally been attacked from both left and right. In one account, we are “white settler colonialists” oppressing the Palestinians; in the other, we are “self-hating Jews” pursuing an “anti-Israel agenda.” In fact, people who made little, if any effort to examine the details of our course subject and itinerary have reduced us to stereotypical caricatures. If their narrative is that the two of us are bent on destroying Israel, it is because our support for many of the goals of Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) and the Open Hillel movement seems irreconcilable with our involvement in our Jewish communities and support (albeit critical) of Israel. If their narrative is that we support a white colonialist regime in Israel, then perhaps they refuse to look at the ways in which we are committed to fighting injustice against Palestinians. Though unsurprised by these reactions, they sadden us, particularly as educators.

One especially vexing aspect of the criticism leveled at us is that it has been racialized. In early February, SJP students picketed our course causing some of our students to express feelings of harassment and intimidation upon entering the space of the classroom. We objected to the picket because of its negative effect on those who already felt beleaguered by ill-informed criticisms across campus for enrolling in the course. Discussing the picket during class, our students asked us to relay to administrators in the Dean of the College office and the International Studies program the request for a facilitated discussion between them and SJP members. Despite our repeated requests for such an intervention, none transpired.

Since then, our objection to the picket has been characterized by some members of the Vassar community as our use of white privilege to target students of color. If we and our students had been consulted before this conclusion was drawn, listeners would have learned that our students—many of whom belong to racial and ethnic minority groups—were as surprised as we were that the group of SJP protesters were characterized as being “of color.” Furthermore, it would have become clear that we supported the right of SJP students to protest in any number of ways, including ongoing tabling in the College Center, but not inside an academic building at our classroom door. If anyone had thought to speak with us before stereotypically labeling us, multiple competing narratives would have emerged. For example, while the two of us have indeed benefited from the privilege of being seen as within the white majority in our society, we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP.

Many Vassar students and faculty have expressed their concern that over the last several years, a climate of fear has descended on campus. This fear was confirmed for them during the spectacle at the Open Forum that was held on March 3.

In our opinion, the rage unleashed disrespectfully at us at the forum has a gendered as well as a racial dimension. Perhaps one way to begin countering the climate of fear is to work harder campus-wide to engage one another with intellectual openness, listening to the multiple narratives that emanate from the Vassar community. A jumping-off point for this endeavor might be to engage with any one of the 28 breathtakingly thoughtful students who devoted their spring break to the study trip. Though some might caricature these students as having been greenwashed by the two of us or by our itinerary, such spurious depictions underestimate the intelligence of the diverse group of students whom we have been privileged to teach.

—Jill Schneiderman is a professor of earth science & geography at Vassar. Rachel Friedman is an associate professor of Greek & Roman studies at Vassar and Jewish Studies. 

Vassar College Study Trip to the Jordan River Watershed and Surroundings March 4, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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            One generation comes and another generation goes but the Earth remains forever. So goes the Ecclesiastical statement that motivated me to wade metaphorically and literally into the sullied and diminishing waters of the Jordan.

            I’m about to embark on a two-week journey with 28 Vassar students to the Jordan River valley and its surroundings. I was motivated to propose and teach such a course because from my perspective as an earth scientist, I understand how daily and future access to clean water in ample supply is one of the key issues about which people in the region fight. It is also a problem on which Arabs, Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have worked together with integrity and compassion.

            And yet, as solid as I was in my commitment to this endeavor before my College’s “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel. Our trip will take us from the headwaters of the Jordan River near the border with Lebanon down to the shrinking Dead Sea and through the bone dry Arava valley. With assistance from Friends of the Earth Middle East and EWASH (Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Palestinian territory), along the way, we’ll meet with Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians to learn about their perspectives and efforts with regard to the basic human right of ready access to clean water.

            I hope to have the time and energy to use my blog to process and articulate through mind and heart what I learn on this journey. 

One Earth Sangha January 22, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, earth community.
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The Earth as Witness:
International Dharma Teachers’ Statement on Climate Change

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I learned of this initiative via a dharma talk podcasted from Spirit Rock. It is right up my alley and probably that of those of you who read this blog. I invite you to sign on.

Anthropocene Feminism November 18, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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I’ve deliberately been keeping most of my thoughts to myself these days while marshalling my energy for a substantial writing project. But I’d like to make known an upcoming conference at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (April 2014) on Anthropocene Feminism. Of course, the Anthropocene is a topic of great interest to me and the notion that others are thinking about combining the two, as I like to do as well, excites me. I hope to submit a paper for the conference and perhaps bring students with me.

Think Fast, Live Slow August 30, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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This is a 13 minute video of a “TED-like” talk I was asked to give at a retreat for rabbinical and cantorial students from Hebrew Union College. I was asked to address the topic, “What do I know about transformation from my professional and personal life?” It’s entitled “Think Fast, Live Slow.”

August 2013, Isabella Freedman Retreat Center http://isabellafreedman.org/

Once an ocean, now one of the driest, most desolate places on earth May 27, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth system science, geologic time, geology, hydrosphere, Mars, Vassar College.
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Vassar freshman Aaron Jones probably wasn’t the first visitor to Death Valley to observe it looks a lot like the surface of Mars. But the future earth science major says if he hadn’t seen it for himself, he couldn’t have grasped the power of wind erosion and compared the resulting rock formations to those on the distant planet.

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The New Yorker’s Disappointing Science Journalism May 8, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Mars, science.
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Here’s a quick letter to the editor (not published as far as I know) regarding the New Yorker’s recent piece on the scientific exploration of Mars. The cover of the New Yorker issue that contained the piece is pictured here. The cover epitomizes the essay.

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To the editor:

Burkhard Bilger’s piece “The Martian Chroniclers” (April 22, 2013) came just at the right time for me and my Vassar students in STS/WMST 375, “Gender, Race and Science.” We ‘d been reading all semester feminist histories of science in an attempt to track changes in the culture of science and had just arrived at the issue of the so-called “leaky pipeline” that is, why so many women leave science even after they obtain advanced degrees.

In communicating the tremendous excitement of discoveries of the Martian rover “Curiosity” since its spectacularly successful landing this past summer–I’m a geoscientist who studies what sediments reveal about planetary history–Bilger also inadvertently conveys much about subtleties in science culture that make it difficult for women to persist over the long-term in scientific research.

Bilger’s depiction of mission engineer Adam Steltzner captures the gendered bravado, swagger and profanity (“We think we’ve crushed  this fucker”) that characterizes big-money science and puts off people who feel uncomfortable with masculinist discourse. Bilger plays into the gender divide in science. Although he lauds the work of geologist John Grotzinger (who Steltzner derides as “fairly charming but not brash”), he plays up the enthusiasm for the “arsenal of instruments” that ” slender, effervescent” rover driver Vandi Tompkins has for her scientific endeavor.  And he resurrects the birthing trope commenting that “the Sky Crane was Steltzner’s baby….the landing also happened to coincide with another long-term project of his, now approaching its final descent: his wife, Trisha, was nine months pregnant.”

What would science look like if scientists and those who report on it worked actively to end this hierarchically gendered structure?

Jill S. Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College

Vassar College Students Take on Westboro Baptist Church February 15, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth community, LGBT concerns.
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This piece “blessay” is cross-posted on Truthout.Old_Main,_Vassar_College

I’m in the thick of teaching at Vassar College at the moment. I just came off sabbatical and sometimes I feel it’s a hard re-entry. Those of you who read Relax! You’ll Be More Productive in the Sunday New York Times this week will understand that after having had a restful sabbatical–a real sabbath of the mind–I’m back to feeling with some regularity the pressure of juggled responsibilities. This week has been especially trying because my wife has been travelling for her work. I’ve got lab activities to prepare, quizzes to grade, homework assignments to critique, office hours to keep for eager and inquisitive students, discussions to facilitate along with my not insignificant responsibilities at home as a parent of two teenagers! At times it makes me long for the luxurious hours of reading and freewriting with production of the occasional “blessay.”

But this morning all the effort I put in on behalf of my Vassar students seems worth it; this week they’ve made me especially grateful for the gift that it is to teach them. Thank you Vassar students for responding to the hateful call by the Westboro Baptist Church to protest in our school community. Asreported in the Huffington Post, Vassar students responded to a notice from WBC calling attention to its plan to protest on our campus. Students pledged to raise for The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, $100 for every minute that WBC plans to protest. At this writing, students have far exceeded their goal; they’ve raised 923% of its $4,500 goal. Yes, you read that right—over 1700 donations have raised more than $40,000 and WBC’s protest here is still weeks away.

As a former board member of the Family Equality Council, one of my chief responsibilities was to raise money for that organization which works to advance the rights of children with LBGTQ parents and our families as a whole.  I found it daunting but was told that most money is raised as a result of small donations by ordinary people. With fundraising for The Trevor Project as an WBC counter-protest, Vassar students show how true this is.

Most importantly for me, the Vassar students’ efforts on behalf of LGBTQ people fill my heart with hope and fuel my energy to work diligently for their benefit as well. Reader, may you too take heart from the social justice activism of our youth!

Follow the fundraising total here.

Manly Lance Armstrong January 18, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in gender.
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This piece is also posted on SpeakOut.

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Regarding Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used illegal drugs to win as a cyclist, the L.A. Times (and others) reported:

…surprisingly, he attributed it to his battle with testicular cancer that changed his attitude.

“I was always a fighter,” Armstrong said in the first of the two-part interview that aired Thursday night. “Before my diagnosis, I was a competitor, but not a fierce competitor. Then I said I will do anything I need to do to survive. Then I brought that ruthless, win-at-all-costs attitude into cycling.”

That he attributed his win-at-all costs mentality to his testicular cancer does not surprise me. In order to understand it, we need to bring genderinto the conversation. We need to talk about the culture of masculinity–a culture that celebrates success in competition. But I’ve not heard that from the commentators discussing the subject.

If winning in competition with other males is the societal mark of manhood, then testicles are the biological signifier of masculinity. After all, the question of whether or not a man has “the stuff” to take on a challenge often comes down to the crude question, “Does he have the balls?” After surviving testicular cancer, Lance Armstrong has only one testicle. Might that not explain to some degree at least why he was compelled to cheat so completely in order to be a winner?

I read and loved Michael Chabon’s book Manhood for AmateursAs a woman, it helped me understand the excruciating pressure that some American men feel about the robustness of their masculinity.

All the brouhaha about Armstrong could be productive if talk centered on the gender component of this fiasco.

Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
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This piece appears on the Shambhala SunSpace blog.

Among my favorite cartoons is one my mom gave me by the cartoonist and author of The Soul Support Book, Deb Koffman. Entitled “Sitting with Awareness,” in each of sixteen small square frames Koffman depicts a person sitting in lotus position wearing, what we call in my house “at–homes”– in other words sweatpants. (Click here to visit Koffman’s site — you’ll find the image under “Mindfulness Prints.”) Phrases beneath each frame taken together constitute the following poem. I sure can relate to it, and maybe you can too:

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I’m aware of my posture, I’m aware of my knees, I’m aware of my hands, I’m aware of a breeze.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware I feel cold, I’ve got a pain in my side, I’m getting old.
The clock is ticking, my eye has a twitch, my stomach is grumbling, my back has an itch.
My foot fell asleep, my pants are too tight, someone is coughing, am I doing this right?

Why do I relate to this poem? Because as I pursue my work as a geoscientist–educator at a liberal arts college — reading, teaching, and striving at the intersections of earth science, gender studies, environmental studies, and history of science — I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?”

In answer to that question, I’m encouraged by news that The University of Virginia received a multimillion dollar gift this year to establish a Contemplative Sciences Center. One purpose of the center will be to promote awareness about the potential benefits of training one’s mind and body. David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who will help lead the center commented, ”Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight.” Huzzah to that.

This means greater validation for the kind of work I try to do as a contemplative educator in my science classes. Not that I doubt the benefits of contemplative practices in higher education. Students continue to write to me post-graduation, amidst real-life struggles about how the contemplative approaches I’ve taught them while they were in college have been among the most sustaining practices they’ve used to deal with everyday living. It’s just that professional scientific societies offer much advice about the fact that geoscientists — as educators and Eaarthlings — must involve ourselves in addressing “critical needs for the 21st century.”

For example, we are urged to prioritize efforts to ensure reliable energy supplies in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; provide sufficient supplies of water; sustain oceans, atmosphere, and space resources; manage waste to maintain a healthy environment; mitigate risk and build resilience from natural and human-made hazards; improve and build needed infrastructure that couples with and uses Earth resources while integrating new technologies; ensure reliable supplies of raw materials; inform the public and train the geosciences workforce to understand Earth processes and address these critical needs. It’s a long and lofty list.

But critically absent from the “critical needs” list are endeavors equally critical to achieving this balance on Earth. For example, for my personal list of critical needs as a science educator, I’ve added the following imperatives:

  • Tell a scientific story of the universe that has a mythic, narrative dimension that elevates the story from a prosaic study of data to an inspiring spiritual vision;
  • Articulate our dream of the future Ecozoic era, defined as that time when humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner;
  • Circumvent the problem of anthropocentrism that is at the center of the devastation we are experiencing;
  • Allow acknowledgment that currently, human beings are a devastating presence on the planet; supposedly acting for our own benefit, truthfully we are ruining the conditions for our health and survival as well as that of other living beings;
  • Promote hope through contemplation of how tragic moments of disintegration over the past centuries were followed by hugely creative moments of regeneration;
  • Recover the capacity for subjective communion with the Earth and identification with the cosmic-Earth-human process as a new mode of interdependence;
  • Nourish awareness for a vision of Earth-human development that will allow a sustainable dynamic of the modern world;
  • Foster development of intimacy with the natural world.

I developed this list as a result of reading the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth. “The universe,” he said, “is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Berry, had a doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America, studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions of religion in India. One of his earliest books was a history of Buddhism.  Having established the History of Religions program at Fordham University Berry published numerous prophetic books including The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and his last work The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. This last writing especially fuels my conviction that science done well is also a spritual discipline. Berry called himself a “geologian” and wrote:

Our new acquaintance with the universe as an irreversible developmental process can be considered the most significant religious, spiritual, and scientific event since the emergence of the more complex civilizations some five thousand years ago…. if interpreted properly, the scientific venture could even be one of the most significant spiritual disciplines of these times. This task is particularly urgent, since our new mode of understanding is so powerful in its consequences for the very structure of the planet Earth. We must respond to its deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us (The Sacred Universe  119-120).

The notion that that my geology may be at once both scientific and spiritual has me also adopting the moniker, “geologian.” And that the University of Virginia is moving forward with its Contemplative Sciences Center fuels my hope that engaging science as a spiritual discipline in order to encourage embodied paths to wisdom and social transformation is in itself a worthwhile practice.

We’ve almost arrived at the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere.  On the year’s shortest day, the sun appears to halt in its progressive journey across the sky. From Earth it seems that the sun hardly changes its position on this day, hence the name solstice meaning ”sun stands still.” But despite appearances, the sun is changing its position relative to the Earth inasmuch as, speaking scientifically, the Earth circles the sun each year while it rotates on a tilted axis and creates the changing seasons (the hemisphere that faces the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight). For half of each year the North Pole is tilted away from the sun and on the winter solstice the tilt makes the sun seem most faraway. This astronomical event announces the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.

Speaking as a “geologian” I observe that these are indeed the darkest days of the year. But as I pause, as the sun seems to, at this point in my yearly journey around the sun, I note that in the darkness is the promise of the gradual return of more light. As you circle the sun and participate in the turning of the wheel of the year, what do you notice and to what do you bow?

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