A Little Love Letter to Ross Gay’s “Book of Delights”

May 29th 2020, from a post I made on Instagram:


What does it mean to be a well-loved object?

I’ve been using this sliver of wood as a bookmark. But I had oiled the wood lightly, and so it’s been leaching little oil stains into successive pages. The first sign of a stain stabbed me a bit, I felt shame at having damaged this book. But if there’s any book that can hold these marks of use, it’s Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. A book I’ve wanted to race through, read in one sitting, but which instead I’m reading only one essayette a day. That I need a bookmark at all is a sign of my commitment to the book, and to learning a healthy discipline.

The wood–cedar, I think–smells lovely. So each morning, I hold and sniff my bookmark as I read. Weird, I know. Today, the bookmark has begun to smell of pages, that glorious new book smell. Smell in exchange for oil, a commingling born from healing ritual. This book, this bookmark, are loved. 

A few weeks ago, my mother died, and I stopped my daily readings of The Book of Delights for a few days. When I returned to them, I found a glorious delight waiting for me, one that, miraculously, captured the confusing transcendent feelings of my grief. I tried to excerpt it for you, reader, but it just works so beautifully in full…here it is:

60. “Joy is Such a Human Madness”: The Duff Between Us

Or, like this: in healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.

By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen, and a nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae (so close to hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world), the fungal ambulances, ferry it over. Constantly. This tree to that. That to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff (a delight: the phrase fungal duff, meaning a healthy forest soil, swirling with the living the dead make) are miles and miles of hyphae, handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes it did. Evolved the people into mushrooms.

Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things–the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this–joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.

Somehow, returning to The Book of Delights in a world that no longer held my mother, seeing her death ring out in the words on the page I returned to, I felt released from the discipline I had cultivated over the last two months. I started reading with abandon. In some minutes, I made it to the sixty-fourth entry. When you read the little excerpt below and think back to the words I wrote about this book at the end of May, a little less than two months before my mother died, I think you’ll experience  some of that same transcendence that I did, the just-so-ness of being connected with the world, oneself and one another across space and time. 

From 64. Fishing an Eyelash: Two or Three Cents on the Virtues of the Poetry Reading.

Books are lovely. I love books…

…As I write this it’s occurring to me that the books I most adore are the ones that archive the people who have handled them–dogears, or old receipts used as bookmarks (always a lovely digression). Underlines and exclamation points, and this in an old library book! The tender vandalisms by which, sometimes, we express our love. Or a fingerprint, made of some kind of oil, maybe from peanut butter, which it would be if it was mine. Or a tea stain, and a note to oneself only oneself could decipher…

…[But] There are multiplicities within a human body reading poems that a poem on a page will never reproduce. In other words, books don’t die. And preferring them to people won’t prevent our doing so.

Find Yourself a Trauma Informed Politics

So many times in this past year, I’ve wanted to speak to the complexities and nuances of how we approach difficult things in our difficult world–injustice, forgiveness, inequity, mental health. And each time, it just comes back to this: find yourself a trauma-informed politics. It’s a journey, it’s systemic, it’s human-oriented, it’s radical, it’s messy, and, above all, it’s hopeful. I’m going to write more on this, once I’ve read and absorbed more by Kai Cheng Thom, by Clementine Morrigan, by Mariame Kaba. For now, here’s a poster.

Words: Ambika Kamath, Image: Karen Arnold, on public domain, Design: Ambika Kamath & Ned Burnell 


An accidentally delightful vegan lentil coconut curry

Here’s a recipe that was easy, delicious, and entirely “what do we have lying around and can we throw it together?’ plus “salt+fat+acid+heat”…

  • Cook some red lentils (masoor dal) in water in a pan, not pressure cooker.
  • Once mostly cooked, add in salt, cayenne, turmeric, and Chinese five-spice powder, in sensible proportions (sorry, can’t be more precise!). Let bubble for a bit.
  • Add in a can of coconut milk.
  • Concurrently, saute some broccoli and asparagus in oil, until well cooked, still-crunchy, and lightly browned. Can get creative here, other veggies would probably work well. I’m excited to add potatoes to a future version, and green beans perhaps.
  • Cut a mostly ripe but not overly sweet mango into cubes. Err on the side of a more sour than less sour (mango was the only acid we had available!). Add into the coconut/lentil mixture when the lentils are almost entirely done.
  • Once the lentils are fully cooked, turn off the heat and add in the sauteed vegetables.
  • Serve warm, with pieces of avocado on the top.

The spiced lentil/coconut served as an excellent neutral-delicious base, and each of the added veggies and fruits retained their particular flavour because they were either edible raw or pre-cooked and incorporated late. Quick, nutritious, filling, yum!


Doing the Work, part two.

(here’s part one from February; this essay stands alone too).

In this moment, in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by police and nationwide protests in support of Black lives, many of us in academia are waking up to the need for anti-racism. Others of us, who’ve been doing this work of moving away from injustice and towards equity in academia for a little while longer, are somewhat buoyed by the energy. We’re working hard to direct the current momentum into channels that will sustain for more than a few days, weeks, months and that will yield systemic change. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to transform this moment’s energy into the enduring work of lifetimes.

(Part of why my biologist brain loves this question is that the answer hinges on the spanning of scales—short-to-long and past-to-present-to-future time scales, small-to-large spatial scales, individual-to-collective-to-systemic scales of organization. And this, precisely, is why becoming an activist and becoming trauma-informed has alchemized how I think as a scientist. Stay tuned for some weird academic work that arise from this transformation, as well as longer creative non-fiction writing about it.).

My more immediate reason for writing this essay, though, is to explore the annoyance I feel about my fellow academics seemingly directing so much of the energy of this moment towards reading books about anti-racism (I wrote that sentence a couple of weeks ago, now even the book reading seems to have died down, at least according to the twitter and instagram posts). Before you get upset at me, I promise you I have nothing against books. As Victor Ray and Alan Aja put it in a recent perspective, “Nothing warms our nerdy professorial hearts like seeing people buy books, and we understand the need for knowledge to attack entrenched social problems (please keep borrowing, exchanging and buying books, everyone)…But,” they continue, “we also are aware of the limits of the education-as-cure-for-racism trope when it is uncoupled from commitments to redistribute resources.” Reading a book, or many books, is not the same as action, though we academics can readily delude ourselves into thinking that understanding a (complex) problem is no different than solving it. I’m going to repeat that so we can all take it in—understanding systemic injustice is not equivalent to dismantling it.

So in this moment, we have lists of books to read. We also have lists upon lists of actions to take. And what I’m interested in is the psychological and practical gap between them—how do we become the kind of people who are committed, who are intrinsically motivated to recognize where we can and must act against our individual self-interest (i.e. leveraging and dismantling our privilege) for the sake of the equity and justice we claim to believe in? How do we become the kind of people who see lists of actions as inspiration but not a how-to manual? How, in other words, do we do the work, especially once the moment has passed, once the books read and the lists of actions either checked off or forgotten or no longer relevant?

I want to speak to these questions, as a human and an academic. I think my voice might be useful here is because doing the work is, in large part, about reconfiguring one’s mind, and because I’ve seen in myself the wild transformations that can happen to a person when they commit to reconfiguring their mind. I love how Gil Scott-Heron puts it in this clip, where he says “The revolution will not be televised…that was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you’re living and the way you move. So when we were saying that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film.”

So how can one reconfigure one’s mind? The desire to reconfigure your mind stems from discovering where you do not want to be. You’ve recognized that something about how you think and feel and show up in the world is not okay, and needs to change. You’ve hit some kind of bottom, be it big or small, and you’re finally saying, “Enough.” But the process of reconfiguring a mind is not just a turning away from—your mind also needs something glowing to grow towards. As I put it recently, “seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.” In this metaphor, you are a seedling, your mind rooted in the present soil and growing towards a distant sun. You never reach the sun, and yet it shapes exactly where you go. You could ignore the sun and keep growing towards soil, wondering why you aren’t seeing more light. How you grow is going to depend on the other seedlings around you, plus the rocks and caterpillars and gardeners with an agenda of their own. Sometimes, you won’t really see the sun for days on end. And yet, you must keep growing.

To extend the metaphor, imagine, specifically, that your mind is the seedling of a vine that wants to grow towards justice. What you need is a frame to grow on. In my life, this frame has been, again, a list. Not a list of books or actions, but rather, a list of core principles and principle-driven practices. Simple statements of what I believe and who I want to be, but don’t yet fully know how to act according to. Not so vague as to be unhelpful, not so specific as to be inapplicable beyond a particular situation or moment in history.

The list around which I have built my practices of equity and justice was created by Lizzy Cooper Davis and Eleanor Craig, educators whose anti-racist values and practices have, in turn, been shaped by their work with and learning from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (Lizzy and Eleanor), the Urban Bush Women (Lizzy), the Network/La Red and the Asian American Resource Workshop (Eleanor). When Lizzy and Eleanor shared this list with us participants in a workshop on Identity, Privilege, and Power in the Classroom, I knew I had to hold on to it. Most entries on it didn’t make much sense to my logical mind, but they resonated with something deeper inside, and so I kept the list and pinned it above my desk. I looked and looked and looked at the list, and slowly, these words began to emerge unbidden into my mind when I was far from my desk. Listen for understanding rather than potholes, I’d suddenly think during lab meeting or a seminar. Or I’d come back to my desk, glance at the list, and recent experiences would wholly reconfigure themselves in light of an entry on it. I read Know you, too, will be triggered with a sigh of relief, after I did a poor job of moderating a conversation on inequity in academia. In recalling these principles and practices at relevant moments, I had begun the slow, patient, unglamorous work of reconfiguring my mind towards embodying justice.

And so here’s the thing. What popped into my head and changed my actions at a crucial moment was not a treatise, not an understanding of a nuanced argument laid forth over 200 pages, but a seemingly simple little statement of my core values that I had inadvertently committed to memory. In this way, Lizzy and Eleanor’s list has been the framework that has helped me orient my life towards equity and justice. Here is the list in full:

Identity, Power & Privilege in the Classroom: Core Principles and Practices Offered

  • Tend not just to the way you engage when difficult moments arise but to the way you set up the classroom environment and follow-up on the class’ work.
  • Remember there is no quick fix.
  • Be curious about what people bring into the room and invite your students’ whole selves to be present; No topic or classroom is neutral.
  • Experiential knowledge is as valuable as book knowledge.
  • Multiple truths can and do exist.
  • Co-create group agreements.
  • Remember that safe space is not necessarily comfortable space.
  • Consider naming your interest in these issues as part of setting up your classroom environment.
  • Assume best intent and separate intent from impact.
  • Value dialogue over debate.
  • Listen for understanding rather than potholes.
  • Don’t take on more that you can hold and don’t ask the group to take on more than it can hold; Draw on your resources.
  • Practice being accountable to people over institutions.
  • Commit to recognizing and undoing the manifestations of your own oppression; Know you, too, will be triggered.
  • Commit to continual reflection on your power and privilege as a teacher. Understand it as a process and know that you will make mistakes.
  • Be generous and forgiving with your students and with yourself.

Each time I read this list, a different part of it resonates with me. I am far from feeling fully at home in any of these principles or practices, but they now furnish and color the environs of my mind. The one I think about most often in the context of science and scholarship is Multiple truths can and do exist. The one I think about most as an organizer is Practice being accountable to people over institutions. The ones I think about most often in the context of deepening relationships are Safe space is not necessarily comfortable space coupled with Be generous and forgiving with others and yourself. The ones that reminds me how far I still have to go, how much more I have to learn and practice, are Commit to recognizing and undoing the manifestations of your own oppression, Commit to continual reflection on your power and privilege, and, of course, Remember that there is no quick fix. In this way, everything I do attempts to embrace identity, analyze power, and acknowledge privilege. Most of the time, a principle will pop into my head when I just did the opposite of what it suggests, at which point its useful to remember to Understand it as a process and know that you will make mistakes.

So in this light, I hope it’s clear why I think reading all the books, or even education more broadly, does not constitute sufficient action. This resonates with something Imani Perry said the other day, “Trainings and consultations will not dismantle racism and racial inequality. In fact, we have to consider how they might prop up racism, giving participants a false sense of virtue and a tidy way to disengage from the harder work of creating new & just social arrangements.” The lists of actions could be useful nonetheless, because there’s a bunch of stuff you can do (like calling your representatives to push for policy change) where it can be helpful to do the thing you’re told to do by thoughtful, justice-minded-people, regardless of your motivation. But lists of actions can be co-opted—there will be people who work to check these boxes to assuage their own guilt or to accrue social capital, but who don’t actually commit to inner change and continued principle-driven action. These people become a better-disguised part of the problem (many thanks to Divya M. Persaud for a twitter thread that helped clarify this thought for me!).

A list of principle-driven practices is harder, perhaps impossible, to co-opt, though that makes them prone to being ignored altogether. And also, we can’t wait for everyone to have the same principles guiding their lives before we take action, because that will never happen. And there is always some room for pragmatically tempering one’s expectations. As Roxane Gay puts it, “Something about this moment feels different, but I am not sure anyone knows how to move forward in ways that will effectively eradicate racism once and for all. I am not sure that the people who most need to do that difficult work have any incentive to change.” But let’s return the focus to you—if you believe you want to do this hard work but aren’t sure how, consider making this list of principles and practices the core of your anti-racism toolkit.

P.S. So much gratitude for all of you who have helped me grow and grown with me this past decade. This essay is a capsule of my love for you–you all know who you are. Thanks, of course, to Lizzy and Eleanor for their work as educators and for permission to share and build on their list. Please cite them and the organizations they acknowledge when you use this list. Please reference this blogpost for any ideas from it (beyond the list/other references) that you may incorporate into your work.

P.P.S. I’m still offering academics the opportunity for one-on-one (or several-on-one!) conversations to brainstorm strategies for effecting change towards equity and justice in your workplace; if you’re interested, send me an email! I’ve done/plan to do about fifteen so far, I’ve found them delightful 🙂   These conversations are no longer on offer except follow-ups for those of you who have chatted with me previously.

Another important P.S. If you found this or any of my social justice work helpful, please consider donating to the following organizations–the ones mentioned above by Lizzy and Eleanor, as well as two Berkeley institutions that are near and dear to me, that help to keep me healthy, happy, and able and willing to do this work. 

Pacific Center for Human Growth

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Urban Bush Women

The Network/La Red

Asian American Resource Workshop

Craig and Cooper Davis

A seven-step authorship plan for scientific papers

N.B. This is a do-as-I-say, not a do-as-I-have-done plan. This is the plan I intend to implement explicitly from here on out. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this! 

  1. At the start of the project, have a list of things that feel like substantive contributions for your project (idea generation, data collection, statistical analysis, context and interpretation, writing, funding, etc). Allow this list to evolve as the project evolves.
  2. Any time you invite anyone to work on any aspect of the project, explain this method of authorship assignation to them.
  3. At the point when you are ready to start WRITING THE PAPER, make a list of everyone who has contributed to the project by seeing which substantive contribution boxes they check.
  4. Anyone who checks two boxes is an author. Offer them the chance to contribute to the writing because they might enjoy it, might learn, and may make your paper better.
  5. To anyone who checks one box, OFFER THEM A CHANCE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE WRITING. If they take it and do any non-zero amount of work, they’ll have checked two boxes, so make them an author. If they don’t take it or agree but contribute zero work, they’ll understand that they had this opportunity and chose not to take it. You can tailor what it means to “contribute to writing” as appropriate for your constraints but be as clear and as generous as you can.
  6. Get really good at wrangling contradictory comments :p.
  7. Ultimately you are first author, you get to decide what goes in the paper. Embrace that responsibility, deferring to the expert authors for sections where you lack expertise.

On the flip side, sometimes we find ourselves being offered authorship as collaborators and not being entirely sure of whether to accept or not, of whether we’ve done enough work to warrant authorship. A rule-of-thumb that I learnt from Ben de Bivort that works for me also is to ask myself the question: have I done one full day’s worth of work on this project on my own and beyond that which my role asks of me? (e.g. in Ben’s case, he was on my dissertation committee, and chose not to count the time he spent advising me in one-on-one or committee meetings, deduced that he had not spent a full day working on the project outside of those meetings, and therefore declined my offer of authorship).

Picture of a Cape Glossy Starling because posts without pictures look so sad 😦

Quick Recipe for an Excellent Tomato Sauce

  1. Prepare tomatoes for roasting by making two incisions about halfway through (like an X), drizzle over some olive oil, sprinkle salt, black pepper, and dried basil.
  2. Roast tomatoes in the oven at 400F for about 30 minutes, until the bottoms are slightly blackened and the tomatoes are squishy.
  3. Cool for a bit and then liquefy.
  4. Simmer on the stove, add in crushed Szechuan pepper corns, chopped fresh basil, and a dash of toasted sesame oil. Add salt, if necessary.
  5. That’s it! I’ve made this twice now, ate it once just with rice and once with roasted little potatoes and turkey meatballs. Worked great in both contexts 🙂 Looking forward to trying it with pasta, as a soup base, and more!

    tomatoes | liz west | Flickr
    tomatoes, by liz west


The last three nights, Michiko Theurer, Jonathan Leal, and I organized a series of evening conversations and gatherings with the theme of Seedlings (featuring guests Nicole Mitchell and Lisa Harris on their new project EarthSeed, and Jonathan and Charlie Vela on their upcoming project Futuro Conjunto. I’ll update/add these links as the projects release!) The third night was an evening of community gathering, for each of us to share bits of things we’ve been thinking about and working on. Michi and I both, independently, host similar events in person in our living rooms, during non-pandemic times, and now we had a chance to bring them together. All three evenings were beautiful and, to me, life giving. 

I wanted to share a couple of bits of writing I did for the evenings. 

Text Statement about our hopes for this space, in solidarity with uprisings against police brutality inflicted upon Black people in the US, to share at the start of our evenings.

Injustice has long been woven into the fabric of our society, in this country, this world. There are countless dimensions to this injustice, so many of which are painfully apparent right now. Now, when Black, Indigenous, and Brown people are suffering disproportionately worse health outcomes in the middle of a pandemic, continuing to experience state-sanctioned violence at the hands of police and militaries, and facing an increasingly precarious future under growing xenophobia and a changing climate, it is crucial that all of us come together to care for one another, protest alongside one another, and fight for justice in whatever ways we can. Equally, it is important that we come together to find joy, connection, and solidarity in the present, so that we can imagine radically better futures. So that we can begin to build these better futures through acts of vulnerability, bravery, and care. We hope this evening is a space in which we can imagine better, and share our imaginings, and so nurse the flame of change. We hope this evening will nourish us and energize us so that we can build and keep building a more just world.   

And here’s what I wrote to share at the third evening.

When all of your searching leads you to the same unexpected thoughts, as a jarring unfamiliar discomfort turns into a familiar revelation, you know that you are heading somewhere true. I wonder if this is what it feels like for a seedling to wake up each morning, knowing that its direction is set: sun-ward.

The thought that I’ve been encountering, over and over again in these last few months, is that everything lives in the tension between things. For me, these have been months in which global upheaval has coincided with reaching a stable and clear sense of myself and my place in the world. That, right there, is a tension. In my work as an evolutionary biologist, I’m coming to fully inhabit the idea that nature lives in the tension between stasis and change. Honestly, everything—and everybody—lives in the tension between stasis and change. We live, individually and societally, in the tension between trauma and freedom. The work of emancipation lives in the tension between simple and impossible. Seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.

And what’s wonderful about the tension between things is that it’s where the imagination sprouts. With my eyes, mind, and heart opened to this tension, there is a springiness to existence (a “bouncy feeling” as my yoga teacher says). A buoyancy in which anything feels possible. And so it is no longer surprising to me that in the last few months, as I have found this sense of tension to be everywhere, I have also found god. What I’m realizing now, as I type this, is that, for me, god is an unfettered imagination born from tension. An infinity of seeds suspended in a giant spider web, floating somewhere above my head. I angle my eyes slightly upwards and with a soft focus, to talk with my god, this curtain of seeds and tough silk.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with the silhouettes, in the New York Times, of the one hundred thousand people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. It was hard not to see each of them as seeds. Even a life lived long and lived well can hold promise. Death is close, always, and a seed knows that. Hence its hard coat. Hence its fatty sustenance. I think of all the older people I know from the context of recovery programs, how they are germinating into their truest selves at sixty-five, seventy, eighty-two. They’ve endured the longest winter, and now they live in a pandemic world that says to them, “Enough. No longer. You are not wanted here.” I wish that by the time I am old, I have found a way to make peace with death. I try to broker that peace now, just in case, because I am lucky to have found both my soil and my sunshine.


It is the season, here, of fruit trees. My partner and my house mate are both low key obsessed with fruit trees. They pin locations of fruit trees in maps, and delightedly report new discoveries to one another and to me, of a laden loquat tree just down the road whose fruit are sadly out of reach, behind a fence, perhaps, or just too high. Or a fig whose fruit will ripen months from now. The other day they were discussing the present state of a neighborly persimmon tree—I tuned out, in part because I know for a fact its fruit won’t be ready to eat until August! But then it struck me that this conversation isn’t about what we can take from the fruit trees. It’s about seeing fruit trees as members of our community. Seeing their wholeness, slowing down, living in tree time.




What’s Next?

I’m just emerging from what turns out to have been a years-long existential crisis about the work that I do and why I do it. Why did I choose to become a scientist? Why, as a young person, did I seek refuge in the calm, often cold, realm of mathematics and science? What led me to embrace watching animals as a form of healing? After months of feeling and writing through it all, I know the answers to these questions, but those answers are not what this essay is about. This essay is asking, what next?

What’s next is a job as a tenure track assistant professor in animal behavior and behavioral ecology. I have been hired to teach animal behavior (and herpetology!), and to do research on animal behavior, mentor students and researchers studying animal behavior, publish journal articles in the field and otherwise contribute to the scientific and academic community. These goals will guide the day-to-day of my work for the next six years, but I’m coming to realize that these goals are not a purpose. Goals are not an identity. Goals are not the whole of what’s next.

In determining what’s next, I’ve had to ask the bigger questions of who I am when I do this work, and why I do it. Jerry Colonna, an advocate for bringing your whole self to the workplace, writes about work as “an opportunity for a daily realignment of the inner and the outer, a daily do-over of life expressed with integrity.” And it is in contemplating his words that I struggle to make sense of myself as a scientist. Yes, I want to understand the natural world but what does understanding mean, exactly? I know now that understanding nature involves thinking deeply about how and why we think about nature in the ways that we do. Which means thinking about the human condition, about politics and poetry and psychology. It means taking the time to really watch animals and also taking the time to write beautifully about them. It means recognizing that collecting and analyzing and communicating data on animal behavior can be radical, in a way that floors me.

We argue that a question is meaningful if what we do or feel is changed by the answer.

Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist.

Animal behavior is radical because it lives so close to the center of us. Understanding how other animals live their lives shows us the littlest and the biggest forces that shape what we do and who we can be. We see ourselves reflected in how animals behave and in how we think about animals behaving. Animal behavior is about action, connection, and context—all of the most complex things. Equally, animal behavior grounds us in a reality outside of ourselves—action, connection, and context other than our own is the clay we mold to make meaning. And so animal behavior is the perfect playground in which to explore how scientists can bring their full selves to their work, with all of the weighty consequences and all the room for delight that that entails. And this, thankfully, feels like purpose to me.

Cicada Emergence

Notes on “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding” by William R. Miller.

I love this book. I came upon it thanks to a recommendation from a dear friend, someone who is so similar to me in growth trajectory that we joke (but not really) about how they just give me all the advice they give themselves and it is always exactly the thing I need to hear. So when they suggested this book to me, part of me knew I needed to read it. But another part of me was wounded at the suggestion that I wasn’t a good listener already! Thankfully, the book is written for exactly those of us that think this.

The week that I decided to read this book was the week I finally—finally—took an honest-to-goodness break from work, possibly for the first time ever. I don’t mean just that I didn’t work. I mean that I stopped working and also, miraculously, stopped thinking about the work I wasn’t doing. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but it was necessary. It was a moment of throwing my hands up, because every aspect of plodding along and working, working, working felt unmanageable. Every bit of doing work had been bleeding joy for months, years, and what remained was exhaustion. Stopping felt like the only thing I could do. (Thank a strong union for hard-won paid time off. Stand in solidarity with those of us who don’t yet have that.)

Because work has long been my coping mechanism for dealing with stress, dysfunction, and more, not working has felt like an acknowledgement of all the ways in which I’m healthier now—I no longer need to work to feel okay. But the question remained—what do you do with a coping mechanism that grew in dysfunction but that has been rewarded by the world you live in, those rewards in turn proving necessary (but definitely not sufficient; the rest is privilege) for building the safety and security in which I could heal? When I stopped working, I did not know what the answer would be. How am I going to work when I run out of time off?

Into this void of possibility came “Listening Well.” I found myself well-poised to make the changes the author was suggesting. (Not perfectly! That’s the work of a lifetime. But with consciousness and intention). Moreover, I agreed with the author that learning to listen well is more than just a set of skills worth developing. It changes how I exist in the world. And crucially, it gives the overworked part of my mind a foundation from which to engage with the world again, but healthily this time. It gives my logic part something to do, a calm and stable fixed point to return to as it works to unlearn longstanding patterns of obsession, rumination, and single-mindedness.

Because at the heart of listening well, according to Miller, is both noticing and connecting. It is meditative and communal. It’s about taking risks in engaging with another, where being wrong is beside the point. It is all about vulnerability without self-centeredness. These are all the directions in which I want to grow, as a person.

And so I have no doubt that these practices are going to shift how I am in my relationships (slowly! imperfectly!). I’m loving all the chances I get to practice them, in person within my social-distancing bubble, on the phone, by text. I’ve realized, of course, that I don’t always want to listen well—sometimes, I want to talk about me, lean into weird banter, distract from the conversation because I noticed or remembered something unrelated, or not engage at all. Nevertheless, this book has crystallized something very powerful for me.

And what I’m most excited about is what this practice of listening well could do for my work as a behavioral ecologist and soon-to-be-professor. Many aspects of being an academic— writing, editing, teaching, and mentorship, most obviously—are in no small part about listening well and creating from a place of responsive empathy. But so is the work of science itself—I want to observe the world, read papers, and understand ideas from this same place of generosity and curiosity that “Listening Well” centers. Science is the work of noticing, distilling, and extending ideas a little further, which is exactly the work of listening well. I want the science I do to make the room for both nature and my community of scientists to prolong the conversation.

With this approach as my bedrock, I’m starting to feel excited about getting back to work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Listening Well

Doing the Work

When applying to tenure-track faculty positions, my first statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) simply detailed stuff I had already done in this domain. Actions speak louder than words, I thought. But when I showed it to my friends, one said, approximately, “I see what you’ve done, but I don’t know why you’ve done it!” And so I wrote the paragraph below, and came to refer to it as my “manifesto paragraph.” I’m quite happy with how true it still feels to me.

Several principles underlie my work in the domain of fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia. First, I focus my efforts on equity and inclusion because I believe that it is neither ethical nor effective to recruit people from underrepresented groups into a community that has not historically been designed for them without also ensuring that they are supported and advocated for. My approach is necessarily symbiotic with efforts to increase diversity, and thus ensures that I do not suffer from the illusion that I can do this work alone. Second, I believe that, though discrimination itself is systemic, it takes principled and concerted action from individuals making up the system to change it. I therefore work with community members to build the tools and structures that support taking such action, in addition to taking action myself. Third, I view any community through the lens of power—who has it and who does not, and how the lives of the less powerful are impacted by this distribution—and use my own standing in a community to facilitate the empowerment of its marginalized members.

Since writing and submitting the job applications that included this paragraph, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how these statements engage with the daily work of making academia more equitable. And what I’ve come to realize is that in order to write and evaluate these statements we have to shift from the mindset of leadership and into the mindset of community. If we think only of leadership, we lack perspective on our capacity to influence the world and on our responsibility to do so. I want us to strive to be knowing cogs in this machine of societal change.

This idea of being a knowing cog crystallized for me in several ways. The first was the experience of seeing a fellow postdoc, a man, leverage his privilege, power, and confidence in support of me as I advocated for gender equity. His actions amounted to two extremely simple but well-timed sentences which led a group of us to make the decision that needed to be made and which I, in the circumstances, could not have made alone. It was the most tangible example I’ve seen of the work of allyship. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of solidarity with my colleage, as we pushed our community a little closer towards justice. And yet his actions were so small and context-dependent, their outcome nothing more than the absence of an awfulness. This combination is hard to explain. I have no idea how he might write about this moment—its motivations and its repercussions—in a DEI statement, or if its importance would be recognized by those evaluating these statements. I’m doubtful that the description of such actions, this work of a knowing cog, would lead his evaluators to check any boxes on their rubrics.

The second crystallization happened in a seminar on equity and inclusion. In the question-and-answer session, someone (a white man) made the predictable comment that surely one could not expect all of us to be experts in DEI work, so evaluating job applicants on such expertise was unreasonable. Someone else (a woman of color) responded carefully that if we didn’t expect everyone to do this work, it would continue to fall, over and over again, to those of us with the least power, and our efforts would not be valued, and so nothing would change. It was in this tension that the idea of being a knowing cog further solidified in me—while not all of us could be experts, all of us needed to do the straightforward and yet so difficult work of pushing against unacceptable status quos. We don’t always need creative solutions or flashy interventions. We do always need a continuous commitment to trying, and trying better, failing, and failing better, in all the little and big ways that add up to something bigger.

The third crystallization has been longer, slower, and steadier in its growth. It began when I started organizing for graduate student unionization at Harvard. I joined this effort just before the first vote on unionization, urging colleagues in my department to go vote and to vote in favor. I joined in, with no training and a slim grasp of how unions worked, after a couple of conversations in which people told me “oh, you’ve made a better case for unionizing than the people who are actually part of the union!” In other words, I joined this collective action because I was being told that I was special, that I could demonstrate superior skill. Sure, I was committed to solidarity and change, and my motives were wholesome, but I was pushed to do something potentially uncomfortable by the comfort of feeling special. Since then, two years of organizing with the University of California Postdoc and Academic Researchers Union (UAW5810) has shown me that being special is overrated. Stepping out, over and over again, to send an email, have a conversation, yell a chant, hold up a banner, knock on a door, hand out a flyer—actions that any other organizer can do with as much skill as me—has shown me that actually doing the work is so much more important than being uniquely skilled at doing it. What matters to how I effect change is my unique position in society, and not my specialness. What has made me good at this work is knowing why I do it, and using that knowledge—of my values, my politics, my goals and hopes—as the reason to do it over and over again.

Twelve-step programs speak of “being right-sized,” of our need for perspective on what we can and can’t change in this world. Nothing is more humbling, and nothing is more empowering. The work of organizing, of pushing for change, demands that we find, each in our own way but with each other’s support, how to be right-sized. Come, let’s all do this together.

Manifesto for Equity in the Academy.

  1. Responsibility It is neither ethical nor effective to recruit people into a community that has historically been designed to exclude them (us) unless we ensure support for them (us). Such advocacy is distinct from, but symbiotic with, efforts to increase diversity; do not suffer the illusion that one can do this work alone. 
  2. Change Discrimination is systemic but it takes concerted action by individuals to change it. Work with community members to build the tools and structures that support such action.
  3. Power Always be ready to view a community through the lens of power. Who has it? Who does not? How are the lives of the less powerful impacted by this distribution? Use your standing in a community to facilitate the empowerment of its marginalized members.
  4. Emotion This work is as much about feelings as about logic. Relate to one another with intention. Listen, to each other and to the voices in our heads.
  5. Perspective Remind yourself constantly that this work is not glamorous; we are not special for doing it. Change your internal narratives through a combination of diligence and compassion.
  6. Commitment Do the work for today, for tomorrow, and for the future. Play the long game, but never let it excuse delaying what needs to be done today.


(Many thanks to Ned Burnell—for pushing me to write the manifesto paragraph in my DEI statement and his enthusiasm for manifestoes more generally, for editing this piece, for helping me be more explicit and thoughtful about my politics and responsibilities, for deep insights into organizing, and for making all of this fun! Thanks to Didem Sarikaya, Yong Zheng, Max Lambert, Sam Hopkins, Malcolm Rosenthal, Becca Tarvin, and Cathy Rushworth for conversations that shaped these ideas. Thanks to every single organizer in UAW5810 for showing me what solidarity can mean).