Category Archives: progress

Istanbul and Publication on Matador

New article is up (and featured) on Matador: “A part of travel heterosexuals take for granted.”

I’m pretty excited about this one for a multitude of reasons. Some pictures from the adventures in Istanbul below.

–O. Ayes


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language acquisition and resisting hegemony


Some nights are quiet and others are filled with randomness: dinner with friends from different parts of the world–conversations about similarities and differences. I found out from a Tanzanian friend that they watch a lot of Filipino movies here. Growing up, he appreciated being able to see “slums” there: “There are no slums in America…how is it that other places around the world have them?” Perhaps mutual suffering brings empathy of sorts. And with empathy, we can begin to understand how to help each other.

We also talked about language acquisition, the futile resistance to succumb to the hegemony of the west. Here, Tanzanians are not taught phonics (how words sound and are pronounced) until A-Level, which is at 18 years old. While English is enforced in secondary (11 years old), students are not really “taught.” It’s usually rote memorization.

“What is an ‘adjective’?” shared one British teacher who recently began teaching at a local school. The kids would reply back: “AD-JEC-TIVE!” but not understand what it is. Other techniques employed by local teachers include reading a lesson in English (but not really understand it themselves) and leaving the classroom. After, the students would try to figure out the lesson by themselves.

“I hate English. I hate that I need it,” my Tanzanian friend said. He then told a story when he was in early secondary (12 or so). His friend needed to use the restroom but the teacher would not acknowledge his request because he said it in Kiswahili. So he asked my friend how to say it in English, but by the time the boy made it to the teacher’s desk again, he had forgotten the phrase. Eventually, the boy urinated on himself, in front of everyone.

I shared a story about when I was 3, and a cousin around my same age was visiting from the States. I told my family, “I don’t care if she turns blue, I’m not speaking to her in English,” as my family had suggested. I didn’t know English, besides from what I heard in songs on the radio. Why was she so important anyway, that everyone made such a big deal about her coming to visit us from America?

By the time I entered elementary school, I noticed more discrepancies. I asked my father once, “Why do I have to learn English? Do kids learn Tagalog in America?”

A discussion ensues, about resistance to western influence: “Tanzania can’t survive without participating in the global market. There’s a reason why Kenyans get hired over Tanzanians here: they can speak English.” (Kenyans begin to learn English earlier in school, as a Kenyan friend told me, and phonics is the emphasis in the beginning. A friend from Finland said the same thing.)

“But the Chinese don’t need to speak English, and they still compete.”

“The economic structure is completely different between Tanzania and China. They don’t manufacture here, things that the rest of the world needs to have. And besides, China is trying to participate even more–thousands of Americans get shipped there to teach English.”

But I understand my friend’s point: the struggle in keeping our identities when the world is bent on diluting it, or worse, erasing it all together. Filipinos, after all, know this idea very well since millions work service jobs abroad to send money home because there are very few options otherwise. “We’re the Mexicans of the world,” I used to joke with my friends, but the damage this has done to generations of Filipinos–and other nationalities who export their people–is immeasurable.

Perhaps the inequities are leveling out–that everyone now gets to compete in a global market. Some Europeans friends had mentioned the unemployment rate in the 20 percent range in their country. It could have been their field (most of them are architects), but that’s a staggering figure. The world is not sustainable yet, but maybe we’re shifting priorities.

We have riveting conversations about other things: for instance, how, if everyone in the world had a western-style toilet, we wouldn’t have enough freshwater to survive or how we refer to urination in our home countries (pee vs wee, apparently is the difference between American and Australian English). We talk about politics, adventures during our travels, our idealisms; but mostly, all of us are happy just to be where we are, sharing our lives.


–O. Ayes

Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures

Our first assembly was so cute: parents, babies, and students from across the globe. As far as exposure, really, how amazing that these kids have a chance to inform their identities based on global perspectives.

Today went relatively smoothly–I feel prepared and aware of their needs, and how to get mutually enjoy the process of learning and meeting their goals. During our introductions, some responses from students about our purpose this academic year and how to create an environment conducive to learning: “we need to understand that we can learn from each other and that our differences should be celebrated.” At that age (middle school), I wasn’t that articulate, even though I was aware of cultural differences (moving halfway across the globe). But my experiences from 5th grade on did not promote these ideas of acceptance and compassion. Go IB (International Baccalaureate) schools!

Last week at cross-cultural training: interesting ideas were raised about individualist (i.e., U.S.) and collectivist cultures (i.e., Tanzania, Philippines) and the values that we prioritize. Essentially, work comes before relationships in individualist cultures, while relationships are priority in collectivist cultures. This is probably why I feel like I’m home. There is more to value than making money, but I do value efficiency in a very Western way. Here, it’s very easy to get frustrated, but you’re only wasting energy. Hakuna matata!

One idea that was raised made me question the idea of social change: “In collectivist cultures, rules can be broken if it benefits the larger group.” I can’t remember the example that was given, but it made me think in terms of my identity as a queer woman. I thought about how long it’ll take to overcome the hegemonic beliefs of natives that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of coupling and that women are subservient. From the standpoint of the quote above, currently LGBTIs are not valued due to eons of influence from trade, colonialism, missionaries, etc. And of course, women being given equal rights will not benefit the larger group (because power shifts will occur). This along with suppressed levels of education makes social change seem like an impossible feat.

In other collectivist cultures, like in pre-colonial Philippines, LGBTIs were valued as part of the community. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, bakla, is derived from words that mean the “foundation” and “pinnacle,” which also brings up the idea of masculine and feminine energy in one body. They were revered like the two spirits in Native American cultures.

I’m always curious as to how people acquire belief, but also how to reach individuals at a basic human level that breaks down our separations. Things are continually changing; I don’t doubt that we’re becoming more accepting globally. My students give me a lot of hope!


–O. Ayes

on education: a day in the life of a humanities major


On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I’m in the adjunct office after class. I brought my lunch–a romaine salad with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and a lentil patty that my roommate made–and am contentedly eating it. I have my work laptop open and am answering questions via instant messenger from the marketing associate and new editor. This is a slow week at the scientific journal, as my current project has just been delayed a few weeks due to lack of content from my author. The previous project that I managed the past few months brought in unprecedented amounts for the company. I’m proud but exhausted. I pulled 80-hour work weeks to juggle my workload.

To my right, I have papers from my Tuesday/Thursday class, which I need to grade. I have a copy of my syllabus and am thinking about how to approach my next few class sessions on media studies and then shifting to our humanities unit. I’ve had to restructure a lot this semester, as expected when building a course from scratch. I have the pressure of a class observation soon.

When I arrived this morning, another adjunct was holding a conference with a student at my station. I unloaded the things I carried from home: a yoga mat, a laptop bag, a tote bag filled with essentials–food, travel mug, yoga clothes, books, heels, and overnight pouch with toiletries. I can survive a couple of days if I happen to get stranded somewhere.

I change from my red flats to my black heels and head to the kitchenette to boil water for my green tea. I make my way to class–one of three classrooms. Earlier this semester, I had trouble getting into the routine and actually walked into the wrong one.

The anthropology professor, with whom I’ve had discussions as we switched classrooms, warned me that the projector appears to be broken because he was unable to turn it off. He had forgotten that it was a touch screen command, and we both laugh about technology. He’s an older gentleman, and some of these gadgets are not user-friendly. He proceeds to ask another question about what kinds of writing the English department is requiring out of its students, as an anthropological “critique” he recently assigned is not going so well in his classes.

I respond, a bit hesitantly: “Why yes, I suppose so; the objectives of my course now is to prepare them to be able to analyze texts across multiple disciplines, but how this is implemented in each course obviously varies.”

Our current assignment–a rhetorical analysis–focuses on analyzing strategies in multiple kinds of texts (i.e., journal article, news article, video presentation, documentary, song) but not necessarily evaluating the efficacy of the content of anthropological research. We touch on perhaps how the data was presented, what the purpose of this text was, how to identify what the author was trying to argue, but we cannot know the nuances of whether this is significant or flawed within the field of anthropology or what specific elements students need to cover in order to satisfy the assignment. We are not anthropologists.

Even in an interdisciplinary Writing Across the Curriculum course, the disconnect exists between composition/rhetoric pedagogy and the specific needs of multiple disciplines. We have to cover all bases–teach to improve writing and critical thinking skills–which is generalized and cannot possibly cover nuance. Not all students are going to be prepared to accomplish discipline-specific tasks, but we’re trying to improve their abilities to grapple with these texts and synthesize information.

This exchange was thought-provoking and affirming that really, composition teachers have challenging jobs. Writing is so closely connected to the idea of learning that when students show an inability to process information in other disciplines, the blame falls on the English department. Learning is a cumulative effort; it involves, collectively, our abilities as educators to build on students’ knowledge, along with the students’ motivations to apply skills and knowledge. Additionally, writing isn’t just about grasping mechanics but also improving skills that are not easily assessed by standardized measures. How well students write, in short, is not the the sole product or fault of the English department.

During class, we hold a peer review workshop on their rhetorical analysis. I’m relieved that the majority of them were prepared with a 5-page draft. Some had trouble in shifting from a typical expository essay, in which they configure some thesis and support it with relevant sources, to an analysis of purpose and strategy. I gave them the extra challenge of determining their own “text” to analyze (i.e., anything from a photo, advertisement, video, song, essay, short story, poem, film, tv show episode, novel, etc.). In this instance, freedom of choice gave my students anxiety. Most come from educational backgrounds in which they are told exactly what to do. They are not usually encouraged to think and expand their approaches with independent critical thinking. A couple of weeks into this assignment, I’m glad that most have caught on.

After class, I eat my lunch back at my station while simultaneously answering emails from both jobs, posting Facebook commentaries about the education bubble, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, and a recent panel/presentation on Asian-American experiences post-9/11 in NYC. I’m processing experiences and getting ideas for class lessons. I’m thinking about the push for utilitarian approaches to education; I’m thinking about my humanist ideals within this space.

A few minutes into my lunch, the department administrator and a full-time faculty member hover at the door. I turn around–mid-chew with some lettuce hanging from the side of my mouth. They do not say anything, after I smile and greet them. They confer for half a minute.

“Hey, would you mind if I brought a student in here to take a test?” Of course not. It’s a shared space, which I happen to like, despite the lower rung on the “hierarchy of importance” that it indicates in the department. I am assigned a computer and a desk (“C”) out of four stations. I’m grateful that I have a station at all.

In the past, I’ve been so lucky to do the majority of my work at student computer labs because it was more convenient than a dusty, cold office where they were drilling into the wall for a period of two months. In contrast, I’ve also had my own office at an honors college, complete with a shared bathroom and view of a chapel and a secret garden. At this college in NYC, I have the choice of three shared spaces, one of which has a spectacular view of the city (pictured above). (I don’t go in there often because I sit and stare instead of do work.)

I return to the kitchenette to get more hot water for tea and to wash my salad container (a takeout container that most people dispose). I’m thinking about waste and sustainability and simplicity. I’m thinking about how much freedom I have that I’m not motivated by money or prestige or security. As I leave the kitchenette, I see the decorated doors and offices of full-timers. I’m thinking about the future, about my next step.

I recently had discussions with friends and other adjuncts about being a full-time lecturer. I commented that I don’t believe it’s the best use of my energies, that I’d be able to deal with the politics. I like being on the periphery. I question my ability to conform. I love teaching and believe in the transformative power of education, but all institutions have agendas I can’t wholeheartedly promote. Sure, it’d be comfortable, but if I were ever concerned with that, I’d be a different person now, embodying a much different space.

activism and art

I often return to this poem (circa 2007). I see it every day. I feel it–if not the rage, then the guilt of not continuously being enraged.

Today, at The Vagina Monologues performance at Cooper Union Hall in NYC, I remember why I wrote it: as a reminder not to get too comfortable with my privileges as a woman in relative safety in the developed world. It was a reminder that work to end violence against women and girls–despite my every day efforts here–needs dire focus and attention in critical parts of the developing world. It was a reminder of purpose.

When I first met Eve Ensler in 2006 in New Orleans for a V-Day conference after Hurricane Katrina, something caustic shifted in my bones. Sure, I’d read The Vagina Monologues. Sure, I’d heard stories about victims of sexual violence in far away countries and my own circles and communities. Sure, I was aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S. and worldwide (1 in 3). But it wasn’t until I’d been in that room with such a powerful group of women that I felt I could do something about it.

Still, I didn’t know how I could help, besides organizing fundraiser events or writing poems or speaking for equality whenever a situation presents itself. I didn’t immediately dive into humanitarian efforts after that. I had an MFA program to finish. And life-things to figure out and pursue. I would stay in the periphery of action for a while. And I would be OK with that for some time.

Eve’s speech after the performance today was powerful and convincing, as she breathes to inspire action among us all. She began talking about her work in the eastern Congo, in which she established The City of Joy where abused and exploited women are transcending their previous situations and empowering other women. The eastern Congo–Eve emphasizes–represents the confluence of all societal forces that have led us to this present reality–colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, sexism, etc. The battle is fought for us here by countless women–gang raped, repeatedly, tied to trees for weeks–as a form of fear tactic/control, in order for militias in nearby countries to extract minerals and resources to feed our iPhones and plasma TVs. How can we not feel an overwhelming sense of moral duty to eradicate these atrocities?

But there is continued progress. Eve talked about the significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the like–the revolutionary energy that is circulating the globe. This energy was also mentioned by the producer/director of the forthcoming PBS series Half The Sky (Maro Chermayeff and Jamie Gordon) during a showing at Barnard a couple of weeks ago. (The multimedia campaign is based off of the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.) We seem to be at the precipice of significant change globally. We are more aware now than we have ever been–of both the issues and our very own agency.

After the performance, I was telling a friend–one who is actively doing something by promoting literacy and “education in action” in the eastern Congo via The Mama Project–that I perpetually question whether I’m doing enough (per that poem) because the heartbreaking stories of these women feel so far and foreign, despite my awareness of them.

Most of my efforts have been arts-oriented–and not the activist kind. In fact, over the years, I’ve been griping about the dilution of agency of my poems–as I became entrenched in academic spheres. Today was a significant reminder of where the intersection of my energies felt the most active and powerful, where I need to return.

The very act of writing that kind of poem, the times I’d read it in public, the act of writing about this now–these actions are cumulative toward awareness and agency. The goal is to continue to transcend, to do more.

updates from the city of dreams in action

As the Year of the Dragon progresses, lots exciting changes have arose for me in this city of dreams. This semester, I will be teaching again–this time at the City University of New York. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to do so and even more grateful for the freedom in being able to teach a course without a textbook! It’s a Writing Across the Curriculum course that emphasizes rhetorical analysis (or the ability for students to understand a piece of writing for its craft—how it was put together). Initially, I thought that I would use theme of social inequality, as I did a year ago in St. Louis, but there were a few limiting factors: 1.) that course had three textbooks, which I didn’t bring with me, 2.) I only have two weeks to design the course this semester, 3.) the curriculum was somewhat repetitive and didn’t fully execute the potential of a solution- or action-based approach.

This semester, I’ve decided to explore the cultural relevancy of happiness within the fields of social sciences, media studies, literature, and philosophy. I’m incredibly excited to teach, learn, and interact with students again. As in the past, I’ll be using this space to write and process my thoughts and experiences regarding pedagogy and ideas that are relevant to our lives as humans.

As if this news isn’t exciting enough, I also had an opportunity to connect with a young, world-renowned, New York Times-bestseller novelist, who encouraged me to “write books that people will read,” (i.e., non-literary). I’m not sure the direction of my craft, yet—I haven’t seriously considered the commercial fiction route—but I’m grateful to have been able to witness this genius at work so far. Creativity at its peak, transcends genre–in all art forms.

Furthermore, I’m excited to be involved with global tolerance, which promotes communication with a conscience. I am amazed, every single day, to discover the amount of ground-level and high-impact work that is being done to promote global consciousness and humanitarian efforts. Please consider joining gtconnect to share with individuals doing incredible, powerful, work. We are all agents of change, even if we are currently not in a place of freedom to be able to do exactly what we want. As long as the intent is there and followed by action, we can progress toward our ideal sense of self and community, which impacts the world, little by little, and eventually changes our current “reality”—that is, a world in which not every creature is happy or free. When our internal values are in synch with our external actions, change continues to happen. Our dreams and ideals are nothing, if we don’t follow through with action.

In the four months I’ve lived in this city, I’ve met incredible people who are promoting GLBT rights (Q-Wave) and establishing literacy programs in the Congo (The Mama Project). There are also teachers and artists and writers and dreamers who are part of the solution. And prior to moving to this city, I’ve come to know countless spirits who are doing the same. I’m continually amazed and inspired. It seems clear that our current state of consciousness involves full awareness of the inequities in the world, and our young minds and souls are getting to work to eliminate them globally.


–O. Ayes

Value Added Versus Value Perceived


If, in the 21st century, K-12 schooling is to promote literacy and an appreciation for learning, what is the purpose of post-secondary education? For some it’s basic: to compete in the global economy. For others, the purpose is an abstract idea about the value of a liberal arts degree, a continuation of this appreciation for learning. 

Over the last few years, I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms: developmental courses at community colleges, adult-education accelerated programs, traditional athletics-motivated universities, and an honors college. Past students wondered about the purpose of taking English composition courses in college. Common retorts from them included, “I already know how to write,” “Who cares about grammar?” “How will this academic research paper help me in the job market?” Students, it seems, are more utilitarian these days: how was this writing class to benefit them in the real world?

We would discuss writing as a way to learn, which in the abstract sense will always be the objective—no matter what degree they are pursuing, we as humans will always learn new things and writing is a tool we can use to process our experiences and improve our critical thinking skills. Writing, in this sense, has value. But for practical students with microeconomics or organic chemistry on the forefront of their minds, learning to write better is not necessarily priority.

At times, the only answer I could give them was “Because it’s required.” As an idealist who routinely questions purpose, I needed a better answer. What is the purpose of taking rhetoric and composition, if students already know how to communicate effectively and do not plan on going to graduate school wherein extensive research papers will consume their life?

As an instructor, I tried to see their needs and structure the class so that it was at least somewhat relevant to their daily lives or eventual goals. Certain classes warranted relevant writing projects: in a technical writing course, my students wrote proposals and feasibility reports. Because this course was directly correlated to their technical degrees, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare them for the workplace. Other courses, such as developmental ones, also seemed to have a clear objective: to further develop their literacy in preparation for the rest of their college courses.

The purpose of writing courses becomes a bit murky when the level of literacy does not diminish the student’s ability to learn or when it is not directly relevant to the student’s degree. The issue of “need” no longer applies, so it feels as if we are wasting each other’s time, simply to meet a requirement. Of course, for the most part, these classes end up being of some use—research writing skills, further developing their critical thinking skills, etc. For the freshman composition instructor, however, it’s a daily battle for students to put in effort.

In thinking about ideals regarding post-secondary education, how can we improve our approach to required curriculum so that it addresses the current needs of our students? What value are we adding to the lives of students?

–O. Ayes