The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents


I’m looking forward to reading into a new book by MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). Ethan Gilsdorf, writing for the Boston Globe, gives us a preview:

The crisis of conversation is at the heart of Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” With it, she hopes to spark a discussion about what we lose when we settle for fleeting texts, sound bites, and status updates, instead of pursuing meaningful, nuanced human connection.

. . . A sociologist and clinical psychologist, Turkle has studied the link between conversation and empathy, and how conversation supports self-reflection. In her new book, out Tuesday, she argues that our reliance on our devices endangers our ability to cultivate friendships, raise healthy kids, nurture intimate relationships, succeed on the job, and engage in civic discourse. “Fortunately, there was a flood of quantitative studies that supported what I was saying.”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, writer Jonathan Franzen opines that it “makes a compelling case that children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.”

Creating communities for positive social change: Face-to-face helps, a lot

The themes raised by Turkle resonate with me very strongly, including their application to social change initiatives.

I recently hosted a small workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. Some 15 North American law professors, lawyers, and judges gathered for two days of close dialogue on how we can mainstream a legal framework that supports psychological health and well-being.

The event was successful both as an experience and as a seed planter. We enjoyed our discussions immensely, and people felt energized by the event. A good number came away with new ideas and leads for their work. Others are planning to host similar, small-scale events. The workshop also helped us to do some spadework that eventually will give the therapeutic jurisprudence movement a stronger sense of organization and public identity.

I must admit I was a dictator on one point: I put the event in a room that was not set up for PowerPoint. Instead, I wanted us to be looking at one another as we talked, rather than gazing at a screen. While this no doubt cramped the presentation styles of some of my dear colleagues who graciously adapted to my neo-Luddhite approach, I think the format achieved its purpose of enhancing the quality of our discussions.

Face-to-face interaction, a/k/a getting to know people in person, makes a difference. I have witnessed and benefited from this dynamic over and again at workshops, seminars, and conferences that enable people to have real conversations. And now these observations are buttressed by research cited by Turkle.

A hybrid approach for the 21st century

That said, in no way do I wish to dismiss the value of other communications options, including digital technology. Use of electronic media can enhance and strengthen connections made at conferences and programs. Conversations over the phone and via Skype/Facetime/video conferencing platforms can be enriching and interactive. E-mail, messaging, and social media sites offer great ways to stay in touch and to engage in dialogue and collaborative activities. And I’ve seen terrific, substantive, meaningful conversations and exchanges take place on Facebook.

In looking at this big picture, it boils down to embracing face-to-face dialogue as the gold standard, but understanding that other forms of communication are extremely valuable too. Such combinations can be especially useful when people are separated by distance, a common occurrence in the world of work today.


Related posts and sources

  • The American Psychological Association’s Psychology Benefits Society online newsletter reposted my article, “Conferences as Community Builders,” building off of the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference in held earlier this year in Atlanta.
  • Last year I wrote an essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online), an outgrowth of a 2014 therapeutic jurisprudence program in Boston, making a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace.
  • Two years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why conferences?,” following the 2013 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Los Angeles.

A book list for intellectual activists and difference makers

In my forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), I include an annotated bibliography of some 40 books that provide insights and guidance on intellectual activism, which I define “as both a philosophy and a methodology for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation.”

Here are 10 representative listings from that bibliography. You may freely download a draft of the article, which contains the full bibliography, here.


Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, and Steve Max, Organizing for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists 4th ed. (2010). Manual for grassroots activists by leading trainers and educators associated with the Midwest Academy, which has trained thousands of activists since its creation in 1973.

Community and the World: Participating in Social Change (Torry D. Dickinson, ed., 2003). This valuable and welcomed collection of articles covers many topics related to community-based learning, adult education, and scholarly activism, featuring a multicultural and global orientation. A diverse array of educators, learners, and social change agents contributed to it.

John-Paul Flintoff, How to Change the World (2012). Provides a trenchant historical and practical overview on the different ways to make an impact on society.

Howard Gardner, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds (2004). The renowned psychologist examines how people change their minds on matters ranging from everyday choices to major social and political issues.

Robert Jensen, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013). A journalism professor, Jensen urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” in helping us to understand and confront the economic and social challenges of our era.

Kathleen A. Kendall-Tackett, How to Write for a General Audience: A Guide for Academics Who Want to Share Their Knowledge With the World and Have Fun Doing It (2007). Helpful, encouraging guidebook for those who want to translate their research for more general audiences via articles, books, and social media.

George Lakoff, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (2006). Linguistics professor Lakoff applies his expertise to political communication, suggesting ways in which progressives can more effectively persuade the public.

Michelle E. Martin, Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Perspective (2015). Interesting takes on social justice advocacy, framed by human services and social work perspectives.

The Public Intellectual (Helen Small, ed., 2002). Sampling of perspectives on the role of public intellectuals in society. The late Edward Said’s essay, “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals,” is particularly recommended.

Telling Stories to Change the World (Rickie Sollinger, Madeline Fox & Kayhan Irani, eds. 2008). Stimulating collection of essays about storytelling as a strategy for social justice advocacy on a global scale.

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession?

Guest blog post at

My guest blog post examining the challenges of mainstreaming therapeutic jurisprudence in the U.S.

This Friday and Saturday, I’ll be hosting a workshop for a group of lawyers and law professors who affiliate themselves with therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. TJ, as we call it, implicitly embraces legal outcomes that support psychological health and well-being. We’ll be gathering at Suffolk University Law School for two great days of informal presentations and thoughtful exchanges.

Much of our discussion will be devoted to how North American TJ scholars and practitioners can mainstream a philosophical lens that, despite some genuine advances, exists somewhat on the periphery of legal thought. In fact, last month I wrote a guest post for the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog, examining some of the challenges that face TJ adherents in the U.S. as we attempt to grow our numbers, visibility, and influence. Here are a couple of snippets:

American lawyers and judges learn very early in their legal training – commonly, during the first year of law school – of the law’s discomfort with psychology, whether in interpreting tricky issues of intent or wrestling with how to incorporate insanity or incapacity into legal decision making. Furthermore, emotions are regarded as messy, getting in the way of analysis. When it comes to dealing with legal disputes, it’s easier to get the parties’ stories and apply rules to facts, hopefully without too much mucking around in the human mind and complicated feelings.


I offer the hypothesis that many American lawyers, judges, legislators, and law students have little idea of how truly miserable the standard-brand civil or criminal litigation experience can be for most parties to a legal dispute. Being a party to litigation is, at best, a major distraction from more life-affirming activities, and often proves expensive, time consuming, intimidating, fearful, and stressful, with significant stakes in the result.

We’ll have lots of good stuff to talk about! I look forward to welcoming participants David Wexler (TJ co-founder), Indira Azizi, Susan Brooks, Caroline Cooper, Heather Ellis Cucolo, Michael Jones, Shelley Kierstead, Alison Lynch, Michael Perlin, Amanda Peters, Marjorie Silver, and Carol Zeiner.


Related posts

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (2015)

Academic conferences: When small is beautiful (2014) 

Good works and good people


l to r: Susan Thomas, Peggy Berry, Denise Doherty, DY, Greg Sorozan, and Gary Namie

l to r: Susan Thomas, Peggy Berry, Denise Doherty, DY, Greg Sorozan, and Gary Namie

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is that when you’re engaged in work and activities that feel right, you often find yourself connecting with exceptional people who bring a positive presence to the world.

As I wrote in my last post, on Wednesday I had the pleasure of addressing the annual awards banquet of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in Washington, D.C. It was a great opportunity to share with fellow dinner attendees the work we have been doing in the states to advance the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

I was very fortunate to have at my table a group of dear friends, many of whom have been active in the workplace anti-bullying movement. After the dinner, several of us gathered at the podium for the picture above. It was a treat to spend the evening with these people.

Sometimes you find the right groove and good things start to materialize. Yeah, I know this sounds like metaphysical stuff that might be greeted with skepticism. But I’ve seen it happen with others, too, time and again. To amplify this point, let me share with you a slightly edited excerpt from my forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (forthcoming in the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice):

Follow Your Bliss and Let One Thing Lead to Another

The late Joseph Campbell’s writings and lectures on mythology, faith traditions, and the world’s societies made him a singular authority on the human experience. He first appeared on the radar screens of many people via a PBS series of televised interviews with Bill Moyers — “The Power of Myth” — that premiered in 1988. Campbell’s most famous advice in one of those segments, now repeated on many occasions, was “follow your bliss.” He suggested that following our bliss can lead us to life paths in which opportunities and connections seem to materialize before us. In the PBS series, Campbell replied to a Moyers question about whether “hidden hands” guide and facilitate our work once we have found our path:

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you….

I realize that “follow your bliss” can morph easily into the most banal forms of encouragement. Joseph Campbell was not a superficial person, but his signature line is tailor made for every soon-to-be-forgotten commencement speech or career pep talk, of which there are many. Furthermore, not everyone has the opportunity to follow this advice. Especially for those who are struggling to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads, such beyond-survival aspirations may appear to be unrealistic and even unattainable. However, with a leap of faith, I will assume that many readers here are likely to be blessed with some degree of choice over the activities they pursue and are motivated to make a positive difference during their lives.

As Campbell suggests, following one’s bliss is not a static state of being; rather, it leads to connections and people. On this point I appeal to Drs. John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence of the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), a tiny, non-traditional university in Berkeley, California, devoted to social change and community engagement. They are fond of invoking the phrase, “one thing leads to another,” and they cite, as examples, WISR students whose learning projects, grounded in socially relevant topics of deep personal interest, have led them to connections and difference-making opportunities they may not have anticipated when they embarked on their work.

Practicing in an intellectual activist mode, I have experienced a connectivity that echoes both Campbell (“you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you”) and Bilorusky & Lawrence (“one thing leads to another”). It is a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent. Some may experience this coalescence earlier in life. For me, the pieces did not come together until my fifties. I am extraordinarily grateful that they eventually did.



One thing that wasn’t in sync at the ADA awards banquet was our technological know-how. I had hoped to post a video of my speech from Wednesday night, but unfortunately we had a glitch with the camera. Suffice it to say, however, that steady readers of this blog know most of what I had to say. I gave special attention to the progress that we’ve made in Massachusetts in moving the Healthy Workplace Bill through various committees in the legislature.


Thank you!

A big thank you to those who took out program ads to support me, including SEIU/NAGE Local 282 (Greg Sorozan, President), Workplace Bullying Institute (Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie), Denise Doherty & Brian McCrane, Suffolk University Law School, Gail Almeida, and Jessica Stensrud. I also appreciated the many individuals, unions, and ADA local chapters who bought ads honoring all of the night’s awardees.

Working Notes: Engaging in intellectual activism

I’m delighted to share a draft of a forthcoming law review article on intellectual activism and news of a wonderful new board affiliation with a favorite group.

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”

I’ve posted to my Social Science Research Network page a draft of a law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law,” which will appear in the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, published at the University of Southern California law school. You may access a freely downloadable pdf version here.

Here is the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I would like to explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession.

This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the hopeful benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students. It is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in three unique, multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work in an intellectual activist mode, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists.

The article also includes an annotated bibliography of books broadly related to intellectual activism. Those seeking guidance and inspiration on how to blend scholarship and social action will find some valuable stuff in this book list.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

I have gratefully accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation.

I have written frequently about HumanDHS and my participation its annual workshops, including a piece last week highlighting writings by some of its core members that dig deep into the meaning of dignity and humiliation in our society. 

Frankly, some requests to join non-profit boards feel like a burden. Others, however, naturally mesh with one’s ongoing work and activities. My joining the HumanDHS board fits squarely in the latter category.

Six points on the NY Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices


Last Sunday’s New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s white-collar work practices has been stirring up a lot of discussion, and if you’re at all interested in the experience of work in today’s digital age, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with it.

Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld tell a story of a highly pressurized, survival-of-the-fittest work environment, based on over 100 interviews with current and former Amazon employees:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

It is a culture driven by data, customer preference, and a single-minded devotion to company success. The article suggests that even serious personal circumstances are no excuse:

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

It’s a piece that digs deep into the culture of Amazon and the management philosophy of its founder and leader Jeff Bezos.

The Times article has triggered an avalanche of commentary on the Internet, especially among news and commentary sites that one might deem moderate to liberal in their orientation or that frequently cover the high tech industry. The New YorkerLos Angeles TimesSlateSalonThe Guardian, and Vox are among the countless sites that have weighed in — sometimes thoughtfully, other times more predictably.

It also prompted a response from Jeff Bezos (which I’ll discuss below) and a heavily read defense of Amazon by a current employee posted to LinkedIn.

While recognizing that this is a discussion-in-progress, I’d like to share six points that I’ve mustered about the Times Amazon story and its aftermath.

Observation No. 1: It’s too early to tell if this is a “tipping point” journalistic event

Is this the Big Story that gets us to look more critically about the experience of white-collar work in America? Judging from the mega-clouds of Internet commentary, one is tempted to say absolutely yes. But let’s return to this question in a year or two for an accurate answer.

In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that this is a trending water cooler topic in many large organizations. Surely the Times article and related pieces will offer fodder for many, many class discussions in business schools, especially management, leadership, human resources, and business ethics courses.

Observation No. 2: Jeff Bezos’s response speaks volumes

Not surprisingly, Bezos has strongly denied the characterizations of Amazon’s work environment and practices reported in the Times article. In a follow-up piece, Streitfeld and Kantor reported that Bezos:

deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

So here are the main possibilities:

  1. The Times got the original story very, very wrong;
  2. Bezos is being disingenuous;
  3. Bezos is simply on another planet when it comes to management philosophy, and/or,
  4. Bezos doesn’t know about employee practices and policies in his own company.

Could the Times have blown it? It’s highly doubtful. This investigation covered a ton of ground. The reporters also requested an interview with Bezos, which was refused by Amazon.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of items 2, 3, and 4.

Very revealing to me is what Bezos shared with his workers. Streitfeld and Kantor further reported on a memo that Bezos circulated to Amazon’s employees:

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.

Translation: We have zero tolerance for lack of empathy. Please drop a dime on anyone who falls short on this measure so we can purge them.


Observation No. 3: Meanwhile, back at the warehouse…

The enormous response to the Times story suggests that our economic class biases are showing. Allegations of terrible working conditions and low wages for Amazon’s warehouse workers have been surfacing for years, yielding nothing like the current outcry.

Last year, in a piece explaining why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, I highlighted a Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” which detailed the warehouse working environments:

As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.

Observation No. 4: We (or at least many of us) are complicit as customers

As some of these commentaries are recognizing, consumer demand for nearly instant gratification is fueling Amazon’s workplace practices. Amazon’s regard for its own employees may be questionable, but it gives customer service the highest priority. (A search for surveys on “best customer service” will verify this.)

However, that very consumer demand is feeding Amazon’s all-consuming workplace culture. Here is how I explained my decision to cancel my Prime account last year:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses.

. . . Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.

I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.

Observation No. 5: Amazon’s workplace practices highlight the fault line between extremely hard driving management and bullying

The theme of workplace bullying does not manifest itself in either the Times article or much of the resulting commentary. Instead, the focus is on a management style and organizational culture that demands complete commitment and hyper-competition.

That said, assuming accounts of the company’s responses to severe employee health conditions are accurate, then Amazon has a remarkable empathy deficit. The intentions may be all about notions of “excellence,” but the practices reveal, well, an out-of-control sense of control over workers’ lives and well being.

Observation No. 6: Newspapers and their reporters still matter

This is why (among other reasons) we still need newspapers and investigative reporters who are capable of carrying out lengthy investigations and then reporting their findings in detail.

Most Internet news/commentary sites cannot do this. They may break a story now and then, but not one requiring this level of background work. The abundance of current online commentary on Amazon’s work practices was enabled by the spadework done by Times reporters Kantor and Streitfeld and their colleagues.


This column makes me the latest among the stampede of commentators on this story. I hope it has provided some useful food for thought.

Three great authors on writing to make a difference

For fresh, inspiring outlooks on the uses of writing and scholarship to make a difference, I often listen to voices outside of mainstream academe. Here I happily “gather” three individuals, Ronald Gross, Mary Pipher, and John Ohliger, whose names I have invoked previously on this blog.

Ronald Gross

Ronald Gross is a leading adult educator who helped to popularize the term “lifelong learning” during the 1970s. Ron’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook (1982 and 1993 eds., either will do), is the most inspirational and instructive work about scholarship that I have ever read. Ron wears the hats of encouraging coach, intellectual cheerleader, and brainstormer, and I use these terms with respect and affection. If the Independent Scholar’s Handbook does not inspire or restore a sense of joie de vivre towards scholarship, then nothing will:

This is a book about taking risks of an unusual kind: risks in the realm of the mind. It invites you to indulge your impulse (without which you would not have picked up this book) to make the joys of the intellect a significant part of your life.

Gross wrote the book for those who are pursuing scholarly work outside of traditional academic settings, but it is equally invigorating for those within academe as well. It is infused with stories of individuals who have engaged in independent scholarship and found ways to share that work with the world, often becoming change agents in the process. Feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan, historian Barbara Tuchman, and futurist Alvin Toffler are among the independent scholars profiled in it. Though obviously dated in terms of research methodologies, its immense value is in its ability to visualize how our scholarly work can engage the real world.

Mary Pipher

In the introduction to her instructive and heartfelt book, Writing to Change the World (2006), author and therapist Mary Pipher reflects upon the uses of writing:

When you take pen to paper with the goal of making a difference, you join a community of people for whom words and issues matter. . . . As a writer, your life goal may involve a worthy cause I cannot even imagine. Whatever it is, you are fortunate.

Pipher describes writing for change in therapeutic terms. In a chapter on “The Psychology of Change,” she sets out her “Rules of Engagement for Change Agents.” These include respect, accurate empathy, connection, clarity, perspective, tone, and timing. In “Dealing with Darkness,” writers must understand their readers’ resistance and need for hope, while looking out for “orchestrating situations that allow for aha experiences.”

In other words, she urges us to comprehend the ties between therapy for individual change and writing for social change. Good writing for this purpose, she suggests, must connect with the reader intellectually and emotionally. It understands and respects the prospective audience. These are vital reminders for intellectual activists, who oftentimes will be dealing with different stakeholders, ranging from legislators, judges, and business people, to individuals who have suffered loss, injury, and trauma.

John Ohliger

Finally, I bow to the work of a late dear friend, John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic adult educator, writer, and activist who enjoyed a rich life as a non-conformist public intellectual. After voluntarily resigning a tenured position as a professor of adult education at Ohio State University, he engaged in many activities related to adult learning. This included co-founding, in 1976, Basic Choices, a small, self-styled, non-profit center based in Madison, Wisconsin devoted to “Clarifying Political and Social Options.” He also co-founded a community radio station and hosted his own program, “The Madison Review of Books,” inviting neighbors to join him as guest reviewers on the air. During the pre-Internet era that covered most of his years, he maintained a voluminous correspondence with people from all walks of life.

John never wrote a magnum opus book. Rather, through Basic Choices, he produced a large collection of unique bibliographic essays, diverse in subject matter and often linked to adult learning themes. He did not hesitate to take on hard social and political issues, such as critiquing the adult education industry for supporting visions of a more affluent, technocratic society. However, he also had a fanciful side, as exemplified by bibliographic essays on singer Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and on adult education themes in mystery and crime fiction. Several years ago, in a chapter contribution to a multi-author book examining John’s work and influence (David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace & Tonette S. Rocco, et al., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2009)), I characterized his body of work this way:

For much of his life, he was an independent scholar and intellectual activist, working through various media to encourage public dialogue and raise important questions about society, learning, and current events. His approach was personal, interactive, and engaging, not hierarchical, directive, and detached. By his example, he taught us that adult education should be voluntary, life affirming, and even fun.

Yeah, fun!

It may seem odd that I am touting a reference to having fun. However, I often find myself searching beyond academe for qualities of authenticity, empathy, and humor that, all too often, are absent within it. Gross’s unabashed enthusiasm for independent scholarship, Mary Pipher’s therapeutic perspectives on writing, and John Ohliger’s creative explorations of adult learning provide these good energies.


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