Diversity – yes . . . Statement – not easy

I understand that one should be able to articulate views, opinions and values in written form. But I’m having a really hard time “following the rules” (guidelines, standards, whatever they’re called) and framing how I think and behave towards others in a way that both articulates my core beliefs and how I uphold those on a daily basis, how I have in the past and how I will in the future.

It comes down to this:

I believe in the inherent dignity of every being on this planet. I seek to act in a manner that respects and honors the value of each life in relationship to each other. I seek to behave in a manner,  and uphold other’s behavior, that is just, equitable and compassionate. I am constantly seeking ways to grow and learn about others’ stories, responsibilities, perspectives and significance, and I share my own with others freely in hopes of providing them with a perspective they may not have otherwise encountered. I attempt to humble myself to others’ truths and seek meaning through understanding their culture, traditions, relationships, and conflicts. My intent is to connect with others through our commonalities and learn more than I knew prior. I attempt to be open to all perspectives and experiences, but stand firm again racism, bigotry and acts of aggression meant to diminish others’ sense of worth and value.  I champion the underdog, the ones who cannot speak for themselves, or those who have been victimized, taken advantage of and cast aside because they are devalued by others. I seek to educate others to the Truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that will enable us all to live a life of good and value, in service to one another and this planet we call home. I am imperfect and make mistakes regularly. When I recognize my errors, or they are pointed out to me, I seek to correct them in the most honorable way I know how.  I seek to express my personal respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are each a part.

That is the best I can do … right now.

(Lest you think that I just popped this off the top of my head: this ‘statement’ has been at least 15 years in the making and is based, in large part, on the beliefs and Principles of the Unitarian Universalist congregations. The UUC Beliefs and Principles have been refined by many scholars, theologians, and passionate minds over centuries. I simply seek to embody them as best I can in all that I do.)

My Diversity Statement

My interest in diversity and inclusion started when I was traveling 36 countries in Asia, Middle East, Europe, and Africa. It was a project that my friends and I planned together: having one and a half year off from our college, and moving toward the west by land from Tianjin, China. During this trip, I was fascinated that the students from other universities in various countries were studying the same thing to mine. We all looked different but shared the same thoughts. Also, the numerous travelers I met, including hippies or Japanese freeters, showed me non-stereotype lifestyle that could be as happy as another stereotype lifestyle. With this experience, I could throw away my prejudice and gain a wider view of life.

The interest in diversity and inclusion continued to my graduate student life. Last semester, I participated in Virginia Tech Diversity scholar program. In this program, the participating students each suggested an initiative to promote the climate of diversity and inclusion on campus. In my case, I noticed that international students did not have enough chances to socialize with others outside their community, such as international students with different nationalities or students from the US. There were some events for socialization, but students were not much engaged in the existing events. Based on the thoughts that students would be more engaged with self-directed activities, my initiative was a series of culinary classes for sharing various recipes in the world among the students. These were student-led classes, thus, any Virginia Tech student who volunteered could be the instructors. Although this project ended up with Asian Cooking Classes because only Asian students volunteered to be the instructors, the events were successful. Studying and cooking some dishes together, we had a great time. The photos of the events are found here:


This project provided an opportunity to explore different cultures and offered a common interest which could bind students with different backgrounds together. At the same time, the project led me to think about how to utilize my previous experiences in promoting diversity on campus.

Priority tasking

Priority tasking sounds simple in theory, but in reality, it is hard to implement. This type of ‘tasking’ allows you to identify how you should actually be spending your time, and where. A deep analytical look at your to do list will help you do this. One essential component of priority tasking is understanding that your to do list will never be achieved. This sounds hard to comprehend, but you should create a to do list that you know you can not complete or check off completely. However, I also recognize that I am human, and I hate having a to do list that is never completed. If you can not relate to me, take five minutes to write everything you CAN do the next day. Do not create a list that is achievable. The to do list must have at least 10 tasks. I will say that on average, your to do list might look somewhat similar to the one below:

A average to do list:

  1. Go to class
  2. Do Homework
  3. Assistantship/actual job, the required hours
  4. Asssistantship/actual job, unpaid hours(Lets be honest, we all work more than what we are supposed and are not paid for it)
  5. Cooking/ eating out
  6. Meeting (with your assistantship supervisor or advisor)
  7. Meeting with classmates
  8. Meet your friends
  9. Meeting (that could/should have been an e-mail)
  10. Netflix or another form of procrastination
  11. House (accommodation related) chores
  12. Run errands
  13. Housemate/ Family member duties or responsibilities (If you live alone, replace this with self-care or whatever is pertinent to you)

If your to do list looks different, please feel free to create one in the comments section. I would love to see how they differ.

Like most people, I believe that I am able to multi task at a relatively high rate. I believe that I am able to watch Netflix, listen to spotify, and complete my 15 page paper while having six tabs open with literature to read. This is multi-tasking at a rather modest term. I do recognize that I am also in denial. The article, Technology: Myth of Multitasking, identifies me to be a serial tasker. I will not deny this truth. Also, in reality, I usually have about 10 tabs open. However, I will be honest and say that this is how I used to think, that I was a multi-tasker. I now believe that it is far better to priority task.

Priority tasking is somewhat similar to multi tasking in the sense that we still have many tasks to complete. However, it takes the idea and motivation behind ‘single tasking’ and forces you to choose the most pressing task. Is it possible to do more tasks? Yes. As human beings that are thirsty for success, we always want to do more with our time. But should we? In addition, your supervisors will only remember the one important task you didn’t complete. It does not matter if you completed 98 other tasks, that one important task will be the one that is remembered. And at the end of the day, what do you want to be remembered for?

Presenting the Present State of Writing Statements

Our statements on diversity and inclusion focus too intently on the past and the future while neglecting the present moment completely. What I really want to know is what an educator is doing here and now, day by day, minute to minute, and second to second; to question and improve his or her own attitude toward diversity. I want to see more awareness of and challenge to the innate biases, the hidden prejudices that plague us all blindly and chronically taint the lens through which we see the world. What I have written below is the present tense version of Berkeley’s “Guidelines for Applicants Writing Statements” .

I have nothing against UC Berkeley. I was actually at Berkeley this past weekend while out in the Bay area for a conference and I have to say it is one of the most forward thinking, progressive campuses I have ever visited. There is an overwhelming sense of pride in acceptance of diversity and you can outwardly sense it not just in the students and the faculty but also in the youth that grow up in the area. Diversity is boldly embraced and exalted all around. But the intro of the statement shared in the schedule for this week mentions the past and the future and planning five times without referring to the present moment even once. It is a reflection of how these types of statements are written and reviewed not just at Berkeley but at universities across the country and the world. They encourage the have done’s and will do’s much more than the grounded, active am doing’s of potential candidates.


“The Contributions to Diversity Statement should describe your past experience and activities, and future plans to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, in alignment with UC Berkeley’s mission to reflect the diversity of California and to meet the educational needs and interests of its diverse population. Some faculty candidates may not have substantial past activities. If that is the case, we recommend focusing on future plans in your statement. A more developed and substantial plan is expected for senior candidates.”

My statement would look more like this:

Present Experience:
In each moment when teaching a class I remain as aware as possible of each individual student’s needs. This is why smaller class sizes are so crucial. The ability to dynamically cater to different learning styles and different backgrounds is what I find to be both the most difficult and the most rewarding element of teaching. I believe there is a certain improvisation required in good education. I know that classes rarely go according to the scheduled syllabus, and I pride myself on my ability to adapt in the moment. Though I recognize the potential distraction that computers constantly pose to students, I also believe that they can be used intentionally as powerful tools to assist human ingenuity. Much like chess masters consult computers and merge with them to become “centaurs”, or doctors use electronic medical records (EMRs) to distinguish each patient’s unique medical history, I believe electronic educational records (EERs) can give teachers a more constant awareness of student learning preference, educational history, and active, real-time, engagement in any given course material. Computers also connect us with people all over the world- making education accessible for billions of the world’s poor and breeding a new opportunity to empathize with different cultures and customs. The key is that students meditate on each task- serial mono-tasking rather than distractedly multitasking- and only engage with their screens when it is appropriate to do so.

  • Research Activities: I research the meditative mind in an effort to better understand consciousness and the physiological processes of learning and emotion. A person sitting in meditation becomes the perfect research subject. Static and still, meditators can often use newer mobile sensing techniques without generating too much noise. Global Vitals, for example, offers a respiration rate tracker that works by using a smart phone’s accelerometer to track the rising and falling motion of the abdomen. It would be nearly impossible to capture this data cleanly on a moving subject, but the steadiness of the meditation allows for these less intrusive methods of data capture. Since Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is typically done in a lying down position, it can be recreated in a functional MRI scanner (fMRI) without fundamentally altering the experience for the participant. This allows me to capture detailed 3D images of the brain as a fly on the wall, without the documentation itself significantly altering the practice and therefore the physiological state of the subject. The main hypothesis of this research is to prove the possibility of learning and retaining information when in the deeply focused, subconscious state of yogic sleep.
  • Other Activities: I am the active founder of an immersive mindfulness collective whose mission it is to make the benefits of meditation more accessible to those that need it most. Transp0.se works with inner city youth from Southeast Washington DC and other unprivileged areas to take real ambient sounds and turn them into soundtracks for guided meditations. We travel to different cities to exchange creative energy and experience, connecting people from different places together in the present moment. We use social media and technology as both an educational tool for STEM programming as well as for connective empathy generation. We are actually in the middle of an event as I speak on the National Mall- and we always stream our sessions live to increase immediate accessibility. See video from the experience below.



Weekly Pessimism: Carr’s Nightmare & Google’s Perfection

Of all the readings Carr’s piece really hit home. This specific problem has plagued me for years. I need my information delivered in bursts. I am totally addicted to the instant gratification that a smartphone and Google provides, and I have no more use for specifics. I skim almost everything I read. I’ll Google answers to questions I have while trying to fall asleep, even if that wakes me up again. I lack the patience for detail, in most cases I can’t even tolerate it.

It is an incredible disadvantage in graduate school. After all we’re supposed to read a few papers per day, right? I don’t think I’ve thoroughly read one in years, I usually skim my own proof-reading. So how am I supposed to finish a PhD, when the entire point is becoming an expert in the mundane details of one highly specific area. You can’t be a jack-of-all trades PhD who specializes in nothing. Honestly, I’ve been worried this lack of mental discipline would tank my career for years, yet I can’t fight it. In the middle of reading Carr’s piece I was truly hoping he’d offer some brilliant solution I hadn’t thought of, while simultaneously hoping he wrap it up soon, because come on dude it’s been like 15 paragraphs, cut to the chase…

Frighteningly, this piece was written in 2008, just a year after the first modern smart phone was released, and years before anything resembling modern social media. I would suspect the effect is even more profound today when Facebook is considered too detail heavy, and most of us have moved on to image sharing services and single sentence tweets. I suspect that no matter how pessimistic Carr was feeling as he typed out that article, he probably didn’t really comprehend how bad it would get for some.

I must admit that I am an addict myself, and the 2008 version of me would never have predicted how bad it would get. According to an app called Quality Time, which measures phone use, I unlock my phone about 300 times a day, and spend between 4-5 hours on it, with roughly 2/3rds of that on social media. Every day, I spend hours training myself to consume nothing but tidbits of novel information, without any substance at all. How could I expect to suddenly be able to read 15 pages about obscure spatial statistics.

What’s worse, I had the good fortune of getting most of my education prior to the rise of Google and social media. What concerns me most is that the students we’ll be teaching in another 5-10 years will have grown up on it. While the rest of us may be able to return to the high-detail “scuba-diving” version thinking (hopefully), perhaps that skill is entirely foreign to the younger generation. What will the kids who got their first iPhone in fourth grade be like when they get to college? Taking away their electronics won’t help them, it’ll just disengage them further. I keep thinking, perhaps we should embrace this and give them bursts of low-detail novel information, but at some point, they’ll need detail if they are to be professionals in their field.

As usual, I honestly have no idea how to solve this problem, and expect it to be exacerbated in the following years. Salzberg’s advice seems like a Band-Aid on a broken bone; medication not meditation is what I need, and I didn’t grow up reading Instagram on the school-bus. Perhaps we older folk can retrain ourselves by abstaining from instant gratification sources of knowledge, and forcing ourselves to read more. I have heard some folks have luck with completely disengaging from social media and going back to flip phones, but I have yet to try it. Maybe I’ll start with a few good books of the paper variety. As for the younger folks, they may be out of luck. Perhaps the world will have to adapt to them instead.

On a side-note, the comments on Carr’s article are completely missing the danger of perfect silicon memory. To greatly paraphrase the work of Dr. Nicholas Christakis (one of the fathers of my field), there is incredible utility in imperfection. To steal an example he uses frequently, consider designing an algorithm for a small robot to find the top of a hill. You program it to always go in the direction of the highest slope, and set it loose. Eventually it finds the top of the highest hill, right? Not quite, it finds the local maxima, but there could be a much taller hill next door. If the robot isn’t allowed to make mistakes and go downhill sometimes, it’ll get stuck on the local maxima and never leave. The same goes for Googling answers. How many times have you gone looking for something and stumbled upon a better solution? If you cannot ever make that mistake, if you always find exactly what you need, you’re greatly limiting innovation.

People that are willing to give this up for perfect recall are giving up far more than they know.

Corn teaches us about diversity (or the consequences of the lack of diversity)

After being introduced to diversity statements in class two weeks ago I have been on the look form them.  A few days in an email advertising an Assistant Professor of Soil Microbiology position at University of California Riverside another mention of diversity statements.  Until this semester I had never heard any of my professors, friends… Continue reading Corn teaches us about diversity (or the consequences of the lack of diversity)

May I have an hour of your time?

If you’re an academic, perhaps a better question might be: “Do you have an hour of time?”

If you do (and you’re interested in meditation, attention, and mindfulness) I’d humbly suggest watching the following talk of Tenzin Palmo’s:

This woman, for a number of years, lived alone inside of a mountain cave. During this time she meditated for most of the day; only stirring to care for the minimum requirements of her body.

She probably knows  a thing or two about mindfulness — at least from my perspective.  But, by her own admission, she still has a long way to go.

Which brings up an interesting point… when do we become ‘aware’? How many caves must we mediate in to reach mindfulness? How long will it take?

The Buddha says we will all get there someday. But that’s not my point here. When we view mindfulness as a goal (rather than a process), we rob ourselves of the experience that promotes it.  And it is precisely the experience — the  struggle — that gifts us a greater awareness.  Struggling with the troubles of our mind that keep us distracted is just as much a part of mindfulness as crying is a part of love.  There is no shortcut here.

Forcing our students to close their laptops in class, reading five-minute opinion pieces on mindfulness published along side of flashing ad banners on the internet, or trying to mono-task while clutching to a fundamentally multi-tasked life are all simply recipes for disappointment. These ideas are not inherently bad, but they do presuppose attention as a ends — grasping for a state of attention blinds us to the fact that grasping was what delivered us to a state of distraction in the first place. Palmo wisely says this is like drinking salt water — the more we drink the thirstier we become.



If you’ll allow me to extent this concept to diversity for a moment. . .  Where do we go to find diversity? How do we get there? How long does it take?

If I can use myself as an example…

I’ve walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.

And protested authors when they give talks at Virginia Tech.

But I couldn’t tell what it’s like to be black in America. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.


I’ve studied Aikido for a number of years under the supervision of a dojo located in Okazaki, Japan.

And I’ve volunteered my time to help construct a pagoda in the Nichiren tradition.

But I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be Japanese. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.


I’ve protested the conditions illegal immigrants are held under in the United States.

And I’ve protested the US’s involvement in Central America that supports many of the systems that spur that same immigration.

But, again, I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be Salvadoran. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.

If I’ve buried the lead here, let me clarify. Diversity, just like mindfulness, isn’t a destination. It’s an experience. It’s a process.  And for it to be, we must practice it.

It’s a little like what Mr. Rogers taught me about love:

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

So when it comes to teaching, how do we accept our students for who they are? How do we… diversify? Thich Nhat Hanh has a suggestion that might resonate with you:

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”

So with all this in mind, I’ll give you my diversity statement. It’s not written for other professors or to help me get hired. It (or something close to it) is simply what I’ll be including in my syllabi from now on:


I don’t know you.

I can’t emphasize that enough.

At the beginning of the semester, I don’t know your story. I don’t know where you come from or what you bring with you. I don’t know your beliefs, your values, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, or your passions. And I certainly don’t think I can figure that out by looking at you.

But I do know this. If you’re bold enough to express these things this semester — I’ll listen.  And, together, we’ll figure out how this class can fit into your story.



Devices everywhere and not a drop of knowledge gained

About once a year, I take a trip with friends to the Smokey Mountains. We rent a cabin and spend a long weekend catching up, and driving the local mountain roads. One of the interesting side effects of the trip is that it’s a long weekend of being nearly totally cut off from the outside world. Our usual cabin and a lot of the Smokey Mountains are out of the range of cell towers.

The number of times while sitting around chatting and a question is asked at least half the group subconsciously grabs for our phones, a handful get the phone out only to make some statement as they remember “oh yea, no signal…” and put the phone away.

The classrooms are much the same, students packed to the gills with devices, all of them active and rarely are they all on the task of education. To stress the difficulties their devices place on education we run discuss the issue of task switching and run an exercise. We have the students draw two lines on their paper, we start a timer and have them write above the first line write “task switching is a thief” and below the upper line write “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20” and then their time of completion. For the second round they have to alternate a letter from the sentence and a number and then time of completion. Inevitably almost everyone’s second time is significantly slower. Even with the evidence of the detriments of trying to multitask in front of them, they still do it. Some become so engrossed in their devices that I can even sit down next to them while they do anything but coursework and they don’t notice.

Having all of the access to information we have with these devices is great, but only if its used responsibility. I frequently see students who are spending class doing anything but paying attention who wind up missing information and asking me to fill them in later. We have tried a number of methods to encourage them to use the devices for class, but some just want to waste their time in class.

The Obstructed Line Between Helping and Distracting

Technology helps us learn. Technology distracts us. They’re both true. I mean, I see it every day in my own life in addition to seeing it in the classroom. Technology distracts us with insignificant things while it should be helping us learn. But isn’t it my fault when these things happen? Shouldn’t I be willing to take responsibility for my own actions? But the temptation, the siren call coming from the bright glow of the screen in front of us, is sometimes just too much.

I can understand the point Clive Thompson makes in Smarter Than You Think, but then again, I also understand exactly what Darren Rosenblum explains in “Leave My Laptops at the Door to My Classroom.”  Last fall, many of our mentors told us GTAs that we should think deeply about our policy on technology in the classroom. It’s a tricky road to navigate for so many reasons. Many conferences want to see research on multimodal pedagogy or technology usage in the classroom. The students in my classroom know way more about technology than I do; few remember what life was like before the iPhone or the iPad. Note taking by hand? Who does that anymore? Why write when I can type faster? In short, I know my students prefer to use technology. They’re way more comfortable with it than I am. I actually still prefer to take notes with a pen and notebook. Maybe my students really do learn better using technology because they are more used it being an every day occurence in education. But as I observed my mentor’s class once a week from where I sat in the back of the classroom, I saw students on Facebook, and I once saw a student buying an actual electric guitar during class time. The thought of students doing this during a class that I would put so much time and effort into scared me. So, I had to think about what I wanted my policy to be. Do I give them the chance to distract themselves? Or do I allow them to take out their laptops in the classroom?

Even now as a grad student in an undergrad seminar course with one of my favorite professors in the English department, I see students on their laptops when we’re discussing a novel that we have in hard copy. These students don’t participate; they don’t speak. What the actual heck are you doing right now? Every once in a while they look up and nod, but then they go back to doing homework for another class or browsing whatever website seems important at the time. Granted, maybe a student could be using the laptop for needed help, and I don’t know it.  I concede this. (I would know it as an instructor in my own classroom.) But for many students, it’s a distraction rather than  an aid. And as I watched instances like the ones I witnessed in the classrooms of my mentor and my professor, I couldn’t help but think that these actions were extremely disrespectful. I’m definitely not perfect either as student, but for the most part, I do try to stay off my laptop when I’m in a class. I would hope my students would do the same for me.

I’m assuming it’s reasons like this that made Rosenblum assume a harsher stance on technology in the classroom. But technology isn’t always a distraction, I will admit. Because I do realize this, I ended up having more of a loose technology policy. Currently, we do use laptops in my classroom. I have in-class writing prompts at the very beginning of class that the students use the discussion board on Canvas to complete. I use a lot of PDF and online readings, and the students use their laptops to pull the readings up  or use their laptops to look at their thoughts on the reading which they turned in as homework. Students can use their laptops on the days when they might have to research a question. Students can use their laptop to record the ideas of their group during out group work session; using the laptop is faster than handwriting in these cases. So, they are beneficial in my classroom.

That being said, if I’m talking, I usually remember to tell them to put their laptops down. If I forget to this, I see a few of them staring intently at their laptop screens, but many do pay attention for the most part. We do heavy amounts of discussion and group work, so they’re not able to not pay attention for the whole class period. Because my class is small, this more casual policy works in my classroom. I might have a different policy if I were an instructor for a class of more than twenty students though. Overall, this is still a tricky road for me to navigate.  There’s a fine line between technology as an aid to students, as a thing that makes our minds better as Thompson argues, and technology as a deterrent to learning as Rosenblum finds it. And unfortunately, the line is most clearly seen from the back of the classroom rather than the front where I stand.

Why Are You Here?

Why are you here? That’s the question that we may ask students or ask ourselves as students. Why? If we are in class because we are interested in learning a specific topic, I believe that the probability of paying attention to the class may be higher than if we are there just to meet a requirement. Don’t you think so? Won’t you be more engaged in the class?

I believe that laptops when are not “truly needed”, are a very distractive tool in the classroom. Especially, when you are not interested or bored in the class. I speak for myself, I have used my laptop during classes to answer emails, check facebook, read the news, shopping, and so on. This happens when I lose the attention of the class.

Two of the reasons for students using laptops during classes are to 1) take notes and 2) to follow the class material. However, for me, it turns very difficult to take notes with my laptop. During my undergrad and master studies, I always wrote by hand everything. Thus, when I was studying for the exams I remembered that I have written something about the specific doubt in my notebook.

According to Darren Rosenblum,

“Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts”.

Now, the question is, are you a multitasking person?  Undoubtedly, if you want to listen, to understand what the professor is saying and to take notes at the same time, you need multitasking skills.

I used to be very good at multitasking activities when I was in Colombia. However, since I started to take classes here in the United States, this became a challenge for me. I can not do it. I mean, I can write something but I forget what the professor says very quickly. Meanwhile, I am taking notes, I am listening but all my attention is not there. So, at the end, I am very lost. Essential activities such as listening, reading, thinking, and writing, when combined are challenging by nature but these are even more challenging when you have to do it at the same time in your non-native language.

By coincidence, I took a multitask test this week to help my friend collecting data for a class. The first exercise consisted of memorizing numbers of 6 digits that appeared one at a time for 3 seconds on the computer screen. Then, I had to select the respective number between two options that were very similar. I had to say left or right depending on the location of the answer. At the same time, I had to play Tetris and try to score the highest score. In the second exercise, instead of memorizing the numbers, I had to hear numbers in a recording and then I had to subtract 1 to each number and to report the result. Again, I was playing Tetris at the same time. Guess what? I did so bad with the Tetris (look at my score, that’s very embarrassing!). I could not do both tasks at the time successfully. So, my question is, how can we improve our multitasking skills? Are we relying so much on Google?