Why Do You Look Down At Me?

Yesterday, as I sat in a dark auditorium with chairs that were in rows and professors who were standing on a stage and looking down at me, I realized, for the first time, that the unequal architectural relationship between my professors and I will negatively impact my academic performance. Partly, because my subordinate position made me feel detached and uncomfortable.

Though I managed to control such emotions, the feelings of inferiority, alienation and spacial anxiety made it difficult to focus and achieve good note-taking. And worse, was how defensive and hostile the situation had made me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop viewing everything that they were telling me as a threat to my person and to the things that I knew to be true.

To alleviate the stress, I lashed out at the professors and questioned the sincerity of their course requirements. “I understand your concern about the word count,” one professor responded behind the podium, “but this is a 4-credit course and 750-words is lower than what it used to be in the past.”

Indeed, I should have left it at that, but I just could not get over the fact that they were delivering their messages while looking down on me. It felt dictatorial and insincere. “I get that,” I replied. “but what if we can summarize our opinions of the films in less than 750-words; would that work?” That line of questioning garnered a lot of laughs from students. In fact, I overheard one of them say: “This guy’s funny.”

In retrospect, I suppose that my line of questioning might have been funny to some students or irritating to the professors, but there was nothing funny about how I was feeling in that moment. If I could have turned off how uncomfortable I felt, I would have. But, unfortunately, I just could not let it go. Moreover, what I found doubly frustrating than the unequal spatial relationship between myself and the professors, was how other students reacted as if our unequal spatial arrangements were okay; keeping silent when they could have easily mentioned it. Fortunately, and to my surprise, one of the professors did mention the spatial inequality between themselves and us but, sadly, the damage was already done.

As crucial as that moment was, and as interested as I am, right now, in unpacking some of it, I can not get to the bottom of it, until, I first, talk about the field of Environmental Psychology, and the effects that certain built environments, specifically, the learning environment, have on the academic, temporal, and cognitive successes of students. Together, those things will shed some light on why the above space made me feel uncomfortable, hostile and irritated

Environmental Psychology is the “interdisciplinary field that focuses on the interplay between individuals and their surroundings.” The first to make mention of the phrase “environmental psychology” was Willy Hugo Hellpach, a German physician, and psychologist. In his book, Geopsyche, Willy Helllpach wrote about how the sun and the moon effected humans; the impact of extreme environments, and the effects of color and forms. “We know from experience, ” wrote Willy Hellpach, “that, for instance, the atmosphere before a thunderstorm causes laziness, sleepiness, whereas, the fresh ozonized air afterwards is felt as invigorating.”

Apart from Willy Hillpach and others who shared his passion, many people, from writers, political figures to physicists have long noticed how certain spaces affected human beings. One such person, and who environmental physiologists often quote, was Winston Churchill. He wrote; “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Then, theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, observed that: “The field is the sole governing agency of the particle.” The “fields” being, tiny atoms, ions, and other subatomic particles, while the “particle” being, us, human beings.

As expansive and intriguing as the field of Environmental Psychology was, the validity of some of its early findings, however, were seriously questioned. Partly, because the scientists never bothered to venture outside of the laboratory; all of their discoveries, back then, were non-applicable to real life. Nonetheless, and aside from its early mishaps – which has long been fixed – many in the field never doubted what they were doing. To paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle; the world was full of too many obvious things that nobody, by any chance, ever bothered to observe, and so, because of that, they felt that they needed to keep discovering.

In hindsight, it is a good thing that such persons never gave up their research, because their efforts have turned out some incredible discoveries in the field of Environmental Psychology. And such discoveries, ranging from the effects of color, light, sounds, temperature, and even, seating arrangements on human beings, are astounding, to say the least.

One particular discovery, having to do with sound, revealed that noisy rooms not only had a negative impact on the learning outcomes of young children but it also affected the overall mental development of those occupants. “In the case of young children,” noted Che-Ming Chiang and Chi-Ming Lai, both environmental scientists, “they have not yet developed enough executive skill[s]in activities involving communication channels, like speech comprehension, use of language, and written and oral skills.” Therefore, “Noise undermines reading, writing and comprehension skills, as well as overall academic performance, as noise makes it hard to focus on the task being performed.”

Though that particular study was conducted on young children, I wonder if it could be applied to older participants who are engaged in any academic pursuit. Namely, because I have been in some learning environments that were so noisy – thanks to a broken air conditioning unit – that impaired my ability to focus. That said, when you suddenly awake from a loud bang and realize that the air conditioning unit was humming the entire time, it is difficult to argue that that noise did not impact your mental development in some way, shape, or form.

Elsewhere, a study on the effects of color on people’s cognitive development revealed that certain colors, such as the colors red and yellow, tended to distract people from their assignments. On top of that, such colors also increased people’s blood pressures and caused them to have faster pulse rates. In short, they triggered the participants to feel anxious, which in turn, caused them to display poor concentration. Alternatively, such study also revealed that the best color[s] for learning was green, blue, and baker-miller pink because, when exposed to those colors, participants reported feeling balanced, patient and mentally sharp.

As much as exposures to certain sounds and colors may negatively impact or improve our learning outcomes, what I am more interested in is the effects of seat-arrangements on academic learning. And secondly, how those architectural differences effects and communicates what the roles of each party should be towards each other.

Social scientists, Mohammad Haghighi and Mahmud Jusan, observed in their study; “Exploring students behavior on seating arrangements in learning environments,” that the arrangement of desks and chairs had an effect on students’ classroom behaviors, “such as hand-raising, discussion comment, questioning/pupil request, listening, out-of-order comment, and speaking; and on their off-task behaviors, such as disruptive conduct, withdrawal, and aggression.”

The possible desk arrangements used in their study “were clusters, rows, and circles.” And the “results showed that students seated in circles showed the most on-task behaviors. The second-best arrangement of desks and chairs was a cluster arrangement, and the least effective was desks arranged in rows.” In other words, circles worked best because they encouraged students to interact with one another and to see themselves and their teachers as equals. And the reason why seating arrangements that were placed in rows did not work was that they made the students feel isolated and detached from the learning experience.

That begs the question; was that how I was feeling when I was forced to sit in rows and looked down on by extremely, elevated professors? Nonetheless, I believe it is high time to address my two, earlier questions of why I was so combative and could not disengage from a debate with one of the professors and, why, I also, found it annoying that the other students were not questioning nor challenging the unequal spatial arrangements.

One possible reason to why I appeared hostile or aggressive, was because the arrangements of the seats, i.e. in rows, did not feel as if I was in a participatory relationship with the professors. And the fact that they were physically elevated above the rest us, gave me the impression that they had all the answers, and that whatever they had to say was “above” anything that I could ever come up with. Secondly, and what I have come to realize as my Telic style of learning; focused, goal-oriented, and relaxed setting, was the opposite of what I was experiencing. In other words, the room that I was in was too loud, crowded, and overstimulated.

Furthermore, because my ability to change the environment that I was in – this process is sometimes referred to as “Reversal Theory” – in order to suit my learning style was not possible, I resorted to aggression and verbal-sparring to alleviate the stress that I was experiencing. Moreover, it should also be noted that during that class I was also feeling hungry, tired and exhausted and, perhaps, the combination of all of those things, coupled by the ill-designed space that I was in, made the situation feel tenser than it ought to have been. Nonetheless, it happened the way it happened and my reaction, though uncharacteristic, was telling.

As far as why some of the other students were not challenging the professors; I think it had much to with their acceptance of their role as students. In other words, they have been so conditioned to the subordinate relationship of teacher-to-student that when the professors were telling them what they wanted them to do, it all registered as normal to them. But nothing about that moment or space was normal. We, the students, ought to the ones in the driver seat of our own educational experiences, not our professors dictating what we should do and what we should know. Further, our university should design better spaces that not only makes people feel easy and welcomed, but can foster and enhance group participation.

With that in mind, I believe that is what makes the study of Environmental Psychology so important to look into because it gives us insight into how we should design our physical spaces. And especially when it pertains to learning, we ought to design spaces that make people feel less anxious, trapped, unequal, or isolated, but more engaged and attentive. In hindsight, I should have done a better job at controlling my emotions. However, that does not mean that the space that I was in should not have been welcoming, either.

For those who are great at adjusting to any space that they find themselves in, the design flaws in architectures may not concern them, but for those of us who need to feel welcomed in order to learn or to improve ourselves, it is important that our spaces, and the people within them, progressively shape the way we interact with our environment.

Image by Jonas Jacobsson from Unsplash

Sources:

Environmental Psychology, Willy Hugo Hillpach

Acoustical Environment Evaluation of Joint Classrooms for Elementary Schools in Taiwan.

Exploring Students Behavior in Seating Arrangements in Learning Environments

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The Immigrant Next Door

I recognize that something as innocent as “the immigrant next door” might sound scary or uninviting because of all the bad rep that immigrants have been receiving in the media lately. But I can assure you, that that is not the reflection of the attitudes of all immigrants. Moreover, and in light of those things, I can imagine that some of you might still say; well, why shouldn’t we be scared when, after all, it was Muslim immigrants who flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center back in 2001, and, more recently, it was a Mexican immigrant, in Portland, Oregon, who raped a helpless 65-year-old woman at knife-point last year? And, yes, those are all fair points to make.

But firstly, and although those things are true and we need to do a better job at screening people who might not share the same values and beliefs as the rest of us, you might be surprised to know that that is not how all immigrants behave in this country. And secondly, for the majority of us that are currently here, or are planning to come here, integrating into – and adopting – the American way of life is what is at the heart of our everyday motivations.

And furthermore, before the term immigrant became synonymous with words like “terrorist,” “rapists,” and “drug dealers,” immigrants in this country were actually viewed as a hardworking, committed, and passionate group of people. And none of that has changed despite recent, negative portrayals of immigrants. Indeed, and it is widely accepted that in almost every neighborhood that immigrants were invited into, they’d managed to bring life to it, precisely because of those things. Plus, in addition to being rejuvenated by our diversity, those neighborhoods couldn’t help but buzz and crackle with the type of creativity and ingenuity that we brought to them.

Also, and with the help of our neighbors, we not only beautified those communities but we added a kind of culture and integrity to those places that was not present there before we showed up. In view of those things, I’m not surprised that even President Lyndon B. Johnson, himself, once remarked that; “The land flourished because it was fed from so many resourcesand because it was [being] nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” Now then, and with all of these things in mind, it would be disingenuous for us to, presently, dismiss the role that immigrants can play in furthering our American values and beliefs in some of our communities.

But yet, and despite how eagerly many immigrants are waiting to contribute to the American society, the future of immigrants today are, at best, wishy-washy. Thanks, in large parts, to the injudicious policies of our current president, Donald Trump. His calls for immigrants to be banned – or deported back to their countries – have created a type of situation whereby the communities who once’s welcomed us, are distrustful of our presence. In fact, in some communities, today, they’ve not only become distrustful of immigrants but they’ve actually put up signs like “build that wall” and “refugees not welcomed,” just to make sure that we weren’t confused about what their politics were.

The sad truth about our present attitudes towards immigrants is that we’ve failed to notice that what nearly all immigrants want today – and also wanted in the past – is just to live in peace, contribute to society, and provide for their families, just like any regular American. It’s difficult enough that immigrants have their own culture and customs to maintain but to now adjust to a newer culture that appears as if it never wanted them to begin with, is frustrating. The irony, of course, is that some of the very same communities that are now distrustful and uninviting to immigrants, are actually immigrants themselves.

A Maltese physician, psychologist, and author, Edward de Bono, once wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, that; America is not just a country but it’s also an idea. And, I kid you not, it was that very same concept – of America is more than just a piece of land – that, nearly 17-years-ago, motivated our widowed father to carry four boys to this strange place called, America. And thanks to all of her wonderful opportunities and splendid resources, our family have been able to flourish and thrive in ways that would have never been possible if we were still in our native country.

And sure, we’ve had our share of difficulties, like trying, and failing, to purchase a home, being pulled over and harassed by overzealous police officers, and falling victim to the empty promises of a celebrity, who became a politician, and then now, the president of the United States, saying that his tax plans would make the incomes of working families like ours, great again. But, still, the type of experiences that we’ve had, and the sort of caring, interesting and robust people that we’ve encountered so far, has made this whole American idea – or dream, for those of you see it that way – worth it.

In a 1977 interview with William F. Buckley, Margaret Thatcher was talking about why she was so attracted by the American way of life, that she remarked; “I couldn’t care two-hoots where a person comes from…what I care about is what they got to contribute to society.” In other words, it shouldn’t matter what a person’s background is, so long as they’re willing to contribute to the success of their society, then they’re more than welcomed to stay.

Now then, and before you rush to make the immigrant next door a persona-non-grata, it might be more constructive to first ask yourself; what sort of things can he/she contribute to my community or to my society? And I guarantee you, that if you were to approach such persons and ask them that question, you’d be surprised to discover how similar their goals may align with your own.

Image by Nitish Meena by Unsplash 

Margaret Thatcher’s 1977 interview with William F. Buckley; Firing Line.

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“Just Say No” To Drugs

On September 14, 1986, First Lady, Nancy Reagan, with her husband, Ronald Reagan, by her side as her moral support, gave her famous “just say no” to drugs speech that not only captured the imaginations of millions of Americans, but helped spark a larger, controversial, and tumultuous dialogue about what our nations’ role should be in the fight against drug abuse that, till this present day, are still being discussed.

But too often – and so was the case in the mid-1980s – our discussions today centers around the moral corruption of the person who engages in the risky behavior of drugs use, rather than taking into account some of the social conditions that might have propelled them to such lifestyles. We say that they are wayward, criminal-minded and that the government should crack down on them; by throwing the book at them; so that they learn their lesson and never do drugs again. Though some of those perspectives hold merit and will properly be explored later, the problem with these types of discussions is that they perpetuate the feelings of alienation and stress that victims of drug abuse are trying, every day, to overcome.

With recent statistics showing that over two million Americans are now dependent on – or have abused – prescription drugs in the past or at least 91 people a day were dying from drug overdoses in 2015, and by 2016, how more than 64,000 Americans died from, yet, more drug-related overdoses, it’s easy to see that the war on drugs has not yielded the type of results that we were hoping for. One reason for this could be that people are innately bad, and are so disinterested in actually getting better, that they rather live with their addiction than actively pursue a life of recovery.

The second reason could be, and like Nancy Reagan alluded to in her “just say no” to drugs speech, that the criminals that are selling drugs to our children are “ingenious,” and that, every time we close one door on them, they somehow manage to open a newer “door to death” for millions of children. A third reason to why we may still be losing this war could be that the very same doctors that are supposed to make people better by prescribing them with the exact amount of drugs that they need are actually making things worse by prescribing them with way too many drugs to begin with. The fourth possible reason is that some of our nation’s best efforts on stopping drug abuse, i.e., tougher drug regulations, higher sentencing for drug-related offenses, and “just say no” to drugs campaigns, has only helped to further fan the flames of drug abuse to dangerous proportions.

Whatever side you fall on, I think we can agree that the war on drugs is not as easy to solve as some people have made it out to be. Just saying no to drugs, for instance, does not answer the question of; what do you do with the children that are now orphaned because their parents overdosed on drugs? or what do you say to the grandparents who now have to put off retirement to take care of those children? and how do you address the issue of overcrowding that mortuaries are now having to deal with because of drug-related overdoses?

That said, I can see how someone who is concerned about this issue could adopt the idea that addicts are not victims. Namely, because victimhood tends to be an involuntary phenomenon and a human being – for the most part – is a voluntary creature. And according to this logic, a person that becomes addicted to drugs does so voluntarily. For instance, nobody twisted their arms or put a gun to their head and said that they have to become addicted to drugs or die. It was purely their decision to become addicted. To disagree with this fact, they’d say, would take away that person’s sense of personal responsibility for their own actions. I can see that.

However, I would like to add a little more to that logic by expanding it for one second; it seems to me that whenever we talk about personal responsibility we often package it with restricting aide or crucial resources to people who may need our help the most. For instance, I’ve actually heard some people say to victims of any issue, that their success will depend largely on how well they can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. Although I can see how this tough love tactic could work on some people, in the majority of other people though, it may not only register as “you’re on your own,” but it may further add to their anxiety and feelings of alienation. And that’s the last thing we want our loved ones to feel when they need us the most; that they cannot come to us for help or for counseling.

Furthermore, and for those who are absolutely convinced on tough love, I think it may interest you to learn of a unique study done back in the late 1970s, by Dr. Bruce Alexander, a psychologist from Vancouver, Canada, whose area of expertise centers around studying the effects of drug addiction in animals and in humans; where he placed one rat in a cage and gave it the option to drink water laced with heroin or another water not laced with heroin. What came as no surprise to everyone involved in the study was that the rat not only preferred the water laced with the heroin but it kept going back to it until it killed itself.

But although the rats’ death was a tragedy, Dr. Bruce Alexander wasn’t entirely convinced that it was the heroin laced water that was the sole culprit of the rats’ death, so he ran a second experiment, this time, adding more rat friends in the cage with colored balls and tunnels for them to play around in. His assumption was; maybe if the rats had something else to do other than stay in a lonely cage by themselves and drink heroin laced water all day, that they might actually not turn to the heroin laced water and overdose like so many other rats were doing. Fortunately for Dr. Bruce Alexander and his team, not only was his assumption accurate but, impressively, none of his rats actually went near the heroin laced water—-all of them just happily played with each other and made love all day.

What does this tell us? Firstly, it tells us that, if given the chance to drink heroin laced water or make love, rats will always choose love. But more importantly, it tells us that isolation and the lack of support and love from others will force some animals to exhibit dangerous behaviors. Still, I suspect that some of you may cite the fact that this study only pertained to rats in fancy cages – and not humans – so of course, they’d do that. And the majority of you would be right, except for the fact that Dr. Bruce Alexander actually ran similar experiments with humans and got the same results.

You see, humans, much like rats, are social creatures and the moment we isolate humans from other humans we force them to not only feel alienated, but to turn to “bad” behaviors, like heroin, violence, or a life of criminality to make themselves feel better. To fight against this, it’s not enough to just throw the book at people and lock them up in cages, so that they, hopefully, learn their lessons. This method only wastes taxpayers’ money, overpopulate our prison systems, and create alternative ways for people to make and sell drugs. “In the case of addiction,” wrote Dr. Bruce Alexander. “We have to go beyond the old stigmatization….and also beyond the old medical model; we have to go to a much larger social analysis.” In other words, we need to think of pro-social solutions to social problems. Primarily, because addiction not only affects a particular person and their immediate family members, but it also affects their community, their country, and their nation.

Having said that, there have been, at least, two scenarios in my life that I’ve been affected – or touched in some way, shape, or form – by someone else’s, singular, decision to become addicted to drugs. Also, and giving how widespread the drug epidemic has been in the last 40-plus years, I’m perfectly willing to also add that, perhaps, majority of you out there currently know someone who is either struggling with an addiction, is thinking about experimenting with addictive substances or are now 6-feet under because of a drug-related overdose. And although their decision might have been a singular one, it has, nonetheless, left the type of impression on your life that can – and will – never actually go away. And that’s a very tough thing to deal with; because it’s one thing to accept, while they’re still alive, that they’re addicted and that there’s nothing you can do about it, but it’s a completely different thing to actually try to now live with the fact that they’re no longer here with us.

Personally, it wasn’t that long ago that two people that I knew from High School died because of their addictions to drugs. The first one to go – and although it was tragic – came as no surprise to me, because almost everybody knew that his level of addiction was going to end up badly. So, and it pains me to say this, it didn’t really affect me as much as I thought it would. But, the second one; came as a complete shock to me. I had no idea that he was even taking drugs or was addicted to drugs; it just felt so random and strange when I heard that that was what took him away from us. And (as I’m currently trying to hold back tears and wipe the previous ones off my keyboard) what still trips me out, every time that I think about it; is that the last time that I saw him he was his usual self; laughing from ear-to-ear and cracking jokes about some of the other friends we knew from high school. If someone would have said to me, in that moment; that, Lewuga, this happy and charming friend in front of you is going to die the following year, I would have joked and laughed about it—-just like he was doing.

Looking back now, I wished that I’d had the foresight to see that, although he looked like his usual self, something was, in fact, different about him. Also, I wished that he, himself, should have, at least, had the courage and the strength to seek some kind of treatment, because if he’d had done so, his kind, loyal and fair-minded personality, could have been the sort of things that our society would have benefited a great deal from. But although that might have been the case, it would be inaccurate for me to think that his chances of actually overcoming his addictions would have been likely because, as of this moment, there are no programs out there, in the United States, that considers, not only the health and safety of an addict but also the impact that their recovery will have on the rest of our society. In short, there are no legally-mandated pro-social initiatives.

Presently, one of the few places in the world that have these pro-social solutions to combating drug abuses is Vancouver, Canada, and Switzerland. And by pro-social I mean; harm-reduction centers, where staff not only monitor and actually administer drugs to people, but they provide them with clean needles, counseling, and also with finding jobs and housing. And secondly; we don’t have the sort of clinics, like the ones in Vancouver, Canada, where those struggling with drug addiction can, for example, get prescription heroin, free, clean needles and expert care from doctors and nurses who truly care about their recovery.

This is not to say that we, Americans, are insensitive to people with addictions, it’s just that majority of us in this country still view addiction as a weakness of character. And the sad thing about this perspective is, that, while we’re still holding on to them, other countries and their citizens are getting better and better. In fact, in Switzerland, where back in the 1990s the country was nearly coming apart because of drug abuses, thefts, and high amounts of sexually transmitted diseases; drug-related crimes and cases of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/Aids and Hepatitis, are almost nonexistent. The closest we’ve come to these types of successful, pro-social approaches in the U.S., are needle-exchange programs that are now starting to pop up in some states, like Vermont, Idaho, and now, Pennsylvania.

But, and although these places – and the rest of society – still have long ways to go; by, at least, providing addicts with safe needles to use their drugs with, some people are now realizing that not only are patients reporting lesser cases of sexually transmitted diseases, but majority of them are now able to focus their time and energy on pursuing other progressive alternatives, chiefly because they no longer have to constantly worry about where their next, clean needles will come from. And from what I’ve read so far, some experts are now convinced that by adopting a pro-social model for treating drug addicts, whole communities, once crippled by the drug epidemic, can recover and get back to doing the good things that they were doing for their citizens. If this trend continues, which I hope it does, we will see more Americans getting their lives back together in no time.

When we punish, criticize, and even isolate people from receiving help, we’re not only risking pushing them back toward their unhealthy behaviors, but what we’re also communicating to them – and to the larger society – is that we don’t care about their wellbeing, or whether or not they might be feeling stressed or alienated. And like the rat study, when someone feels alienated, or are detached from other people, they’re going to engage in risk, and sometimes, deadly behaviors. Luckily, what other countries have shown us and what experts are now saying, is that those old models of treating addictions are just not working.

Seeing how far we’ve come in the battle against drug abuse, it’s not enough any more to tell individuals to “just say no” to drugs like Nancy Reagan once suggested, or to tell drug dealers to “take a hike,” according to Clint Eastwood; we must all come together and form a human cage around those who may need us the most. Because, addiction, after all, is not a one-person enterprise; we all, like it or not, have a role to play in that person’s life, and their recovery. And we can either accelerate their progress by showing them love and compassion or we can deteriorate it by shaming them into isolation. With so many lives at stake, I hope we choose wisely.

Image by Sajjad Sabihi from Unsplash

Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” to drugs speech

Clint Eastwood and Nancy Reagan; tell drug dealers to “Take a hike” commercial

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