The Western Program
at Miami University
Alumni Profile: Lara Osborne (1991)
After graduating from Western, Lara worked as a social worker, lived in Chile (learning to speak Spanish and ski), completed a Master's in social work at Bryn Mawr College, worked in Venezuela on a Rotary Scholarship, coordinated the project to build Miami's campus child development center, completed a doctoral program in social service administration at the University of Chicago, and is now faculty member in social work at Miami's Hamilton campus.
[My] Western education really did start from two simple observations: all things are connected, and healthy communities are built, brick by brick, through thoughtful interaction.
What would you identify as the key elements and core values of the Western Program as you experienced it?
My first week at Western a giant banner hung over the Peabody porch that read, "Making Connections, Building Community." Ordinarily I have little patience for bumper-sticker-ready slogans (don't get me started on random/kindness/senseless/beauty). Yet the Western education really did start from two simple observations: all things are connected, and healthy communities are built, brick by brick, through thoughtful interaction.
From these core values we spiraled, weaved, constructed, deconstructed, destructed, juxtaposed, signified, universalized, atomized, annihilated, contextualized, de-contextualized, embodied, disembodied, dissented, questioned and occasionally just flat out hallucinated. All of our efforts were, fundamentally, about moving from simplicity to complexity within a safe and nurturing community. We dove headlong into the "Big Questions of Life": Existence, Evil, Apocalypse, Art, Suffering, Play, War, Matter, Pain, God, Torture, and The Weather. And, of course, we grappled with the sine qua non of all "Big Questions of Life": the metaphysics and gender politics of Cyborgs.
Our existential struggles were genuine and all-consuming. We were not content to leave knowledge "out there," somewhere distant from ourselves. We wove our intellectual and moral struggles into our identities, into our souls (assuming, of course, that we have souls — that "Big Question" remains unresolved). We argued endlessly about whether or not we were living in a bubble, and if we were, whether or not bubble-living was morally defensible. In retrospect, we absolutely were in a bubble, thank god. Safety and security made all our earnest, intense struggles possible. The "Big Questions of Life," we discovered, always bring despair and usually bring joy. Either emotional extreme can be overwhelming, crushing. The community we built made the extremes bearable and beautiful — mostly beautiful.
For many of us, being at Western was the first time in our lives we weren't weird. And magic happens when a group of outsiders become insiders, pool their eccentricities and geniuses and doubts and convictions to create a community.
It was, indeed, an honor and a privilege to spend a few years of my youth suffering over life's questions in the company of other people like me — freaks, hippies, queers, nihilists, nerds, poets, rock stars, weirdoes, misfits, tree-hugging flute players, feminazis, malcontents, idealists, dissenters, radicals, pacifists, funksters, skate punks, granolas, oddballs, refuseniks, iconoclasts, nudists, dykes, dorks, flakes, square pegs, dreamers, Deadheads, moon howlers, grey ladies, earth mamas, earth papas and others who are so far out they don't even get their own epithets.
What are your best and worst Western memories?
- romping in the creek behind Peabody
- drum circles
- channeling Helen Peabody with the Ouija board
- morning lectures in Leonard in pajamas
- all-night discussions in the hallway
- trying to break into the attic
- McKee Mondays
- men in skirts
- Dave Letterman in the TV room (back when he was hip)
- the Goddess photos
- boys with long hair
- making a quilt
- our dining hall
- the cotillion
- the amphitheater
- the Surrealist's Ball
- sundry misdemeanor naughtiness involving duct tape, chalk, spray paint, and nudity
- the love and support I got when my father died
- a few existential crises
- a few tragic love affairs
- a few bad haircuts
- my father's death
I think Western honed my pre-existing tendency to disdain arbitrary and/or rigid rules and the bureaucrats who invent and enforce them. It sure is fun to challenge authority when authority figures are praising you for doing it.
How has your experience of the Western community shaped your subsequent participation in other communities?
The good news is that as a professor I've always tried to create as much community among my students as possible. I think I've been successful. Students I taught in a social work program keep in touch with me and talk about how wonderful it was to be a part of the family atmosphere we created. I was very deliberate about fostering that among my students and it was very gratifying to see them connect with each other. Other faculty who had the same inclinations as me but little experience with a model of student-faculty community followed my lead. It was not magic on Western's grand scale but I can say, without hyperbole, that we changed lives.
The bad news is that after I began to see the social world as malleable and constructed, and began to focus my attention on "The Big Questions," I had a harder time investing myself in hierarchies that seemed capricious. I think Western honed my pre-existing tendency to disdain arbitrary and/or rigid rules and the bureaucrats who invent and enforce them. It sure is fun to challenge authority when authority figures are praising you for doing it. (I particularly enjoyed challenging authority when it took me to lunch at DiPaolo's for the express purpose of providing me opportunities to challenge it. "I love an iconoclast.") It is less fun when the authority figures are punishing you. Punitive authority figures don't take you to lunch and share a decadent dessert while you offer pert opinions about the failings of their programs.
I have a theory, as of yet untested empirically, that enforcers of stupid rules are always on diets, and rice cakes and fat-free Snackwells exacerbate their natural crankiness. I think we need a Western course along the lines of "The Idiot's Guide to Sabotaging 'The Man' While Still Getting Promoted (and taken to free lunches w/dessert)." I am now in academia, for example, and my life is governed by a set of archaic social constructions that evolved to solve dilemmas we no longer face. These archaic practices, such as tenure, have been thoroughly reified. For many faculty, tenure is an ontological state, not merely a promotion or lifetime guaranteed job. For a long time I thought everyone knew tenure was a random system of historical vestiges and compromises among entrenched interests. I thought it was an unspoken understanding that sometimes the smartest people with the strongest convictions are the ones who have the toughest times jumping through hoops. Then, after running up against enough titanic egos, it occurred to me that some people actually take the academic hierarchy seriously. Even worse, those who are imbued with "tenuredness" often expect deference from the lower untenured caste members. My propensity to ask questions and see myself as a fully developed and equal human being is quite problematic to these particular superiors. And if my pert opinions about the failings of their programs happen to be right, well, all the worse for me. I've had to try to learn to smile sweetly.
I'm not so great at it. I am adept at the devastating wisecrack, however.
But in all likelihood the egg came before the chicken in this case; Western was like a little incubator that warmed and soothed my development as an iconoclastic, non-sweetly smiling wisecracking fully developed equal human being. Without tenure. Yet.
What impact has your Western education had on your professional development and career path?
Everything is connected. I chose the profession of social work, and am now a professor of social work, because they enabled me to make a lifelong and daily commitment to my values.
When I left Western I was skilled at debate, discussion and presentation, and quick to see connections ... Western helped me see flaws and inconsistencies in arguments quickly and enabled me to tune into the multiple layers of meaning in any discourse.
What do you most value now about interdisciplinary education?
I can run with the Big Dogs. In fact, I can even outrun a lot of Big Dogs. Frankly, I can out-argue almost anyone. When I left Western I was skilled at debate, discussion and presentation, and quick to see connections. I was confident that I had a contribution to make and that contribution was as important as anyone else's. Western helped me see flaws and inconsistencies in arguments quickly and enabled me to tune into the multiple layers of meaning in any discourse.
For example, at the University of Chicago, my doctoral institution, there are a lot of famous neo-classical economists floating around. They've had tremendous intellectual influence and done a lot of damage. I was able to understand and critique their basic arguments and assumptions, but also to evaluate them based on the personal, interpersonal and institutional contexts in which they arose. I wrote a paper on one enormously influential economist, whose works have justified Supreme Court decisions and deregulatory public policies. Using theories of child and moral development, I found his ideas correspond perfectly to the moral reasoning of a ten-year-old boy. Despite his sophisticated academic language, the economist was having a temper tantrum on behalf of ruling elites who were not getting their way. My professor and classmates were stunned, amused, and convinced. It was my interdisciplinary education that really enabled me to make connections between seemingly disparate things like Nobel-Prize-winning economic ideology and child development theory.
When I was taking my doctoral qualifying exams, my interdisciplinary education became an ironic liability and I almost flunked! (There was an existential crisis somewhere in there that contributed to the problem as well, but that's another matter.) My dear mentor called me into her office and explained the concerns of the exam committee. What I was supposed to do, apparently, was to repeat the material so they could ensure I understood it. What I actually did was, in her words, "in some ways more sophisticated." I engaged the ideas, critiqued them, played with them. That seemed perfectly normal to me; I said, "Didn't the other students do that?" Apparently they did not. I tried to, again in her words, "go beyond the ideas." They just wanted to know that I was getting it. Fair enough; I agree students should understand ideas before they extend or obliterate them. So I told her about Western. I explained that I was trained to "go beyond" and be creative. We were allowed to use humor and visual imagery and poetry if we wanted. It was all about interacting with the material in whatever way enabled us to make sense of it. "Ah," she said. "I'm glad you told me about your undergraduate education. This explains everything."
What are your aspirations for the new program?
I hope it is groovy. I hope it is magic. I hope it is wild and free. I hope it is beautiful. I hope it is living art. I hope it is a safe, rigorous, thoughtful, stimulating, intense, riotously funny place. I hope it is a place where freaks, hippies, queers, nihilists, nerds, poets, rock stars, weirdoes, misfits, tree-hugging flute players, feminazis, malcontents, idealists, dissenters, radicals, pacifists, funksters, skate punks, granolas, oddballs, refuseniks, iconoclasts, nudists, dykes, dorks, flakes, square pegs, dreamers, Deadheads, moon howlers, grey ladies, earth mamas, earth papas and others who are so far out they don't even get their own epithets can engage in earnest struggles with "The Big Questions."