Notes on Faculty Mentoring

For a recent workshop on faculty mentoring at Phillips Exeter Academy, I offered the following reflections, which I share here in case they’re of use to others in the world of higher and secondary education.

Notes on Faculty Mentoring / Tom Simpson

Phillips Exeter Academy / August 26, 2022

I’ve loved being in the mentoring role for a brilliant, diverse cohort of new faculty in the religion department – 4 wonderful new faculty members who’ve joined us in the last 3 years. A few reflections on what I’ve learned from them in the process of helping them navigate their adjustments to Exeter life:

  • As you work with your mentee, really get to know them, they way you would an advisee: What weighs on them, what gives them life & joy, what do they miss about home, and what specific practices will help them breathe, reflect, survive, and stay in touch – and in tune – with their deeper/truer self that transcends the tight boundaries and strict demands of this place? What are their favorite tv shows, movies, games, and playlists? What familial relationships and friendships from their “past life” sustain them and matter most to them? Check in frequently with them on all these fronts: What’s their stress level on a scale of 1-5? What can you help them process and navigate?
  • Use your knowledge of the institution and the surrounding area to connect them to people they might really enjoy meeting, especially outside your department. Make space and time for these connections. Show them where they can go for restorative joy, for soul & comfort food, for friendship & community (“onboarding”). Don’t assume, of course, that the places that give you joy are the same ones that will give your mentee joy.
  • Protect them from taking on too much, remind them of looming deadlines and periods of intensity in the academic calendar (midterm grades, family weekend, etc.), and guide them toward material resources (funding) that will support their professional goals (“planning backwards”).
  • As you do all this work, think like a sociologist: Exeter culture is foreign for everyone, but with varying degrees of intensity. For me, the strongest tensions have to do with the fact that I grew up going to public schools in a small place at the intersection of northern Appalachia and the rust belt. I didn’t grow up around wealth; no one in my surroundings ever talked about, much less attended, schools like Exeter. // But as someone who is racialized as White, gendered as male & cishet, a U.S. citizen, highly credentialed, and the descendant of generations of people who were given the opportunity to go to college and own a home, it’s extremely rare for anyone to question whether I belong here or to question my competence and intelligence. I look the part, so I have a kind of armor – or invisibility cloak – that allows me to move within and beyond the Academy community without anyone questioning my presence. For obvious reasons, not all new faculty will have this luxury in an academic community that has a long history of coding intelligence, excellence, prestige, success, safety, human potential, and human worth as White. // Even so, aspects of my Exeter experience have been painful, and my ability to push through during those times has had everything to do with knowing that I have colleagues who will genuinely understand – and use some of their accumulated social/professional capital to stand up for me when I’m raising a legitimate concern. On that front, help them navigate any particular hierarchies they may find themselves inserted into and any issues of equity & justice that may arise: Is your mentee forever being asked to “take one for the team” in terms of their classroom space, their housing, and/or the courses they teach? Are they being expected / encouraged to stifle their creativity and voice in departmental decision-making? Are there “unwritten rules” and expectations in the department that new faculty should know about? (Again, think like a sociologist: What seems familiar, natural, and unobjectionable to insiders can seem strange, arbitrary, and misguided to newcomers whose identities have been formed and forged in other contexts.)

In short, the extent to which mentors understand precisely what new faculty love about Exeter, and precisely what makes this life a struggle for them, will help determine the extent to which new faculty can thrive. That, in turn, will help determine the extent to which new faculty can be freed to be fully present for, and fully engaged with, our students.

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The F-word: Fascism 101

In the past four years, observers of the United States have harbored intense fears that the Trump administration was essentially, or at least substantially, fascist. It’s a loaded and often misunderstood term, and now that we’re on the verge of being able to speak of the Trump administration in the past tense, I find myself returning to the question of how we might determine the extent to which we have seen fascist mentalities, ideologies, practices, and policies flourish in the U.S. in recent years.

For the purposes of my teaching about the Holocaust, religion, global ethics, and human rights, here are some basic working definitions that I employ, based on my teaching and research. (I am most familiar with the fascist regime of Nazi Germany and the perpetrators of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina.)

Fascism is a political worldview, style, mood, and orientation of right-wing nationalism, manifesting itself in a spirit of hypermasculine aggression & domination. It entails:

The dehumanization and targeting of anyone categorized as “soft” or “weak” by this hypermasculine “logic: women, children, LGBTQIA+ / sexual minorities, the disabled, the elderly and sick.

Obsession with the racial & ethnic (and often religious) purity of the nation-state, resulting in the hatred and targeting of racial / ethnic / religious minorities and immigrants, the embrace of eugenics (“good genes”) & the notion that “demography is destiny” (in its European and U.S. manifestations, fascism is linked directly with ideologies of white supremacy and a “clash of civilizations”)

Obsession with the strength & dominance of the nation-state, resulting in aggressive militarization and the employment of (largely unaccountable) security forces and paramilitary groups to chill opposition and dissent

Obsession with the strength & dominance of the regime itself, resulting in the systematic targeting of truth-tellers & rivals: journalists, trade unionists, intellectuals, multiculturalists, diplomats, and supporters of the rule of law, democracy, & human rights

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about this little primer / introductory guide to fascism as a teaching tool for students who are just beginning to study and detect fascist impulses and expressions that are strong, and resurgent, worldwide.

Posted in Bosnia, Ethics, Fascism, Gender, Human Rights, Peacebuilding, Politics, Race, Teaching, Violence | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The 2020 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival: A Roundup

One of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s great charms, and great sources of pride, is its incredible pool of talented actors and filmmakers. I’ve written here before of my love of extraordinary films like Jasmila Žbanić’s “Grbavica,” Aida Begić’s “Snijeg” (“Snow”), Srđan Vuletić’s “Hop, Skip, and Jump” and Tarik Hodžić’s “Scream for Me, Sarajevo,” all of which I have screened in my classes to give my students a sense of war’s terrors and aftermath, as well as the diverse, powerful ways that ordinary people are able to resist and survive.

This year’s 17th annual Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival (BHFF) — traditionally based in New York City and online for the first time because of the pandemic — offered a total of 13 films across the categories of short films, documentaries, and narrative features. I watched them all over the course of a few days (cancer has given me one gift: time), and I marveled at the range of talent on display, especially given how criminally underfunded the arts are in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some brief notes and highlights:

Postwar Complexities and Aftermath

Most of the film’s in this year’s program deal with the war only indirectly, choosing instead to explore current, contemporary psychic and cultural landscapes of postwar, postsocialist Bosnia-Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia. Ado Hasanović’s short documentary “Let There Be Colour” tracks the potentially explosive, and yet in many ways deeply affirming, cultural reactions to Sarajevo’s first pride parade. Ines Tanović’s taut narrative feature “The Son” evokes the psychic minefields of modern-day Sarajevo, following troubled teenagers, parents, and grandparents all trying to do their best and find their way in a city where things can suddenly fall apart. Intergenerational struggles are prominent also in Dražen Žarković and Marina Andree Skop’s heartwarming “My Grandpa Is an Alien,” which allows an eleven-year-old girl to be the hero in her quest to ease the pain of her mother and grandfather, who barely survived a catastrophic alien invasion 30 years earlier. Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story “Take Me Somewhere Nice” (winner of the jury prize for best narrative feature) follows a teenage girl, Alma (Sara Luna Zoric), born and raised in the Netherlands, as she fumbles with language and boys on a journey of self-discovery in rural Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nermin Hamzagić’s “Full Moon” features a police officer (Alban Ukaj, winner of the jury prize for best actor) working the night shift in a precinct that’s a microcosm of modern Sarajevan desperation and corruption as he’s just about to become a father. In Miroslav Terzić and Elma Tataragić’s chilling “Stitches,” a desperate Serbian mother (the brilliant Snežana Bogdanović, who also starred in “The Son”) tries to locate her missing son. Similarly, the central figure in Nejra Latić Hulusić’s “The Infidel” (winner of the jury prize for best documentary and the audience award for best film) battles a persistent loneliness and alienation (in this case caused by his family’s religious radicalization), and in the short films “Snorty” (Alen Šimić), “Natural Selection” (Aleta Rajić), and “Stack of Material” (Sajra Subašić), the alienated also seek a sense of existential coherence and belonging, largely in vain.

The War Revisited

A few films revisited the war years in especially vivid ways. Nihad Kreševljaković’s documentary “Don’t Cry for Me–Susan Sontag in Sarajevo” honors Sontag’s extraordinary artistic collaborations and spirit of solidarity as she staged “Waiting for Godot” with Sarajevan actors during the siege. Sabina Vajrača’s outstanding “Variables” (winner of the jury prize for best short film) tells the story, based on true events, of Sarajevan teens who escaped the besieged city to compete in the 1995 International Math Olympiad. And Guillaume de Fontenay’s gripping “Sympathy for the Devil” (winner of a special jury prize) performs a kind of artistic miracle as the predominantly Bosnian crew recreates the look and and feel of besieged Sarajevo in order to tell the story of French war correspondent Paul Marchand and Sarajevan translator Boba Lizdek.

Concluding Reflections

The festival’s perennial contribution is that it gives us such a beautiful range of Bosnian stories told such a beautiful variety of ways. It reminds us not only of the immensity of Bosnia’s challenges but also of Bosnians’ prodigious artistic gifts. I think of eighteen-year-old Arman (Dino Bajrović) — the handsome, powerful, wounded central character of “The Son” — turning to his girlfriend to say, “I have so much to tell you.” Bosnia-Herzegovina has so much to tell us, and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian film festival is one of the best ways for us to hear it.

Posted in Bosnia, Fascism, Feminism, Film, Gender, grief, Human Rights, Islam, Peacebuilding, Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Teaching, trauma, Uncategorized, Violence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Long Live the King

It’s hard to put into words what Chadwick Boseman’s massive talent and radiant light have meant to me, my family, and my students. In 42, Boseman brought Jackie Robinson to life for today’s youth in one of the best baseball films ever made. And Black Panther has become a fixture in the class that my colleagues and I teach on religion and popular culture.

For students — and so many of us who are devastated by Boseman’s death at such a young age — the power of Black Panther lay in countering centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes about Black people, Black culture, and Africa. In the jaw-dropping beauty of Wakanda, we find a reality that ought to exist, a reality we wish existed, where Black dignity, intelligence, strength, and joy flourish so vibrantly.

Envisioning Wakanda, and being transported there, gave meaning to so many in a time when racial injustice still somehow prevails — and even gathers fascistic momentum. There is so much to grieve, so much to mourn, so much to fight.

Chadwick Boseman left us, however, with so much. What a beautiful life, and what a beautiful human being. Here are two of my favorite lingering glimpses of him: this segment with Jimmy Fallon, where he surprises adoring, eloquent fans talking about what Black Panther has meant to them, and this Saturday Night Live “Black Jeopardy” sketch, where Boseman (as King T’Challa) learns how to navigate the racial landscape of America.

Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman. Wakanda Forever. ❤

In the course on religion and popular culture (for our 9th and 10th graders), two articles on Black Panther have been especially powerful: Yolanda Pierce’s “African Cosmologies: Spiritual Reflections on the ‘Black Panther’ Movie” and George Faithful’s “Dark of the World, Shine on Us: The Redemption of Blackness in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.”

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42 (Warner Brothers).
Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther.
Boseman on the cover of TIME.

Posted in Baseball, Film, grief, Humor, Media, Popular Culture, Race, racial justice, SNL, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fascism’s Myth and Lure

Yesterday was the anniversary of the vicious shelling & destruction of Sarajevo’s National Library, in 1992. This is fascism’s clear, enduring threat & promise: to destroy everyone & everything that exposes its lies.

Fascism survives because it tells a seductive story: that the only way to conquer the threats we face is with iron-fisted strongman rule, with “law and order” under someone who is “the bodyguard of western democracy” — no matter the human cost, no matter the body count. Of course, it’s all simply the most lethal form of con artistry & organized crime, (barely) masking a nepotistic regime’s determined effort to rob us all blind.

The truth is this: that if we are truly courageous and compassionate enough, and if we reject insidious racist propaganda & fearmongering, we human beings are capable of the most extraordinary beauty and solidarity. But we have to fight, every day, for humanity to prevail. This is what Bosnians have taught me. This is the only shot we’ve got in the 21st century. ❤️💪❤️

When I’m teaching about fascism, some essential resources include Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them and Ervin Staub’s The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence.

The Sarajevo National Library in flames, 1992
The “cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailović, playing in the library’s ruins. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev.

The restored interior of the National Library / City Hall building, in a photograph I took in 2016.
A photograph I took from inside the restored National Library / City Hall building, looking out to Sarajevo’s breathtaking “golden valley.”

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Kenosha Burning

I hadn’t planned to write again so soon, but news that a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer had shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back started making its way into my Twitter feed last night. Horrific, all-too-familiar details emerged this morning.

Kenosha has a really special place in my heart. My first teaching job was there, in the religion department at Carthage College, where I taught a course on African American religious traditions. Our son Will was born there, and both of our children were baptized in Kenosha’s downtown United Methodist church. We had friends who treated us like family, inviting us to every cookout, every birthday party, every Super Bowl, even though we somehow weren’t Bears or Packers fans.

So it was particularly jarring to wake up to the news that Kenosha is now just the latest center of Black agony and the struggle for racial justice.

It brought back a flood of memories. Mostly, I remember just how hard life in Kenosha felt. It’s such a beautiful place, right on Lake Michigan, between Chicago and Milwaukee. But its best days seem behind it; like so many midwestern cities, the height of its manufacturing prowess was decades ago, and it has been forced to flex its muscle in new ways. At the college, leadership made it clear that the school’s twenty-first-century destiny was tied to its corporate relations, while I had no assurance of a long-term position. (Sure enough, this summer Carthage made national headlines for a draconian proposal to gut its faculty and curriculum.)

I remember the way Kenosha’s massive coal-fired power plant insinuated itself into our lives, its never-ending stream of toxic particulates taking up residence in our lungs and bloodstreams. And I remember our carpeted apartment’s ineradicable chemical odor of scented candle wax, courtesy of a previous resident’s job as a tester for SC Johnson, the multinational chemical behemoth that never loses a chance to remind you that it’s “a family company.” Add a chain-smoking upstairs neighbor into the mix, and the result was that our little ones were sick all the time.

When the kids tried to scream it all out, I’d take them out to the car, just to give my wife and our neighbors a break. I’d sit with them in the front seat and let them play with all the buttons, switches, levers, and lights. When their operatic, squirming play had finally run its course, we’d head back in to the apartment that we could afford but were so desperate to leave.

On multiple occasions, we heard a surprising but gentle late-night knock at the door. Every time, it was our favorite neighbor, not the chainsmoker (who was nice enough) but the one we called “Big Will.” (He was well over six feet tall, and the comical contrast in size between him and our newborn Will delighted us all.) Big Will tended to come home from work pretty late at night, and the reason he’d stop by every so often was to tell us that we had left our dome light on inside the car. He didn’t want us to wake up to a dead battery and an unplanned major expense.

The way Will, who’s Black, looked out for us when we were struggling is something I’ve never forgotten. I hate thinking that he might still be in Kenosha, having to be careful about his every move. I hate that Jacob Blake is fighting for his life. I hate that his kids will bear this trauma and these scars forever. I pray that Kenosha’s leaders — that we all — will do whatever it takes to do better, that we will do whatever it takes to end racist violence.

For resources on Black Lives Matter and the quest for racial justice, visit and, the website for the Equal Justice Initiative.

Posted in Autobiography / Memoir, Ethics, Race, racial justice, Raising Boys, Violence | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Masculinity’s Evolutions

I was planning to write sooner. After my second round of chemotherapy ended last Sunday, I thought — based on my experience with the first round — that it would be just a few days before I’d feel like myself again, like writing again, or posting a video to say hey, look, I’m doing great!

But this week, this round, has been rougher than I was ready for. Of course, that’s what my oncologist had told me to expect: that the chemotherapy will have a cumulative effect over the course of my twelve weeks of treatment, with side effects that may become more pronounced over time.

It’s been an unwelcome reminder of my vulnerability, this vague, sluggish feeling of being sick, of being weak.

What I’ve had to remember is that all this is so normal, so human. I’ve got cancer. I’m in my 40s. I can’t just bear down and power through everything. But that’s countercultural: so much of what we see, and absorb from, the surrounding culture reinforces the idea that pain and suffering are forms of weakness, even failure.

As I’ve waited for this fog to lift, I’ve found particular comfort and joy in a few television segments and stories that go against the grain. I’ve watched the Portland Trail Blazers’ rising star Jusuf Nurkić (aka the “Bosnian Beast”) play his heart out in the NBA playoffs as he grieves the loss of his grandmother to COVID; I’ve watched the Utah Jazz’s Mike Conley light up the court after taking time away to be present for the birth of his first child; I’ve watched another new dad, pro baseball star Mike Trout, talk in hilariously graphic — and sweet — detail about what it’s like to change a newborn’s diaper in the middle of the night; and I’ve watched former baseball great Harold Reynolds weep during an incredibly moving MLB Network interview with the director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

I wish these kinds of messages had been more mainstream when I was a kid. I hope it’s marking a shift away from rigid, conventional notions of masculinity that need to be put on the scrap heap of history. (I wrote a short essay about this hope for Unite, a student advocacy organization at Phillips Exeter, this spring: “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” appears on pp. 45-47.) If we can evolve past them, a revolutionary human authenticity and solidarity may flourish at last, equipping us to survive what lies ahead. ❤

When teaching and mentoring youth about masculinity, violence, and aggression, I return again and again to resources like these: this short video (“#MoreThanMean“) in which men read vicious tweets aimed at women sports journalists; this short video (“Be a Man“) about a wonderful peer violence prevention program in Bosnia-Herzegovina; this short, powerful NPR piece called “The Power of the Peer Group in Preventing Campus Rape“; and Alan Berkowitz’s short article “The Social Norms Approach to Violence Prevention.”

The Portland Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkić with his grandmother, via his Instagram page

Posted in Baseball, Bosnia, cancer, Gender, Health, Peacebuilding, Popular Culture, Sports, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Conversation with Mirela Kulović about Human Rights, Teaching, and Writing

Yesterday, as part of her wonderful new “thought-provoking conversations” series on YouTube, the brilliant Bosnian-American painter Mirela Kulović interviewed me about so much of what I love: teaching and writing about religious identity, human rights, conflict, and coexistence; mentoring and learning from youth; and my collaborations with Bosnian artists, scholars, and activists.

The interview is here!

Posted in Art, Autobiography / Memoir, Bosnia, Ethics, Human Rights, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Video Love

Instead of a conventional post, I made a short little video message today, with so much love and gratitude for all your support as I undergo treatment for cancer. (This is also to keep my video production game in shape for when I resume remote teaching this winter!)

❤ Click *here* to watch! ❤

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Beirut in Ruins and Rage

Still reeling from the news, images, and stories from Beirut, I’ve been watching the films of Lebanese filmmaker and actor Nadine Labaki. Her latest is “Capernaum” (2018), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. I’ve taught and written about Labaki’s spectacular filmmaking debut, “Where Do We Go Now?,” a hilarious and heartwarming portrait of a remote Lebanese village where Muslim and Christian women go to astonishing lengths to tame its warring men.

Set in the slums of Beirut, where the legacies of war are haunting and the reality of poverty is suffocating, “Capernaum” has fewer side-splitting moments of relief, but it possesses Labaki’s same extraordinary feel for the power of humane storytelling. Immediately we’re introduced to, and entranced by, Zain Al Hajj (Zain Al Rafeea), an undersized but furious twelve-year-old boy, and Rahil (aka Tigest, played by Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant desperate for work that will support her infant son (as well as her mother, who remains in Ethiopia).

What unfolds is a raw evocation of sheer desperation, a snapshot of a world where millions are fleeing one unimaginable disaster after another. For Zain, a catalyst is his inability to save his beloved sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) from being married off to a leering, prurient landlord. Impotent rage and sorrow make Zain strike out on his own, and in the cold comfort of a run-down amusement park he finds Rahil, who tenderly takes him in despite her own unending struggles. (As a migrant laborer working under false papers, she could be exposed and deported at any moment.) The two strike a deal: Zain will care for Rahil’s baby, Yonas (played by the outrageously adorable and surprisingly screen-ready Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), while Rahil will work as much as she can to support the three of them.

The situation, of course, is utterly untenable. And that’s precisely the point. “Capernaum” reminds us of the traumatic legacies of poverty, war, migration, and trauma, but it’s told with such a big heart, such a careful eye, and such a gorgeous cast that we leave thinking maybe we can make it through. ❤

Zain Al Rafeea and Cedra Izam
Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole
Yordanos Shiferaw
Nadine Labaki

Posted in Art, Feminism, Film, Human Rights, Humor, Peacebuilding, Religion and Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Social Justice, trauma | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment