Saturday, April 19, 2014

Knowing When to Break Up . . . With a TV Show

I'm not a quitter. I've slugged through books that bored me to tears, sometimes to rich reward and sometimes only to a sense of completion and relief. I've forced myself across finish lines in races when my legs felt like jelly. I try hard not to let friendships wither away with years and the transformation of life.

But I have to break up with Scandal. 


For this entire season, I've ended each show feeling frustrated, disappointed, angry even. I don't have much spare time. To devote that hour required me to stay up late, listening with one ear to hope the toddler didn't get out of bed (again) and trying to forget about the stack of papers to grade or the article I needed to read. This hour was my hour of relaxation, but I never ended it happy. 

It wasn't always like this. I was an early Scandal convert, drawn to the powerful female protagonist, the quick banter, the layers of drama that hinged on complex human emotion. I kept reminding myself of those early days as the end turned sour, but we can't live in the past. 

In the beginning, the drama was crazy, but it felt like there was a plan, a carefully-plotted arc, a master design to it all. By this season, it felt like each episode was designed merely to keep the viewers coming back for more. The characters weren't consistent, and things like the time-space continuum meant nothing if having someone fly from Ohio to D.C. in fifteen minutes would up the drama. 

But this isn't a post hating on Scandal. You're big boys and girls, and you can come to your own conclusions. Maybe it's just your thing. That's fine. I'm not going to try to convince you otherwise. 

This is a post about knowing when to let go. While, yes, television is just a fun little diversion from real life and it shouldn't be something we plan our lives around, the social media presence does make quitting a little tougher. There will be reminders on Twitter and my Facebook feed that I've let something go. Scandal will not be dismissed so unceremoniously. 

But hardest of all is the feeling that I've given up on something I've started, been unwilling to see it through to the end. Shows, like books, can have a little lag in the middle but come out of it strong and galloping along toward a glorious conclusion. 

But when shows are created more for maintaining viewership than with an overall artistic narrative plan, there might not be a conclusion. The conclusion might just be whenever the network decides to pull the plug and the creators are left scrambling to figure out how to tie up all the loose ends in the space left. 

I respect a show that ends when it's supposed to and stays true to its course even when it could possibly squeeze a few more seasons out if it veered. 

Recently, I saw this graphing site that plots ratings for individual TV episodes over the course of the show's lifetime. It's sad to see a show like Dexter plummet sharply for its final season. Gilmore Girls  similarly saw a steep drop for its final season, probably because the in-fighting and eventual dismissal of the creator caused it to leave its original narrative path. It's sad to see a show end with such disappointment in its fan base. The swan song shouldn't be off key. 

Meanwhile, shows that end with some kind of narrative path in tact seem to fare better in the ratings. The Wire shows consistent patterns with each season climbing steeply. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a long run, but I never felt like it didn't have an overarching plan, and the finale delivered the type of conclusion fans deserve. And a show like Carnivale, whose climbing ratings weren't enough to save it from getting the ax, still show consistent improvements. I think its because the author was invested in telling a story, not merely dragging us back each week. 

So what are we to do when it becomes clear that our favorite shows have no intention of working their way toward an ending? What do we do when it's obvious that it will drag on until there's nothing left to drag? Do we stay for the ride out of a sense of duty and the quiet hope that we're wrong? Or do we get out, cut ties, create our own conclusion? 

For me, Scandal will end with this season's finale. I'll be a little sad to let it go, but only because I'm holding on to what might have been, and isn't that a little true of every break up?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who's Afraid of Bulking Up?: Of Fitness, Fatness, and Strength

I read a really, really ridiculous article yesterday. It's from the August 2013 issue of Harper's Bazaar, and it's titled "Is Spinning Making You Fat?"


The whole premise of the article is that many women are abandoning their beloved spinning classes because all that physical exertion is resulting in (gasp, shock) more muscular lower halves. That's right, ladies, using the muscles in your legs may, in fact, cause them to get--wait for it--bigger!

According to the article, some people are still allowed to take a spin class now and then. One trainer  admits that he "lets [lets!], say, an apple-shaped woman with skinny legs go once a week." But for those of us not blessed with a shape that allows that kind of training, we'd best avoid it all together.

What if you've already made the mistake? What if you already built those horrendous, bulging thighs? Well, you're in luck! One interviewee explains how she dealt with the problem:
She gave up all exercise for a month to let the muscles atrophy, then switched to yoga.
That's right. You should let your muscles atrophy rather than accept that unattractive junk in the trunk. Actually, I'm really glad they chose that word. The definition (from Dictionary.com) of "atrophy" is "waste away, typically due to the degeneration of cells, or become vestigial during evolution."

And that's exactly what this article is calling for: a waste, a degeneration, an (d)evolution of human conceptions of beauty where form and function become vestigial.

Fitness is not measured by appearance; it is measured by function. And developing muscles in your legs does not make you "fat" (as the headline insists), but muscular, a completely different type of body composition. There are a range of ways to be "fit," and while the lean body that the women in this article seem to hold above all can be one representation, it is not the only one.

For instance, have you seen the LSU gymnast Lloimincia Hall who scored a perfect 10 for her amazing hip hop routine?


Doing that requires a whole hell of a lot of talent, and it also requires muscles. You're not launching your body through the air and sticking those landings on atrophied quads.

The reason that I'm writing about this ridiculous article from last year, though, is because it hit a personal nerve. I intellectually know all of the things I just wrote. Muscles are part of fitness. Gaining size does not mean getting "fat." Fitness is about function, not appearance. I know these things.

Still, I had a moment of body image crisis recently. Since starting roller derby back in January, I've been gaining a lot of muscle in my lower body. My body composition is changing, and my jeans don't fit right anymore. I've lost weight, and my jeans had to go up a size. (I almost wrote "I've lost weight, but my jeans had to go up a size" but these facts are not in opposition. They are part of the whole.)

There was a moment in the dressing room where I wanted to resist this reality. There was even a fleeting moment where I wondered if I should continue playing the sport. "What if I get too big?" that little voice in the back of my mind asked me.

Too big for what? Too big for a specific pair of jeans but big enough to make my minimum laps, finally manage these damn crossovers, and to knock someone else to the floor when the time comes? That seems like a fair trade. After all, I can buy more jeans; I can't buy the strength and confidence that come with playing a sport I love and feeling physically powerful for the first time in my life.

Caitlin at Fit and Feminist felt compelled to write about the Harper's post, too, and her explanation really hit home with me:
You know what I say?  If you love something, do it.  And if doing that thing changes your body in ways that stray from the beauty standard, then fuck the beauty standard.  There are a lot of ways to be beautiful and fabulous. 
And that gets to the real problem with the Harper's article. It's not simply that they are once again privileging thinness over fitness or that we're defining beauty in such a narrow and hard-to-maintain way. The problem is that messages like this are actively telling women not to do things they love that will make them strong.

I'm not the only one who has the roller derby jean problem. And as I was browsing the Body by Derby project (a project aimed at cataloging how roller derby changes people's bodies), I couldn't help but notice that a lot of the women in the series weigh more than they did when they started playing. Roller derby is hard work, hard work that builds muscles.

And the benefits aren't limited to the track. Sure, there aren't too many times in my day-to-day life that I need to skate 27 laps in five minutes, but I can chase after my daughter during a game of tag longer, catch myself when I'm stumbling on the stairs with a basket of laundry on my hip easier, and (yes, vainly) admire that newly-formed silhouette when I put on that little black dress.

I can buy bigger jeans.

Photo: tbn97

Friday, April 4, 2014

Blogging to My PhD Round-Up

If you've been a reader for a while (first of all, thank you!), then you've probably noticed that my posts have gotten more and more focused on rhetorical theory and ancient philosophy. That's because today is the big day of my doctoral exams, and I've been using my blog as a way to prepare. All the posts marked "Blogging to My PhD" have been connected in some way to my exam reading list.

Here's the post that introduces my efforts to catalogue the studying dated all the way back in May 2013. That's right. I've been preparing for this thing longer than it took me to grow an entire human being and birth her (another effort that I cataloged on this blog long ago).

Incredibly (at least to me) this isn't the end of these posts because (as long as I pass this exam this afternoon) I'll be moving on to writing a dissertation, and writing these posts has been so helpful that I'll keep going (unless I don't pass; then I guess they weren't as helpful as I thought).

As a way to culminate the exam study experience and as a way to help me pull out some final summaries before I go in to take the test, here's what I've written as part of Blogging to My PhD.
Statistical Noise and the Collective Value of Diversity- By looking at the tension between Plato and Aristotle's ideal city (Plato wants singularity in The Republic; Aristotle wants diversity in Politics), I draw some conclusions about the risks of erasure through unity and the value of diversity illustrated by the Army's racially-charged hair regulations for women and The Good Judgment Project, an experiment that asks everyday people to make predictions about major world events.  
Melting, Mixing, and Patching American Dreams- Perhaps you've heard of America being referred to as the melting pot or the patchwork quilt. This post looks at what each of those metaphors tell us about the different ways to handle America's diversity and how both of them miss the mark. Victor Villanueva, however, gives us an alternative in his book Bootstraps.  
In Defense of Facebook Braggarts and Faking It Til You Make It- Do you have a friend who drives you crazy by posting what looks like a perfect life on social media. You know it's a lie. No one's that happy all the time! This post defends such aggravating acts of social media illusion using Castiglione's concept of sprezzatura from The Book of the Courtier and Hannah Arendt's discussion of socially-maintained reality in The Human Condition 

Comfortable Deceptions- When Cheryl Glenn started her project Rhetoric Retold in an attempt to reclaim the women silenced throughout rhetorical history, she was told it would be a "negative" project that would only verify that women weren't a part of the tradition. Instead, she found evidence of female rhetors throughout history. I use her book to think about what other historical images we won't let go despite evidence to the contrary.  
Flood Lights and Roller Skates- A month out from the exam, it became all-consuming and absolutely exhausting. I thought about it all the time . . . except when I was at roller derby practice.  
Richard Sherman and the Postmodern Self- When Richard Sherman made his infamous post-game speech, I was reading Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality, and the connections between the media response and the way we treat subjectivity in narration were too clear to ignore. We need people in boxes even when it's clear they don't fit.  
The Future is Full of Disaster (and Other Non-Problems)- An essay in Writing New Media points out that postmodernity seems like a crisis . . . to those who see it as a change. For the new generation, it just seems like life.  
Can Tablets Be Our (Children's) Friends?- Using Walter Ong's Presence of the Word, I wonder about marketing that promises electronics that will act as friends. Technology can be a wonderful tool--even for children, but it can't replace human interaction, and it shouldn't pretend it can.  
Athletics and the Rhetoric of Violence- Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture gave me an opportunity to examine the Richie Incognito story in particular and the rhetoric of violence in sports fandom in general. Does a player's bodily risk make the sport more "real"?  
Peter Elbow Helps Me Clean My House- In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow gives a recipe for writing that includes making yourself work for a set amount of time without stopping. Just 10 or 15 minutes makes a huge difference when it comes to producing written ideas. As it turns out, it makes a huge difference in cleaning your house, too.  
Government Shutdown Edition- Disgusted with Congress for shutting down the government and even more disgusted with people who insisted this was a matter of "compromise," I turned to Richard Ohmann and Patricia Roberts-Miller for a discussion of how the mythos of compromise can actually work against us.  
Become a New You! (And Other Educational Endeavors)- Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts discusses the close ties between ancient Greek physical education and rhetoric. Both types of teaching involved transformation for the student. Today, that longed-for transformation is often caught up in sociopolitical standards of "success." We seek out education to make a change in ourselves, but what boundaries should we place on that? 
Is There an Authentic Self?- If I had to pick one post to be at the heart of my exploration over this past year, this would be it. Again turning to Debra Hawhee, I look at two films (The Butterfly Effect and Knocked Up) where the protagonist undergoes a change because of interaction with someone else. Is that a bad thing? Do we lose our "true self" when we change for someone else? 
Don't Mind Me; Just a Little Meltdown- I freaked out a little. I didn't think it would be fair to the process to not document that part, too.  
How Much Should Textbooks Matter?- Sharon Crowley relies heavily on information from textbooks to make generalizations about past rhetorical teaching practices in The Methodical Memory. But I think relying too heavily on textbooks to learn about how someone taught is like relying on Planned Parenthood handouts about STDs to learn about sex. Textbooks just aren't that illustrative of what actually happens in a classroom.  
Metaphors as Tools for Creating Productive Tension- Peter Elbow gives a lot of practical advice on how to become a better writer, but he also sprinkles in a lot of striking, unique metaphors. This has me wondering about the pedagogical value of metaphor.  
Let the Youth Speak!- By looking at Current-Traditional rhetoric practices, Sharon Crowley criticizes the way that boundaries were created for students. Much of these boundaries were justified by something of a "kids today" argument that denies agency and action to the youth.  
Negotiating, Bargaining, and Equally Shared Parenting- Patricia Roberts-Miller became one of my favorites on the list after I read Deliberate Conflict. I used her ideas to muse on the difference between negotiating and bargaining, especially when it comes to navigating who will do what in equally shared parenting practices.  
What's so "Masculine" About Strength?- If there is one thing that has driven me absolutely mad during this process of studying, it's been reading the argument (often from feminists) that traditional rhetorical practices are masculine and silence women because they focus on strength. While I don't deny that there has been silencing afoot, to accept that strength is masculine is not helping.  
Collaboration and Plagiarism, the Tangled Webs We Weave- A Twitter fight over plagiarism accusations between two bloggers has me reflecting on the way that postmodern concepts of authorship and the ease of access to material factors into the lines between collaboration and plagiarism.  
We Always Judge From Where We Stand- An article about feminist approaches to composition helps me reflect on the way that the mythos of equality masks difference. When we conflate nonstandard expressions of idea with substandard expressions of ideas, we silence and isolate voices that would benefit us all.  
Technological Devices and the Human Experience- We often think of writing as a way to express our already developed selves, but writing and language are actually ways to develop that self in the first place. Our tools shape us as much as we shape them, and the impact of our rapidly progressing technology is huge.  
Consumers and Producers of Discourse in the Digital Age- Thomas Miller helps me consider how the balance between production and consumption of texts might be challenged by the devices we use. It's easier to consume media on a table than it is to produce it. Will that mean less production? Or will it mean a new kind of production as we adapt to our tools? 
Tightropes and Hard Times- Almost all of the women that have been "reclaimed" in the earlier part of rhetorical history found their way into rhetoric through tragedy and financial necessity. Is struggle part of the process of becoming a rhetor?  
Practicing and Preaching- In Reclaiming Rhetorica, one of the early female rhetors is Mary Wollstonecraft. Her personal life (which included suicide attempts and letters begging for the attention of her wayward lover) has been harshly criticized by feminist scholars who would rather forget that she did such things. But that's not fair. She lived an actual life, and that's part of the story, too.  
Meta-Post: How the #*%& Do I Study for This Thing?- At this point in the studying, I did some reflection on my methods. They grew and changed over the course of the thing, but they were multimedia approaches that focused on getting summaries and connections above all.  
Thoughts on Obedience and Toddlers- I didn't expect my exam study to overlap with my parenting practices much, but since so much of what I read was about teaching philosophy, it really did. Using Quintilian, I put some thought into whether or not I actually want an obedient child.  
Melvin B. Tolson's Debate Legacy- This is a short little post about how reading about Melvin B. Tolson in David Gold's book was inspirational and, in a moment of pure happenstance, coincided with my husband's high school.  
Berlin's Rhetorics- I made an infographic! It's all about James Berlin's categories of rhetorical teaching approaches.  
Truth in Fiction- In Rereading the Sophists, Susan Jarratt makes some excellent points about our rhetorical history that I use to think about our privileging of nonfiction over fiction. What does the "truth" in writing really mean? 
Education Reform: Everything Old is New Again- Reading Albert Kitzhaber demonstrated how much we're really repeating the same problems again and again in rhetorical teaching but labeling them as new crises. We're not actually in crisis. This is just the way things are.  
Information Overload or Peak of Intellectual Power- Cicero would probably be a little overwhelmed if he were zapped to today's time and shown all of the information we can access. Do we have too much? Or are we at the peak of intellectual power, historically speaking? 
Aristotle and Multiple Intelligences- In Politics, Aristotle makes a comment that one should not work the mind and the body at the same time. I disagree.  
Aristotle's Politics- Sometimes (and by that I mean every minute of every day in comment sections across the internet) people are called racist for pointing out racism and sexist for pointing out sexism. Using Aristotle, I think a little about what's at stake there. 
So there you have it. I didn't quite make it to my goal of a post per book, but I did write whenever the inspiration struck and the time allowed (a tough combo to come by near the end). We'll found out soon if it worked!


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Statistical Noise and the Collective Value of Diversity

In The Republic, Plato makes a fairly progressive argument for women's equality, saying that women--even "in spite of wrinkles and ugliness"--should be free to practice "naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men" even though the argument will be viewed as ridiculous by the general public. 

Far be it from me to criticize this statement. I hope my work on this blog has shown my unwavering devotion to gender equality, and that means if anyone is exercising naked in the palaestra, old women should be allowed to, too, damn it! 

Still, there's something at work in Plato's claim that is a bit more troubling. See, his claim for men and women being trained equally is part of a larger argument that the perfect city is one in which "the good and true man is of the same pattern." Essentially, Plato's utopian political vision is one in which the personal (and all individuality) is erased as everything becomes part of the public sphere. Plato longs for a world in which diversity has become completely erased because all people see things in their "True" form, and they therefore all see them alike. 

Plato's Parable of the Cave is an extension of this idea. He desires to give control to irrefutable philosopher-kings because they have stepped outside of the "cave" of human distractions and seen the "real Truth" obscured by our human inadequacies. Plato's desire for a public sphere filled only with people who meet his standard of acceptability is incredibly elitist and narrow-minded, even if it does occasionally bring about moments of progressive inclusion (like that for the naked old ladies). 

Hannah Arendt criticizes Plato's ideal political sphere harshly in The Human Condition, going so far as to call his desire for utter singularity the longing for "a kind of death" since it is interaction with other human beings that give us our sense of reality. Plato desires a world so uniform and singular that it is essentially, according to Arendt, not a world at all, but she dismisses the gravity of the desire just as quickly by explaining that we can only attain Plato's ideal state temporarily because we must always return to life among other people. 

Unlike your pet beta, who is forever alone. 

This is particularly tied into postmodern ideas about language and the construction of reality. Language is always and necessarily a social act. We create language to build bridges for the gaps between individuals. I use language to get what I think out of my mind and into your mind, and those bridges can be more or less successful, but they are always navigated socially. Postmodernity suggests that our entire realities are constructed out of language, and therefore our realities are socially dependent as well. 

Aristotle directly challenges Plato's notion of the ideal city in Politics. He explains that "a city is by nature a certain kind of multiplicity; by becoming more of a one it would turn from a city into a household and from a  household into a human being." Aristotle maintains divisions between the public, the private, and the individual. 

He goes so far as to say that while a city should be one in some ways, it cannot be one in every way. To do so, he says, would be like turning "a harmony into unison or rhythm into a single metric foot." Aristotle recognizes that diversity is not only inevitable, but a necessary component of a life lived among human beings, which is the only kind of life one can have if it involves the political. 

After all, a symphony made up entirely of flutes isn't going to hold the power of one made up of many instruments. A drum line needs people playing different rhythms to make the music worth listening to. The sound of people tapping simultaneously on a snare drum isn't very interesting. 

I touched upon some of these notions in my last Blogging to My PhD post when I looked at the different ways we discuss the ideal American identity, melting pot vs. patchwork quilt vs. stew. Lately, I've been reminded of the many ways that these ideas creep into our daily interactions as a social group navigating the complexities of simultaneously belonging to a community (no matter how big or small) and being an individual. 

Uniformity and Exclusion: The Army Hair Guidelines

Perhaps you've seen the new U.S. Army hair regulations for women, which are being petitioned for their racially-motivated exclusion. The Army's reasoning for releasing the guidelines is to "maintain uniformity within a military population." The Army, then, is enacting a mini version of Plato's ideal public sphere: the more uniformity, the better. 


The Ms. Magazine article on the topic explains exactly why Plato's ideal is so troubling: 
When that need for “uniformity” erases the ethnic differences of a group of women and forces them to constrain themselves to European standards of hair, it presents a serious problem.
Plato hides behind the notion of Truth to minimize the elitism in his argument. He's just trying to move everyone to the "right" position, never mind that the "right" position just so happens to be the one most likely occupied by privileged Athenian citizens--like himself. 

The Army calls for uniformity, but then uses the appearance standards of white hair to enforce that uniformity. Anytime someone calls for a uniform existence, they are calling for (albeit sometimes subtly) the erasure of someone else's expression. Uniformity always functions as a tool for silencing and erasure. If there was nothing to silence or erase, there wouldn't have been a call for uniformity to begin with because there would have been no difference to call attention in the first place. 

What Do We Lose in a Uniform World?

Plato calls for uniformity in order to strengthen the polis, but evidence suggests that Aristotle had the right idea. Not only is diversity an inevitable part of a life lived among other people, but it is desirable. Why? Because we're smarter, more accurate, and better able to make decisions as a diverse group. 


A recent meta-study looked at the quality of academic research teams. It recorded how many times a team was cited in outside sources (a sign of how important and high-quality it is to the field) and the diversity of the research team that conducted the study and wrote the paper. 

The findings showed something interesting: teams comprised of all-white members were much less likely to be cited than teams that included members from racial minority groups. Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, explains the findings: 
[P]apers written exclusively by Anglo authors don't do as well as papers that have Anglo authors and, let's say, Chinese authors.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a simple equation of listening to more minority voices. The researchers went on to find that diversity was a key component of successful research for minority-led projects, too.
If you look at papers that are written exclusively by Chinese authors, those papers tend also not to be as good as papers that are written by diverse teams.
Freeman goes on to say that this benefit is not limited to racial diversity. Teams comprised of researchers from multiple states create stronger work than those comprised of members from the same state. When you have more viewpoints in a myriad of different ways, the work gets stronger.

That study is interesting, but it's also not that surprising to me. It makes sense that people from different backgrounds, be they gender, race, geography, age, etc. would be able to look at things in slightly different ways and that those combined perspectives would help bring about innovation and better identify potential pitfalls.

What is surprising to me, though, is that people work better as a group even when they're wrong.

Society Needs You, Even If You're Always Wrong

This morning, I caught an NPR discussion about a group of people who have been chosen to participate in an experiment about global political predictions. These are every day people with no special training and no access to classified information. They're asked to give likelihood percentages for a range of specific questions like "Will North Korea launch a new multistage missile before May 10, 2014?"

This project is called The Good Judgment Project (and you can register to participate on their site). Sometimes these Average Joe and Janes are very wrong, but a startling number of them are eerily accurate.

The real shock, though, is how good they are as an aggregate. When their predictions are averaged together, they are 30 percent more accurate than CIA agents who have access to classified information.

Read that again. These every day people without any special information access are 30 percent better at predicting future events than CIA agents who are trained to do this and have classified information at their fingertips.

Thirty per cent is a lot.

The idea for looking at the accuracy of a group like this came from an early 20th century ox carcass. People at a fair were asked to guess the ox's weight, and they were staggeringly wrong. Many of them guessed hundreds of pounds over. Some guessed hundreds of pounds under. I can imagine that I would be among them, as I have no ability to tell how much an ox weighs.

However, when all of their guesses were averaged together, they amounted to 1,198 pounds. The ox weighed 1,197.

What's most interesting to me about this is that we needed people to be really, really wrong in order to get to the right answer. Without the person who guessed 2,200 pounds, we wouldn't be able to cancel out the person who guessed 200 pounds. Getting the best answer in the aggregate means not culling the crowd to find the voices you think will be most accurate. If you do that, you're essentially just picking the voices you think will be most like you because we always judge what's "right" from our own standards (just like Plato).

Accepting a wide range of perspectives makes us stronger overall. Diversity is not just a good practice for those who have previously been excluded from the public sphere. Diversity is not, as it is often viewed by those who want to maintain power, just a touchy-feely practice aimed at ethical inclusion. Diversity is actually beneficial to us all in a very real, tangible, and economic sense.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gendering Physical Expectations: Of "Girl" Push-Ups and "Boy" Push-Ups

Years ago, when my husband and I were dating, he locked himself out of his apartment. He had a door in his bedroom opening up to a second-story balcony, and we decided to try to get in that way. The logical choice (since he was stronger and I was lighter) was for him to boost me up to the balcony and for me to pull myself over. We managed the boosting, but not so much the pulling.


My upper body strength is drastically disproportionate to my lower body strength. I can't do a pull-up (as my little breaking-into-the-house experiment made clear), and I have a hard time with push-ups. 

Perhaps this is because I rarely try to do a push-up. I plan to, in the loosest sense of the word "plan." I add them into my sheet at the end of a weightlifting session (one focused mostly on squats, lunges, and other things I feel confident about), and I half-heartedly pump out a few while I'm exhausted and checked out, but I haven't made it a fitness priority . . . and that's mainly because I don't like doing things I suck at. (I know, I know, that's precisely why you do them, to not suck at them anymore. This is emotion, not logic.)

That was all in the back of my mind when my three-year-old daughter came home from preschool the other day and started "exercising" (meaning jumping wildly around the living room with a mat on the floor) with my husband. She started excitedly doing jumping jacks, and then she turned to him and said "Daddy, you do boy push-ups, and I'll do girl push-ups." Then she dropped to her knees and did some sort of cat/cow yoga pose/push-up hybrid before returning to her natural state of torpedoing through the living room. 

I mentioned it to her teacher, who assured me it was just a passing comment that a dad volunteering to show the children some exercise moves had made. It had clearly stuck with my daughter. Days later, there was a man doing push-ups on TV and she said "Look! He's doing boy push-ups!" She'd internalized this passing comment. Boys do push-ups on their toes; girls do them on their knees. 

Maybe it shouldn't bother me as much as it does. I've been combating it with "There are no girl push-ups and boy push-ups; there are just push-ups." and "Girls can do push-ups on their toes, too." But I know that I don't have the ethos that this visiting parent had (visiting parents are a big deal to three-year-olds). He knows because he's an expert

Recently the Marines have had a problem: women are not passing the three pull-up minimum. Several people have jumped on this fact to demonstrate that women are weaker than men, and it's clear that there is a biological advantage that men have when it comes to upper body strength (thanks to Testosterone), but that's not the full story. 

Women who are given specific training in pull-ups are able to complete way beyond the minimum, and the current training (designed with men in mind, as female participants are the vast minority and only recently allowed) isn't providing that. 

The Marines have temporarily scrapped the requirement for female recruits, but there's debate about how to handle it going forward. 

Biology plays a role, but training and cultural norms are part of the equation, too, and my daughter's experience touches on both. She's being taught from a very early age that she's not capable of doing the same kind of physical exertion as her male peers, and she's therefore not getting the training that would allow her to demonstrate otherwise. 

It's a self-fulfilling prophesy that we need to end now. 

Maybe I need to start doing some push-ups so I can volunteer for the next parent-run workout routine. 


Photo: hyper7pro

Monday, March 31, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Melting, Mixing, and Patching American Dreams

When I was a little kid, I was told that America was the "melting pot." I learned this during discussions of "diversity" in elementary school, discussions made somewhat abstract by the lack of racial, religious, and even most socioeconomic diversity in my own tiny, rural Midwestern hometown. 

The idea sounded so appealing to me as a kid, though. Look at America, bringing together so many different types of people and blending them into something strong and beautiful. I pictured molten metal being poured into molds.


Later, in college, I would hear discussions of how the "melting pot" metaphor for American identity was inadequate. We weren't actually all blended together into a homogenous, glowing mixture. We maintained our unique cultural identities but were stitched to one another into a brightly colored, multi-faceted whole. America, I was told, is a patchwork quilt.


By this point in my personal experiences, I had been pushed out of the homogeneity of my hometown both physically and mentally. As an English major, I was taking classes in African American literature and reading Chicano and Native American works. I was learning about feminist theories and generally recognizing that the world was much more diverse and much less at harmony than I had previously thought. The melting pot metaphor certainly didn't fit. We don't all blend together into one harmonious substance and, furthermore, we shouldn't try! My liberal arts education had me embracing the expressions of a wide array of cultural experiences, and the patchwork quilt metaphor captures that spirit. It is the brightness and uniqueness of our own cultural heritages that make the quilt of American culture complete. 

That metaphor, too, has fallen flat as time has gone on. The melting pot metaphor and the patchwork quilt metaphor each represent extreme views for cultural diversity. 

Melting Pot= Assimilation

On the one hand, the melting pot metaphor suggests complete assimilation. We see the less friendly-sounding outputs of its core values in "English only" language movements, those who aim to remove minority literature classes from course catalogs, and a general insistence that the right way to be "American" is by taking on the attributes of the white, middle class hegemony. (It might, for instance, manifests itself as a group of online bigots outraged that a Mexican-American boy sang the national anthem at a televised sporting event or in policies that remove Native American children from their families.)


It's easy to see why the melting pot metaphor is problematic. Even though it sounded great to me as a child (why shouldn't we all want to become one, great, strong substance working together?), the realities of political power mean that we must all become the standard, and the standard is entrenched in privilege and prejudice. The racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and virtually every other type of -ism wrapped up in the melting pot essentially means that those with less power "melt" under the pressure of the norms around them, vanishing from the fabric of American identity. In the case of the English-only movement or the removal of minority literature courses, they are literally silenced. The melting pot aims to remove the markers of diversity and in doing so aims to erase the experiences of the people who represent it. 

Patchwork Quilt= Blind Idealism 

So the patchwork quilt is the answer, right? If the melting pot ignores diversity, then the patchwork quilt is the way to embrace it. By recognizing that we all inhabit our own little squares of identity, we ensure that diversity is not erased. We are each able to contribute our own experiences and voices to the mix, and those experiences are seen as equally important and valid to the overall American identity. 

This notion has been the driving force behind movements to preserve cultural heritage. It's why we have things like Black History Month and Native American Heritage Month. Driven by the urge to recognize, validate, and then disseminate the accomplishments and contributions of groups that are traditionally marginalized, we are pointing to the patches on the quilt. America is a diverse country built upon the sacrifice of many minority groups, often at the violent hands of those driven by the melting pot ideology.  

Jesse Jackson invoked the patchwork quilt metaphor in his 1984 address to the Democratic National Convention, explaining: 
America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay and the disabled make up the American quilt. 
The problem with the patchwork quilt analogy is two-fold. In the first place, the patches of a quilt are not integrated. Each exists in its own separate space, connected to the others only by the stitches that bind the quilt as a whole. There are many people who inhabit multiple spheres of identity. Using Jackson's examples, what happens if you are a young, gay businessman? What happens if you are an old, lesbian Latina? We do not stay neatly in the boxes placed before us, and attempting to corral people into a single box of identity is damaging to their personal sense of self and to their ability to connect with others and thrive. The patchwork quilt metaphor fails to take into account that we do, in fact, blend. 

Secondly, the patchwork quilt metaphor does not address the need to mix and the responsibilities we have to one another beyond our own square of cloth. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month but refusing to address the problems facing the Native American community on a daily basis (or even removing an offensive, derogatory mascot) does little to actually address diversity; it merely pays lip service to it. 

A Compromise: The Salad Bowl

From this tension, we can find a third metaphor for American identity: the salad bowl. In a salad, the different ingredients are distinct and bring their own unique flavor and contribution to the whole. They are, however, coexisting. The flavors of one will impact the flavor of another. They work together or, sometimes, fail to meld in an effective way. 


It would seem that the salad bowl metaphor addresses many of the issues that come out of the patchwork quilt analogy, but there is still something missing.

Returning to the Melting Pot

The melting pot is obviously a troubling metaphor. It ignores the diversity in American history and present American demographics. It is rife with bigotry, privilege, and cruelly-wielded power. But it gets something right that both the patchwork quilt and the salad ignore: violence. 

There is violence in American identity. It is a troubling, tension-filled thing to find a way to belong in a heterogeneous society. To ignore that is to ignore the very real struggles that people undergo every day as they work to find a sense of self. 

I was prompted to think about these metaphors when I was reading Victor Villanueva's Bootstraps, a book in which he explores his own attempts to assimilate to white expectations as a Hispanic American. Despite his efforts to embrace the melting pot, he eventually recognizes that his identity will always be that of a minority, especially in his role as a university professor. He is seen as the go-to person for "minority" issues, and his work is always read through the lens of a the "minority perspective."

Out of these experiences, Villanueva suggests a new metaphor for American cultural identity: a stew.

 Villanueva explains that the stew metaphor “maintains the violence of the melting-pot metaphor while suggesting some of the ingredients do not lose all of their original identity, though altered, taking in the juices from the other ingredients of the pot, adding to the juices; all of us this one thing, Americans, and all of us some things else" (20).

While imagining American identity as a patchwork quilt or a salad might be appealing because it suggests a sense of harmony and tolerance, it ignores the very real power structures at play when we craft our sense of self.

We can't craft it alone. We are pushed and pulled by those around us as we develop a sense of self. We are melted, melded, and combined. We do not stay neatly in any one box, and we may lose some of our flavor to an overpowering majority. The stew metaphor captures these nuances in a way that the salad metaphor misses. When we're all cooked together, there is a violence to the stewing that cannot be ignored, and the impact that violence has on the way identities are shaped must be part of the conversation about diversity. 

Photo: Graela, josiequilts, Slice of Chic, Offbeat Photography

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

I know I've been neglecting my blogging duties, but I'm in the final throes of completing my doctoral exams. I promise I'll be back soon!

In the meantime, here's a quick recap of some of the things I've been reading in the rare moments of study breaks that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

Have you seen this awesome body paint/parrot picture?

Check out Danielle Vermeer's new Etsy shop for upcycled vintage clothes.

The Bad

In my city (St. Louis, MO), it appears that the police tried to intimidate and threaten a man on probation if he didn't help them plant a gun on someone.

The "No Judgments" gym (Planet Fitness) proves once again that they are all about judging.

This study that says obese women get only an hour of exercise a year? For real?

The Curious 

Some more thoughts (this time from The Chronicle) on why the language of customer service does harm to the function of education:
Education is created, not consumed, but we cannot expect students to believe that when every message from academe itself tells them that they can just buy it.
Have you seen the picture about the "new math" that's being used to show why Common Core doesn't make any sense? Well, this Patheos piece explains why taking a single picture out of context doesn't really tell us much about the pedagogical theory behind it.

The Atlantic has a nice piece on my favorite track from the Beyonce album: "Jealous."

It doesn't take much (just some eyelashes and slightly curlier hair) to turn Disney's leading men into leading women.

I try not to let the ever-changing food trends mean too much (because I will go insane), but I did think this study showing that full-fat milk may make people leaner was an interesting challenge to our conventional beliefs about food and body size. 


That's what I've been reading. How about you?