Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hey, Guess What! We're Homeschooling!

So, we're homeschooling.

I have tried to write this post five times. I have five separate versions of this post sitting in various states of completion in multiple mediums. That usually doesn't happen to me, so I know I'm sitting on some raw emotions. To date, I have the following versions of this story:

  • The Angry One- In this post, I rant and rave about a school system that failed my daughter and mistreated her so badly that I could not see straight. I get deep into the well of emotion as I describe watching my bright, funny, energetic little girl turn into a sullen, anxious, cloud of misery.
  • The Positive One- In this post, I present my excitement about this new educational undertaking and go on and on about the possibilities that I've uncovered, the supportive communities I have found both virtual and in person, and the ways that it has already improved my daughter's mood and educational outcomes. 
  • The Self-Dissecting One- In this post, I try to unpack what it means for someone who has staked much of her identity (professional, political, and personal) on the principles behind public education to pull out of the public education system. I was educated in public schools through my BA. I teach in a community college. I believe in open access, publicly funded schools that meet the needs of a diverse set of learners. 
  • The Activist One- In this post, I veer quickly from my personal story to stats and anecdotes about the needs of "Twice Exceptional" children, the label that best fits my daughter. These are children who have both a diagnosis of giftedness and a diagnosis of some kind of learning disability or challenge (like ADHD). Often, they're emotional and social skills lag while their academic abilities soar, and the result is never finding a way to get their needs met on either side of the equation. 
  • The Overwhelmed One- In this post, I panic about the fact that my balancing act now includes finding a way to work full time, manage a household, raise two children (one still nursing and in diapers), and homeschool a first grader with special needs in multiple directions. 
Any one of those posts would have been a valid, honest account of what I've been thinking about, researching, and doing in the past four or so months, but none of them was quite right. I am at once disappointed, excited, overwhelmed, scared, hopeful, angry, and getting by. There are days when this seems like the best decision I have ever made and days when I don't know what I have gotten myself into. My kitchen table has been completely overtaken by workbooks, chemistry experiments, and library books. I am awash in a million open browser tabs of free resources, curriculum plans, and homeschooling blogs. I go down rabbit holes and make two weeks worth of lesson plans only to scrap them all the next day and start over. 

I imagine that some people reading this who know me have some questions. How long will we do this? Will we homeschool both kids? Will we try a private school? 

I don't know. I don't know the answer to any of those questions because this whole experience has taught me that my penchant for planning (and it is a strong one) is no match for the fact that life is unexpected and throws you some curveballs. This is not the path I imagined walking, but it is the best one for the moment, and I'm going to stay on it until I find a better one. 

Because here's the part that needs to stay from that angry post I mentioned above: at one point in this whole process, I was finding myself up against the need to fight for my daughter, to go to battle with the school district and insist upon accommodations. And that's what it felt like: a war. It felt like I was fighting the people charged with educating my daughter to educate her. And if we're fighting, we're on opposing sides, and my side is that I want my daughter to become a self-sufficient, supported, kind individual. If you're on the other side of that, what does that mean? 

Ultimately, my husband and I made this decision because we refuse to put our child in an environment where there is a battle over her well-being. Educating a child should not be a war. There should only be one side. And whether I homeschool for the rest of my daughter's childhood, send her to private school, or figure out some other arrangement, I know one thing: I will not settle for an educational environment that doesn't want her and support her. 

Photo: Philip McEarlean

Saturday, April 29, 2017

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things (Because We Got Rid of Them All): Is "Minspo" a Problem?

I've mentioned a few times in previous posts that I've been exploring and utilizing concepts from the increasingly popular "minimalist" movement. I started listening to podcasts from The Minimalists (who are now probably best known for their documentary Minimalism. After it appeared on Netflix, there was a fresh wave of people turning to these ideas). While I occasionally found the content verging into sanctimonious territory, I'm pretty good at taking what works and leaving what doesn't, and a lot of what they were saying worked for me.

Adopting a minimalist framework helped me see my living space differently, make more conscious purchasing decisions, and put a name to a privileging of experiences and satisfaction with life over material wealth that had just been part of who I was for as long as I can remember. I wasn't cheap or a lazy decorator after all; I was just a minimalist. Voila!

I turned to several Facebook groups aimed at providing inspiration, support, and community for minimalists, and in many ways they do exactly what they set out to do: inspire, support, and bring people together. Of course, as with any belief system that gets truncated into Facebook posts, there is the constant in-fighting over who is or who is not "really" a minimalist and who is merely dabbling with the trend without engaging. Constant litmus tests pop up. Do you hang things on your wall? Do you paint with colors other than white, off-white, and eggshell? Do your children own electronic toys? Do your children own toys at all? Do you have pets? Do you use tampons? Do you use toilet paper?

Depending on who you are asking, there are people within these groups who will happily declare you NOT MINIMALIST if you answer yes to any of those questions. Of course, that starts a fresh wave of angry comments: "Minimalism means something different to everyone." "We're all at different places in our journey." "I thought that minimalism meant you minimized your negativity; you're not being very minimalist right now, either."

The flip side of this (and one that I'll attest to being more personally sympathetic to) is when people (often new to the concept) come into the groups and ask a bunch of questions about how to properly declutter. "How many socks should I own?" "How many forks?" "How do I declutter more effectively?"

Many long-term members of the group will get frustrated and say that minimalism isn't about decluttering but about making a long-term commitment to a simpler, more intentional way of living. The decluttering posts, in their opinion, detract from the philosophical aims of the movement and turn it into a superficial heap of decorating advice rather than a holistic way of interacting with the world.

This decluttering/simplistic aesthetic can become something of a competition, and there are people who clearly take pleasure in seeing how far they can push the idea. It generates memes like this one:

Recently, there has also been a lot of criticism of minimalism as a fad that ignores its own privilege. The Guardian calls minimalism "another boring product wealthy people can buy." Many people have questioned the way that minimalism co-opts markers of poverty and makes them trendy.  This post likens the moral superiority expressed by some minimalists to slut shaming for consumerists and says that it expresses "the shitty idea that one has to be poor in order to advance spiritually." (Of course, there are plenty of long-standing religious traditions that say exactly that, but I guess isolating them from the larger belief system and wrapping them up in Pinterest boards changes the delivery.) 

All that to say that there are feelings going on here. As I said earlier, I've gotten pretty good at taking what I want and leaving what I don't when it comes to dabbling in any self-helpy online communities. I did the Paleo diet for a while, realized it was way too strict (and honestly, at times cult-like) for me, so I took the parts of it that worked and left the rest. I have joined groups about positive parenting, but when the conversation jumps off the deep end into what does or does not constitute child abuse and shots have been fired from all sides, I typically just politely find my way out. If I do get involved in these debates, it is usually because I feel interested in the tension of the debate itself rather than because of a deep investment on one side or the other. After all, it's from the tension that we usually find the most interesting answers. 

Still, I have to admit that at times the presentation of minimalism as a movement gets a little hard for me to swallow even as the actual practices have undoubtedly, meaningfully, and probably permanently changed the way that I live my life. The more I tried to unpack why that was, the more I kept thinking about fitspo. 

If you don't know what fitspo is, you can read a few of my posts about it here and here. Basically, fitspo (an abbreviated portmanteau of "fit" and "inspiration") is any of those social media memes that are designed to inspire people to fitness. They grew as an alternative (and ostensibly healthier and more positive version of) "thinspo" which of course stood for "thin inspiration." "Thinspo" was harshly criticized for promoting deeply unhealthy body image and contributing to disordered eating and obsessive exercise. Fitspo, what was originally supposed to be an answer to these problems, pretty quickly devolved into "thinspo with muscles." It used many of the same rhetorical approaches to "motivate" through tacit shaming and to portray isolated, unrealistic, and idealistic versions of "fitness" that were so limited as to be unattainable. Many body positive bloggers started taking on fitspo to point out its flaws, producing "corrected" versions like these:

The more that I thought about the way that minimalism is getting watered down in its delivery, the more I kept thinking about these problems with fitspo. I believe that fitspo has the potential to do a lot of good. I have personally seen many inspiring, thoughtful, and meaningful examples of fitspo that do not root themselves in shame and competition. I started collecting a lot of them on this Pinterest board as well as discussions about what makes a "fitspo" image (in my opinion) a positive one. 

Basically, I could narrow down the criteria for a "good" piece of fitspo like this: 

  1. Holistic- Our bodies are complex, connected entities. Fitness is not chiseled abs. Fitness is not flexed biceps. Fitness is not rounded glutes. Fitness is the way that you use the body you have in the time and space you inhabit to accomplish a goal. 
  2. Diverse- Images that show only one way to be fit are images that ignore reality. People have different kinds of bodies with different levels of ability. They can all be "fit" in different ways since they all have to inhabit time and space and accomplish goals. 
  3. Motivating- It wouldn't really be "inspiration" without pushing the reader toward action. 
I personally find motivation for fitness through images that show bodies in motion, people taking action. I don't need to look at the visual synecdoche of isolated body parts. 

Images like this one reduce the person pictured to an object. The readers are asked not to see inspiration in the work that person did to achieve the desired results. Instead, the readers are asked to put themselves into that person's body. This is why the person is headless. This is why the camera is focused on the person's glutes and legs. Those aren't supposed to be her glutes. That's supposed to be my ass. And if I don't look like her (which I am never, ever, not ever, not in any way going to do), then I am failing. That's a lot of failing. 

On the contrary, a holistic image that shows a full human being and their body in motion operates differently. 

This image comes from the Feminist Fitspo tumblr. This woman also has flexed muscles, but they're flexed not because she's posing for the camera but because that's what muscles do when you are actively using them. The rhetorical impact of this picture is not a request for me to read myself into her body. That is her body. She maintains her agency and individuality (and her head). I can be inspired without being asked to cannibalize. I can see someone else using their own body to do something amazing and then ask myself what amazing things I can do. Instead of a competition, it becomes about opening up possibilities. 

Back to minimalism. Is "Minspo" a thing? 

Here are some screenshots from the Pinterest board "Minimalism," which has 90,000 followers. 

This is a pretty typical representation of what you'll get if you're looking for minimalist inspiration on Pinterest: pin after pin of white walls, simple furniture, and empty spaces. 

I'd call this "Minspo." I think that it's serving the same purpose as "fitspo" in that it aims to inspire people to adopt a minimalist lifestyle. Just as fitspo can have different rhetorical aims, so can minspo. 

In many ways, those images of all those white rooms are similar to the isolated body parts of some "fitspo." Just like the dissected abs, these images show a tiny part of someone's living space in an incredibly staged way that isn't reflective of the way people actually live. Just like these fitness bloggers demonstrated that their staged photos and "real" photos are vastly different, I'd venture to guess that even the photos of minimalism that were taken in real homes (rather than staged studios specifically for this purpose) are carefully curated snapshots of an artificial moment. 

We all do it! I am much more likely to photograph that birthday cake I made from the angle that shows the shiny, perfectly smooth icing rather than the one that shows where I got impatient and melted it by putting it on too fast. I'll take cute picture of my son and then crop out the pile of laundry behind him. We want to display the version of our lives that we think reflects the best of it. That's normal. 

But what happens is that these images become so pervasive when we scroll through page after page of them that we start looking at them through a different lens. Just like the disconnected body parts of fitspo invite us not to be inspired but to place ourselves within them, too much time consuming those dissected pieces of a living space turn them from an inspirational suggestion of decor and into a judgment of our own spaces, spaces that are not staged photography sites but real life houses with human beings living in them. 

There is another kind of "Minspo" you might find, which is simply text images with quotes designed to inspire you to own less. Joshua Becker, a minimalist blogger at Becoming Minimalist, has a Pinterest board filled with these

Taken on their own, things like "own less. do more." and "'Tis Better to Donate Than Accumulate" are simple maxims that can help fight a consumerist onslaught of marketing. It's a way to ground ourselves and remember that many of the "needs" placed upon us by corporate interests aren't really needs at all. I've personally found these messages motivating, and I can name at least a dozen things that I didn't purchase (but probably would have in the past) since I have worked to become more intentionally mindful of what I do or don't buy.

The problem with these images comes when we immerse ourselves in them too long and too often. Mantras can morph from inspiration into shame. We can begin to look around our homes and see these words pop up in our minds.

Many people in these minimalist groups mock (often light-heartedly) older generations for hoarding unnecessary items because they grew up in a time when "waste not, want not" was the pervasive societal message. They got that message fed to them not through Pinterest boards, but through the necessity of economic realities. In many ways, minimalism is growing out of similar motivations. Younger people tend to be embracing minimalism at increasing rates, and I think a lot of it has to do with facing an economic reality that has made it obvious we won't be living the "American Dream" as it was sold to us. The suburban sprawl of 4000 square feet McMansions isn't sustainable or affordable for many of us. A lot of us are looking at crushing student debt for degrees that we can't use because the job market has changed so rapidly. Automation promises to make obsolete many careers that were once safe paths to the middle class. In some ways we're not so much seeking out minimalism as embracing our realities.

Still, too much time spent submerged in this kind of "inspiration" starts to change the way you think. Suddenly you may find yourself "decluttering" every weekend for months on end. You might find yourself feeling resentful of objects in your home. Many people in these groups report fights with spouses who are not okay with getting rid of as many things. Some threads devolve into competitions over who can throw out the most bags of things in a day.

Much like a fitspo binge that leaves you pinching fat rolls in the mirror and obsessively counting calories, this isn't good for you. The point of getting inspired is to make your life better, not worse. If you leave a page full of inspirational quotes feeling like a failure, they weren't actually inspirational quotes--even if they would have been for someone else in another context.

What makes me sad about this is that I have seen many people declare they're convinced they'll never "make it to minimalism" as if there is some end goal. As if getting rid of just five more pairs of socks will unlock some achievement badge. As if once you finally finish removing all your extra cookie sheets or painting that last blue accent stripe white, you'll be "done" and can officially wear your Minimalist Pin to the club events.

This is as silly as thinking that the last five sit-ups or the last three pounds or pushing yourself to the risk of injury in order to shave the last ten seconds off your running lap are going to somehow make you eternally "fit."

I didn't get into it in this post, but the exact same phenomenon--complete with the inspirational posts we tend to share on social media--could also be applied to healthy food choices.

These are journeys. Lifelong ones. Turning to these communities can be a great way to get some advice on how to make a guided choice within a framework that makes sense and inspires you. But if you end up spending too much time there and immersing yourself in that language day after day, you run the risk of losing sight of the fact that this is but one facet of a complex life. Turn to these groups and memes for a moment (except those horrible fitspo ones that turn you into dissected abs and biceps; I advise not turning to those at all). Then move on. Come back when you feel the need for inspiration, and turn away any time your feelings of motivation and excitement start to turn to feelings of comparison and shame.

This is your life, not a race. The only end is the final one. Spend your time wisely.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"Next Year": When I Decided "Being Present" Wasn't Just BS

In my many attempts to gain some order over my life and fight off the ever-present dragons of anxiety, I've often been given advice to be "present-centered" or "live in the moment."

Most times, I smiled blankly and nodded, feeling as if this advice (whether coming from a friend, a motivational piece of writing, or a mental health professional) was akin to telling me my lungs would work better if they "just stopped needing oxygen."

I'm a planner. It's central to my identity to have a sense of the future and what I'll be doing in it. I love designing curriculum for my classes down to the minute details. I like organizing lists of possible summer camps for my daughter and color coding them to determine the best fit.

I distinctly remember a conversation with my husband after a particularly rough day of living life where I was sitting on the bed and opened my computer to look at my Google calendar with all of its to-do lists and color coordinating activities. "Ah," I said out loud. "This is the calmest I've been all day long."

"Really?!" He was incredulous.

"Yeah, looking at my calendar makes me feel so at ease."

"That is literally the opposite of how looking at a calendar makes me feel," he replied.

It was an interesting insight into the dynamics of our relationship, but it is also a clear picture of how I function. I like my time to be planned, ordered, and controlled. I hate being late, and I want meetings set weeks in advance so that I can come to them prepared and confident. My brain often focuses on the future, and I've always thought that advice to do otherwise was asking for trouble. After all, my future-focused brain had allowed me to accomplish a lot. It was at least partially responsible for success in my education, career, and family. All of those areas of my life had required planning and the ability to map out ways to achieve complex, multi-faceted tasks.

My spirit animal, Leslie Knope.

My husband and I bought our first home eight years ago when we were 23. We reasoned it was a "starter home," as the terminology goes. It has three bedrooms (though one doesn't have a closet, so I think it's technically a "bonus room") and one bathroom. It is about 1400 square feet. 

When we first moved in, it was just the two of us and two cats. We added a dog that first year. We told ourselves we'd probably move again in about three years.

We added our daughter two years later. We told ourselves we would move when we were settled into our new role as parents. "Next year. We'll move next year." 

Things kept moving along. We even put our house on the market once, but we didn't put much effort into it (more out of laziness than anything). We didn't get any interest, so, "Next year." 

We looked into options to rent it out instead. In the meantime, we didn't hang pictures or paint walls. We didn't replace carpet or fix up the yard. We weren't sure what we were going to do with it, and it felt like a waste of time and energy. "Next year." 

Then we added our son in the past year. Surely moving with an infant seemed silly. "Next year." 

We're now a family of four in a space that many of our professional peers would deem "too small" for our needs. 

When we first moved in, there were rooms we never even entered. Beyond our own bedroom, the other two were simply storage, and not well managed or maintained storage. We basically just threw stuff in there and shut the doors. When our daughter came, we crammed all that stuff into the bonus room and shut that door. When our son came, we finally had to deal with it. In the end, we kept almost nothing from that room, and why would we? If it could sit untouched for more than five years, we obviously didn't need it. Over the past two years, we have donated, recycled, or trashed most of the things we don't use. That process isn't complete, but most of the things in my home now serve purpose and are intentionally placed there. It's a nice change. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading about minimalism quite a bit. In my dabbling, I've found several people talking about downsizing. In the extreme, this has led to the "tiny house" movement as a way to push back against a notion that bigger is better when it comes to living space.

While I do have general ecological and sustainability concerns as a human being aware of my impact on the world around me, I am not looking to join a tiny house movement or push myself to the extreme in avoiding consumption. I just want to make my life simpler and more enjoyable. 

But reading all of the discussions about the housing question in these minimalists groups and writings did start to raise some questions for me. 

Houses are getting bigger, even post-recession. This 2016 NYT article explains that a third of newly constructed homes top 3,000 square feet. The average is 2,687. Even as the size of families has been steadily falling and reached a low of 2.5 in 2016, the number of bedrooms in newly constructed houses has grown with nearly half having four or more. 

Couple that with the social media pressure of being "Pinterest-worthy," and that's a lot of space to not only inhabit but decorate and fill (and heat and cool). 

Getting rid of many of the superfluous items in our house and rejecting some of the pressure to refill those empty spaces has done a lot to alleviate my ongoing struggles with housekeeping, and that has made me recognize that my "too small" space isn't really too small at all. Sure, we're cramped by the standards that have made homes twice the size of ours average, but the more I examined our habits, the more I realized that we don't actually need more space. In fact, there is a lot to suggest that much of that extra space is actually being used as storage. And even with vastly larger homes, the storage rental industry is booming, with many people paying a monthly fee on an indefinite basis to have even more storage for their stuff. What is the likelihood that all of those people (1 in 10 have rental space) are actually going to their storage sheds and using those things on a regular basis? It seems much more likely that those items are just sitting there, untouched, waiting to become fodder for reality TV. 

All of this reading and reflecting on the role of possessions, the value of space, and the way that cultural norms regarding housing size standards across the world, I began to question the internal pressure I was putting on myself to leave our "starter home." Once I began questioning, I realized it wasn't actually internal pressure at all; it was entirely external. I wasn't unhappy with my space. I wasn't feeling cramped or frustrated (though I would definitely appreciate a second bathroom; a project we're now planning to embark upon). I didn't think my kids were suffering with small rooms. 

Instead, I was asking myself what other people would think. We already live in a neighborhood far more run-down than most of our professional peers. We already chose to stay in the city when most of the people we knew had left for the suburbs when they had kids (and trust me, I understand the choice; the school situation alone is enough to drive you mad.) Were people questioning why we hadn't moved? What would people think when I invited them over? Could I have people over at all if my kitchen table only seats four? If my daughter has a friend come play, will that friend go home and tell her parents our house isn't nice? 

Those were the questions that were making me want to move, and those questions are ridiculous. So what if I have to throw crappy dinner parties? I have good, real friendships. They won't care. I bet they're also not questioning why we live where we live, and if they are, so what? I know why I've made the choices that I have, and I'm not spending my day worrying about why they made different ones. I wasn't hearing the voices of real people; I was hearing the voices of imaginary ones, and so a decision was made. 

I'd be damned if imaginary people were going to run me out of my house! 

We're staying put. Perhaps eventually we'll decide that this house really is too small: when both kids are bigger, when we decide we have to have more furniture, I don't know what the future holds. But for the foreseeable future, this space is plenty, so we're staying. No more "next years." 

Once I made that decision, it was like a switch was flipped inside of me. That very next weekend, I printed pictures, bought frames, and hung things on the walls. Two weeks later, I asked my mom to come help me paint all the rooms in the upstairs, rooms that had been the same beige color since we moved in nearly a decade ago. I'm making plans now to landscape the mud pit of a back yard so that we could actually, I don't know, use it to hang out? 

I started living in my house. 

Before that, I had been merely waiting in my house, waiting for some fictional "next year" to start my "real" life. But this was my real life, and it was fine. It was better than fine. It was pretty good. 

Suddenly, all that advice to "live in the moment" made a lot more sense. By loaning out my happiness and contentment to a hypothetical future, I was robbing myself of peace and gratitude. I was constantly looking at my surroundings as a vehicle for something better instead of recognizing the good I already had. It wasn't until we made the decision to stay put that I really felt invested in and committed to my space, and once I did, I started making it reflect the appreciation and love that I really do feel for it. What if I had done this years ago? I lost out on a decade of being happy and satisfied with my home, and I have no one to blame but myself. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Five Thoughts About this "Boot Camp" Ad

These began popping up all over the city just as the early-blooming daffodils started to die in the forty-degree temperature drop that happened to coincide with my "spring" break.

As I'm driving past all of these other harbingers of warmer weather in the form of body shaming calls to get "summer ready," I've had some thoughts. 

1) A pound a day?! Is "boot camp" a euphemism for "back to back to back to back stomach flus?" 

2) 678? Where the hell is that? (Googles, but not while driving. Safety first.) Atlanta. Well, this is St. Louis, so that's weird. 

3) That shadow woman certainly looks confident with her Wonder Woman pose, and her shadow hair is nicer than my real hair. I don't think this image conveys what they want it to convey. 

4) Speaking of that image, did they cut that other woman out of her? Is the thirty pounds she lost out there dancing somewhere with those jazz hands? 

5) Maybe this was originally an Atlanta-based pixie exorcism company who decided to recycle their logo when they picked up and moved out of town in shame. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Bored and the Restless: Teaching Composition as a Cure for Mental Wanderlust

I have a bad habit of trying to do too much. I'm not just talking about doing too many individual things at one time (though I'm also sometimes guilty of that; I almost set my phone in a frying pan the other day). I'm talking about trying to master too many trades, explore too many hobbies, understand too many fields. 

I appreciate the value of going deep into a single subject instead of skipping like a stone across the surface of a broader field, but at the end of the day, I think I might just be better suited at being a skipped stone. 

It's not that I can't commit to something and stick with it. I mean, I have a PhD, and that required  years of deeply studying the same ideas. But even while I was getting that degree, I was taking a non-traditional path that wove through several different points of focus: working as an academic program coordinator, parenting, playing roller derby. 

If I end up sitting in one place too long, I feel myself burning out fast, and I start to get restless. The urge to move onto something else becomes thick, like something choking me. 

That's why I think that teaching composition is the perfect career for me. I still get restless. I still have the urge to start over with something new. I still feel like an animal caught in a trap now and then and panic. 

But then I just choose a new book and plan a completely new class. Problem solved. 

I started to feel that familiar feeling a little last semester, but I had just had a new baby and didn't think I should rock the boat all that much, so when the book order forms came up, I went ahead and stuck with the books I'd been using: Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions per Minute (a book about the history of protest songs) for one class and Monsters (a collection about, well, monsters) in the other. 

This is my fourth semester teaching 33 Revolutions, and the organization of my class really clicked this time around. I feel like the pacing, the timing of the readings, the supplemental assignments are all working really well. In some ways, it's kind of a shame. As soon as I get a class running really smoothly, I know it's time to let it go. 

For a while I worried that making changes whenever things got too smooth meant I was cheating my students out of the best possible class: the one where I don't feel the need to change anything because it's all working so well. I've been reflecting on that, and I don't feel that way anymore. 

Teaching should be messy. If I've gotten any particular class down to the point that I don't feel the need to tweak it, then I'm not as engaged as I should be. Choosing a new book to frame the class forces me back into a place of exploration and innovation. It makes me pay more attention, and it makes me more likely to hear my students' ideas anew instead of constantly sorting them into categories that I've already carved out for that particular topic. 

I teach best when I'm a little off balance. My best teaching comes when there is a dash of fear and a bit of anxiety thrown into the mix. 

This summer, I'm going to be planning courses around two completely new books, and just choosing them has made that restless feeling lie back down and take a nap. The sense of possibility and wide-openness makes me feel calm. I start looking at the world around me with new eyes, trying to find possible supplemental texts to save for the class. Voluntarily stepping back into the chaos of not having a plan makes me feel more ordered. 

In the fall, I'll be teaching John Hudak's Marijuana: A Short History to my developmental writing students and Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future to my research writing class. 

Both present challenges that I'm finding energizing. 

I worried about putting down a book called Marijuana on my book order forms, but the more I looked at the book, the more possibilities I see for a well-rounded, interesting, and relevant class. There are so many lenses through which we can tackle the issue: etymological (marijuana vs. cannabis), criminal justice, biological, and public policy. There are so many real-life writing exercises with built-in rhetorical purposes: letters to legislators, public safety bulletins, advertisements. 

Rise of the Robots offers me the challenge of teaching a topic with full consideration of its impact on my students. These are college sophomores. Discussing the threat of a "jobless future" could be pretty bleak for people just starting out (or starting anew) in the workforce. I believe this class can be taught in a way that ends on a high note of innovation and creativity, but it's going to take some careful navigation. 

If anyone out there has good sources or suggestions for either of those topics, I'm in the brainstorming stage and would love to hear your thoughts. 

I think I've got a good three or four semesters before I feel the need to wander off again. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

How to Tell a Trump Voter "I Told You So"

How should you go about telling your friends and family who voted for Trump "I told you so!" now that Trump's worst campaign rhetoric is being enacted as policy?


How should you mock your uncle who forwarded you all those chain letters and blog posts about Clinton's private email server now that Trump's administration is doing the exact same thing?


How should you demonstrate your clear superiority, the fact that you saw this coming and yelled loudly that we had to stop it?


How should you point out that all of the Trump supporters on your social media feeds who between November and January were constantly telling you to "let it go" and "wait and see" have fallen completely silent in the last week?


I'm going to make an assumption that if you are as disgusted, angry, and fearful about what Trump has done with a mere week in office as I am that you--also like me--want to fight back with the greatest power possible. I am going to assume that seeing this man lie repeatedly (with "alternative facts") with a straight face about all of the voter fraud he "knows" happened has made you realize that we're dealing with something unprecedented. I am going to assume that watching legal US residents get barred from returning home this weekend sent chills down your spine, and your head echoed with the reminders of how other human atrocities have begun. I am going to assume that you weren't surprised when he didn't release his tax returns or divest himself from his businesses as promised, but that you are outraged that the highest office in our country is being used to line a failed businessman's pockets instead of governing the people. I am going to assume that you watched Bannon get handed an insane amount of power for which he has no qualifications and shuddered.

I am going to assume that you want to fix it.

If that's the case, then we have to give the people who voted for Trump (many reluctantly) room to pivot. We can't give the impression that half of the country is okay with what's happening because I know that they're not. I know that many, many people who thought Trump would suffice now see that they've made a mistake. It's a mistake we need to discuss. We can talk about social media echo chambers, legitimate news sources, religious-like devotion to partisan identity. We can talk about all of those things--but not today. Today we need to come together. Today we need to recognize that we have far more in common than this administration would like us to believe.

Think about what they've done. They're throwing so many executive orders (and I say they because I believe Bannon is as much behind it as Trump--maybe more) at us at once so that we can't get our feet under us. They throw out the most divisive topics (abortion, immigration) to ensure that we're fighting each other instead of recognizing we've all been had. They're banking on us tearing each other to shreds while they walk away with our democracy.

We can't let that happen.

The strongest moments of our democracy have come forth when unlikely groups formed focused coalitions around shared ideals. Those coalitions don't always last long, and we can go back to arguing over the meaningful differences we have after our work is done, but right now--today--our work is to reclaim our democracy, and we do that together.

If we don't, I fear it really will be too late. Don't make me say I told you so.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mayoral Debate Summary

I realize that I have readers for whom this will be completely irrelevant, but I went to a St. Louis mayoral debate tonight and have been asked to share my thoughts, so this is the easiest platform for me to do that.

This debate was put on by several non-profit (and progressive) organizations around the city, including the amazing folks at Arch City Defenders, Empower Missouri, Hands Up United, and the St. Louis Action Council. (See the full list of sponsors here). The debate as a whole was amazingly well organized and focused, and I was very impressed. It was also well attended, with standing room only even after an entire row of extra chairs was added. (I heard someone say they estimated 1500 people). They also provided a very detail map of endorsements and campaign funding sources for the candidates (which doesn't view well on a phone, by the way). Finally, they provided a pre-debate survey with detailed responses from all participants.

The participants did not include all of the many people running for mayor, but it did include the frontrunners. We heard from Antonio French, Tishaura Jones, Lyda Krewson, Lewis Reed, and Jeff Boyd.

My overall impression of the debate performances is pretty much summed up in this tweet:

I have some more personal reactions to the candidates and, though I entered an undecided voter, I exited with my mind made up. Before I get to that, here are some highlights from the issues discussed.


Addressing the problem of homelessness came up in a couple of different points of the debate through a few different lenses. Reed was asked early on to clarify his pre-debate survey response in which he was critical of the current efforts to address homelessness but offered no concrete policies of his own. He mentioned better understanding the population to address causes of homelessness in a more focused way, but the specific policy was still lacking. Immediately after that Boyd was asked about whether he supported more police training to handle addiction with more sensitivity, and he said we should find additional resources to do so, but didn't offer where they might come from.

Krewson was hit with some questions about previous support to criminalize panhandling (which included a fine and jail time). She defended her action as having been part of the Real Change Program, which was put in place in conjunction with well-known organizations that help the homeless. Similarly, she countered criticism over wanting to shut down downtown shelter NLEC by pointing out that they don't provide continuous care and put people out on the sidewalk with no real resources. (This debate has been covered with some differing viewpoints here and here).

Minimum Wage

Jones and French sparred a bit over minimum wage. Jones proudly boasts of having protested alongside Fight for 15 activists and cited her own role as a single mother to be a primary motivator for her passion on the topic. French said that he supported a state-level minimum wage increase but did not want to disadvantage the city by making increasing the wage city-wide only to have businesses flee. He then took a jab at Jones by saying that her staff in the Treasurer's office wasn't paid $15 an hour. She shot back that she immediately gave her staff a raise upon entering her position and pays all of her campaign staff $15 an hour.

Elsewhere in the evening, minimum wage was discussed because both Boyd and Krewson were absent (in their roles as alderman and alderwoman) when the city-wide increase to $11 was implemented. Krewson noted that it was her amendment they were voting on, and she was there for the perfection vote, just not the final vote. Boyd first insisted that he was present for the vote, but the moderator insisted he was not. (I looked when I got home, and the record says he was there. I let the organizers know that, and they responded back that they got their information from this article, which lists him among the absent voters.) He then said he would have voted yes and voted yes on the perfection vote. (French voted against it).

Cash Bail and Jail Conditions

Jones made it clear that she wanted to end the cash bail system and proposed payment plans and community service alternatives as possible solutions that would keep people out of jails and from the snowballing issue of losing jobs, disrupting lives, etc. due to incarceration over minor offenses. She even said that people had taken their own lives because of the impact of the cash bail system.

Boyd also stated his support for ending it, but his solution is ankle bracelets. The audience was vocally opposed, and the moderator followed up to ask if he was concerned about whether that was a liberty issue for someone who had committed a minor offense. He doubled down saying, "I'm not saying they have to wear short pants!" as if it is the visibility of the monitor and not its tracking mechanism that makes it invasive. It was a disturbing answer.

On a somewhat related note, there was a question involving "The Workhouse," the medium security prison located in the city. Both French and Reed responded that it should not be closed. French pointed out that closing it would further overcrowd the jail; instead, he wants to issue a bond to raise funds for improvements like air conditioning. Reed said it should not be closed and that we should instead focus on prevention and treatment instead of incarceration. He did not, however, address the current conditions of the prison.

City Development and Stadiums 

Development was a topic that wound its way through the debate consistently and often as a supplemental topic to unrelated questions. It seemed obvious that all of the candidates want their stance on development front and center and understand it to be an important drive for the campaign as a whole.

Jones was very critical of TIF money and its past use and passionately laid out a plan to ensure development would be routed out of the central corridor and into the mostly-ignored north and south parts of the city. She also said that any development plan would have to have community benefit and living wage agreements and anything that didn't would be vetoed.

Krewson also talked about her past experience in helping to develop The Loop area, specifically mentioning driving around with developers to show them potential properties they might not have considered on their own. She said that any development she approved would have to provide neighborhood services and meet minority participation requirements.

The potential funding for a MLS stadium was discussed. Jones and French were both adamantly against it, both citing the myriad of other funding needs the city has. Reed was questioned somewhat critically for voting to put the MLS funding on the ballot, but he insisted that he didn't support the funds; he supported the voters having a say. He said he was always on the side of voter empowerment. He was then questioned over the (non-voter approved) use of $4 million for Scott Trade Center, but he didn't provide a real justification for that beyond the explanation that it was "different" from the MLS issue.

City-County Merger

Jones voiced support for putting a city-county merger on the ballot and said that she personally would vote for it, but she also acknowledged that a lot of financial housekeeping had to take place before that vote would be feasible.

French somewhat flippantly said that the county doesn't need a "91st municipality" and said that he had no interest in a merger, explaining there were other ways to cooperate without joining a county that hasn't shown progress on important issues like addressing inequality.

Marijuana Legalization

All of the candidates voiced support for decriminalizing marijuana. French went further by saying that he would love to see it made legal in the state, and Jones--speaking immediately after him--took it up a notch by calling for taxation like Colorado to get tax revenue.

Notably, Krewson added the phrase "of small amounts" to her statement to decriminalize it, and the audience noticed (and boo'ed).

Sanctuary City

All of the candidates were adamant that St. Louis should be sanctuary city. French mentioned his involvement in the airport protest that sprung up this weekend following Trump's immigration ban. He said that we needed to be prepared to resist the Trump administration at this and other turns.

Jones mentioned that she had been in touch with New York on the topic.

Krewson was questioned about her statement in the pre-debate survey that she wouldn't risk federal funds to maintain status as a sanctuary city. She was pressed hard on it, and tried to wiggle out of it by saying, "but we shouldn't have to give up those funds to be a sanctuary city." Ultimately, she said that we should fight to keep the funds and the status, but she never gave a clear answer on which she would choose if both were not an option.

Policing and Police Shootings

I saved this one for last because it was by far the biggest issue. It came up in different ways, and it was also the elephant in the room because--for the first half-hour or so of the debate (until they were told to stop, I assume)--there was a group of people who held up signs like this every time Krewson spoke.

Beyond the signs, the boos and cheers in the room showed a clear issue with the fact that Krewson received the endorsement of the SLPOA. The issue hung in the air for most of the debate, and Krewson fielded questions about policing by repeatedly focusing on funding for training. She also said that we need more police officers, saying that we need at least 1300 and only have about 1200. She connected training with staffing by saying training couldn't take place if everyone was overworked. When asked explicitly if training would include implicit bias training, she said yes. She also acknowledged her own white privilege and said "Black lives absolutely do matter." 

Later, though, her ties to the SLPOA were brought up more explicitly. She said that though she did not support Roorda, whose comments she admitted were racist, she did support the police officers. She said, "I can't control who they hire." When asked if she would ask Roorda to step down, she said that wasn't within her control. The audience booed loudly. 

For contrast, Jones was asked why she didn't meet with SLPOA (the only candidate present who didn't), and she said it was because she had no interest in their endorsement or having anything to do with Roorda. She also demonstrated a difference with Krewson by saying that she would focus on placing social workers on staff to work with police instead of hiring more officers. 

Tef Poe, local musician and activist, mocked Krewson's call for "training," a theme that French picked up on when he said that the people weren't asking for better training; they were asking for accountability. He said that there would not be trust between the citizens and the police until accountability was obvious. He also said that he supported community policing practices and wanted to move away from military tactical style training, a training style Reed also condemned. French also made it clear that firing police chief Sam Dotson would be a priority on "day one." 

Boyd cited several times that his own relative who was killed by police, but he also talked about black-on-black crime and the community needing to "take responsibility" for the shootings. 

Another point about policing was French's support for security cameras around the city, something he helped implant in his own North City ward. He emphasized that as a citizen, he wanted there to be footage to help solve crimes, and cited that 60% of the cities homicides go unsolved. He also mentioned that there are plenty of cameras downtown in areas that attract tourists; he believes neighborhoods should have the same security measures. He frequently mentioned a disparity between the midtown area and areas north and south, and this was another place where he sees that divide. Response times, he says, are slower to areas outside of midtown, and it needs to be corrected. 

Some Other Stuff 

Of mention are some issues that were more personal and less policy-driven. 

Reed fired some nasty shots at both Jones and Boyd while trying to cast himself as the anti-Slay candidate. He said that he was the only one who had been brave enough to run against Slay in the past, and then he accused Jones of hiring Slay's campaign team (and why wouldn't she? After all, they ran a winning campaign.) before getting really angry with Boyd for handing out campaign literature supporting Slay during the previous election. 

Jones responded that her father runs her campaign, and then Boyd shot back with a fiery "how dare you tell me who to support" before calling out Reed for not having integrity and lying to the alderman board. The two men duked it out for a bit, and though it was fiery and passionate, it seemed to be getting into the weeds in what they did or didn't do for one another in their professional relationship rather than stick to an issue the voters should be concerned with. It did make for an entertaining couple minutes, though. 

Jones was asked about the controversy surrounding her use of funds for travel and a city-issued vehicle. She explained that she traveled to trainings that allowed her to make direct changes to the city. She also said that she had saved the city $5 million dollars (I think in conjunction with her implementation of the parking meters, but I'm not certain) because of the things she had learned. She said that she would "take advantage of every perk" offered with her position as long as it allowed her to do a good job. 

Krewson was obviously in front of a hostile crowd. She is the least progressive candidate in a room filled with progressive voters. She tried to address the issue a few times, but it often fell flat. She insisted we were in "Missour-ah" drawing out the alternate pronunciation intentionally. To what end? I can't say because it certainly felt divisive. She also answered a heckling "Can I live on your street?!" with a folksy "You betcha" that didn't help the tension. While she did directly acknowledge her racial privilege, the room as a whole did not seem satisfied, and I often felt like she was giving her answers with a remote audience in mind rather than trying to win the votes in front of her. 

My Takeaway

It's no secret that I am progressive and want progressive policies in my city. Going into this debate, I was undecided. Jones and French were at the top of my list, but I hadn't ruled out voting for someone else. I was particularly interested in hearing from Krewson because she is the best funded and the frontrunner.

After reading the pre-debate responses and listening to this debate, I am voting for Jones.

Boyd doesn't seem to be a serious candidate, and he answered too many questions with platitudes. He was even asked a question that was basically "You've lost three city-wide races already and are only polling at 5%. Why not drop out instead of taking votes away from someone else?" and responded with "Quitters never win and winners never quit." Perhaps, but he's not winning. Nothing he said tonight made me think otherwise.

Reed gave some good answers, but I think his attack of Boyd and Jones over their relationship to Slay made him look insecure and petty. It wasn't a focused moment. Generally, his best answers were only equally good as another candidates, and his worst answers were, well, worse. Nothing he said made him stand out to me as a particularly good choice. He also did not adequately address his controversy over the sexist comments against alderwoman Megan Green.

Krewson seemed to be, as I mentioned earlier, addressing a different audience. She did not handle the questions about her police endorsement well, and she certainly had to know they were coming considering who sponsored this event. I was disappointed in how she handled it. I also wanted a stronger answer from her about the sanctuary city status, especially considering she was giving this response today, immediately following Trump's horrendous anti-immigrant actions.

French gave a lot of good answers, and I like his policies. He, however, doubled down on his cocky response that he "regrets nothing" he's ever done in his political career, which was off putting.

French and Jones share a lot of the same ideology and plans, but Jones was much clearer and more focused when it came to implementation. She had detailed plans for every initiative, and she handled herself like someone with experience and political skills. She seemed confident, passionate, and clear. I got the impression that she would step into the role of mayor with an immediate and actionable plan for the city, and I liked it.

That's why she is going to get my vote.

The bottom line, though, is that I was thrilled to see such a big turnout, and I hope we pack the polling stations in March.