Saturday, August 15, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: The Agonistic Cycle of Belief and Doubt

I want to talk about how a quick little interactive puzzle from the New York Times illustrates a key part of my dissertation research, but I need you to take the quiz before you read any more or it won't be nearly as fun.

So, please, take the quiz.

And now I'm going to post a big picture of a cute kitten to ensure that you don't see anything else until after you've taken the quiz.

Cute kitten says "Did you take the quiz? If not, I'm going to get you!"
Okay. Now that you've taken the quiz, we can talk about what it was meant to illustrate and how it operates. According to the statistics garnered from the puzzle, most people make a guess about the answer without ever putting in a wrong solution. Because of this, most people put in a final answer that is too complex and ultimately get the answer wrong.

However, a few people took the time to put in guesses specifically designed to get a negative response. These people were able to see that the final answer was actually much simpler than their original hypothesis dictated, so they arrived at the correct response, which is simply that the numbers must get bigger.

The problem with seeking out only feedback that aligns with your hypothesis is that you miss a lot. This is called confirmation bias, and as the explanation for the puzzle shows, it can cause big problems, especially when it comes to making policy decisions on things like global warming and economic recovery programs. When we only seek out answers that confirm what we already believe, we fail to actually test our beliefs.

The reason that I'm interested in this quiz is that it ties into the concept of rhetorical enclaves and the necessity of engaging in an oscillating cycle between belief and doubt.

Here's the quick version (if you want the long version, I'm happy to bore you with it for hours; shoot me an email). During the Enlightenment and the rise of scientifically validated information, we became culturally focused on critical doubt as a means to uncovering truths. Ultimately, the positivist impulse of this era insisted that something was only true if you had tried to counter it from every possible angle and it still held up. Out of this system of belief grew what rhetoric scholars (like Wayne Booth, Peter Elbow, and others) identify as an overly critical tendency to doubt everything around us.

What we lost during that modernist period was the tendency to believe. Believing was considered weaker, less reliable, and even dangerous. Those same scholars made an argument to return belief to the equation, to operate using what Wayne Booth called "a rhetoric of assent" and what Peter Elbow called "the believing game."

Belief, though, comes with its own set of problems. If you believe without doubt, you run the risk of falling into rhetorical enclaves or "echo chambers." You do, essentially, what most of the people who completed this puzzle did: seek out answers that confirm what you've already decided you believe.

I've written about echo chambers before, relying heavily on the work of Patricia Roberts-Miller to illustrate the dangers of operating from a space where all the information you take in only confirms what you already believe, of shutting out any conflicting information. Even Roberts-Miller, though, admits that there is value in an enclave.

Both Roberts-Miller and Elbow note that spending time in an enclave is an excellent way to develop a rhetorical position in the first place. Without an enclave, the rhetoric of criticism can tear down ideas faster than we can think of them. The aggressively antagonistic stance will shout us down and drown us out before we even know what we believe. To get a better picture of this, think about a news talk show where a single person is invited onto a program where everyone else shares a majority position and has to compete to get a word in. Unless the guest is very, very confident in his/her position and very capable of navigating a rocky rhetorical terrain, s/he's going to get shouted down.

So an enclave is a useful space where we can test out our ideas among like-minded individuals and let them grow. An enclave is an important part of a broader rhetorical process. Dwelling in belief can help us face doubt.

But we have to face the doubt. We have to be willing to get the wrong answer. We have to step outside of our comfort zone and face criticism head on. And that can be really hard, especially when we're well aware of how comfortable that echo chamber can be.

I got the right answer on the puzzle, but it's not because I'm a puzzle mastermind; it's because I put into practice the principles I've been writing about for the last year.

When I looked back at my puzzle responses, it was clear to me that I operated first by seeking out confirmation. I saw that the numbers were even, getting bigger, and ascending in a regular pattern. I operated from those observations to see what other answers obeyed the rule.

My first two answers were ones I was confident would be confirmed. If I had stopped after that, I might have believed that the rule was "even numbers ascend at regular intervals." I had no information to say that answer was incorrect, but I would have been wrong nonetheless.

It wasn't until my third guess where I branched out of my comfort zone and used odd numbers. When this, too, came back as a yes, I had novel information that changed my hypothesis. 

Then I decided to see if descending numbers triggered a yes as well. They didn't. I sought out a negative response and got one. 

I did a mix of ascending and descending numbers and got another negative response. 

Then I did some random numbers that were both even and odd but ascending. At this point, I was fairly confident the answer was simply that the numbers had to ascend, but I still wanted to test out the hypothesis. 

I used large, random, ascending numbers, and I still got a yes. I tried a sequence that broke my new hypothesized rule one more time, and I was confident enough to make it my final answer. 

In other words, I did exactly what the rhetoric scholars say we have to do. I started out in an enclave, seeking out confirmation for my own biases. It was only through this experience that I was able to gain confidence in my view to begin with. Once I had a confident view, I could step outside of the enclave and seek dissent. 

Then it was only through seeking dissent that I was able to change my hypothesis and arrive at the right answer. I had to be willing to get the wrong answer. 

Too often (and even in the commentary on this great little puzzle), we talk about the rhetoric of assent or the rhetoric of criticism alone. We rarely talk about the importance of putting both practices into an oscillating interplay, of both believing and doubting as a means to discovering truths.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Piercing the Silence: Chemical Pregnancies, Miscarriage, and the 12-Week Wait

Last week I was pregnant. This week I am not.

I had what is called a "chemical pregnancy," or a pregnancy that reads positive on a test, but fails to develop or fully implant. Apparently, this is extremely common and accounts for up to 75% of all miscarriages. ACOG reports that up to 15% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and I've seen speculation that up to 40% of all pregnancies end this way (with many women never knowing they were pregnant).  

I hadn't told many people that I was pregnant, just a few close friends and my husband. My four-year-old daughter found out because she heard my husband and I talking about it, and I didn't want her to feel left in the dark.  I was able to explain the miscarriage to her without any apparent sadness--though she was quick to inform me she expects the "lost" baby brother or sister to find its way to her later.

I hadn't told many people because there's an expected 12-week wait for pregnancy news. You're not "supposed" to announce it before then because the chances of a miscarriage are so high in the early weeks. It is this phenomenon and the stigma surrounding miscarriage that I want to talk about today.

Who is the 12-week wait for? I don't feel like it's for me: the recently-pregnant woman who is now no longer pregnant. I don't think that not telling people when I was happy made it easier for me today, when I am sad. I do realize that some of the conversations surrounding this loss could have been awkward, but I'd rather have awkward conversations than feel like I'm forced into hiding.

I know that I'm more open than a lot of people and that plenty of people would not want to share this experience with others (let alone in a public blog post), and that's fine. I think people are allowed to choose what moments of their life they let others glimpse. If waiting 12 weeks to share pregnancy news makes the pregnant person happy, then it's no concern of mine.

However, waiting for me is awful. I feel like I'm lying to everyone by omission. When people ask me about my plans for the upcoming semester and I don't tell them that I will probably be on leave for part of it, I feel like I'm hiding something. When people ask me why I'm not drinking at a party, my tongue gets tangled and I feel ashamed. For me, secrets don't feel exciting; they feel heavy.

And that required silence, that window of waiting, is reinforced by the stigma of miscarriage. We're not supposed to talk about it. We're not supposed to share it except in invisible acronyms on a web forum (and the heavy presence of these sites suggests I'm not the only one who feels the crushing weight of silence).  

Several people have written about how the stigma surrounding miscarriage has caused them pain. 

Kate Merry explains how emotionally vulnerable she was after her own miscarriage 9 weeks into her pregnancy and gives this advice for those who suffer one (and those who hear about it): 
If I could say anything to a woman who has recently miscarried, it would be one word: talk. I still talk openly about how traumatic the whole experience was, even though I have a child, because it cannot be removed from the dialogue of my life. 
For every person reading this who says, “Ew, that’s disgusting, too much information! Keep it to yourself!” there will be a woman lying in a hospital bed (or not) somewhere, bewildered and in pain, as the new life she held inside of her—that pure magic—bleeds away. And for anyone who thinks these things shouldn’t be talked about on a public platform, there is a woman carrying the guilt, shame, and confusion of losing a baby around her neck like an anvil, who might want to relay the story, blow-by-blow, so she isn’t just reliving it in her head, alone.
A recent study found that there is widespread misunderstanding about how common miscarriages are.  This creates a cycle where people feel like there is something wrong with them for having one and they don't want to talk about it for fear of feeling shamed. As an NPR follow-up to the report explains:
Because early pregnancy loss is so common, women are often advised not to share their pregnancy news with friends and family until the start of the second trimester. At that point the chance of miscarriage has drastically declined. But that secrecy means women who do miscarry in the first trimester may not get the support they need.
Other women have come forward to talk about how the stigma surrounding miscarriage has professional consequences as well. When Emelyn Thomas found herself needing time off work to deal with her miscarriage, she risked losing her job.

Everyday Feminism has an important article that talks about the necessity of removing the stigma of miscarriage from a reproductive justice standpoint. This is particularly important because a slew of conservative policies aimed at preventing abortions have caused an increase in criminalized treatment of miscarriage.

Taken to its extreme, this particularly insidious brand of miscarriage stigma reinforces the idea that a miscarriage is the previously-pregnant's woman fault. We have obviously done (or not done) something that made us lose our babies. We're at best negligent and at worst murderers.

I did everything right. I've been taking prenatal vitamins for months. I haven't touched alcohol, caffeine, or over the counter cold medicine. My husband changed the litter box, and I stopped eating feta. I drank plenty of water and ate fresh fruit. I wanted to be pregnant, and I wanted to do everything I could to ensure that the pregnancy was healthy and resulted in a strong, loved baby.

But it didn't.

My miscarriage was early enough that the emotional response is strange. I am disappointed, but the loss I feel is not that of losing a baby. It's the loss of a possibility. It's the loss of the feeling of excitement and newness and anticipation. I had those feelings just a few short days ago, and now they're replaced with an emptiness.

I didn't feel allowed to share it with you when I felt happy and sparkling and full of potential. So the best I can do is share it with you now and hope that it will help break down the stigma that surrounds something that happens a lot--possibly a lot more than you knew.  

Photos: Plbmak, Anthony

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money": Violence, Feminism, and Fantasy

Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" video is causing quite a stir, and the response has swung from playfully positive (Rebecca Nicholson says that with this release, "The music video as an event is back." (Of course, she also says that "this video is more a cartoon than a work that deserves weighty analysis" as if cartoons don't deserve weighty analysis!) to overwhelmingly negative (Barbara Ellen calls it self-indulgent misogyny and lambasts any attempts to look at it otherwise) to gushing displays of fandom (Amy Zimmerman writes that it is an anthem for baddass women) to intellectual analysis (Spencer Kornhaber's response weaves its way through autobiographical implications, racial overtones, and cinematic allusions).

If you haven't seen it yet, here it is (warning: it contains nudity, violence, and profanity).

The buzz that I've heard about the video has mostly revolved around whether or not the video is an affront to feminism, a progressive step for feminism, or completely unconcerned one way or the other.

Before I get into an analysis of the video (and you know I have one), I'd like to take a closer look at what other people are saying about it. Let's start with those who are dismissing the video as misogynistic and anti-feminist.

The aforementioned Barbara Ellen says that "The main issue here is surely: misogyny, who’s allowed to do it? And the only answer can be: nobody. It’s even difficult to excuse it on the grounds of artistic expression, given how crude is the video." She's particularly upset that a clothed male victim was not enough for a revenge fantasy and that a dehumanized, naked, sexualized female victim was added for sizzle and sexiness. She calls the work "blatant female-on-female hatred."

Similarly, Sarah Vine sees no redeeming qualities in the work, citing concern for her 12-year-old daughter and her daughter's peers as the source of her utter disgust with the video. She says, "What we are seeing here is not freedom of expression; it’s de-humanising trash. Such violent fantasies may exist in the mind, but if we allow them to roam freely across our culture, they become real."

Helen Lewis has the most nuanced exploration of the anti-feminist perspective that I've seen. In addition to analyzing the tropes used in the video, she also ventures into a discussion of race. Since Rihanna is seen torturing and killing two rich, white people, there have been a lot of discussions on what race means in the video. Lewis is unconvinced by these interpretations (which I'll get to in more depth in a moment): "But I think that if the video is making a point about race, then the fact that a white man and a white woman receive such different treatment is worth exploring. Trying to be more intersectional - to explore the way that different oppressions overlap and modify each other - should not mean we end up arguing that sexism does not exist as a force in its own right. I've seen sexism; I know it exists. Sometimes it looks like a naked woman in pain, hanging from a rope."

Shannon responds directly to Lewis' critique by admitting that Lewis makes some good points but ultimately says that she likes the video and feels that we need to draw some comparisons to the real-life McKinney pool party and this fictionalized violence of "BBHMM." Many people are rightly pointing out that there has been some mainstream feminist outrage over a fictional depiction of violence against a white woman where there was only silence on the real violence against a black girl. 

Mia McKenzie digs even deeper into the racial interplay in the video by reading it through a lens in which Rihanna's revenge fantasy is one of a black woman pushing back against abuse at the hands of white women: "Imagine if instead of kidnapping the accountant’s wife, Rihanna and her crew kidnapped his brother? Would White Feminists™ be so upset? I doubt it. Because they understand that revenge fantasies wherein women hurt men are pushing back against the harm men do to us. But here’s what white feminists don’t get (and what has them fucked up): black women often see white women as the same as white men. The harm done to us by white men and white women isn’t vastly different to many of us. White women have been unapologetically violent towards black women for centuries. They’ve used the power of the state, of the police, of the courts, of the media, and of individual white men to harm black people, including black women, time and time again. They are as harmful to us as white men are. So, for many of us, kidnapping the white brother or the white wife is all the same."

Jessica Alice uses McKenzie's argument as well as the fact that actor Mads Mikkelsen (who plays the murdered accountant in the video) is no stranger to enacting fictional violence as the character Hannibal to argue that the video is actually a step forward for feminism. She says that it shows Rihanna to be a boundary-pusher who will not accept a narrow definition of feminist expression.

Maybe the simplest way out of this mess of interpretations is to take the route Zeba Blay did and say we should simply embrace the discomfort.

But I want to take a look at the video through my own lens of interpretation with all of those conflicting analyses in mind.

Many of the critics (positive and negative) mentioned the cartoonish nature of the violence. While it is definitely stylized and intentionally over-the-top, it's not really that cartoonish to me, especially when set next to a video like Christina Aguilera's "Your Body" (a video I've written about before).

To me, "BBHMM" felt a lot more like the ending of Deathproof: a gritty mix of realism and fantasy, one that depicts violence without the soothing filter of cartoon effects but still creates a buffer from the full impact of actual reality through tone, sound effects, cheery music, and truncated perspective. 

In fact, many of the authors mentioned above draw comparisons between "BBHMM" and Tarantino's work, though they usually do so to point out that Tarantino doesn't face the same criticisms over whether or not his work is "feminist." (He actually does face that criticism a lot and has come out on either side of the debate, but that's a post for a different day.) 

What struck me as a fan of Tarantino's work was the similarities between my reactions to films like Deathproof and Kill Bill and my reaction to "BBHMM." Going one step further, I'd say that my reaction to "BBHMM" was much like my reaction to many films that are typically deemed "male." I love Casino, Goodfellas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and silly action flicks like Con Air and Snakes on a Plane

Thinking about that comparison, I couldn't help but remember the recent (and extremely lampooned) article by Kyle Smith about how women just couldn't understand Goodfellas. One particularly mocked line from Smith's article explains that "To a woman, the 'GoodFellas' are lowlifes. To guys, they’re hilarious, they’re heroes. They rule the roost."

As many people pointed out in comments about Smith's assertion, most people do not see the "GoodFellas" as "heroes." Most people do not read the film as a handbook for how to live your life (especially since it is based on real-life events told from the perspective of an informant who had to escape the life of crime by ratting out everyone he loved or die trying). For me (and I believe a whole lot of other people who enjoy Goodfellas), the film's appeal is in its treatment of the American Dream mythos and its implosion of a tale we too often accept without enough question. Henry Hill tries to enact the only version of rags-to-riches available to him, and while we get a brief moment of "success" where he's living the good life, the main point of the story is that the facade cannot last. This is underscored by the fact that he ultimately gets to live a version of the dream as a member of the witness protection program, but it's a distortion that quickly turns into a nightmare for him. If you watched Goodfellas and saw a hero, I'd venture to guess you weren't watching very closely.

One thing I think Smith gets right about Goodfellas, though, is his belief that the film is "more of a male fantasy picture" than a crime drama. "Fantasy," too, is a word that's seen often in the "BBHMM" critiques. Specifically, people are reading Rihanna's video as a revenge fantasy, one that's made all the more powerful by her real-life lawsuit and public battle with her actual (former) accountant.

I don't want to entirely dismiss the idea that Rihanna is playing with a racial revenge fantasy that pushes back on the abuses white women have committed (and silently approved) against black women, but I think that interpretation is decidedly complicated by the fact that Rihanna's partners in crime (who commit a lot of the physical violence against the kidnapped wife) are not black (and one is a thin, blonde, pretty woman who could have easily played the kidnapped wife without a change to the optics):

The revenge to me seems clearly situated on class. The overt attention to the accountant and wife's wealth in the opening moments of the video is overwhelming. 

The makeup, the jewelry, the fresh flowers all over the house, the clothes, the piano, the tiny dog, the framed paintings, the chandeliers, the lamps, the curtains: everything about this couple screams not just wealth but a specific kind of disconnected, insulated wealth that lets them believe they are untouchable. 

Compare that to the markers of class for Rihanna and her partners:

Rihanna poses aggressively with bohemian-style clothes that leave her looking cool and bold. The wife's all-white attire and pose that has her shrinking inward set the two about as far apart as they can get. 

They're pumping their own gas and buying pretzels at a gas station. While, yes, (as the critics who call the video anti-feminist point out) stripping the wife naked definitely plays into media tropes that often use the female body as a way to up the ante on sexualization, the stripping of this woman also serves the metaphorical purpose of removing the exterior markers of her wealth and status, reducing her to a blank slate upon which anything could be read. 

This is even more powerful when Rihanna and her crew acquire these markers of wealth for themselves. Costuming themselves in parodied versions of the wife's physical markers of success as they drink on a yacht further draws attention to the gap in their lifestyles and the superficiality of that gap. 

This superficiality is made all the more apparent when they are able to masquerade their kidnapped, brutalized, and tortured victim as a happy and willing member of their group. At this point, the masquerade shifts and instead of them dressing up in the markers of wealth, they begin to alter their victim until she looks more like one of them. 

Consider the juxtaposition of the above scene with the one on the yacht. They're in plastic lawn furniture with an old cooler. They're no longer mimicking (and also mocking) the lifestyle of their captive; they're situating her into their own. This is further driven home by the scene in which they get the wife high in a scene that could be (in different contexts) one of female bonding or a cliche pillow fight in a sorority house. 

Shortly after this scene, we're given the kicker. The "bitch" of the title and oft-repeated line "bitch better have my money" is not the woman they've been torturing all along, but her husband: 

Rihanna dismembers this man with knives labeled things like "Cheater," "Fucked up My Credit," and "Deadbeat Dad." He's also seen joyfully basking in bed with two women shooting streams of money in the air, ostensibly while he refuses to pay the ransom to save his wife. 

In the end, we're granted a parting shot of a naked, relaxed, blood-soaked Rihanna lounging casually in a crate full of cash. 

Everyone I've seen reading the video (whether they loved it or hated it) has read this revenge fantasy as a success from the protagonist's point of view. But is it? Rihanna has her money, I suppose, but we've been getting shots of the dismembered hands of the accountant with crime scene numbers next to them. We saw the police tape go up. She is covered in blood on a pile of cash directly in front of her victims' house and making no effort to hide herself or her crime. Her accomplices are gone (did she kill them? did they split on her? are they spilling their guts to the police as we speak?) 

I can't read the ending as a "win" for anyone. The murdered wife was most certainly a victim, and the brutality with which her body was used as a blank canvas for parodying the masquerade of wealth juxtaposes importantly with the literally blank (as in, naked) body Rihanna presents at the end, covered only in the splotches of blood from her victims and piles of cash. This character cannot play at the wealth she aimed to attain. Now she has the cash, which she is literally draped in, but that has not brought her any closer to the lifestyle she mimicked on the yacht, and it has not brought her any closer to being able to enjoy her newfound wealth. She is very likely headed to prison, and the final scenes that reveal she was on the phone with the account who ignored her demands for ransom shows that her final acts of brutality were ones of desperation rather than carefully planned revenge. She wasn't in this for the bloodshed; she was in it for the cash, and she thought she'd be able to trade her pretty little captive for it after she had her fun dressing her up and parading her around. When she realized she was in over her head, she took the plunge into full-on murder, but now she's left without options. 

Much as I do those who read Henry Hill of Goodfellas as a hero, I think anyone who sees "BBHMM" as a successful revenge are not watching carefully enough. 

This video is a takedown of class and the unequal power dynamics that keep the wealthy rich while the poor get poorer, but it doesn't end happily for anyone. Those structures are still firmly in place, and that look of complacency on the end is one of quiet acceptance, not smug victory. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: Do I Need to "Get Real" About My Teaching Goals?

I've managed to fall down a research rabbit hole and have spent the past few days wading through a decades-old (or, depending on how you want to tilt your perspective, millennia-old) debate. This particular iteration of the debate took place when Min-Zhan Lu published a 1992 article titled "Conflict and Struggle: The Enemies or Preconditions of Basic Writing?"

Ammunition in academic battles.
In it, Lu makes an argument very similar to the one that I'm using at the core of my dissertation: students labeled "remedial" are particularly positioned at a place of conflict in the academy, and a pedagogy that accepts (and even seeks) that conflict will serve them better than one that attempts to ignore or mitigate it.

In making that argument, Lu angered several of her contemporary colleagues in basic writing. This entire conversation is absolutely fascinating to me, but I wanted to pull out one particular thread of this very dense ball of yarn and explore it a little more in the context of my own philosophical beliefs, personal experiences, and professional practices.

In her essay, Lu cites the work of Peter Rondinone, a writing instructor and child of Russian and Italian immigrants who himself took remedial writing courses. Lu uses Rondinone's work to illustrate that most basic writing pedagogy falls into an either/or dichotomy that forces conflicted students to choose between their "home" discourses and the discourse practices of the academy.

Indeed, in his essay "Teacher Background and Student Needs" Rondinone says that "the very process of becoming educated alienated me from the community"(51) and that his own experiences of having to "reject or betray" family and friends (42) in order to succeed academically informs the way he teaches and talks about sacrifice to his students. 

He takes issue with Lu's characterization of his beliefs, though, and responds to them in a "Symposium on Basic Writing, Conflict and Struggle, and the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy." Here, Rodinone doubles down on his view that he "had to distance himself from [his] uneducated family and community" in order to succeed in college and that he is very upfront with his students about that fact. He "plant[s] the idea in the minds of Basic Writing students that sometimes their will and/or ability to enter an educated discourse community might be impeded by the people closest to them" (883). 

So, rather than disputing what Lu had to say about his views, he actually reinforces her interpretation. However, he says that Lu's "idea of suspension between two worlds and continual motion seem naive" and he uses that naivety to justify his decision to cut ties with his old world in order to fully immerse himself in the new (884). He goes on to say that "many students who come from these places don't come into the classroom ambivalent. We have looked at the other side of the street, at those who use the drugs, guns, and violence, at our own homes with welfare and economic despair; and by virtue of having decided to come to college, to carry books, we have made a choice (a choice that could get our hearts cut out). We have decided to change our social allegiances" (884). 

In many ways, Rondinone positions Lu's insistence on borderland existence as a way to cheat him and others like him out of what they seek from education: "Neither these students nor I romanticize our roots. What I found, for example, was that my working poor/welfare environment didn't have many values worth clinging to" (884). 

Finally, Rondinone says that "Lu and her supporters need to get real about the world" (885). 

I'm among Lu's supporters. Do I need to "get real"? 

Elsewhere in this complex conversation, Barbara Gleason (another critic of Lu's work) says that "a poststructuralist critique, by its very nature, cannot do justice to Basic Writing pedagogy" and that such an attempt "may well serve the teacher-researcher's interests better than it serves the students' needs" (886). 

Am I serving my own needs rather than my students' by reading my pedagogy through a poststructuralist and postmodern lens? 

Reading these critiques made my heart pound for a moment. The very last thing that I want to do is set up any more barriers to academic success for my students, students for whom barriers are constantly erected on a daily basis. 

Then I got to Lu's response to her critics, and I was heartened once more. She explains that Rondinone need not "hover," as he put it, between two worlds. Instead, "he might want to consider the possibility of fighting and changing both worlds and their existing interrelationships."

This idea of fighting to change both worlds fits very well with my view of not just what my students might accomplish for themselves but also with what I believe the entire discipline of developmental education is primed to do. The "remedial" designation situates a great number of students (at many open access institutions, the majority of the student body) at the margins of academic discourse, leaving them to constantly seek approval and acceptance through acclimation and, often, assimilation. The fact that remedial coursework is by virtually any measure failing miserably right now indicates that the model of assimilation needs to be reexamined. Instead, these students have the rhetorical power to make sustained changes to both the academy and to their "home" discourses. 

My investment in this belief is self-serving, I suppose, in that it gives me a sense of purpose as a developmental writing instructor. But I take some solace in the fact that this is not a chicken-or-egg question. I did not seek out a pedagogical underpinning to justify my career placement. I sought out a placement working with students at the margins because I wanted to work with the power I felt there.  

But why else did I seek out this career choice? Why did marginalized voices speak so loudly to me? 

It's because I, too, live in two worlds. Like Rondinone, Mike Rose, Gloria Anzaldua, Keith Gilyard, Richard Rodriguez, and countless other writers at the margins, I feel the identity crisis of existing in two conflicting spheres. 

As a first-generation college student, I navigated the terrain of undergraduate study clumsily and largely by trial and error. I remember talking to classmates who had anxiety about how their family discouraged them from majoring in English and pushed them toward more practical careers. I couldn't relate. My family pushed me toward nothing. They were proud that I was in college, but their connection to that reality was like that of spectators at an aquarium. Once I made the trek from my hometown to my college dorm, I would forever feel like a specimen they admired from behind glass: exotic, other worldly, and perhaps dangerous if released. 

If my undergraduate degree erected a glass barrier, the decision to pursue graduate education dug a moat. The tensions between who I was and who I was becoming were more and more pronounced with every visit, every phone call home. We had less and less to talk about, and I began to sense resentment at the edges of the assurance of pride. 

At the same time, I couldn't quite find a place to stand in my new world. I had felt relatively at ease in undergrad, but perhaps it was because I was at a state school with relatively low admission standards. I was surrounded by many other first-generation students and people from working class backgrounds. When I got to graduate school, though, I didn't recognize my own experiences in most of the conversations around me. 

I, like many of the writers cited above, grew up on welfare and within the constant-eggshell-walk of an abusive home. My experiences were always, always shaped by thoughts of my family members who were one flat tire away from unemployment and one bad flu away from not being able to afford groceries. When I mentioned these things, I often felt again like a specimen on the other side of the glass. I was given pitying clucks of the tongue. I was admired for my "grit" and ability to climb out of that life. 

I believe it was this experience of being caught between both worlds that led me to my career choices. I realized early on in my graduate studies that I wanted to teach in an open access institution. Although I had personally never struggled with writing or the academic aptitude of school, I struggled mightily with the ability to feel like I belonged, and I wanted to work with students who also felt that way. 

So back to Lu's critics. Does my desire to find students who feel like I felt make me read conflict when it isn't there? 

I don't think it does. The daily realities of teaching developmental writing in an open access urban institution confound me. Many of my students fight homelessness and poverty. Many are single parents, war veterans, and people just returning from prison. Many have learning disabilities, no computer skills, and a fear of full-length books. Many of my students are racial minorities who have lived in some of the most segregated parts of the city their whole lives. I have students whose family members so dislike the idea of them going to school that they sabotage them by stealing their homework or taking their cars. I have students who ride on buses five hours a day just to get to school. I have students who come into an 8am class after having worked a 12-hour overnight shift. I have students who amaze, inspire, and surprise me every day. 

It does not, however, take much seeking to find conflict. 

And what of the claim that applying a poststructuralist lens to developmental writing is a self-serving act of the researcher? Poststructuralism is not a fun toy that I bring out to play with when I'm bored. Poststructuralist theories have helped me make sense of my place in a conflicted and disparate world. I do not read through a poststructuralist lens because I have nothing better to do; I read through that lens because I believe in its power to illuminate truths. 

It feels to me like Rondinone and Gleason's twin criticisms (to "get real" and to stop using poststructuralism as a cool tool) both amount to the same complaint: those of us advocating for a pedagogy of conflict are not situated enough in the real, tangible experiences of students' lives. 

Everything I know about how I got where I am tells me, however, that the opposite is true. It is my own real life, fragmented and fluctuating as it is, that led me to this place. It is my own desire to break through the glass on both sides of my dual lives that has me advocating for a pedagogy of conflict. I am not asking anyone to hover between the lines, constantly flitting back and forth. I am demanding that we put cracks in the glass and allow a bit of our world to trickle through, altering the experiences of those on either side. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Guest Post: Je Suis Charlie Ou Non (A Reflection on Trigger Warnings)

In the five months since the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, popular opinion has swung back and forth in support of and against the ideas the satirical newspaper supported. For publishing a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad, five people died and 11 were wounded.

Now, there is an argument to be made that publishing images that rise to the level of blasphemy for Muslims is beyond the pale. Religion is one area that people more readily accept censorship regarding. There’s a sense that offending someone about their faith must be avoided above everything else.

I find that idea almost repugnant. Well, maybe repugnant is harsh. But, I think there’s something wrong with the idea of walking on eggshells to protect someone’s feelings about their religion. Religion as a source of strength—that’s an idea I can get behind. A strong, well-developed faith should be able to handle mockery, especially from an outsider.

At the same time, the idea that there are no limits to free speech is rapidly becoming part of the past. With trigger warnings becoming de rigeur, we no longer need the government to censor us, as we do it willingly out of empathy.

I really struggled with trigger warnings for a long time. Still do, in a lot of cases. People overuse them, rather than relying on the reader’s ability to infer content from an article’s title. I do still skip them when a title makes them redundant. But, I choose to use them more often than I once thought was necessary.

Because it’s a choice and an action we take on for ourselves, trigger warnings are perhaps the least offensive form of censorship I can imagine. It matters, the desire to prevent harm where we can, especially online when so many use the protection it offers to be the worst versions of themselves.

We post trigger warnings out of our human compassion and wish to avoid further triggering those who have suffered trauma. I’m all in favor of that, especially when titles of articles give no hint about the content to come. So, balance, as in so many other aspects of life, is the key. We must speak and allow others to speak, even when speech offends. But, kindness is the line we must maintain, keeping our humanity through kindness and awareness of others’ triggers.

Bookgrrl is a geek, gamer, lifelong reader and writer. She shares her thoughts on books at

Image: Nicolas Raymond

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Philosophizing Lunch: How I Tricked Myself Into Better Eating Habits

I've written about the notion of a fragmentary or momentary self before, but those writings were very theoretical in their approach. Today, I want to talk about something very practical: how the idea of a fragmentary self has helped me trick myself into better eating habits.

As of a few months ago, this is how a typical day went for me as far as eating goes.

I'd wake up at 6:30 to get ready for the day feeling absolutely no hunger whatsoever. I'd get myself dressed, get my daughter ready, and briefly consider packing something for lunch. Then I'd decide that packing a lunch sounded like a pain and that I could just eat something when I came home at noon or 1. It would be fine.

I'd drop my daughter off at daycare, get to work, teach for four hours and never feel hungry. I'd finish my office hours and plan to head home to get something to eat. At this point, one of several things would happen.

In many cases, I'd have students who still wanted to talk to me or papers that needed to be graded, and I'd decide to just stay a few extra hours in my office. Since now I have no food and am suddenly starving, I'd walk down to the campus cafeteria and end up ordering some friend chicken strips or a slice of pizza.

In some cases, I'd start to head home but decide that I should go to the gym or run some errand or any other number of things and end up not making it back to my house (and food) until 4 or 5.

There's no time for slicing!
In almost all cases, whenever I managed to make it back home, I was very, very hungry and in no position to really make any choices about what I was eating. Instead, I'd just ransack the refrigerator and eat whatever I could find. I've done a pretty good job of getting true "junk" food out of my house, so I was eating nutritious stuff, but I wasn't making choices that ensured I was eating a variety of nutritious things. At that point, I was just eating whatever was the fastest food available.

Then, at 6 or 7, I'd eat whatever I'd made for dinner with my family and start the whole cycle over the next day.

I wasn't happy with the way this was going. My energy levels and mood were affected by these bad habits. I knew that I needed to do something different, but I didn't know how to make myself make better choices.

Then I remembered talking to my students about annotation skills (stick with me, I promise I have a point). We were talking about how taking notes in their books or on articles was kind of a pain. It makes reading take longer, and it can often feel kind of pointless. I started telling them to think about annotating their work as a gift to their future selves. They're doing work now so that a week or month from now, their future selves can come back to this text, see the notes, and have to do less work. Their future selves deserve a break because their future selves are going to be bogged down with new expectations and tasks. Pay it forward, I'd tell them, and take some burden off of that future you.

Like this, only less shiny.
A lot of my students really seemed to respond to this framework. I saw better note-taking skills and better comprehension of the material.

Then I realized I could do the same thing with my problem. It's the Field of Dreams approach to lunch: If I bring it, I will eat it.

When I woke up in the morning, my current self was not hungry and so had no interest in packing lunch. My current self was acting with complete disregard to my future self and how hungry she would be later in the day. My current self was also completely ignoring the myriad of interruptions that might later occur (because everything looked fine to current-me) and just how much that might add difficulty to my future self's ability to get herself some food.

I'm not a selfish person. If I had a friend who I saw every afternoon struggling to make her schedule fit around getting food, I'd gladly take three minutes out of my morning to toss some grapes and hummus in a cooler for her. So why couldn't I do the same when that person was me?

Because I wasn't thinking about my neglect as a selfish act. After all, the only person who was being harmed by my poor choices was me.

But being able to separate out current-me and future-me made me realize that isn't completely true. That fleeting moment of self sabotage was really impacting a lot more. When I was frantic and hungry, I was also cranky and scatterbrained. I forgot things more often and felt irritated, and that impacted other people: my family, my students, random strangers.

By framing the needs of my future self as a problem my present self could alleviate, I found a concrete way to motivate myself to take simple actions I wouldn't otherwise have taken.

And past-me, present-me, and future-me are all better for it.

Photos: Skånska Matupplevelser, Pete,

Monday, June 8, 2015

Sacrifice and Protection: Is Pop Culture Warning Us?

Last night's Game of Thrones (which I will be spoiling) hit me hard on a visceral level. The scene in which Stannis has his daughter Shireen burned alive as she screams for either of her parents to save her from this cruel fate made me physically ill. In fact, the only other pop culture scene I can think that made me feel like that was the curb stomping scene from American History X.

I had to step back and try to figure out why it impacted me so badly. For context, I'll tell you that I was trying to catch up with the show a few months ago and some of my students were fans who kept teasing me about how I wouldn't watch anymore after the infamous Red Wedding scene. I was braced for brutality, and the show delivered. The scene was shocking in its depravity, sure, but I didn't have a physical response to the violence. Even the brutal rapes of Dany, Cersei, and Sansa (which were all terrible to watch) did not cause this kind of gut-wrenching reaction.

As I thought about it all day, wondering just what it was that made me react so strongly, I kept thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It started when I read this post by Steven Attwell and learned that not everyone was as shocked by Stannis' decision as I was. He writes:
So I think it’s profoundly mistaken to conclude that Stannis is an evil man, or that Melisandre is the clichéd witch figure so many take her for. There’s a reason why GRRM has explicitly stated that Stannis is a righteous man and that Melisandre is the most misunderstood person in the series. If Stannis was truly evil, there would be no torment and resignation in his voice when he says – to a daughter who has innocently pledged to do anything necessary to help him: “Sometimes the world forces his hand. If a man knows who he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be. However much he may hate it.”
And Attwell's analysis makes intellectual sense. I do think that Stannis is being set up (as a foil to Dany) as someone who has to make difficult choices when it comes to balancing the collective good against his own moral compass, but I just can't forgive the cruelty of this decision. Attwell further makes the point that if Stannis hadn't burned his daughter alive, then his whole family (Shireen included) would have starved to death (a fate that we haven't seen them escape yet, but for the sake of argument, let's assume this "works").

Set up that way, it's like the classic ethics question that asks if you would switch a train track to kill one person in order to divert the train from killing five. Utilitarian arguments suggest that you act for the greater good, and Attwell seems to believe that's exactly what Stannis did.

In a somewhat related argument, show runner Dan Weiss says that we're all hypocrites for just now deciding that Stannis is a monster when he's been rather calmly sacrificing people for years now. In some ways, this is similar to the arguments against the people who threatened to (or did) stop watching the show after Sansa was raped when there are plenty of horrendous rapes happening to minor characters all the time (like that poor little girl in Bravos!) Weiss says that we should transfer some of that concern for main characters that we like to the characters we don't know as well.

I think that's fair from an ethical standpoint, and I may be a hypocrite for feeling this gut punch harder than some others, but I don't think it's quite that simple.

See, the reason that I keep thinking about Buffy is that my favorite vampire slayer was faced with a similar dilemma. Her sister Dawn (who I know wasn't really her sister, but for the sake of not making what is already going to be a too-long blog post into a much-much-too-long blog post, let's just leave it at that) becomes a sacrificial offering of the god Glory in order to open a portal that will destroy all of humanity and whatnot. Throughout the plot line, some of Buffy's friends have suggested that Dawn will need to be killed to save the world. Buffy is adamant that if it comes to that, the world will just have to end. She will not sacrifice her sister under any condition.

When Dawn's blood has been spilled, the ritual is put into motion, and the only thing that will stop it is Dawn's life. That is until an enterprising Buffy realizes that she can stop it by sacrificing herself instead. She leaps to her death (an act of selflessness we later learn is rewarded with a trip to heaven).

Buffy, like Stannis, sees herself as divinely called to protect the world. She, like Stannis, is faced with an impossibly difficult choice between her duty to her divine position and to her sister. At its core, this decision is between community and individual.

But it's even more complicated because this is not the first time Buffy has made this choice. In an earlier season, Buffy was faced with having to kill her true love, Angel, in order to stop another world-ending event. In that moment, she is tortured, but she does not hesitate. She sends a sword through his heart and damns him to a torturous afterlife.

What makes Dawn's life different from Angel's? And why did I keep thinking of Dawn when I remembered Shireen's shrieks?

It's because Shireen was not just shrieking for someone to save her. She was repeatedly calling out "father, please" "mother, please" "let me see my father." She had put her trust in these people to protect her because she was a child, and protecting her was their job.

Buffy had the same responsibility for Dawn, especially after the death of their mother. She did not have that same kind of all-consuming responsibility for Angel, though she did protect him on many occasions. Her relationship with Angel was one of mutual protection, but her duty to Dawn was much deeper and much more squarely on her shoulders. When she said that she would let the world end rather than allow Dawn to be harmed, she meant it, and she meant it because a world where she had shirked her most important duty would not be one worth living in.

This, I fear, is what Stannis did not understand about his sacrifice. On Twitter, several people made comments that the White Walkers should just come and kill them all. Everyone is awful, and they deserve what they get.
So is it really that we're all just hypocrites who can't stand to see characters we actually like die, or is it that a hero who can't protect the individual lives he's charged with protecting isn't worth the title?

Some people might see the comparison I'm about to make as too light and lacking respect, but I truly believe that pop culture is a window into our cultural norms and collective moral compass. I believe that pop culture has lessons to teach and secrets to tell, and that's why I am repeatedly drawn to (over)analyzing it.

Last night, my social media feeds were full of Game of Thrones responses, but they were also full of the news that a police officer responded to a domestic disturbance at a pool party in Texas, threw multiple unarmed black children to the ground, pulled a gun on two young boys, and violently shoved a 15-year-old girl in a bikini onto the ground before sitting on her back. I watched the video. I was horrified.

That young girl, thrown to the ground after obeying the police officer's command to walk away, cries out for her mother. "Call my mama!" she screams from the ground, shocked, but clearly not attempting to get up or disobey. He then attacks her again.

I have seen several commenters come to the officer's defense. They say that the police officer was simply doing his job. They say that she shouldn't have talked back. They say that police have a responsibility to keep the community safe.

But they weren't keeping the community safe because this girl is part of the community. And if a police officer who is sworn to serve and protect can brutalize and abuse an unarmed child, then what good is that service and protection? At what cost are we buying our facade of security?

I don't think that I'm a hypocrite for turning my back on Stannis when his sacrificial lust for power turned to his own daughter. Maybe he does believe that he is the chosen one who has the responsibility for protecting the world, but if that responsibility can only be upheld at the expense of becoming a persecutor for the one person who he owed outright love and protection, then it is not a world worth saving.

There are protests happening all over the country. Ferguson. Baltimore. McKinney.

Many mock these protesters as ignoring the need for police, for safety, for protection. But the protesters recognize that a protection that does not extend to the marginalized is not a protection worth maintaining, and they are willing to put their own safety in jeopardy to prove that point.

I'm in no way making the argument that a TV show is like the real-life pain and torment that these victims are suffering at the hands of unforgivable police brutality. I only draw the comparison to say that perhaps these touch points in pop culture can serve as guides for how we can better steer our compassion and understanding, for how we conceive of the type of worlds we want to live in. After all, what is fantasy if not a place to work through the worst parts of reality and come out on the other side in better shape?