Monday, October 30, 2017

Acceleration to Nowhere? Only If That Was Always the Destination

There's an article over at Inside Higher Ed called "The Fast Lane to Nowhere" and it decries developmental education acceleration because "we have already promoted so many students at all levels who don’t know the material that we are drowning in a sea of bogus diplomas and degrees -- and far worse, the holders of those dishonorable documents are floundering."

Author John Almy makes many claims that I can't argue against. He says that "[w]e cannot continue to pass students and then hand them high school diplomas that they cannot read."

Agreed. 

He says, "We are hurting students by not teaching them the material before we pass them, and that process begins in kindergarten and continues through college."

Absolutely. 


But he makes a logical jump from those valid points to an angry tirade against acceleration without connecting the dots.

Let's all jump to conclusions!

In part, Almy writes, "
We put remedial students who are incapable of surviving remedial classes into transfer-level classes alongside students who are supposedly prepared, and that, along with a little extra tutoring, will somehow provide the lower-level students with the desire and abilities to quickly acquire all the skills they have failed to gain in the first 12 years of their educations. Baloney!"

Except it isn't "baloney." We have the data to back it up. Acceleration (often by shortening the developmental course sequence) and co-requisite enrollment (where developmental students are placed in credit-bearing courses at the same time they take their "remedial" class) are sweeping the nation and making plenty of people nervous because we're disrupting the traditional gatekeeping mechanism of blocking student access to "real" college.

I take a lot of issue with Almy's claims. First of all, he himself admits that these students "failed to gain [the necessary skills] in the first 12 years of their educations." So one more semester is the magic bullet? They had 144 months to learn these things, but four more should do it?

This is especially troubling when so many "remedial" classes follow curricular models that look a lot more like high school, or middle school, or even elementary school than they do college. Students doing endless grammar drills or being forced to write a perfect sentence before they are given the freedom to express their ideas in robust and complete essays is a surefire way to kill any interest in the subject. Turn writing into an exercise in proving one's academic identity rather than a way to express one's ideas, and you're going to send a whole lot of first-generation, low-income, and minority students running for the door feeling like they don't belong. 


That's what we lose when we disrupt the traditional model of developmental education. We lose the chance to protect our precious definitions of what college writers should sound like (and by extension, often what they should look like, dress like, and spend money like).

This isn't to say that we should embrace all efforts at developmental education reform without question. Accelerated models deserve scrutiny, and they are not all created equal. This article from Alexandros Goudas points out that some attempts to create a co-requisite ostensibly modeled off of the very successful ALP model from Baltimore Community College have actually become nothing more than a cost-saving measure that slaps a one-credit-hour lab component to traditional credit-bearing English 101 with no curriculum support that actually follows the model.

I personally think that many conversations surrounding developmental writing reform have focused too much on the structure and not enough on the curriculum. Acceleration works only when both components are taken into account. Students don't magically learn the same material at a faster rate just because you deliver it quicker (though many students who are capable of doing the work but who have life issues that prevent them from successfully completing multiple semesters of developmental coursework might still benefit). The true benefit comes from a curricular model that puts belief in students' abilities to succeed at the forefront of course design. If we get rid of the grammar drills and insultingly low hurdles and instead place high standards and the means to reach them in our students' paths, we see success. It is really that simple . . . and that hard. 




The challenging part of developmental education reform is that it means not just reforming our classrooms and our curriculum, but reforming ourselves. We have fallen into tired stereotypes about developmental writers for decades, and Almy is going through them like a greatest hits record. His claim that students haven't learned any skills in twelve years of school is a ridiculous one. I have never had a student come into my developmental writing classroom without a rich rhetorical skillset. I have never had a student come into my classroom without complex experiences of rhetorical dexterity. They are not blank slates arriving to us to learn kindergarten-level sentence structure. Just because they do not write the way we want them to write doesn't mean they can't write.

I have been teaching remedial writing classes for a decade, and I have had hundreds of students enter my classroom. Nothing in my experience matches Almy's description of developmental students as "those who don’t want to or can’t learn" and who are "draining our valuable resources." I can count on one hand the number of students I have met who seem truly incapable of meeting the demands of a rigorous, complex writing curriculum. 

Furthermore, Almy pleas for us to "[t]each those of us who have the desire -- really teach us -- what our instructors neglected to teach us the first time. And above all, make us learn or leave. Make us accountable. Make us earn our way." 

That is exactly what I do! The fact that I do it in an accelerated format doesn't make it any less rigorous. In fact, my accelerated classroom is leaps and bounds more challenging than the remedial course profile I was teaching from before our redesign. My students are absolutely, 100% held accountable. They do "learn or leave," though I try very hard to make them learn rather than leave. I don't understand why Almy thinks that an accelerated model is somehow a guaranteed A. It isn't.

It is ridiculous when he goes on to suggest that acceleration is somehow at odds with the goal of high standards and accountability, that I am somehow not letting students "
feel pride in what [they] have accomplished" and am instead bestowing upon them "arrogance in how [they] circumvented the system."

The only "system" they are "circumventing" is one designed to make them take classes with no college credit while they eat through their financial aid allotment, dragging out their "two-year" degree for years and years while we continue to steep them in current traditional rhetoric practices that didn't work in the first place and then pat our backs about our "rigor" when they give up.

Then he calls upon remedial education and its lengthy sequence as a way to build grit. And we all know how I feel about that. 

It's a bad system, one rooted in systemic discrimination against minorities and anyone whose discourse identities don't align with our own sense of superiority. If it makes us uncomfortable to dismantle it (or, really, just disrupt it a little), then that says much more about us than it does about the students who have become collateral damage in a historical battle over our attempts to shore up our academic boundaries. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Archer in a Blindfold (A Look at Modern Parenting)

"You have an auto car!" my daughter said excitedly from the back seat.

"Huh?" I wasn't sure what she was talking about.

"I saw the button up there. It says 'AUTO.' That means it drives on its own."

"What button? This car doesn't drive on its own, but if you tell me where the button is, I'll explain what it does."

It is the button for my driver's side window, and it means that the window descends completely with a single press instead of having to be held down continuously until fully open. I explain this, but then I am struck by a realization that I hadn't really had before. I am talking to my six-year-old. She has another decade before she will learn to drive. Will she learn to drive? 

"By the time you're old enough to learn to drive, though, it probably really will be an automatic car."

"Cool," she responds absently. She's moved on to other thoughts, humming along to the four thousandth playing of the Kidz Bop version of "Seven Years," which is being broadcast through my car's stereo system from one of her many personalized Spotify playlists via Bluetooth. A thing that holds no marvel for her.

I'm lost in a dense web of quickly connecting thoughts. What will teaching someone to drive look like in ten years? If she doesn't have the skills to drive, will that be limiting somewhere down the line? It's not that big of deal. I don't know how to bake my own bread, and that's not a big deal. Not all skill sets need to be preserved. Wait. Maybe it is a big deal that I don't know how to bake bread. What other skills are we losing? What do we lose with them? Will there be rogue parents who teach their children 'old-fashioned' driving? Will we be legally allowed? Will we have to buy antique cars with outdated features to do so? What else will she not know how to do? But think of all the things she gets to do that weren't even a fantasy when you were her age. It's a trade off. Everything's a trade off. 

At this point we arrived at our destination and my thoughts shifted to the minutiae of getting two kids safely out of the car and into the house. It didn't come back to me until I was in bed, trying to sleep.

It's not just automatic cars. It's everything. As I've mentioned before, I'm homeschooling my daughter, so that means that the parameters of curriculum are on me. I get to decide what knowledge is necessary for her, and it's a responsibility I take seriously. It makes the future-focused concerns of parenting emerge from the fuzzy darkness in a crystal clear way. I've read Outliers. I know about the 10,000-hour rule. What she learns now matters, will shape her skillset in the future, will determine where she places her focus somewhere down the road, will open some doors and shut others. It's not that I think my choice of which math workbook I buy will make or break her future career choices, but I do know that these early years are framing her worldview and her interests in a way that lasts. That matters.

The New Yorker ran a cartoon this summer entitled "Things I'm Afraid My Daughter Will be Doing in 2026."


It included anxiety about the continued encroachment of technology on our lives and also anxiety about the downfall of society as a whole. Her daughter, in her mind, has equal chances of spending her teenage years "hacking into my Facebook account and reading all the mean things I said about her as a baby" or "watching a flame in a busted-out TV like those kids in 'The Terminator.'" 

It feels like a coin flip. Heads: a world so technologically advanced as to be unrecognizable and threaten the core principles of society. Tails: a world in impoverished, dystopian ruin where the institutions of education, government, and social order have completely broken down. In the meantime, what songs would you like me to add to your Spotify list this week, baby? 

I try not to fall into paranoia about the future. I try to remain hopeful, but the fast-paced news cycle bringing a constant barrage of doomsday scenarios intermixed with constant signals that the future will be nothing like the present is whiplash inducing. Today I read about Jeff Flake resigning from a career in politics because (as he said in his speech announcing the decision) "our children are watching." He couldn't bear the thought of contorting himself into a Trumpian pretzel of debased values in order to win his primary. Today I also read that Amazon Key will now allow delivery drivers to enter your house when you're not home so that you can get your packages with ease. (A move that is surely making a blueprint for a future when the human element of the delivery is removed entirely, and I can't decide if the thought of robots entering my house when I'm not home is better or worse than the thought of flesh-and-blood delivery drivers doing so.) 



I'm prone to anxiety and overanalyzing things, I realize, but I don't think it's far-fetched to think that the world my daughter enters won't look much like the world today in many ways. Truth be told, even the five-year age gap between my children is a big difference. When my daughter was born in 2010, I didn't have a smartphone. My son, born in 2016, has been video recorded and had near-daily pictures snapped of him since the moment he arrived in this world. Their earliest experiences of reality are already very different from one another, and they were born in the same decade. If my daughter sees no marvel in the pleasures of Spotify or Osmo games, my son will see even less reason to be impressed. He will probably see things that I would have looked at as alien technology as outdated relics from a distant and irrelevant past. And we're talking about five years. 

How do you raise kids in this environment?! 

I realize this is a question born of privilege and surrounded by privilege. Plenty of people throughout human history have raised their children in times full of much more perilous uncertainty. People have raised children through genocides and the ravages of active war. I'd much rather ask myself how I am going to prepare my daughter for an uncertain future career than watch the Black Plague claim my children before they escape infancy. Things aren't so bad. I know that. 

We focus on the constantly oscillating matrix of fear and hope wrapped up in technological advancements. Maybe we'll all lose our jobs when the robots take over and end up without a means to support ourselves in a pseudo-capitalist society under Hunger Games-esque wealth inequality . . . . or. . . maybe we'll be freed up from menial and dangerous labor to pursue nobler acts like art and philosophy, enacting the Greek ideal life without the unethical practice of forcing slaves to make our wages. Again. Toss up. 

In some ways the uncertainty is freeing. Instead of chasing after some specific future end point, it strips us down to our bare principles. What do I teach my child? To love. To learn. To think. To question. To explore. To experiment. To analyze. To grow. To adapt. 

And maybe also how to make electricity from a potato--just in case our robot overlords throw us into eternal darkness. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Dumpsters

Do you want to know how to lose faith in humanity and start disliking everyone around you? Shovel (literally shovel) someone else's garbage up for an hour on a Sunday morning.

Let me back up.

Despite this post boldly declaring that we were staying put in our smallish house because I had embraced a minimalist outlook (and the constraints of our budget), we actually moved a couple weeks ago. A series of events (some fortunate, some unfortunate, some neutral) led to us changing our minds and our circumstances, and now we're in a bigger space (more than one bathroom!!!) that really fits us well (a classroom for homeschooling!!)

The new house is very close to the old house. It's about a mile away, crossing one major city street. In fact, we can easily walk between the two. The differences between the two, though, are somewhat shocking.

That short jaunt put us in a different property tax bracket (ten times higher), a different alderman's ward, a different demographic make up (though both are pretty racially diverse), and . . . different dumpsters.

Well, actually, the dumpsters are pretty much the same. The city has dedicated alley dumpsters for trash, yard waste, and recycling. They look the same, plopped down behind houses, in both neighborhoods. But there is definitely a different dumpster culture.

The new house shares an alley with a very well-to-do block behind it. One of the first things I noticed when we were looking at houses was the immaculate state of the alleyways. Spotless! The alleyway behind my old house was frequently overflowing with illegally dumped garbage, a disgusting heap of disrespect and loss of hope.

I have dumpsters located immediately behind my house in both locations, and that means that I am legally responsible for keeping them clean. A recent local news story explores how frustrating this can be. I can get fined because my neighbors (or someone driving in from somewhere else and illegally dumping) leave the alleyway a mess.

This wouldn't be such a problem except for the house next to my old one is owned by this guy. Disbarred for immigration fraud, a former lawyer turned real estate "investor" has gobbled up a ton of very cheap houses in my former zip code, done the bare minimum to get them up to "code," and then rented them out with absolutely no oversight over who lives there or what they do. He's preying on low income individuals who don't have other housing options and leaving them to live in substandard squalor, disrupting neighborhood stability as he rakes in the money.

He has owned the house next to us for most of the time that we lived there. In that time, several families came and went. Many were great neighbors. Many were not. Some fought violently in the streets and left a litany of ordinance violations in their wake. Most were eventually evicted after the complaints stacked up and triggered the city's nuisance property process.

The tenants who were in this house most recently had been, to put it lightly, not great neighbors. They broke out our windows, fought constantly, dumped trash in our yard. There were also at least thirty people living in a two-bedroom house. The ongoing issues were one of the reasons we decided to move.

Ironically, they were finally evicted just one week after we started living in our new house. They also left me some parting gifts when I returned to do some cleaning this weekend.


I wish I could say that I was shocked, taken aback, completely flabbergasted by this. But it was not the first time (though I hope it is the last time) that I had to take a snow shovel and literally scoop up other people's garbage. 

There's something intimate about garbage. Here I was scooping up bras and full, unopened canned goods. I found the cover of a Charles Dickens adaptation for kids. There were the toys that the children had played on for hours upon hours left in heaps. 

It's weird to feel so much sympathy even as you feel so much anger. I had talked to these neighbors several times. Their kids had played with my kids in my backyard. I didn't want to see their life thrown into upheaval with an eviction anymore than I wanted to be scooping up the aftermath of that resolution, but I also didn't want to keep living next to violent outbursts.  

I left the alley in better shape than I found it, but it still doesn't hold a candle to the immaculate cleanliness of the alleyway behind our new house. 


I don't have any conclusions to this post. I don't know how to address gentrification, substandard housing, predatory slumlords, the instability of poverty, or my own place in it. I don't know how to feel about fleeing one neighborhood for a "better" one. I don't know what will happen to my former neighbors. I just know that the materiality of the dumpsters tells a tale of St. Louis in a way that makes all the statistics and handwringing very, very concrete to me. 

While my new neighbors use social media to advertise alley way pick up posts of their gently used and unwanted discards, my old neighborhood will continue to fill up with the haphazardly displaced belongings of evicted tenants. And I will continue to not know what to do or how to feel about it. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Am I On Team Human: A Social Media Project Approach to Overthinking Things

Am I on Team Human? It seems like an odd question. On the one hand, what other team would I be on? Not only am I a member of the human species (the most obvious reason for my allegiance) but I’m also a member of the “humanities” discipline, ostensibly dedicated to researching, cataloging, examining, and spreading what it is to be human.

The question of whether or not I am “on Team Human” references a podcast titled Team Human. I stumbled upon it looking for something to listen to on a long drive. It’s hosted by Douglas Rushkoff and features thoughtful and thought-provoking conversations with experts across a range of disciplines as they examine the intersection of technology and humanity. Rushkoff’s tagline is that Team Human is the “last best hope” for humanity.

I’ve listened to a half dozen or so of these episodes since my initial stumble upon them, and I recommend them. They’re interesting, and they definitely touch upon relevant questions that we should be asking.

That said, I haven’t been able to figure out if I align myself with “Team Human” as an opposition force. Am I against the rising technology around us? Do I believe that it is negatively impacting (or even eradicating) humanity? Can I be on Team Human if a robot vacuums my floors?



While many of the episodes in this series have caught my interest, it’s the very first one I listened to (which is actually a two-parter) that has stuck with me. I listened to the first part in its entirety without distraction as I drove a very long and uneventful stretch of Midwestern highway, and then I listened to the second part on that same stretch of highway heading the other direction two days later.

For both episodes, I was left vacillating rapidly between cries of “YES” and “are you fucking kidding me?” This is unusual. Something that makes me move between total agreement and almost angry disagreement so many times is . . . worthwhile? Intriguing? Probably sitting at the intersection of some contradiction worth exploring?

The episodes in question feature a conversation between Rushkoff and his college best friend Walter Kirn (author of the novel Up in the Air that became the George Clooney movie). The conversation is easy and engaging, and it winds through several different topics. I tried to summarize what I agreed with and what I disagreed with, but it didn’t work. The concerns were too tangled, and my own thoughts were bouncing too quickly into subtopics, wandering off into the woods.

I’ve been wanting to unpack my thoughts on this conversation for almost two months now, and I’ve finally decided that the only way to really do it is to listen to it again, pause when I get to something that makes me have something to say, and then write about it.






So that’s what I will be doing. I’m going to find out if I’m on Team Human or not. And if you have an interest in the intersections of technology, humanity, and the future of both, you might be interested in giving these episodes a listen and asking yourself that question with me. (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here). 

Photo: Mike Mozart

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.