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?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

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

Here's what I've been reading that's made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). Feel free to add anything you've been reading/writing in the comments!

The Good

This. Watch it. Love it. Sing it to anyone who needs to hear it. "And my joy, my joy, my joy takes nothing from you."

Searching for the right word to describe that feeling? Try the Wheel of Feelings.

The Bad

Oklahoma wants to limit the institution of marriage to people of faith. For serious.

Spiders are falling from the sky in Australia.

The entire conversation surrounding the Duggar scandal and its fallout is heart-wrenching. This post from Love, Joy, Feminism does a great job of reflecting on it:
I still feel weird about posting this because of the gossipy angle so much of the media is giving it. So, I’d like to make a suggestion. When you see people talking about this story, whether on facebook or in person or in a comment section, steer the conversation toward the more substantive issues. Let’s use the attention the tabloids and other news sources are giving this story to educate the public about the problems with dealing with sexual molestation in house, the importance of sex education, and the dangers of judging the character of a family by outward appearances alone.
The Curious

Check out this great comic illustration of privilege at play.

Ryane Nicole Granados has an excellent post about her choice to make sure students always know they can come into her class--even when they're running late:
I allow students to come to class, even after the proverbial bell has rung, because I struggle with a different type of pit. I struggle with the pitfalls associated with literally or figuratively locking students out, and in turn suggesting that if you don’t come early enough to receive all of the knowledge there is no point getting any of it. In an institution designed to promote a love of learning, I am hesitant to enact such punitive justice that addresses the student’s immediate misstep, but does not consider the bigger picture.
There was a time when I was caught up in the food wars rhetoric, and reading much more nuanced discussions of processed food, industry, and health is helping to break down some blocks that set up. Hopefully we're moving toward a more productive conversation. Todd Kilman's interview with Rachel Lauden seems like a good start:
Yes, there are reasons to be wary about big organizations. Organization theory has made it abundantly clear that whatever the explicit goals of organizations, many other goals get followed. Businesses have to make money for their shareholders and satisfy their customers but managers also want to shore up their positions. Government agencies have to serve the public but civil servants also compete to increase their agency budget and prestige. None of this is specific to food. In complex modern societies, it’s hard to do without complex organizations.
What should the narrative for 21st century education look like? Thom Markham has some ideas:
But the future will be invented—and you will be part of it. Your passion, vision, and sense of mission will determine your level of contribution, but those qualities are liberated by appreciation and gratitude. The more grateful for your opportunity, the better the outcome and the more joyful the work. The same, by the way, applies to your students.
What happens when schools focus on restorative justice instead of suspension? Good things, it turns out.

Lori Garcia writes that praising fathers for simple parenting tasks is an insult to them:
He is a good man, a really good man. But not because he tackled a few loads of laundry. He’s a good man because he’s always a good man, taking care of whatever needs doing for his family — whether I’m home or away.
As pregnancy has become more and more medicalized, the importance of "the quickening" has fallen away.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Education as Transformation: Of Maturation and Shapeshifting

What does it mean to be successful in education? I ask myself that a lot, and I ask it from many different perspectives.

Most obviously, I ask it as an instructor. In fact, at the beginning of every semester I design a syllabus with that question literally in my mind. Then, at the end of each semester, I hold borderline grades up and ask it again. There they are: bookends of questions that sound the same "What does it mean to be successful in this class?" But they feel different.

It's easy enough to take a look at the lists of requirements for the course (lists created through course design committees on which I've also served; the question feels different there, too) and design a course with those goals in mind. It is very different to take an actual student, a real live individual, and hold their performance up to that yardstick.

By necessity, there's an almost clinical element to measuring student success. Out of fairness, professional ethics, and preservation of our own sanity, grading measures need to be objective, sometimes even cold.

from Scott Akerman
But there's nothing quite like a student who has a 69.3% in a class that requires a 70% to remind you that the clinical elements are something of a facade, especially in a composition course where the subjective nature of evaluation can never be fully remedied--no matter how many rubrics we throw at it. Scratch the surface of all those spreadsheets and calculators, and you're left with a much more nuanced picture.

Then there's the more global way to frame the question. What does it mean for a student to be successful? Culturally, we've created diplomas, certifications, and degrees as the benchmark. You're successful when you've completed it, whatever your "it" is.

In my field (developmental writing, "remedial" courses for students who test in as unprepared for college), this particular benchmark has proven to be a challenge. Very few developmental students go on to graduate with degrees, and it is the measure of completion that leads to such dismal conclusions that developmental education is not working.

I'm not throwing completion out the window because I know that degrees matter. As an ABD student who is hopefully just a few months away from defending a dissertation, I know all too well that progress and acquiring knowledge do not necessarily add up to crossing the finish line. And the finish line matters in very concrete ways. Completion is the gateway to jobs, to promotions, to bigger paychecks and less poverty. I care deeply whether or not my students pass my class, pass out of developmental education entirely, earn associate degrees, transfer to four-year colleges, and earn bachelor's degrees. But it's not the only thing I care about.

In the most recent issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, editor Jeff Sommers starts the introduction with this question and notes that college success researchers Michael McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro say "Students in American higher education start from very different points and seek very different destinations. But the ultimate aim of any educational encounter is to transform in some way, be it to enhance earning potential or to instill a love of learning--or very likely somewhere in between."

That line really struck me because I've been writing so much about agonistic rhetoric and the underlying understanding of transformation that underpinned ancient Greek notions of education. As Debra Hawhee puts it, "both athletic and sophistic pedagogy depend on a contractual philia, a tacit agreement to transform."

from Stevesworldofphotos
But McPherson and Schapiro also hit on the fact that American education serves very different purposes for very different people. The transformation is no simple equation. At least, it shouldn't be a simple equation. An education system that opens its doors to a diverse array of students and churns out an endless supply of identical "products" is not an education system I want to be in--as educator or student.

This image of schools as factories, though, is pervasive. As Larry Cuban writes:
In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent in every aspect of schooling.
 Within a half-century, however, the affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees and reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine.

I don't believe that American education as a whole aims to squeeze all of the individuality out of students to make them carbon copies of one another (copies ultimately modeled off of a hegemonic status quo that's likely white, rich, and male). And I know that many of the educators within this system don't have that aim, (but if we are reduced to mere cogs in the machine, I suppose our motivations are of little concern). However, using only the measure of completion to gauge student success makes this model a little more accurate. It is only when we craft a more nuanced view of educational transformation that the elements of diversity and individuality can be retained.

But transformation is still transformation, and transformation is often painful.

Even if we recognize that education allows for many different transformations, we still have to account for the fact that not all students are going to be approaching the promise of transformation in the same way.

In particular, students who are new to college landscapes might see that promise as a bit of a threat.

I say this as a first-generation college student and as an educator who primarily teaches other first-generation college students at an open access community college. I also say it as someone who has taught students in a prestigious private four-year college who come from long line of college graduates. These experiences have taught me that, yes, transformation is a part of the educational process for everyone. The promise of transformation underpins the entire endeavor in everything from syllabi promising learning outcomes to recruitment advertisements. And once you've attained a degree, adding those letters to the back of your name stands as a marker of that transformation.

But students who come from a family lineage of such transformations often approach college as a means to inevitable maturation. College success often brings them closer to members of their family that they love and respect who have already made this change and modeled its results their whole lives.

from tzzimone
On the other hand, first-generation college students have no such support system waiting on the other side of the change. Their transformation, even when it is wanted and agreed upon, often has the added sting of moving them further away from their family and friends. They are not like tadpoles growing into the frogs they've seen around them their whole lives. They are more like the little mermaid giving up her fins for legs.  When we cross to the other side, we are surrounded by strangers. Harder still, we are strangers to ourselves.

From WonderlandNinja
I don't think that we do enough to address this difference. We could start by doing more to openly acknowledge it. Too often, the rhetoric of change aimed at first-generation college students is wholly optimistic in a way that leaves students feeling even more alone. Maybe everyone else is making the transformation just fine. Maybe it is only me who cannot adapt. Maybe I'm not cut out for this. This is a recipe for pronounced and paralyzing impostor syndrome. As Jacquelyn Gill explains:
This isn’t to say that white upper class males don’t feel self-doubt; rather, it’s easy to imagine how people from underrepresented backgrounds (women, people of color, first-generation grad students, etc.) might be more susceptible to feeling like an imposter, especially if you literally don’t see others like you in your academic surroundings.
I've felt my education distance me from people I love, and it hurts. But my pains are subtle compared to some of my students. They've told me tales of intentional sabotage by family members who felt threatened by their educational goals. Sisters have taken cars for joy rides at the very moment a student needed to leave to get to class. Partners have ended relationships that no longer fit. Parents have demanded their children quit coursework to stay home. Those are extreme cases, but I often hear about friends who first call to offer nights out instead of homework and, when those don't work, calls that never come again. I know a lot about family who still offer love but who hold you at arm's length, an odd specimen regarded with caution.

The transformation comes with great benefit, but in a way unique to students who are shape shifting instead of maturing, it also comes with incredible sacrifice. We should be up front about both if we expect students to successfully undergo the change.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I'm a Feminist, and I Still Watch Game of Thrones

By now, you've probably seen the flurry of posts complaining about last Sunday's Game of Thrones (which I will be writing about, in addition to previous episodes, so spoilers).

In this episode, Sansa marries Ramsay, and their wedding night ends with a horrendous rape scene in which Theon, Sansa's lifelong friend and pseudo-brother, is forced to watch.

I've got my own take on the show's portrayal of sexual violence against women, but I want to first take a look at some of the (smart, meaningful) things others are saying about this episode and the previous displays of rape and sexual assault.

Elizabeth King at Bitch Magazine asks when a guilty pleasure becomes too guilty:
It’s important to acknowledge that most of popular media is riddled with problems and deciding to just not watch a show is not always the best option. Events like this week’s episode of Game of Thrones force us to push this idea further and wonder whether or not making note of repeated, wildly uncomfortable scenes is enough to justify commitment to our favorite media. In some cases, merely discussing the flaws does not feel like enough to forgive the flaws. With Game of Thrones, I no longer feel that noticing the problems is enough—I personally don’t want to look at it anymore.
Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue very directly announced that this episode was the breaking point and they would no longer be promoting the show:
In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Salon has their own recap of reactions to the episode, and it included some reflections from Alison Herman at Flavorwire:
It’s too soon to judge the effects of her marriage to Ramsay on her overall arc, and it’s possible that Sansa will find a way to exact revenge when Stannis show up. But my immediate feeling after Theon’s face cut to black and the credits started rolling was that, sometime in the last two seasons, Game of Thrones crossed the line between showing what a cold, hard world its women live in and abusing them past the point of being useful to the narrative, or even interesting. 
 Salon also highlighted Nina Shen Rastogi's Vulture post:
It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly, but to do so by literally stripping her is so cheap, such an obvious choice, I felt offended as a fan. And if this means Sansa loses all her momentum, which has brought such a fresh energy to the show’s plot — I’ll be mad as a fan, not just as a feminist.
I've seen many, many people declare that they are done with the show on feminist grounds in the past few days (and many others who used the backlash to remind the world that they'd similarly used a feminist perspective to bow out of viewership some time ago). I only started watching a couple of months ago, and this is the first season I've watched as it aired, so I've missed some of the previous discussions in real time. However, I've since gone back and caught up, and I generally think that I'm more aligned with perspectives like those shared in this earlier post by Alison Herman, this one by Erica Aisha Charves, and especially this one by Vivienne Chen. These writers focus on the way that the show's violence and oppression reflect the violence and oppression of history and contemporary society. If we're uncomfortable, perhaps that's the point. As Chen puts it:
What the show really asks is, “What if white people had committed colonial-level horrors on other white people?” In other words, all the blood and boobs, rape and torture, are not just HBO gratuitousness, but an expression of how European colonizers treated their colonized subjects, masquerading as domestic high-fantasy in Belfast castles.
I'm with them. I think that violence and oppression have a place in our pop culture because I think that pop culture is where we turn to figure out how to process the realities of our past and help shape a better future. A fantastical world that didn't address patriarchal power structures and dominance over marginalized groups of people may have purpose, but I don't think it would hold my interest as I fear I wouldn't find a foothold for framing my lived experiences within it.

But that's not the angle I want to take for explaining to you why I've chosen to keep watching Game of Thrones despite the rapes of several of its major female characters. Instead, I want to look more closely at the reason people are saying that feminists shouldn't watch the show.

First, a disclaimer. You absolutely and unapologetically have the right to not watch anything you don't want to watch. If this show (or any other) makes you uncomfortable or triggered, you shouldn't feel compelled to watch it. I am absolutely not saying that the writers I'm analyzing tonight are wrong to stop watching. They have every right to make that choice and to voice that decision to the world. They even have the right to try to convince you (and me) to follow them in changing the channel. I'm a huge advocate for ethical consumption of media and voting for change in the culture through consumer demands.

Instead, what I want to do is offer an account for why their explanations for their decisions and their attempts (direct and indirect) to persuade me to follow did not work.

Rape and Other Violence in Game of Thrones

First, I've seen many people make a two-pronged argument that rape is portrayed too quickly and too easily in the show. This argument as I've seen it made in many comment sections on these articles has two parts: 1) rape is used more than other forms of violence and 2) rape is the only form of violence used against the female characters.

This just isn't true. There is so much violence in the show against the male and female characters.

First, a look at some of the violence against male characters on the show: The torture of Theon as he is mutilated into Reek is a prime example. The bullying of Sam when he first gets to the Wall is brutal. Tyrion's emotional abuse at the hands of his family was really hard for me to watch. The Hound's burned face as a permanent reminder of his sibling rivalry, Jamie's missing hand, Ned Stark's missing head. Male bodies are also brutalized, beaten, and defeated.

Secondly, there's the charge that rape is the only way that women are brutalized. This is, again, not true. Sansa was forced to watch her father's beheading. Catelyn Stark's throat was slit. Brienne was forced to fight a bear with a wooden sword. In this same episode, Margery is forced into the dungeon for lying to save her brother from bigots. There is no shortage of violence--emotional and physical, sexual and non-sexual--cast upon the women and girls of the show.

Rape is repeatedly (and uniquely) held up as a threat against women. Brienne and Meera both come up against near-rape situations until they are rescued (by men). Rape is also demonstrated to be the tool of power that Craster uses to maintain control over his wives, a point made especially clear when he casts away the sons borne from that rape and keeps daughters for future cycles of abuse. And, of course, there have been previous rape scenes in the show. Dany is raped on her wedding night in a way that is almost identical to Sansa (minus the added humiliation and torture of having someone else forced to watch), and Jamie raped Cersei.

These were all incredibly uncomfortable scenes for me to watch. I took no joy in seeing these women  tortured through rape. I do think, though, that there is a powerful message in seeing rape as a tool of power and oppression wielded by characters that we will go on to feel conflicted about. I sincerely doubt that Ramsay will go on to have a redemption plot line. He has pretty clearly been displayed as an evil villain through and through. But Khal Drogo (who raped Dany) and Jamie (who raped Cersei) both went on to have much more conflicted portrayals of heroism and tenderness. I think this is important.

As an outspoken feminist who grew up in a very rural, conservative community, I have had many, many conversations with male friends who are frustrated with feminism and don't believe in the existence of rape culture. In many of these conversations, they've treated rapists as boogeymen who are rare and decidedly evil creatures. In other words, they don't look at their friends, their brothers, or themselves as potential rapists, and this means that they fail to understand how the culture we live in conditions us to see rape as acceptable. By portraying rape as something committed by characters you actually like and otherwise root for, Game of Thrones complicates the narrative that only evil men rape. And that's a good thing. As Laurie Penny writes in a post on examining assumptions about rape:
As a culture, we still refuse collectively to accept that most rapes are committed by ordinary men, men who have friends and families, men who may even have done great or admirable things with their lives. We refuse to accept that nice guys rape, and they do it often. Part of the reason we haven't accepted it is that it's a painful thing to contemplate – far easier to keep on believing that only evil men rape, only violent, psychotic men lurking in alleyways with pantomime-villain moustaches and knives, than to consider that rape might be something that ordinary men do. Men who might be our friends or colleagues or people we look up to. We don't want that to be the case. Hell, I don't want that to be the case. So, we all pretend it isn't. Justice, see?
Penny goes on to explain the danger of this belief:
it fosters the fantasy that there's only one kind of rape, and it happens in the proverbial alley with the perennial knife and certainly not to anyone you know.
Game of Thrones definitely has no shortage of rape, and it is very difficult to watch. But the show also has no shortage of murder, brutality, assault, emotional torment, and many other kinds of violence. Often, the show juxtaposes a traditional narrative of good vs. evil (like Gregor Clegane's bloodthirsty murders) with a more nuanced and complicated display of a similar violence (like Tyrion's murder of Shae). By demonstrating that so many characters have the potential for violence, the show reminds us that fighting against oppression is everyone's responsibility, and that the enactment of that violence might not always look the way we expect.

Sansa's Victimhood and Declining Viewership

There's something else about this latest wave of outrage that has me frustrated, though, and that's the way the outraged are talking about Sansa. I know that Sansa is not a real person, and I do not necessarily think that fictional characters deserve the same treatment as real ones. However, many of these people are writing on Sansa's behalf, claiming that they are no longer watching because the show took a powerful character they respected and destroyed her through this rape scene. In this way, they are personifying the fictional character beyond the screen. They are making her out to be a metaphorical representation of women in general, and it is on those grounds that they feel disgusted enough by her violation to stop watching the show.

Rastogi's frustration with the show stems from seeing Sansa's carefully and hard-won agency wrested from her: "It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly."

Many others are equally frustrated by this sharp turn in Sansa's trajectory toward strength. Melissa Leon asks:
But when is all this pain and misery going to transform the eldest surviving Stark into anything more than a damsel in distress? She got a Goth makeover, a badass new attitude, and has a network of Winterfell servants willing to come to her aid. Is she ever going to help kill any of these sickos? Or will she take the Jeyne Poole route and just stand by for help, again?
I understand these critics' frustration, but I think there's something troubling in suggesting there's a right way to react to rape. To say that Sansa is merely waiting for help and thus weak or that because she has been raped she cannot reclaim her agency is falling into a trope of dehumanizing victims for the sake of simple narratives. As we explored above, Game of Thrones often distorts traditional narratives of good vs. evil, and I have faith that the show's creators will similarly invert simple narratives of victimhood.

Most importantly for me, though, is that I don't think we should fall into simple tropes of victimhood in the name of feminism. Yes, Sansa's treatment was horrendous. Yes, it was terrible to watch a character who had just recently escaped so much trauma and who appeared to be recovering spirit and strength to be so brutalized. Yes, rape is an abhorrent act.

But real women are raped in real life. Often repeatedly. Often after regaining strength from previous abuse. Often at the hands of people who they depend on. Often. Too often.

To suggest that Sansa as a character is somehow now deficient or that her reaction (which we haven't even seen yet) is somehow insufficient is troubling to me. There is no right way to react to abuse. And abuse does not define victims' entire identities.

Alison Herman's Flavorwire post denouncing the episode also discusses the difference between Sansa's rape and Dany's in terms of their reactions to the violence perpetrated against them:
There’s a world of difference between Dany’s rape at the start of the series, a rock bottom one can and should compare to her next husband literally cowering at her feet, and the casual abuse experienced by Cersei in the fourth season and now Sansa in the fifth. Unlike the encounter between Cersei and Jaime last year, we’re at least meant to perceive Sansa’s experience as rape—but that’s about all that’s improved.
I don't think there is a "world of difference" between Dany's rape and Sansa's rape. The two are nearly identical. They both occur on the women's wedding nights. They both feature men who clearly believe they now own the bodies of the women they've wed. They both feature crying, silent women being bent over and raped in a show of dominance. In both, we don't get to hear the women's voices, only their cries of pain. Just because Dany rises to power after her rape (as Sansa may--we have yet to see her reaction) doesn't mean that her rape was somehow "better." This puts too much pressure on the victims to react a certain way to make them acceptable.

What really drove this home for me was a passage from that The Mary Sue article quoted above.

Here Pantozzi is discussing her frustration with the scene by looking at the way the show compares to the books. Sansa does not marry Ramsay in the books, but her character was combined with a character named Jeyne, who does (and is also raped):
I honestly did have hope Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t go there, especially after the huge and thoughtful discussion by countless journalists and fans surrounding last year’s controversy. But looking at what has taken place this season so far — from Ramsey’s promise to Littlefinger, “I’ll never hurt her. I swear,” to Sansa’s friends at Winterfell, Brienne keeping close watch, and Stannis close to arriving — I assumed Sansa would not go down the same path as Jeyne, especially when you consider Sansa’s own inner strength. As the scene played out, I though she might pull a dagger out of her wedding gown and end Ramsey once and for all. 
She didn’t. What a missed opportunity to do something that would have actually surprised your audience. Rape, on the other hand, is expected.
When I read the line I bolded above I was seriously, deeply offended. I don't think that Pantozzi meant any harm with this analysis, but what she has suggested here is that women with inner strength are not raped. She's suggested that because Sansa didn't pull a knife out of her wedding dress (an act that probably would have led to her own death at the hands of Ramsay's family), she is not a strong woman.

Maybe Sansa did miss an opportunity to surprise (and delight) the audience by giving Ramsay the reaction he so deserved, but does that really make her any less a woman of "inner strength"? Does her rape so weaken her? And if it does, what does this analysis say to all of the real-life rape victims around the world?

I will continue to watch Game of Thrones, and I will continue to root for the characters who are most marginalized and systematically disempowered in the fictitious setting of their universe. Turning away from their reality because they don't react the way I'd like them to or because they become victims of a very real and all-consuming threat of violence around them feels too much like abandoning them.  For me, turning away from the show because a character becomes a victim to sexual violence feels too much like the way that real victims of rape are ignored, silenced, and judged.

I know that Sansa is not a real person, but if critics can use a feminist argument to turn away from the show on her behalf, surely I can use a feminist argument to say that she deserves me to stick around and be on her side.