Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Philosophy of Outsourcing and a Review of Blue Apron

There are some realities that I just have to learn to face. As a liberal living in Missouri, for example, I am always going to be sad about the outcomes of state-wide elections. I will never, not ever, be able to wear high heels gracefully and without pain. My hardwood floors will never be "white sock safe" for longer than twenty minutes in my house with a preschooler, two cats, and a dog. And I can only go grocery shopping once a week.

It's this last bitter reality I want to write about today.

I mostly like cooking. I even kind of like finding new recipes, sorting them into categories, and experimenting with creating them. I actively dislike shopping. I loathe putting the groceries away. I strongly dislike making grocery lists and trying not to forget anything. I hate with a passion throwing away food because my meal planning failed and the ingredients went bad before I used them.

My face whenever I open the refrigerator and see moldy cheese. 
On top of that, grocery shopping is an ordeal. My daughter's new school schedule allows no room for flexibility, so I can't shop after work before picking her up. And (deep breath as I accept this fact), I can't take her with me. Not if I want to actually buy the things I need to buy. Not if I want to have any patience or semblance of sanity left when we walk in the house. Not if I don't want to have flashbacks to mid-aisle meltdowns every time I pick up the cereal box. So I grocery shop on Sundays while she and my husband sleep in or go for a walk or whatever. I can grocery shop one day a week without it turning everything into a giant and unwinnable game of Which Basic Necessity Do You Want to Lose.

On top of all of that, we have to eat food to live.

I've attempted to use outsourcing in a variety of ways to balance out these demands on my time and biology.

I want (as I suspect a lot of people want) to be able to eat food in my own house without it taking hours to prepare or days to plan. I want to eat out only because I've made a conscious choice to enjoy the luxury of eating out--not because I looked in the refrigerator and realized that the I forgot to thaw out the pork chops and the bread has molded so we can't even eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

What role can outsourcing play in my food dilemma? Obviously, it can play a very big role. I can pay someone else to make the food, package it, and deliver it to my house. But getting pizza delivered five days a week kind of goes against some of my primary goals about keeping us healthy and happy.

The next step would be going and picking food up at a restaurant, but often this isn't as convenient as it initially seems to be. It takes longer than it ever seems it should, and the choices are still pretty limited in terms of getting fresh food that makes me feel like we're making healthy choices.

I found part of the solution by using a service called Time for Dinner, a local company where you can  spend a few hours going between food stations and prep a freezer full of make-ahead meals. I like this option, but you only make main dishes, so I still had to plan side dishes and snacks and shop for them.

I can competently and rather successfully meal plan through Wednesday. I can shop on Sunday morning and get us through Sunday's lunch and dinner up to dinner on Wednesday. But that's it.

It doesn't matter what else I do, Thursday won't work. You would think I could just buy one more day's worth of food. I could even buy food I cook from frozen like a pizza or some Trader Joe's orange chicken and stir fry rice. You would think this wouldn't be that hard. But Thursday will not work. It's just one of those realities of the universe. And Friday? Let's not talk about Friday.

So I'm accepting my limits. I can only grocery shop once a week, and I can only successfully plan meals for four days. That's it. That's the best I can do.

In the past, we've dealt with this reality by eating out, ordering in, or having a hodge podge of lunchmeat and dry cereal (because of course we don't have milk by Thursday) for dinner. But those are unsatisfactory solutions.

So a few weeks ago I decided to try a food delivery service. After looking into Plated, Hello Fresh, and Blue Apron, I picked Blue Apron. It had the most reasonable rate ($70 for two family-size meals a week) and the easiest site navigation in terms of picking which food I wanted. I could also opt out of foods I didn't want (I don't eat seafood or fish) and swap in a vegetarian meal whenever I wanted.

I'll admit I was skeptical. I mean, I regularly get mail at my house for people who haven't lived here in a decade, could I really trust something I intended to eat to show up on my porch?

I've gotten three deliveries (six meals), and they've all gone perfectly. The food arrives on time, packed in ice and has always been cold and fresh when I opened it up.

The food comes in a futuristic-looking foil pack, and it's clearly labeled so that I have no trouble telling which ingredients go with each recipe.

The recipe cards are easy-to-follow and contain nice little additional info like cooking tips or information about seasonal vegetables, and they could easily be reused if you choose to remake the meals with ingredients you buy yourself. 

I've had no problems with the ingredients, all of which have been fresh and flavorful, and the meals have been just outside the box enough for me to be excited about cooking something new but still within my range of experiences enough that I feel comfortable cooking them and can convince my four-year-old to eat them. 

As an added bonus, my daughter really likes the excitement of getting a "present" filled with food, and she's been interested in helping me cook the meals, learning more about food prep and nutrition in the process. So instead of the forty-five minutes I would have spent regretting all my life decisions by taking her to the grocery store where she would become overwhelmed and melt down, we can spend a little time bonding and cooking some healthy food together. Win-win-win.

Heirloom tomato and squash pasta with a romaine salad. 
A Frozen plate, for authenticity. This one got called "the best food ever." No joke.
This was my favorite. Chicken tacos with tomatillo salsa and Mexican-style corn on the cob. 
My box arrives on Thursdays, and now--finally--Thursdays work. It's more expensive than going to the grocery store, but it's less expensive (and much healthier) than going out to eat. When I first looked into it, I told myself that I would find some other way; I would figure out how to get to the grocery store on Wednesday nights and save us a little money. But the truth is, it's not that much more money, and the money is easier to find than the time right now.

I know there are some people out there (I've seen them with my own eyes) who can make home cooked meals every night of the week with (what appears to me to be) ease. I envy you, but I will never be you, no more than I will be the woman climbing the stairs effortlessly in four-inch heels or the woman who can walk across her living room floor without getting cat hair stuck to her socks. I'm learning to stop chasing versions of my life that aren't realistic, and for me, that means letting someone else pack two of my dinners on ice each week and put them on my front porch. It's working, and I'm thrilled.

Photo: castgen

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shame, Blame, Restoration and Victimhood Culture

There has been a swirl of tangentially connected and frustratingly amorphous thoughts going through my mind lately, and I'm going to attempt to better connect them here in the hopes that it will spark a conversation to help me sort them out.

The solidification of these connections started when I read Conor Friedersdorf's Atlantic piece "The Rise of Victimhood Culture." In this piece, Friedersdorf examines an email exchange between two Oberlin college students to illustrate what is being read as the rise of a new cultural consciousness. The email exchange centered around a Hispanic female student who was insulted by a white male student's group email about a soccer club. She accused him of being culturally insensitive by using the word "futbol" and attempting to dismiss the importance of a Latino Heritage Month event by inviting people to play soccer instead. He responded with his own indignation and cited his close relationship with a Costa Rican family as evidence against her claims. 

The exchange was the subject of a recent sociology paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning who use it as evidence of a new cultural approach to conflict. As opposed to honor or dignity cultures, Campbell and Manning believe that there is a new culture based on victimhood:
Victimhood cultures emerge in settings, like today’s college campuses, “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions,” they argue. “Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood ... the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
Friedersdorf extends this observation to that of the social norms on the internet, particularly in the "blogosphere":
For example, the emergence of “the blogosphere” in the early aughts––something I participated in to some extent–– was rife with examples of conservative, progressive, and libertarian bloggers calling attention to minor slights against their respective ideological groups by mainstream media outlets. In “Fisking” the MSM, the aggrieved seized on these slights, often exaggerating them in the process; tried to garner the support of third parties (an ombudsman, the public at large); cast themselves as victims of unfair treatment; and demonized adversaries.
They did so in hopes of making the case that the small slight that they’d seized upon was actually evidence of a larger, significant injustice to a whole class of people.
This is interesting to me on a personal level because . . . I've done that. I've taken a minor event and written about it in a public outlet in the hopes that it shines light on a bigger issue: when a man saw me mowing my lawn and used it as an opportunity to creepily ask me why my "man" wasn't doing it instead, when the doctor-in-training at my daughter's 9-month appointment asked me "what's up with that?" because her skin is darker than mine, when I stumbled across KKK memorabilia and slave shackles at an ostensibly family-friendly festival. I am no stranger to the format of using a personal anecdote of "microaggression" to point to larger societal ills.

This got me thinking about the rhetorical effectiveness of such an approach. We know that people respond with more empathy to individual stories than they do to collective data. It's why the Ferguson Report bolsters clear statistical evidence of revenue-generating police tactics with personal stories like the one of a woman charged $151 for a single parking violation who ended up paying $550 and still owes $541 seven years later. It's why the picture of the Aylan Kurdi's tiny drowned body sparked more outrage about the Syrian refugee crisis than well-written but distant accounts of the number of refugees. It's why Humans of New York is such a popular site and is so good at raising awareness and support for individuals through Facebook posts.

In many ways, "Victimhood Culture" seems like the natural merging of the feminist slogan "the personal is political" with the ease of sharing made possible through technological advancements and the rise of social media. If the more rhetorically effective way to gain attention for your cause is to hone in on a representative individual, storytelling is a powerful drive of human nature, and online social networks make sharing as easy as clicking a button, then the rise of so many soap boxes makes perfect sense.

It's not then, our desire to share our story and be seen as a victim of a larger ill that is new--we've always done that, haven't we? When wronged, we rage, and the metaphor of the soapbox I just called upon is a testament to how low-tech this desire really is. We've always shared our personal stories (good and bad), but it's the rise of such a large, diverse, and interconnected audience to witness them that is changing the culture.

Two recent stories in particular illustrate this point.

Ahmed and His Clock
On Monday of this week (just four short days ago) Texas high school freshman Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school that was mistaken for a "hoax bomb." The claim is ridiculous, of course, because in order to make a "hoax bomb" one would have to say it was an actual bomb, something Mohamed never did, as he repeatedly told anyone who would listen that it was just a clock that he brought in the hopes of impressing his teachers and help him build a relationship with like-minded tinkerers.

Reading the story broke my heart. This child was handcuffed and led out of school even though the teacher didn't see his clock as enough of a threat to evacuate her classroom. She left the device in her desk and only had him investigated later in the day. Clearly, no one believed this was an actual bomb. Mohamed was traumatized through a dehumanizing (and perhaps unconstitutional) arrest and suspended from school.

The collective public reacted swiftly. By yesterday, the story was making international headlines, and #IStandWithAhmed was trending across social media platforms. Memes were made. The news was spread. People were having none of it.

The Dancing Man
Back in February, a man was body shamed online for daring to dance while fat. The tormentors posted his picture taken without his permission and mocked him, and all anyone looking at the pictures had to go by was the anonymous image.

The collective public once again responded with outrage, and that rage propelled them to band together and find the man, who was later identified as Sean O'Brien.

A Pattern of Response
On the surface, these two stories don't really have much in common. One is a teen subjected to mistreatment at the hands of an authority figure while the other is an adult subjected to bullying from random strangers. Mohamed faced serious legal repercussions (though charges were not filed) and documented punishment in his school record; O'Brien might not have ever known the pictures of him were posted if it hadn't been for the resulting push back. Mohamed and his parents shared their incident publicly to intentionally draw attention to the wrongdoing; O'Brien's mistreatment was avenged on his behalf by internet strangers.

What's interesting to me is that both of these people represent "victims" within "Victimhood Culture" even though only one of them intentionally shared their story in order to present himself as a victim (rightfully, in my opinion). To me, the fact that victims are created even when they're not promoting their own victimhood indicates that the drive for Victimhood Culture does not come (or at least does not come solely) from the person being victimized, but rather comes from the collective public who empathizes with and latches onto their stories. 

The problem with this collective public is that they are prone to irrational acts. Much has been said about the social media mob mentality where people's lives are destroyed when the collective fury snowballs. This kind of public shaming has frequently resulted in lost jobs and death threats, and the individuals in question become instant celebrities who are often held up as a flavor-of-the-week litmus test for particular political stances. 

  I've been in some of those social media shame vortexes. I've been outraged. I've retweeted callouts for racist, sexist, and otherwise abhorrent behavior. But I've tried to do so less because I realized that the motivations weren't always clear. Was I doing this to help the victim? (And was there always a "victim"?) Or was I just jumping on a bandwagon?

Yesterday, when Mohamed's story broke along my social media sites, I shared my outrage. I linked to the story. I shared that I was upset at an educational system that focuses more on making students fit predetermined boxes than finding their skills and helping them grow. I felt justified in helping Ahmed share his story, but I drew the line at leaving comments or reviews on the school's Facebook page, a site that is now filled with shaming. 

And I can't say that I don't think the school deserves it. They've doubled down on their actions and refused to back off the three-day suspension. They're wrong, and the people commenting are pointing out the wrongness. I'm not sure, though, that attacking the school's hallway decorations (almost certainly the work of students) or mocking the credentials of teachers who weren't even involved in the incident does anything to serve the greater cause.

Similarly, many of those outraged about O'Brien took to attacking his bullies. The post that first drew attention to O'Brien's plight was aimed at ridiculing those who took the picture. With little to go on to identify the perpetrators, the mob didn't have anywhere to aim their fury, so they took to building something positive instead.

An online effort to identify O'Brien worked, and shortly after a momentous movement was set into action. Funds were crowdsourced, media outlets got involved, and O'Brien was treated to a giant dance party, introduced to celebrities, and honored through the creation of "I AM DANCING MAN" t-shirts. 

Ahmed's story resulted in a similar outpouring of positive response. Since the story broke, he's been invited to the White House, given scholarships to Space Camp, and granted offers to transfer schools. He's gotten public support from major celebrities and politicians. He's being interviewed on major national news shows and talked about across the world.  

O'Brien and Mohamed illustrate the flipside of internet mob mentality. As much as we want to pile on the "bad" guy, we also want to help out the "good" guy. We want to provide some kind of retribution for the victim, and in a way, the public culpability in "Victimhood Culture" suggests to me a kind of restorative justice. These stories break our hearts and capture our minds, and we feel compelled to do something. More and more, that something seems to involve reaching out to the wronged and trying to make it right.

And it's not only when we see someone who has been wronged by a direct mistreatment at the hands of another. Consider the $1.4 million raised in scholarship money for a group of Brooklyn high schoolers after they were featured in a Humans of New York photo series. Think about the homeless man who was inundated with job offers after a picture of his handwritten resume went viral. There are countless feel-good stories that serve as illustrations as our collective desire to do good. 

But What Does it All Mean?
So why have I been spending so much time thinking about this? What's the problem? People on the internet see someone who has been wronged (either by some specific entity or by being put in an oppressed position overall) and they want to make it right. How could that possibly be a problem?

I don't know. I don't even know that it is. But I know that the intersections of "Victimhood Culture" and the stories of Mohamed and O'Brien have been weighing heavily on my mind.

One thing that I want to figure out is where our collective motivation comes from. Are we truly trying to lift up these wronged individuals or are we trying to assuage some kind of collective guilt? And if we are trying to assuage guilt, does that mean that these individual stories have done the job that Campbell and Manning said they aim to do: demonstrate microaggressions to be representations of a greater, systemic problem?

That's the part I think I have trouble dealing with. Flooding a single homeless man with job offers does nothing to address the social realities that make homelessness an epidemic. Letting Ahmed tour the White House does nothing to address the fact that non-white children across the country are being criminalized in school rooms and piped into a prison industrial complex. Giving O'Brien a dance party does not stop fat shaming from sending thousands of people into spirals of disordered eating and self harm.  

That doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things. We absolutely should try to right wrongs on an individual level. I hope that man finds a job he loves, that Ahmed gets to go to a school that nurtures his talent, and that O'Brien gets to dance as long as he wants. I'm happy that as a society we were able to come together and create a network of support in which those things could happen. I'm happy when my "shares" and comments are part of that network of support. It makes me feel good. 

But I have to wonder, if we really are changing from a culture of dignity or honor to one of victimhood, what are the implications for the individuals identified as victims and for us as their collective protectors and oppressors (sometimes both at the same time)?  What happens to people who never wanted to be held up as these kind of examples but who get sucked into the frenzy? What happens to our sense of collective responsibility for the macro-level problems that aren't being addressed? How much of this is an extension of token exceptionalism that allows us to turn our backs on the harm we're complicit in creating? What happens to dignity and honor as we make these shifts? How can I best operate as someone who tells my stories and values the stories of others?

I don't know any of those answers, but I know that the questions keep coming to my mind.

Photos: lastonein, Robert Couse-Baker

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Challenging Cooperative Games and Gobblet Gobblers

Pre-parenthood, I loved board games. I have a whole closet full of dusty, lonely games as evidence of this forgotten personal history. I have this fantasy that someday my daughter, too, will love board games, and my by then ridiculously-outdated collection will get a renewed life as a cornerstone for raucous family game nights.

Until then, though, I am stuck playing "age appropriate" games (which is really code for "mind numbingly dull" games) and pretending to like them because otherwise my child will grow to associate games with misery and doom and my fantasy will be dead in the water.

I'm kidding. They're not all that bad. (Smile! Is it working?)

I've written before about how playing board games meant for toddlers has given me insight into my career as a college writing teacher, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that my latest game purchase has led me to yet another connection to rhetoric studies.

I was browsing the toy aisle at Target and decided to buy a new game we could all play. As I was looking, I noticed a lot of games with labels pointing out that they are for "Cooperative Play." Cooperative games are those in which players are not pitted against one another but against a common challenge. They have to work together and either everyone wins or everyone loses. Peaceable Kingdom seems to be king of this market (at least at Target), and we have their game Feed the Woozle, a fun, silly, and interactive game that we really enjoy.

Apparently, this is not just a quality rising in popularity for children's game, as adult games like Pandemic have seen mainstream success using cooperative principles. And anyone who has had to ignore 753 million Facebook game invites in a single day knows that a lot of online games encourage cooperation among players (especially when it doubles as a tactic to make someone new play--and potentially pay for--the game).

Perhaps this is just a sign of the times. Millennials have been called a particularly cooperative generation, and the technology that connects people across former barriers certainly adds to that sense of working together. Couple that with the rise of the "sharing economy," and it seems like we've been stewing in a cultural milieu ripe for the promotion of cooperation.

In addition to Feed the Woozle, we've got a few other toddler board games built on cooperation like a  My Little Pony game where you have to build a rainbow together before the time runs out. They're fun, and I like that my intense little girl can focus some of that fierceness onto a shared task rather than competition. Cooperative games have both value and values, teaching skills that kids will need in a world wired for connectivity while simultaneously promoting attitudes of sharing and team building.

As a rhetoric scholar, though, I am suspicious of cooperation. As I wrote about at (probably too much) length in this post, my dissertation topic deals with agonistic rhetoric and the dichotomy between cooperative and antagonistic rhetorical approaches.

Antagonism often comes with a win-at-any-cost mentality that pits opponents against one another. You see it on any news show where two (or more) people are meant to show their opposition to one another's point of view by yelling loudest as the cameras roll. Antagonism is marked by a desire to come out of the debate unchanged and having (ideally) consumed your opponent into thinking your way. It is deeply competitive, as the risks of losing an antagonistic battle can be very high. There's also not much motive to listen to the other person because you're not really trying to understand your opponent; you're just trying to win.

There's not much to be said for antagonism except that it's prevalent.

Cooperative rhetorical approaches often develop as ways to combat an overly antagonistic environment. Cooperative spaces are typically irenic, spaces where conflict is avoided and seen as a threat to the goals of listening and working together. Particularly when set beside an antagonistic alternative, cooperative spaces seem inviting, peaceful, and very attractive.

But cooperation has serious rhetorical risks. Too much time spent practicing cooperation results in echo chambers where people only hear things they already believe. Cooperation can silence minority voices because they're seen as a threat to the stable, peaceful majority. (It also, as it turns out, might not be such a great way to generate ideas and promote hard work, a lesson proponents of open office floor plans learned the hard way).

Proponents of agonistic rhetoric (a rhetoric where conflict is embraced but destruction is not, where both opponents are changed through the act of struggling together to alter the other's point of view through listening and speaking) value cooperation as a space to get your ideas together before you turn to a more competitive sphere. If you're going to test your ideas against a hostile opponent, it makes sense that you'd want to first strengthen them among a nurturing crowd. Cooperation is important, but only when it serves as a starting point for a larger cycle of competition and growth.

It is through testing our ideas against others that we find out which are strong enough to hold up. This is how we formulate new ideas, discard ones that no longer seem worthy, and grow as people.

So what does that mean for cooperative children's games? If games are a training ground for real-life problem solving, what kind of games should we be playing with our kids?

I think cooperative games are important. Feeding the Woozle or building the ponies' rainbow helps show my daughter how to intertwine her skills with other people's. It teaches her that she won't always be center stage of every act and that sometimes she will have to sit back and let someone else make the final, winning move on a project she's helped create. These are important life skills, and I'm glad to see that there are so many games coming out to help her build them.

But I don't want to limit her to cooperative play. She needs the skills of competition and agonism. She needs to interact with an opponent and feel the risk of her own win or loss tied up in her individual actions. These are also skills she'll need, and they're ones I think games can help her build.

The game I finally settled on that day is Gobblet Gobblers (created by Blue Orange), and I am so glad I did.

Gobblet Gobblers is basically tic-tac-toe with two important added features: 1) There are three sizes of players, and smaller ones can get "gobbled" by larger ones and 2) You can move a piece you've already played to a different square on your turn. This turns a simple, easy-to-rig game like tic-tac-toe into a complex game of multiple strategies.    

It gets points not only for being a game that teaches my daughter important life skills, but also for being a game geared for kids as young as five that can keep an adult entertained. The individual games go by quickly, so you're not committed to hours of play every time you open the box (I'm looking at you, Candy Land). Most impressively for me is the way that it teaches strategy and competition that lay the groundwork for more complex games in the future. It also teaches you to be a good loser and a humble winner, and it's fast-paced enough that the sting of losing can be quickly surpassed by the thrill of a win. 
I'm going to keep playing cooperative games with my kid because cooperation is a necessary and crucial skill that I want her to build, but I don't want her to build cooperation without also building the ability to think critically against an opponent. Even with the rise of sharing culture and more cooperation, I know that anything great is built through conflict and struggle; people have to come up against opposition if they are to evolve, and teaching our kids how to face that opposition is as much our job as teaching them to work together. 

My daughter, gobbling me up.
Images: Tambako the Jaguar

Saturday, August 15, 2015

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

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

So, please, take the quiz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn't.

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

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

Photos: Plbmak, Anthony

Monday, July 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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