Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I Caved on the Elsa Costume

I had a plan. When I first asked my three-year-old daughter what she wanted to be for Halloween, she--of course--screamed "ELSA!" at the top of her lungs. I cringed, all my own rants about princess culture as a feminist motherhood blogger bouncing around in my head and with my friend Rebecca Hains' great book about "the princess problem" looming over it all. So I wheedled and pleaded until I got her to choose another costume: Harmony the Care Bear. I breathed a sigh of relief.

So I started looking for Care Bear costumes, but of course she's watching old re-runs on Netflix and Care Bears are not exactly a hot item this year. I found a few, but none for Harmony and all with creepy giant heads that looked like sports team mascots (and that I knew would never make it twenty minutes into the night).

I, being empowered by Pinterest and all, took to the web to find an alternative. I found this adorable tutorial and thought I was in the clear. All I needed to do was find a dark purple hoodie with matching sweat pants and the rest would be a breeze. Except there were no plain dark purple hoodies. Not at Target. Not at Baby Gap. Not at Kohl's. Not at Carter's. Not at Wal-Mart. Not even on Amazon. Everything I found was branded with words across the chest. Everything.

Pictured above: a bunch of things I've never used.
Plus my time was running short. Between working, writing a dissertation, and trying to keep the household together, the days of being able to quickly whip together a cute costume were dwindling.

So to the costume store we went. They'll have something she'll like, I reasoned. It's fine.

We walked into the store, and she was awed by the aisles and aisles of shiny wigs, feathery boas, and yards of tulle. Then we got to the back where the preschooler-sized costumes lived. Immediately, she was drawn to a front-and-center display of Elsa and Anna costumes. "Oh Mommy! I can be Elsa!"

Diversion, I thought. Diversion is the key.

"Look at this!" I shouted with perhaps too much enthusiasm. "A velociraptor! You love velociraptors." This is true, by the way. She does love velociraptors.

"I don't want to be a velociraptor," she says, raising an eyebrow as if she's a little worried about me.

"What about this? It's a beautiful butterfly." She holds the Elsa costume in her arms, tightening her grip in defense.

"Or . . .what's this?" I pull a costume covered in some of that shiny tulle from the shelf and hold it out while reading the label "a . . um. . .a polka dot witch! Don't you want to be a polka dot witch?!"

I can't blame her for shaking her head and walking away from me. I don't even know what "polka dot witch" means.

"A construction worker?" I call after her. "A ladybug? A firefighter? A candy corn witch?" How many kinds of witches are there?

At one point, she literally knelt on the floor, cradling the Elsa costume in her arms and begged. "Please, please, please, please, please, Mommy! Let me be Elsa! It is the only thing I want in the whole world!"

Shit. Why didn't they just make plain dark purple hoodies in a 4T?!

So there I am. The terrible mother in the middle of the costume store using her feminist ideals to block my wonderful daughter from the only thing she wants in the whole world. I sigh deeply, "Okay."

Her whole face lights up as she springs to her feet and starts dancing around me.

Later, I ask her why she wants to be Elsa so badly. "Because her dress is so pretty!" she exclaims. Of course. Sigh.

"Anything else?" I ask, hopefully.

"Because she can sing! Because she has powers! Because she loves her sister!" Harmony the Care Bear, too, loves to sing, so I'm seeing a pattern here that I missed before. And my daughter is an only child, so the draw of a sister has been particularly powerful for her lately. And, really, who can argue that being able to turn things to ice isn't cool?

Yes, it is my feminist principles that make me worry about the choice of Elsa as a Halloween costume. I do not want her, as explained in this article, "up against a multibillion-dollar industry that has a mission to sell our child a particular type of fantasy." But it is those same feminist principles that tell me my daughter needs to learn bodily autonomy, including (within reason) what she wears and how she presents herself to the world.

I care deeply about the media she consumes and am careful about what "princess" shows I let her watch. We talk about what we see on the screen, and I'm trying to teach her media literacy as she grows. So, yes, I caved. She will put on her Disney-branded costume to trek the streets with the hordes of identically-clad Elsas all across the city on Friday, and I will stand next to her, hopeful that she can make future choices about what she likes and how she expresses that as confidently and happily as she made this one.






Photo: hine, AForestFrolic

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: More Modern Than We Wanna Be--Facebook's Rhetorical Identity Construction

Susan Cox has an excellent article over at Salon that examines how Facebook's real-name policy (and Mark Zuckerberg's insistence that we only have one identity in general) undermine the promised complexity of cyberfeminism, which Cox explains envisioned using the internet as "a new frontier beyond the oppressive bodily boundaries of race and gender where new understandings of identity could take root."



Zuckerberg wrote in his 2010 book that "You have one identity... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." He further explained that "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly."

His "real-name policy," then, is presented as a measure of safety and security, a way to ensure that the people you are interacting with are practicing integrity. Only someone who has something to hide, the logic goes, would want to use something other than their "real" names, and the only reason someone would have something to hide is if they are ashamed of some part of themselves. 

Many, many people took Zuckerberg's stance to task to demonstrate legitimate reasons that someone might want to present themselves with a name other than the one on their birth certificate. As people pointed out that drag queens and people trying to escape abusive situations have very good reasons for wanting to "hide" their real names, Facebook caved. 

As Cox explains: 
Facebook apologized for conflating legal names with “real names” and conceded that a legitimate identity may not be constituted by the name you were given at birth. Although Facebook failed to directly apologize to the members of the LGBTQ community disproportionately affected by the incident, Facebook’s concession is, in a sense, a deployment of Trans politics. The conceptual implications of their policy change are: somewhere, somehow, over the course of life, you go through a process of becoming, and your true identity may be something more elusive than what can be verified by a government document.
But in that model, you are still supposed to "find" your "true" self and then present that identity to the whole world. It still does not leave room for the fact that you may need to present different identities as different times, that you might, indeed, be more than one person to the world without nefarious plans in mind.

Caitlin Dewey explores two sides of the real name debate in this Washington Post article, and she situates the question over one of responsibility:
Whenever we talk about real names online, we’re really talking about personal identity. More than that, we’re talking about personal responsibility: Should you be held accountable for what you say and do online … or not? And who is holding you “accountable,” quote-unquote, for the collective breadcrumbs you drop online — your IRL friends? The government? The advertisers who pay dearly for every dribble of information about your “real,” money-spending self?
Accountability for your actions matters. Many of the blogs and news sites that I read have moved to authenticated log-in for commenters because we've learned time and time again that anonymity brings out some of the worst in human behavior. Making someone use their Facebook account to comment doesn't guarantee that they won't abuse and spew death threats, but it does seem to at least reduce the frequency of these posts.

While all of these questions about what's at stake in the real name debate are valid and certainly part of the equation, I think we're missing a more fundamentally rooted cause for this controversy. The debate over whether we have more than one identity and what's at stake in presenting that (or those) identity (or identities) is nothing less than a schism between modern and postmodern thought rearing its head in the midst of our everyday, popular culture.


The idea that we can "find" our "true" selves is one rooted in the modernist, positivist notion that there is one empirical truth waiting to be discovered. The idea that we have a "true" self (one that I took to task in a post about Knocked Up and explored again through Richard Sherman's rant) is a deeply troubling one because it doesn't allow for experience to shape us. If we have an "authentic" self hidden somewhere that we have to find, our experiences can be "right" or "wrong" in that they either lead us closer to our "real" selves or further away and into someone we were never "meant" to be. There are a lot of ironic quotation marks in that paragraph, but I think that we really need to question how easily terms like "real," "meant," and "authentic" roll off our tongues in this discussion. We have internalized a lot of modernistic assumptions about what it means to exist without even thinking about it. For many of us, the idea that we need to find our "true" selves is taken for granted. 

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Wayne Booth explains that "[w]e are what we have consumed; we take in whatever takes us in, and we are forever altered." Every piece of art you view, every book you read, every movie you watch, and every interaction you have becomes a part of you, shapes who you are. He goes on to say that "[i]f man is essentially a rhetorical animal, his essential human act is that of making himself into a self, in symbolic communion with his fellows; that is, each of us makes himself or herself by assenting to and incorporating whoever and whatever represents life at its most immediate and persuasive. Our negatives are learned as we discover violations of our affirmings." 

In other words, the alteration that occurs from interacting with the world is not--as it is often presented--an unfortunate distraction from the real work of finding our "true" selves. It is, instead, the very work of being human. 


So the first thing that we need to call in question is that there is a "true" self in the first place. This is particularly troubling in my line of work (a composition instructor) where the way that we speak and write become an extension of our representations of self. Students who write in nonstandard dialects are often told they are using "improper" English and need to learn the "right" way in order to express themselves "properly." What this amounts to, essentially, is telling a student that the language (and thus the identity) from their home is not good enough and one that they need to get rid of in order to get ahead. If there is only one "authentic" self, then a student struggling with this is forced to make a choice between the identity they have in their home life or a more "proper" (if sterile and intimidating) academic version of themselves. 

It's also troubling in my personal life. I'm not a member of one of those groups who protested most forcefully against Facebook's "real name" policy (though several of my roller derby friends were none too thrilled). But I still think that I exist in many different personas and that I have the right to claim them all equally if not simultaneously. I am no more or less my "real" self when playing lumps in the bed with my daughter than I am when sitting in a coffee shop, stern faced and writing a dissertation. I am no more or less authentic when I'm quoting Snakes on a Plane and laughing with my husband than I am when I stand in front of my students and talk about the lessons of failure. I am all of those things and each one of them, and there is an important distinction between having to own them all simultaneously (something I think is impossible) and being able to slip in and out of them as the circumstances call them forward. 

Think about it this way: would you speak the same way to your grandma as you do to your best friend? Would you speak the same way to a three year old as you would to your boss? Would you speak the same way to your spouse/partner as you would to a client? If the answer is "no," then you are part of Zuckerberg's perceived "lack of integrity." (And if your answer is "yes," then I have some rhetoric lessons I need to give you.)

We adapt to the people around us because we are shaped by them and they are shaped by us. It is not only natural to switch your persona depending on who you're around; it's also the thoughtful thing to do. 

We have accepted many postmodern influences over our contemporary culture. The acceptance that there is no absolute truth is largely responsible for our shifting views on religion. (The number of religiously unaffiliated adults and atheists are both on the rise). Postmodern thought has definitely been in a reciprocal relationship with media as we see mashups and multi-platform texts splinter and reconnect in unexpected ways. 


Postmodern notions have also slammed into economic struggles to produce a workforce of young people who don't stay in positions long and who see interdisciplinary studies as the norm

Looking at all this flow of bits and pieces of culture that get blended, remixed, and repurposed, we might be tempted to think that modernist thought and the positivist drive for an empirical truth have gone the way of the pay phone. But the Facebook name debate (and the unsatisfactory nature of its "solution") demonstrate that we're really more modern than we pretend to be. At the very core of who we are, there is still an insistence for a stable center that does not, has not, and cannot exist, but we will continue to try to force one because it is much easier to look at a world where identities stand still. 

Photos: wolfgangfoto, Jason Wesley Upton, timoni west

Friday, October 24, 2014

Freak Shows and Shifting Lines

In this week's episode of American Horror Story, bearded lady Ethel (played by the amazingly talented Kathy Bates) is confronted by a literal ghost that makes her revisit a figurative one. Through her interaction with hell bound spirit Edward Mordrake, she recounts her most shameful secret: the circumstances surrounding the birth of her son, "Lobster Boy" Jimmy (Evan Peters).

In the scene, we see her laboring in a field against a tree as midwives hover nearby. The father of her baby and then-lover sells tickets and guides customers to gawk at her as she bears down and gives birth to her son. As soon as the father sees that the son, too, is a "freak" (his fingers are fused into "lobster hands"), he tries to capitalize on an even more lucrative endeavor and sell chances to hold the newborn baby (before his mother even gets a chance). Ethel's voice cracks as she tells Mordrake that her son's known nothing but exploitation since the moment he was born.


Ethel is clearly appalled by what they did, and we're supposed to be appalled, too. But I think the most interesting part of this scene is the recoil of the audience when they get the chance to hold the child for just a few more cents. They shudder and shrink back in horror. They are here to see, not to feel. As deplorable as the father's character is (in this and other scenes throughout the show so far), I can't help but think that this misjudgment of the audience's desire to hold his "freak" son belies an unexpected naivety. He sees the profit in his strongman act, his son's lobster hands, his new girlfriend's triple breasts, but he hasn't fully considered what the revulsion that drives that profit means. Those people are paying to observe the spectacle of isolation so that they don't have to feel it.

And we're really not so different. Sure, we've recognized the problematic exploitation inherent in freak shows, but we've simply shifted our exploitation of those who are othered and identified as freaks into different, sleeker, less visceral mediums. Why risk going into the show where the freak might touch you (or ask you to hold his infant son) when you can get the same thrill and reassurance that you are normal from the sanitized glare of your TV screen?

Toddlers and Tiaras (which I've written about before when I made the mistake of trying to watch an episode) may have a 1.8/10 rating on IMDb, but people are still watching. Its spin-off show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was just cancelled because of the star's mother's romantic involvement with a child molester. TLC, in particular, is dominated by shows that hinge around difference and disability under the guise of showcasing diversity but often simply give the viewing public the chance to feel more secure in their own normalcy. Just go look at their show lineup and tell me that it isn't the modern-day equivalent of those posters featured above.

That isn't to say that the relationship between spectatorship and exploitation is a clear one. As this AV Club article explores, many "freaks" did not feel they had been exploited. One of the actors from American Horror Story (Mat Fraser, who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal) is interviewed in the article and explains his views:
Fraser—who, in addition to his work as a performer, has spent years researching performers with disabilities and their shows—says he simply couldn’t find any credible cases of non-mentally impaired, adult performers being taken advantage of by sideshow producers.
Many of the performers felt grateful for the opportunity to make a living from their perceived difference:
Fraser cites one of his idols, Stanislaus Berent a.k.a. Sealo The Seal Boy, as one such success story. “He worked at the sideshow from 1929 to the late ’70s and was proud of the fact that he kept his family clothed, housed, and fed throughout his entire career.”
One might like to think that such dire circumstances (someone with a physical disability having such a limited range of career opportunities) would have been eliminated through our cultural shifts and social changes, but--at least for actors--that's not always the case. As Fraser goes on to explain:
While it may still seem shocking or exploitive to some viewers, he says, the presence of people with disabilities (“apart from Peter Dinklage”) on highly rated shows is minuscule; the work by Fraser and others on AHS may serve as a jumping off point for the next phase of discussion and inclusion. “We’re not used to people with radically outsider bodies like myself in entertainment,” he explains, “so arguments about the tone and the politics must come after some visibility.” Plus, who better to play freaks and outsiders than people who fully understand all the implications of what those designations truly mean? “If we can’t even play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage, then I think we’re in a pretty bad place,” Fraser says.
Indeed, a look at Fraser's other acting credits demonstrate that his difference has often been the central function of his performance. He's worked on the show Cast Offs, the film Inbred, and Kung Fu Flid, which comes adorned with the tagline "Unarmed but dangerous."

So maybe the chance to, as Fraser put it, "play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage" is indeed a step in the right direction when it comes to visibility and ownership, but what about the children?

I've seen a collapsing of questions surrounding exploitation and children around me this week that keep bouncing off that scene of Ethel giving birth to Jimmy. She is ashamed of having given him a lineage of exploitation by making even his birth a moment of profit and spectacle.

But there are a lot of moments in parenting that can be exploitative. While there are certainly some examples that seem clearly over the line (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I'm looking at you), the gradations between them get slippery as we move along. If we can agree that Honey Boo Boo is exploitative (a position that I'd stand behind), then what about its predecessor Toddlers and Tiaras? I'm still going to vote that it is, especially because of the way that the editing and focus is drawn in  to clearly play up the exploitative angels. If we can agree on that, though, what about beauty pageants in general? If you think the big, national shows are a problem, what about the talent shows held locally and with a more friendly tone? If those are a problem, what about the "baby contests" held at small town picnics? (I remember seeing a trophy I received from such an endeavor at some point in my pre-walking days).


If I was exploited by being shown off in front of neighbors in the park and then given an award for it, I certainly don't think that was my mother's intention (or the intention of the spectators, for that matter). Still, the idea of judging a baby's "beauty" and declaring a "winner" is a little creepy. If we think that's exploitative, what about showing off your newborn at all? Are we dooming children to a life of exploitation the moment we put that first picture on Facebook (or even just send it to an out-of-town relative)?

For me, that's an example of slippery slope argument. I don't think it's exploitative to put a picture of your newborn up on Facebook, but the exact place that the act crosses the line in that progression isn't clear to me. Is it somewhere between pageant and Toddlers and Tiaras? Somewhere between beauty contest and local talent show? Can we draw the line in different places?

I've been thinking about that a lot as I read the controversy surrounding the now-viral "F-bombs for Feminism" in which a swarm of little girls dressed like princesses say "fuck" a lot as they explain the problems with our gender norms. The video is a product (in all senses of the word) from FCKH8, a company that sells t-shirts featuring socially conscious slogans that has faced criticism for its tone-deafness and appropriative, overly simplistic style.

For the F-bombs video, they've faced some harsh and meaningful criticism from those who see the video as exploiting little girls to help FCKH8 sell more t-shirts. Rebecca Hains explains that:
This video was scripted and slickly produced by a t-shirt company that evidently has no qualms about exploiting girls who are too young to understand the implications of the script they’re bringing to life.
The Belle Jar takes a similar stance:
The video then has the sweet, princessified little girls tackle a bunch of feminist issues, namely the pay gap, violence against women, and sexual assault – all while swearing up a storm, of course. What FCKH8 wants you to take away from this is that society feels more uncomfortable about cute little girls saying the word fuck than it does about the very real issues faced by women on a daily basis. Instead, what I see is a video that relies on the shock value of girls in princess costumes cussing and talking about rape in order to increase its shareability.
I agree with both of these analyses of the video, but I have to admit that it made me squirm a little to come to that realization. The first thing that came to my mind was the viral video from a few years ago of little girl Riley giving a similar (if less profane) rant about the treatment of gender norms in the toy aisle:



You can hear Riley being coached by the videographer (presumably her father) during the video. She's also reciting lines that she probably didn't create on her own; some adult has shaped her perspective on this issue and many people (including some of my friends) grew angry at what they read as exploitation. They saw a video where parents used their little girl as the cuter mouthpiece for their own political and cultural stances. They saw it as an act of "brainwashing."

I stood (and still stand) in defense of Riley's rant. Sure, her parents were likely the real creators of most of her ideas, but parents are the real creators for many of our kids' ideas--that's sort of what this parenting gig is all about: giving kids the tools for how to see and interact with the world. The parents likely saw her cute rendition as a more shareable version, but I don't think they were "selling" her the same way FCKH8 is selling the girls in their video.

I'll admit, though, that the line between exploitation and teaching, between giving a kid of voice of their own and using them as your mouthpiece, between a local talent show and a beauty pageant is not always an easy one to discern.

Ethel was certainly complicit in the exploitation of her son as she leaned against that tree to give birth, but when held up against the acts we make every day, I don't think her sin is as uncommon as we might like to believe.

Image: stumptownpanda, Snap

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Tell Me You Don't Love Me Because"

My daughter (almost four) is currently going through a thing where she likes to stage elaborate dramatic enactments in her head and then draw me in to participation. A typical ride home from school goes something like this:
"Mommy, first I am going to whisper something and then you say, 'I can't hear you.' Okay?"
"Okay."
She whispers something.
"I can't hear you!"
Then she cuts out of the moment like a little dictatorial director whose vision has been squandered. "No. No. No. You say it like this: 'I can't hear you.' Okay?"
"Okay."
She whispers something.
"I can't hear you!"
She cuts out of character again. "Good. Now you're going to say. . ."

This can go on for quite some time.

The other day, we were having a serious discussion on the ride home because she had gotten a bad report from school. As we went through the reasons we can't use hitting hands and why we need to be still during nap time, she said from the back seat with the same tone as she always requests my cooperation, "Mommy, you say, 'I don't love you because you were bad at school.'"

"No. I won't say that."
"Why not?"
"Because I love you all the time."
She sighs loudly, once more upset that I'm destroying her theatrical vision. "Just say it!"
"No. I love you all the time, and I will love you all the time."
She gets quiet for a few seconds before replying brightly, "Okay."

For some reason that little exchange has stuck with me. She tells me she doesn't love me pretty often. It usually happens when she puts on her didactic voice, the one that she uses to teach me something that she just can't believe I haven't learned yet about the world. She's not shouting or screaming, just  declaring decidedly "I don't love you because you won't let me watch Care Bears." "I don't love you because you are making me go to bed." It's as if to say, "I really want to love you, but you just make it so hard."

My response is always the same, "That's okay. I still love you."

I can't figure out what's going on in her mind as she plays out these mundane dramas about daily exchanges, but I hope I'm showing her that some unhappy endings just aren't in the script.


Photo: Our Hero

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Robot Turtles and the Importance of Failure

As I mentioned in this post about Candy Land, playing board games with a three year old is not exactly the most mentally engaging activity of my day. But (as was the topic of that post), I recognize that playing these games helps little minds not only learn basic concepts about rules but also to learn how to trust the adults playing with them to enforce those rules fairly, so I think it's important to move through the Gumdrop Pass even when the game of bright primary colors and sheer luck bores me out of my mind.

That grin and those glazed eyes tell it all; the inanity has taken over. 
I wondered, though, if my daughter (who is almost four) might possibly be ready for something a little more advanced, so I took her to Target today and ended up buying a game called Robot Turtles. It boasts on the box that it is "The Game for Little Programmers" and "Introduces Basic Coding Concepts to Preschoolers" and is "The most backed board game in Kickstarter history!" 

I wasn't necessarily looking for a game that will turn my daughter into a "little programmer," but the concept sounded interesting enough, so I gave it a chance. We brought it home and played it, and I have to say that I loved it. 


While I suppose that I knew this already, the games's focus on "coding" skills is really just focus on basic problem solving skills. Since players have to lay out a series of cards to figure out what order their turtle should move to get to a gem, they are essentially creating a line of code that is then "run" when the adult navigating the board game moves the pieces according to the player's card choices. It definitely does what it says it does: teaches a complex skill without making it feel like it's teaching a complex skill. My daughter picked it up quickly and was excited once she realized she could start planning her next moves to get her turtle in the right position. 

"Coding" skills aren't just useful for computer programming. They're really tapping into a much more basic set of life skills that can benefit anyone. As the creators discuss in this Wired article (which outlines the fascinating history of Robot Turtles), the game is really a tool for critical thinking:
“This is about building what’s called the ‘executive function’—the ability to stay on task, set planning, understand what your objective is, and staying focused,” Ritchie says. “Coding is about organizing your thinking, visualizing from the beginning through to the end, working through all the details.”
Organizing your thinking. Visualizing something from beginning to end. Working through details.

Those are basically the exact same skills that I'm trying to teach my students when I teach them to write, and it's a connection to the writing process and my classroom that really made me fall in love with this game as I played it this evening.

The key component is the "Bug" token.

Play goes around the table with each player placing a single card into her individual line of code at a time. Once the card is placed, the adult in charge of running the code moves the turtle correspondingly. Since my daughter is only three, we played with just the three simple commands: straight, left, and right. She could lay down a card to turn right, and I'd turn her turtle. Occasionally, this would clearly be the wrong choice, and the turtle would now be facing away from the gem that represents a win.

All she has to do is yell "Bug" and tap her ladybug piece. She can then pick that card up, I put the turtle back, and she gets to go again. She can do this as many times as she'd like until she figures out which card she wants to play.

In other words, this game teaches her that it's okay to fail. It's okay to make a mistake. It's okay to pick the wrong card.

None of the other board games we've played do that, and it's such an important lesson.

James Dyson created 5,126 versions of a vacuum cleaner before he succeeded in making the one that launched his business to success. He explains that the failure was part of the success because "I got to a place I never could have imagined because I learned what worked and didn't work."

In this Inside Higher Ed essay, Edward Burger discusses the way that he incorporates failure into the classes he teaches. He goes so far as to make failure a necessary component if a student wants to receive an A:
I now tell students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their final grade is based on their "quality of failure." Would such a scheme provoke a change in attitude? Absolutely — with this grading practice in place, students gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in discussions.
As a college instructor who teaches developmental students, I am used to having students familiar with failure. Most of them have failed a class in the past and (by their own admission) many of them expect to fail mine when they start. My challenge is not getting my students to accept that failure happens; it's getting them to understand that it's not the end of the game.

When they learn that failure is just a step in the process (by, say, revising and resubmitting their essays), they are learning how to learn. They are looking at the work they've done, reflecting on it, and making changes accordingly. They are learning how to solve complex problems and build on their own experiences.

It's a lesson that I have a hard time getting my adult students to accept and it's probably the one that I spend the most time trying to implement throughout a semester.

Perhaps if they'd had a game with a "Bug" button in it when they were preschoolers, it wouldn't be such  challenge. I'm really excited that I have the opportunity to share that experience with my daughter now when the stakes aren't nearly as high.

Photo: Tiffany Weisberg 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Feminism and NFL Fandom: Is Anyone Required to Boycott?

I do not come from a home with a sports culture. My father did not watch any sports at all, and I lived  far enough away from the city that the baseball mania of Cardinals nation reached me without any requirements to actually watch the game.

My high school did not have a football team when I was there (though they have since merged with a neighboring school to support such an endeavor, one my little brother took part in until he graduated this year). We did have a basketball team that was highly praised, but--at least from my perspective as a nerdy high schooler who resented the pep rallies their teams got while my academic bowl team was ignored despite more impressive accomplishments--it was always a co-ed endeavor. We cheered on our boys and girls with equal fervor, and basketball does not have the element of violence that seems to pervade football.

In other words, I come to this topic as a tagalong. My husband is an avid football fan, and he was a college football player when we met as freshmen. I went to his games as a good girlfriend should, I learned a little about the sport, and through the past decade, I have (most passively) watched several hours of NFL football. Sometimes I have found enjoyment in the excitement of a big play, and I've definitely enjoyed the customs of Super Bowl parties and friendly team rivalries. I can't, though, really call myself a fan so much as a ride along in fandom.



Still, I found myself instinctively bristling during parts of Steve Almond's (mostly powerful and reasonable) post on feminism and football. Almond knows he will be attacked as a man writing about feminism and opens with that acknowledgement. That's not what I'm doing here, though. I'm glad to see a man thinking about the feminist perspective of the game, and I think that his contribution to the conversation is really important. He asks a lot of good questions, and his own decision to revoke a 40-year fandom in order to ensure he doesn't pass down a cultural heritage to his own daughters that includes so much misogyny is admirable.

My main points of contention come from a set of questions he asks early on in the piece that strike me as a little tone deaf.

The first question he asks specifically of Hannah Storm and, by extension, to all women of daughters:
why would a mother watch with her own daughter a video of a man knocking a woman unconscious?
Why did anyone watch that video? My hope is that people watched it to confirm the details of an event that had gotten so much press and to try to find some understanding in order to gauge their own reactions (as fans, as advocates against domestic violence, as citizens of this country, as humans, etc.) Almond seems to be suggesting here that watching it with your daughter (who is playing fantasy football so who is presumably an older child and not a toddler) baffles me a little. She likely watched that video with her daughter for the same reason that parents talk to their children about the horrors of drinking and driving, the importance of safe sex, the risks of peer pressure, and any number of cultural life lessons that are part of conversations when you're raising human beings. I doubt her and her daughter were gleefully replaying the horrendous scene of a woman being knocked unconscious and dragged around like an old rug. I suspect that Storm watched it with her daughter because (especially due to her own professional connection to the NFL) she knew her daughter would likely see it anyway and she wanted it to be in a context where she guided the conversation. That's good parenting in a complicated world.

The second question is more nebulous and much more general. Almond asks simply "What's in it for women?" the "it" being NFL fandom in the first place:
As a fan (a heartbroken former fan, anyway) I understand why football exerts such a powerful grip on men. The game is an exalted cult of hyper-masculinity, a place of refuge where dudes can escape the moral complexities and disappointments of adulthood, where heroism is defined as courageous and brutal and, above all, male. 
Well, hell. If women historically confined themselves only to activities free of a "cult of hyper-masculinity," what would we have? Not golf. Not running. Not corporate work. Not law. Not police work. Not the military. Not, well, not much of anything.

That doesn't mean that Almond doesn't make great points about the tensions between feminism and supporting the NFL (and we are, indeed, supporting them every time we let those advertising dollars gain a foothold through our views). He's right to question the ability for the two to coexist, but since feminist battles are often fought in the gray areas of life, I think he's wrong to call out Eliana Dockterman's stance on the issue. Dockterman defends her own fandom by explaining that:
Boycotting the NFL is simply not the best way to change its behavior. In a great video about why she is not boycotting the NFL, Fox Sports’ Katie Nolan says that boycotting would “just remove critical thinkers from the conversation.”
Almond doesn't accept her argument, saying that it is possible to criticize the NFL without watching it. That's certainly true, but it doesn't have the same rhetorical impact to criticize something from the outside. It's an ethos builder to establish your own fandom in the face of critical commentary, and it's a lot easier to criticize something in a way that resonates if you understand it.

The main thing that bothers me about Almond's article is that it comes across as a kind of martyrdom. He had to give up his own football fandom because women won't stop watching it even though they should. I respect that he's putting his money where his mouth is and following through with his own boycott. I doubly respect that he's done so after making the connection to a patriarchal cultural heritage that many women claim to have inherited from their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers.

But his decision to stop supporting an industry whose values he does not share should not be seen as stepping in as a substitute for women who are making poor choices. It is the responsibility of all people to question how their consumer practices impact the world they live in. You don't deserve an extra pat on the back for doing so as a man. If it's the right choice, it's the right choice for everyone.

It's obvious that the NFL has many cultural problems to address, and these problems matter because the resonance of sports operates only because they are an extension of the cultural problems at large. As responsible consumers, we have to ask ourselves what our dollars are supporting and if we can continue to spend them with a clear conscience. As human beings, though, the questions are even harder: what does the NFL as microcosm tell us about our culture? And what do we do with that?

Should a feminist (man or woman) watch the NFL? Should cheerleaders? Should Native Americans? Should neuroscientists? Should dog lovers? Should people against alcohol abuse? Should you?

And if the answer is no, what then? How do we ensure that we aren't just removing mirrors because we don't like the reflection of ourselves but instead are actually changing the picture?



Photo: Matt McGeeDan Tantrum

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: How Teaching Composition is Like Playing Candy Land

My daughter is three, and right now she loves to play board games. This is awesome because we're a family of board game players, and I'm glad that she's getting started on picking up this important cultural heritage so that she can soon join in on the family holiday tradition of laughing at the crazy drawings in Telestrations or coming up with Loretta Lynn's "Lincoln" for triple points in Scattergories. Unfortunately (for me anyway), she's not quite up to those standards right now, so we're stuck with Candy Land and this needlessly complicated but completely skill-void atrocity called The Lady Bug Game.


A conversation with a colleague helped me realize just how important these boring games are to her development (and not just for future Scattergories tournaments). She's learning how rules work, and--most importantly--she's learning she can trust me to help her make sense of the rules.

When we play Candy Land, she tries to cheat. She gets upset when I'm in front of her and tries to move her piece haphazardly across the board so she can be in front. She tries to sneak the card back into the pile and pick another one if she doesn't like what it says, and by "sneak" I mean that she announces loudly "I don't like this one!" and then makes a grab for the stack. She'll grab three cards at once and pick the one that has the most squares on it.

But she also breaks the rules in ways that make no sense, strategy-wise. She'll get excited about getting to go to the cupcake even if that's a move backwards, away from the win. She'll only move one red space when the card she drew allowed her two. She'll not realize when she's won an extra turn or some other special feature.

She relies on me in both of these instances. It is my job to patiently, calmly explain that she can't take three cards and pick the one she likes, that she can't just move her piece wherever she wants, that that's not how the game works. It is just as important that I point out when she moved in the wrong direction or didn't take enough moves forward.

Furthermore, I can win Candy Land any time I want. If I want to, I can move three spaces instead of two. I can pretend there's a magic portal that only I can see that takes me halfway across the board. I can say these things convincingly and get my way . . . because she trusts me.

She trusts me to enforce the rules fairly and correctly even if she knows that she's not following them. In fact, I think she's purposefully not following them just to try to figure out where the boundaries are. Children's games have simple rules, but they also throw in elements of surprise that probably seem arbitrary and a little off to the kids playing them. She needs me to enforce the guidelines in a way that helps her make sense of the patterns and internalize them for the future, a future hopefully filled with fun more complex than moving in along a row of colored blocks in a series of "choices" that are just blind luck.

Students, especially my developmental students, are also playing a game, but their stakes are higher.

My developmental writing students also try to cheat the system. They turn in papers with entire paragraphs copied from Wikipedia without even changing the font or taking out the hyperlinks. They'll master the formatting guidelines for one paper and then turn in one a week later entirely in 30-point Wingdings. They'll show me a gorgeous outline full of great ideas during a conference and then turn in a paper that doesn't include a single one of them.


When you really think about it, writing conventions are a lot like the rules of Candy Land: arbitrary, changing just often enough to be confusing, and maintained by some distant and disconnected power (if only the MLA guidebook was illustrated with lollipops and lemon drops). Despite many teachers' best efforts to create realistic audience situations and assignments that are interesting and relevant, the end goal is often the same, too: to "win."

I think to a large extent all students see the class as a game they win by passing, but this is particularly true for developmental students who often resent their placement in the class to begin with. Developmental classes are inherently representative of "the system" in a way that credit-bearing classes are not. Everyone from fellow college students to the admissions counselors to politicians create an environment in which this representation is reinforced repeatedly. Students who are placed in developmental classes are acutely aware of the game they're playing, and they therefore have more to prove in winning.

Which is why I think they quit so often.

Often, my lowest level developmental class experiences a mass exodus around midterm. I'll start with 23 students, drop down to 18 by a few weeks in, and then only have 9 left after midterms. Last year, I knew that more than half of the students in one of my classes were failing at midterm, and I made a (probably desperate-sounding) plea before I dismissed them the day before midterm grades went out: "Don't drop!" I said directly, "I know that a lot of you are going to be disappointed by these grades, but you can still pass. We are going to figure this out. Please don't drop."

Then I met with each one of them in conferences and we set up individual plans to get better work in the second half of the semester.

About three-fourths of the way through the semester, I started to feel like a failure. That classroom was unruly and loud. There was always a disruption, and I never got as much done in a class period as I hoped. I couldn't figure out why this one class was going so much worse than all my others, but then I stopped to really look at the situation: almost all of the students had stayed. The students who usually dropped out at midterm hadn't. The class was still packed, and with that increase in population came an increase in distraction, but it was one I would gladly take if it meant not losing half my students.

Reflecting on it now, I think that announcement served the same purpose that keeps my daughter playing Candy Land with me: she trusts that I'll enforce the rules fairly. She knows that if she moves her piece backwards instead of forwards, I'll correct her. Of course I tell my students not to drop every year, but I think there was some kind of perfect storm for that particular class in that they heard the true desire to help them win somewhere behind my voice. They knew they could trust me to play fair.



I know that comparing teaching developmental writing to playing Candy Land with a three-year-old will open up sneers of condescension that the job isn't "real" college teaching and all the other sexist drivel that dismisses the "mothering" aspects of academia (any kind of emotional labor as I wrote about here) as unimportant coddling. I disagree, though. I think that all teaching involves some element of enforcing the rules in a way that reveals their patterns, illustrating the world to be a set of complicated and sometimes contradicting boundaries that have to be identified and examined before they can be breached (and they will need to be breached).

If you don't trust the person with whom you're playing the game, you can't learn that. You throw the board across the room lodging little plastic pieces in the perfect spot under the bed so that someone will step on them while trying to get ready for work the next morning or you drop the class. You quit.

And you can't learn to break the rules that need to be broken if you don't play the game.

Photos: am boo who?, Andreas-photographyAnshul Nigham