Sunday, June 26, 2011

Work, Life, and Education: What Promises Have You Made?

 NPR's recent Tell Me More interviewed four female doctors who are also mothers. The topic of discussion came from Dr. Karen Sibert's New York Times article, "Don't Quit This Day Job." In it, she argues that women who go to med school but then only work part-time or don't practice at all are hurting the profession and, ultimately, the patients because they are taking up limited slots in medical programs and residencies but not fulfilling their obligations to the field.

This, of course, sparked a lot of backlash. One of the other guests on Tell Me More was Dr. Michelle Au (also a full-time doctor with children), who wrote "The Mommy Wars, Medical Edition" in response. She found Dr. Sibert's views to be "a vast oversimplification of the issues it highlighted" and lamented that it might discourage talented young women from pursuing medical degrees (further affecting the doctor shortage) and that "when you start penalizing people for the desire or potential to reproduce, and from there it's a short step to discouraging women from becoming doctors at all."

There are a lot of interesting points in all three articles (Au's, Sibert's and the NPR broadcast), so if you're interested, I highly suggest taking a look. I'm particularly interested in this statement from Sibert:
 "It’s fair to ask them — women especially — to consider the conflicting demands that medicine and parenthood make before they accept (and deny to others) sought-after positions in medical school and residency. They must understand that medical education is a privilege, not an entitlement, and it confers a real moral obligation to serve"
Why women especially? Au points this out in her response:
"male doctors have children too, don't they?  Obviously there are unavoidable biological underpinnings to the increased time commitment mothers face initially--men don't get pregnant, men don't require time to recover from labor and delivery, and men don't breastfeed--but after that first year of life, it seems that the time and commitment spent on raising a child should be about equal for the both parents."

And surely, I hope, no one is suggesting that doctors shouldn't be allowed to have children. So, really, what's at stake here is what is at stake in just about every work/life balance debate, no matter what flavor you're serving: if women are to be viewed as equal contributors in the workforce and society in general and if the human race is going to continue through procreation, gender roles in parenting need to bend from both sides. Fathers need to be held accountable for and socially allowed to provide childcare. Women need to be given the freedom to and accept the loss of "home sphere" power that comes with giving up some of those duties.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bridging the Fathering Gap

 Belinda Luscombe wrote this TIME article titled "The Fathering Gap: Pitfalls of Modern Fatherhood." There's a lot going on in this article. Luscombe looks at the ways that fatherhood has changed in the face of modernity, feminism, and cultural shifts.

Her discussion hinges, as the title suggests, around the "fathering gap," which is the widening gap of the time spent with children between fathers in intact families (who tend to be richer, more educated and--sadly--whiter) and fathers living apart from their children (who tend to be poorer, less educated, and more likely to be from a minority group).

Obviously, this is detrimental to the children and fathers that spend so much time apart.

Interestingly, the fathers on the other end of the spectrum are also facing some challenges:
"That daddy time has to come from somewhere, and one of the features of the fathering gap is that men now express more concern about work-life balance than women do. In 2008, 60% of men reported experiencing work-life conflict, compared with fewer than 50% of women"
And those men who are concerned about their work-life balance are facing some obstacles in the workplace:
"men have found it more difficult to be taken seriously as parents. Workplaces expect them to be even more career-focused when they become dads."
So, there's a whole group of men who are facing the same challenges that women faced when they first entered the workforce (and continue to face today). And, honestly, I think that's a good thing. These are fights that are going to have to be had. In order to be productive, fulfilled members of the working world and quality parents, men and women are going to have to carve out lifestyles that allow for flexibility in those roles.

But back to the other side of the "gap":

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Daughter's Hair

Full disclosure: I know I'm in over my head (no pun intended).

First off, I'm not much on beauty regimens. My own hair is typically in a pony tail. I wash it, sometimes I straighten it, but usually I run a brush through it and pull it out of my face. If I ever get a cut that needs to be styled, I like it for exactly the amount of time the hair stylist's work lasts. As soon as that responsibility is on me, I'm plotting out how long it will take to grow back or I go get it cut even shorter so I can, again, just run a brush through it and not think about it.

Secondly, I know that since my daughter is biracial (black/white) her hair will most likely be a big deal, culturally. I also know that as a white mother, I don't fully understand those cultural implications.

When you add my fashion clueless-ness to my cultural distance, it's a cause for concern--one that I hope to rectify as much and as soon as possible. I read this post by Rebecca Carroll on Black Voices and see her say about Zahara's hair "I look at little Zahara Jolie-Pitt, as cute as she is, and I think, does Angelina Jolie have no black friends whatsoever?"

I've watched Good Hair.

I read this article on Love Isn't Enough by a woman who adopted a black daughter and explains "as it turns out there’s whole other curve, which is figuring out what Madison’s hair means and what her hair says about us, about her, and about her place in the African American community and what messages we send her as we care for it."

That same poster goes on to talk about products marketed to "soften" her child's hair (read: chemically alter its texture). She takes the words out of my mouth when she says that "telling my daughter that I love her hair while I’m putting chemicals on it to fundamentally change it is a mixed message I don’t want to send. She is not beautiful DESPITE her curls; she is beautiful in part because of them. She is a whole package of perfection just as she is. Should she choose to change her hair when she’s older and cognizant of the broader social impact of her decisions, so be it; I will support her."

And this falls in line with the advice that I've gotten from black, female friends, who have all echoed some version of "Don't perm her hair until she's old enough to decide for herself." Some told me stories of long-term damage from childhood perms. Some recounted not feeling comfortable with their curls until young adulthood.

So, here is what I know:

My daughter's hair is beautiful!

 I mean, I know I'm a little biased, but this is one adorable child, and her hair is a big part of her. It's a little wild and fun, and it fits her nascent personality so well.

I also know that the shampoo I was using on it was not working. We started with the typical J&J shampoo, but it dried her skin out, so we switched to Aquaphor, which is great on her skin, but hell on her hair. It stripped her little curls and left them shapeless and dry.

I asked for advice, and someone pointed me to Carol's Daughter Hair Milk. I held off for a while because it was only located in the Macy's across a state line, but we finally made a special trip to get it. They had trial size bottles for $9, and I picked one up and headed to the counter.

The very friendly cashier (who happened to be a black lady) smiled at me and looked at my daughter kicking playfully in the stroller. "You don't want this one." She said. Oh? I thought. "Here." She walked to the shelf and came back carrying the "Lite" version of the Hair Milk. "Use this one. And it doesn't make sense to buy the trial size when you can get four times as much for twice the price. You can always bring it back if you don't like it, but trust me--you'll like it."

So I bought it, and used it, and voila! Her curls came back bouncy and healthy. It felt like a small victory over what's shaping up to be a strange battle.

As the white mother of a biracial daughter who studies race and rhetoric, I am very conscious of the importance of cultural sensitivity and the meaning behind messages and image. My hope is to instill in my daughter that she is beautiful and that, with that confidence, she can make the right decision for herself about her image and her style as she gets older. I am sure I have a lot more to learn.

Book Review: In The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

I did not approach this book with an unbiased mind. Having read a few of the articles that sparked its creation, I was well aware (perhaps too aware) that my philosophy on teaching so dramatically differs from Professor X’s as to make it somewhat difficult for me to understand him, as if he is speaking a language I do not.

But I read it anyway because I think there's an important conversation taking place, and I tried to look at it through different lenses as I went. The result, unsurprisingly I suppose, is still a critical view. But I will say that that the writing is sharp, and there were times when I saw Professor X as something other than the cold, whiny teacher who does not like teaching that the Atlantic Monthly article series had left me picturing.

In particular, chapter 9, “The Pain,” details Professor X’s tortured relationship with his students and his own role as teacher. He says, “The students and I seldom complete the transaction, seemingly so fundamental, of my teaching and their learning.” In this chapter, his voice is of someone with good intentions and a recognition that getting to the desired outcome takes some struggle. He illustrates his torment over giving grades and the sense of community he shares with his students. There are hints to a looming problem, however, when he admits that the basis of that community is one of failure: “Our presence in these evening classes is evidence that something in our lives has gone awry. In one way or another, we have all screwed up.”

And that’s my first problem with Professor X’s philosophy, one that seeps through every other observation he makes: he sees his students as screw-ups. From day one. Before he reads a word they’ve written. Perhaps even worse, he sees himself as a screw-up for being desperate enough to take an adjunct position that places him in front of them. He assumes they see themselves the same way, and I’m sure that his attitude goes a long way towards ensuring that kind of low self-image. My teaching philosophy is built around respect, and Professor X doesn’t seem to have any for himself, let alone his students. At times, it feels like he’s using his position as an adjunct instructor in lieu of some much-needed therapy. He recounts tense moments in his marriage, his underwater mortgage, and failing to reach his dreams as a writer throughout the book. These moments are honest and often very well-written, but they are a disturbing glimpse into the relationship this instructor has with teaching.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Go the F**k to Sleep

There's an interesting conversation going on over at PhD in Parenting regarding Adam Mansbach's book Go the F**k to Sleep. Though I'd heard of it, I hadn't read it, so I watched this video of it being read by Samuel L. Jackson.

Though I don't agree with Samuel L. Jackson's cavalier attitude that had him literally telling his daughter to "go the f**k to sleep," neither am I in complete agreement with PhD in Parenting's dismissal of it as offensive, though I understand the perspective and think that the point is presented very well:

Through the eyes of parents alone, “Go the F**k to Sleep” may be funny, just as “Get the F**k Out of My Way” [she compared the frustration of parents with her frustration with people who won't (or can't) get out of her way while walking] would be funny if you were considering only my view point and not the viewpoint or limitations of those I was directing it at. In most cases, I don’t think our children are staying awake at night specifically to annoy us. Perhaps there may be the odd occasion where an older child is purposely trying to disrupt the parents’ plans, but for the most part, I don’t think that a non-sleeping child realizes that they are ruining your evening or keeping you from sleeping. They are thinking that they want to cuddle with you, that they are not tired, that they are thirsty, that they are scared, that they are lonely, or that they just don’t want to sleep.
And I do understand that it's not good to curse at children under any circumstances and certainly not for something they can't help.

But I still find the book hilarious. I like parody and sarcasm, and I strongly believe a little profanity now and then is necessary for expressing just the right point.

And the point of this book, to me, is to shine a little humor on the absolutely frustrating insanity of trying to get a child to sleep when you are at your wit's end. At the same time, I think it's doing a little to dismantle the mythos of parenthood that tells us we have to be perfect at it all the time. It's camaraderie that allows parents to laugh and understand that they aren't horrible people for feeling pushed to the brink of their patience. I think that kind of soothing through humor can be cathartic.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

At the Intersection of Teaching and Parenting: It's Not About Us

I am currently reading Professor X’s In The Basement of the Ivory Tower. I plan to write a full review when I’ve finished it, but he touches upon an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about lately that I want to examine first.
My reaction to Professor X (who authored a series of articles about adjunct teaching and the sorry state of higher education in America for the Atlantic Monthly) is very similar to Mike Rose’s. Rose’s full response can be seen on his blog.

Professor X pulls out a specific part of this criticism in the book and responds to it. 

Rose said:
 “And because many of our students . . . did display in their writing all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we did spend a good deal of time on error—in class, in conference, on comments on their papers—but in the context of their academic writing. This is a huge point and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: that writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.”
To which Professor X responded:
“Remediation is what he wants me to do, but he seems to forget that I do not teach remedial or developmental classes, and cannot transform my bona fied honest-to-God fully accredited college class into one.”
Professor X has a point in that there needs to be more avenues for helping under-prepared students succeed in college. We can do all the hand-wringing we want about what these students should be able to do when they graduate high school, but the fact of the matter is that many of them aren’t able to do it. We cannot simply cast out whole segments of the American population and tell them they are now unable to attend college because they are deficient and missed the chance to learn it.

Furthermore, what Rose is calling for is not going backwards and teaching these students like they are second graders. They’re not second graders. Many of them are adults with careers, families, and lives that have multiple measures of success. Some of them were incredibly successful high school students in incredibly deficient school systems. They didn’t even know they were deficient until they took a college placement test. But all of these people have experiences and strengths that make them capable of performing, as Rose says, with “academic writing.” Maybe that writing is rife with grammatical errors and unclear language. Maybe we have to discuss those things more than we would like, but if that’s where our students are, then that’s what we have to do. It is our job to teach the students we have—not the ones we imagined we’d have. 

That brings me to the intersection of parenting and teaching. I recently saw this video in which an anonymous mother (“Jennifer”) discusses how “repelled” she was by her first child.

The thing that I found most disturbing was that “Jennifer” had so many expectations for her child (before she was even born) that the realities of her child’s personalities and abilities were too much for her to handle. She says of her child’s abilities and her own expectations that “I don’t think it’s too high of an expectation to expect your child to meet her milestones . . . to expect her to sleep, to expect her to eat, to expect her to interact.” 

Eventually, her child was diagnosed with a growth deficiency. Jennifer says that it “made me feel like instead of me against her it was us against this diagnosis.” 

I’m not going to rehash all that is wrong with this disturbing confession, but you can check out some commentary on it here

I want to look at some of the similarities between Professor X and Jennifer. Both are writing under aliases to protect their anonymity. I suspect they both do this for the same reason. They are saying something that they are not supposed to say as representatives of the roles they fill.

What they are saying is eerily similar. Professor X’s students didn’t live up to his preconceived ideas. Neither did Jennifer’s daughter. They were both first-timers. Professor X admits to knowing nothing about teaching composition before taking the position as an adjunct. Jennifer’s daughter was her first child. That means that neither one of them based their expectations off of experiences. Instead, they were basing them off of what they had imagined and what they had read or seen. Jennifer admits to reading about developmental milestones her daughter wasn’t reaching. Professor X wants to see his students light up like those in Dead Poet’s Society

Both allow their unfounded expectations to so cloud their views that neither is capable of fully participating in the role of teacher or parent, respectively. 

It is not my job as a teacher to imagine my students’ abilities and teach as if they have them. It is my job to prepare my students for their future writing endeavors, assess their current writing ability, and design my course in a way that gets them to those goals. That might mean doing more developmental work (yes, Professor X, even if I am teaching a “bona fide” course—the disdain for developmental writing (and, essentially, the developing writers that take the courses) is dripping from your words). 

Likewise, it is my job as a parent to love and respect my child for who she is, without letting my expectations for who she will be get in the way. 

Do I have hopes for who my students might be? Of course I do. I hope that they are all smart, intellectually driven students who have read extensively. But when a student comes in who has never written anything longer than a page or who got through high school by writing reports based on SparkNotes, I do not cast them aside. I meet with them individually, give them supplemental assignments, teach them.

Do I have hopes for who my daughter will become? Of course. I want  her to be successful, confident, and outgoing. I hope that she enjoys the music and movies I like and loves to read. I hope that she learns to walk, talk, and do calculus at the appropriate times. But if she comes down the stairs blaring her generation’s version of Britney Spears and fails calculus, I will love her. Just as now, even though she does not sleep through the night despite the books telling me that she should, I love her, care for her, support her, parent her.

In both my roles as teacher and parent, I have to keep it in perspective: this is not about me. We've heard before phrases like "anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy." The point of these is that though you may be a parent, you can't really parent (as a verb) unless you are meeting the needs of a specific child in that relationship. Likewise, though the adjunct contract you signed may denote you as the teacher of a course, you are not actually teaching unless those students have learned something. You cannot be a teacher without a student. You cannot be a parent without a child. The mere presence of another human being with all the complexities that entails ensures any expectations you have will undoubtedly fall short sometimes. But if you can set them aside, if you can focus on the real people you have in front of you, then maybe those expectations will be blown away.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Biology and Equality in Parenting: Are Women Designed to Be Better Parents?

In New Mexico, a man has paid to post a billboard with a picture of him cradling nothing but air in his arms. The billboard says "This Would Have Been A Picture Of My 2-Month Old Baby If The Mother Had Decided To Not KILL Our Child!"

Now, this story is rife with problems: the relationship between the two suggests this billboard might be prompted by revenge rather than the grief and "closure" the man purports to be aiming for, the friends of the girlfriend insist that she had a miscarriage, and the whole thing just leaves people feeling a little icky. I am interested in the legal ramifications of the battle that will ensue (freedom of speech vs. defamation or violation of privacy), but I'm also interested in the father's rights argument that's running underneath this topic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Got a Blog?

I'm doing a little reorganizing--oh, no, not the physical kind that involves trips to the Container Store and life-altering decisions about whether or not I'll ever fit into those jeans again and since I probably won't shouldn't I just donate them (though I hope to do a little of that kind this weekend).

No, I'm doing virtual reorganizing. It's much easier.

I realize that this blog isn't very consistent in its themes, and, as such, I've divided up the blog roll on the sidebar into a few of the major categories I write about. I really enjoy these blogs, and I hope that setting them up in clearer categories will help other people find blogs they'll really enjoy, too. Of course, many of these blogs are also eclectic in nature, so the categorization isn't perfect, but hey, life's messy.

That said, if you have a blog (yours or one you read) that you think should be added to one of the lists, leave me a comment and let me know!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Retaining black male students? Not without a dash of homophobia.

I got back last night from my very first trip away from my daughter. I was a little sad, but I was at a conference that kept me pretty busy and things went more smoothly than I anticipated (though she did get a fever from teething practically the moment I got on the plane).

The conference was about how to reach disconnected student populations, and one of the sessions I attended was about African American male recruitment/retention initiatives. This was something I was interested in because I work with a program that provides educational opportunities for underrepresented groups, and we struggle (nationwide) to recruit and retain black men. I went into the session looking for strategies and insight. I didn't get what I was looking for.

A vast majority of the session became an audience-led gripe-fest. Everyone had a theory on why black boys weren't graduating from high school, why black men weren't going to college at the rate of black women (and those that do are less likely to graduate), why black men were being incarcerated at rates six times higher than white men.

Oh, we ran the gamut. Though all of these theories were familiar to me, it was impressive (in a disturbing way) to hear them all expressed in such quick succession.

Black mothers are to blame. They "raise their daughters, but love their sons"--creating spoiled men who do not know how to function in society but successful women who do. They do not know how to raise "men," and they are hurting black culture and society.

But that really means it's black fathers' fault for leaving black women to raise children on their own. A black woman cannot be expected to know how to raise a "man." She needs a man to do that.

But that really means it's black women's fault for being too aggressive and not letting black men be the heads of their own households. No one wants to stay emasculated in a household that doesn't appreciate him. 

But that really means it's the war on drugs fault that black fathers are absent. They shouldn't be incarcerated for minor possession charges. And the crack/powder cocaine disparity is snatching black fathers away from the children they should be raising.

But we're wasting our time focusing on the parents. It's education that's failing these children. Schools don't hold black children to the same high standards as their white classmates, creating an education gap that is too hard to overcome.

I'm not disputing truth in all of these theories (except the gender-role based ones, which just seem sexist and anachronistic to me), but we didn't need people to identify the fact that black men were facing more obstacles: that's why we were in the session to begin with! At this point, one woman who had been sitting silent for forty-five minutes raised her hand and asked if we could please move on to some more positive rhetoric that gave suggestions for moving forward, suggestions for a solution.

You could see the disappointment in a few faces that would have loved nothing more than to throw the blame around a while longer, but the speaker obliged by giving some concrete tips on how to motivate young black men.

The speaker was not a very organized orator. His stories meandered around quotes and personal anecdotes, circling around the theme he started with but touching upon six others. It's a style I've heard used effectively, but it's risky. On one of these detours, he touched upon the issue of sagging.

Image from Malingering

I'm not going to rehash the sagging debate for you here. I am more interested in the way that this speaker used his suggested guidance for young black youth. He started on a small rant (especially in comparison to the larger one we'd just had) about how young black men have no respect for themselves or others, as evidenced by their sagging pants. (Though he obviously hasn't been around the teens I see daily, who are much more likely to show up in some tight-fitting skinny jeans, but you know, there's no reason to be contemporary in our youth-bashing). He then went on to sarcastically explain that sagging originated in prisons as a homosexual symbol of availability (which isn't even true).

Then he makes a look of disgust and says incredulously "and that's the message you want to send?!" He mumbles his inaudible frustration with these ne'er-do-wells, and then talks about a discussion he once heard, ending with the loud proclamation of "If you sag, you're a fag!" Maybe he saw the shocked faces in the audience (mine included) because he followed it up with a half-hearted, "Now I'll probably have to apologize for that, like Kobe did."

Yeah, that'd be a start. You might also want to apologize for creating a pecking order of minorities. You might want to apologize for participating in a rhetoric of oppression in an instructional session designed to alleviate oppression. You might want to apologize for denigrating LGBTQI youth while a concurrent session on supporting and retaining LGBTQI youth is going on in the next room! I probably should have gone to that one. I would have left a lot less angry, I'm sure.

We can play as many blame games as we want (well-meaning or not, none of them are moving us forward). Until we recognize that actively participating in one system of oppression creates stronger avenues for all systems of oppression, we're not going to get very far. I think this speaker would have been better served attending the other session instead of leading ours.

Starstruck on Bourbon Street

When I was an undergraduate, I double majored in English and creative writing--a redundancy I ignored because it allowed me to read and write and read some more (and not take statistics). As part of the upper-level poetry class, we had guest poets do readings and then we, privileged upperclassmen that we were, got to have dinner with them.

I was always starstruck. These poets were magical beings who doled out moments with us mere mortals like pixie dust. I remember being terrified to ask Terrance Hayes (whose poem "Same City" I now use to teach my composition students about expressing big ideas through little details) questions about his process. Who was I? Why should he answer?

I do not think that I would be scared to ask these questions now. I hope that is because I think more of myself and not less of him, of all of them, the poets, these magicians.

But I think it's okay. On Bourbon Street (where I found myself after a recent conference in New Orleans had ended for the day), amid the neon lights and drunken antics, I watched one particular street performer. He was dressed in shiny gold pants and a bright yellow jacket. His skin was painted gold, and he danced atop a milk crate while music blared from a 1980's boom box. And he had it. The magic. I was starstruck again.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cell Phones, Carcinogens, and Communication

Look, I want brain cancer as much as you do—that is, not at all. It’s not that I don’t believe the new WHO report that suggests cell phones may be carcinogenic. In fact, that sounds plausible to me, and I think it’s smart to take precautions against harmful things. But everything we do to make our lives more convenient also comes with some risk. I’ll be interested to see how this new information plays out, especially in the realm of communication and rhetoric.

See this CNN article on “6 tips for minimizing cell phone radiation.”

Number 6? “Don’t talk, text.”

But texting is not really a substitute for talking. Sure, they’re related. But sometimes speaking is more effective than writing (and vice versa).

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there are some conversations that just can’t be had via text message. Maybe you need the inflection in your voice to let the listener know that you’re joking (or angry, or sad). Maybe you want to hear the reaction to the first part of the story before you go into the second part. Or maybe what you have to say is just a long narrative that won’t fit very well into a text message.

Will advice that texting prevents cancer alter the way that we communicate? Will we stop sharing long, complex narratives with people we can’t meet face-to-face? Or will we just become more adept at reading long, complex narratives in a different medium?

I would be remiss here if I did not mention Walter Ong’s studies in secondary orality. Ong posited secondary orality as oral expression that is dependent upon a literate culture. So the speaking you hear on the television, a podcast, or even someone reading a written text are examples of secondary orality, and it is different from the type of speaking that is heard in primary orality cultures. The speaking of those in a secondary orality culture contains less repetition, different patterns, etc.

Will the new concerns over cell-phone induced cancer add another layer to the literacy/orality continuum?

Then again, we’ve been hearing warnings about artificial sweeteners for years, and this year Diet Coke overtook Pepsi as the number two soda in America (and it was joined by three other diet sodas in the top ten list.

Risk is far away. Convenience is immediate.