Thursday, August 30, 2012

I Finally De-Friended Someone On Facebook

I have this awful, maddening habit of waking up at 1:00 am every single night. I think it probably stems from when my daughter was younger and this was a regular time for her to wake up to eat. And now she continues merrily dreaming (probably of stacking progressively higher dangerous objects and jumping off of them with glee, if her daily activities are any indication). But every night, I wake up. Sometimes I can fall back to sleep rather quickly, but more often I'm up for an hour or two. I usually make myself stay in the bed, reasoning that any rest is better than none. But sometimes I give into my busy mind's temptation and check Facebook or my email.

I made that mistake this morning.

Maybe no good can come from 1:00 am Facebook.

Anyway, I scroll down the handful of posts that were new in my feed and see this picture (Warning: I found the following picture really offensive, obviously, so there's a chance you will, too.) I'm sharing it not because I think that it needs more exposure in the cyber world, but because I don't think that ignoring damaging and oppressive ideas makes them go away. When people share offensive and damaging pictures as "jokes," sometimes the only way to talk about them constructively involves spreading them, but to an audience that isn't likely to tolerate that kind of bullying and in a way that demonstrates the problems. It's the same reason that everyone has to repeat Todd Akin's ridiculous statement or Daniel Tosh's horrible rape joke. We don't repeat it because we think it's an idea worth sharing; we repeat it because we're afraid of who might share it if we don't.

And with that, I did my first ever content-related de-friending. 

I'm not telling you that because I'm up on some high horse about how righteous I am in taking a stand through hitting one button online. I'm telling you because I'm actually quite conflicted about it. 

I share most of my blog posts through Facebook, and I would venture to guess that I occasionally step on some toes. I don't pay attention to my friend counts, so I have no idea if people are de-friending me over my "radical feminist" views, but they probably are. 

But I've had a policy of not de-friending people just because I disagree with them. I've seen offensive posts (some from this same person) and have shrugged them off. I've seen problematic posts and written about them, either on this blog or in the comments on the picture itself. And--especially during an election year--I've seen politically-minded posts that are enough to drive a liberal-leaning person like myself up a wall (as I'd imagine my conservative-leaning friends feel about some of my posts). 

But I don't de-friend. I'm a firm believer in not creating echo chambers. I think it's really, really important to hear ideas that are different from your own, if for no other reason than that having to defend (if even just in your own head) your own stance makes your arguments stronger. I have figured out what I believe about the world by testing those beliefs agains things I don't believe. And, often, hearing other ideas has changed my perspective, made me think about something in a new way, and sometimes even changed my mind. I can't do that if I don't see anyone who disagrees with me. 

So maybe I was wrong to de-friend over this picture. And maybe I take myself "too serious." 

But I see people bullied, abused, and disrespected every single day: in real life, in the news, through their own stories. I just can't handle opening up my Facebook feed in the middle of the night and seeing something like this. It has no value in an argumentative sense. It doesn't make me question anything other than my faith in humanity, and it--frankly--just makes me sad. 

Maybe you could say that getting sad is important so that we can stand up to those people and make them question their own decisions. But I only have so many fights in me. 

Have you ever de-friended someone over the content they post? Do you think you made the right decision? Have you been de-friended? Do you think they made the right decision?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ann Romney Tells Me Mitt Doesn't Know How to Love: Ann's RNC Speech

Republicans have a woman problem.

A TIME article published today reported that Obama led Romney among women by 12 points in Florida and 10 points in North Carolina, important states for the electoral map.

And despite several prominent Republicans insisting that the "War on Women" is merely a media-created farce designed to distract us from the "real" issues of the budget and economy, the Republicans' woman problem is almost entirely of their own making.

See, I've taken several advanced media classes, and while they've taught us how to use some cool online writing tools, not once have I been shown how to hack into public figures' brains and force them to say insanely misogynistic things. Just in case you need a quick recap, here are some of the things supporting the idea that there is, indeed, a War on Women:
  • Todd Akin's comments that "legitimate rape" cannot cause pregnancy
  • Paul Ryan's flippant remark that he's always viewed rape as a "method of conception." 
  • Rick Santorum--one of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination this year--said that women shouldn't be allowed on the front lines of war because of their "other types of emotions" and that women who find fulfillment in working outside of the home only do so because they've been brainwashed by radical feminists
  • The Issa Panel on the coverage of birth control was an all-male panel that refused to let women even speak on the topic. 
  • Which led to Rush Limbaugh proving his absolutely abysmal grasp of how birth control works as well as reaffirming his general horribleness by calling Sandra Fluke a slut for speaking out on how important birth control is to women's health. 
  • Not to mention that this party who insists, as Romney recently did in accusing Obama to stooping to the low of talking about women's issues, that there are "real" issues to deal with spent an awful lot of time in the past few years aggressively attacking women's health freedoms by doing everything from trying to force women to undergo invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for no medical reason and removing our access to birth control. 
And this isn't all of it. Here's a timeline (in need of some updates for the most recent actions). All that to say that if the "War on Women" is something the media has a vested interest in maintaining, the Republican establishment seems equally invested in ensuring they have the material to use. 

Minnesotans Unite Against the War on Women march on the capitol
From Fibonacci Blue
So, the Republicans have a woman problem, and they were relying heavily on Ann Romney's RNC speech to start changing the tide. 

She talked about women and problems. I'll give her that much. But if her speech was somehow supposed to convince me that the the Republicans are the answer to that problem, she failed. 

Let's take a look at the speech

She sets the stage by saying that she's not here to be divisive, she wants to talk about the one thing we can all agree on: love. 
I want to talk about not what divides us, but what holds us
together as an American family. I want to talk to you tonight
about that one great thing that unites us, that one great thing
that brings us our greatest joy when times are good and the
deepest solace in our dark hours.
Tonight, I want to talk to you about love.
Okay. That's good. We want to bring people together by talking about the one thing we all share: love. She says those things. She says love is "that one great thing that brings us our greatest joy" and then she immediately says this:
I want to talk to you about that
love so deep, only a mother can fathom it. The love that we
have for our children and our children's children.
Oh? So, this "one great thing that brings us our greatest joy" isn't really "what holds us together as an American family" unless that "American family" contains a mother. Fathers, sorry. You don't know this love. Women who aren't mothers, that's too bad. For someone who doesn't want to talk about what divides us, she certainly just cut a huge portion of the population out of this secret club of hers. Oh, and you know who else isn't a mother? Mitt Romney. Her husband and the man she's supposed to be convincing us should run the country, but apparently he can't know this amazing love, either.

And then the speech takes a turn for the bizarre. As Amanda Marcotte explains, Ann Romney spends a lot of her speech repeating what is normally considered Feminism 101. And then she tells us to suck it up because it makes us stronger. Her speech goes on to include this:
Sometimes, I think that, late at night, if we were all
silent for just a few moments and listened carefully, we could
hear a collective sigh from the moms and dads across America who
made it through another day. . . And if you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing
a little bit more than the men. It's how it is, isn't it? It's
the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make
everything right. . .
You are the ones that have to do a little bit more and you
know what it is like to earn a little bit harder earn the
respect you deserve at work
and then you come home to help with
the book report just because it has to be done. . .
You are the hope of America. There would not be an America
without you. Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises!
And then:
I am not sure if men really understand this, but I don't
think there is a woman in America who really expects her life to
be easy. In our own ways, we all know better. You know what,
and that's fine. We don't want easy.
But the last few years
have been harder than they needed to be.
No, Ann. We don't want easy. But we do want equal. We don't have to just accept that we have to "do a little bit more" in order to "earn the respect [we] deserve at work." We know that working harder for equal pay is a reality, but we don't accept it as a foregone conclusion of how things will always be.

Basically, Ann Romney seems to recognize the gender inequities present throughout our society but instead of standing up against them, she thinks we should just accept our lot in life and smile through it.

Then she implies that this is somehow making us stronger than men. She's "not sure if men really understand this" reality for women because they don't have to go through these trials and tribulations.

So the only real question I have for Ann Romney is, if this is true, if men can't possibly understand the burdens of America because they don't have to go through the same trials that women do, if only mothers can "fathom" the important love that holds our country together, if that's the case, then why should we vote for your husband? Why aren't we voting for a woman?

But there's not a woman on the ticket (and there's no guarantee that I'd agree with her policies if there were). So I'll be voting for the man who seems to recognize these inequalities that she speaks about for what they are: antiquated thinking that takes us backwards in the march toward equality.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links I've Been Reading)

I have a collection of links, and it looks long, so I probably missed a week somewhere. The end results the same, though: a list of things that made me smile, bang my head on the desk, and think. So here you go!

The Good

Cracked has Six True Stories That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity with bonus videos! And it really worked! (But it's an election season, so it only worked for about an hour.)

Anne Lamott has some tips on becoming the person you were meant to be:
Here's how I became myself: mess, failure, mistakes, disappointments, and extensive reading; limbo, indecision, setbacks, addiction, public embarrassment, and endless conversations with my best women friends; the loss of people without whom I could not live, the loss of pets that left me reeling, dizzying betrayals but much greater loyalty, and overall, choosing as my motto William Blake's line that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love. 
Oh, yeah, and whenever I could, for as long as I could, I threw away the scales and the sugar.
I know I already gushed about them all over Facebook, but I am in love with the Alabama Shakes album. And this is the best song on it:

I don't know why I hadn't heard of this blog before, but the Honest Toddler is hilarious. Here's a post on how to properly make a toddler a meal

The Bad

Victoria's Secret wants to make sure we focus on the important things while we work out--like how perfect our cleavage looks. (Thanks Amanda for the link!)

EcoSalon has 10 infographics on education that made my heart skip beats. (I don't suggest this reading for the deeply indebted. It'll just depress you.)

Even though it was Todd Akin, Paul Ryan, and (as Rachel Maddow outlines) a host of other Republicans who keep insisting that we bring abortion, rape, and women's freedoms into the public discussion, Mitt Romney somehow says Obama is "stoop[ing] to such a low level" by daring to talk about women's rights after these wrong-headed Republicans have forced these issues into the spotlight. 

The Curious

This photo history of male affection shows that our current standards of "manliness" are a rather recent invention. 

from two to one has a great post on her year of buying no clothing new that made me do some reflecting on my own purchasing habits (and I don't even like clothes shopping!)

Musing Mama has a post about talking about racism with her five year old:
But how to tell him? When to tell him? What to tell him? I have no road map for this conversation. My husband wasn't really sure how to handle it either. It seems like a turning-point kind of talk, one to be handled thoughtfully and carefully. I didn't want to do or say the wrong thing.
Taken together, these two posts about eating healthy food leave a really interesting picture of just how far we have to come with our cultural food expectations. 

Motherlode has a thought-provoking post about rap lyrics, interpretation, and parenting

What else should I be reading this week?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Saddest Fictional Character Deaths

I don't know if this counts as the Buffy-related reflections that I've promised you, but it's certainly a Buffy-sparked reaction. I recently watched Season 5 and (spoiler alert) in one of the episodes Buffy's mom dies. I mention it because this episode ("The Body") does such an amazing job of capturing grief from multiple angles. It shows Buffy getting completely caught up in the practical work of dealing with a tragedy without having much time to process her thoughts. It shows her friends cycling through their own pain while trying to be mindful of not intruding on hers--an awkward process I could certainly relate to. It uses silence in a way that demonstrates that some of our most traumatic moments in life are not loud and exciting, but often muted, seeping into us slowly.

And it also made me realize that there have been a lot of fictional deaths that have impacted me over the years. Sometimes it was because of a connection I felt with the character who died and sometimes (as is the case with this Buffy episode) it's because the reaction surrounding the tragedy resonated with the raw emotion that comes with loss. 

So here are the fictional deaths that I've found to be the saddest. (Spoilers, obviously, for all of these books, television shows, and movies. I promise not to put any new releases on here, and I'll put just the titles (without the dead character's name) in bold so that you can try to skip it if you don't want to know about that particular text.)

1- Stephen King's The Green Mile 

A lot of characters die in The Green Mile. In fact, the catalyst for the novel is that two twin girls are snatched from their back porch and brutally raped and murdered. Then the thing is set on death row, where we get to know several inmates awaiting their time to die. Let's just say that death isn't exactly uncommon in the book. 

But it wasn't any of the human deaths that really, really stuck with me. I first read this when I was in middle school. When it was first released, it was broken into a series of mini-novels. I remember being so anxious when I finished one and had to wait for the library to open to go get the next one. 

And in one of those mini-novels, Percy Whetmore--a guard in the prison and a whining product of nepotism who made my blood boil anyway--stomped to death Mr. Jingles, the pet mouse of one of the inmates. 

Why it was so sad: Mr. Jingles was not just a mouse, he was a symbol. To me, he symbolized the complexity of humanity. The inmate, Eduard Delacroix, was a killer. He had caused immense suffering, and he would die for it (horribly, I might add, again thanks to Percy's cruelty). But he was also a person. He repented and accepted his fate, and Mr. Jingles gave him a tiny space to feel pride in his connections to the world. He is gentle and caring toward this tiny creature, teaching it new tricks, splitting his food with it, and making it a tiny bed out of a cigar box. 

And that adds complexity to Delacroix's story. Before the mouse, he had nothing to live for and no one who cared if he lived or died. Suddenly, his death took on a meaning for him that it hadn't had before. Who would look after Mr. Jingles once he was electrocuted? Who would take on this responsibility? The other guards go through the elaborate ruse of pretending there is a "Mouse Circus" that they will take Mr. Jingles to after Delacroix dies. They understand the importance of maintaining this dying man's one connection with caring and love. They want him to die with that in tact. 

But Percy doesn't care. And stomping Mr. Jingles to death demonstrates just how much he doesn't care. That scene impacted me so much that I remember literally throwing the book across the room in frustration and crying after the mouse was killed (if I'd kept reading, I would have seen that the incident actually has a happier ending, but I had to cry first). Mr. Jingles represented all of the complexity in the world, all of that gray area, and Percy represented all of the people who refuse to see that the gray exists, who would rather just exert their power over everyone else than take the time to open their eyes.  

2- Skins (The British Version)

I'm not proud of this confession, but I really got caught up in Seasons 1 and 2 of the British version of Skins. And a lot of the reason that I got caught up in it was the character Chris. He was deeply flawed. He lived his life without much purpose or meaning, and he was irresponsible and frustrating. But he was also funny and loving. And as his story unfolded, we get to see that his irresponsibility was a byproduct of not having any parental support as well as a defense mechanism for having to deal with things he shouldn't have had to face (homelessness, poverty, and abandonment). He's another character who demonstrates that we can't ever really judge why someone acts the way they do without knowing more about their lives. Finally, Chris starts to get it together, only to have everything fall apart again. And he takes it all in stride, joking and smiling through the pain, preparing to start over again. And then he dies. Horribly and vividly.

Why it was so sad- Chris could stand in for everyone you've ever known who you've just wanted to grab by the shoulders and shake while screaming, "Get it together, will you?!" You know, the people who you love and care about but who just seem completely dedicated to making their lives as hard as possible through a series of the worst decisions imaginable. Chris was all of them. And as we got beyond the surface of his story, we started to see that he wasn't just blindly making those bad decisions; he didn't have the tools he needed to do better. And then when he finally started getting those tools, he was learning. There was hope not just for him, but for all of those people we know. And then he died. 

3- The Wire

So, there are plenty of deaths on The Wire that were hard to watch: Wallace, Bodie, that woman who gets wrapped up in a rug and tossed into a dumpster. But that was part of the ride, right? You knew the moment you started each episode that you couldn't have any expectations that anyone would be alive at the end of it, certainly not just because you like them. That's not how this world works. All those rules about which characters you can kill off without upsetting the audience are thrown out the window. That elementary school kid looking out the window when a gunfight breaks out? Dead. That kid who seemed to be getting it together and might actually escape without becoming a drug dealer? Drug addict. So a lot of the show was sad, but without a doubt the hardest thing to watch was seeing Omar killed. 

Why it was so sad- He's Omar. He's not supposed to die. Or rather, he was supposed to die a long, long time ago. He was never supposed to live to begin with, and the fact that he did it so long was proof that he was going to just keep on doing it. He was one of the only people in this seedy underworld who consistently operated by a moral code--perhaps not the moral code we would use, but a code nonetheless. Do you really think Michael--who is foreshadowed to be his replacement--is going to operate with the same consistency? The way I felt about his death reminded me of the way I felt about Hunter S. Thompson's death. "Too strange to live, too weird to die." But then he died. It throws the whole balance of things on its head. And who is going to come along to replace someone like that? Is that even possible?

4- John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

Alright, so--again--you probably shouldn't be expecting a cheery ending from Steinbeck. I mean, have you read The Pearl? It's sort of like sitting down and waiting for a good kick in the teeth. And yet Lenny's death in Of Mice and Men impacted me so much. I think that this is because--like many of the people I know who encounter this work first on a high school required reading list--I was so young when I read it.

Why it was so sad- They worked so damn hard. They had big dreams and put them into action. They took setbacks in stride. They built a team. George doesn't have to accept the responsibility for Lenny, but he does because--even in the most rugged of individualism--we still have humanity. They followed all the rules that we're taught will lead to success and it doesn't work. I mean, it really, really doesn't work. It's not like they got close to success and had to settle. It's not like the plan needed a little tweaking. Everything is ruined, and it didn't matter how hard they worked or how much they cared. That's a tough lesson anytime, but in high school, it's a really, really tough lesson. 

5- Casino

My husband and I have a long-running argument over which is better: Casino or Goodfellas. I don't know why he insists on continuing this debate, as the answer is clearly Casino. And the reason it is Casino is because of Ginger, the most misunderstood woman in film. I know that this story is based off a real-life biography, but I don't know where fact ends and fiction begins, so I'll keep my commentary confined to the fictional character. It's interesting to talk about Ginger right after the characters from Of Mice and Men because Ginger follows no one rules. She privileges money and jewels above all else. She wants nothing to do with love if it doesn't end with her own financial success. She has very little interest in becoming a mother and a wife, even as she's trapped into doing just that. She wants to live her life without the confines of patriarchal oppression, but she's certainly willing to use every patriarchal bargain imaginable to get there. 

As she lies, cheats, steals, and charms her way through the glitz of Las Vegas, she draws the attention of the protagonist who aggressively woos and "wins" her hand in marriage (with the promise of luxury) but never her heart. The fact that he can never have her drives him mad. In the end, her choices--bad choices out of a smorgasbord of terrible options--leave her to an undignified fate. She's given a "hot does" of drugs and left to die in ill-fitting clothes, alone in a hallway. 

Why it was so sad- I can't say that I relate to Ginger. She's really portrayed to be a pretty terrible person with very few scruples and little sense of responsibility. But she has plenty of male counterparts in the film who live life by the same amoral code. And many of them, too, met their end violently, but at least those deaths had some heat. Nicky (Joe Pesci's character), for instance, is savagely beaten to death for the choices that he makes. I'm not arguing that that's a "better" death, per se, but it demonstrates that his enemies at least took the time to be angered by him. Ginger is like an afterthought, the trash that needs taking out at the end of the night.

What fictional character deaths have been the hardest for you to take?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

I Don't Electrocute Myself for Fun, or Health

9 volt battery

Look at that 9-volt battery. Don't you just want to stick your tongue on it? No? Me neither. But that was a common way of demonstrating your "bravery" when I was kid. Being willing to hold those prongs up to your tongue and take the subsequent jolt that would run through your body was a sign that you were tougher than those around you. I think I did it once. 

At another point in my childhood, some of my friends acquired one of these:

You can buy your own on Amazon

That's a "Lightning Reaction Reloaded""game." Yes, it's listed in the "toys and games" section. What does it do? Well, it has multiple modes, so you can pick just how "fun" it is, but in all of the modes someone is going to get a jolt of electricity sent through their bodies. Here, watch a promo for it where it is described as "a dance of terror and laughter, of fun and fear, of party and panic":

I got teased for being too "afraid" to play it. That's fine. (As an aside, did other people do this, or is this a byproduct of growing up in the sticks? Did those of you with your fancy malls, bowling alleys, movie theaters and Wal-Marts find less intentionally painful ways to entertain your teenage selves?)

I tell you all of this because I signed up for that zombie 5k in October. This race is definitely going to be a challenge for me as it will require me to not only run a 5k, but also complete obstacles. I'm excited about challenging myself and using it as a motivator for my workouts. But I've heard it rumored that some of the obstacles might include climbing through electrified wires. If that's the case, I just want it noted now that I'll be skipping the obstacle and written down as a "non-survivor." The only way I'd willingly shock myself is if there were actual zombies chasing after me. I just don't get being electrocuted for fun.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Flashcards Don't Work: The Value of Learning HOW to Learn, for Preschoolers and Beyond

As I've mentioned previously, I started a new job this week teaching developmental writing at a community college. The students have been--to a surprisingly uniform degree--attentive, energetic, and incredibly ready to learn. They've participated in the in-class discussions and come to class prepared. They are a joy to teach.

There is, though, one area that's causing some anxiety.

Our computers
Hint: It looks like this. 
Maybe it's because the school I previously taught in (private, expensive) was a place where most (though certainly not all) of the students had their own computers. Maybe it's because the place I previously taught had a very strict copy policy that had me very motivated to provide resources electronically. Maybe it's because I type a lot faster than I handwrite and prefer to grade online. 

Whatever the underlying causes, a lot of my assignments are turned in online. This is very clearly causing some of my students a lot of anxiety. Several of these students are older. Some are coming back to school after a long break, and the last time they were here, computers weren't common. Some have simply never been in an environment where a computer was readily accessible. Some have had access to computers in school, but have never used them enough to be comfortable with them. 

All of them are expressing, to various degrees, their desire to just turn in assignments in class. 

Some of them were so stressed that I momentarily thought about changing my policies. I hate seeing that look of panic on my students' faces. I don't want to stress them out. I want to instill confidence. I want to set them up for success. 

But I thought back to the very first thing I had them do in class: tell me their reasons for enrolling in school. They want to be nurses and entrepreneurs. They want to transfer to four year colleges. They want to write their family histories. They want to be successful members of various discourse communities. 

And they're going to have to be able to use computers. 

I showed them this video (ironically outdated, but its successors haven't been as polished, in my opinion) to help demonstrate why I have those requirements in place:

This video demonstrates not only how much technology impacts our exponentially growing society, but also that you can't just master any particular skill set and expect it to take you where you want to go in your career. Our world is changing fast. Learning how to learn is more important than memorizing any particular set of facts. 

So I tell my students that I challenge them to learn new technologies because facing those anxieties and getting familiar with new situations is something that they're going to have to do again and again over the course of their lives. If they become comfortable with the unknown, they'll be better prepared for what's to come. 

Which is interesting because I teach adults (many of them in their 50s and 60s) and yet today I read this article about preschoolers and thought about a lot of these same things. 

In Tara Parker-Pope's NYT piece about what skills make toddlers most successful later in life, she explains that having their children memorize flashcards can make parents feel like they're being effective parents, but that's really not the best thing to do:
“We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning,” says Ellen Galinsky, a child-development researcher and author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” “But focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success.”
So what's a better way to help ensure your kids are getting the skills they need to succeed? Singing songs, playing games, and dancing. Seriously. Games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light teach a kid to follow directions, concentrate, and practice self-control. As Parker-Pope notes:
An Oregon State study reported on 430 children who were followed from preschool until age 25. The study, published online earlier this month in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, looked at several factors, including early reading and math skills, along with other cognitive skills, to see which were ultimately most influential in college success. It turns out that a child’s ability at age 4 to pay attention and complete a task, the very skills learned in game play, were the greatest predictors of whether he or she finished college by age 25.
So I'm going to keep challenging my students to take on the technology tasks that intimidate them, and I'm going to encourage my daughter to play because it seems like hands-on tasks that teach you translatable skills are probably the best investments for the future, at any age. 

Photo: aranarth

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Women, Academia, and the Balancing Act

This week I attended graduate student orientation. For me, it was one of many. I've been at this university for the past five years, when I moved here for my Master's degree. I then became an employee at the university and began to work on my PhD part-time. Now I'm full-time faculty at a community college and finishing up that PhD. In other words, I've been here a while, and that's included more than a few graduate orientations.

First day of school
And at every one of them I see the fresh new graduate students and get something of a rush from their intermingled mix of terror and excitement. I love that feeling, that "first day of school" feeling. It was the same feeling I picked up as my new community college students waited in the hallway for their very first college classes. I imagine it was the same feeling my friend's little girl had this week during her first day of kindergarten. Moving into a new educational realm is exhilarating and intimidating, and that's a good place to start growing.

But this year's graduate orientation had a tone that some of the previous ones haven't had. This year several of the speakers (faculty, administration) were very careful to tell us that our job prospects for four-year, tenure-track research institutions weren't very promising. They talked about how only 6 or 7% (I forget which) of current academic job openings are in these fields. Most of us who chose to stay in academia would be in "alternative" academic positions: regional schools, small liberal arts schools, community colleges, and high schools. And some of us would even be taken positions outside of academia entirely. 

It's also worth noting that as I sat in that room and looked around at my peers, many of whom I know from our work together the past years and many of whom I didn't because they came into the program much more recently, when I haven't been around as much, I noticed that several of us had children. At least two of the women in that room were pregnant. Many, many of my graduate student colleagues have infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. 

So it was with this experience in the back of my mind that I read an article a friend sent me today, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's "Family and Career: Women Lose Faith in Having it All."

The Sobering Stats

If you're at all interested in this topic, I suggest you go read Currid-Halkett's whole article. It's short and filled with interesting statistics about women in academia as well as her own personal reflection as a female academic who received tenure three weeks before her first child was born. 

Most interesting to me, though, was this section on how the importance of family is being renegotiated by our current social climate:
Family is becoming more important to young women. A recent Pew Research Center survey reports that, after steadily rising for decades, the participation of women with children in the labor force has declined somewhat since 2000. And though women between the ages of 18 and 34 say they place importance on their careers in greater numbers than in the past, they also put much higher store on marriage and family life. Some 37% of the respondents said that having a successful marriage was "one of the most important things" in their lives, up from 28% in 1997. More remarkable, 59% said children were one of the most important things in life, compared with 42% 15 years ago. Overall, women ranked children and marriage — 94% and 84%, respectively — as among the most important things in life.
Also sobering:
only 1 in 3 became mothers during their university careers, and just 44% of them married (compared with 77% of their male counterparts). The survey also revealed that 38% of the surveyed female faculty regretted not having had children or not having had more children.
Currid-Halkett goes on to discuss how this reality has sunk in for many women who are now choosing not to even pursue these high-pressure, tenure-track jobs, as they see them as fundamentally incompatible with the life they want to have. She sees this as a loss of some of our best resources in research fields and makes a collectivist argument for addressing the problem: if we want the best and the brightest doing the work, we need to rethink how we structure it.

Some Thoughts

For the most part, I agree with Currid-Halkett's conclusion that we need to find ways to address the work-life imbalance in academia, especially if the perception of it is keeping top talent from even entering that domain.

I also disagree very strongly with commenters like JimBobLAX. He had this to say:
Those who say "I want it all" or "Special accommodations should be made for women" (including many commenters below) are really saying "I want you to make sacrifices/change your life/ restructure your business so that I can have what I want. The fact that it disrupts your life, costs you money, or imposes burdens on you is irrelevant since all that counts is my desires." That's a fundamentally selfish concept.
Creating an environment where women and men can raise healthy, fulfilled families is not the same as creating an environment where people can readily pursue hobbies. Children are not the same as hobbies. Yes, parenthood is a life choice, but it is not entirely a "selfish" one; these children are people. Of course, this is not a new argument, not by a long shot. And a relatively recent Feministe thread became a heated debate over this very topic. So, since I'm fairly confident we're not going to come to any societal consensus on that one right now, I'm going to set that aside to take a look at some other things this article made me think about.

Is She Talking About Me?

I might be one of the women Currid-Halkett's talking about. I certainly feel that my marriage and being a good mother are important parts of my identity. And I certainly value my academic career. I also am not pursuing a research-track career.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a professor early in my graduate studies. I was realizing quickly that the "standard" academic track wasn't for me, and I went to talk to her about my recent reflections and nascent ideas that what I really wanted was to work at a community college. The reaction I got was . . . shocking. She became frustrated with me and said that she was tired of seeing young women "sell themselves short" and to not pursue better careers. She talked about the Women's Movement and how the women of my generation weren't living up to our potential. Her words stung me, and they stick with me now even four years later. In fact, when I left that meeting, I almost dropped out of graduate school. I didn't feel like there was a place for me. I felt like the message was to fall in line with the ideal or get out of the way.

I've got the benefit of (some) hindsight now, and looking back on that conversation I can see a few things.

This woman and I were talking around each other. She wasn't hearing what I was saying, not really. And I wasn't hearing what she was saying, not really. We were coming at the very definition of "career" differently. We weren't on the same page.

I also know now that my confidence in my own abilities was immature. I was out of my element--a first-generation college student who had gone from excelling at a state school for undergrad to being overwhelmed by the new atmosphere of this private, research-driven graduate school.

But she also made a lot of assumptions about me that both weren't true and weren't as true as she thought they were.

For one, I didn't have a child at that time, and though being a wife was important to me, my husband was also in law school. We were both committed to our academic pursuits, and I didn't feel any pressure to fall into a particular housewife role. We spent our "dates" reading books in the same room and the dishes usually just didn't get done. It worked.

dirty dishes
A sexy date night 
I wasn't telling her that I wanted a community college position because I thought it would offer me a better work-life balance (though, now that I have one, I'm not knocking that benefit). At the time, I wanted a community college position because it was the position I felt best matched who I was as a teacher, a researcher, and--basically--a person.

I was much more drawn to the teaching side of an academic career than the researching one. And--even though I can get lost in a stack of books as well as the next English grad student--even my research kept finding a very pedagogically driven center. I wanted to teach, and I wanted to teach students who others considered "difficult." It was what I kept coming back to again and again and again--in my volunteer work, in my research, in my classroom, even in my casual conversations with friends. This is what I wanted to be doing.

So for that advisor to draw a box around me as someone who was "selling herself short" because she would rather focus on being a wife and mother than an academic isn't complete. It doesn't take into account the other elements of who I am and what I do.

Be Careful With Conclusions

So, basically, I'm a little hesitant to take Currid-Halkett's conclusions at face value. Sure, it might be a really disturbing sign that we need more family friendly policies that 40% of women want research-focused careers early in their studies but only 25% of them want that as they get further along. (And I'd argue that family friendly policies benefit everyone, not just women and not even just people with children).

But in that orientation, they weren't just telling the women that 90+% of academic job openings were in "alternative" tracks. They were telling all of us. The tenure-track research professor is not necessarily a thing of the past, but it can't be the only thing that graduate programs train us to do--for a variety of reasons. 

What have your experiences been? Are you in academia? Do you see a conflict between that career track and your personal life goals? Have you made any decisions based on that conflict, and what has the reaction from your peers and mentors been?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Diversity, It Matters More than We Think

Scott E. Page, complex systems and political science professor at the University of Michigan, stumbled upon an interesting phenomenon as an assistant professor at CalTech, and he uses it to frame the introduction of his book The Difference:
I stumbled upon a counterintuitive finding: diverse groups of problem solvers. . . consistently outperformed groups of the best and the brightest. If I formed two groups, one random (and therefore diverse) and one consisting of the best individual performers, the first group almost always did better. In my model, diversity trumped ability.
Obviously, a finding like this could raise some hackles.

What's that?
I will never miss the opportunity for a good "raised hackles" photo. 
An argument like that could be used as groundwork to say that merit doesn't matter. Page goes on to explain that's not the case:
Ability matters. But--here's the catch--so does diversity. Comparisons between the two (which matters more: diversity or ability?) require some care. We're comparing an apple to a fruit basket. Ability is the property of an individual--a nice shiny apple. Neither a person nor an apple can be diverse. Diversity is a property of a collection of people--a basket with many kinds of fruit. Diversity and ability complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple. 
OLC Open House Fruit Basket

The rest of the book outlines in great detail the different "tools" (ways of approaching a problem) people bring through their cognitive diversity. Page also discusses what goes into creating cognitive diversity in the first place, and one element is experience. 
Two people who have different experiences also develop different toolboxes. A city-dwelling banker acquires tools such as navigating a transportation system and balancing a stock portfolio. A farmer learns quite different tools, perhaps even balancing a transportation system (a horse) and navigating stock, tools that the banker has no incentive to acquire. 
All this to say that problems are best solved when the people approaching them share multiple perspectives. And one way to ensure multiple perspectives is to gather people together who have lived through different experiences. 

A recent study published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy made me think about this principle of diverse perspectives today. This study looked at the charity donations across America on a zipcode by zipcode basis. One of the key findings is that people are more likely to give if they live in areas where they encounter poor people. And those who make less money give more than those who make more money:
Rich people who live in neighborhoods with many other wealthy people give a smaller share of their incomes to charity than rich people who live in more economically diverse communities. When people making more than $200,000 a year account for more than 40 percent of the taxpayers in a ZIP code, the wealthy residents give an average of 2.8 percent of discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for all itemizers earning $200,000 or more.
An NPR article discussing these findings cites Kristin Valentine, a director for a nonprofit called Bread for the City in Washington, D.C. The zip code where this charity is housed is among the city's poorest, but the people there donate at a rate four times the national average. Think about that for a second. The people in one of the poorest areas are out-donating the rest of the nation four-fold. 

Valentine says that the findings don't surprise her because even the people in need that their charity serves donate money and time to the charity when they can. Seeing people struggle makes people more likely to donate. 

It also reminded me of the quote from Milk where Harvey Milk says that people vote two-to-one for gay rights if they personally know a gay person. A 2009 Gallup poll suggests that there's a lot of truth to that sentiment:

Most of these studies and discussions focus on the impact that entering into diverse discourse communities has upon the people in those communities. But we also have to think about the flip side. If being exposed to diverse perspectives impacts the way you interact with the world, so does not being exposed to them. 

I was thinking about this in relation to Todd Akin's reprehensible comments about "legitimate rape." Despite his statement that he "misspoke," Akin's calm delivery of a statement that has set the political world on fire today suggests that he wasn't really attuned to the way it would be perceived. And I know I'm speculating, but--as a Missourian who lives very near Akin's home district--I suspect that he didn't know the way it would be perceived because he'd been living in a bubble. I suspect that he was surrounded by people who did not bristle at that idea or others like it. He'd mistakenly been allowed to believe that was an acceptable viewpoint, and it wasn't until he found himself on a national stage with a higher level of scrutiny that his opinions butted up against other viewpoints. 

That's not to say that Akin's never met anyone who thinks that claiming a raped woman can't get pregnant is ridiculous. I'm sure he met lots of them. But if you're not entering into earnest discourse involving your beliefs, you aren't really testing them. 

Unfortunately, we tend to dichotomize everything so much that listening to diverse perspectives is tantamount to treason. There's so much invested in "winning" the fight that we forget to have the fight to begin with. We take sides without ever having tested our opinions. We don't even have enough experience with other perspectives to know that we're missing them. 

And how do we fix that? How do we push back against a cultural norm that insists winning a debate at any cost is more important than what we can gain by entering the debate? How do we demonstrate that putting ourselves in groups with diversity (of all kinds: racial, gender, economic, geographic, ethnic, political)--be it where we live, where we shop, where we go to school, where we work--is a good thing, even if it sometimes makes us uncomfortable?

Wedding Humor Isn't Keeping Up with Modern Marriage

I'm at the age where I attend a lot of weddings. And that's fun, because I love weddings. I love seeing two people find one another and decide to form an unbreakable bond (something that doesn't just happen through weddings, but I think that's an important bond, and I like the celebration of it).

But that also means that I hear a lot of wedding humor. Whether it's from well-meaning groomsmen joking about the "ol' ball and chain" or even the wedding officiant cracking jokes about how the groom might want to run, I've heard a lot of "humor" casting women as shrews looking to trap a man and men as fools who should be looking for the nearest exit.

Today, I'm over at from two to one (while Danielle takes a much-deserved vacation) talking about how this wedding humor may have once made sense (even if it was always cruel), but it really has no place in modern marriage. Isn't it time our marriage jokes got an upgrade?

From CafePress

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Todd Akin, Misspeaking, and Political Posturing

As I type this, the top two trends on Twitter are "Todd Akin" and "#legitimaterape," so I'm going to assume you've probably already heard about Akin's deplorable comments about rape victims.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, though, this is what the Missouri Senator hopeful had to say:
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
As a Missouri voter and as a woman, I am absolutely appalled that this man has a chance of being my representative. There is so much wrong with this statement that I barely know where to begin. The implication that someone who becomes pregnant during a rape is somehow not "legitimately" raped alone is enough to send shivers down my spine. So, what? If a woman becomes pregnant during rape she was somehow asking for it? She secretly wanted it?

But let's put that aside for a second. Even if we take out the disgusting use of "legitimately," Akin's grasp of basic human biology is absolutely shocking. And it might be important for someone who wants emergency contraception banned "totally, for everyone" to have some sort of grasp over sexual reproduction.

Akin has now come out to say that he "misspoke":
In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it's clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year," Akin's statement said. "Those who perpetrate these crimes are the lowest of the low in our society and their victims will have no stronger advocate in the Senate to help ensure they have the justice they deserve."
I call foul.

Akin did not "misspeak." Misspeaking occurs when you have a slip of the tongue. Maybe you accidentally say "Osama" when you mean "Obama." Maybe you accidentally ask a man in a wheelchair to stand up. To misspeak implies that you reacted quickly without fully grasping the contextualization of your statement. Akin did not misspeak. He very clearly outlines where his line of reasoning is coming from (a wholly ill-informed view that's not based on biology or medicine, but he still outlines it). He very clearly explains that "the female body" is supposed to "shut the whole thing down" during "legitimate rape." This is not one errant phrase or word that's out of line with the rest of his statement. This is an attack on women and an insult.

It's also right in line with many of his other comments. In addition to supporting the complete elimination of emergency contraception, championing extreme anti-gay rights agendas, and wanting to end the school lunch program (because protecting children's lives apparently does not extend to making sure they get to eat), he also made recent statements implying that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be overturned.

Akin's most recent "misspeaking" may have pushed a few more buttons than some of his previous ones, but they all point clearly to a man whose view of the world leaves no space for equality for anyone who is not like him. This is not a man I want representing me, and I believe in my heart he is not a man that the fair-thinking people I know would want representing them. 

Who we elect matters. Vote carefully.

Friday, August 17, 2012

30 by 30: Are You Hitting Your Milestones?

My wonderful friend has a blog post about maturing and life goals (and she has--in my humble opinion--an awesome life that she's embraced with bravery and a wonderful spirit of adventure, so I sincerely hope she isn't taking stock in a self-judgmental way, but rather in a how-can-I-grow-even-more way).

She cites a McSweeney's article that's a tongue-in-cheek nod to those baby developmental milestone charts. You know, the ones that are used primarily to induce either panic or an alarmingly thick layer of smugness in new parents. (Yes, yes. I know that they have the very legitimate use of reassuring parents that their child's development is normal and alerting us to potential developmental delays to ensure early intervention strategies, but let's be honest, usually they're about panic and smugness).

My Armory: Chef's, Boning, Utility Knives
"'Advanced' 14 month olds can use a spoon and fork, eh? We'll show 'em!"
She developed a point system whereby you get 1 point for completing the "probably," 2 for completing the "may be able," and 3 for completing the "possibly." She also grants handicaps to adjust for age, so since I'm 27, I get 7.5 points (2.5 points +/- for years under/over 30). 

So, here's how I did:

By thirty-years-old, your adult will probably be able to…

Feed and maintain a house pet
Hold down a job
Maintain eye contact while speaking
Refrain from discussing high school
Cook a meal (three-course)
Make small talk

Forgive his family (Get out of my head, McSweeney's.) 
Acknowledge other viewpoints (social)
Detect and respond to ambiguity
Finish school (I've got two degrees, but I'm still not finished.)

Your thirty-year-old adult may be able to…

Make a martini (vodka) (Blech. I like my drinks sweet. When it comes to alcohol, I have the tastebuds of a six-year-old. Wait, that didn't come out right. What I meant to say is where are the mango margaritas?)
Tie a half-Windsor knot
Drive a manual transmission (This depends on what your definition of "drive" is, but I did it--for better of for worse--for a year, so I'm going to count it.)
Refrain from discussing college (I work at a college. I feel this is unfair.)
Get married
File his taxes (EZ form)
Remember 5-10 friends’ birthdays
Acknowledge other viewpoints (political)
Get a flu shot
Give a toast
Install storm windows
Go back to school (Back. Hahaha.)

Some advanced thirty-year-olds may possibly be able to…

Make a martini (gin) (And peach margaritas. Mmm.)
File his taxes (standard 1040)
Make and keep dental appointments
Have a baby
Finish school (Hey! That's double dipping!)

Final score: 35 (+7.5 handicap)= 42.5/49  I'm grown!

My friend finished it up with a list of 30 things to do before she's 30 and a challenge to others to do the same. Thirty seemed like a daunting number, and I do--after all--still have three years, so I'm going to start with 15 and then re-evaluate:

1. Submit two articles for publication in academic journals
2. Take my daughter to the beach
3. Be able to hold a basic conversation in Spanish
4. Get my insanely hyperactive dog trained well enough to be able to bring him to an outdoor festival 
5. Move to a new house
6. Finish my PhD (can "before 30" be "by the time you're done being 30," like really "before 31"? This one's going to be cutting it close). 
7. Visit another country (I don't even own a passport yet.)
8. Present at a teaching conference 
9. Take a yoga class
10. Run a 10k
11. Teach my daughter to swim
12. Update my wardrobe
13. See the Pacific Ocean 
14. Plant a garden 
15. Organize my closet

There. Now I feel ready to tackle the day. (Also, is it sad that the one I feel least confident in is number 4?)

What about you? What goals do you have? (And if you're already 30, feel free to adjust the timeframe!)

Photo: panduh

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Online Teaching Resources: Finding Good Sample Essay

It's not that I have anything against composition books. Really, it's not.

They often have very good sample essays, and they certainly do a good job of capturing whatever the theme of that particular chapter is.

But I'm a rebel, you know. I'm often not teaching the theme of that particular chapter. I'm often teaching somewhere around its edges. So here's a chapter on "Observation Essays" and I'm teaching about how to describe a place. There will be great essays about how to make science laboratory observations, how to observe someone on a job shadow. These are practical things, no doubt. Important.

But they don't quite do what I need them to do.

So I'm always on the hunt for good sample essays, and I know that there is excellent writing all over the internet.

But I can never find it when I need it.


Maybe someone else knows the secret, but when I try to find an essay with a particular theme, my search results lead nowhere but pay-to-view plagiarism sites. Hundreds of them flood the top search results whenever I type in something like "my favorite place essay." (This makes me really wonder what our students see if they go online to try to get some guidance with their writing, but I digress.)

So, I've finally gotten wise and started bookmarking things as potential sample essays as I find them, creating my own database that I can draw from later.

Doing this has lead me to a couple of sites that have some really great writing, writing that I enjoy as a teacher trying to find good examples but also writing that I enjoy just as a reader. In case it might help someone else, here's a list:

  • Numero Cinq- This is an online magazine that features poetry, essays, short fiction, art, and interviews. I'm particularly fond of their "What It's Like Living Here" series. 
  • Fresh Yarn- This site has an amazing collection of essays in a wide array of styles and topics. My only complaint is that it's not very searchable, so I've just been randomly skimming them and seeing if I find something I like. One essay I've used in a class before with great success is "The Truth About Peeps." Students really like it, and we used it to talk about both dialogue and perspective. 
  • Hippocampus Magazine- Another great collection of creative writing. I'm planning to use "Toothbrush" in a lesson on using small details to convey larger meaning. 
  • Narrative- (Requires free registration, some material pay access) This has a lot of great writing. I'm watching for the results of the Six Word Story submissions, which I think will hold some potential for talking about style and sentence structure (not to mention punctuation). Here's a submitted story made up of five six word stories. 
  • Backhand Stories- The creator of this site explains it like this:  "I did want to create a place for new writers where short fiction was the norm, where writers could grow and learn and where you could read work in a couple of minutes that would stay with you the rest of the day." The navigation is a bit difficult, but if you have some spare time to just browse some essays, there's a lot of interesting stuff there. I've been pondering "Avocation Calling." 
Finally, I have to share this suggestion (thanks, Rhiannon!) for Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter," which is a beautiful story that had me completely absorbed and forgetting that I was supposed to be writing a syllabus. 

Alright, that's what I have. What about you? If you teach, where do you go to find example essays for your students? And where do you go when you want to just find some inspiring writing?

Photo: J. Paxon Reyes

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I'm Glad I Wasn't Smug About That TV Watching . . .

Remember back when I said that my kid didn't watch TV but that I didn't think that was really any cause to get up on a high horse? Well, it's a good thing because for the past week I've had this conversation over and over and over again.

My daughter's playing contently somewhere nearby, so I sit down and open my laptop to check my email. She appears immediately at my side, calling upon some telepathic powers I desperately wish I could harness (could you imagine how much easier the morning commute would be?)

She sits quietly, crosses her hands in her lap, and looks up at me blinking the biggest, sweetest eyes you'll ever see: "See Elmo please."

I sigh, having read exactly one email subject line, and it was of course spam. I didn't even have time to delete it. "Not right now baby. Let's read a book."

Her, undeterred: "See Elmo please." Blink. Blink.

"No, baby. Let's read your Elmo book."

Her, getting frustrated because she's learned the rules. She said please, by God. That means she gets what she wants! "SEE ELMO PLEASE!"

"Okay, okay. Just one Elmo."

"Lalalalala." "Mommy, mommy, mommy. See Elmo?" "Mommy, mommy, mommy. See Big Bird?" "Mommy, mommy, mommy, see elephant?" "Mommy, mommy, mommy. Lalalalalalala?" 

My only solace is that, do you see those page views? 74 million? I am not the only one losing this game. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

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

The things I've read this week that made me happy, angry, and intrigued.

The Good

This list of indie rock covers by female vocalists. 

Two articles made me smile by capturing those early moments of motherhood. (That was almost two years ago for me! How did that happen?) Offbeat Mama has 7 Ways Motherhood Shocked the Hell out of Me and Stand and Deliver gives some tips for having a med-free birth in a hospital

Civil Eats has an article on Carole Morison, a chicken farmer who lost her job after she spoke out against Perdue's inhumane practices for the documentary Food Inc. After her farm sat empty for a few years, she decided to reopen it and do things her way. Now she's a free-range chicken farmer

The Bad

After the ACLU threatens to sue, a Louisiana high school stops forcing women to take pregnancy tests and kicking them out of school if they refuse or test positive. I'm glad they changed it, but their excuse is that they didn't know that was wrong. What?

I knew that I probably wasn't going to just feel all warm and fuzzy about whoever Romney chose as his running mate, but Paul Ryan? Seriously? I mean, this man is a bad choice for just about everything that I care about. Ideologically, Ryan is the most conservative veep choice in at least the last 100 years, as conservative as Michele Bachmann. And I understand why a balanced budget (even at any cost) might sound appealing, but Ryan's budget plan is ridiculous. The cuts he's proposing to, for example, transportation would leave our already crumbling highway system in further disrepair and eliminate air traffic controllers at a time when we need more. His thoughts on education (especially Pell Grants) demonstrate a belief that only those who can afford it should get opportunities. This morning, Colorlines published a piece on how Ryan is the worst possible choice for people of color and progressives. His budget plan is so extreme that even Romney is trying to distance himself from it, though it's the thing he's famous for, so I don't see how that's going to work. Suffice it to say I'm not a fan. 

The Curious

Sociological Images had a couple really interesting posts, including one on the earnings of dual-academic couples and the diversity demographics of people one step away from CEO

Hobo Mama asks a question I've found myself pondering from time to time. If your kid showed some promise for greatness (Olympic athlete, actor, etc.) would you make the choice (and sacrifices) to encourage them toward that path?

People think that obesity is a more serious health concern than smoking. They are very wrong

That's what I've been reading this week. How about you?