Thursday, November 29, 2012

Experiments in Teaching Grammar: Failure and Success

I've been teaching writing--in some form or another--for about eight years. Every time that I think I've pretty much figured out my students' general range of reactions to different discussions, they throw me for a loop. It's one of my favorite things about teaching: it never gets boring.

As I wrote about recently, dealing with grammar is difficult for me as a developmental writing instructor. Most of my students have a negative association with grammar rules that have been used to mark them as "unprepared."

You probably don't think of comma splices and verb tenses as emotional topics, but for many of my students, they are.

To deal with this, I started by putting all the grammar baggage on the table, and we had some good discussions. Eventually, though, we were left with the work of actually learning grammar rules.

Cue the excitement.
I devised a plan. 

Plan 1: Grammar Quiz Show Success

The first thing I decided to do was create a Jeopardy-like quiz game. (There are a lot of PowerPoint templates available online). I had designed games like this for drills in the past, but I always ran into the same problems: 1) it's really hard to tell who buzzes in first and 2) quieter students tend to fade into the background. 

I took to the internet to help solve my buzzer problem and stumbled across this message board. On it, a commenter named KateL suggested using white boards for teams to write their answers. I really liked this idea because it allowed all of the teams to score points on each question, it would prevent the problem of me not being able to hear buzzers, and it gave quieter participants a chance to be more active in the game. 

The team that held up the white board first got control of the board, so there was an incentive to answer quickly, but even teams that took longer to get to the answer could score points. This also helped control the noise level in the room because the teams didn't want the others stealing their answers. I also offered the winning team bonus points toward their overall class score to give it a little weight.

I bought some white boards, designed my game, and went into the classroom. It went great! The students were actively engaged with every question. I could hear them in their small groups discussing independent clauses and comma splices. The teams were fairly evenly matched, even though two front runners came out pretty clearly. Still, the vibe in the room was competitive but fun. The students enjoyed themselves, and I really felt like they were learning the material. 

Plan 1.2: Grammar Quiz Show Failure

Excited (maybe even a little smug) about my grammar success, I went into my other classroom the next week with the same plan . . . and it failed miserably. 

The students immediately fell into bickering over who was "cheating." At one point, I thought that two people in different teams were going to get into an actual fight. The winning score was over a thousand points in the negative. A few of the teams basically stopped participating, and I could hear hurt feelings all over the room. At a couple of points, the students bemoaned that they "felt stupid," which is about the last thing I want to hear as a developmental teacher. 

The Champ
We simply cannot come to blows over commas. 

What Happened?

I went home and spent some time reflecting on what went wrong. The class where the game failed is a lower-level class, though both of the classes are developmental. The main difference that I could discern between the two teams was their confidence. The second group of students seemed fairly set in their belief that they were not good at grammar and would not be good at grammar. Finally, I noticed that a lot of the students were afraid to say anything because they didn't want to look "stupid" in front of the rest of their classmates. 

This is when I realized just how emotional grammar is for many of my students. Even though we'd spent days talking about how there is no "proper" grammar and that we all adapt how we talk and write depending on our audiences, my students still steadfastly believed that they were being judged for the way they used grammar, even in a classroom full of other students who felt the same way. 

There were two things I needed to do if I wanted to get past this: boost confidence and build community. 

Plan 2: The Pop Quiz

Completely unannounced, I brought a pop quiz to the next class. They had all been given grammar guides over multiple categories (run-ons/comma splices, fragments, subject-verb agreement, and conjunctions) that they used during the Jeopardy game. I told them to take their guides out and ask me questions over any parts that were still confusing. We talked over a few questions. I asked if there was any more confusion. No one said anything. 

Then I told them that I was going to hand out a quiz, and once I handed it out, I wasn't going to answer any more questions. I could see the panic set in immediately. 

So I went on. The quiz would be counted as an in-class writing score (10 points), and they would all get that score as long as the quiz was complete. However, there were five sections on the quiz (one for each category and a combo). For each section where they answered every question right, they could get two bonus points, an opportunity to double their score. They visibly relaxed a little, but I still saw no signs of confidence. 

I began handing out the quiz and announced this final stipulation. I wouldn't answer questions, but they could ask each other. They could work in small groups, one large group, or some combination of the two. I didn't care. 

Finally, I told them that if more than half of the class got all the answers right in any one section, the whole class would get two more bonus points. They had the potential to get 30 points on this 10 point assignment. 

The Results

The attitude in the room completely changed. There was still a sense of competition, but they saw each other as allies. They were suddenly encouraging others to share their opinions and reassuring one another that mistakes were okay but that they needed to hear everyone's ideas. I heard people who normally don't talk at all sharing their thoughts, and--even when they weren't 100% right--I heard them using the logic and reason that will eventually get them to the right answers. 

I did this in two classes. In one of the classes, the students were so committed to getting the answers right that I had to make them stop when class ended. They spent a solid forty-five minutes talking solely about grammar. I didn't hear a single person get off topic, and I didn't see a single person playing on a cellphone. 

I just graded the papers. No one got every question right, but there were several sections where most people only missed one answer, and there was at least one section in each class that earned them group bonus points. 

The overall results were overwhelmingly better than the diagnostic test I gave them at the beginning of our grammar section. Before, they were making blind guesses. Now, I could see how they thought through their answers, even when they didn't get them right. 

Taking the pressure off of the "quiz" by turning it into a bonus point opportunity let them relax. Turning their classmates into allies gave them a sense of community. Creating a point system that increased in value depending on how many of them got it right turned them into cheerleaders. Instead of spending time worrying about how their classmates would perceive their own knowledge of grammar, they were focused on encouraging others so that they could get the most out of their resources. Once they started to see that other people thought like them, they gained confidence. 

It's not perfect. There are still mistakes, and, when I try this again next semester, it will invariably have to change in some way, but I really saw a breakthrough in the way these students approached not only grammar rules, but their understanding of themselves as learners. 

It was a good day. 

Teacher friends, what strategies have you used to overcome a difficult learning atmosphere? What lessons have worked beautifully in one class and then fallen flat in another? How do you adapt to your students' needs?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In Sickness and in Health, but Not in Monster Attacks

I have to preface this by explaining that I grew up in the country. I am not afraid of creepy-crawlies. I had--as pets--rats, mice, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and a giant centipede. I helped my dad clean squirrels and rabbits that he'd hunted. I caught snakes and frogs for fun. I remember being in fourth grade when a praying mantis fell on a classmate's desk and caused the entire room to go into a panic. As someone was about to smash the confused little bug, I scooped it up (bare handed) and tossed it out the window. I do not get creeped out by critters easily. 

This little guy (or gal, we didn't have much time to get acquainted) greeted me this morning as I was making my breakfast and heading out the door. It's a house centipede, and if my blurry iPhone pic doesn't do enough to spark fear in your heart, take a look at these images that Flickr users have been kind enough to contribute to our nightmares. 

House Centipede closeup
I mean, come on! Why does anything need that many legs? Isn't that the creepiest thing you've ever seen?!

I'm telling you all of this because it reminded me of a moment my marriage was put to the test. 

See, before our city decided to join the 20th century and get recycling containers in alleyways, we kept plastic bins on our back porch for our recyclables and then drove them across town to dutifully dump them in the appropriate spot. We'd then leave our empty bins in the back seat of the car so we could start the whole process again. 

Apparently, one of these little friends decided to hitch a ride on a recycling bin and revealed itself on the windshield directly in front of my eyes. 

At that vantage point, it was about 12-inches long (not really) and had about 30 legs (really). My completely uncontrollable reaction was to let out a scream, a terrified, high-pitched, the-world-is-about-to-end scream. 

Luckily, I wasn't driving. Unluckily, my husband was. When I let out that scream, his reaction was to pull to the side of the road, unbuckle his seat belt, and without even putting the car in park, jump from the vehicle. 

He had one leg out of the open door as our car was rolling down the shoulder of a (deserted, thank God) road. 

"What are you doing?!" I yelled at him. 

"I don't know," he said. "But whatever made you scream like that, I don't want any part of." 

We're really a pretty good team. He was an amazing partner through childbirth and we "died" hand-in-hand during the zombie run, but I know when the true terror comes, his reaction will be to leap from the vehicle while I'm left to fight for my life. At least my screams might save him. I suppose if I manage to jump out, too, he'll probably come check on me, once he's sure the monsters are gone. 

"You Look Great!": What Do We Promote When We Compliment Weight Loss

I read a trio of articles this week that I suggest you check out if you're interested in conversations about weight loss and body image. First was the New York Times article "The Fat Trap" that looks at a (long) series of studies that show us the simple "calories in, calories out" model of weight loss isn't as accurate as we like to think. Then was Shannon Chamberlain's piece on Slate "I Once Was Obese. And now I'm not. Please don't applaud me for losing weight." Then I read the Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss' response to Chamberlain's piece, which reflects on how we should praise the work of health rather than the outcomes.

Body image

Together, these pieces have me really reflecting on the way that we think and talk about weight loss and human value. If you read the comments on the Slate piece (though, really, you probably shouldn't read the comments), you'll see plenty of people who are just aghast at the audacity of a woman who would claim to work out, eat right, and remain fat. The very existence of such a person (even though medical literature suggests not only that such a person exists but that it's probably the norm rather than the exception for many people) throws off the narrative that fat people are lazy and thus worthy of shame and blame. 

Set aside the fact that neither beauty nor health is a moral imperative (you do not have to be beautiful or healthy to be a good person), and you're still left with a very problematic cultural belief in fitness. We have set up a nearly impenetrable binary that tells us thin=hard work=healthy=good and fat=lazy=unhealthy=bad. That binary is reinforced in ways little and big everyday. Magazines, movies, fitness products, food marketing, and many of the people we are around every day have bought into this belief completely. That's why we think it's okay to shame people who are fat. After all, we're just looking out for their health. 

You Can't Tell Someone's Health Just By Looking

Despite our insistence that health and weight are exactly correlated, science and common sense both tell us that's not true. People can be healthy and overweight. People can be thin and unhealthy. Things are not as simple as they seem. 

The fact that you can't tell someone's health just by looking really resonated with me as I read these articles. Shannon Chamberlain discusses her weight loss success in the Slate article and says:
When I finally turned to the raspberries and coffee diet, I did it for less-than-stellar reasons. I was trying to flee a job I disliked for a competitive graduate school program just as it was becoming clear that a recession was a’coming. I felt out of control, and, like other anorexics, sought complete dominion over something clear and measurable. 
The woman was starving herself. She was making herself an emotional wreck. Her hair was falling out of her head because she lacked nutrients. Yet she was getting compliments. She was getting reinforcement for this behavior. She was told to "keep up the good work."

Why? Because people saw the results instead of the process, and it is the results we are taught to praise. It doesn't matter how someone gets thin, only that they are. Likewise, we praise people when they're thin without really doing anything at all. 

The only real exception to this is surgery, which we see as "cheating." Chamberlain also talks about this in her article, as it's the path she eventually chose. Her post-surgery maintenance involves frequent exercise and careful portion control, the very same hard work we praise in people who are thin without surgery, yet when that hard work comes after surgery, we tend to overlook it.  

When Erika from Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss first read Chamberlain's piece, she was mad. She was mad because she has worked very hard to lose weight and felt like Chamberlain's claim that people shouldn't praise her for losing weight downplayed all that hard work. Then she took a step back and thought about it more deeply, saying this:

I’m a recovering emotional eater. I’m a former 330lb dynamo. I’m a survivor of trauma. I get up – not always daily, but considerably often – and I make time for myself. I changed my habits. I learned how to cook. I learned myself.

All those verbs…. recover…survive…change…learn. The hard work isn’t just shedding the weight. The hard work is lifting and removing the barriers that, for many of us, are in the way. And denying the reality that they exist, they are real, they are important and they can and often do result in weight loss – while simultaneously propping up South Beach/Atkins/Grapefruit/Mashed Potato diets as the key to weight loss, or allowing them to prop themselves up unchallenged – makes it far more difficult for people who want to change their lives (or, really, need to change their lives) to get access to the real help they need.

And when people do do that work, they deserve praise. They deserve love. They deserve support.
Yes. "All those verbs" deserve praise: "recover" "survive" "lift" "run" "nourish" "cook" "try." But instead we praise the adjectives: "thin" "built" "ripped" "slender" "beautiful." 

We cannot control the adjectives. For one, we can't guarantee that the work will result in thinness and, secondly, we can't guarantee that the public perception of those results will be favorable regardless of whether we're thin. Beauty is a collective perception that's beyond our power. Work is not. 

What Are You Praising?

Have you ever told someone you noticed was losing weight that they were looking good and should keep up the good work? I know that I have. I do it because I notice their effort and want to encourage them (not because I think they have to be thin but because I want people to succeed in things that are important to them). I do it because it seems like a nice thing to do. 

But is it?

What if what I'm praising isn't really a nice thing at all. 

What if I say "Have you lost weight? You're looking great!" to someone who has been starving himself for weeks. Now I've reinforced that behavior. 

What if I tell someone she looks great when she's actually suffering weight loss as a side effect from a deadly disease (as happened to this woman's friend who was suffering from Lupus). 

We don't know what we're praising if we're only praising a result. If our goal is to encourage people to take care of themselves and to be healthy, then shouldn't we make sure that we're actually encouraging people to, you know, take care of themselves and be healthy?

If someone gets up an hour early and went for a run, we should praise that. That's hard work. 

If someone cooked healthy meals all week long for themselves and their family, we should praise that. That's hard work. 

If someone tries a new gym even though they were intimidated by it, we should praise that. That's hard work.

If someone seeks help to mend their emotional damages in order to live a healthier, happier life, we should praise that. That's hard work, too. 

Simply being thin does not demonstrate hard work and it does not mean that someone is making healthy choices. We should know what we're reinforcing if we truly care about the people we are encouraging.

Finally, we shouldn't be afraid to tell someone that they look beautiful. Period. Someone who is thin can be beautiful. Someone who is fat can be beautiful. Someone who just came into work after a long night with bags under their eyes and messy hair can be beautiful. We don't have to wait for the cultural standards to all click into place to give a compliment. 

If we rethink the way that we give praise, we can begin to restructure our norms. If we praise hard work instead of outcomes and acknowledge beauty wherever we see it and the people who are doing that hard work don't get any thinner, we're still reinforcing positive, healthy changes. Isn't that what we really want to value as a culture?

Photo: quinn.anya

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is Public Shame the Best Way to Deal with Bigotry?

One of the democratizing qualities of the internet is the ability to share our views with the world, which gives way to the other democratizing quality of the internet: shaming people whose views of the world are abhorrent.

There are a flurry of sites dedicated to doing exactly this. 

Andrew Ti answers questions at Yo Is This Racist? by strictly adhering to the belief that the only appropriate reaction to racism is a profanity-laced verbal smackdown followed by complete and utter social dismissal. 

There is also the Public Shaming tumblr which collects screen shots of people saying horrible things followed by them saying other horrible things that demonstrate their utter blindness to hypocrisy and privilege, for example:

OSU Haters is a tumblr that's dedicated to exposing the racism and bigotry among the OSU student body, ostensibly to point out the problem and promote solutions to it. 

Public shaming also played a large role in the exposure of those horribly racist tweets following The Hunger Games premiere when people were outraged that Rue was black. In that case, Jezebel compiled a list of the offending tweeters, complete with full screen names. 

Probably bolstered by the popularity of that post, Jezebel recently ran a post that went viral featuring a list of racist tweets on the night President Barack Obama was re-elected. 

The author of that post then took the online shaming into the real world when she began calling the schools of those who posted the racist tweets (most of them were teenagers) and asked their principals if they knew about them. She reasoned that this was no free speech violation because "while the First Amendment protects their freedom of speech, it doesn't protect them from the consequences that might result from expressing their opinions. "

Some drew comparisons between this public outing and the one that revealed the identity of offensive Reddit user Michael Brutsch (also Gawker's doing) and the law student who lost her cushy clerkship position after being outed as the author of a racist email

Why Do We Read These?

I'll be the first to admit to you that I read Yo, Is this Racist? on a regular basis and find the entire premise behind the Public Shaming tumblr pretty amusing. I believe whole-heartedly that words have meaning and that you should be aware of the way you are impacting the world around you through the words you use. 

More than that, though, I believe that bigotry and prejudice has to be examined. I think that we can exist in bubbles of society where our prejudicial thoughts are too easily accepted. Left unexamined, they grow from passing thoughts to firmly held beliefs, beliefs that we act on and use to shape our realities. I think it's important that we bring those ideas out into the light of day and show just how fast they fall apart. 

Does public shaming do that, though?

Is Jezebel "Doing Antiracism Wrong"?

Gene Demby of PostBourgie certainly thinks so. He writes that this type of public shaming:
bolsters the idea that racism is a terrible personal failing that can be corrected through sufficient public shaming. This notion of racists-as-evil is so pervasive that few people who readily espouse bigoted beliefs would recognize those ideas as racist; unsurprisingly, people don’t like to think themselves monsters.
And that's a problem.

If the bar for not being racist is set so low that simply not screaming the n-word at people qualifies you, we've got a problem.

If the bar for not being sexist is set so low that it means not physically assaulting women in the street, we've got a problem.

If the bar for not being _____ist is set so low that it means we won't have to examine all of the ways that we enact those prejudices on a daily basis, we've got a very big problem.

These posts are most certainly popular. The Jezebel post of the racist Obama tweets circulated around the internet quickly. Demby suggests that people liked reading it because it allowed them to pat themselves on the back over their own racial consciousness. "See! I would never call the President the n-word. Look at how enlightened I am!"

In the comments of his crosspost on Racialicious, Demby pointed out that "Schadenfreude seems to be a big part of what's motivating the put-them-on-blast contingent."

Laughing to Keep From Crying

Sometimes humor is the best defense mechanism we have. When people took to Bic's Amazon reviews to mock the sexism in their pens "For Her," they were laughing at prejudice. When people read some of these public shaming sites and find humor in them, it's often a way to deflect the pain that prejudice causes. 

What happens when we're laughing at a prejudice that we are not ourselves victims of, though? Do I--a straight, white woman--have the right to laugh at the absurdity of a homophobic or racist position? Because I do. In fact, I can provide specific examples of me doing both of those things just in the past week. 

I watched this video of gay men saying they'll marry all the straight men's girlfriends if they don't allow gay marriage:

I also watched this Key and Peele "Suburban Zombies clip: 

Both of them take up bigotry and turn it into a comical portrayal. In laughing at it, am I trying to make myself non-complicit in the perpetuation of these prejudices? Am I trying to make myself feel better about existing in a world where intolerance is so common? And how does that operate in the way that shame functions? If we pass around lists of people to be shamed for our own entertainment, are we trying to let ourselves off the hook?

Shame and Culpability

I'm probably going to keep laughing at absurd displays of bigotry. I'm definitely going to keep crying over them. Equality is an important enough goal for me that it will run the gamut of my emotions. 

But that brings us to a question: does shame have a place in meeting equality goals?

If we are going to try to rid our society of this kind of bigotry, we have to call it out when we see it. I don't think that politely nodding and trying to avoid eye contact while an acquaintance makes a racist/sexist/ableist/etc. joke is doing anyone any favors. I think that we have a responsibility, as individuals, to point out prejudice when it occurs. 

If that's true, then why shouldn't we use the tools of the internet to do it all the more effectively? If calling someone out for using a racial slur is the right thing to do, then why isn't posting someone's racist tweet for the world to see also the right thing to do? 

Maybe it is. 

Demby's real issue is that Gawker (in his view) overstepped their bounds and called the kids' schools. He points out several times that these people are minors, and that journalistic integrity would normally not even allow their names to be made public, let alone to have their principals called. 

Are these children to be held less accountable for their actions because of their age? Sure, they didn't have a lucrative clerkship waiting for them or a disturbing following of sexual deviants on Reddit, but they could have someday. Children are people, too, and children who are willing to tweet racial epithets about the President are likely to grow up into people with influence who have learned to keep their racist thoughts a little more hidden. 

So, here's where I'm at with this. I do think that shame has a role in the way we control our social norms. Shame is a powerful tool, and it's something that we use to keep our own actions in check all the time. The source of that shame varies immensely. Maybe we are shamed before God, or our parents, or our boss. 

But shame, ultimately, has to come from ourselves. We cannot be forced to feel shame. 

Consider the woman who was ordered by a judge to stand in the street hold a sign saying "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a schoolbus" after she did exactly that. The judge was obviously trying to instill a sense of shame, but only the woman herself could make his attempts effective. If she didn't feel shame (and many suggest that she didn't look contrite, as she was smoking and chatting on a cell phone during most of her "punishment"), then the judge's attempts were for naught. 

So, sure, we can pass around pictures of people tweeting racist things. This will remind us that bigotry is far from over. We do not live in a post-racial world. We also do not live in a world free of sexism, abelism, homophobia, or a host of other prejudices. Reminding ourselves of that, especially when we're not the victims of those prejudices ourselves, can be a good thing. 

But we have to remember that that reminder is the starting point, not the end game. We do not fight bigotry by pointing out it exists; we just point out that there's a fight to have. 

We can't shame those people. They can only shame themselves, and until we have created a world where our discussions about prejudice are open enough to create spaces in which bigots can and will feel shame, all we're doing is patting ourselves on the back for avoiding that particular act of bigotry ourselves, likely while committing other ones that we refuse to recognize. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Can't Hate My Chin Anymore

There have been several posts about parenting and beauty that have really resonated with me lately. This beautiful Offbeat Mama post has a mom explaining why she pushes her own bodily insecurities aside for the sake of her daughters:
I don't want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that's what women do. That's what mommy did. I want them to become women who remember me modeling impossible beauty. Modeling beauty in the face of a mean world, a scary world, a world where we don't know what to make of ourselves.
"Look at me, girls!" I say to them. "Look at how beautiful I am. I feel really beautiful, today."
Then there was Allison Tate's essay about choosing to stay in the picture even when she wasn't looking her "best."
I'm everywhere in their young lives, and yet I have very few pictures of me with them. Someday I won't be here -- and I don't know if that someday is tomorrow or thirty or forty or fifty years from now -- but I want them to have pictures of me. I want them to see the way I looked at them, see how much I loved them. I am not perfect to look at and I am not perfect to love, but I am perfectly their mother.
I've fought through my own body image demons in my day, but the one that was hardest to slay was my loathing for my own chin. I know that sounds silly. It is silly. It's ridiculous, but it's also true.

Whenever I saw a picture of myself, I would hone in on my chin and criticize it. That's what I saw when I looked at myself: a flaw, a marred feature, an ugliness.

Then, there were a couple of pictures that stopped me dead in my tracks:

That chin, the one I had spent so much time hating and singling out as a flaw, had shown up in the most unexpected of places: on my daughter's absolutely perfect face. 

As she's grown older, it's quite clearly kept the genetic predisposition, and it's gotten no less gorgeous. 

I couldn't hate my chin anymore. Every time I looked at a picture of myself, I no longer saw that ugliness. I saw a piece of my daughter's beauty, and I remembered that any criticism I gave of my own "flaw" would be a criticism of hers. So what could I do instead? Could I look at a picture of myself and single out something else as a flaw. Could I decide that I weighed too much? Could I dislike my haircut? Could I wish those bags under my eyes would disappear? 

Of course I could (and, admittedly, sometimes I do). But someday my daughter may think she weighs too much. She could dislike her haircut. She could have bags under her eyes, too. These things are just scapegoats for a more generalized insecurity, a more amorphous belief that we do not meet the standard--whatever that is.

The things that I say about my body are things that she's going to learn to say about her body. Every flaw I see in myself is a flaw I am teaching her to see in herself. Every cruel remark I make against my body is a cruel remark she learns to use against her own. 

And she is beautiful. She is gorgeous. She is amazing. 

So that she can remain that way, I must be, too. Have I mentioned to you how awesome my chin is?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Google Plus and My Shifting Identity

You may have noticed that my full name is now showing up on this blog. This has not always been the case. In fact, my identity on this blog has been a very tricky thing. I've gone through many stages.

Stage 1: Complete Anonymity- In the beginning, it was simple. No one knew I was writing a blog. Not my husband. Not my mother. Not my best friend. No one. I started it when I found out I was pregnant and wanted a place to sort through some of my thoughts on what this new stage of my life meant for all of the roles I played. I could have just written it down in a journal, but a blog seemed like a good way to include links to sources that inspired me and informed me.

Stage 2: Almost Complete Anonymity- I was a creative writing major as an undergraduate. Maybe that training is why I absolutely crave feedback on my writing. It doesn't have to be good feedback. In fact, critical feedback is usually more helpful. I wanted people to talk to me about what I wrote. I wanted to be able to say "Hey, here's this thing I wrote. Let's talk about these ideas." So I told a handful  of people about my blog: my husband, a few friends.


Stage 3: Online Community- Shortly after I told a few people about my blog, I wrote a post responding to blue milk's 10 questions about feminist motherhood. That post also signified a major moment when I began to shift my thinking about why I was writing to begin with. It started to become more than just a blog I used to vent my personal frustrations; it became a blog I used to vent my frustrations (and sometimes joy) with the world at large. When blue milk linked back to my post, I had actual readers.

Stage 4: Sharing in Real Life- At some point, I gained enough confidence in my writing (or lacked enough common sense to care what people thought), and decided to share my blog posts on my personal Facebook page. At that point, everyone on Facebook knew both my online identity and my real life identity. This included people I went to high school with, family members, and classmates. From there, people shared my work (thanks!) so sometimes people who I didn't know knew about my blog would ask me about it.

Stage 5: Weirdness- Then things got weird. Some people knew who I was; some people didn't. I had people reading my blog that I talked to online and considered friends and people who I knew in real life but didn't really talk to. I liked knowing that people were reading my work, but I was still scared to just put my real name on it for the world to see. I was afraid of what it would mean for me professionally if someone googled my name and saw my ranting about Kraft's racist Milkbites or even my reflections on my own body image. At some point, my first name became attached to articles that were cross posted elsewhere or when I was featured on other sites. Then, to further complicate things, I presented research at a conference that was largely based off of work that I had done through the blog, but I couldn't really talk about that on the blog without saying who I was. My professional, academic, and personal lives were all converging into this blog, but I didn't know how to handle it.

Stage 6: Google + Bullied Me
I signed up for Google + accidentally. It was a literal accident. I clicked the button when I was trying to click something else and then I thought, sure, why not? Well, Google + requires you to use your real name. I didn't like that, but I didn't want to lose access to all of my Google products, which include this blog, so for a while I was listed there as "Michelle Jane." Recently, I've been wanting to be more active on Google Plus because it looks like a platform with a lot of potential. Plus, I'm really pretty angry at Facebook and its completely misogynistic principles, so an alternative would be nice to have. When I went to fiddle around with Google + (because I honestly feel like my mother who can't figure out how to turn on our TV without my teenage brother's help when I'm on there), I ended up hitting something that linked my Google Plus account with this blog. I could have undone it, but I decided not to. I'd been thinking about just putting my name on the thing for a while now, and if not now, when? So, here I am: Michelle Parrinello-Cason.


I still have some misgivings over how I might be viewed by someone just searching for my name. I think I come across as angrier with the world in this blog than I am in reality. It's not that I'm not angry over the things that I say I'm angry over here, but I'm also happy a lot, and I don't tend to write about that as much.

Still, I don't say anything on this blog that I wouldn't say to your face. I don't say anything here that I'm ashamed of or want to hide. I have said things here that I have since shifted my thinking on, but writing about them and getting feedback is what made me shift my thinking. As far as I'm concerned, being willing to talk and then listen and learn is a strength, not a weakness.

I'm an academic. Much of what I write about here I also write about professionally. Having the two platforms under the same name makes my life easier when it comes to publications and references. Plus, blogging seems to be getting more and more legitimate in academic circles. If academics are supposed to share their thoughts with a like-minded community, isn't this the way to do it?

Finally, part of me is just so cynical about online security that I took a stance of inevitability. Chances are that if you really wanted to know who I was before this big reveal, you could have figured it out. I'd left enough clues about my identity in enough places and people are savvy. It's better to own my own identity than have it crafted for me.

How have you handled your decisions about how to manage your online identity? Did you go through stages or have you stuck to your decision? 

Oh! And feel free to come hang out with me at Google + even though I don't know what I'm doing yet.

Images: abbynormy

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

Here's the round-up of what the internet has brought me that made me smile, cry in frustration, and think. What have you been reading?

The Good

As my own writings have demonstrated, I spend a lot of time thinking about zombies and social structures. That's why I really loved this Key and Peele "Suburban Zombies" skit that looks at what happens when zombies retain a little too much of their former selves. 

Did you see Nancy Pelosi respond to ridiculous questions about whether she should step aside to make room for younger women? You should:

Speaking of strong women giving out good advice, you should also look at Sonia Sotomayor helping Sesame Street's Abby pick a career.

This Offbeat Mama post on why one mother has started telling her daughter's that she's beautiful was so inspiring it made me tear up:
I don't want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that's what women do. That's what mommy did. I want them to become women who remember me modeling impossible beauty. Modeling beauty in the face of a mean world, a scary world, a world where we don't know what to make of ourselves.
Aimee Davis' story on xoJane about dropping out of high school and getting married at 17 reminded me that the world hardly ever fits so neatly into the narrow lenses we like to view it through.

Finally, I'm enjoying this picture:

The Bad

Hoyden about Town has a great post about a comedy club that opened up a "debate" over rape jokes that ended with heckling and cries of censorship when they were forced to listen to someone else's opinion. Apparently, "freedom to express ourselves" only goes for people who want to joke about rape, not people who want to talk about the pain that causes. 

Virgina lowers its educational outcomes to match the expectations of its students based on race. As Feministing writes:
Because systematizing racism, particularly when it comes to the learning potential and achievement of America’s youth, is the pragmatic thing to do.

The Curious

This xoJane post about women's disturbing sexual fantasies had some interesting conversation in the comments about whether telling women that their disturbing sexual fantasies are disturbing is productive or not (the consensus seems to be not).

Motherlode has a post on how New Hampshire's congressional delegation is now made up entirely of mothers.

This other xoJane post takes a look at the financial pros and cons of different potential spacing between children, which left me with the primary conclusion that kids are expensive no matter what you do!

The Alpha Parent has a post about a breastfeeding storage container ad campaign that features men breastfeeding. I thought her reflection was interesting:
Consider the target audience – pumping mothers - and the rationale behind the ads starts to fall into place. It would appear that the aim is to equate the act of nursing with the act of giving expressed breastmilk (i.e. giving breastmilk via the bottle is on par with giving it via the breast). So by expressing your milk and storing it in these freezer bags, your husband/dad/brother can then ‘breastfeed’ for you.
This Salon article about Kindle guilt hit pretty close to home for me, someone who loves books and bookstores but recently broke down and bought a Kindle (that I've already read three books on). Am I ruining the world? Or just giving in once I've been defeated?

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Boobs! (Not a Big Deal)

I would like for you to take a good look at that picture for a moment. You see a baby, the top part of a breast, and some bacon. Are you offended?

If you are, I'd like for you to also look at these:

Those are all photos that I've been greeted with when I opened my Facebook page. They're not photos I sought out, and they're certainly not photos I saw by deliberately following a site that is focused on spreading such content. They're photos that Facebook friends of mine shared. They all offended me. One of them offended me so much that I did my first (and so far only) content-related de-friending

But not once have I reported those images to Facebook for violating their Terms of Service by exposing me to them. Do you know why? They don't violate Facebook's TOS. They're offensive, they make me question my friends, but I have many options. I can hide them. I can stop using Facebook. I can delete these friends. I do not tell other people what they can and cannot post on their own Facebook pages, especially when what they're posting doesn't even violate Facebook's own rules. 

Go back and look at that first photo. If you are more offended by half of a breast (with no nipple or even areola showing, I might add) and a baby eating some bacon than you are by the implication that you should look at ugly women's faces to avoid premature ejaculation, I highly suggest you question your own ethical standards. Go ahead. Go spend some time soul searching. You can read the rest of this when you get back. 

That first photo got blogger Gina from The Feminist Breeder banned from Facebook for three days. When she returned, she started a 72-hour protest flooding Facebook with photos of breastfeeding mothers, none of which violated their clearly written Terms of Service (which say that breastfeeding photos are fine as long as the full breast is not exposed). Facebook responded by banning her for an additional seven days. Again, she broke no rules!

What's going on? 

Huffington Post ran an article about the story, and the comments there are telling of the real problem. 

Commenter Stacy Grensberg had this to say:
"you do not need to post pictures of yourself breastfeeding on the internet for God's sake. No one wants or needs to see that. And if you are breastfeeding in public, have the decency to cover up a little bit, whether with a receiving blanket or nursing cover or whatever. You are doing a wonderful thing for your child, but you do not need to flaunt it all over the place." (emphasis added)

Liberal12 chimed in with this:
"this is auto eroticism for these women especially if they can do it in public. It's given the sexual power and makes them feel good about their repressed sexuality. Yet if a man were to expose his baby maker the hens would cry fowl!"
Then, of course, there was the chorus of voices that said no one would post pictures of themselves urinating or defecating or having sex, which really kind of makes The Feminist Breeder's initial point all the more valid.

Why Do We Need Breastfeeding Pictures on Facebook?

A lot of the people in the comments have expressed the idea that it's fine to breastfeed but that they don't want to see it and that they have no idea why someone would want to share it on Facebook.

Here are some pictures that I've posted on Facebook.

Yep. Those are some pictures of meals that I've eaten and my daughter having an ice cream cone. In a world where breastfeeding is normalized, the motivation behind posting those pictures and posting one of myself breastfeeding my daughter would be exactly the same. Breastfeeding is eating. It's not shitting or pissing or fucking. (Sorry. I try to keep my profanity in check on this blog, but in this case I really want to demonstrate the difference in the crassness of the acts we're describing). Your comparison to someone feeding her baby to taking a dump is offensive. Sure, there's no need for me to post a picture of my daughter eating an ice cream cone, but there's no need to do about 99% of the things we do on Facebook. It's a place to share our lives, and for a breastfeeding mother, feeding her baby is a big part of her life. 

Women report social stigma as one of the primary reasons that they stop breastfeeding or never even try to begin with. I know that personally, I never breastfed my daughter without a cover and, even then, I felt like I was making people uncomfortable. Most of the time, I planned my outings around her schedule, went to the car to feed her, or locked myself into a room (occasionally a bathroom) just to avoid making someone else feel weird around my breasts (which, I hate to break it to you, were still right there under my shirt the whole time). 

The Real Issue

I couldn't for the life of me figure out why people care so much about getting these pictures removed. If you don't want to breastfeed, don't. If you don't want to look at breastfeeding, look somewhere else. If you hate people who breastfeed, delete them from your Facebook page. 

I have to ask, though, how many of the people who are so deeply offended by Gina's picture of her adorable daughter would take offense to seeing any of these pictures pop up in their Facebook feeds:

Do these people spend as much time going through and reporting all the offensive images at Facebook pages like Girls in bikinis, Bikini babes, or Bikini Girls? Seriously, every single one of those pictures and almost all of the pics on those sites show more breast than the picture of Gina with her daughter, yet Facebook (and most of society) seems fine with those.

So what's really going on isn't that people are just oh-so-offended at the sight of half a breast. We see breasts constantly, but we see them on women who are sexualized, objectified, and made into modes of pleasure for others' consumption. Ironic then when our breasts are literally being used for others' consumption (cause you know, we're feeding babies), that's not okay. People aren't upset that women are showing their breasts; people are upset that women are showing their breasts without being a sex toy. 

To which I'll respond with yet one more offensive image that I've seen on Facebook.

I saw several women sharing this image in a way that I think was supposed to be empowering. Here's the thing; my body is not for men or dogs. My body is mine. It's just that that concept is such a radical idea that most of us can't even wrap our minds around it. 

It appears the most offensive thing a woman can do is understand that her body, and what she does with it, isn't determined by anyone else. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"I Didn't Know You Had a Mixed Baby!" My Students React to My Biracial Daughter

I do not wake up in the morning thinking to myself that I have a biracial child. I don't tickle her and think about the color of her skin or the texture of her hair. I don't do these things anymore than I kiss my husband in the morning and think to myself that he is black. These people are my family, my world,  and the motivation behind just about everything I do.

It's not that I'm "colorblind" (a term that only those blind to their own privilege can use with any sincerity). I am aware of both racial inequality and my own privilege as a white person in America, and I try very hard to check that privilege in ways that make me more productive in creating an equitable world. So I'll never tell you that I "don't see" race, but I certainly don't make it the end-all, be-all of my observations about someone, and I certainly don't put racial identity at the forefront of my interactions with my own family.

We are a family. The fact that we are a multiracial family really doesn't have much bearing on my day-to-day life.

That's all very nice to say (and I mean it), but I also live in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the most segregated cities in America. (Check out this BBC mini-documentary about Delmar Street, the street that divides one of the most segregated portions of one of the most segregated cities.) That means that families like ours aren't all that common here.

This is a city where a picture of an interracial couple kissing on the cover of a local newspaper magazine insert had readers absolutely up in arms. The newspaper who ran the picture wrote about the "controversy," (in an article titled "Black man kissing white woman causes stir,"which is interesting all on its own because--to me--it's pretty clear that the white woman is the one doing the kissing.)

I'm not exactly living in a valley of tolerance and love, is what I'm trying to say. 

Perhaps this is why my students always seem surprised to learn that my family is multiracial. 

First, some background. I teach at a community college, and the student body is mostly made up of racial minorities. This is even more true of the students in my classrooms, as I teach developmental writing. 

Over the course of the semester, my students and I get to know one another. I require them to come to my office to talk about their papers, and I have a picture of my daughter on my desk. 

Their reactions are always interesting to me, and there almost always are reactions. This semester, I've gotten several versions of "I didn't know your daughter was mixed!" (Of course you didn't. I don't walk into the classroom and announce "Hi! I'm your teacher. My daughter is biracial.") Usually they make that statement, tell me how cute she is, tell me about their own kids, and then we move on to their papers. There have been a few variations on this conversation this semester. 

"Your daughter's mixed?! I could tell you had too much soul." 

"Is that your daughter? She's so cute! Is she mixed? I knew that you . . . How do I say this? I could tell that you were cool with everyone." 

I will say that I haven't gotten any reactions from my students that came across as negative. There has been genuine surprise, and there has been the suggestion that my daughter's picture somehow affirms something they suspected about me, but the reactions are almost always positive. 

What does this mean? Does it mean anything at all? I know that race matters, and I know that race factors into how I teach (especially when it comes to how I talk about grammar). While I don't think that being part of a multiracial family makes me any less racially privileged, it has made me more aware of that privilege and how unjust it is. I hope that positively impacts the way I interact with my students as well. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thinking About Things

Things. They're on my mind.

First, there was Bill O'Reilly's insanely racist rant where he lamented the end of the "white establishment" and the rise of a group of voters who want things.

Then there is the fact that I am hoping to sell my house, and that requires me to de-clutter, pack up, and generally get rid of some of my things. 

Finally, I stumbled across this article in which a woman attempts to simplify her life by getting rid of most of her things, leaving herself with only 100 possessions. This includes all of her clothes and her personal toiletries!

Here's how I'm reflecting on all of these things together. First of all, the "things" the people Bill O'Reilly's talking about want are not the same as the "things" that I need to get rid of. These people want (and need) things like food, health care, and marriage equality. This is in no way the same as my boxes full of clothes I haven't worn in a year or the various knick-knacks that have accumulated in every corner of my house. The things of O'Reilly's foes are things that matter to me. I don't want my world to be cluttered--literally and figuratively--with so many of these other things. I don't want to open drawers filled with chargers to mystery electronics. I don't want to fear for my life each time I try to walk through my daughter's toy-strewn bedroom in the dark.

I'm honestly not even particularly attached to all the things that fill my house. I'm not big on clothes and fashion, so rotating a few staples through my wardrobe doesn't fill me with fear. I don't need a lot of jewelry or shoes. I don't get very sentimentally attached to objects and would rather just keep my memories by journaling about them or taking a picture. I'm not particularly crafty, so I don't have collections of scrapbooks or a need for any complex project tools.

Why do I still have so many things?

Looking at that woman's list of 100 things filled me with awe. There is no way--no way--I could whittle my possessions down to that small of a list. For one thing, I probably have a thousand books. I'm not exaggerating. I have eight bookshelves in my house. My "Someday House" board on Pinterest is filled with images like this one:

Even though I am a recent Kindle convert, I can't imagine my life without physical books in it. They are not mere decoration. While I can't promise you that every one of the thousand books gets opened on a regular basis, I do turn to that collection very, very regularly, and I can never tell which one of those books is going to be the one I need. I do occasionally pare down the group by donating some, but I can't imagine reducing it to even two bookshelves worth, let alone so few books so that I would only have 100 total things.

Another group of things I couldn't imagine doing without would be my media collection. I have a lot of movies and CDs. Again, I'm one of those hybrid technology adapters who has both physical and electronic versions of media. I've cut cable and am watching many television shows via Amazon or Netflix, but I still don't have an iPod dock in my car, so I listen to physical CDs on the road. I still turn to my collection of DVDs on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Technology has expanded my options, but it hasn't de-cluttered my world.

Finally--even though I said I wasn't very fashion-forward--my clothes would make it difficult to get under 100 things. I play too many roles. I need gym clothes, work clothes, professional clothes, and casual clothes. As a community college teacher, I don't want to be too formal at work, but as a young teacher, I don't want to be too informal. That means that the clothes I wear to work don't really double as casual clothes or professional clothes. That also means I have to have different shoes for each of these things. Plus, students notice if you wear the same outfit over and over again.

The downsizer who did the 100 things list mentions that she cycles her clothes through seasonally, so that she only has 100 things out at a time (she uses three-month benchmarks), but I live in Missouri. Right now, it is 70 degrees outside. Tomorrow it is supposed to snow. I am not kidding. I can't be driving to a storage unit somewhere every time the weather does something crazy. Layering: the way of the Midwest.

Even though I don't think I'll be getting my earthly possessions down to 100 anytime soon, I do think that having this reflection on things will help me as I'm packing up the house. There are a lot of things that are simply taking up space. I won't need them. I don't use them. I probably won't even remember them once they're gone. Hopefully I can keep that in mind as I dig into this project.

What about you? Are things a big part of your life? What possessions would keep you from meeting the 100 things challenge? How much do you strive for simplicity?