Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nominated at Skinny Scoop!

I'm excited to announce that Balancing Jane was nominated for the Top 25 Political and Feminist Blogs over at Skinny Scoop. I'd love your votes! All you have to do is "Like" Balancing Jane. While you're over there, be sure to vote for some other great blogs as well. A ton of my daily reads made the list, including Femamom, Crunk Feminist Collective, and the Mamafesto. I'm excited to find some new blogs to read, too. 

Thanks (and thank you Steph for the nomination)!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Remembering How it Feels to Be "Developmental"

I love to write, and I have been doing it for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, I used to scribble stories on napkins. When I was in middle school, I kept hundreds of pages of angst-filled journals. In high school, I hid in the back of math class and wrote poems in the margins of my notebook (I still studied for math; don't yell at me, math teachers). Writing has always been something that I just do. Sometimes I get the urge to write and literally cannot sleep until I get up and do it. I've learned not to fight it.

But my students don't always feel that way. Some of them do. In fact, I am always blown away by at least one or two students every class who just clearly love writing and have a very clear talent for seeing the world through a creative and unique perspective. They are a joy to teach.

But so are the ones who hate writing, and there are a lot of them. See, I teach developmental writing, so my students have often been told (or have told themselves) that they "can't" write. They sometimes hide behind that "can't" to protect themselves from the sting of failure. If they don't believe they can do it, an F on a paper isn't a big deal. More often, though, that "can't" isn't just a shield; it's a block. It stands in the way of everything else they will do in my class.

I give them analogies, of course. I tell them that too many people treat writing as a one-shot thing. It's like they decided to try being basketball players without practicing, walked onto a court for the first time, picked up a ball, shot it from half court, missed, and said "Oh, I guess I can't play basketball."

City-Boy Assembly

We talk about how even the most talented athletes have to practice to get good at their sport. We talk about how the first time they cooked a meal, it probably didn't go so well, but we keep trying until we get it right. I am full of positive metaphors that I really and truly believe. 

That didn't stop the nagging feeling that I sometimes just didn't get it. Writing is something I love and that--if I'm being honest--comes easily to me. That doesn't mean I don't work at it. That doesn't mean that there aren't times when I want to rip the pages out of my notebook or throw my computer across the room in frustration. It doesn't mean I can't improve. But it does mean that sometimes I forget how frustrating the thing I love can feel to my students. 

I was reminded of this recently as we were talking about grammar rules. We were going over fragments, run-ons, and comma splices. After going over them, I gave my students an assignment where they had to do some work with them in groups and sat back and listened. As I listened, I was able to understand better. First, I understood that they are trying incredibly hard. I am always so impressed with my students' sincere and dedicated effort. They were debating and testing out new vocabulary ("That's one of those gerund verbs. That means something. I forgot what.") They are working hard. Second, this stuff is confusing. It's not natural or second nature or simple. It is hard and complex and requires a combination of practicing it for themselves and experiencing it in the world around them. 

Am I qualified to teach something that comes so easily to me if it is so hard for my students? Shouldn't I  be teaching golf or something? (Hint: you do not want me teaching you golf.)

Since switching my career to teaching golf is a horrible idea, I decided to approach this a different way. If I am going to teach developmental students, I think it is important that I remember what it is like to be "developmental." And, here's the thing, we're all developmental at something. 

My students may not be experts at writing (right now), but they are experts in many things. I was reminded of this the other day when I used a building metaphor to talk about the writing process and asked, innocently enough, "What do we have to do first when we build a house?" I was expecting "Put down a foundation," which I was going to connect to having a strong thesis or "Make a blueprint," which I was going to connect to having a solid organizational strategy. Instead, I had a student who clearly had experience in the matter. He talked about the way the ground had to be prepared and that pipes had to be laid and permits had to be approved. The metaphor still worked, but he quickly reminded me of just how much experience and expertise my students truly have--experience that I don't have. 

"Developmental" education might sometimes be called "remedial" and it might get the reputation of being for students who are "behind," but there are always things we are "developing" and things we've already "developed." 

In order to make sure that I stay in tune with my students' experiences, that I feel the way that they feel, that I remember what it is like, I have challenged myself to do things that are developmental for me, too. 

Yesterday, I tried to do pull-ups for the first time. I say "tried" because I mostly failed. I used the assisted pull-up machine at the gym, but I think I still had the weight set too high, and I barely squeaked out three half-way pull ups before I gave up. So I looked up weight lifting moves to strengthen the same muscles and started doing those instead--with tiny weights. 

When I'm in the weight room working on this, I feel intimidated, exposed, and a little silly. I feel weak and like people are judging me (though they're probably just worried about doing their own thing). I often think about what's going to happen if I can't ever reach my goal. I wonder if maybe I'm not capable of getting strong enough to do it. 

And that helps me remember, and I think about the things I've told my students about practice and confidence and experience, and I keep trying. 

Oh, and I'm signing up for an obstacle course race in October. 

Trooper's spouses earn their spurs

What are your "developmental" areas? Do you avoid them? Or do you push yourself to get better? Are the feelings of inadequacy and the fear of failing inevitable parts of doing something new, or is there a way to keep them at bay?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Guest Post: Sexism in the 23rd Century

Today's guest post is from Kristin, and it examines sexism in geek culture. 

When a friend of mine posted a link to a blog titled Star Trek: Into Sexism soon after I’d seen the movie, I was all like, YES. It made me think of a Tumblr blog that I no longer follow because of some of its sexist posts, such as this one.

I’ve been a certain kind of geek for a while now - I don’t play D&D or anything but I do like sci-fi and I did used to write some fantasy stuff as a teen. Geek Lite. It’s only recently that I started to consciously think of myself as part of a culture or any group of geeks. I mean, geeks didn’t always have it so good:

They tended to be male, portrayed as being afraid of and intimidated by others; weak. It doesn’t exactly attract new members, especially women. But I guess, like all groups, it offers a certain kind of protection to those who are accepted into it.

Enter Felicia Day, a geek of my generation:

(photo by Gage Skidmore) 
If you don’t know by now, Day is the writer, producer and star of the web series, The Guild, which ran for 6 seasons (I think the 6th was the last, but I’m not sure). She’s also the founder of YouTube channel Geek & Sundry, which hosts a number of programs of interest to geeks. Although my partner argues (not sure why it has to be an argument or even matter) that she is attractive. He doesn’t say more than that, but I guess it’s implied that she can’t just be judged on her talents or that she has to be excluded in some way because of the way she looks. But to say such a thing is to ignore the fact that Felicia Day created The Guild herself - she wasn’t merely hired on as a face. This was her project. She’s also got stereotypical geek cred: she’s an avid player of video games and an introvert.

But I’m gonna argue with myself here and wonder why you need that geek cred to be a geek in the first place. Here’s where I’ll return to Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek (1966) had the most diverse cast on television for the time. In an interview, George Takei gives the cultural/historical context for the original Star Trek and comments on Roddenberry’s mission. Star Trek was set in the 23rd century; it was Roddenberry’s idea of what such a future might look like. But it was still 1966: Uhura was the only woman with a main role and the uniform for women were mini-dresses. Fast forward to 2013 to Star Trek: Into Darkness. The women are still wearing mini-dresses and the two main female characters: Lieutenant Uhura and Dr. Carol Marcus, have minor roles. Dr. Marcus as a rebellious daughter and possible love interest for Kirk; Uhura as a love interest for Spock. Star Trek: Into Sexism cites one ridiculous scene with Marcus; I’ll cite another with Uhura. It’s the one where she, Kirk and Spock are in a shuttle on their way to Kronos, a deadly and illegal mission, and supposedly all Uhura can think about is her beef with Spock’s logicalness. I can’t find the clip on YouTube, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.

I wonder what responsibility Hollywood has to continuing Roddenberry’s vision of diversity? Star Trek is set in the future, though the new movies are prequels. They seem to struggle with which details they want to keep from the original. They keep the mini-skirt dresses, but get the original Klingon foreheads wrong, which became wrinkly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). So, based on prequel rules, they should have still had smooth heads. The sexism of The Original Series was sexism of the 1960s and Star Trek Into Darkness, though a great action movie of 2013, does nothing to further Roddenberry’s vision of a more diverse, more connected universe.

All this is to say that I still love geeky things like Star Trek and I’m still excited about geek culture, but it’s always disappointing to come across scenes in movies where a woman with a PhD changes her clothes in front of a man for no particular reason, or when [geek] women’s bodies are being objectified in a Star Trek/Star Wars joke on the internet.

It’s the kind of thing that one might hear being discussed at this year’s Geek Girl Con, which I hope to attend.
Kristin Fitzsimmons lives in Minneapolis, MN where she is a recent graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota and an occasional teaching artist at The Loft Literary Center.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Truth in Fiction

I just finished Susan Jarratt's Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured, and I found it very interesting and informative. There's a ton to take out of this book, and I suspect that Jarratt's work in situating sophistic rhetoric as a place for identity exploration and a way to deal with tensions in the composition classroom will be something I revisit several times as I work on my own research interests.

In the interests of taking out a smaller chunk of this text to examine, though, I'm going to focus on a few lines about notions of "truth," "fiction," "literature," and "lies."

Columbia City Fiction

See, one of the ways the sophists have been discredited in rhetorical history is through the claim that they didn't care about Truth, and by Truth, we mean the Platonic sense of an immutable, nature or god-given Truth. The sophists had little use for this idea, instead maintaining that truths are always bound in social situations, changing depending on who's involved and when they are being formulated.

Jarratt explores some of the sophistic texts we have, including Gorgias's Encomium of Helen and Protagoras speech in Plato's works. In these texts, the sophists use well-recognized pieces of cultural mythos in order to lay out their arguments. She notes that "the raw material for both histories is what we would today take to be exclusively 'literary' or 'fictional.' But in both discourses what is more significant than establishing irrefutable facts is the choice of a historical incident for its usefulness in the reconstruction and interpretation of culturally meaningful and instructive pasts."

This reminded me of an online debate I had not that long ago. The ins and outs of it aren't that important, but it centered around the Bible as a literal (and Truth-filled) text. I argued with the proponent of this view that the Bible was a figurative and truth-filled text. I see many truths in the Bible, but they are only useful to me if I can use them as metaphor to make sense of my own world and my own time.

After that post, I spent some time thinking about how other stories (works of fiction) contain truths that matter to me. One of the most powerful writers that has influenced my own philosophical and ethical frameworks is Kurt Vonnegut, a man whose stories often are not only fictional, but absurd, science fiction, entirely unrealistic.

In particular, I am moved by passages like these:
"But there's a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it's that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth. . . The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
And if I die--God forbid--I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, 'Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?'" -From A Man Without a Country 
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."
-From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
For me, saying that something isn't factual has very little impact on whether or not it is "true." Many of the things I've learned about the world I've learned through fiction, work that might be construed as "lies" in the sense that their authors knew they weren't literally fact when they wrote them.

Of course this plays out in my professional life as an English instructor. I use literature and stories in class assignments and in my own research. But fiction plays a tremendous role in my personal life as well.

For example, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Easter service this year, and their discussion of resurrection included Jesus' story in the Bible, some Buddhist texts, and a lot of poetry, including passages from Wendell Berry, like this one:

Ask the questions that have no answers.Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest. 
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
It was the most moving and meaningful discussion of resurrection mythos that I have ever heard, and the phrase "plant sequoias" has echoed in my head many times since.

I understand the difference between fact and fiction, and I understand the need in certain circumstances to rely on facts. But I absolutely do not believe that fact is the only way to truth, and I could never cut off all those other avenues to truth to rely on only one.

Photo: James Callan

Sunday, May 26, 2013

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

For all of you in academia out there, happy summer break! I hope it is full of relaxation, sunshine, and fun. Mine is full of teaching summer classes and studying for PhD exams, but I foresee some sun and fun as well, so I'm happy.

Here's what I've been reading lately that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). Please add anything you've been reading (or writing) in the comments!

The Good

Here is a baby elephant playing in the ocean. What more do you need in life?

This victim of the Oklahoma tornadoes finds her dog under the debris while doing a news interview. 

This woman wrote a wonderful letter and posed for a gorgeous photo shoot to demonstrate to Abercrombie and Fitch CEO that her plus-size body can still fit in his clothes and that she looks damn good while doing it. 

The Bad

This EcoSalon article takes on the Merida makeover and talks about what we mean when we say raising boys is easier than raising girls. 

I have some friends who read this story from the "better safe than sorry camp," but I would be so, so, so  mad if someone called the police on me for kidnapping my daughter just because her skin is darker than mine. 

The Curious

Turns out that Dove's "you're more beautiful than you think" campaign is not only problematic when it comes to how we privilege beauty, it's also untrue

White Mom Blog (who I recently discovered, and who you should add to your blogroll immediately) writes about her experience with 100 Days of Real Food (another blog I follow and enjoy). Her Facebook comments calling the privilege involved in judging other parents' food choices was deleted and got her banned. I am all about increasing the access to healthy food, but denying privilege and ignoring race and class isn't going to get us there.

Huffington Post took some guesses at what major brands are secretly hiding behind Trader Joe's labels.

Our society is so obsessed with eliminating fat that we start when people are infants. This is why body-positive parenting has to start young.

This woman demonstrates how the weight she feels is healthiest on her body is still considered overweight by the BMI charts. What are we really doing to ourselves when we make size the only measure of health?

And seriously, what is it about boobs?

There's a caped thong-wearing man on a motorcycle in Wisconsin, and he is free to ride on

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Perils of Parenting and PhDing

There are plenty of benefits to having a kid while you're working on your graduate degree. I've written before about how the timing can work out in positive ways. It's not all Freudian theory sung to the peaceful tune of lullabies, though. There can be some perils.

Zoe at the computer 1

  • Do As I Say, Not As I Do- Try teaching your child not to write in books when all they ever see you do is write in books. Or try explaining how we need to limit ourselves to 30 minutes a day on the computer when there are days when you never close the screen.
  • Get Used to Shifting Standards- At the beginning of the semester, things always seem easy and manageable. Sign up for toddler dancing twice a week? Of course! Homemade organic dinners made from scratch? No problem! Walking to the farmer's market to buy the ingredients for said dinner? Easy! Then the end of the semester appears and there are two hundred papers to grade, ninety books to read, and the sinking suspicion that everything is one tiny error from imploding. Dinner becomes Pop-Tarts and orange soda. Family outings become grading papers on the front porch. 
Pop Tart
With frosting?! It's gourmet night!
  • Applying the Theory of the Moment to Your Kids' Development- When you're reading feminist theory, you become hyper-aware of the toys your child's playing with. She wants what? A toy vacuum? Not up in here! Then you switch to Freud for another paper and suddenly every block in the toy chest looks like a phallic symbol and you're sure that you're stunting her personal development on a daily basis. What's this? Deconstructionism time? It's clearly important that you explain to your toddler that the cartoon cow drawn in the book is not actually a cow, but merely a representation of a cow, and that even the word "cow" is a symbol with binary meanings wrapped up in it. To which she will respond, "moo."  
  • The Student-Child Line Gets Blurred- In intense moments in the semester, your toddler and your students may start to seem like they have similar needs. When your toddler asks you "Why?" for the 850th time in an hour, try not to scream "It's in the syllabus!" Similarly, "because I said so" is probably an insufficient answer to "Will this be on the test?" (On a side note, everyone seems to respond to gold stars with equal enthusiasm. Award away!) 
Starring role...

What are the other perils of being a graduate student and a parent at the same time? 

Blogging to My PhD: Education Reform (Everything Old is New Again)

Reading Albert Kitzhaber's 1953 dissertation Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850-1900 brought to the forefront of my mind an issue I've been tossing around since I began reading for this exam. Actually, it's an issue that's been bouncing around my mind even longer than that. When it comes to education, are we just repeating the past?

The Infinite Loop

Kitzhaber uses his dissertation to examine a time in the history of rhetoric that he feels isn't well-examined. By the end, he concludes that this is a period of "transition" but it is also a "not great" time for rhetoric, as the moves influenced by changes in curriculum (like the rise of the elective system) and the increase in standardized admissions tests turned rhetorical practice into a stilted, mechanized act that focused primarily on superficial correctness. 

Hey! That sounds familiar! Kitzhaber is talking about arguments that took place during the time of the Civil War, and yet these are arguments that my colleagues and I still have today. That would be disheartening enough, but (as Kitzhaber also makes clear), these arguments go back a lot further than that. 

The debate on whether invention (coming up with stuff to say) or style (how you say it) is more important in rhetoric is one that reaches back as far as our historical understanding of rhetoric go. We see Cicero privileging invention in De Inventione and the two trading places of importance off and on throughout rhetoric's roller coaster ride of actual usage. 

In Kitzhaber's time, there was debate about whether or not composition even belonged in college classrooms, as learning to write was considered an elementary skill that the students should have picked up long before they entered college. Rhetoric (which used to be taught alongside logic and ethics as part of a classical education that also included Greek and Latin) became relegated to freshman composition classes, and those were often looked upon with disdain by people who would teach these students in later classes. 

"Why can't composition teachers teach these students to write?!" they decry as they get students in their classrooms who make "major writing errors," whatever that means for that particular teacher. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed explains that writing teachers often get unsolicited advice on how to teach their courses because practically everyone writes: "I don’t imagine that physicists are often harangued about how to run their experiments and how to teach physics to their students, because most of us know jack squat about physics."

Instead of becoming defensive over our little piece of educational turf, though, that article suggests that we accept writing as everyone's responsibility, a concept that is popularized and put into practice through "writing across the curriculum" endeavors. 

Some worry that this kind of attitude will make writing classes as an individual unit obsolete. If anyone can teach writing, after all, then why waste time making students take a separate class on it? Why can't they just learn to write while also learning important information like history, psychology, and chemistry? 

This is essentially the style vs. invention argument rearing its head again. If the instruction of writing is all about how you say something rather than coming up with something to say, it would make more sense to outsource the whole of writing to other disciplines. They, after all, are the ones who come up with the stuff to say in the first place. 

But invention matters. Being able to come up with something to say is hard, and not having some training and practice in doing it leaves us withs stilted, formulaic essays. Think about the five-paragraph essay and how many students use that format to get through standardized tests or essay exams. It is comfortable and--after a few dozen times--easy. Many standardized entrance exams had to change the way they did the essay portion of their test when it was discovered that several Chinese students taking the exam had simply memorized entire essay formats, down to every sentence's structure, and plugged in appropriate vocabulary words for the essay prompt put in front of them. There is no invention to that. That is style, style, and more style, and it's not even original style. The problem with this, of course, is that style without substance doesn't challenge the mind of the writer, and those same students who score so much higher on standardized tests because they have been diligent and hard-working in memorizing the answers are now at a loss for how to innovate new ideas

But innovation? That's messy. If a student is trying something new, it's probably not going to look all that neat and trimmed. It certainly can't be quickly skimmed by a pressed-for-time teacher who wants the thesis statement and three points neatly lined up in the final sentence of the first paragraph followed by quick topic sentences in each subsequent paragraph that they can tick off like so many groceries in the list before moving on to the next paper. Invention is time-consuming, especially in an environment where class sizes continue to rise and more and more grading is being done by TA's who have their own classes and research to throw into the mix as well. (I remember being sent an essay on grading advice for TAs that told us if we were taking longer than ten minutes per essay, we weren't going to make it.) 

So here we are at this crossroads again. Kitzhaber says at the end of his dissertation that he wrote it because:
The tradition of rhetoric is now some 2,400 years old--one of the longest traditions still represented in the modern curriculum. Teachers of composition today [1953] fail to recognize that they and their work are part of that tradition. If a teacher is to have any perspective on his subject, he must know the tradition that lies behind it, know the place of himself and his times in the tradition, and, through this knowledge, be able to put a proper value on new developments in his subject as they appear.
Basically, Kitzhaber is echoing the adage of "anyone who doesn't know their past is doomed to repeat it." He calls for teachers of writing to know the history of their fights so that we can stop endlessly hashing out the same debate and move on to something new.

But when you're in the fight, it doesn't feel old. When these debates are causing real curriculum decisions, making real impacts on classrooms, and causing real fear in people who see their discipline going down the "wrong" path, it's very difficult to take a collective step back and examine the issue from a historical lens. 

If we can't do that, are we doomed to keep repeating the same thing? And what about the students who (purely by the chance of time's pendulum swing) fall victim to the "wrong" kind of rhetoric, whichever kind that happens to be? 

Photo: Frank Ates

Friday, May 24, 2013

More than a Soundtrack: The Kanye, Jay-Z, Great Gatsby Connection

First, a little background.

I'm a huge fan of American Dream distortion stories. It was the basis for my American Dream blog post series. It was also the theme for an honors class I had the opportunity to teach. It's the reason I love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, American Gangster, The Wire, and--especially pertinent to this discussion--The Great Gatsby.

The dream of rags to riches has never been as simple as the American narrative of hard work and big dreams. For far too many people, "riches" are never accessible at all, and for those who manage to truly break the mold by rising out of poverty, it often requires an element of criminality or underhandedness that we don't tend to associate with the rosy perception of ingenuity and work ethic.

I went to see The Great Gatsby today, and I was set to be disappointed because so many reviews I had read as well as so many of my own friends had complained about its vapidness and empty characters. Since I hadn't seen it yet, I reserved too much protest, but inside my head I kept screaming "Have you read the book? Vapid? Empty? Check and check!" See, I was an English and creative writing double major in college, which basically meant I took every literature class offered as an undergraduate. Adding in the times I read it in high school, I have had to read The Great Gatsby no less than six times for a class. Six! Then I read it once on my own for good measure. In that time, I started out hating the story as stupid and pointless, looped to loving it, disliked it again, and ending up deciding it was brilliant commentary on the American Dream distortion.

I had high hopes that Baz Luhrmann (whose work I have always loved) could deliver, and I was not disappointed. What I didn't know about until after I got into the film was the Jay-Z connection with the soundtrack.

After the film, my husband and I were talking about it. He said to me, "See, I see Kanye West like Nick Carraway." I cut him off and said "And Jay-Z is Gatsby!" He apparently hadn't thought that far yet, but once the words were out of my mouth, it was all I could think about. The Throne's presence is not merely filler for the film's soundtrack; their public personas are characters within it, characters that parallel the 1920's saga and give it a contemporary resonance that takes it further than the book could go. (Textual purists, don't hate me. I'm not saying the movie is better than the book, but in this particular way, the book just doesn't have the ability to connect.)

Setting the Stage

I've written in some detail about how Kanye and Jay-Z both use and play against American Dream narratives in their work. Without rehashing all of that here, I'll just say that both of them play up their lavish lifestyles as a measure of success and constantly pit it against the image of their "rags." Consider Kanye's works like "Spaceship" and "Good Life" and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." 

Together, though, the two of them have also made some fairly sophisticated commentary on how the American Dream narrative is not as simple as it may seem, and--even if they appear to be success stories within it--they are dismantling it through their social commentary. 

Kanye's new song "New Slaves" is full of this same kind of commentary:

Lyrics like Ya'll throwing contracts at me/Ya'll know niggas can't read/Throw 'em some Maybach keys/Fuck it, c'est la vie highlight his disenchantment. 

It's no secret that there's a difference between being rich and being wealthy, and it's no secret that many of the people who rise from poverty to richness never make it to wealth. Take, for example, the lack of success that many lottery winners report after their windfall. Consider the fact that many professional athletes are completely broke when they stop playing. (78% of NBA players are having financial difficulty after they stop playing. 60% are broke within five years.)

Considering that entertainment (be it music, movies, or athletics) is a major way that African Americans gain fame and fortune in American culture, we can't ignore the intersection of race and class in American Dream narratives. 

Wealthy people make investments and influence things like political policies. Rich people buy jewels and cars. Kanye and Jay-Z seem very, very aware of the perils of richness, and their music suggests an attempt to--if not fix it--at least illuminate it. 

Jay-Z and Kanye as Gatsby and Nick Carraway

The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a fairly well-off young man with a love for writing who has set that passion aside to follow the dreams of the 1920's high by playing the stock market. He becomes enamored with his next-door neighbor, Gatsby, and is soon entangled in a crazy dramatic ride of love, lust, greed, and pain. He is always, as he says repeatedly, within and without: a part of the plot, but also an observer. 

Kanye West has always been--well--a little obsessed with Jay-Z. If you haven't heard it before, listen to his somewhat pitiful homage in "Big Brother." 

He has pieced together a narrative where he models his own aspirations of greatness off of Jay-Z's and knows that if only they could come together they could skyrocket to even greater success than before. Jay-Z could be his ticket to the American Dream. It sounds like a sad little fanboy's fantasies, but then he kinda did it, so I guess we can't really hate on him for it. 

Kanye's obsession with Jay-Z of course garners media attention. Take this article claiming that Kanye's "bromance" with Jay-Z is getting in the way of his relationship with Kim Kardashian. 

Then read this Salon article that speculates that Nick Carraway is gay and in love with Gatsby

In addition to the paralleled adulation and superstardom of the two pairs, we also have some major parallels between Jay-Z and Gatsby. 

Both earned their money through secretive, illegal means. Gatsby bought up drugstores which served as his cover to bootleg alcohol. Jay-Z reminds us about every third song that he "sold kilos of coke, so [he's] guessing he could sell CD's." 

Both surround themselves with images of luxury and success. Gatsby bought custom-built cars and hand-woven clothes and threw parties so outlandish that even Baz Luhrmann couldn't really take them to excess and Jay-Z (at least early in his career) can frequently be seen in furs, jewels, and expensive cars. 

Both men create media speculation and a flurry of paparazzi. Reporters frequently hover outside Gatsby's gates and headlines question everything from what woman he's sneaking into his estate and where his fortune came from. When Jay-Z and wife Beyonce had their daughter, the media speculated that they bought out an entire floor of a hospital for privacy. People believe Gatsby to be a German spy and a murderer. People suggest that Jay-Z is a member of the Illuminati. 

Gatsby's story, of course, ends tragically, but Jay-Z seems to be adapting to his fortune and fame just fine. What's the difference?

When Daisy suggests to Gatsby that they just run away, he tells her it wouldn't be "respectable." He needs to believe that she never loved her husband. He needs her to be a "legitimate" bride for him because he has spent so long investing in the image of richness. He has practiced wearing the right clothes and speaking the right way. When he loses his temper in the confrontation with Tom, he is thrust back into a realization that he does not really belong to this world of old money and wealth. It's a weakness that Tom leaps on immediately, telling him that he will never have what they have, that wealth is in their blood, but all he has is money and things. 

Jay-Z rode his lack of respectability all the way to the bank. He never shied away from the image of himself as a drug-dealing thug, and--in fact--reminds his fans of it quite often, even as he's made the buffer between himself and street life stronger and wider. Owning the reality of his past allowed him something that Gatsby could never have: an authentic sense of identity. 

This is what Lurhmann had to say about bringing Jay aboard:
“And I was about halfway through it, and Jay [seemed really into it]. And I said, 'Maybe you'd be interested?' And he looked up like, 'What are you talking about interested? We've got to do this!'”
 There's no wonder that Jay-Z was so excited to take on the project of The Great Gatsby; he was telling a piece of his own story, only he gets to write a happier ending.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Information Overload or Peak of Intellectual Power?

I've got to be honest with you. Cicero's On Invention was a rough one for me to get through. I'm a big picture, sweeping ideas, get caught up in the whirlwind kind of thinker, and the endless dissecting, listing, and re-listing of each subsequent and carefully categorized "part" of rhetoric made my mind go a little numb.

There was, though, a very interesting line at the beginning of Book 2. Here, he is explaining his process for creating a book on rhetoric. He explains that the ideas are not his own. Instead, he "excerpted what seemed the most suitable precepts from each, and so culled the flower of many minds." He goes on to explain that more people should follow in his footsteps, for "if men would choose the most appropriate contributions from many sources rather than devote themselves unreservedly to one leader only, they would offend less by arrogance, they would not be so obstinate in wrong courses, and would suffer somewhat less from ignorance." (Ahem. Fox News viewers, I think he's talking to you.)

Finally, he gets to the part that I find most interesting. Here he explains that he is at a peak position because he has "a larger number of models to choose from" than previous writers and was therefore "able to set out before [him] the store of wisdom of all who had written from the very beginning of instruction in rhetoric down to present time, and choose whatever was acceptable."

Inch by inch 18 January 2011

Dear Lord, what would he say if he saw Tumblr? Or Google Books? Or even Amazon reviews?

I probably have more text to sift through to make an informed movie purchase than Cicero had when he set about to look at what he considered "the store of wisdom of all who had written from the very beginning of instruction in rhetoric down to present time." After all, there are nearly 5000 reviews of Mean Girls on Amazon, and that doesn't even touch on its Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB pages. 

Cicero's claim also touches upon another problem that--even in today's age of seeming information egalitarianism--still exists. What we think is the "wisdom of all" is really only the wisdom of those who have been privileged enough to make it through the crowd. 

It does not seem, for instance, that Cicero's understanding of "all" rhetorical theory has any consideration for ancient Chinese rhetorical practices or the rich African rhetorical traditions in existence during his time. 

See, in Cicero's time there was no Google or Facebook to bring him information he may or may not actually need.

Totally. Necessary. 
Even still, he was able to ignore huge swaths of relevant information while doing what he thought was a comprehensive examination of his subject matter. 

Here's the thing. There is no comprehensive examination of his (or pretty much any other) subject matter. We will constantly be blinded by the privileges that society has bestowed upon certain segments of the population, our own biases in which information we choose to consume, and--perhaps most dauntingly of all--the limited capacities of our own abilities in the face or mortality. 

In theory, we have more information available to us than any other human being has ever had at any point in history. There are millions of pieces of discrete information being created and freely shared around the entire globe on a continuous basis. You could start reading right now and never stop (which, you know, is impossible because you have to sleep and eat and whatnot) and keep going until you die and barely make a dent in the "comprehensive" study of a topic. 

Sure, maybe you study something really rare like, I don't know, the impact of mosquito bites on calico cats named Sven, and maybe you really can read all there is to read on that subject, but you still need to read all there is to read about mosquitos, and bites, and cats, and the calico genes, and the name Sven. No one escapes this trap. 

That. . . that can be overwhelming. It can be particularly overwhelming to someone who read this very book in preparation for her comprehensive PhD exams. 

So I turned to an old (haha, cause in today's world, a year-old article is "old") NPR article about the impossibility of catching up on anything. You should go read it all; it is beautiful. 

After establishing in no uncertain terms that taking in everything worth taking in is an impossibility, author Linda Holmes leaves us with this comforting thought:
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.
So, for a moment, I'm going to stare into my cup with my back to the ocean. But only for a moment. I'll be back, back to take in the immenseness of what I cannot know, back to accept what I can, back to swim. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Aristotle and Multiple Intelligences

I know I already wrote something about Aristotle's Politics, but there was one line that just kept sticking with me that I thought deserved its own post. It's this:
"For one ought not to be doing hard work with one's thinking and with the body at the same time, since each of the two kinds of exertion has an opposite effect by its nature; exertion of the body is an impediment to thinking, and exertion of thinking to the body." 
Let me be clear, I'm an Aristotle fan. I think his work is incredibly forward-thinking and universally applicable, and I gain a lot of insight from it. But this? I call B.S.

Let's unpack it a little. First of all, from just that passage, it might seem like Aristotle is simply saying that you shouldn't try to, say, run a marathon while simultaneously reading your calculus book, but this chapter is about the nature of education in general, and the context surrounding this passage make it clear that he doesn't just mean you shouldn't work on both at the same time in a day, but that you shouldn't work on both at the same time in your life.

There's some measure of sense to this, especially since Aristotle is talking about the type of training and diet regimen needed to maintain professional athletics, but I think that claiming physical exertion impedes mental exertion (and vice versa) is wholly untrue for some people, especially people who score high on Howard Gardner's kinesthetic field in the Multiple Intelligences inventory. 

Gardner posited that there was more than one way to be "intelligent," and that traditional tests had been favoring just a couple of them and ignoring the rest. 

His theory has been used by educators to understand that there are multiple ways of learning and that our classrooms need to be spaces that allow for flexibility in how students take in and demonstrate knowledge. (You can take a quick online learning style inventory to get a sense of how you take in information). 

One of these styles is kinesthetic, which shows up in people who have a natural inclination toward athletic ability, but it can also help students who have those inclinations to learn more traditional classroom material as well. Some suggestions for kinesthetic learners are to act out or role play things they need to memorize, to write on big notecards that can be moved around the floor, and to use field trips as learning activities.

In my experience as a writing instructor, telling a kinesthetic learner to take a walk, run, or lift some weights while brainstorming can be a great way to get them to overcome a mental block. 

On a more personal note, I've started training for a 10k while I'm studying for my PhD exam specifically because I feel like I need some balance between my mental exercise and my physical. Going for a run makes me more focused, alert, and centered. A few days (or, let's be honest, weeks) without much physical activity really starts to take a toll on my mental abilities. I start to get grumpy and drowsy. I lose focus more easily. I read the same page over and over again. I feel sluggish. 

Aristotle gets a lot of things right, but I think he got this one wrong. 

What do you think? Are mental work and physical work impediments to each other or complements? What works best for you?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Feminist Mothering Magazine

As much as I love online texts (and I do!), I still buy and love magazines. That's why I was excited to see this Kickstarter for relaunching Hip Mama. If you want to pre-subscribe, it's only $20.

We Are Educators, Not Prognosticators

If you went by the numbers, you wouldn't bet on me.

I was a child from a home with abuse, divorce, and poverty. Neither of my parents had gone to college. By my eighth grade year, I was drinking alcohol as a coping mechanism for depression. I wore baggy jeans and black t-shirts and my long, stringy hair was in a constant ponytail. I was painfully shy and withdrawn and scared. If you had asked around about me, most of the people in town probably would have told you I was on drugs (I wasn't, but the red flags were there, so you'd probably have believed them). I was getting good grades, but I was getting good grades at a rural public school; it wasn't the kind of situation that would have done enough to outweigh all of the signs that I was headed to societally-defined "failure."

If someone had asked you to pick out the child who was going to go far in the educational system, you wouldn't have bet on me.
Cliche photo of a bad poker hand
And you would have been wrong.

Some time in my junior year I snapped out of it and realized that if I didn't do something different, I was going to be stuck in an endless loop. I stopped drinking, started smiling, and worked on my shyness. I ended up valedictorian of my high school class and went to undergrad with a full ride. By then, you might have started betting on me, but I was still going to a practical state school; there would be no Ivy League for me. Some people would still dismiss my chances.

I graduated with a high GPA and a double major. Still, people scoffed when I told them I was going to graduate school. They said that people like me don't get doctorates. They told me that to my face, so I can only imagine what some people were saying behind my back.

I got my Master's four years ago, and I've been working on my PhD while holding down a full-time job ever since. I don't want to sound too egotistical, but I know that I am nothing if not damned persistent, so--you're a little late to the game--but it might be time to start betting on me.

I tell you this not to brag about what I've done. I honestly don't think it's anything that remarkable. I think that it is the product of dedication, hard work, and having a network of people who believe in and support me.

I believe that there are a lot of people who can make it to where I am and beyond, and I know that there are plenty of them who don't get the chance.

I snapped out of a funk my junior year in high school, but it could have taken me longer. I could have stayed on that path until I was 20, or 30, or 40, or 60. It could have taken some time to realize that I was wasting the chance to do something that I loved and to generate my own happiness.

If it had, I wouldn't have gotten that full ride to school. Maybe my grades in high school would have slipped. Maybe I would have needed a little more help from the beginning.

It's precisely that kind of help that some people don't want to give. Educational pundit Michael Petrilli thinks that students who need developmental coursework shouldn't be eligible for Pell Grants. He said this in an article that enrages me a little more every time I read it:
Yes, there are obvious downsides. Most significant, many students wouldn’t be able to afford remedial education and thus would never go to college in the first place. Millions of potential Pell recipients — many of them minorities — might be discouraged from even entering the higher-education pipeline. Such an outcome seems unfair and cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.
Then again, it’s not so certain that these individuals are better off trying college in the first place. Most don’t make it to graduation.

He's talking about  my students. I teach "remedial" (I prefer "developmental") English classes at a community college. He seems to have put my students into a neat, pre-packaged box of people who would be better off "in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work."

The point of a Pell Grant is not to reward people for figuring it all out early enough. We are educators, not prognosticators. We cannot tell the future, and we should not be pre-determining who looks successful enough for a chance and who doesn't.

Petrilli talks about my students as if they are cookie-cutter-crafted individuals who are interchangeable. Imagine the 40-year-old man who has suffered with undiagnosed dyslexia, the 50-year-old mother of four who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant and is going back to school, the 23-year-old who took a few years off to work to pay her family's bills and now needs to brush up on the skills she's forgotten since high school, and the 45-year-old who is returning to school after serving 10 years in prison for drug dealing who hadn't been in school since he was 13.

Petrilli looks at all of them and sees one thing: wasted money.

I look at all of them and see something else: myself.

It's true that none of our paths are identical, but that's the point. We all walk paths with our own difficulties, our own obstacles. Who am I to tell someone else that they missed the cutoff date for getting it straightened out? Who am I to say that if you don't have it all worked out by 16, then you might as well hang it up for good?

Petrilli's view is cruel and dangerous. It tells us that the only people worth investing in are the ones who look like sure bets. Here's the thing though, if you think about your own path long enough and hard enough, you'll probably be able to find a time when you didn't look like a sure bet, either. Maybe that time is right now. Petrilli wants to judge your future on your past.

I understand that education costs are soaring and that Pell Grants can't be sustained the way they were in the past. I understand that success rates for students who start in developmental classes need to be much, much higher. I understand the need for tough conversations about how money gets spent and students get taught.

What I don't understand is using this particularly problematic educational landscape as an excuse to make elitist calls for culling the "unsuccessful" from the playing field. Determining people's chances at success based on a snapshot of their lives rather than their own willingness to try does not make fewer problems, it makes more.

You can bet on that.

Read more here:

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Photo: benjamin.lim

Friday, May 17, 2013

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

Here's what I've been reading that's made me happy (The Good), mad/sad (The Bad), and thoughtful (The Curious).

The Good

Pretty All True always manages to make me laugh out loud. This exchange between sisters is great.

I learned that some fonts (like Arial, Trebuchet, and Verdana) are easier for people with dyslexia to read than others.

It's totally possible to have it all and have it all at once! Just follow the simple steps outlined in this article like "be rich," don't take anytime off after having children, and allocate 30 minutes of family time a day and be strict with the schedule. 

This Argentinian resort town was under water for 25 years. These photos show what it looks like now that the water has receded. 

The Bad

Sexual assault in the military is very clearly a huge problem. What do we do?

The Curious

This article on xoJane about the importance for women to make substantial, in-person, female friends is great:
For all my lofty ideals, I was still trapped in a decidedly female body, and none of my male friends were ever going to truly understand my fears about pregnancy, my breast cancer scare, my experiences with sexual assault, my struggle to navigate what the word “wife” meant to me -- all that baggage and more.
It's a project that will likely not happen (at least not while these people are alive to participate), but I find it fascinating that nearly 80,000 people have volunteered to go live on Mars and never return.

Mars planet 2 (Nasa image enhanced)

Annie from PhD in Parenting takes on Similac's new "empowerment" message and asks if we really need corporations to empower us (which is a particularly timely question as Dove's campaign continues to gain popularity).

All of this:
From the first stages of my pregnancy I was alarmed by feelings of dependency on my partner that I had never experienced before. As my pregnancy progressed, my sense of physical vulnerability increased and my capacity to maintain my equality through independence was repeatedly challenged. Finally, when my daughter was born, her utter vulnerability shook me to the core and I realised that I could no longer operate in the world as a wholly autonomous unit. I was encumbered by this incredibly dependent little person who needed me for her very survival. My understanding of myself and of what I needed from the world shifted completely, as did my understanding of the feminist project. I could no longer relate to the ambivalence of liberal feminism to the needs, indeed rights, of dependent women (and children).

 Photo: J. Gabas Esteban