Thursday, August 29, 2013

Throwing a Dinner Party for the Dietary Diverse: Vegans, Paleo, and Vegetarians. Oh My!

I've discovered I have a rather diverse group of friends when it comes to dietary needs. Among my social group there are people who eat vegetarian, vegan, paleo, and "clean."

While my own household is solidly omnivorous, we have dabbled with paleo and clean eating, and have eliminated a lot of processed foods from our cooking.

It's usually pretty easy to make a vegetarian meal for a get together, but what happens when the get together also includes people who are on a paleo diet? Depending on the particulars of anyone's individual diet, it can seem like the only safe bet is to set down a big bowl of fruit and hope everyone isn't that hungry.

Fruit Bowl
Here it is. Appetizers, dinner, and dessert. Dig in!

Since I don't want my guests having to go out to eat as soon as they leave dinner, I've started trying to think of ways to make a single meal that will suit everyone's tastes.

So far I have two favorites.


Chili is a great solution because you can do so much with it. The problem was that a vegetarian chili is usually pretty dependent upon beans in order to be filling, and the paleo crowd can't eat the beans. If I make a chili meaty enough to be filling without beans, it's obviously not vegetarian.

The solution? Two pots of chili: one vegetarian, one paleo. Vegetarians can have veggie chili, paleos can have meaty chili, and anyone else can mix the two together.

Chili is also nice because side toppings like cheese, sour cream, and guacamole can be used or not, leaving guests plenty of options without having to avoid the main meal. 

Here's a paleo chili recipe that's fairly meat-dependent, using both ground beef and stew beef.
Here's my favorite paleo chili that relies a little more heavily on sweet potatoes for substance.

This vegetarian chili boasts as being the best in the world, and it certainly has enough complex flavors to make it a contender.
I'm a big fan of black beans and corn, so this is one of my favorite vegetarian chili recipes.

Nacho Bar

I love tacos. We probably eat some version of tacos at least once a week. They're fast, easy, and delicious. But tacos can be problematic for a mixed crowd. The shells aren't paleo friendly, and a taco without the meat can be pretty skimpy for vegetarians. 

The solution? A nacho bar.

I make up a batch of sweet potatoes spiced with chili powder, oregano, and cumin. Then I toss in a jar of salsa and let them simmer with a lid on until they're soft. 

Meanwhile, I cook a pan of ground chorizo.

Vegans can have the sweet potatoes topped them with salsa and cilantro. Vegetarians can add cheese and sour cream. Paleo people can top the potatoes with the chorizo and salsa, with no need for chips. Everyone gets full!

And that bowl of fruit? It looks a lot more satisfying when it can serve as the side dish to a filling meal that meets everyone's needs. 

That's what I've come up with so far. How do you entertain for people with diverse dietary needs? Do you have any go-to recipes that work for a variety of people? What adaptations can you make to your favorite meals to make them work for everyone?

Photo: M. C. P.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Of Cultural Appropriation, Sincerity, and Parody (Or Miley Cyrus v. Weird Al)

If you've been disconnected for a few days, you might not have heard about the VMAs. Let me catch you up.

Miley Cyrus "performed," and the internet let out a collective groan. Drake's response pretty much sums it up:

If you were (lucky? smart? drunk? oblivious?) enough to have missed out on this superb display of pop culture absurdity, you can either watch the whole performance, or simply see it summarized through GIFs

There was a lot of collective hand-wringing about how "slutty" Miley Cyrus was being, seeing as how she was grinding on Robin Thicke (who has his own feminist transgressions to answer to right now) in a bikini designed to make her look nude [Edit: It isn't "flesh colored" as I had previously said since flesh comes in many colors]. 

Appropriately, many feminists took issue with this mainstream display of slut-shaming, arguing that Miley has the right to own her own sexuality and use it as she sees fit. It never does any woman any good to tear someone down for being a "slut," especially since Miley's performance (much like Beyonce's halftime show) wasn't really that different from those typical in mainstream media. It's just that when women seem in control of that display, it's read as "slutty" rather than "sexy." 

That's not to say that there aren't problems with Miley Cyrus' performance. In fact, there are plenty of problems, and most of them have to do with cultural appropriation and racism. 

Cultural Appropriation and Ignoring Privilege

Cultural appropriation occurs when someone of an empowered group "borrows" elements of a culture from an oppressed group and uses them for their own ends.

Most notably, cultural appropriation becomes a problem when the "borrowers" don't seem to make any effort to understand or appreciate the culture from which they are borrowing and therefore (wittingly or not) end up perpetuating stereotype through their performance. 

Several smart people have already written about how Cyrus' performance crosses over any "blurred lines" (sorry, couldn't resist) and into appropriative territory. 
  • Nico Lang at Thought Catalog: "She doesn’t even know that life. Cyrus’s new image is a cheap costume to sell records, as authentic as dressing up as Pocahontas for Halloween. It’s the musical equivalent of a Che Guevara t-shirt."
  • Dodai Stewart at Jezebel: "In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories. These women might be her friends, but the general dynamic created is that she is in charge and they are in service to her."
  • LaChrista Greco at Ms. Magazine"At one point, Cyrus motorboats one woman’s ass, which adds to the weird, circus-y feel of it all. Cyrus is the “ring leader,” and women of color are hers to play with however she likes."
  • Ninjacate in Groupthink responding to Jezebel's original article: "Essentially, what Miley has done here is indicate that 1. She wants to be sexual and 2. She needs to associate herself with black bodies to do it. By doing this, she in inexplicably intertwining the idea of sexuality as part and parcel of black womanhood; that is, that black women cannot exist without sexuality and vice versa, and that the only acceptable way to be sexual, is to "be black". That idea plays into deeply racist ideas about black womanhood, the idea being that black women are wanton and lascivious, and cannot control their expressions of sexuality."
These writers (and others) are doing an excellent job of explaining the racial tensions and cultural appropriation present in Cyrus' performance and her new image at large. Instead of rehashing the ground they've already covered well, I want to look more closely at cultural appropriation and when borrowing crosses the line. 

The thing that struck me is that all of these authors were careful to point out that not all borrowing of cultural elements is appropriation. Nico Lang notes that Macklemore is "an artist who at least has been reflective about his own place as a white artist in a historically black genre." (See some of that reflection here.)

Stewart wrote:
 "The exchange and flow of ideas between cultures can be a beautiful thing. I believe in cross-pollination and being inspired by those whose experience is not like your own. If Miley is inspired by gold teeth and bounce music and has friends who are rappers, that's not a problem. But when she uses these things to re-style her own image, she veers into dangerous territory. If she didn't have the grill, if the black women were integrated throughout the video instead of being segregated to one weird scene, if she hadn't worn that headband… This clip might not have been so problematic."

It seems the most common way to appropriate is to avoid a sincere appreciation for the culture from which you are borrowing and to be blind to your own privilege while doing so. 

Artists like Eminem and Elvis Presley have long faced calls of appropriation, and they (and their defenders) shot back that they had grown up within these cultures. Miley Cyrus has no such claim. Her own father's fame has ensured that she has always been rich and on the right side of cultural privilege. 

A sincere appreciation for and experience within the borrowed-from culture coupled with a reflective look at one's own privilege in spite of those experiences is one way to borrow from a culture without appropriating it. 

But What of Parody

But it's not the only way. 

I say this fully aware that some people are going to disagree with me. I'm sure there are people who find the following examples appropriative, but I want to make an argument for a type of cultural borrowing that works without sincerity: parody. 

Let's take some examples. 

1) "B*tches in Bookshops" (Parody of Kanye West's and Jay-Z's "N*ggas in Paris")

2) "Orange and Camo" (Parody of Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow")

3) "White and Nerdy" (Parody of Chamillionaire's "Ridin' Dirty")

4) "Whole Foods Parking Lot" (general hip hop parody)

In all of these examples, there is someone white borrowing elements of a traditionally black cultural expression (though "B*tches in Bookshops" does have the sole privilege of boasting a multiracial singing cast). 

It could be argued that these performers are being irreverent to a mode of expression that has functioned as political speech and power for underrepresented and oppressed people. 

However, there are key differences between the type of appropriation Miley Cyrus is doing in her video/VMA performance and the cultural borrowing taking place here. For one, all of the artists in these parodies seem to recognize their privileges (racial or class). 

The humor of the "Whole Foods Parking Lot" parody is that it is not "street" in the way the cultural elements the performer is borrowing have presented themselves. "Getting real" in the Whole Foods parking lot is not the same as "getting real" in the way that hip hop music has traditionally meant. This man in his Prius is drawing upon the incongruity in order to make a point. And yes, his point is meant to be funny, but it can only be funny if we recognize the decidedly unfunny incongruity. He doesn't have to live in a world where a problem is likely to be solved with gun fire. That's a privilege of his race and class. 

In all of these examples, the performers are attempting to draw attention to their own minority status within a larger majority. Both the "Bookstores" women and Weird Al are pointing to nerd culture, a segment of the population sometimes ostracized. (Though nerd culture does seem to be enjoying its own cultural appropriation turned pop culture phenomenon these days). 

The Whole Foods clientele has long been a source of ridicule for their seeming snobbishness and sometimes-borderline-unhinged obsession with "good" food (no matter the cost; I've often heard the store called "Whole Paycheck"). This video attempts to take that stereotype and play on it. 

The kids who made the "Orange and Camo" video are pointing out another pocket of hierarchical privileging within white culture. Their rural lifestyle is a far cry from the suburban dream that most often gets displayed as the cultural norm, and they're using the hip hop trope to draw attention to it. 

For all of these parodies, then, hip hop's ability to let pride and cultural expression shine through oppression is showcased. What hip hop does so well, these artists see and want to use. 

The problem is, hip hop does that so well because it grew out of actual oppression. Nerds getting picked on for speaking Klingon and reading books and kids being teased for their camo have little in common with people using musical expression to try to counter centuries of institutional racism. 

That's why the incongruity must exist. That's why none of these songs could be created "straight," without the element of humor. They have to be parodies because their creators know that the oppressions are not even comparable. They're borrowing a cultural element without trying to actually infringe on its space. 

(W)rapping Up

Cultural borrowing is an inevitability. It is often, in fact, a positive thing. Whether you ascribe to the melting pot theory of American identity or are more of a patchwork quilt visionary, America is largely founded on the idea of multiculturalism and the merging of different paths. 

There are multiple ways to merge the paths of different experiences without stepping into the negative land of appropriation.

Many people say that Miley Cyrus could have avoided her current fiasco by being more reflective of her own privilege and ensuring that her foray into black culture was more than a convenient tour, stopping to pick up trinkets she liked as she went.

I argue that the other way to avoid this kind of appropriation is to recognize that privilege up front and use it as the catalyst for parody, thus drawing attention to the disparities that make cultural appropriation such a problem.

I say this as someone who identifies with all of the groups using hip hop in the songs above to draw attention to a minority (and privileged) position. I grew up in a very rural part of the Midwest and often found little in common with the portrayal of suburban families in media representations. I shop at Whole Foods, read a lot of books, and have been called nerdy (both lovingly and cruelly) more than once. These songs work for me partially because they resonate some truth that I feel.

But they also work for me because, as someone who listens to hip hop music, I recognize their predecessors and see the incongruity. I recognize that the "problem" of someone lingering in front of the quinoa on his iPhone is not the same as the problem of racial oppression. These songs force my own privilege back on me. In order for the humor to work, I have to recognize that.

By pointing out (however subtly) the power structures at play, parodic artists are able to use the most effective parts of another culture's expression without trying to make them their own.

A Note on Monoliths

One thing that frustrates me about the use of parody in this way is that it seems pretty racially reductive. Although there is a woman of color performing "B*itches in Bookshops," I haven't seen many (any?) parodies of this kind with all racial minority performers. 

Perhaps it's because the stereotypes about black culture tend to paint all black people as a monolithic group. Ninjacate addresses this poignantly in her piece:
"Yet another issue with Miley's portrayal is that it presents "ratchet culture" as synonymous for "black". As Phylecia2 pointed out, black people are not a monolith, and neither is black culture.While ratchet culture is a valid expression of black culture, it is not the expression of black culture, and there are millions of black people for whom this particular expression of culture does not resonate. However, due the racial realities of the world we live in, Oprah will be expected to know about twerking because black = twerking." 
If we see every black person as having the same experiences and personal ties to pop culture representations of black identity (a reductive, stereotypical view), then we're less likely to accept a parody from these performers as parody. It reminds me of this post over at What Tami Said about how rainbow-colored hair on a white girl/woman is considered "cute," but rainbow-colored hair on a black girl/woman is read as "ghetto." When our socially-approved range of acceptable performances is so narrow, there are very few opportunities to explore identity.

But perhaps my inability to think of an example of parody like this done by people of color is just a limit of my own exposure. Can anyone think of any? I'd love some links!

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Link Round-Up)

Here's what I've been reading this week that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

  • This article from The Atlantic about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and what we should strive for in life is amazing. If you don't read anything else I link to, read this one
  • This (Warning: Some NSFW lyrics, and without the sound, it really isn't the same)

The Bad

  • It makes me sad that dogs are being kept out of loving homes because of biased and hype-filled breed specific legislation. Check out this great post on why breed bans (usually aimed at pit bulls and "pit bull-like" dogs) are a bad idea.

The Curious

  • Think stop and frisk is a good idea? What if they brought those practices to "business Harlem," or as we know it, Wall Street:

  • I didn't watch the VMAs, but don't you worry, the internet always lets me know when the pop culture chips are down, and it did not disappoint. Out of the Miley Cyrus aftermath, here are two articles that I thought were really interesting. This Jezebel article by Dodai Stewart and this post from The Belle Jar both look at the intersections of slut-shaming, race, appropriation, and performance. 
I grew up hearing a story. My grandmother was a cleaning lady for a white family that kept the fingers and toes of black people in a jar on their mantle. No, this was not slavery. This was 1940’s South Carolina.
  • This round-up of literary descriptions from the Toast of women being described as "not beautiful" by protagonists or narrators took my breath away. 
  • Ashley at Small Strokes Fell Big Oaks has a post about teaching the canon, teaching off the canon, and teaching students to read the canon:
It is possible to change the canon and, in the meantime, it is possible to change the way students look at the canon. Slowly but surely, teachers and students are chipping away at it and adding books that better represent the diversity of our nation and our classrooms.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder though.  Is this whole debate about “mean girls” vs. “nice girls” really just another way for us to discredit strong feminists?  Does a “mean girl” grow up to become a “man-hater”?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Blogging to my PhD: How Much Should Textbooks Matter?

In several of the books that I've been reading for my PhD exam (most recently Crowley's Methodical Memory), textbooks have served an important role. Many of the researchers use textbooks as primary data to understand the rhetorical frameworks and pedagogical philosophies of the past.

When we're looking at contemporary classrooms, we would judge these things based on graded assignments, teachers' lecture notes, and--perhaps most helpful of all--actual recordings (audio and video) of what goes on in the classroom. Of course these artifacts are difficult or impossible to get for many of the classrooms of 50, 100, 150 years ago.

So the researchers do what they can. They look at the textbooks that were the most popular and use them to check the pulse of the times. It is largely through this kind of data that many researchers have built their case against current-traditional rhetoric, damning the writing classrooms of the past as stilted, overly focused on correctness, and ineffective.

Using textbooks to understand how someone teaches writing is a little like using building codes to see how someone lives in a house or using health clinic pamphlets about STDs to understand sex.

Well. It's true. It's not a flower.
I'm totally extrapolating from my own practices here, but I shudder to think of someone judging my teaching philosophy or actual classroom practices by the textbook that I use. While I think that some textbooks are better than others, and some are fantastic, I just don't think that any of them are that important to the writing classroom.

The textbook that I am using this semester, for instance, is much more "current-traditional" than my own teaching practices. It teaches students to use outlines in a very proscriptive way. It gives some lip service to the writing process being "recursive," but then goes ahead and lays it all out in a nice linear fashion anyway. In many ways, I feel like it suggests (if not downright insists) that there are steps that must be taken in order if you want to write successfully.

But that's not how I teach writing. I teach writing as an all-encompassing act that has to be felt through, not planned in advance. I teach my students to embrace the mess and figure out what works for them. I model outlines and brainstorming techniques, but I never suggest that these are the way to outline or brainstorm, and I actively encourage students to break the rules.

Also, my textbook is filled with grammar rules. They're everywhere. There are entire chapters dedicated to just the comma. In fact, this is the main reason I use a textbook at all. I take a lot of readings from contemporary news articles and creative pieces I find online. They allow me more flexibility and the chance to adapt to the needs of an individual class. The grammar rules, though, I want my students to be able to find in one easy place, so the textbook remains.

Grammar Is Tricky

If someone used my textbook to judge my class, I don't think they'd have a very full picture of what I do or why I do it. They'd think that I teach a lot of grammar, when I actually hardly teach any at all. I spend three or four days out of the semester going over the most common "errors" and give a small percentage of each major paper grade for lower order concerns. All in-class writings and reading responses are content-only grades. I don't even evaluate the grammar.

All of this has left me wondering how different our current writing classroom really is from the writing classroom of the past. I don't doubt that there have been changes. I don't even doubt that there have been substantial or even radical changes. But I've read a lot of books that paint with a broad brush, condemning the teachers of the past for their narrow-minded and stifling view.

I'm sure that some teachers were narrow-minded and stifling (a problem I don't think we've eliminated with time), but I know a lot of amazing teachers, enough that I think there's something in their blood, their spirit, their soul that makes them innovative and invested in their students' success.

I can't believe that's all that new. Perhaps it's an evolutionary trait that has made its way down through the ages. There have always been teachers who inspire and impact lives, and I bet they weren't usually going by the book.

What do you think? Are textbooks a good way to judge a classroom? If not, what does that mean about textbooks? Should they be changed, or are they always just supplements to the real teaching that comes from the teachers themselves?

Photo: , Jocelyn Saurini, Matt Chan

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Metaphors as Tools for Creating Productive Tension

Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers is a breath of fresh air among the jargon-laden, often crisis-centered texts I've been reading. This book isn't really intended for academics (though there is an essay at the back aimed at that audience). Instead, Elbow aims to give writers who are looking to improve their craft a method to do so without the benefit (or, as he argues here hindrance) of a classroom setting. Writing without teachers, Elbow proposes, allows students freedom from artificial constraints that instructors put upon them and gives them the value of feedback from a real (but sympathetic) audience: other writers who are invested in honing their own craft.

Much of Elbow's writing reminded me of when I reviewed The Artist's Way Toolkit, especially when it comes to the habit and freedom of writing. Elbow insists on frequent (preferably daily) freewritings where you must keep writing, even if you only write "I have nothing to say" over and over again.

Keep those fingers moving! 
My favorite part, though, wasn't his methods or his suggestions (though I think both have value and have made me consider ways to change my classroom, especially when it comes to peer review). My favorite part was his use of metaphor.

Elbow weaves metaphors into his work constantly, and they are always beautiful and striking. I started marking them as I read.

On writing generally:
Writing is like trying to ride a horse which is constantly changing beneath you, Proteus changing while you hang on to him. You have to hang on for dear life, but not hang on so hard that he can't change and  finally tell you the truth.
On actively producing writing:
Producing writing, then, is not so much like filling a basin or pool once, but rather getting water to keep flowing through till finally it runs clear. 
Where the water flows

On sending out writing without getting feedback from the reader:
Writing is a string you send out to connect yourself with other consciousnesses, but usually you never have the opportunity to feel anything at the other end. How can you tell whether you've got a fish if the line always feels slack? 
On taking all criticism (good and bad) during peer review:
Listen to what they say as though it were all true. The way an owl eats a mouse. He takes it all in. He doesn't try to sort out the good parts from the bad.

The Power of Metaphor

I love metaphors, and I've always been highly receptive to them. I talk to myself in metaphors a lot. I use them to gain perspective and understanding, and I think they are highly valuable thinking tools. 

It wasn't until reading this book, though, that I understood how much metaphor is connected to my interest in agonism and using conflict productively.

Elbow's process for writing has two primary components: cooking and growing. Growing has to do with generating ideas, and his primary vehicle for this is forcing yourself to write crap so that you can get to your good ideas. But he admits that you also need to let things percolate, simmer, cook. In order to get an idea to be any good, it needs some time in the oven.

His notion of cooking seems to me very tied into the idea of agonism. "Cooking," he says "is the interaction of contrasting or conflicting material." He urges writers not to force themselves into moderation too soon, insisting that the tension between extremes is a productive space. When something cooks there is something "being transformed by interacting with another: one piece of material being seen through the lens of another, being dragged through the guts of another, being reoriented or reorganized in terms of the other, being mapped onto the other."

He never uses the term "agonism," but that's what he's describing. It's a transformation that can only take place through the tension of difference. Only when two conflicting views come into contact can this catalyst for change occur. Each view takes something from the other and comes out different (and better) on the other side.

One of his strategies for getting things cooking is to use metaphors:
Make as many metaphors as you can . . . When you make a metaphor, you call something by a wrong name. If you make a comparison, an analogy, or an example, you are thinking of something in terms of something else. There is always a contradiction.
I use metaphors all the time, but I had never explicitly thought of their use in this way. To use a metaphor is to force a contradiction to an agonistic conclusion. By saying that writing is like a shape-shifting horse or that taking criticism is like an owl eating a mouse, Elbow is forcing his readers to take two ideas that are in contradiction and resolve the tension. The process leaves them with a better understanding of a concept that was fuzzy before, and that understanding can only happen because of the reaction--the cooking--between the two contradictory ideas.

The Duck or the Rabbit

I was really excited when I read this because it makes sense to me in a concrete way and it harkens back to a research interest of mine from the very beginning of my graduate school days (which now seems like eons ago). 

One place that we see this metaphorical, agonistic tension arise is in optical illusions. Elbow talks about these as "gestalts," images that allow us "to see it as coherent instead of just disconnected, buzzing, blooming marks." He gives the example of an image that can be seen as two vases or as two faces. My favorite example is the duck-rabbit image.

Is this a rabbit or a duck? 

I used this metaphor (which I found in Wayne Booth's work) to discuss the tension in criticism of Chappelle's Show and--later--The Wire

Some people (including, apparently, Dave Chappelle himself) saw some of the skits on Chappelle's Show as offensive. Some people saw them as funny. But it was when someone could see both and jump back and forth between them, act within that conflicted space, that the show took on the potential for social activism. Change comes out of conflict. Better ideas cook under pressure. 

You may see a rabbit in the picture above. You may see a duck. But once you have seen both a rabbit and a duck, you can never see the picture the same way again. It is forever changed by the interaction between your two perspectives. You now see it as a third, wholly new, thing. You now see it as an optical illusion. 

Elbow, using another metaphor to do so, gets to the heart of this matter in the book:
We are like rats who have been taught to see rectangles and circles. But what happens when they show us an ellipse? If it is a long pointy ellipse we see a rectangle. If it is a round, mild ellipse, we see a circle. Ellipses we don't see. Ellipses don't exist for us.
But, of course, ellipses do exist. Or, rather, they exist as much as a "rectangle" or a "circle," which are all just words that we have used to collectively designate a certain feature of our shared reality. If we create a word for it and are able to use it with other people, the term (and thus our ability to see it and differentiate it) exists.

Calling a thing by the wrong name, as Elbow puts it, allows us to create that tension intentionally. We are able to call upon the agonistic force that brings things into sharper focus. A metaphor is a tool for harnessing that power.

Metaphors in the Classroom

The place where I use metaphors most frequently is my writing classroom. In fact, after reading Elbow's book last night, I caught myself making three separate metaphors in the class I taught today. I didn't realize how often I drop them into my class discussions, but now that I'm thinking about it, I call upon them frequently. 

I hope that I am using them effectively to draw students into that conflicted space where they can begin to see writing (and their own abilities and processes) more clearly. Upon some reflection, I think I layer in multiple metaphors in a single discussion (a technique Elbow uses in his book, too, often stacking several metaphors together in a single paragraph to illustrate the same phenomenon in writing). I'm doing this in the hopes that one of them will resonate. Not all of my students come into the classroom with the same experiences or interests, and throwing out lots of metaphors gives them multiple places to enter into that conflicted space and begin the work of cooking their own ideas on writing. 

After some reflection on this, I decided to make it a short (unlike this rambling mess of reflection here) series on Something's Developing, my other blog where I write about teaching developmental English. I'm going to try to capture some of the metaphors I use in the classroom and those that I've read in other places, including any you'd like to submit for inclusion. 

What metaphors for writing do you think I should add?

Photo: Mike McKayArcheiaMuriel, jennicatpink, Rich Watts

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Let the Youth Speak!

I'm reading Sharon Crowley's The Methodical Memory: Invention in Current-Traditional Rhetoric. It's a book that is interesting to me from my scholarly perspective and my professional view as a teacher.

Current-traditional rhetoric is the name we've retroactively given a period in rhetorical tradition where style and arrangement (that is, how we put words together on the page) and correctness (grammar rules, basically) became the primary focus of the composition classroom. We now talk about current-traditional rhetoric with disdain, aghast that anyone would ever use the teaching of writing in such a surface-level way and quietly patting ourselves on the back for begin much smarter and enlightened in these postmodern days than our predecessors had the bad luck to be.

pat on the back

Except we totally still do it. The five-paragraph essay, avoiding comma splices, and ensuring a topic sentence for every paragraph are all remnants of this practice we publicly disdain while ordering up textbooks that still enact its tenets left and right. (I do take some issue with using textbook content as an easy way to determine what teachers teach. I mean, who really uses the textbook the way that the textbook tells you to? But that's a blog post for a different day.)

So why are we still using these antiquated holdouts that, as Crowley explains, were already antiquated shortly after they appeared and are long past their expiration date now, especially since the psychology and logic theories they were built upon went out of vogue in their respective fields decades ago?

Somewhat cynically, Crowley thinks it's about control:
current-traditional writing instruction served the academy as a useful mud fence, guarding it from the unsupervised and unconfined sprawl of self-initiated analytical or critical student discourse. . .Current-traditional rhetoric was the control developed within the academy. When students were instructed in it, all concerned could rest assured that few students would produce writing that demanded to be read and heeded.
Current-traditional rhetoric, carrying out Crowley's analysis, works to kill individuality and creativity in a text, making it (and--by extension--the students writing it) sanitized and safe. 

In short, current-traditional rhetoric is the man, and it's trying to keep the kids down. 

Kids (and I use the term here loosely, as we're often talking about college students who are technically adults) have a long history of causing trouble. 

This is because young people tend to be more accepting of changes to the status quo. This is where all those "kids today" arguments come from. The older generation always looks upon the younger one with disdain. They're always listening to horrible music, wearing stupid-looking clothes, getting lazier, and not contributing enough to society. 

home is where the sprinkler is
"And get off my lawn!"

Perhaps it's just because I'm not old enough yet, but I don't put much stock in the "kids today" arguments. I suspect that kids now seem (and pretty much always have seemed) ridiculous and selfish to their parents' generation because kids (all kids) are--relatively speaking--ridiculous and selfish. But they're also idealistic and passionate. 

It's these latter qualities that I'm interested in for the context of current-traditional rhetoric. Young people have been at the heart of many social movements, from SNCC in the Civil Rights movement to the Occupy Wall Street protesters at UC Davis, young people have been socially active. Not until recently, though, did so many young people have so much power when it comes to the written word. 

The gatekeepers of print long controlled the access to widely distributed outlets for writing: newspapers, books, magazines, etc. Sure, student groups have always used flyers and pamphlets to disseminate information, and student-run campus newspapers have always had an important role to play locally, but it's only been with the rise in internet usage and social media that anyone with a computer and an internet connection could have an immediate platform with the potential to reach millions. 

It's interesting that we've seen so many young voices come forward. 

Remember Riley?

While she may be an extreme example, high school and college students across the globe are using the written word in ways that they never have before. What was previously the scribblings in a young girl's diary has become a Facebook post or an entire blog. The raps teens wrote that only their friends heard can be seen by people on the other side of the world on YouTube. 

The results can be positive or negative. Remember when a bunch of teens tweeted racist rants after Obama's re-election? Some of them faced serious consequences for what would once have been a private act of ignorance. After she took to YouTube to make a horrendously racist rant about Asian students, Alexandra Wallace left UCLA amid death threats

With a real audience comes real power . . . and real consequences. 

All that to say that if Crowley is right and the current-traditional rhetoric was aimed at keeping students' voices contained and powerless, then it's not only unethical, but too late. 

Our students are no longer getting shaped for a future in public discourse; they have been creating public discourse long before they hit freshman composition. The realities of our current teaching practices need to match the realities of the digital landscape. 

Our students' voices are powerful; we've always known that, and that's why some have worked to stifle them. Crowley called it a "mud fence," but the levies have been broken by the power of technology. We never should have been holding our students back to begin with, but it's a moot point now. We can't hold their voices back, so we might as well help them learn how to use them well. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

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

I've been neglecting my Good, Bad, Curious duties, so there are a lot of links today. Let me know what I missed that's made you smile (the Good), cry (the Bad), and think (the Curious).

The Good

Breastfeeding rates are steadily rising!

Tutus and Tiny Hats has a post about some of the many beautiful options for styling Gabourey Sibide (as opposed to the horrible job Harper's Bazaar did by putting her in clothes that didn't fit.)

Look at this drop of water! (Really, go look at it.)

The Bad

The American college system perpetuates white privilege (via The Chronicle):
The result, it says, is a system in which elite selective colleges enroll predominantly white students while black and Hispanic students, even high-achieving ones, largely attend open-access institutions. Because the latter group of colleges spends less on instruction and sees lower shares of students through to graduation, higher education has thus become a "passive agent" in perpetuating white privilege.
Stay classy, Missouri.

We already knew looking at "thinspo" has negative effects on our minds, but it looks like most "fitspo" does, too.

Misogynistic trolls are using Spotify (an immensely helpful social media tool) to stalk and harass.

This account of the Forging Justice conference and intimidation and silencing tactics is heart breaking.

The Curious

Nicole Cliffe writes at The Toast about fitness goals and expectations:
Am I “wasting” my workout by consuming something super-calorific? Well, no. Because MY goal is to increase my strength, and to love using my body, and to enjoy going to the gym.
Stefan Bradley (an excellent professor and former colleague of mine) has a great article in the St. Louis American about the need for promoting the positive work of young black men:
It is time that we use the tools that have worked so well for rappers to reclaim the identity of young black men as achievers and models of excellence.
We must boast about the positive accomplishments of black youth. This is counterintuitive, as many black people from an earlier era were taught to be humble about their achievements. That is the wrong approach in this new era.
The Natural Parent Network has a great list of resources for parenting through privilege.

There's another article bemoaning how my generation is awful and all full . . . of narcissism. At least this New York Times piece discusses some of the criticism of this criticism.

Turns out dating a pregnancy due date isn't the exact science that we thought:
In a group of 125 women, they found the average time from ovulation to birth was 268 days - 38 weeks and two days - and that the length of pregnancies varied by as much as 37 days, according to the research, published today in the journal Human Reproduction.
This photography project aimed at exploring the different definitions of masculinity is fascinating (WARNING: Some NSFW photos.)

Lea Goldman writes an interesting article that examines some generational differences in how women are handling the work-life balance:
That sentiment echoes what we often hear from Marie Claire’s twenty-something readers, who have trouble relating to the “juggle” questions we usually ask in our career-oriented Q&A’s. To these young women, work-life balance conversations aren’t owned by mom. Some of our staffers are training for marathons; others want to take time off for extended trips abroad. They don’t make distinctions between motherhood and their own time-consuming, personally fulfilling pursuits.
This Atlantic article takes a look at how few kids' movies allow their protagonists to fail

What does monkey sex tell us about female (human) desire?

Ashley at Small Strokes Fell Big Oaks has a great post on the way that childfree women are being portrayed in the media as privileged and swimming (literally) in free time.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Privileged Tour Guides and the Purpose of Media: OITNB and Facing Reality

Orange is the New Black is getting a lot of rave reviews and for good reason. As I wrote earlier, I'm enjoying the show and urge people who are hesitant about it after the first few episodes to give it a little longer.

I not only enjoy the show personally (getting invested in many of the characters' stories and feeling compelled to keep watching and learning about them), but I also think that it is doing important and necessary work to improve our overall media options. The diversity of the cast is overwhelmingly refreshing, and I don't just mean the racial diversity. Yes, the show provides a much-needed outlet for many Latina and black actresses to use their talents, and their characters provide viewers with some important privilege-checking moments. I like that Buzzfeed author Heben Nigatu labels this exchange a "response to patronizing white women everywhere":

But the show can boast real roles with characterization for a range of identities that we rarely even see in mainstream media, let alone see developed. Main character Piper, for all her other mainstream privileges, self-identifies as a secular humanist, a position that certainly doesn't get much media attention. Among the characters whose stories are becoming richer and more layered with each passing episode is a transgender woman, several older actresses (a group who has been fighting for more screen time), women whose bodies do not fit the Hollywood beauty standard, and poor women. 

Take a look at what Lea Delaria experienced when she tried out for a role (originally as a prison guard) and found out that they liked her audition but couldn't find a place for her until they created a new role (as butch lesbian "womanizer" Big Boo):
"I remember I was standing in my manager's officer and I lost it. I just went, 'They're making a television show that takes place in a women's prison and there's not a part for me? Then I f***ing quit! I'm out of showbusiness for good.' I got on a plane and I flew back to London, where I lived at the time, and said, 'You know, f*** it. F*** America. F*** it' ... And when I got off the plane and went through customs, there were like 1,000 messages from my manager going, 'They wrote a part for you ... and come back because you're going to start shooting in five days.'"
There seems to be a genuine effort to make a space for the diverse realities of the world we live in on the set of this show. Of course, no television representation is going to be perfect, and it is definitely disappointing that creator Jenji Kohan felt she had to use a white Trojan Horse to tell these stories, but I think that we're throwing the baby of good character development and social impact out with the bathwater of limited Hollywood acceptance if we reject this show for that reason. 

Criticism and Rejection

And some definitely are rejecting the show because of it. Writer Aura Bogado writes for The Nation that she couldn't even finish the series because it, like many slave narratives, requires a privileged white tour guide and "is framed by a white introduction, which authenticates the black experience. The white practice of verifying the lives of black fugitives who were skillfully plotting their own liberation has changed in circumstance and in medium—but the role of white people at its center has not."

I take issue with the assertion that prison is a "black experience." While black women are impacted by horrendous arrest and sentencing disparities, there are still many white women behind bars, many of whom face their own set of inequalities like never having finished high school and fighting drug addictions. 

Piper still serves as something of a cultural tour guide to all of these women. Her blonde hair, blue eyes,  thin body, rich background, education status, and white skin all give her privilege that gives the show (and Piper Kerman's book, as well as her own lived experience) an air of novelty. It's billed as a peek of a woman getting put where she doesn't belong, but both Piper the character and Piper the person are very clear: she belongs there as much as anyone else. If we have to question her presence there, we have to question everyone's. 

This, for me, is the real social justice power of Orange is the New Black: it is starting mainstream conversations about the prison system that very much need to happen. It is important to note that the "Free Piper" t-shirts Bogado derides as a publicity and money-making ploy in her article were used as a fundraiser for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. It does not seem that Piper Kerman is denying that her position is a privileged one, but once she recognized that privilege, she tried to harness it to make a difference. 

I highly suggest you read the comments on that Nation article (yes, really. Read the comments.) Readers bring up many good points. Several people question Bogado's interpretation of the portrayals of the women on the screen as stereotypical and ask what she'd like to see instead. After all, the harsh truth of prison, and of reality in general, is that these inequalities exist. Piper Kerman, by her own admission, really did get better treatment in prison because of the color of her skin and her wealthy background. (I'm reading the book right now, and she gets offered choice prison jobs and other perks because she's a "Northerner," a privilege that she disdains and sometimes tries to turn down.) 

Would it be better to portray a prison system that doesn't exploit racial minorities and poor women? What good would that do? 

What is Media For?

That brings me to my final reflection: why do we use media?

Everyone is free to respond to media from their own positions and experiences, and they are equally free to watch or not watch anything they want. Bogado does an excellent job of explaining how the show makes her feel and why she chooses not to watch it. The problem is that media is not just an individual experience. Our collective response has power to decide what gets funded in the future, what gets to stay on the air, and what stories--ultimately--get told. We respond as individuals, but the impact is felt collectively. 

Through mediated experiences, we have the power to "experience" things we never actually do. Media can be a tremendous tool in creating empathy for people whose experiences differ from our own, and watching/reading media that moves us outside of our own comfort zones is tremendously important for making progress. 

There's something about those slave narrative introductions that I think Bogado glosses over. They weren't there to make the slaves' stories real; they were there to convince an audience that could easily have shut their eyes and ears to listen. Is it right that it took a white introduction to make them do that? Of course not. Were there plenty of people who refused to listen no matter what introduction was given? Of course. 

But progress was made when people listened. Progress is made when we hear stories that aren't our own, when we are able to listen and learn from experiences beyond our boundaries. 

Orange is the New Black has tremendous potential in pushing many people out of their comfort zones. It's designed to have many elements to make that prodding more likely: the serious subject set in a comedic backdrop, the privileged protagonist, the layering of complex character development over time. 

No one should feel like they have to watch a show that they don't like, but all I have to do is look at the television programs of 50, 30, even 20 years ago and know that we've made a lot of progress in providing diverse representations that make people question their own assumptions and stereotypes. 

What do you think? What shows have you seen that have made you question your own experiences and assumptions? Does media serve a social justice function?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guest Post: How to Be Friends with White People (Spoiler: Don't Pick Racists)

My husband and I made a deal: if I confronted my fear of the squat rack, he'd write a guest blog post. I upheld my end of the bargain, and today he's making good on his. 

There’s an article at Salon by Brittney Cooper called The Politics of Being Friends With White People in which the author discusses the disintegration of her childhood friendships with white people and how as an adult she simply can’t do it anymore (befriend white folks that is). Cooper uses her experiences to describe the schism she feels between her and her white peers – a gap that always existed but that was invisible to her until her formative teen years. College and adulthood only widened the distance between them.

Broken bridge

As you could probably guess, since I’m writing a blog post about it, I disagree. This issue here seems to be mainly a personal one – the author, once ridiculed for “trying to be white” retreated into black culture. As Cooper put it “[w]e couldn’t giggle about the same kinds of boys since our tastes fell along racial lines, couldn’t trade makeup or hair products, or move through each other’s social circles with ease any longer, because increasingly these things were defined by race.” I’m not saying these differences were all in her head, but it feels like race is mainly being used here as an excuse for a friendship fading away. They could have remained friends without sharing any of these things, but that’s not what’s important. What matters in this piece is that Cooper, and she’s not alone here, is both a victim and perpetuator of racial stereotyping and doesn’t even realize it.


First – right off the bat the writer experienced inequity in our educational system. She did well in school, and, as such, she was grouped with others doing well. The class, mostly white, but not completely, was nonetheless viewed by the black kids as a different space for whites. This insidious form of stereotyping made academics a white thing and left the writer disconnected from potential black friends.

Second – damn her white friends were racist. Seriously, she was hanging out with people who thought her hair would feel like a fucking brillo pad. The writer was categorized and at times excluded from the white peer group because of skin color and the negative stereotypes that come with it.

In both of the cases, society’s preconceived notions caused a kid to be discriminated against.


Cooper takes a tone in this piece that’s way too sympathetic to racial stereotypes. The first red flag appears when the writer, as a young girl, is discussing with her white friend the prospect of interracial marriage. Cooper’s friend explains that her daddy said “people should marry their own kind.” I’m not really surprised by this statement – I’ve heard it before – what Cooper says next might say it all, “Having never heard it put quite that way before, I simply nodded my head. It sort of made sense.”

Huh? No it doesn’t. Here was a child who didn’t fit in because black kids will tell you that you are too smart and white kids will think you are too dumb. If anyone should know the importance of individual character defying blanket characterizations it should be Cooper. Yet, it gets worse. Soon after this moment, Cooper starts to retreat into the black community (in part because to the racism of her classmates, though she doesn’t call it that, but I believe also because she was supposed to). Cooper had to be with her people and that meant that she couldn’t be with any others. Unfortunately by retreating into her black community, Cooper tacitly reinforced the stereotypes that say race determines who a person is and what it is they do. This is wrong, regardless of the stereotype perpetuated.

As stated, Cooper spent a lot time with some assholes, but here’s the thing: not all white people are assholes… or racist… or conservative… or read Ayn Rand. The biggest mistake Cooper makes is to take these negative experiences as reasons to not have many white friends. Her past is an excuse to not make an effort and that’s weak, really weak. Honestly, it’s no different than those classmates that remarked that she wasn’t like the other black kids.

I am not writing this to say that people should to join any diversity groups or clubs (though it would be awesome if you did), nor should you struggle to be friends with anyone. It just seems that all of the writer’s problems in this article would be alleviated by acting like a normal person and treating the others around her as such… and not trying to be friends with racists.

Ivan is a lawyer and professional smartass by day, a terrific father, and a frequent subject of Balancing Jane posts, for which he is always a great sport. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Echo Chambers, Safe Spaces, and Social Media

Okay, this is (probably) my last post based on Patricia Roberts-Miller's Deliberate Conflict. After all, I still have like 50 more books to read, so I should probably stop re-reading sections of this one sometime soon.

I'll forgo the gushing over how amazing* this book is and cut right to the chase. At one point, Roberts-Miller has this to say about enclaves and the need to invent our ideas with tension:
Remaining entirely within enclaves is dangerous, as it never allows ideas to be tested, but having no access to enclaves is equally stultifying, in that it does not give people a place where they can explore their own partially articulated ideas. 

See, I believe (really, truly, with all my heart believe) that ideas need conflict in order to be any good. In rhetorical terms, I believe that there must be conflict at the stage of invention. That means that we can't just test our ideas against a hostile audience once we've already got them set in stone for ourselves (which is a lot more comfortable). It means that we have to toss those ideas out there into the fray while they're still budding, let them be shaped and molded by the arguments they encounter. 

Disagreeing with you allows me to think better. Either you will change my mind and I will agree with you, or you will change my mind and I will believe something different entirely, or I will still believe what I believed to begin with but I will believe it more confidently, knowing that it has been tested. 

I want to feel uncomfortable. I want to be put in the hot seat. I want to be questioned, prodded, and  challenged.

But what of that statement that Roberts-Miller made above. She's a fastidious proponent of the type of deliberative agonism that I was just describing, and yet even she admits that enclaves are not only helpful but sometimes necessary. Even she notes that we need spaces where we can take our thoughts and gaze at them in a safe space, one where we don't have to constantly hope that they can stand up to the battlefield. 

Sometimes, the bud needs a little time and nourishment before it should be cast into the mix. 

Rose Buds

All of this has led me to a question: how should I use social media? Should it be an enclave or battleground?

Let me explain. 

Recently, I (along with much of the internet) was impressed with and learned from the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. This powerful Twitter storm has brought to the forefront the need to talk about intersectional feminism and the way that mainstream feminism has very often silenced the voices of women of color. 

As I've written about on this blog (particularly in the aftermath of the Onion tweet), this is a lesson I--as a white feminist--need to learn. It is taking practice to listen instead of talk, to make sure that I am truly hearing what the women of color who feel isolated by mainstream feminism are saying because feminism without intersectionality is purposeless to me. It has nothing to do with my life or my goals. I believe all systems of oppression are linked, and racism's insidious impacts on the world I live in are a part of the ecology or my reality. 

So I read #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and a few times the words stung and hit a little too close to home, but I took deep breaths, kept reading, listening, and learning. I was grateful for the opportunity. 

Then I saw a new hashtag trending. #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen attempts to emphasize intersectionality for women of color for black men as well by calling out sexism in the black community. After finding the #Solidarity tweets so important, I wanted to make sure I was still listening, still avoiding an enclave. 

But the very first tweets I saw on this new hashtag were attacking interracial couples. I saw things like this:

That was the one that hurt me the most, but there were several others taking aim at interracial marriage in general:

And I got upset. 

I tried to step back and ask myself if I was just ignoring my own privilege, but I don't think that's it (or, at least, it's not all of it). 

After all, my daughter (herself a female person of color for whom this movement is ostensibly trying to raise awareness and make a space) is the product of this loving marriage that is being attacked. And, more to my point in this particular post, do I really have to sit around and read about how my love, my family, my life is such a travesty in order to be enlightened? Listen to people say the color of my skin emasculates my husband in order to be socially conscious?

And, taking some time and re-reading the tweets, I know that it's not about me. I know that it's not a personal attack on my marriage. I'm not saying that these women shouldn't use this medium to voice their concerns and discuss what is, indeed, a divisive topic.

But is it doing me any good to listen to it? Really?

This is a time when I begin to question why I use social media. Am I looking for conflict to hone my ideas? Am I trying to find the battlefield that will leave my own thoughts their strongest and best?

And if I am, what about the enclaves? Am I forgetting that sometimes I need a safe space in which I can decompress and not be on the defensive? A place in which I can discuss without armor?

I've had a lot of people tell me that they block and unfriend people who they disagree with or who upset them. I think this can be a smart move that helps protect people's sanity and emotional safety, but it's a move I very rarely take. I relish the conflict. But maybe I am not fully considering my own rhetorical or emotional needs. 

What role does social media play for you? Where do you find your enclaves? How do you avoid them becoming echo chambers? What's the best balance of nurturing safety and fortifying conflict? How do you make sure your ideas have time to thrive but aren't crafted in isolation from the real world?

UPDATE: After having some discussion of this post on Facebook, I think I've figured out what's really bothering me about this topic.

The rhetorical purpose of these hashtags is not debate; it's enclave building. The hashtags are a very effective way at helping women who share similar experiences find one another and use their stories and poignant commentary to strengthen their courage and galvanize their anger. That's important. It is a worthwhile rhetorical exercise that gives their concerns voice and focus.

But it is not going to do much to actually create better intersectional feminism.

Hear me out.

The people participating in these hashtags should be heard and acknowledged by those of us outside of the experience, those of us who have done the oppressing. We can't ignore the way media narratives on beauty impact who is found "attractive" in our culture and how that plays into interracial relationships. We can't ignore the way women of color are often silenced in the mainstream media while most mainstream feminists are white and most people talking about racism in the mainstream are men. I absolutely believe in their cause, and I see intersectional feminism as the only kind of feminism that matters.

If it doesn't go any further, though, intersectional feminism won't be any better off for it. In order to make any true changes, there will have to be real, deliberative, agonistic debate among all of the people who have a stake in these overlapping topics of sexism, racism, classism, and oppression.

These hashtags serve an excellent purpose in getting the message focused and helping the people most impacted by these oppressions raise their voices, but it cannot be treated as the answer to the problem. Rhetorically, this is only a very, very early step in a long, difficult process.

I hope that we take the time to go through the whole process because the end goal of the people using these hashtags is really important.

*really, really amazing. Go read it.