Monday, September 30, 2013

Gym Class and Getting Grown: A Series of Rants

I'm thinking about trying out for the local roller derby team.

Sheila vs Tonka

Depending on how well you know me, that may or may not sound surprising, but for those of you who have known me since childhood, it should definitely come as a shock.

See, in gym class, I was hiding. Literally. Our gym had this weird little stairwell that jutted out just enough to block the coach's view. Since we played kickball about 78% of the time in elementary school, we were often lined up next to this hideaway. I would press myself up against the painted cinderblocks, strategically looping back behind each person who was after me in line. With a little luck, I could go several gym classes without ever having to kick the ball.

In the outfield, I did what most of my outcast compatriots did:

This strategy carried me most of the way through school, but the stakes were raised when I had to take one year of physical education in high school. There were seldom kickball games (basketball was the game of choice, and for some reason all of the girls who actually played on the basketball team were on one side against the rest of us. A real exciting game, I'm sure.) 

The punishment for not dressing out was having to walk the track, so I calculated how many times I could do that without jeopardizing my grade. Then I hid. When it was time for the one-day fitness exam, I stayed home sick. 

Gym was miserable. I hated it. It was not that I did not like it or that it simply didn't showcase my strengths, it was that it was the worst thing I had to do in school, and that included being the subject of gossip or having my crush find out I liked him.

Who Else Hated Gym?

This came to my mind recently when I read this post from The Rabbit Hole. In it, a trainer discusses how many people she sees who are intimidated by (or downright terrified of) the gym. She has a call to action for people who are in charge of physical education (coaches, school teachers, fitness counselors, etc.) She challenges them to find ways to make exercise a welcoming space for all:
I contend that the physical education environment is not meant to create superstars, it is intended to foster learning and a love for activity. Those who love sports and competition will seek out additional opportunities to be active. It is those who will only experience activity in gym class who we need to worry about.
This trainer's experience has been mirrored in my own anecdata. While thinking about writing this post, I posed some questions on Facebook. Amanda, a friend of mine who is now a Pilates instructor and someone who touts the benefits of physical activity and the mind-body connection on a daily basis, explained that she hated gym in school and spent much of her time using the same tricks I did to avoid having to do it. Another commenter (Mike) said that as an at-risk counselor, he saw a lot of students who cited a fear of gym class as one of their motivators for dropping out of school. In particular, the humiliation of changing in the locker room scarred many of them.

Sure, some might say, we're just nerds who didn't get to dominate this field. We had plenty of other opportunities to showcase our skills. Maybe we were whizzes in math or writing. Maybe we could paint really well or play the saxophone. Why should gym class be made warm and fuzzy just to appease a few kids who can't cut it in a competitive sphere, making it harder for people with athletic skills to hone them in the classroom?

But what about when the negative impacts of physical education turn people away from fitness (especially women, who tend to get more negative messages about athleticism--being sweaty is "unfeminine" after all)?

Must Fitness Be a Competition?

I can remember only a single activity from gym class that was not a competition. For a few minutes on two different occasions, we warmed up for the day by doing the first part of a tai-chi tape. This was the only time in my entire exposure to athletics that I wasn't being directly matched up against and compared to someone else. It was also--I'm sure not coincidentally--the only time I enjoyed gym (unless you count my "punishment" of walking around the track talking with one of my likewise outcast friends). 

It seems that athleticism and competition are so innately tied up that we have a hard time decoupling them. 

In her book Bodily Arts, Debra Hawhee explains that the training for athletics in ancient Greece closely mirrored the training for sophistry, the rhetorical training for public debates. In both of these pedagogies, conflict and tension are not only prominent, but they are a necessary part of the circumstances. 


But Hawhee explains that this tension, this strife, does not have to be destructive. We do not have to destroy one another to "win," and the Greeks understood this, often finding honor in the act of the athletic display itself, not necessarily the victory over an opponent. This agonistic tension is nearly invisible in our contemporary displays of rhetoric. Instead of an ongoing, sustained debate between opposing sides where both learn from one another and find honor in entering into the struggle, we get crossfire-style high drama that Hawhee says is best exemplified by "the pummeling style of cable television's debate shows." No one is listening to anyone else, and there certainly isn't any learning taking place between the opponents. This is not agonism; it is antagonism. 

Perhaps we have subverted the nobler and more productive agonistic trends in athletics just as we have in rhetoric. When everything must be about the win, we lose focus of the other benefits of athleticism. 

Are Millennials Less Antagonistic?

A recent Wall Street Journal article laments the death of elite athleticism because the Millennial generation is turning competitive races into "parades." Citing events like the tremendously popular Color Run and Warrior Dash (neither of which post winners or even finish times), the author cites those who see this as a sure sign of our impending doom. Without competition, they wonder, how will we ever get stronger? What will motivate us if its not avoiding defeat at the hands of our peers?

I was a Color Run participant, and I have to admit that the race was by far the friendliest I've done. Yes, some people were walking. There was less pressure to push ourselves.

I haven't yet competed in a Warrior Dash (though I'm doing a timed obstacle course in two weeks), but I have friends who have. The training they've gone through and the work they did on the course did not seem unmotivated to me.

I don't know if my generation is more agonistic, but there are some signs that we may be less antagonistic. We seem more willing to collaborate than workers in previous generations (in the aggregate, of course there are exceptions).

If activities like the Color Run and the Warrior Dash are getting more people to feel confident and excited about fitness, isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't that be a win for Millennials, not a loss?

The Pedagogical Implications of My Roller Derby Aspirations

I used to think that I just wasn't an athletic person. Using the lingo of Multiple Intelligences, I had always excelled in the logic and verbal intelligences. So what if I wasn't kinesthetic? So what if I didn't like playing team sports? I could go to college on an academic scholarship and someone else could go on a basketball scholarship and the world would be fair and well-rounded. 

Multiple Intelligences (Writing III, 2008, females)

But now I am having to rethink that. 

As I have discovered that I really love lifting heavy weights and running, I'm becoming more and more interested in pushing myself physically. I enjoy exercise. I like feeling my body get stronger and more agile. I love knowing that my body did something today that it could not physically do two weeks ago. That's empowering as hell. 

But it makes me angry that it took me so long to find that out. Why did I have to wait nearly 30 years to know that I liked being physically active? Shouldn't my education have helped me figure that out? 

Once I started asking those questions, I began thinking about my own students (community college students in a developmental writing class). What if they felt the same way about writing that I had felt about sports? What if their early experiences with writing had taught them that they just didn't have what it takes? What if every assignment they turned in made them feel the way I felt when I had to kick that ball with all eyes on me? 

And, if that's the case, how can I make it better now?

My main frustration with my late-blooming athletic pursuits is that I was always made to feel like I had to be the best or it didn't matter. I knew I wasn't going to be the best, so I decided it didn't matter. 

That's a ridiculous way to look at it. Just because I'm not going to be the best runner (and I'm not) or the best skater (and I'm definitely not) doesn't mean that I'm not going to reap benefits from those acts. Even if my students never pen the great American novel (though they might!), they will benefit greatly from having the ability to write cogently and powerfully. The message that its "be first or go home" is, in my opinion, way more damaging than a message of "everyone gets a trophy." After all, there's only one first. 

So, maybe I'll make the roller derby team (some day, after I learn how to skate), or maybe I won't. Either way, I will have conquered what has long been a mental block to my own strength and action. I was letting a message I received decades ago control what I did (or, more accurately, didn't) do with my own body. 

What happens if we use educational opportunities to lay the groundwork for reaching our own bests instead of trying to top everyone else's? What if competition (still present, for sure) becomes the background to the real goal of igniting our own motivations?

What Do You Think?

What do you think? Did you like gym class? Has your approach to fitness changed as you've aged? Do you think that fitness and athleticism were presented to you antagonistically? If so, did it motivate you? 

And, to a broader point, should education aim to find the best of the best or make the best of the rest? (Or can it do both?)

Photo: Mark Nockleby, Sebastia Giralt, pabeaufait

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Tale of Two Festivals: Profiting off Terror and Breaking Boundaries

This weekend, I went to a rural wheat threshing festival in my hometown. It is an event I have attended almost as many years as I've been alive. It has a lot of charm. The simple tin-roof buildings sit vacant most of the year to suddenly come bustling to life with apple butter and funnel cakes for one beautiful weekend. Men dressed in overalls beam proudly as they show off their meticulously-maintained antique tractors. The sounds of roaring engines and laughing children mingle together. People pop up portable tables and fill them with handmade crafts, secondhand clothes, and a collection of toys, posters, and memorabilia that are at once absurd, kitschy, and exciting. You never know what you might find.

The draw for me, though, the thing that has kept me coming back even after I've moved away from home and into an urban area, is the people. I see people that I grew up with and family members. We share food and stories. It is a connecting zone. It's just a bonus that my daughter gets to run around over dusty fairgrounds, riding in toy trains and World Fair-era merry-go-rounds.

Some of the best traits of rural living are captured in this small town festival: the friendly greetings, the eclectic collection of handmade goods, the wide open fields in beautiful fall weather, and the ethic of hard work underscoring it all.

That hard work is so prevalent that, at one point, my daughter literally crawled onto the ground and fell asleep in the grass.

Unfortunately, this festival also represents some of the worst aspects of small town living: a narrow-mindedness that can be blindingly cruel. I wrote a long time ago, when I first started this blog, about the sale of racist figurines at one of the booths at this festival, but what we saw this year was even more disturbing. (Warning: I'm going to post some pictures of racist memorabilia that many will find offensive and disturbing.) 

Among these tents of knick knacks, homemade soaps, and plastic bracelets was one shaded on three sides by dark green tarps. Inside, the tables were covered with glass-enclosed cases, the middle rows filled with knives of various sizes. Along the outside tables, there were an assortment of historic buttons, coins, and signs, including several reminders of the most racist parts of human history. 

KKK membership badges, slave shackles, a "Keep Out" sign with a swastika, and a segregated railroad restroom sign all adorned the inside of this family-friendly festival booth. 

I know the arguments against my outrage. Yes, these are real pieces of American history. No, I do not want to erase or deny the veracity of that history. That's why the presence of these exact same pieces in, say, a museum exhibit would not bother me. After much reflection, I think there are two things that made them so problematic in this venue. 

Profiting off Terror

First of all, someone is profiting from these pieces of American history. The fact that someone's flesh and blood were once in those shackles makes them more valuable. The fact that the KKK badge was once held by someone who terrorized and murdered human beings now earns its peddler cold hard cash. Of course, I can only speculate to the familial history of the person selling these wares, but I feel fairly confident in saying that the person making the money is not someone who identifies with the members of these oppressed groups. He is profiting off of his white privilege and the history of genocide, terrorism, and bloodshed that made it possible. That's sickening. 

I have never seen anyone actually purchase one of these things, and--as far as I can tell--the cases usually stay pretty full. Perhaps that means that the good people of this small town have no stomach for such disgusting paraphernalia. At the very least, it probably means they don't want to shell out the better part of a week's paycheck for trinkets of terror that they can't really do anything with. The knives in the middle cases are likely drawing the attention of hunters as they have practical application. 

But what does it mean that so many people can walk into this tent, see these items, and continue to casually browse the rest of the selection? It requires a dangerous cognitive dissonance to tell ourselves that just because we aren't buying those things means that we aren't helping the man who's selling them. 

Creating Boundaries

This was the only booth I saw with such blatantly racist messages. Elsewhere, though, there were displays of a conservative ethos that's clearly tied up with the deep political divide in America. 

One booth had dozens of Second Amendment signs. Row after row of metal placards quipped things like "Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner" with a cartoon gun staring down the center. "What Part of 'Shall Not' Do You Not Understand?" another read. Absurdly, there was a handwritten sign clipped to the front of this entire tent with "SeLF DeFeNSE" scrawled on it. Another booth had raffle tickets for guns. 

Surrounded by knives, guns, and a firm statement of "self defense," those tokens of historic terrorism take on a decidedly contemporary feeling. With the Trayvon Martin case still weighing heavily on my mind and the stories of all the times the same "stand your ground" defense has not been working for shooters of color, the meaning is disturbing.

The attendance at this event is almost entirely white. There are a handful of people of color scattered amongst the crowds, and my husband and daughter are among them. The casual acceptance of KKK buttons and slave shackles, though, does cast some pretty deep boundaries. How are people of color supposed to feel welcome in this environment? 

An Urban Perspective

I've been re-reading the words I just wrote and putting myself into the shoes of my potential readers. 

I know that I will have several very progressive (and likely urban) friends who will read the description of what was in those booths with horror. How, some of them might wonder, can I even think of bringing my family to such a backwards place? 

At the same time, some of my friends from this small town will be reading with horror as well. How, they are probably thinking, can you misrepresent us so badly? We don't even know the man who sold those things (they likely travel around the country to these different events) and the festival is about so much more than that. We're not racist, and we love your family. 

My response is somewhere in the center of these two reactions. I know that most of the people at this event harbor no ill will toward my family, and many of them I personally know and love. Getting the chance to see them, share the day with them, fellowship in this idyllic place carved out of the land is a beautiful thing. But those images sear into my mind. There's a very real chance that the people selling those things would hurt my family if they could, and the presence of these tokens seems like a banner designed to remind us of that. 

Underpinning all of this is the fact that we left the festival in the early afternoon and returned to our home in the city. There was another festival going on a few miles from our house. Several blocks of the city streets were closed for a dance festival. After many professional displays of dancing from a plethora of cultures, age groups, and styles, we were all invited to dance together. 

Filling the stage at the front and the streets around us were young and old faces of many colors smiling and laughing together (sure, they played "Blurred Lines" twice, so it wasn't exactly a perfect sea of human equality). There were booths set up along the streets selling handmade crafts and local restaurants' food. I tried to imagine, for a minute, what would happen if the man selling the KKK buttons had tried to set up shop here. I don't suspect he would have felt very welcome. 

And he shouldn't. He shouldn't feel welcome as the profiter of hate. At the end of the day, I want to be among people who stand up against that display, and that is why I can't ever imagine taking my family to live out of the city. 

While my country family often worries aloud for my safety as they watch the images of urban violence fill the news, I can't figure out how to get across to them the fact that the real fears for the safety of my family that keep me up at night rest not in the shadowed city alley mugger but in the sly smile of an overall-clad flea market booth proprietor.

Update: After I wrote this, I sent a message to the association that organizes the event to voice my dismay at seeing these things. They responded that they do police what they sell, but that these sneaked past them and promised to fix it for future events. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that someone is profiting off of these pieces of terror, but it does mean that it won't have to be such a terrible reflection on my hometown and this quaint festival.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Become a New You! (and Other Educational Endeavors)

College is supposed to change you. If it didn't, it would be hard to justify the time, money, and effort spent attending. The concept of change, renewing, and relaunching is prominent in the ads for colleges across the country. 

There are frequently metaphors centered on "building" or "creating" a "new you" in these advertisements. 

A complementary message is that the "you" that is created will go on to change the world:

What I am getting at here is that the dominant narratives surrounding the purpose for education in America exist within a productive tension between the individual and the community. "Go to college," the ads say "to change your life." They focus on the very individual impact it will have on your existence. You will make more money. You will be more fulfilled. You will be happier with your day-to-day existence. In order to make this point, advertisements (especially those TV spots) tend to rely on a stark contrast between the downtrodden (but always filled with potential) student before and after attending college. The act of transformation is ever-present. 

Transformation, though, cannot happen in a vacuum. (This relates to the recent conversation we had here about there being no "authentic self.") You cannot make more money, after all, unless whatever skills you built fit into a larger economic network of employment. The concept of fulfillment is often tied into the act of helping other people, be it through a career in nursing or creating a much-beloved video game. Even the most personal (and thus the most individual)  of the calls to transformation touch upon a connection to other people. "I now have more time for my family" says the woman in the video ad. "I am a role model to my children." 

So it's a given in educational narratives that there will be a transformation. We will change for ourselves, and we will change the world. There is no clear division between these two transformative acts. They are, in fact, interconnected. The very act of individual changing occurs by interacting with the larger community (represented by the college itself, the classes we attend, the activities we use to fill our time). Essentially, the framing of educational purpose is an agonistic one. There is a tension in place between the self and the larger group, but it is not a destructive tension. Both the self and the whole will change through that tension, and that change is not just a by-product, but the actual goal. 

In Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts, the transformative/agonistic component of educational theory is explored:
"both athletic and sophistic pedagogy depend on a contractual philia, a tacit agreement to transform"
"while the ancient concept of phusis carried meanings that would fall on the 'nature' side of the contemporary nature/culture divide, the word also suggests 'temperament' and 'character,' and contains a common connotation of 'growth.'Phusis thus already implies a kind of capacity for change, the force encapsulated by phusiopoiesis."
As someone who believes that agonistic tension is a very productive and necessary (and inevitable) part of human communication, it's heartening for me to think of education in these terms. Students enter into the classroom with the understanding that it will (or at the very least should) change them, and--in turn--they change the classroom with their presence. There is an exchange of energy, of knowledge, and even of identity.

This, though, is where things get dicey for me.

Change, Identity, and "Our Own" Language

The connection between language and identity is readily apparent in my classroom because I teach developmental English. The way that we talk, write, and communicate through clothing and body language are all intimately tied up with our sense of self and the projection of that self to a larger community.

Some students enter my classroom desperate for some secret code that will give them the means to project a different version of themselves into public life. They want to know where the commas go, how to avoid subject-verb agreement problems, and how to pronounce "smart" words so that they can project themselves as "smart" people.

They are not wrong. There are many people who will judge them (rightly or wrongly, positively or negatively) by the way they use language.

Some students enter my classroom resentful of any suggestion that their language is "wrong." The people they love taught them this language (or, really, these languages) and it serves them well in many (if not most) of their day-to-day interactions. In fact, if they used the "proper" language of the school setting in many of their common daily conversations, they would be seen as an outcast who was not communicating effectively.

They are not wrong, either. There is nothing inherently better or more intelligent in Standard Academic English, and there are plenty of situations when it is the wrong mode of communication for the given circumstances.

It is with these tensions fresh in my mind that I first read the 1972 resolution on students' rights to their own language:

We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.
 I read it and my heart soared. "Yes!" I thought. "These students should feel empowered and capable within their own languages. Why should the elitist norms of the rich and powerful be the only accepted standards?" (My internal dialogue is a little verbose.)

But the more rhetorical theory I research, the more I think about how language develops and what education is supposed to do, the more I bristle at the implications of this resolution and the (well-meaning) practices we put in place because of it.

No one has their "own" language. If they did, it wouldn't be a language. Language requires an exchange between people. If I start calling desks "burgleports," it doesn't mean anything unless you also agree to call them that or to understand what I mean when I say it. Language is inherently shared. No one owns it. It develops in groups; it is used in groups; it is a collective project.

So what I really mean if I say that my students have a right to "their own" language is that somehow "my own" language is not theirs and "their own" language is not mine. That's a problem. It's a problem for my understanding of the relationship between myself and my students, and it's a problem for my pedagogical underpinnings.

Of course, I still understand the motivations behind the resolution. No one can deny that there are race, class, and gender biases wrapped up in which versions of English get considered "proper," and we should be called out on that constantly.

But to say that groups of students (based primarily on their race/class/gender status) have their "own" language somehow suggests that the language I use in an educational setting isn't theirs.

It reminds me of another book from this exam list: David Gold's Rhetoric at the Margins. In it, Gold examines the pedagogical practices of Melvin Tolson, a black professor at Texas' Wiley College. As the leader of the first black debate team to participate in integrated debates in the South, he was very aware of the way racial assumptions impacted his students. Gold had this to say about Tolson's practices:
To Tolson, there was nothing definably "white" in his poetry nor would there have been in the elegant oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr . . . Tolson did not worry about whether the master's tools could tear down the master's house; he did not believe the tools belonged to the master in the first place--or, for that matter, the house.
That line has come back to me again and again as I've made lesson plans and done rhetorical research. What other assumptions do we make about students' "own" languages? Doesn't making that distinction necessarily suggest a belief in our ownership of the "right" language (even if we don't call it the right one)? 

Finally, what does that mean for the educational prospects of students who (through race, class, gender, etc.) have somehow been Othered? If we frame education as a transformation between individual and society, as an opportunity for productive tension, what do we do when we start roping off language (which is intimately tied up with identity) and calling it our "own"? Where does that leave the transformative act of education, and how do we ensure that the transformation that we seek to enact is agonistic, a true exchange between student and educational environment, not merely an assimilation device?