Monday, December 22, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Are We Still Living in a Tidy House of 'Remedial' Education?

Today I'm reading a couple of landmark essays on developmental writing by David Bartholomae: "Inventing the University" and "The Tidy House." It's the latter that's really resonating with me and my work as a developmental writing instructor working decades after he published these words:
"Basic writing has begun to seem like something naturally, inevitably, transparently there in the curriculum, in the stories we tell ourselves about English in America. It was once a provisional, contested term, marking an uneasy accommodation between the institution and its desires and a student body that did not or would not fit. I think it should continue to mark an area of contest, of struggle, including a struggle against its stability or inevitability. 
Let me put this more strongly. I think basic writing programs have become expressions of our desire to produce basic writers, to maintain the course, the argument, and the slot in the university community; to maintain the distinction (basic/normal) we have learned to think through and by. The basic writing program, then, can be seen simultaneously as an attempt to bridge AND preserve cultural difference, to enable students to enter the 'normal' curriculum but to insure, at the same time, that there are basic writers."
Bartholomae is suggesting that we (a "we" in which he includes himself) have fallen into a binary trap. We are so invested in the categories of basic/normal, remedial/mainstream, developmental/credit-level that we work to retain them even as we are working against them. That is, our job is to move students out of the "lower" categories and into the higher ones, and it is work that we take very seriously and are very invested in achieving, but first we must work to ensure that the categories stay rigidly in place so that we can do that work. We are, in some ways, creating our own problem to solve. 

By coincidence, I also read this New York Times article from last week today: "Raising Ambitions: The Challenges of Teaching in a Community College." 

The article is very good, and as a community college teacher, I found myself nodding along with much of it. The overview of the breadth of community college impact as well as the diversity of the student body and the challenges instructors face as well as the rewards they receive are all presented powerfully. 

But I came across a part of it that stuck me and kept bothering me:
"Professors at elite four-year colleges can trust that students share a bank of references, that they will understand principles of critical inquiry, that they will appreciate conceptualization for its own sake. None of this can be assumed at a community college, where 'the idea of academic discourse is completely foreign,' Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, said. 
To introduce and make uniform the expectations of college, LaGuardia and some other two-year colleges across the country have recently begun requiring new students to take a freshman seminar, which is aimed at connecting students to faculty members in their majors. Beyond that, its purpose is to guide students toward the habits and styles of thinking that college, and by extension, adult life, demand."
The line, in particular, that was piercing me like a splinter is "its purpose is to guide students toward the habits and styles of thinking that college, and by extension, adult life, demand." 

The implication here is that our students have not entered "adult life" until they have picked up the habits and mannerisms that a college environment will provide them. This is directly linked to the preceding paragraph's discussion of community college students lacking even the "idea" of academic discourse. 

In this particular article, we're drawing that distinction between four-year college students and community college students, but we play some version of this game at just about every level of the academic hierarchy. When I was in a four-year college setting, it was played by demarcating some students as "honors" students prepared for "tougher" classes and therefore more sophisticated discourses. Within the community college, it's played by demarcating some students as "college ready" and others as "developmental" (or "remedial"). 

I'm not arguing that these categories have no use. Indeed, I was one of those "honors" students, and I very much enjoyed the benefits of getting to take interdisciplinary coursework that was only offered to students within the Honors College. I teach "developmental" students, and they often are unprepared to be successful in the college-level classes and need preparation those endeavors. These categories are not without meaning or utility, but they are, as Bartholomae explained 20 years ago, a little too comfortable. I share his belief that these labels should be "an area of contest, of struggle." 

And I think that, as educators, we have less and less incentive to introduce that struggle and contest over these labels. After all, there is mainstream panic about a potential education bubble. There are constant news stories and speculation on whether college is even worth "it." 

By falling into our old stand-bys of binary oppositions, we have an easy way to demonstrate that college is indeed worth "it" because "it" becomes adulthood itself. Those who have successfully demonstrated their adherence to the academic discourse pass out of a category of "non-adulthood" and into one of "adulthood," out of "unprepared" and into "prepared." 

But that's ridiculous. I have students in my classroom who fought in Vietnam. I have students who have children, grandchildren, and occasionally great grandchildren. I have students who have retired from entire careers, students who are incredibly skilled in highly specialized fields, and students who are well-versed in cultural texts that are important to them. I have students twice my age. And every single one of my students comes into my classroom with discourse fluencies that I do not have, discourse fluencies that have served them well in many environments, often environments that I would not be able to successfully navigate.

Am I really supposed to look at these students and tell them they are not "adults" unless they can pass the arbitrary standards of the class I've put in front of them? Unless they can write in multiple paragraphs and identify topic sentences? Unless they put their commas in the right place? It is these tests and not their service or employment or personal experience or history that makes them worthy of the label as "adult," which is shorthand for "real, contributing member to society"? 

I can't do that, and I won't try. 

My students (even the ones fresh out of high school who roll their eyes when I assign reading and play on their cell phones every time I turn my back to them) are adults. I teach adults. Treating them as if they are children is a disservice to them, but it is also a disservice to me. 

By pulling upon that wealth of knowledge and experiences my students bring to the classroom, I can create a space that is rich in opportunities for learning far beyond those I can craft on my own. It is the understanding that my students bring something to the table that makes my classroom work. 

Still, those labels persist, and I have to wonder if Bartholomae's insistence that we are as invested in maintaining them as we are in moving students through them isn't right. This, as Bartholomae points out, makes our house a lot tidier, but I'm not sure that stuffing all the dirty laundry in the basement is really helping the cause.

Photo: David Gallagher

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Can I Talk About Race Without 'Whitesplaining'?

I received an invitation to speak at a diversity conference as a result of this blog. In particular, the organizer read some of my blog posts about white privilege (like "The Silences I Don't Hear" and "I am Not Trayvon Martin's Mother," both of which were personal reflections on my position as a white woman raising a child of color.) I accepted the invitation and am looking forward to putting together a presentation that weaves together some personal narrative with some current events, including how my St. Louis neighborhood reacted to some of the Ferguson protests as a way to talk about white privilege. 

I don't consider myself a race "expert," and I am certainly not trying to make a career out of talking about race and racism. However, race and racism do bleed into my profession as a community college writing instructor, which I've also reflected on many times. I am the mother of a biracial child, the wife of a black husband, and the teacher of many students who are racial minorities. If I didn't spend some time thinking about race and racism on a regular basis, I would be shortchanging people I love and to whom I have responsibilities to uphold.

But those responsibilities involve changes in myself, not in them. I'm reflecting on race and racism not because I need to understand them, but because their presence in my life makes it impossible for me to ignore how much I need to understand myself and my place in a larger cultural narrative.

I wish I could say that I know I would do this level of reflection and work toward dismantling racism in my own cultural training if I didn't know these people, but part of me fears that I wouldn't (something I reflected on in this post). It's not that I only think racism matters if it is directed at someone you personally know and love, it's simply (or maybe not simply at all) that privilege's most insidious factor (in my opinion) is the way it shields itself from view. There was a time in my life when I didn't know I had white privilege, and I don't think that it's any coincidence that that time is exactly aligned with a time when I didn't regularly speak to any non-white people.

It was with these reflections and that invitation to speak in my mind that I read this really great article from Brit Bennett: "I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People."

In it, Bennett weaves together personal experience, historical context, and critical analysis to explain, in part, her frustration with white people who claim to be allies constantly wanting praise for their contribution to the cause of anti-racism:
Over the past two weeks, I've seen good white people congratulate themselves for deleting racist friends or debating family members or performing small acts of kindness to Black people. Sometimes I think I'd prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandizement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency. We are not like those other white people. See how enlightened and aware we are? See how we are good? 
Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by Black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.
I hope that I have not been one of these "good" white people, but I suspect that I have. Maybe I'm being one right now, by writing this. Maybe I'll be one by speaking at a conference on diversity. I hope not, but I certainly know that I haven't always gotten it right when it comes to thinking and talking about race and racism. I've made mistakes. I've ignored voices I should have heard, and I've talked when I should have been listening.

I've been thinking a lot about how to get it right, how to do better, and there has been a lot going on to give me reason to pause and reflect.

There have also been two high-profile incidents of people seeking "cookies" for doing anti-racist work in my recent social media feeds.

The viral picture of a young black boy hugging a cop during the recent protests has been criticized for being a staged event orchestrated by the child's white mothers.

Even more recently, a picture and story from Leigh Anne Tuohy (the real-life mother from the film The Blind Side) made the rounds after she confronted two black boys in her restaurant who were talking in a booth to prove to her friend they weren't up to no good. As this post from The Belle Jar points out, sharing this picture and story smacks of a kind of entitlement and self-aggrandizement that should be completely antithetical to its stated purpose:
Black people aren’t things. They don’t exist just so that white people can make a point about themselves. These are two real kids who not only had to endure this woman’s microaggressions but have now had their image splashed all over social media – the Facebook picture alone has 150,000 likes and over 12,000 shares. Step away for a hot second from this white woman’s narrative, and think about how those teenagers must feel – having their privacy invaded, having assumptions made about them based on their race, and now having a white woman use their images to get praise for herself.
She updated her post when one of the boys from the picture responded on Instagram to explain that the story went down a little differently from his view, and it was largely awkward and misrepresentative of his situation.

There are many ways that white allyship can go wrong. Here's a post from Resist Racism talking about an incident in 2008 where a Kent State student received notice from the FBI. Her piece on her experiences of being called "a white bitch" and her fight against "reverse racism" had garnered the attention of white supremacists. The need to turn anti-racist work into a discussion of how "all people experience racism" is a problem:
This is just one of the arenas in which white people demonstrate their inability to relinquish their dominant position. So even when they want to do anti-racist work, they replicate racist behavior.
Here's another post from Spectra Speaks that was really eye-opening and made me reflect on how I present my white ally status:
I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.
More recently, Spectra Speaks published another great post along the same lines. In this article, there's a call for white allies to stop unfriending other white people over their racist Facebook posts specifically because the emotional work of engaging them needs to be done and is an excellent place for white allies to step in:
I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.

And with that, I get to the heart of the two things that have really been twisting and turning for me in this conversation: the first post's point about not seeking cookies for reaching a very low bar of decent human action and the demand that white allies take on their fair share of emotional work when it comes to battling racism.

The thing that's really important to me is that when I talk about white privilege, I'm talking to other white people. That doesn't mean that people of color "shouldn't" read what I write if they want to (and tell me when I'm getting it wrong), but they are not the audience I have in mind when I speak on this topic because I don't have anything to teach a person of color about racism. I'm the one learning in that equation.

Since so many of these articles and stories have revolved around social media, I think it's important to remember that many white people have no friends of color in their social circles at all. A recent article in The Atlantic revealed that three-fourths of white social media circles contain no racial diversity:
In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).
Now, my social media feeds do contain diversity in many ways. I am lucky enough to know people who come at the world from a variety of perspectives, and it's one of the reasons I love social media. While I do have friends representing multiple races in my feed, it is still mostly white. It's not by design, but a good chunk of my Facebook friends are high school acquaintances from my nearly all-white hometown. Another good chunk is from my graduate school experience, which is also overwhelmingly white.

What this means is that when I share a link on Facebook, I'm mostly talking to white people. When I hit publish on this blog post and then link it to Facebook, it will mostly be white people who see it. I think that when I go to this conference and speak on white privilege, it will mostly be white people in the audience.

And that's important to me because I am not an expert on race and racism. I do not have personal experiences that let me know what it is like to be a racial minority and experience systemic racism. I do not have the authority to be an expert on this topic, and I don't want to try to claim it.

What I do have a lot of first-hand experience with is getting my own bubble of white privilege burst. I went from living in a rural town without any racial diversity to living in a very racially diverse urban environment. I went from being one of those people (like many of my friends on Facebook) who would hear about the Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin case and think "surely he did something to provoke this; no one just kills someone without reason" to understanding how narrowly that view was looking at the issue and how much that line of thinking was contributing to the problem.

I know that I don't have all the answers, but I do hope that I'm asking some of the right questions. I also hope that when I go to give this talk, I do the part of the work that I need to do and detract from none of the work that I can't do.

I'd like to end with these posts I've been reading lately on how to be a better ally:

"So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All 'Allies' Need to Know"

"12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson"

"This is a Really Helpful List on How Not to Be a Good Ally"

Photos: Steven Shorrock, Justin Lynham

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: The Intrinsic Desire for Identity, as Illustrated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'm reading Dana Anderson's Identity's Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversation. Anderson spends a good deal of the introduction to this book preemptively defending his practices and project in the face of postmodernism. He notes that a "pronounced effect" of postmodern perspectives has been "the virtual abandonment of 'identity' as a valid theoretical concept" (5). Identity is, at best, something that we can ignore as a non-issue and at worst a canard that distracts us from the real concerns of rhetorical and philosophical inquiry.

Anderson, though, notes that the impact of identity and belief in it has not faded with identity's theoretical validity. Common sense and observation demonstrate that we depend on identity in a very practical sense (whether we "believe" in its existence or not). I may very well have no authentic or core identity. Postmodernism may very well mean that I am so unstable and constantly changing as to be no "I" at all, but I still called upon an identity to write these words, and you are still imagining a me when you read them.

Not only that, but we care about identity. It isn't just a convenient placeholder that lets us wrap our minds around individual moments of communication. It is something we invest in, put time in, and commit to both in our independent lives and as a collective culture.

As evidence, I'd suggest a quick view at the current New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Here we find Unbroken, Wild, Dick Van Dyke's My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, The Andy Cohen Diaries, Amy Poehler's Yes Please, and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl.

We are hungry for stories about people becoming who they are (or who we see them as), about the transformations that people undergo throughout their lives. We place value in these narratives, and Anderson believes it is because "narratives about conversion are more than just interesting stories about identities in transformation. They are stories of transformation that would transform us as well" (57).

We look for models for our own identities. We seek out inspiration in becoming. We want a sense of self, but it is always bound by a sense of others. This is why postmodernism cannot displace the practical function of identity even if it discredits the technical definition.

Anderson illustrates this by turning to the very influential and incredibly dense Kenneth Burke. I'll illustrate it by turning to the also influential and phenomenally entertaining Joss Whedon.

More specifically, I want to talk about Season 6, Episode 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Tabula Rasa."

In this episode, Willow is in a fight with her girlfriend Tara because Willow has been using magic to manipulate the people and things in the world around her, including Tara herself. Willow promises not to use anymore magic, but she has trouble keeping her word and instead decides to cast a powerful spell to make Tara forget about the fight and the promise. When her spell gets out of hand, she ends up erasing the memories of all of her friends and herself. They wake up in a magic shop with no sense of who they are and no memory of their former lives.

While this would be an unfortunate situation for any group of people to find themselves in, it is particularly dangerous for this group of monster-fighting friends.

What's important is that as soon as the group realizes they  have no memory or sense of self, they immediately start to seek out identities.

The first place they turn is the environment around them. Willow notes that they're surrounded by "weird stuff in weird jars" and "weird books with weird covers," finally coming to the realization that they're in a magic shop and that magic is probably responsible for their predicament.

Giles, the patriarch of the group, rejects their surroundings as a helpful clue. Upon hearing himself speak with an accent, he notes that he "appears to be British, and a man" then he feels his face and notes "with glasses." He is seeking his own corporeal being for a sense of self, but he comes up short, sarcastically saying, "well that narrows it down considerably."

With these quick, simple scenes, the characters have demonstrated one of the main problems of identity: it cannot be sussed out by our own physical presence or our surroundings. We have no sense of self just because we inhabit bodies and spaces. The sense of identity comes only once we start forming relationships with other people around us. We know who we are when we can identify what makes us like and unlike others.

The gang immediately start exploring these identity-forming possibilities even though in this case it's a ludicrous proposition. No one knows who they are. How can figuring out a potential connection to someone else possibly help? Nonetheless, that's precisely what they start doing.

When Spike starts speaking and realizes he's also British, he and Giles jump to the conclusion that they are related: father and son. Spike then says that he must hate Giles because he chose such a young "trollop" to date (Anya, whom Giles was leaning against when they awoke). Anya then notes that she's not a trollop because the ring on her finger (which is actually a sign of her relationship to Xander) demonstrates that she and Giles are engaged. Within moments, these people have started concocting a world that is completely fabricated. They yearn for firm roles that explain their connection to the other people around them.

At some point, they think to look for official identification. Xander finds out that he is "Alexander" Harris, which results in him being referred to as "Alex" for the rest of the memory-less time. Anya mispronounces her own name. Spike believes that he is "Randy" because he finds the name written in a coat that he doesn't know he's only wearing as a disguise.

When Dawn despairs that she doesn't have a wallet, Buffy points out the necklace she's wearing that proclaims she is "Dawn." Buffy is also without identification, but rather than let this point of uncertainty further deter her from placing herself in the reality that is quickly being constructed around her, she makes the bold decision to name herself. "I'll name me . . . Joan." When Dawn says her name is "blah," Buffy gets defensive, feeling like she needs to defend an identity that isn't even hers.

Buffy and Dawn begin bickering, which leads them to (correctly) assume they are sisters.

Moments later, they are bombarded by a vampire attack, but since they didn't know vampires existed, they don't react too well. Buffy stumbles upon her natural slaying abilities, and then notes that she knows why she's "the boss" because "Joan's like a superhero or something."

The rest of the episode revolves around the back and forth sway between humor and suspense as the characters try to figure out who they are while avoiding certain death. Eventually, Xander steps on the crystal at the center of the spell, and they all get their memories back instantly, leaving them in some awkward positions.

The thing that I want to focus on is the way that the characters so fully took on their newfound roles. Giles, calling himself "Rupert," gives "Randy" a hug goodbye because he feels it is his fatherly duty. Anya and Giles actually kiss passionately since they believe they are engaged.

I'm calling them by the names that they have during the rest of the show, but is that right? In those moments, wasn't that "Rupert" kissing "Ann-ya"? Wasn't "Randy" surprised to learn  he was a vampire? Wasn't "Alex" impressed with his ability to fight to protect his girlfriend Willow?

While there are several hints to their previous personalities throughout the episode (Anya, ever the capitalist, has to protect the cash register; Giles senses a disappointment in Spike; Buffy takes the lead and makes a plan), who's to say what these characters would have done if they had never gotten their memories back? Maybe Rupert and Anya would have had a glorious marriage. Maybe Alex and Willow would have lived happily ever after. Maybe Randy, the vampire-with-a-soul, would have had a long and happy life of crime fighting. And if anything would have disrupted this newly constructed reality, it would have been someone external announcing that they had made the "wrong" connections. Without someone else coming into the equation (or the physical remnants of someone else in the form of pictures and documents), they would have no way of disrupting this narrative.

In many ways, we're supposed to feel amused and a little frustrated that these characters are not behaving like their "real" selves, but in such a short period of time (mere minutes after awakening), they have already started constructing completely separate selves.

This is all the more important when we consider this episode's place in a series that frequently plays with identity and authenticity. We learn elsewhere that Willow has a vampire version of herself in another dimension. Xander is split into two different versions of himself in one episode. Buffy runs away from her friends and takes on a different identity as a waitress named "Anne." Later, Buffy has to choose between two competing versions of reality: one in which she's the vampire slayer and another in which she's a patient in a mental institution suffering from a severe psychic break with reality.

Perhaps most telling of all is the existence of Dawn. Dawn appears in the show out of nowhere: a fifteen-year-old sister who we have never heard of or seen in five seasons. The other characters treat her as if she is a normal member of their world, but it is jarring to the audience who "knows" better. It turns out that Dawn is a key made out of energy that was put in human form for Buffy to protect. The monks who transformed her created an entire history full of memories, personality traits, and--above all--human relationships.

When Dawn finds out that she is a key, she understandably freaks out, questioning who she really is, but the others assure her that she is real because of who she is to them. It is her status as daughter, sister, friend that make her a person, not her genesis or even the veracity of her memories.

If Dawn could become a real person simply because those around her accept and respond to her various relationship statuses, so too could "Rupert," "Randy," "Joan," and "Alex." The Buffy-verse has already established that it is not the "truth" that makes the person who she is, but the connections to those around her.

I think that this episode does an amazing job of illustrating the very problem that Anderson is fighting against in her introduction. The postmodern condition tells us that identity is fluid and ever-changing, and the characters in Buffy definitely illustrate that instability and malleability, often to a terrifying degree. However, we also see that identity--even as unstable and explosive as it may be--matters. These characters seek it out and want it so badly that they will construct entire realities to create it.

If identity is not the truth, then we can never find the truth because identity is all we have to find a way to look in the first place.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

I'll Never Be "North of Vag"

Now that I'm six months out from my ankle break, I'm finally starting to get back to my previous workouts. I was making some pretty good progress with weightlifting before the injury, and I'm excited about getting back to it.

Since it's also now winter break, this seems like a good time to make a concerted effort to get back into things. I went to this blog post from Samantha Menzies to make a plan for next week. In this post, she uses an adaptation of the 5/3/1 program (and details some pretty impressive results from it for herself).

As I was printing out the sheet with the amount of weight I needed to lift for the program, I was asking my husband (who also lifts) what auxiliary lifts he thought I should do for each day. He said that he had the official 5/3/1 book on Kindle and handed it over so I could skim through it and see what I wanted to do.

The book, 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler, has a lot of helpful advice. I skimmed through the parts that had already been summarized in Menzies post and then started reading about the auxiliary lifts. As I moved ahead to the next chapter, I noticed it had an odd title: "North of Vag (N.O.V.)"

Consider me . . . suspicious. 
Now, Wendler admits that he can't "take credit" for this gem of a term; that honor goes to his "good friend" Jim Messer, who sent him an email about how great the 5/3/1 program was and now he has "moved somewhat north of being an utter vag."

Wendler muses on this and notes that "many people seem to be moving and staying well south of vag." Then he "started to contemplate how one stays in the Northern Hemisphere of the Holy Holes." 

Elsewhere, he gives some advice about conditioning, specifically running. You need to make sure that you make time for running and other conditioning because this should be a life priority when you "live in the Land of the Vag." By all means, you must get out.

Wendler also gives the sage advice to just "[s]top all the things that make you a pussy and steal your energy. Get your life back." 

I won't be reading any more of Wendler's book since it is clearly not for me. I will never be "North of Vag." I will, I'm quite certain, be squarely in the "Land of the Vag" my whole life. I will never, by his estimation, be able to "get [my] life back." This is it for me. All vagina. All the time. 

I'm not sure why Wendler felt like it was a smart economical move to sell a weightlifting program that immediately cuts out half of the human population, but I do know that living in the "Land of the Vag" has not stopped me from doing plenty of things that I think are pretty fucking amazing, including squeezing a 9-pound child out of my body using only my own muscles, and it sure as hell isn't going to stop me from squatting or bench pressing. 

Photo: Milestoned

Monday, December 1, 2014

Privilege, Power, and Plywood: What To Do With Our Walls

This has been an interesting time to live in St. Louis.

I was watching live feeds when the grand jury announcement was made (in full dark at 8:30 pm), and several protesters formed human barriers around buildings to try and prevent destruction, but I could also feel the tide of pain and anger swelling. That night several businesses burned in Ferguson, and a smaller protest took place in my own neighborhood.

A group of protesters had marched for a few hours without incident, but it ended with tear gas at a coffee shop and smashed windows in 20 storefronts along a major business district. There's video of the tear gassing here and an account of the events throughout the night here as well as a firsthand account here.

The next morning, business owners and community members started cleaning up the mess, and soon groups of people had gathered to paint the boards covering the windows.

It's those paintings I want to reflect on today because I've personally had a flurry of different emotions while looking at them, and I've seen even more reactions to them from friends and friends of friends on Facebook.

When I first saw the paintings, I noticed the brightly colored ones and felt a surge of pride and pain: pride to live in a neighborhood full of people who would come together like this and pain to think about the hurt, fear, and anger of those who smashed the windows in the first place.

But I also had a feeling deeper that was more complicated than those surface emotions of pride and sympathy. Later, I saw a friend share this status criticizing the paintings as the work of white privilege, and I started to unpack that deeper emotion. 

In the midst of that unpacking, I went to look at the paintings for myself. I used the unseasonably warm weekend to walk with my family to get some breakfast. There were plenty of other people doing the same, and I saw people of different ages and races taking pictures of the paintings and sharing nods at one another. I heard one woman say to the man she was with "This is what I'll show people when they ask me why I live here. This is why we're not leaving." 

I also went and looked at some articles about the paintings. This St. Louis Public Radio piece is thorough and titled "Windows, Boards, Resilience Line South Grand." The title alone suggests that the author sees the boards as a positive message, but it also features interviews with business owners and employees, and there's a clear sense of concern for their livelihoods if people see the neighborhood as dangerous and stop patronizing them. 

I also found this slideshow at KSDK about the paintings, and it featured a group of bundled up kids with paint rollers, showing that many of the paintings were done by children.

I've spent the last few days mulling over these intersections and what it means for the power of this display of public rhetoric. I don't know the answers, but I do know that these boards have a lot of meaning, and that it is definitely not simple. 

To start figuring it out, we can look at one of the fundamental tools of rhetorical analysis: the rhetorical triangle. We learn that there is a medium, a sender, and a receiver. The medium here is clear: pieces of plywood nailed to windows have been painted with various messages. The sender and receiver? Not so clear. 

The painters are not all the same people. Some of the paintings look professionally done, others are clearly the work of children, and many fall somewhere in between. Some of the messages seem to be coming from the store owners, some from the employees, and some from the community at large.

As for the audience, the immediate viewers will be those who come by the store, and the intended audience for many is customers. They will also be seen by many people living in the neighborhood as well as people who drive by. Finally, they've got a potentially international audience as news of the St. Louis protests makes the media rounds. 

We can't, then, take these boarded up windows and their paint as one giant work of rhetoric. There are too many authors and too many audiences (intended and not) to make any sweeping statements about what these words and images do or mean, so perhaps my mixed bag of emotions is a reflection on the mixed bag of messages and the different audiences I stepped in and out of as I walked past. 

A lot of the paintings function to let customers know that the store is, despite the boards, open for business. A lot of them declare "OPEN" in large, colorful letters, which is straightforward, but also puts a pretty, welcoming facade onto an otherwise unwelcoming layer of brown plywood.

The businesses need customers in order to survive.
Other businesses (like this one) focus on their longstanding history in the community, declaring themselves "family owned" and operating since 1972. 

I found the "Every tear shed is outa love" message really powerful as well. This seems to be a message of solidarity with the protesters, a message that they aren't being blamed for the destruction and potential loss of business and that tears shed are hopes for a brighter future. 

Many of the paintings had a more overt message of solidarity and support, some even becoming messages of protest themselves. This painting, for example, evokes the "hands up, don't shoot" message that has become a common chant among the protesters (and shares imagery with the street art covering the boarded up buildings in Ferguson). 

This painting, too, takes a more overt stance that justice was not served, claiming that "justice is blind, but we can see." 

Most of the paintings, though, shy away from such a direct message and instead send up a general call for peace and love. 

Messages calling for "One Love" or "Peace" are common, and perhaps it is this gather-round-the-campfire ethos that has some people calling foul on the whole endeavor. Calling for peace is certainly a valuable desire (and one I want myself), but if it ignores the circumstances in which this particular violence (the broken windows) was enacted, it can  have the same impact of those who insist they are "colorblind" (an ideology that is a friendly-sounding form of racism). 

However, there are other paintings lining the streets that put that message of peace and love into a different context, one that's less about ignoring the problems of the present and more about hoping for a better future. It's hard not to hope for an optimistic outcome when surrounded by the hopefulness and innocence of childhood. 

Paintings covered in stick figures, tiny handprints, and "#KidPower" remind us that no matter what is happening today, we are passing down a legacy for the future. There are many children who live in this neighborhood, children who have surely been feeling the anxiety, fear, and sorrow of the community around them. 

There were only a few messages that could really be construed as taking a stance against the protesters or their actions. One, a place that serves eggs, has a rooster saying "Break eggs, not windows." Even this, though, is more playful than condemning. 

Only a single painting really bothered me. One building said "Stop choosing sides and turn off your TV." 

The suggestion that one can make the problem go away simply by turning off your TV is one that ignores the lived reality of the people doing the protesting, people for whom turning off the TV does no good. In fact, it is the TV (and social media) that allows them to share their frustration, pain, and fear, that allows people like me who benefit from white privilege and who don't know what it's like to feel that kind of oppression to hear the story and reflect on where we fit in it.

And the suggestion that we need to "stop choosing sides" is even more frustrating. While I understand the desire to stop turning everything into a set of binary oppositions, there are definitely times when we need to choose sides and take a stand. Suggesting that people are wrong for choosing to support protesters or that they've been brainstormed by a media narrative negates the stories that real, living people are telling and reduces them to background noise.

In the end, I spent the most time reflecting on a message that I saw painted on several boards. It said "Why? We need our jobs."

This short message demonstrates the rhetorical complexity quite nicely. On the one hand, it seems to be a message from the business owners to the protesters. "Why [did you break our windows]? [We are part of your community and] we need our jobs." 

But it also seems like an answer from the employees to the protesters, especially in the face of criticisms that painting the boards is an attempt to hide behind privilege, to "pretty up" a necessarily ugly reality: "Why [did we paint over these boards]? [Because it will make people feel safe enough to shop and] we need our jobs." 

Finally, I've been thinking about the parallels between these literal walls and the figurative ones of Facebook. In both instances, we are sending messages out to an audience that's broad and unpredictable in scope. The business owners don't know who will be driving past these windows just as I don't know which friends of friends are going to see my Facebook posts. 

It made me think of an interesting post I read this weekend titled "Dear White Allies, Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson" (the link has been a little erratic because of the traffic, but it's definitely worth reading). In this post, Spectra Speaks suggests that white allies have a responsibility to engage in the uncomfortable conversations surrounding Ferguson and the other police shootings of unarmed black men and boys.  In part, Spectra Speaks writes:
I’m seeing one too many white people bragging about defriending other white people. I don’t need your condolences. I don’t need rash actions that absolve you of the responsibility of facilitating hard conversations with folks I will never be able to reach. 
I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.
In many ways, I've been conscious of the need to engage with people who do not understand the protesters and who disagree with them vehemently. I've been very conscious with each post that I share (including this one) of how I might be isolating people who I could talk to, how I might be shutting down conversations that might not otherwise happen. My Facebook feed is filled with people who have only visited St. Louis for baseball games and who have no sense of the neighborhoods surrounding it as well as people who have lived in communities void of any racial diversity entirely. My feed is also made up of several police officers and their family members. It is also filled with protesters: passionate, intelligent, and hurt people who I love deeply.

I want to be someone who engages thoughtfully and meaningfully, but every post I write or even share runs the risk of shutting down that engagement. In some ways, my Facebook wall mirrors those "Peace and Love" paintings: focusing on the easiest, most palatable message instead of the one that needs to be heard the most. I know that is a message of privilege. I can post the positive and the feel good because I am afforded a distance that many of my friends are not, but I also know that I have a responsibility to do more than that, to use any platform I have to make sure the voices of the protesters are heard. I think that the painters of those pieces of plywood are trying to walk the same lines: keeping the audience without losing the message, and I empathize.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Spiral Road to Recovery

Six months ago, I broke my ankle while playing roller derby. Since then, I've retired from roller derby (with some amorphous hopes of returning as a ref after I finish my PhD) and started the challenging task of regaining my athleticism after the ankle break. I had the help of some great physical therapy, and my day-to-day actions are pretty much back to normal.

What I wasn't prepared for, though, was the mental work of recovery. I was dutiful in doing the stretches and walking through the pain. I focused so much on the physical challenge of regaining flexibility and rebuilding muscle that I didn't stop to fully recognize what a toll this break had taken on my psyche, especially as someone who had only recently felt comfortable calling herself an athlete.

Lately, I've been thinking about the many ways we could look at the word "recover." I hope that somewhere along that lexical journey, I'll find a way to make it all the way around this recursive loop of loss and gain.

(Re) cover- to hide, conceal, or protect (again)

 There is a literal concealment--under baggy clothes, long sweaters, stretchy pants. The muscles that I spent months building before the immobility took no time at all to vanish, and my weight has crept up. Does caring go against my mantra that fitness is more important than appearance? Or am I just frustrated that my current appearance acts as a constant reminder (to myself, if no one else) that the fitness is gone, dormant, slipped away?

(Re) cover- to go over, to study, to learn (again)

I walk into the gym and cross from one room onto the "other" side, the one where the women never seem to go, the one where the heavy weights live. Just a few months ago, I felt at ease here, but now the nervous glances in the mirror are back. Are they watching me? There's only 70 pounds on this bar. Are they judging? I feel the urge to scream "I broke my ankle. I'm working on it!" but no one is really watching me. No one cares. They've got their own confidences and insecurities to battle. They don't need to carry mine, too.

The confidence I had worked so hard to gain, though, is gone, and now I have to fake it until I make it . . . again. I step under the bar and try to look like I believe I belong. Maybe one day I will.

Recover- to get back or regain something lost or taken away

I registered for the half marathon before the ankle broke, and I was too stubborn to just let it go. The entire summer of training was wiped clean, and I was still limping a little when I walked for too long the day I nervously toed to the start line. "Just jog until you can't," I told myself, "then you can walk. It'll be fine. You can walk 10 miles." I jogged the first mile, alternated between walking and jogging the next four, and then I just walked.

As I walked, I watched people twice my age run past me with ease. Later, people would actually
walk past me. For a while, I tried to jog whenever the camera crew was visible, but then I gave up even that pretense. For the final two miles, every single step was a battle. "That was it," I'd say in my mind, "That was the last step I can possibly take." But then I'd take another. And another. And another.

When I got back to my car, I had to turn around backwards and throw myself in. My legs hurt too bad to lift.

Recover- to regain the strength, composure, or balance of oneself

In physical therapy, I stood on one foot on top of a pillow and threw a ball at a trampoline. Over and over and over and over again. Switch feet. Bounce. Catch. Bounce. Catch. Stumble. Rebalance. Bounce. Catch. Bounce. Catch. 

But the real balance that needed to be restored was the one between body and mind. On the way to the emergency room, I told myself "well, I needed some time to work on my dissertation. Now I'll have to slow down and really focus on it." But I didn't. I wrote nothing. Not a single word until I had a boot on my foot and could at least stagger around, but even then the writing was tortuous, slow, and stilted--just like me.

It wasn't until I was cleared to jog again, to go on long walks, to take in the sunshine and the wind that the words started to flow. I wrote forty pages in a week. I read two books in four days. When my body couldn't move, my mind couldn't either. It was the hardest realization.  
Recover- to regain a former and better state or condition

I will never be the person I was before my ankle broke, but I will also never be the person I was when I was ten years old or, for that matter, the person I was at 10 o'clock this morning. We can't recover our past selves because we've seen more than them; we've done more than them; we are new versions.

This will not be the last time I have to recover in my life. There will be other injuries, other setbacks, other failures. I will lose abilities and gain new ones. When I can stop comparing the person I am today against the one I thought I was yesterday, perhaps I will have truly recovered. Until then, I will continue to cycle through these various meanings of the word, hoping to come out on the other side in some way renewed.

Photo: Infomastern,

Monday, November 10, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: Do You REALLY Care About Thanksgiving Employees?

I've been seeing a lot of posts popping up in my social media feeds that are dividing companies into two realms: the money-hungry corporate thugs that would dare to make their poor employees work on Thanksgiving Day and the kind, loving companies who recognize the value of family and have given their employees the day off.

Today I saw Think Progress (a site I follow because they cover stories that align with my own politics very often) post "The Progressive Guide to Holiday Shopping." Other posts with similar themes abound, including calls to boycott Thanksgiving shopping or to boycott stores that open on Thanksgiving for the entire holiday season.

I'm going to try to approach this delicately because I think that my point can be easily misunderstood. First of all, I support everyone's right to boycott any place they don't like for pretty much any reason. You should spend your dollars in ways that align with your values. Boycotting is an important way to influence decisions higher up on the corporate food chain, and I don't want to diminish the power of that action. 

Secondly, I've been on many sides of the working-on-Thanksgiving perspective. For one, I worked at Wal-Mart throughout my undergraduate years. I worked Black Friday sales (because this was before Black Friday sales actually began on Thanksgiving evening), but I also worked on Thanksgiving Day because Wal-Mart has always been open on Thanksgiving. Yes, it's true that they didn't always promote the extreme sales on Thanksgiving Day, but we were a 24-hour store that only closed for Christmas Day (and I worked Christmas Eve, too). 

That was only a few years out of my life, though, and since then I have sat in a position of privilege that gives me pretty much every holiday off because I work in academia. Of course, I've spent many a holiday (as I will likely spend this year's) working at my own pace on academic projects, but that's not the same as being forced to stand in a retail store while customers punch each other over the last Elsa doll, and I won't pretend that it is. 

What has had a greater impact on my holiday traditions is the fact that my mom also works at Wal-Mart and has done so for over a decade. She works a lot of holidays and a lot of odd hours. We've always had to plan our family get togethers around her schedule, and it's not always fun, but you do what you've got to do. 

I tell you all of that to help shed some light on the fact that I'm not coming at this issue from a point removed. In fact, my family and I have been very much directly impacted by these decisions. I understand why people want stores to close for the holidays, and it is a position that I have very much felt myself. 

However, I have my suspicions that these boycotts and angry posts and litmus tests for "progressive" shoppers have less to do with the actual employees and more to do with the corporate encroachment on traditional values. 

For one, we are singling out a very specific type of employee experience at which to point our outrage. I know several people for whom it is tradition to go out to a movie on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I've got news for you: movie theaters aren't staffed by robots. That popcorn? Those tickets? The vacuum cleaners? They're all managed by human beings who have to work on their holiday to feed the consumer drive for holiday entertainment. 

I actually got into an argument about this around this time last year. The arguer said that was "different" because going to a movie was a family-centered event and shopping wasn't. 

I'll concede that going to a movie together may be a more family-centered event for the family going to the movie, but this outrage is allegedly about the employees, not the customers (who have a choice in the matter that the employees do not). 

If you go to the movies on the holidays or stop by a restaurant or even run to the grocery store when you realize you forgot a crucial ingredient to your famous Thanksgiving pie, you are part of the consumer culture that keeps retail employees on the clock during the holidays. If you do those things but get up in arms about those "poor employees" having to work during Black Friday sales, you're being dishonest (with yourself if nothing else). 

I suspect the actual issue is that those Black Friday sales are alluring. We live in a culture where the actions of others are more influential than ever since we see them all the time in our social media feeds. In fact, it's gotten so bad that we've coined a new disorder for it: FOMO--the Fear of Missing Out

A lot of people (and I am not one of them, as I'd rather walk across broken glass barefoot than go to a store on Black Friday) sincerely enjoy Black Friday shopping. They get a thrill from the deals and for many it is a social event that has its own family and friend traditions built around it.

When stores started creeping back their Black Friday sales times until they got earlier and earlier, though, people's habits were disrupted. When you have to line up at 3pm Thursday to get a Black "Friday" sale, you have to make a tough choice. If you don't want to feel the FOMO, you're going to have to give up your holiday. 

And if some of your family members make that choice while others do not, it can seriously disrupt the dinner table seating arrangement and make the charades teams uneven. Those stores really are disrupting the holiday by insisting that Black Friday start during Thanksgiving, but in order to get to the heart of it, we have to admit as a culture that we're making a conscious choice to continue shopping and let them disrupt it. 

So I think that most of our outrage is a scapegoat. We're* pretending to be outraged on behalf of the poor overworked employees (who deserve outrage for a myriad of reasons including erratic scheduling, poor benefits, and a host of questionable year-round business practices) when what we're really outraged about is our own consumerist behavior. We looked in the mirror and didn't like what we saw, so we pointed to the employees we normally ignore under the guise of family values and concern for their well being. 

The bottom line is this: as long as people shop on Thanksgiving, there will be stores that will be open. The families impacted by that decision will build their holiday traditions around that reality. Yes, that is built out of greed and more than a little sad, but reducing those workers to a prop that's wielded while their plight is co-opted isn't really sincere--especially if it means we can pat ourselves on the back and ignore that same plight in, say, January through October. 

*-I realize this "we're" sounds all-inclusive and that there are many people who fight for workers' rights year round. You're excluded. But you have to admit that the movement has surged for the holidays in a way that it doesn't any other time. I don't think everyone's concern is genuine. 

Photo: Michael Holden