Friday, May 30, 2014

Why I Need Feminism: Because Women Have A Right to Speak Honestly (Guest Post)

I’m the de facto head of the local English writers group in the city where I live. I reluctantly have taken on more and more responsibilities (or had them handed to me) out of a desire to create an inclusive group where everyone feels welcome. I had the first true test of leadership this week, and, interestingly enough, it came right on the heels of the #yesallwomen discussion on Twitter. The two are intricately linked.

Not long after I joined the group several months ago, I received an odd text from one of the male members of the group. He asked, “when you read about the woman in my poems do you ever wish it was you?” Immediately warning signs went off in my head. I’m happily married and this man is also married with a new baby, but there was definitely an undercurrent of flirting or overfriendliness in the message. I think that outsiders could look at that text and think, as a writer, it’s reasonable to ask if a person feels an attachment to something they read. So while it made me uncomfortable, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and shrugged it off as “no, I just really like your writing.” I brought it up, though, to another member, a woman who had been in the group longer than I had been. She said that she had also received text messaged from this man that made her uncomfortable. But, together, we shrugged it off, had a laugh, and just pretended nothing weird was going on.

The more involved in the group I became, the more women who joined, and the more people talked to me, though, the more I found out this man was sending texts to every single woman in the group. Some of the women would tell me only weeks afterwards when I emailed them and asked them why they never returned to any of our meetings. Even women who were still coming to meetings were telling me about texts inviting them to go to the movies, go hiking, and go have a cup a cup of coffee. And all of them women reported feeling uncomfortable, intimidated, and embarrassed. Some of them did not respond to his texts, and some just replied with a friendly “I’m busy; maybe another time” kind of response.

I finally decided enough was enough and confronted him about it. I knew it would be uncomfortable and most likely his feelings would be hurt, but this was not an isolated case of a misunderstanding. I couldn’t allow every single member (and future potential members, because every new member was receiving a text from him the day after they joined) to feel uncomfortable in a group that is supposed to offer friendship and support. I sent him a message and told him “I have heard that you have been sending private messages to several women in the writing group. It is making them uncomfortable. Please don’t do that anymore.”

Over the next four tortuous hours, he repeatedly played the victim. He completely discounted the feelings of the women. He believed that since he didn’t get to know the names of his “accusers” and he wasn’t able to tell his side of the story, he was the one being wronged. I tried repeatedly to explain to him that his side of the story (his intentions) didn’t matter. Even if all he did was send a message that said “hi,” if it made the women uncomfortable, then he needed to stop. He wanted to send me all the chat logs as “evidence” that he hadn’t done anything wrong. To me, though, the women’s feelings were the only evidence I needed. They were uncomfortable, so he needed to stop.

The only legitimate point he made was that none of the women themselves had told him “please stop messaging me.” I do agree that the whole thing could have been avoided if the women (me included) had told him “this text is inappropriate. Don’t message me again.” But this is where #yesallwomen comes into play. The common theme all of the women were experiencing was fear. They were all afraid to rebuff his advances. They weren’t afraid he was going to kill them, but they were afraid of hurting his feelings, or afraid of making waves, or afraid of causing a rift in the group. They all feared something.

Women are taught to keep their heads down, to smile, to stop making things worse. We are taught avoidance. Instead of telling men outright when they are making us uncomfortable, we just smile, and fidget, and change the subject. We avoid going places we like. We avoid talking to our friends. We avoid sharing our feelings.

This man, and millions of other, deserve the truth. They shouldn’t feel “led on” and should be called out when they are being creepy. Many misunderstandings could be avoided if women were encouraged to speak freely.

I don’t know what is going to happen with my writing group. There are hurt feelings right now and many people still feel uncomfortable. I handled it the best I could, but I have also learned from it. I know I am going to be more honest and open in the future, and I am going to encourage my group members to do the same. Fighting against the way society has trained women to act is going to be a struggle, but this is why feminism is as much for men as it is for women. All people deserve to hear the truth.

What do you think? Should I have handled it differently? Have you had any similar experiences in co-ed hobby groups? How did you deal with it?

Amanda Roberts is a writer, editor, and teacher living in China. You can read more from her at Two Americans in China.

(Note from Michelle: I've already got my order in for a dumpling cookbook. You should get yours, too!)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Massacres, Media, and Morality

Do you know what I love? Violent movies. Before I graduated high school, I had seen Pulp Fiction enough to quote it. I own and love Goodfellas, Casino, and Deathproof. I watch and enjoy plenty of films where people are blown up, shot down, and stomped.

You know what else I love? Margaritas. Mojitos. White wine. Amaretto. I don't drink as often as I once did (that's what having a kid and a full-time, adult job does to you), but I certainly still enjoy the buzz I get when I get the chance to imbibe.

I mention these two loves to you today to demonstrate a little background before I go into this next part. See, I've been reading (as I'm sure many of you have) commentary and analysis after the tragic shooting in Santa Barbara. Since much of my online media diet consists of feminist sites, a lot of what I've read has been in that vein. This has been particularly engaged commentary since the shooter left a detailed manifesto explaining his misogynistic motivation as rooted in sexual rejection by women. Many have linked his ideology to that of MRA and Pickup Artist groups. Feministing has an excellent round-up of much of this commentary and the #YesAllWomen hashtag spread quickly and powerfully through social media, extending these conversations further. 

Sadly, this kind of incident is frequent enough in America that there's something of a script to follow in the days after. There are the calls for tighter gun restrictions, often from grieved parents of the victims. There's the discussion of our health care system and the culture surrounding treatment for mental illness. Then there's the thing I want to focus on today: the scrutiny of media and pop culture as an influence for such atrocious acts. 

Ann Hornaday has a piece up at The Washington Post discussing the shooting through a pop culture lens. She mentions several movies by name and alludes to many more by calling into question a cinematic portrayal of masculinity defined by the successful conquest of a woman or girl and connects them to this tragedy:
Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.
In doing so, she called out the new Seth Rogen film Neighbors as promoting a frat-boy lifestyle full of "casual misogyny." Seth Rogen was not pleased and took to Twitter to let the world know.

Jessica Goldstein has a Think Progress piece that responds to the Hornaday-Rogen fight, and it makes some excellent points:
People in movies can’t have it both ways: either pop culture is totally irrelevant, and therefore the work they do is totally irrelevant, or pop culture does matter, which means they will sometimes have to reckon with the fact that their work can be a force for evil as well as good. If you want people to see Dallas Buyer’s Club and leave with greater empathy for the challenges the LGBT community faces, you have to be prepared that people will see darker movies and leave with darker thoughts, and that even—especially—seemingly innocuous movies can and do have a powerful influence over the way we think, feel, communicate and behave.

Criticism of Hornaday's and Goldstein's points (and the myriad of voices like them) has been swift and (again) easily predicted. This, too, is part of the script. People are complaining that media shouldn't be a scapegoat and that plenty of people watch violent movies without killing anyone. We've been having this same debate for quite some time, and we all know our roles pretty well. 

What frustrates, me, though (and perhaps this is just me playing my role in the pantomime of making a change to our violent culture, just one more figure punching at shadows) is that the defense against pop culture critique immediately goes to bans. 

People immediately point out how ridiculous it would be to ban media: 
"So I guess the answer for the psychopathic rampage problem is a worldwide ban on movies, video games, etc.? No, sir. It isn't." -Emily Anderson (from comments on Goldstein article)
"When Hitler, Stalin and Mao murdered millions of women, and most men viewed those women as property there was no TV, slick magazines and certainly no Seth Rogen. I agree about women playing more central roles in films, but before anyone goes on a tirade against Hollywood, how about documenting and proving cause and effect. Let's ban all art, all entertainment that might trigger sadness, murder, inequality, euphoria, laughs - then you'll have a Fahrenheit 411 dystopia - a cure worse than the unproven disease. You're doing a disservice to the underlying argument. Women did not start being treated as cultural inferiors with the invention of the movie camera. Millions of men did not go on a killing rampage last week." -tangledwing (Goldstein comments)
They also point out that we need to focus the attention on the individuals committing the crime and not excuse their behavior: 
"99.99...% of people who watch those movies do not commit mass murder. Why not blame it on a lack of proper mental healthcare or something else specific to this individual? Every time a crime happens people try to blame movies/video games, and they are always wrong." -Ty Hamil (Goldstein comments)
Here's the thing, being critical of pop culture does not mean calling for a ban, and trying to understand the way that our cultural norms and ideologies (which are both mirrored in and created by mass media) does not excuse individual responsibility.

Which brings me back to my love of Pulp Fiction and margaritas.

We recognize that there are dangers to alcohol. We teach kids about them in school, we put warning labels on the side of bottles, we discuss them in medical literature, and we create support groups to help people who are suffering from the most painful effects of them. Just because I want to discuss the dangers doesn't mean I want to ban the substance.

And just like alcohol, some people handle pop culture consumption differently from others. Not everyone who takes a drink is an alcoholic, but some people are. That doesn't mean that we have to ban alcohol because a minority of those exposed to it will have an extreme reaction, but it also doesn't mean that we need to ignore that minority impact. It's clear from both anectdata and massive studies that some people (particularly young people) are more greatly impacted by media than others.

I would never call for a ban of a movie because it has a misogynistic theme. In fact, there is very little that would ever make me call for banning a movie. I staunchly believe in free speech, and I would much rather the market dictate what succeeds and fails than any kind of content restriction.

But the tradeoff, then, to that freedom is the need to be critical consumers. If we can have access to virtually any kind of media we want, then we have the responsibility to be perceptive to what that media does, and it does a lot.

I have done a lot (really a whole, whole, whole lot) of pop culture analysis on this blog. I truly believe that media matters. It is both a reflection of and an influence on our culture and values. We create media which in turn creates us right back in an endless loop. Media is a place where we can make real, sustainable changes to our culture. As the Miss Representation tagline points out, "you can't be what you can't see," and pop culture is the place where most of us do our earliest and most frequent seeing of the world around us.

Loving pop culture (which I do, unabashedly) does not mean giving it a free pass. My love for pop culture is a direct result of understanding the potential power and impact that it can have, and that means that it has to be scrutinized.

I understand why Seth Rogen felt attacked (he was), but I also think he mishandled his response. I'm a fan of his films (I even cited Knocked Up during my comprehensive doctoral exams; how many fans can say that?!), but the criticism that his works tend to promote a patriarchal worldview is a valid one. In fact, it's one I made myself when I compared the reviews for This is the End with reviews for The Heat. In that criticism, I wasn't blaming Seth Rogen for the film he made; I was blaming the culture for how it reacted to it. And that's the case here. Do I think Neighbors made this disturbed young man go on a shooting spree? Absolutely not. Do I blame Seth Rogen as an actor for creating films that are "casually misogynistic"? Not really. He exists in the same world I do, and we're all acting within a complex collision of influences.

I don't blame the Busch family when someone drinks a few too many beers, plows through a median, and kills someone in a head-on collision, either, but I do think that criticism of the culture that treats drunk driving as accepted and expected is worthwhile, and I think that anyone who directly profits from that industry has to be willing to accept that criticism. That's the responsible thing to do.

We cannot rid the world of dangerous influences, and virtually no one that I know is calling for that. I have not heard a single person actually suggest banning movies because of their potential link to isolated violent outbursts. Our freedom of expression and freedom of entertainment (both freedoms I value and use daily) are safe. But the ethical thing to do with that freedom is to maintain the borders through diligent analysis and awareness.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Developmental Writing in the Historical Trajectory of Rhetoric

"So when you get your PhD, will they let you teach real classes?"

This question came from a student in my first year of teaching developmental writing. I was saddened by her apparent belief that she wasn't a "real" student and told her so, but the question kept coming up in different forms.

One particularly strong writer who had spent the semester producing complex pieces of analysis written with poetic flair seemed almost angry as he visited me in office hours (voluntarily) to talk about his future plans as a writer: "What is this? Are you just trying to be a big fish in a small pond? Why are you teaching this class?"

Most heartbreaking of all was a student who said in front of the entire class, "You seem really smart, so why are you teaching us?"

It's a question I've gotten from other sources, too. Colleagues and classmates have asked me what I want to end up teaching, as if a career in developmental education could only be a stepping stone and never a goal. They mean well, and I actually think it's often meant as a compliment, but it stings because I know that their perception is contributing to the cultural climate that makes my students think of themselves as unworthy of "real" teaching, as unfit for a "real" college class.

It, quite frankly, breaks my heart.

And as a scholar of rhetorical history, it also perplexes me.

In The Formation of College English, Thomas P. Miller writes about the way that college writing classes were transformed with the spread of English literacy through the British provinces. In his conclusion, he extends the metaphor of the border lands this language spread created to more contemporary landscapes:
"the borders of the educated culture have been its most dynamic area of development. If I am right that the history of college English began not at the centers of the educated culture but in the provinces with professors and students who translated the learned culture into a new language because the classics did not make sense of their experience, then one would expect that the future of the discipline may now be emerging not simply in the latest theoretical trends continued within it but also in those courses that are most broadly involved with the changing experiences of students."
If a student has been placed in a developmental writing course (any of the non-credit-bearing courses designed to prepare a student with low placement scores for college-level courses), then s/he has already been relegated to the border land of academia. There is no way to argue that developmental courses are not alienating or othering because being alienated and othered from the general college population is part of the defining characteristics of the courses themselves. Even recent efforts to "mainstream" developmental students by co-enrolling them in college-level courses with their higher scoring counterparts still require an initial labeling in order to identify them as the developmental cohort. These students are on the border between college and not-college, and they are very aware of that.

But their placement on the border is precisely why I think that working with these students is so important from a rhetorical standpoint: rhetoric is about difference and conflict.

The drive to communicate comes about when we find a difference between what we believe and what we perceive our listeners to believe. There's no reason to communicate if we all see things the same way.

Sharon Crowley insists that difference is a key component of rhetorical invention: "modern senses of invention as discovery or creation gloss over the roles of difference and contingency in making arguments available."

Ideas are not simply extant waiting to be discovered as a writer casually explores the linguistic landscape; they are honed, created, invented out of the struggle to articulate them in the face of difference.

The developmental writing classroom, then, filled with students who have been pre-determined to be somehow different in the face of mainstream academic discourse, should be a space in which invention is more likely, not less. This group of students is at a unique position where the tension is already articulated. That tension is necessary for everyone to produce ideas and effective rhetoric, but not everyone enters a class with the tension already identified and running electrically around the room. Developmental students have (or should have) that advantage: their tensions are laid bare. They can get to the work of inventing from them immediately.

Hold up. Did I just seriously try to argue that students placed in developmental writing classes are rhetorically at an advantage?

Don't I know the abysmal success rates?

Don't I know that many of these students can't form complete sentences in their writing?

Don't I know that they don't know the difference between their, they're, and there? (Or where and were? Or ideal and idea? Or our and are?)

Don't I know that these students don't even turn their work in half the time, skip class, drop out halfway through without so much as a word to their instructor, vanish for weeks at a time and come back expecting to pass?

Oh. Trust me. I know.

I know it acutely because watching those students vanish mid-semester is the hardest part of my job, because grading those papers takes up hours of every week of my life, and because some of my students keep me up at night with worry.

But they also keep me going with hope, and I stand by what I said: these students are at an advantageous position when it comes to rhetorical power. We just have to create classes that allow them to use it.

Traditionally, the art of rhetoric is divided into five canons: Invention (coming up with things to say), Arrangement (putting them in order), Style (how you say them), Memory (memorizing the speech for public speaking), and Delivery (actually giving the speech). 

Of these five canons, invention has been among the most vulnerable. Sharon Crowley explores this vulnerability in The Methodical Memory: "Rhetorical invention goes in and out of fashion because it’s intimately tied to current developments in ethics, politics, and the epistemology of whatever culture it serves."

In the history of American rhetoric instruction, there was a long period of instruction where invention was effectively removed entirely. In this time period (dubbed the "Current-Traditional"), empirical data was privileged over all other ways of knowing, and it was therefore considered unnecessary to invent information within rhetoric itself since all knowledge and truth was thought to be external to language. Put simply, the truth was something gathered through observation of the natural, scientific world, and language was merely the delivery method of that truth, not the creator. 

Current-Traditional rhetorical practices, then, were concerned almost entirely with style and surface-level correctness. The idea was that effective rhetoric was that which most clearly communicated the truth in its easiest-to-digest form, and that meant meeting grammatical standards and writing stylistically clear sentences. 

Postmodern theories have moved us away from such a view of truth and knowledge-making. Our academic inquiries are now largely informed by the complex ways in which language creates, shapes, and alters knowledge. Composition classrooms have moved away from simply teaching grammar rules and are now places where knowledge is not simply recited, but created. 

The developmental writing classroom, though, is a place where Current-Traditional practices have often clung on stubbornly. Despite evidence that teaching grammar in isolation is ineffective (and oh so boring), the developmental writing classroom is particularly prone to being stuck in the patterns of correctness and style. 

This is largely because it is those surface-level errors that placed students in the developmental classroom to begin with. Most schools rely on national placement tests like COMPASS or Accuplacer to determine who will go into college-credit courses and who will go into developmental courses. These tests are standardized, multiple choice, and rely heavily on grammatical rules and stylistic concerns. It makes sense that when students are placed into a class for their stylistic "mistakes" teachers would want to address them; honestly, the students are often eager to address them, too. They see writing as a code of commas and semicolons that they just need to learn to move on. Invention is often not part of the equation. 

But it should be. 

When the Sophists first started teaching rhetoric, it was as an art of invention, an invention predicated on difference and dissonance. Citing Lyotard, Lester Faigley writes in Fragments of Rationality that invention is "born of dissension, not consensus." In other words, focusing our developmental writing classrooms on creating a consensus of grammar and style practices is not rhetorical. In fact, Sharon Crowley makes that explicit argument in The Methodical Memory in a chapter entitled "Why Current-Traditional Rhetoric is Not Rhetoric." 

Developmental writing classes are often seen--by both students and teachers alike--as a series of hoops that must be jumped before students prove themselves ready for "real" college writing. 

This, I believe, is not only a problematic way to frame a class when it comes to student engagement and faculty enthusiasm, but it's also a missed rhetorical opportunity. Developmental writing students are at a unique advantage when it comes to practicing the art of rhetoric. We're removing that advantage when we refuse to teach in such a way that allows invention to take the primary focus. 

There have been several reform movements within developmental writing due to the aforementioned low success rates and the ever-present problem of low funds for education. Taxpayers are starting to notice that the federal money used to move students through college is often getting "wasted" in developmental education when it doesn't lead to a degree (or too often even the completion of a single class). A change is gonna come, and many states have already enacted legislation to ensure it. 

One such reform measure comes out of California and is championed by Dr. Katie Hern at Chabot College. Dr. Hern has been invited to several speaking engagements across the country to promote her integrated and accelerated developmental reading and writing class, which is boasting tremendous success rates. I've had the pleasure to hear Dr. Hern speak a few times, and her passion and enthusiasm is contagious. 

She spends a lot of time discussing the structural redesign that makes her program a success. By condensing what could be up to 18 credit hours of developmental coursework into one 4-hour course, she simply removes a lot of opportunities for students to disappear. The success rates are phenomenal, and the students who complete the 4-hour course go on to succeed at equal or higher rates than their counterparts who were not required to take developmental courses. It's a dev ed dreamland. 

What she's spent less time talking about (though it's certainly mentioned) when I've heard her speak, though, is the curriculum changes. She does not give her students grammar worksheets and have them write prescriptive five-paragraph essays to demonstrate their grasp of a particular style and form. She gives them college-level, full-length texts to read and then gives them the opportunity to discuss what they've learned with each other before writing about it. And the writing assignments are open-ended and put trust in the students' abilities to create their own thesis and supporting arguments. 

Here's a video of her classroom in action: 

I do not want to downplay the structural changes made to the developmental education model at Chabot College. Reducing the number of credit hours and the amount of time needed to move into college-level writing is crucial. 

But I don't think it's enough on its own. These students are succeeding because they are being given the chance to invent. In Dr. Hern's classroom, she is not only trusting in students to be capable of invention in their own right, she's taking advantage of the fact that the diverse backgrounds and experiences of students in a developmental class make invention--if given the chance to percolate through conversation and writing--a guarantee. 

When my students ask me why I don't teach a "real" college class, it breaks my heart, but it is my goal each and every day to prove to them that I already do. 

Photo: Gwen Harlow, Rutger van Waveren, Mrs. Trusty, Woodlouse

Monday, May 19, 2014

Wandering a Clothing No (Wo)Man's Land

The other day, a friend of mine posted this reflection on accepting shopping in the Women's section of a clothing store rather than the Junior's or Misses'.

It made me think about my own experience with clothing size categories, one that recently culminated in a frustrating realization: clothing designers seem to think I don't exist.

I haven't been able to shop in a Junior's section for a very long time, probably not since middle school. Even then, I was always broad shouldered and top heavy (apple shaped, as "they" call it), so even when Junior's clothes technically fit my body, it was clear they weren't quite meant for it.

Here I am, wearing nothing but a shiny coat of wax. 
Since adulthood, though, the clothing categories in which I belong have gotten more and more limited. I'm stuck somewhere between "regular" sizes and "plus" sizes. Every single shopping experience I have, regardless of the store, seems to go something like this:

Step 1: I pick up stuff that I think is cute based on the way it looks on a hanger from the regular section. I go and try it on, realize that it looked cute on the hanger or mannequin because the hanger and the mannequin have roughly the same amount of curves, and stick it on the return rack. For a while, this is where my shopping experience ended, often with mounting frustration and feelings of failure on my part, but since I've gotten into a much better headspace about such things, I now either skip this step or move on to the next one without much fuss. 

Step 2: I pick up clothes from the regular section that look a little ridiculous on the hanger or the mannequin, understanding that they will likely look better on my own body. I take them to the dressing room, and I find that they do look better, but they don't look quite right. They fit, for sure. There's nothing stretched too tight or busting at the seams, but I look like I'm trying to wear clothes that weren't made for me. I almost always have to have XL tops, and the extra material always looks like it was added as an afterthought. The cut isn't flattering, and dresses just sort of hang circus-tent like. There was a point where I would stop at this step, either buying a bunch of clothes I didn't really like and probably wouldn't wear or leaving empty handed and, once again, frustrated. But once I swallowed my ingrained fear of the "plus size" section, I moved on to step 3. 

Step 3: "I'm a grown woman, damn it. Clothes are made to fit my body, not the other way around. What's the point of buying clothes that don't make me feel good? This is hard-earned money I'm throwing around, and who cares what the label says if it fits?!" 

This is the pep talk I had to give myself the first few times I moved into the plus-size section. I know it's not right to have to give oneself a pep talk to simply walk over four aisles and look at a different selection of clothes, but I blame the patriarchy. 

So, I swallowed hard and took the plunge. I was immediately struck by two things. First, the clothes that I thought were cute were much more flattering in their cut and designs. Stripes were placed at curve-hugging angles. Things flared and hugged in all the right places. Secondly, there wasn't that much that I thought was cute. A vast majority of the clothes seemed to be made for someone attending a wake or a job interview . . . in a very conservative town stuck two decades in the past. Still, there was a selection of things that I found worthwhile, so I grabbed some 1x shirts from the racks and headed to the fitting room. 

They hung off of me like drapes. At this point, I'm not ashamed to tell you, I really did cry in frustration. Here I was facing my fear of being literally labeled "plus size," ready to accept it if it meant I got to wear these flatteringly cut clothes, and I was being rejected. 

Later, I'd find a few stores that carried shirts in a size "0x," a fact that still perplexes me, but one that I thought would solve all my problems. Nope. They hung off my shoulders, bunched up in all the wrong places, and generally screamed to the world that they didn't fit me. 

Step 4: A few weeks ago, I went shopping for a dress to wear to a wedding. This is a particularly frustrating part of the clothes buying experience because the bulkiness of the top half of my body and the fact that I am only 5'3" means dresses are a problem. As I was walking the mall, I happened upon a Torrid proclaiming itself "Fashion for Sizes 12 to 28." I wear a 14 in dresses, and I had some vague memory of Torrid being a Hot Topic offshoot, which made me all nostalgic for 30 seconds. I went in. 

The woman working in the store was an amazing salesperson. She was friendly without being aggressive, and she immediately gathered up four dress/sweater combos I would never have picked out for myself. They fit! The dresses fit! Then she talked me into trying on some (gasp!) skinny jeans, which also fit . . . in the store. 

I had to get the smallest size jeans they had, and I realized upon wearing them to walk around town a few days later that they stretched with wear. I'm going to have to belt them, which isn't the end of the world, sure, but it does mean that buying pants from Torrid, despite their wonderful styles and body-friendly cuts, probably isn't a good option for me, either. (But I'll be coming back for some more dresses. Believe me.)

I was talking to the woman at Torrid, and she explained that while most clothing stores create a dress in a size 6 and then scale up and down from there, they cut it on a size 16 and then scale from there. In other words, instead of my size 14 being scaled up 4 sizes (and losing a lot of shape and detail in the process), it had been scaled down one (and cut for curves in the first place). The dress was the same size as other dresses I had tried on and even owned, but it was simply made with bodies like mine in mind.

This did leave me in a weird spot, though. I'm training to run my first half marathon in October, and--since I have some time off in the summer--I'm hoping to work a little harder at roller derby skills in order to hopefully get cleared to scrimmage by the end of the summer. I'll probably lose some weight. That's not really the goal of the running/skating, but it is a likely byproduct. If it's enough of a byproduct, the cute dresses and belted jeans I just finally got to fit won't fit anymore. And then I'll once again be stuck in a No Woman's Land of clothes. 

I don't think my body is all that oddly shaped. I believe that there are other people in the world who look like me. Surely we would all like clothes that fit us. Make some! Take our money, please!

Do you have any tips for shopping in the gray areas of clothing sizes? Stories of your own clothing sizing frustration? 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother's Day!

My husband's been asking me what I wanted to do for Mother's Day for at least three weeks, and I didn't really know. Brunches are crowded, and we live close enough to amazing brunch places that we have them pretty regularly on the weekends anyway.

It's St. Louis' 250th birthday this year, and they're celebrating by installing birthday cake statues all over the city. I've been sporadically taking my daughter's picture with them when I see them in the hopes of making her a photo album that will show her all over the city she grew up in. 

So I decided that what I really wanted to do for Mother's Day was take a long walk collecting some pictures, and that's what we did. Here's the results, interspersed with some quotes from my three-year-old daughter who (I swear I'm not exaggerating) talked the entire time that we were on this trek . . . about four hours. 

"Mommy. There's a bug. There's a bug on the cake. Get the bug. I don't like bugs. Can you get the bug, please? Oh look! A ladybug! I like ladybugs! Can I touch it? I'll be gentle. I'm touching it. I'm touching the ladybug!"

(Looking at a picture of St. Louis Cardinal's player with an open mouth and his fists in the air, clearly celebrating.) "Oh no. That guy's hurt." I explained that he was happy, not hurt. "He's not happy. He's hurt. I'm so sorry that he's hurt. You don't scream when you're happy. You scream when you're hurt."

"Mommy, what are we doing? Where's a cake? Do you see a cake? Is that a cake? Where's the next cake? Can I find the cake? Is that the cake? I see a cake! It's an orange cake!" (There was no orange cake.)

"Ooh! This cake has sparkles!" This led to disappointment at every single subsequent cake. "Why doesn't this cake have sparkles? I wish this cake had sparkles. I like sparkles. Do you like sparkles?"

This is a rough estimate, but I think my daughter probably asked me 15 questions a minute for four straight hours. I hope you, too, had an inquisitive Mother's Day. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Public Education: Reigning Rebels and Cultivating Creativity

I saw this picture on my Facebook feed the other day:

As the product of public education through my bachelor's degree and a teacher in a public higher ed, I want to resist the implications of this cartoon. I had several teachers throughout my education that gave me the motivation and drive to be creative, independent, and confident. As a teacher, I of course tear up at the end of Dead Poets' Society and envision myself as pushing back the edges of an impending wave of status quo-laced doom every semester.

But I also know that my idealistic education utopia only exists because of its stark contrast with a stream of educational focus that is very much about obedience and conformity. I was brought face-to-face with that reality while reading a kindergarten readiness checklist sent home in my daughter's preschool materials recently. 

The list includes a mix of the practical ("manage bathroom needs"), the fine motor ("trace basic shapes"), and the verbal ("talk in complete sentences of five to six words"). It also contains some skills that are specifically aimed at self-control and behavior management ("begin to control oneself" and "listen to stories without interrupting"). All of those, even the ones aimed at behavior and control, seem completely reasonable and necessary to me.

But I have to admit two of them made me bristle. "Be able to recognize authority" and "start to follow rules" have an ominous tone to them that hint at that very stream of education I find myself frequently pushing against. 

And it's not simple. I'm a teacher. In fact, I teach a population of students that are prone to outbursts and disruption even as adults. There are panic buttons in my classrooms (though I've luckily never had to use one). I have told students to leave my classroom for insubordination, and I have--on one occasion--contacted the school's department of safety to ensure that a student received counseling before being allowed to return. I am not against order and rules and regulation because I know that without them, no one will learn anything. I'm not calling for educational anarchy.

But I also know enough about learning to know that just because things are neat and tidy doesn't mean they're working. In fact, since learning requires an element of failure and reflection, a classroom that is too neatly controlled is suspect to me. Students who feel empowered and comfortable enough to debate one another and the teacher, challenge conventions, and otherwise push boundaries are often students who are set up to make progress.

 I also rely heavily on my own experiences from the other side of the classroom. I was a very "good" student. I never had detention. I always turned in my work, and the one time I got my name written on the board in elementary school (for not hearing when the teacher called us to line back up after recess), I cried for two weeks. No one drilled this need for obedience into me; it just seemed like the right thing to do. But it did not always make for positive learning experiences. Just because I was sitting attentively and minding all the class rules didn't mean I was actively engaged. In fact, the teachers I learned the most from were the ones who allowed for more flexibility and non-conformity. Those lessons stuck better.

As a parent, I understand the desire to include "be able to recognize authority" and "start to follow rules" on the list of readiness skills. The other day, my daughter (who is three) cried the entire twenty minute ride to the grocery store because she wanted her octopus cup. There was no reasoning with her. It didn't matter that I promised we'd get a drink as soon as we stopped. It didn't matter that we firmly told her to use her "inside voice." Nothing mattered but her sheer will to let her displeasure be known, and it was grating, exhausting, and all-around horrible.

But I've written before on how I'm not sure I really want an obedient toddler. Today she fights against the injustice of nap time and discarded octopus cups, but someday that passion and energy could be directed toward fighting against injustices that seem a little more deserving: violation of human rights, for instance.

I do want my daughter to be attentive and polite in her classrooms. It does matter to me that she follows directions and makes that space one in which both she and her fellow classmates can learn.

But I still feel a tinge of anxiety over those two readiness measures.

For me, her ability to "recognize authority" and to "start to follow rules" is much less important than her ability to recognize how her own actions and choices impact those around her. I want her to make responsible choices about her behavior based on her awareness of her place in a larger social structure, not simply because a voice on high has demanded it of her.

That, though, is probably a tough thing to reflect in a checklist.

What do you think? Is education stifling creative expression? Does it exist to reinforce the status quo? What about all of us teachers who see ourselves as doing just the opposite? Are we deluding ourselves?

Picture: alamosbasement