Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Don't Need (Pointless Declarations Against) Feminism

I wasn't going to wade into the Women Against Feminism tumblr and subsequent conversation, but I wrote a quick post about it on my Facebook page, and the discussion in the comments prompted me to give a little more reflection.

My entire point in posting this was that I think there's something more insidious about posting "I don't need feminism because ______" and then filling in the blank with something that basically suggests (or outright states) gender inequality or a patriarchal societal structure does not exist.

If you actually believe there is no gender inequality or a patriarchal structure, then why would you need to criticize it in this way? It would be like me making an entire tumblr to say that #IDontNeedUnicornCatchers.

That sounds ridiculous, though, right? Perhaps a more poignant analogy would be taking an actual post I saw on the tumblr that said "I don't need feminism because my boyfriend treats me right." It would be like me posting a picture of myself that says "I don't need veganism because I had a great chicken sandwich for lunch."

There are a lot of movements and affiliations that I "don't need." There are plenty of communities based in an ethical core principle (like feminism) with which I do not identify: veganism, Rastafarianism, Catholicism, Buddhism. There are also plenty of communities based in the work of the movement (also like feminism) with which I do not personally identify: engineers, psychologists, tarot card readers, optometrists, chiropractors.

In some cases, I see value and use the work that those communities produce. In some cases, I do not. In no cases do I feel the need to create a movement trying to tear down their beliefs. It would be like going around taking people's umbrellas from them because it's not raining at my house.

"I said you don't need this!"

In the responses to my Facebook post, one commenter responded that she doesn't need feminism because she doesn't "agree with the idea that women are equal." 

If that's what the women in this tumblr project wrote on their signs, it would be a valid movement. I would completely, vehemently disagree with their perspective, but it would be a valid reason to be against feminism and those claims would be honest and productive to that particular cause. Tearing down feminism because you disagree with gender equality makes sense. 

And that's the way that I have attacked communities when I have criticized them. I have criticized affiliation with certain political parties for this reason. I disagree with their core principles, so I am attacking those on their own merit. 

Another valid criticism of feminism that I've heard in this discussion is that feminism has a class and race problem. Much of the portrayal of mainstream feminism is too focused on rich white women. It leaves little room for the experiences of poor women, women of color, and trans* women. Those, too, are completely valid criticisms. If those women were holding up signs saying "I don't need feminism because it hasn't left a place for me and silences my views," that, too, would be a productive way to criticize and maybe even deconstruct a community (as the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen (started by Mikki Kendall) and #FeminismIsForMothersToo (sparked by Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner) social media moves both did).

There is plenty to criticize within the feminist movement, but saying that you don't need it because the patriarchy doesn't exist is a bait and switch. That's a way to shore up the power of the very patriarchal structure that ostensibly doesn't exist. It's dishonest and unproductive.

Not everyone is going to be a feminist. Even many people who believe in the principles of feminism aren't going to identify that way. I'm not going to go knocking door to door to try to sign people up. You're free to identify and not identify however makes sense to you and your experiences.

That doesn't mean you need to go tear down someone else's house.

Photo: Ian Iott

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Problem with Making Teachers into Heroes

I would be lying if I said that I don't get chills (the good kind) every time I watch the scene in Dead Poets Society where the students stand up in defiance of their institution's rigid rules and recognize their instructor's unique greatness. The testament to the immense impact he's had on their lives in such a short period of time is moving. "That's the kind of teacher I want to be," I tell myself. And I mean it.

Teachers are, by and large, a group of people who care deeply about their work, and it is incredibly rewarding work. The societal portrayal of teaching as a "super power" is partly an attempt to recognize the difficulty of the task, partly a recognition of the passion with which it is usually pursued, and partly a concession prize for a job that can be thankless and financially undervalued.

The problem is that the narrative of teaching as a super hero's task undermines collaborative practices and efforts to make systemic change. We are fed the notion of the "good" teacher standing up to the "bad" system over and over and over again until it becomes ingrained within us.

Consider some of the most popular movies about the art of teaching.

The aforementioned Dead Poets Society sees an unconventional and passionate young instructor  instilling in his students the lessons of non-conformity, critical thinking, and questioning authority. He is fired for his efforts because the uptight private school will not tolerate the threat to their power that he represents, but that final scene tells us that it was worth it. He may have only touched a few minds, but he touched them deeply and permanently. Their lives are forever changed because he was there, and that is the point of it all.

It's a message that we get again and again.

In Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante gets a much-deserved biopic cataloguing his amazing ability to reach troubled high schoolers in a flailing district by completely overhauling the district's philosophy toward math. Instead of teaching a bunch of remedial math classes, Escalante insisted on holding students to rigorous standards, and it worked.

As the above clip demonstrates, he was met with intense structural barriers. His colleagues did not support him. He was alone in his fight, and the real-life Escalante faced disciplinary measures and threats of job loss for his passion and efforts. Once again we have a super hero fighting against a flawed system.

Freedom Writers is another one that fits the super hero bill. Hillary Swank plays the young, passionate Erin Gruwell. As this clip shows, a major part of the film is demonstrating the systemic racism of the education system and the racially-charged tensions permeating between teachers and students and among the students themselves.

Her teaching method was one based on respect for her students' experiences and distrust of the system and creating assignments that tackled those issues head-on. She, like the other teachers on this list, had to fight against administrative forces that saw her efforts as non-conformist and dangerous. The movie also depicts the added pressure as her countless hours of dedication to her job begin to conflict with her family life. Once again, all the pain and turmoil and loss is worth it because she is able to see real change in her students' performances and attitudes.

Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, 187, School of Rock . . . again and again and again the narrative is reinforced. The be a good teacher, you have to be willing to withstand the forces against you on every side: the dangerous and apathetic students, the clueless and angry parents, the jaded and doubting colleagues, the money-hungry and autocratic administration, the doubting and mob-like public, and even your own family.

A good teacher does it alone. A good teacher does it in the face of adversity. A good teacher is a super hero.

The real-life Gruwell, though, only taught a few more years before leaving to found The Freedom Writers Foundation and attempt to make systemic changes to the educational landscape by leading workshops for faculty members and entering conversations about policy and administration. The lone super hero standing in front of the classroom was a temporary role because it is not a good place to make real, lasting change.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, no single teacher is going to make that big of a dent in the educational system through teaching alone. Even a prolific teacher only reaches a few thousand students during his or her tenure. When we are talking about millions of students matriculating through educational pipelines each year, that is barely a drop in the bucket.

We comfort ourselves through parables like the Starfish Story and watching movies like the ones above. We can make a real, measurable, sustainable difference in the lives of the students we teach, and so we can be a success.

It's not even that I don't believe that notion. I do, and I tell myself that story every day. I know that I make a difference in my students' lives, and if I didn't believe that, I would quit teaching. Just like the man throwing the single starfish back into the ocean, I know that it does matter to that one, and I will keep doing it because it is rewarding, powerful, meaningful work.


But what does the super hero narrative of teaching do to our collective ethos? If we are trained to see our students, our colleagues, and even our own family as adversaries in a noble fight, how long can we possibly expect to last?

Teacher attrition is a major (and costly) problem, and there are a barrage of articles from teachers who say they just can't do it anymore, many citing workload, administrators, and policy. Even those who stay within the profession write to lament the difficulties they face because of the students and the parents.

The more that I think about it, the more damaging I think the super hero narrative of teaching really is. I know that I would not be the teacher I am today without the collaboration and mentorship from my colleagues. Good teaching is often friendly theft. You won't possibly have enough time to try everything that could happen in a classroom for yourself, so you borrow from your colleagues and you make it your own. The super hero narrative doesn't leave much room for that practice, one that is absolutely necessary to creating quality instruction without running yourself ragged.

And what if the sense of adversity is validly earned but wrongly placed?

In my own field (composition studies), several scholars have posited that educational systems are largely designed to reinforce hegemonic power structures. Scholars like Ira Shor, Geneva Smitherman, Mina Shaughnessy, and Peter Elbow have all voiced concern about the gatekeeping function of composition classrooms and the way that power structures are maintained through educational institutions.

If it is true that education is used as a mechanism to reinforce and perpetuate hegemonic power structures, then the super hero narrative is a clever tool indeed. Teachers represent a tremendous force of empowered, passionate, highly educated individuals who are--for the most part--determined not to let that be the case. But if we are trained to see ourselves as an army of one fighting a war on multiple fronts, we will never realize the power and potential we have to bring a serious threat to that hegemony.

In short, the super hero narrative uses our real super power against us.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New Commenting Guidelines

I made some changes to my Disqus settings and I want to explain them really quickly.

When I first started blogging, no one knew who I was (and I blogged anonymously), so I had no comment guidelines. Then people started finding me, and I got some great conversations with amazing people. Then other people started finding me, and I got some horrible threats and cruel jabs, so I implemented a "I'll delete you if you're terrible" policy. 

Now, though, I don't really get much commenting action on the blog itself. Most of my conversations about my posts happen on my Facebook page or on Twitter. While I still occasionally get a real live person wanting to engage in a real live conversation in the blog comments, most of the time I do not. 

What I get instead are people posting as Anonymous who are clearly robots trying to spam for back links. I know this because they say things like "This blog great today. I learn a lot really penis pump. Male enhancement to give tomorrow is a big sunrise. Visit my site!" 

The other thing I get is people skimming through posts I wrote months or even years ago to leave hate comments and threaten my life. 

I've taken a two prong attack here. I've disabled the ability to post as a Guest. You now have to put in an email address to show you are, in fact, a real person. But that doesn't do anything against the hate comments. 

So if you want to write just to tell me that I'm "fat" (though I am pretty well acquainted with my own body) and an "ugly bitch" or that you hope that I "choke to death" or to say "kill yourself" or that you "hate" me, I will now see that comment before it goes live and decide if this is really the place for it. 

I love a good debate, and I am not afraid of people disagreeing with the things I say, but disagreeing with me and wishing that I die a horrible death (usually while very clearly not having read any of the things I actually wrote beyond the headline) are not really in the same ball park. 

I hope that this doesn't frustrate the commenting practice to the point that people who really do want to have a conversation are dissuaded, but it seems like comment sections (at least for me, on this site and others) aren't really the place where that intelligent conversation goes on anyway, so I also hope the loss is not too great.

Photo: Kevin Trotman

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Putting on Your Company Best: Do We Owe to Ourselves What We Give to Others?

It is very hard for me to clean my house. I don't just mean that it is hard because I don't like to do it (although, yes, that's true) or that it takes a lot of time (although, for the love of all that is holy, that's true, too). I mean that it is hard for me to clean my house because it requires a disposition that I can't easily call forth.

It's okay. It's this same disposition that makes it easy for me to do things like, say, grade papers. I hone in on papers with an eye to detail that is quick and discerning. I am able to oscillate back and forth between big picture (the student's argument) and tiny minutiae (a misplaced comma) without any difficulty. It's the way my brain wants to work if left to its own devices.

Those same habits of mind make housecleaning a nightmare.

I oscillate back and forth between big picture (a clean house) and small minutiae (this dirty spoon. Why is there a spoon in the bedroom? How long has it been here? Oh, man, is this from last week? Have I really left a dirty spoon in my bedroom since last week? That's shameful. Maybe we should stop bringing food upstairs. That'd be a good rule. We need more structure around here. It's especially important for my daughter to learn structure. Maybe I need a chore chart. I'll make one right now. Where are the markers? Oh, they're in the craft drawer. Oh my God! What else is in this craft drawer?! Is that . . . is that a jar of corroded batteries? Why in the world would I have that? Oh, what's this? A tube of super glue! I've been looking for that! I wanted to fix something. What was it? Oh! That broken light fixture. I should go do that . . .)

I think you can see why things don't go well.

Both because of the immensity of the task and because it's just generally inefficient, my house never really reaches that mythical level of "clean" that I hear people talk about like a unicorn or a good public school with open spots.

Instead, I tolerate a general level of clutter. Sure, there are times when the clutter gets to me, and then I swoop into action and clean it up, but most of the time, the cleaning is sparked not by a desire to make my own habitat more habitable but to give it the appearance that I think is expected.

That's why I read with interest this xoJane piece from the creator of Unfuck Your Habitat (the profanely and aptly named site full of cleaning tips that I have turned to for inspiration more than once).

The argument in this piece is that making a house "company ready" is an unfair idea. You deserve a house that's "you ready" and the standards should exist without the pressure of an external audience:
Listen, the bottom line is that other people do not deserve a better version of your home than you do. You’re the one who lives there. You’re the one looking at it all the time. You deserve to have it be a haven for you, not a source of stress or embarrassment.
The tips in this article are solid, and they'll have your house looking nicer and feeling more manageable, but I want to question this idea that you need to hold your internal expectations up to the ones from the outside.

The way I see it, my actions are sparked by two different kinds of motivations: centripetal motivations and centrifugal motivations.

Centripetal and Centrifugal Motivations

Centripetal motivations generate internally. They are the motivations I place upon myself. I am highly motivated by centripetal forces. I place internal pressures on myself that the external world largely does not care about at all. For instance, I have a hard time putting down a book that I started even if I don't like it. I have a self-imposed pressure to finish the book. No one else is going to care if I finish it. It's not like they'll even know. But I'll know, so I pressure myself to complete it.

Centrifugal motivations come from the outside. When we know that someone else will be judging us, we are operating under centrifugal motivations to live up to these external expectations. For instance, I am motivated to make sure my daughter's clothes match not because I care so deeply about it, but because I am afraid people will think I am negligent if I don't.

Essentially, this article is arguing that all motivations should be centripetal, originating from within.

I understand the inclination. Why should we bend ourselves beyond our own desires for other people? Centrifugal motivations have to them a feeling of manipulation, superficiality, or even oppression. Doing things that you don't want to do because other people want you to do them, especially as a grown person capable of making your own life choices, feels like a loss of freedom.

But the argument here is not to eschew the external pressure to clean your house. That article would be really short: "Don't clean your house." Instead, this argument is that you should take those centrifugal forces and somehow internalize them, switching the motivational origin so that it is coming from within.

I don't think that's a good idea.

Responsibility and the Collective

Western cultures are  highly individualistic, and America ranks the highest in this domain. But even within our individualistic culture, it's clear that we are social beings who depend upon one another to make meaning of the world around us.

Those centrifugal forces remind us of that collective responsibility and partnership. I attempt to meet cultural standards when I have an audience because I recognize that I'm playing many different roles throughout the day.

I don't think I "deserve" to hold my house up to those same standards of organization any more than I "deserve" to wear my work clothes while I'm watching TV on my couch. I'm not cheating myself out of my "best" self by pulling my hair into a pony tail and changing into pants with an elastic waistband. I'm accepting that, once the centrifugal forces are removed from the equation, I don't have much motivation to perform that particular role.

I suspect we all fall on a spectrum of where our primary motivations originate. I also suspect that I'd fall pretty heavily on the centripetal side. Most of my actions are done because I have an internal sense of responsibility and reward.

But when I get dressed for a meeting with my boss, when I put makeup on because I'm getting pictures taken, and--yes--when I clean my house before a guest comes over, I'm letting those external pressures shape me a little.

I don't want to pretend that they come from within because they don't. It's okay to recognize that I play different roles for different audiences. I don't have to pretend that everything I do is done for me and me alone because I'm part of a bigger whole.

So, please, give me an hour notice when you're coming over. I'll hide the overflowing laundry baskets in the closet, run the dishwasher, and stack the books on the kitchen table into a neat little pile. I don't do it for me; I do it for you. And that's okay.

Photo: Kent Landerholm

Friday, July 4, 2014

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

It's been a long time since I've done a link round up, so I won't possibly be able to catch up on everything, but here are some things I've read that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

These facts about The Princess Bride are great!

Who doesn't love a good double entendre?

Alysia Montano ran an 800-meter race while she was 34 weeks pregnant.

Did you see these park benches in Vancouver that have shelter for the homeless built into them?

This is how you breastfeed. Take notes.

The Bad

Predictably (but no less disappointingly), a slew of companies are now seeking birth control exemptions after the Hobby Lobby decision. Most interesting to me is Eden Foods, an organic food company that must not do market research because it seems their customer base is none too thrilled. (Here's a petition asking Whole Foods to stop carrying their line if you're none too thrilled, too.)

Jessica Valenti explains why the GOP should maybe stop nicknaming (and, ultimately, dismissing) single female voters after their newest label of "Beyonce voters":
Female voters in the US have been called "soccer moms" and "security moms". In 2004, single women were "Sex and the City voters". Now – because apparently women can't ever just be "citizens" or "voters", or more likely because conservatives prefer to call us names instead of delving too deep into women's issues – we are "BeyoncĂ© voters". Bow down, bitches.
There's a video of an ASU professor being thrown to the ground violently before her arrest . . . for jaywalking . . . when the crosswalk was blocked by construction.

This middle schooler invented a simple system to help ensure children are not forgotten in the backseat of cars. Then he gave careful directions for how to make it and distributed them free online.

All of this (yeah, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cry more):

The Curious

This post about parenting toddlers was a timely read for me as I am right in the thick of three-year-old emotional swings, fierce independence, and utter exhaustion:
If I could go back, I would say, relax. Tantrums, running away, accidents, lost belongings, mischievous nap times... it's all a normal part of toddler life. I wasn't making life harder than necessary. Raising two toddlers really is just that hard.
One more Hobby Lobby-related link. This one exploring the implications of corporate personhood:
That separation is what legal and business scholars call the "corporate veil," and it's fundamental to the entire operation. Now, thanks to the Hobby Lobby case, it's in question. By letting Hobby Lobby's owners assert their personal religious rights over an entire corporation, the Supreme Court has poked a major hole in the veil. In other words, if a company is not truly separate from its owners, the owners could be made responsible for its debts and other burdens.
Is income inequality about to turn into pitchforks?