Sunday, September 28, 2014

Feminism and NFL Fandom: Is Anyone Required to Boycott?

I do not come from a home with a sports culture. My father did not watch any sports at all, and I lived  far enough away from the city that the baseball mania of Cardinals nation reached me without any requirements to actually watch the game.

My high school did not have a football team when I was there (though they have since merged with a neighboring school to support such an endeavor, one my little brother took part in until he graduated this year). We did have a basketball team that was highly praised, but--at least from my perspective as a nerdy high schooler who resented the pep rallies their teams got while my academic bowl team was ignored despite more impressive accomplishments--it was always a co-ed endeavor. We cheered on our boys and girls with equal fervor, and basketball does not have the element of violence that seems to pervade football.

In other words, I come to this topic as a tagalong. My husband is an avid football fan, and he was a college football player when we met as freshmen. I went to his games as a good girlfriend should, I learned a little about the sport, and through the past decade, I have (most passively) watched several hours of NFL football. Sometimes I have found enjoyment in the excitement of a big play, and I've definitely enjoyed the customs of Super Bowl parties and friendly team rivalries. I can't, though, really call myself a fan so much as a ride along in fandom.

Still, I found myself instinctively bristling during parts of Steve Almond's (mostly powerful and reasonable) post on feminism and football. Almond knows he will be attacked as a man writing about feminism and opens with that acknowledgement. That's not what I'm doing here, though. I'm glad to see a man thinking about the feminist perspective of the game, and I think that his contribution to the conversation is really important. He asks a lot of good questions, and his own decision to revoke a 40-year fandom in order to ensure he doesn't pass down a cultural heritage to his own daughters that includes so much misogyny is admirable.

My main points of contention come from a set of questions he asks early on in the piece that strike me as a little tone deaf.

The first question he asks specifically of Hannah Storm and, by extension, to all women of daughters:
why would a mother watch with her own daughter a video of a man knocking a woman unconscious?
Why did anyone watch that video? My hope is that people watched it to confirm the details of an event that had gotten so much press and to try to find some understanding in order to gauge their own reactions (as fans, as advocates against domestic violence, as citizens of this country, as humans, etc.) Almond seems to be suggesting here that watching it with your daughter (who is playing fantasy football so who is presumably an older child and not a toddler) baffles me a little. She likely watched that video with her daughter for the same reason that parents talk to their children about the horrors of drinking and driving, the importance of safe sex, the risks of peer pressure, and any number of cultural life lessons that are part of conversations when you're raising human beings. I doubt her and her daughter were gleefully replaying the horrendous scene of a woman being knocked unconscious and dragged around like an old rug. I suspect that Storm watched it with her daughter because (especially due to her own professional connection to the NFL) she knew her daughter would likely see it anyway and she wanted it to be in a context where she guided the conversation. That's good parenting in a complicated world.

The second question is more nebulous and much more general. Almond asks simply "What's in it for women?" the "it" being NFL fandom in the first place:
As a fan (a heartbroken former fan, anyway) I understand why football exerts such a powerful grip on men. The game is an exalted cult of hyper-masculinity, a place of refuge where dudes can escape the moral complexities and disappointments of adulthood, where heroism is defined as courageous and brutal and, above all, male. 
Well, hell. If women historically confined themselves only to activities free of a "cult of hyper-masculinity," what would we have? Not golf. Not running. Not corporate work. Not law. Not police work. Not the military. Not, well, not much of anything.

That doesn't mean that Almond doesn't make great points about the tensions between feminism and supporting the NFL (and we are, indeed, supporting them every time we let those advertising dollars gain a foothold through our views). He's right to question the ability for the two to coexist, but since feminist battles are often fought in the gray areas of life, I think he's wrong to call out Eliana Dockterman's stance on the issue. Dockterman defends her own fandom by explaining that:
Boycotting the NFL is simply not the best way to change its behavior. In a great video about why she is not boycotting the NFL, Fox Sports’ Katie Nolan says that boycotting would “just remove critical thinkers from the conversation.”
Almond doesn't accept her argument, saying that it is possible to criticize the NFL without watching it. That's certainly true, but it doesn't have the same rhetorical impact to criticize something from the outside. It's an ethos builder to establish your own fandom in the face of critical commentary, and it's a lot easier to criticize something in a way that resonates if you understand it.

The main thing that bothers me about Almond's article is that it comes across as a kind of martyrdom. He had to give up his own football fandom because women won't stop watching it even though they should. I respect that he's putting his money where his mouth is and following through with his own boycott. I doubly respect that he's done so after making the connection to a patriarchal cultural heritage that many women claim to have inherited from their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers.

But his decision to stop supporting an industry whose values he does not share should not be seen as stepping in as a substitute for women who are making poor choices. It is the responsibility of all people to question how their consumer practices impact the world they live in. You don't deserve an extra pat on the back for doing so as a man. If it's the right choice, it's the right choice for everyone.

It's obvious that the NFL has many cultural problems to address, and these problems matter because the resonance of sports operates only because they are an extension of the cultural problems at large. As responsible consumers, we have to ask ourselves what our dollars are supporting and if we can continue to spend them with a clear conscience. As human beings, though, the questions are even harder: what does the NFL as microcosm tell us about our culture? And what do we do with that?

Should a feminist (man or woman) watch the NFL? Should cheerleaders? Should Native Americans? Should neuroscientists? Should dog lovers? Should people against alcohol abuse? Should you?

And if the answer is no, what then? How do we ensure that we aren't just removing mirrors because we don't like the reflection of ourselves but instead are actually changing the picture?

Photo: Matt McGeeDan Tantrum

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: How Teaching Composition is Like Playing Candy Land

My daughter is three, and right now she loves to play board games. This is awesome because we're a family of board game players, and I'm glad that she's getting started on picking up this important cultural heritage so that she can soon join in on the family holiday tradition of laughing at the crazy drawings in Telestrations or coming up with Loretta Lynn's "Lincoln" for triple points in Scattergories. Unfortunately (for me anyway), she's not quite up to those standards right now, so we're stuck with Candy Land and this needlessly complicated but completely skill-void atrocity called The Lady Bug Game.

A conversation with a colleague helped me realize just how important these boring games are to her development (and not just for future Scattergories tournaments). She's learning how rules work, and--most importantly--she's learning she can trust me to help her make sense of the rules.

When we play Candy Land, she tries to cheat. She gets upset when I'm in front of her and tries to move her piece haphazardly across the board so she can be in front. She tries to sneak the card back into the pile and pick another one if she doesn't like what it says, and by "sneak" I mean that she announces loudly "I don't like this one!" and then makes a grab for the stack. She'll grab three cards at once and pick the one that has the most squares on it.

But she also breaks the rules in ways that make no sense, strategy-wise. She'll get excited about getting to go to the cupcake even if that's a move backwards, away from the win. She'll only move one red space when the card she drew allowed her two. She'll not realize when she's won an extra turn or some other special feature.

She relies on me in both of these instances. It is my job to patiently, calmly explain that she can't take three cards and pick the one she likes, that she can't just move her piece wherever she wants, that that's not how the game works. It is just as important that I point out when she moved in the wrong direction or didn't take enough moves forward.

Furthermore, I can win Candy Land any time I want. If I want to, I can move three spaces instead of two. I can pretend there's a magic portal that only I can see that takes me halfway across the board. I can say these things convincingly and get my way . . . because she trusts me.

She trusts me to enforce the rules fairly and correctly even if she knows that she's not following them. In fact, I think she's purposefully not following them just to try to figure out where the boundaries are. Children's games have simple rules, but they also throw in elements of surprise that probably seem arbitrary and a little off to the kids playing them. She needs me to enforce the guidelines in a way that helps her make sense of the patterns and internalize them for the future, a future hopefully filled with fun more complex than moving in along a row of colored blocks in a series of "choices" that are just blind luck.

Students, especially my developmental students, are also playing a game, but their stakes are higher.

My developmental writing students also try to cheat the system. They turn in papers with entire paragraphs copied from Wikipedia without even changing the font or taking out the hyperlinks. They'll master the formatting guidelines for one paper and then turn in one a week later entirely in 30-point Wingdings. They'll show me a gorgeous outline full of great ideas during a conference and then turn in a paper that doesn't include a single one of them.

When you really think about it, writing conventions are a lot like the rules of Candy Land: arbitrary, changing just often enough to be confusing, and maintained by some distant and disconnected power (if only the MLA guidebook was illustrated with lollipops and lemon drops). Despite many teachers' best efforts to create realistic audience situations and assignments that are interesting and relevant, the end goal is often the same, too: to "win."

I think to a large extent all students see the class as a game they win by passing, but this is particularly true for developmental students who often resent their placement in the class to begin with. Developmental classes are inherently representative of "the system" in a way that credit-bearing classes are not. Everyone from fellow college students to the admissions counselors to politicians create an environment in which this representation is reinforced repeatedly. Students who are placed in developmental classes are acutely aware of the game they're playing, and they therefore have more to prove in winning.

Which is why I think they quit so often.

Often, my lowest level developmental class experiences a mass exodus around midterm. I'll start with 23 students, drop down to 18 by a few weeks in, and then only have 9 left after midterms. Last year, I knew that more than half of the students in one of my classes were failing at midterm, and I made a (probably desperate-sounding) plea before I dismissed them the day before midterm grades went out: "Don't drop!" I said directly, "I know that a lot of you are going to be disappointed by these grades, but you can still pass. We are going to figure this out. Please don't drop."

Then I met with each one of them in conferences and we set up individual plans to get better work in the second half of the semester.

About three-fourths of the way through the semester, I started to feel like a failure. That classroom was unruly and loud. There was always a disruption, and I never got as much done in a class period as I hoped. I couldn't figure out why this one class was going so much worse than all my others, but then I stopped to really look at the situation: almost all of the students had stayed. The students who usually dropped out at midterm hadn't. The class was still packed, and with that increase in population came an increase in distraction, but it was one I would gladly take if it meant not losing half my students.

Reflecting on it now, I think that announcement served the same purpose that keeps my daughter playing Candy Land with me: she trusts that I'll enforce the rules fairly. She knows that if she moves her piece backwards instead of forwards, I'll correct her. Of course I tell my students not to drop every year, but I think there was some kind of perfect storm for that particular class in that they heard the true desire to help them win somewhere behind my voice. They knew they could trust me to play fair.

I know that comparing teaching developmental writing to playing Candy Land with a three-year-old will open up sneers of condescension that the job isn't "real" college teaching and all the other sexist drivel that dismisses the "mothering" aspects of academia (any kind of emotional labor as I wrote about here) as unimportant coddling. I disagree, though. I think that all teaching involves some element of enforcing the rules in a way that reveals their patterns, illustrating the world to be a set of complicated and sometimes contradicting boundaries that have to be identified and examined before they can be breached (and they will need to be breached).

If you don't trust the person with whom you're playing the game, you can't learn that. You throw the board across the room lodging little plastic pieces in the perfect spot under the bed so that someone will step on them while trying to get ready for work the next morning or you drop the class. You quit.

And you can't learn to break the rules that need to be broken if you don't play the game.

Photos: am boo who?, Andreas-photographyAnshul Nigham

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ker-Plunk Theory of Time Management

Did you ever play Ker-Plunk? I remember it never quite living up to the awesome early nineties hype of this commercial:

Basically, you started out the game by putting all these little sticks through some holes in the middle of an hourglass style plastic tube. Then you dumped marbles in the top, which were blocked by the sticks. Then you took turns pulling the sticks out, hoping that the marbles wouldn't fall. If they did, you were, as the commercial jingle made clear, "sunk."

This game popped into my head the other day as I thought about some time management struggles I'm having.

Last January, I joined a roller derby league just as the new semester started. I was juggling teaching, studying for my doctoral exams, and being a wife and mother with practicing roller derby at least twice and week and attending fundraising events for the league as well. I was also running two or three times a week and lifting weights. 

I remember it being hectic but not impossible. I remember it fitting together into a nice little nest of busyness.

Then I broke my ankle.

I've only been to a few practices (off skates, just to help with officiating) since then. I want to go to more, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how I made the time in my schedule to make this happen. 

I think it might work a lot like those Ker-Plunk sticks; once you've pulled them out, the marbles shift, and you can't put them back in.

It was less than a year ago, but the metaphorical marbles of my life have shifted drastically in that time. I passed my doctoral exams, which were the motivation for joining the league in the first place. I needed a way to get out of my head, to do something so physically demanding that it made me 100% present in the moment and not anxiously running over the dates of ancient rhetoricians' beheadings. Now I'm working on a dissertation, a task of an immensely different nature and one for which I very much need to be in my head, not out of it. 

I was healthy and active before the ankle break, but now I'm limping most days and can't run or jump. I have faith that I'll get these skills back, but being surrounded by friends who are jumping, skating, and generally demonstrating a bodily ability that I can't have right now makes me sad--even if I know it shouldn't.

There are plenty of other times that the marbles have shifted. Having a baby definitely threw all the previous time management rules out the window. Becoming a full-time faculty member did it again.

Those, though, are the kinds of major, rule-changing life events that I expect. It feels a little harder to deal when the marbles fell all on their own, when something else (beyond my control) pulled the sticks out.

Sometimes not being able to find the time is a tool we use to block ourselves from facing the realities surrounding the way we set our priorities. Sometimes it's the buffer we use to help us make decisions about what really matters. And sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.

Photo: Julep67

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why Don't You Have Your Man Doing That For You?

I was just outside mowing the lawn, you know, like people do. A man walking by stopped on the sidewalk and was yelling something at me that I couldn't hear over the whir of the motor in the incredibly manly machine I was wielding.

It looks a lot like this. Can't you feel the testosterone glowing off the screen. 
I, figuring that someone must surely have something important to say if you're stopping me from mowing (hey, maybe I'm about to run over a nest of kittens; I'd want to know that), stop the mower and look up, sweat dripping into my eyes, pretty clearly annoyed, "What?"

"Why don't you have your man doing that for you?"

I was thrown off. Now I was annoyed, confused, and insulted. "He's at work," I said, which was the truth, then turned back to re-starting the mower. 

The guy now looked confused, too. (What was he expecting me to say, I wonder.) "Oh, um, I guess you gotta work, huh?" But then he saw that I didn't get the mower started on the first pull (it's old, and it doesn't like being stopped mid-job for no reason) and his machismo perked right back up as he took a few steps toward me. "Looks like you need some help with that!" he gleefully declared, clearly feeling he had won this little "debate." 

Just then, thankfully, the engine roared to life, and I said, "Nope. Got it!" and started mowing again. Then the man seriously stood there watching me for a good minute. I heard him yell, "He's at work, huh?" one more time before he finally turned around and walked on. 

As I finished the methodical task of mowing my front lawn, I thought of all the other responses I could or should have given him:

1) I just spent two grand on this damn bionic ankle. You better believe I'm going to put it to use. 

2) I enjoy yard work way, way, way more than I enjoy housework. 

3) Oh, I'm sorry, do you mow your lawn with your penis where you're from? We use hands. Different strokes for different folks. 

But one of the main things I thought about was this: if that man was that impressed with my ability to walk back and forth in a line for the eleven minutes it takes to mow my postage stamp-sized front yard, what would he think of my mother, a woman who has mowed five acres of land by herself for decades?

Here's the bottom line, if my "man" didn't have enough respect for me to know that I could walk back and forth while pushing a wheeled hunk of metal in front of me without his help, I wouldn't have much use for him. Thankfully, that's not the case. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go do something really amazing like unclog a drain or take out the trash. 

Photo: M01229

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour: How Things Get Done (When They Get Done)

I have the pleasure of getting to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour after being tagged by Renee from Geek Adjacent. (Go over and check out her addition to the series.)

I teach writing to students who typically don't consider themselves writers, so I spend a lot of time thinking about "THE WRITING PROCESS" in its most boiled down, PowerPoint-friendly form, but I don't always spend as much time thinking about how it works in my own life, so I'm thankful for the opportunity to do that reflecting.

What are you working on?

This blog represents my most natural audience-focused writing voice, and that's probably why it's the space that I visit most often. I'm also working on an article about feminism and fitness through a ancient Greek lens since the instruction of fitness and that of athletics often overlapped in ancient Greek culture.

But the thing that consumes most of my writing life (day and night, in my dreams, in my nightmares) is my dissertation.

If you follow the blog, you may have seen my Blogging to My PhD series, in which case you have some idea of what I'm writing about. Generally, I'm arguing that in order to improve the developmental writing classroom, we need to restore invention to developmental students and that we can best do that through agonistic rhetoric.

More specifically, I'm working on the hardest piece of writing I've ever done. I've thought about these ideas for so long that they come spilling out on the page like ink from an exploding pen. Then I stare at them and convince myself that none of it is worth writing because everyone already knows this. Then I'll argue with myself that this isn't true. Not everyone knows this; I just feel that way because I've been thinking about it so long. Of course not everyone knows this. In fact, hardly anyone knows it, so maybe it's actually important. It's at that point--that brief moment of optimism and purposefulness--that I swing back the other way and convince myself that not only does no one know about this, but no one cares. Absolutely no one wants to read this thing. It's an act of futility. I take that pendulum ride at least once a day. It's great fun. 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think my blogging is very informed by my academic pursuits and the way doctoral work has prepared me for research and analysis. I'm not the only person blogging through this lens (go to Sociological Images. Right now!), but I do think that it's a rare intersection of academia, personal blogging, politics, and pop culture.

As for my dissertation, I am using works of fiction as a site for exploring better teaching philosophies, and that's a pretty unique way of making an argument. In fact, it's so unique that I anticipate it being a point of tension during my defense. In my daydreams, the conversation goes like this:
The committee: "We see that you have made the unconventional choice of using works of fiction instead of actual classrooms to make recommendations for teaching approaches. Why did you choose to write about The Crying of Lot-49 and Erasure instead of simply turning to the ethnographic studies of actual developmental writing classrooms?" 
Me: "I'm a grown woman. I can do whatever I want." 
Then the dream ends as my husband interjects and says, "I recommend you don't quote Beyonce during your defense."

Why do you write what you do?

I write a lot of the pop culture analysis because I find it genuinely fun. It's like going to a playground. This series on women tearing each other down in songs was one of my favorites to write.

I also write a lot of social justice posts about race, class, feminism, and oppression because it makes me feel less powerless when I'm looking out at a world of flaws. The conversations and relationships I've built out of writing posts on those topics have been immeasurably important to feeding my soul and broadening my perspectives.

Finally, I write about education and developmental students because it is my vocation in the cheesiest, most overwhelmingly sanguine way possible. I believe in my job, and I see the opportunity to write about it as the icing on the cake.

How does your writing process work?

Some days we could shorten that question to simply ask "Does your writing process work?" In a good month, I get to say yes at least half the time.

For as long as I can remember, writing has been a part of my life. I used to write poems and short stories on scraps of paper and napkins and have them tucked into my pockets. I used to hide a sheet of paper under my notes in math class so I could write. The margins of my history notebook were filled with stories. Frequently, I will toss and turn in bed with an idea itching at the tips of my fingers and the edges of my brain. I've learned to just get up and write. It's the only way I'll get any sleep at all.

The actual process, though, depends on the work. If it's an academic paper, it's two parts the appearance of procrastination to one part over preparation. I read, read, read, read, read all of my source material until it barely makes sense anymore, marking it up and pulling out quotes, and thinking about it while I go about my day-to-day life. Then I sit down at the blank page on my computer closer to the deadline than I would like, looking like I have nothing done, but really it's all been cooking for days, weeks, even months. Then it all spills out in a jumbled mess of ideas and too many quotes with no thesis in sight. Finally, the point appears about three-fourths of the way into the thing, so I have to pull it to the top and start over. Voila. A paper is born.

Blog posts usually come out fully formed and roughly in the order they appear. They're always too long, and sometimes I take the time to go back and edit them for length, but sometimes I don't. I love blogging as a genre that allows writing to be a little more raw, a little less polished.

Passing the Baton

Now I get to tag three writers to share their responses to the four questions above.

I've decided to ask three women who I had the pleasure of meeting at BlogHer.

I'd like to hear from Cheryl of Busy Since Birth who, true to  her blog's moniker, seems constantly busy indeed! I'm always amazed at her ability to put out such frequent, meaningful posts and would love to hear how she does it.

I'd also love to hear from Kimberly of Red Shutters who currently has a great post (complete with cute pictures) on how to rock the lunchbox as we head back to school.

Finally, I'd like to nominate Kate from MammaCake who I got the pleasure of getting to know as a hilarious and extremely friendly woman. She also carries around a rubber chicken. You should read her blog and ask her about that. She recently wrote an honest, moving piece about facing depression that has stuck with me since I read it.