Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

Here's what I've been reading that's made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). Feel free to add anything you've been reading/writing in the comments!

The Good

This. Watch it. Love it. Sing it to anyone who needs to hear it. "And my joy, my joy, my joy takes nothing from you."

Searching for the right word to describe that feeling? Try the Wheel of Feelings.

The Bad

Oklahoma wants to limit the institution of marriage to people of faith. For serious.

Spiders are falling from the sky in Australia.

The entire conversation surrounding the Duggar scandal and its fallout is heart-wrenching. This post from Love, Joy, Feminism does a great job of reflecting on it:
I still feel weird about posting this because of the gossipy angle so much of the media is giving it. So, I’d like to make a suggestion. When you see people talking about this story, whether on facebook or in person or in a comment section, steer the conversation toward the more substantive issues. Let’s use the attention the tabloids and other news sources are giving this story to educate the public about the problems with dealing with sexual molestation in house, the importance of sex education, and the dangers of judging the character of a family by outward appearances alone.
The Curious

Check out this great comic illustration of privilege at play.

Ryane Nicole Granados has an excellent post about her choice to make sure students always know they can come into her class--even when they're running late:
I allow students to come to class, even after the proverbial bell has rung, because I struggle with a different type of pit. I struggle with the pitfalls associated with literally or figuratively locking students out, and in turn suggesting that if you don’t come early enough to receive all of the knowledge there is no point getting any of it. In an institution designed to promote a love of learning, I am hesitant to enact such punitive justice that addresses the student’s immediate misstep, but does not consider the bigger picture.
There was a time when I was caught up in the food wars rhetoric, and reading much more nuanced discussions of processed food, industry, and health is helping to break down some blocks that set up. Hopefully we're moving toward a more productive conversation. Todd Kilman's interview with Rachel Lauden seems like a good start:
Yes, there are reasons to be wary about big organizations. Organization theory has made it abundantly clear that whatever the explicit goals of organizations, many other goals get followed. Businesses have to make money for their shareholders and satisfy their customers but managers also want to shore up their positions. Government agencies have to serve the public but civil servants also compete to increase their agency budget and prestige. None of this is specific to food. In complex modern societies, it’s hard to do without complex organizations.
What should the narrative for 21st century education look like? Thom Markham has some ideas:
But the future will be invented—and you will be part of it. Your passion, vision, and sense of mission will determine your level of contribution, but those qualities are liberated by appreciation and gratitude. The more grateful for your opportunity, the better the outcome and the more joyful the work. The same, by the way, applies to your students.
What happens when schools focus on restorative justice instead of suspension? Good things, it turns out.

Lori Garcia writes that praising fathers for simple parenting tasks is an insult to them:
He is a good man, a really good man. But not because he tackled a few loads of laundry. He’s a good man because he’s always a good man, taking care of whatever needs doing for his family — whether I’m home or away.
As pregnancy has become more and more medicalized, the importance of "the quickening" has fallen away.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Education as Transformation: Of Maturation and Shapeshifting

What does it mean to be successful in education? I ask myself that a lot, and I ask it from many different perspectives.

Most obviously, I ask it as an instructor. In fact, at the beginning of every semester I design a syllabus with that question literally in my mind. Then, at the end of each semester, I hold borderline grades up and ask it again. There they are: bookends of questions that sound the same "What does it mean to be successful in this class?" But they feel different.

It's easy enough to take a look at the lists of requirements for the course (lists created through course design committees on which I've also served; the question feels different there, too) and design a course with those goals in mind. It is very different to take an actual student, a real live individual, and hold their performance up to that yardstick.

By necessity, there's an almost clinical element to measuring student success. Out of fairness, professional ethics, and preservation of our own sanity, grading measures need to be objective, sometimes even cold.

from Scott Akerman
But there's nothing quite like a student who has a 69.3% in a class that requires a 70% to remind you that the clinical elements are something of a facade, especially in a composition course where the subjective nature of evaluation can never be fully remedied--no matter how many rubrics we throw at it. Scratch the surface of all those spreadsheets and calculators, and you're left with a much more nuanced picture.

Then there's the more global way to frame the question. What does it mean for a student to be successful? Culturally, we've created diplomas, certifications, and degrees as the benchmark. You're successful when you've completed it, whatever your "it" is.

In my field (developmental writing, "remedial" courses for students who test in as unprepared for college), this particular benchmark has proven to be a challenge. Very few developmental students go on to graduate with degrees, and it is the measure of completion that leads to such dismal conclusions that developmental education is not working.

I'm not throwing completion out the window because I know that degrees matter. As an ABD student who is hopefully just a few months away from defending a dissertation, I know all too well that progress and acquiring knowledge do not necessarily add up to crossing the finish line. And the finish line matters in very concrete ways. Completion is the gateway to jobs, to promotions, to bigger paychecks and less poverty. I care deeply whether or not my students pass my class, pass out of developmental education entirely, earn associate degrees, transfer to four-year colleges, and earn bachelor's degrees. But it's not the only thing I care about.

In the most recent issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, editor Jeff Sommers starts the introduction with this question and notes that college success researchers Michael McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro say "Students in American higher education start from very different points and seek very different destinations. But the ultimate aim of any educational encounter is to transform in some way, be it to enhance earning potential or to instill a love of learning--or very likely somewhere in between."

That line really struck me because I've been writing so much about agonistic rhetoric and the underlying understanding of transformation that underpinned ancient Greek notions of education. As Debra Hawhee puts it, "both athletic and sophistic pedagogy depend on a contractual philia, a tacit agreement to transform."

from Stevesworldofphotos
But McPherson and Schapiro also hit on the fact that American education serves very different purposes for very different people. The transformation is no simple equation. At least, it shouldn't be a simple equation. An education system that opens its doors to a diverse array of students and churns out an endless supply of identical "products" is not an education system I want to be in--as educator or student.

This image of schools as factories, though, is pervasive. As Larry Cuban writes:
In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent in every aspect of schooling.
 Within a half-century, however, the affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees and reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine.

I don't believe that American education as a whole aims to squeeze all of the individuality out of students to make them carbon copies of one another (copies ultimately modeled off of a hegemonic status quo that's likely white, rich, and male). And I know that many of the educators within this system don't have that aim, (but if we are reduced to mere cogs in the machine, I suppose our motivations are of little concern). However, using only the measure of completion to gauge student success makes this model a little more accurate. It is only when we craft a more nuanced view of educational transformation that the elements of diversity and individuality can be retained.

But transformation is still transformation, and transformation is often painful.

Even if we recognize that education allows for many different transformations, we still have to account for the fact that not all students are going to be approaching the promise of transformation in the same way.

In particular, students who are new to college landscapes might see that promise as a bit of a threat.

I say this as a first-generation college student and as an educator who primarily teaches other first-generation college students at an open access community college. I also say it as someone who has taught students in a prestigious private four-year college who come from long line of college graduates. These experiences have taught me that, yes, transformation is a part of the educational process for everyone. The promise of transformation underpins the entire endeavor in everything from syllabi promising learning outcomes to recruitment advertisements. And once you've attained a degree, adding those letters to the back of your name stands as a marker of that transformation.

But students who come from a family lineage of such transformations often approach college as a means to inevitable maturation. College success often brings them closer to members of their family that they love and respect who have already made this change and modeled its results their whole lives.

from tzzimone
On the other hand, first-generation college students have no such support system waiting on the other side of the change. Their transformation, even when it is wanted and agreed upon, often has the added sting of moving them further away from their family and friends. They are not like tadpoles growing into the frogs they've seen around them their whole lives. They are more like the little mermaid giving up her fins for legs.  When we cross to the other side, we are surrounded by strangers. Harder still, we are strangers to ourselves.

From WonderlandNinja
I don't think that we do enough to address this difference. We could start by doing more to openly acknowledge it. Too often, the rhetoric of change aimed at first-generation college students is wholly optimistic in a way that leaves students feeling even more alone. Maybe everyone else is making the transformation just fine. Maybe it is only me who cannot adapt. Maybe I'm not cut out for this. This is a recipe for pronounced and paralyzing impostor syndrome. As Jacquelyn Gill explains:
This isn’t to say that white upper class males don’t feel self-doubt; rather, it’s easy to imagine how people from underrepresented backgrounds (women, people of color, first-generation grad students, etc.) might be more susceptible to feeling like an imposter, especially if you literally don’t see others like you in your academic surroundings.
I've felt my education distance me from people I love, and it hurts. But my pains are subtle compared to some of my students. They've told me tales of intentional sabotage by family members who felt threatened by their educational goals. Sisters have taken cars for joy rides at the very moment a student needed to leave to get to class. Partners have ended relationships that no longer fit. Parents have demanded their children quit coursework to stay home. Those are extreme cases, but I often hear about friends who first call to offer nights out instead of homework and, when those don't work, calls that never come again. I know a lot about family who still offer love but who hold you at arm's length, an odd specimen regarded with caution.

The transformation comes with great benefit, but in a way unique to students who are shape shifting instead of maturing, it also comes with incredible sacrifice. We should be up front about both if we expect students to successfully undergo the change.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I'm a Feminist, and I Still Watch Game of Thrones

By now, you've probably seen the flurry of posts complaining about last Sunday's Game of Thrones (which I will be writing about, in addition to previous episodes, so spoilers).

In this episode, Sansa marries Ramsay, and their wedding night ends with a horrendous rape scene in which Theon, Sansa's lifelong friend and pseudo-brother, is forced to watch.

I've got my own take on the show's portrayal of sexual violence against women, but I want to first take a look at some of the (smart, meaningful) things others are saying about this episode and the previous displays of rape and sexual assault.

Elizabeth King at Bitch Magazine asks when a guilty pleasure becomes too guilty:
It’s important to acknowledge that most of popular media is riddled with problems and deciding to just not watch a show is not always the best option. Events like this week’s episode of Game of Thrones force us to push this idea further and wonder whether or not making note of repeated, wildly uncomfortable scenes is enough to justify commitment to our favorite media. In some cases, merely discussing the flaws does not feel like enough to forgive the flaws. With Game of Thrones, I no longer feel that noticing the problems is enough—I personally don’t want to look at it anymore.
Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue very directly announced that this episode was the breaking point and they would no longer be promoting the show:
In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Salon has their own recap of reactions to the episode, and it included some reflections from Alison Herman at Flavorwire:
It’s too soon to judge the effects of her marriage to Ramsay on her overall arc, and it’s possible that Sansa will find a way to exact revenge when Stannis show up. But my immediate feeling after Theon’s face cut to black and the credits started rolling was that, sometime in the last two seasons, Game of Thrones crossed the line between showing what a cold, hard world its women live in and abusing them past the point of being useful to the narrative, or even interesting. 
 Salon also highlighted Nina Shen Rastogi's Vulture post:
It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly, but to do so by literally stripping her is so cheap, such an obvious choice, I felt offended as a fan. And if this means Sansa loses all her momentum, which has brought such a fresh energy to the show’s plot — I’ll be mad as a fan, not just as a feminist.
I've seen many, many people declare that they are done with the show on feminist grounds in the past few days (and many others who used the backlash to remind the world that they'd similarly used a feminist perspective to bow out of viewership some time ago). I only started watching a couple of months ago, and this is the first season I've watched as it aired, so I've missed some of the previous discussions in real time. However, I've since gone back and caught up, and I generally think that I'm more aligned with perspectives like those shared in this earlier post by Alison Herman, this one by Erica Aisha Charves, and especially this one by Vivienne Chen. These writers focus on the way that the show's violence and oppression reflect the violence and oppression of history and contemporary society. If we're uncomfortable, perhaps that's the point. As Chen puts it:
What the show really asks is, “What if white people had committed colonial-level horrors on other white people?” In other words, all the blood and boobs, rape and torture, are not just HBO gratuitousness, but an expression of how European colonizers treated their colonized subjects, masquerading as domestic high-fantasy in Belfast castles.
I'm with them. I think that violence and oppression have a place in our pop culture because I think that pop culture is where we turn to figure out how to process the realities of our past and help shape a better future. A fantastical world that didn't address patriarchal power structures and dominance over marginalized groups of people may have purpose, but I don't think it would hold my interest as I fear I wouldn't find a foothold for framing my lived experiences within it.

But that's not the angle I want to take for explaining to you why I've chosen to keep watching Game of Thrones despite the rapes of several of its major female characters. Instead, I want to look more closely at the reason people are saying that feminists shouldn't watch the show.

First, a disclaimer. You absolutely and unapologetically have the right to not watch anything you don't want to watch. If this show (or any other) makes you uncomfortable or triggered, you shouldn't feel compelled to watch it. I am absolutely not saying that the writers I'm analyzing tonight are wrong to stop watching. They have every right to make that choice and to voice that decision to the world. They even have the right to try to convince you (and me) to follow them in changing the channel. I'm a huge advocate for ethical consumption of media and voting for change in the culture through consumer demands.

Instead, what I want to do is offer an account for why their explanations for their decisions and their attempts (direct and indirect) to persuade me to follow did not work.

Rape and Other Violence in Game of Thrones

First, I've seen many people make a two-pronged argument that rape is portrayed too quickly and too easily in the show. This argument as I've seen it made in many comment sections on these articles has two parts: 1) rape is used more than other forms of violence and 2) rape is the only form of violence used against the female characters.

This just isn't true. There is so much violence in the show against the male and female characters.

First, a look at some of the violence against male characters on the show: The torture of Theon as he is mutilated into Reek is a prime example. The bullying of Sam when he first gets to the Wall is brutal. Tyrion's emotional abuse at the hands of his family was really hard for me to watch. The Hound's burned face as a permanent reminder of his sibling rivalry, Jamie's missing hand, Ned Stark's missing head. Male bodies are also brutalized, beaten, and defeated.

Secondly, there's the charge that rape is the only way that women are brutalized. This is, again, not true. Sansa was forced to watch her father's beheading. Catelyn Stark's throat was slit. Brienne was forced to fight a bear with a wooden sword. In this same episode, Margery is forced into the dungeon for lying to save her brother from bigots. There is no shortage of violence--emotional and physical, sexual and non-sexual--cast upon the women and girls of the show.

Rape is repeatedly (and uniquely) held up as a threat against women. Brienne and Meera both come up against near-rape situations until they are rescued (by men). Rape is also demonstrated to be the tool of power that Craster uses to maintain control over his wives, a point made especially clear when he casts away the sons borne from that rape and keeps daughters for future cycles of abuse. And, of course, there have been previous rape scenes in the show. Dany is raped on her wedding night in a way that is almost identical to Sansa (minus the added humiliation and torture of having someone else forced to watch), and Jamie raped Cersei.

These were all incredibly uncomfortable scenes for me to watch. I took no joy in seeing these women  tortured through rape. I do think, though, that there is a powerful message in seeing rape as a tool of power and oppression wielded by characters that we will go on to feel conflicted about. I sincerely doubt that Ramsay will go on to have a redemption plot line. He has pretty clearly been displayed as an evil villain through and through. But Khal Drogo (who raped Dany) and Jamie (who raped Cersei) both went on to have much more conflicted portrayals of heroism and tenderness. I think this is important.

As an outspoken feminist who grew up in a very rural, conservative community, I have had many, many conversations with male friends who are frustrated with feminism and don't believe in the existence of rape culture. In many of these conversations, they've treated rapists as boogeymen who are rare and decidedly evil creatures. In other words, they don't look at their friends, their brothers, or themselves as potential rapists, and this means that they fail to understand how the culture we live in conditions us to see rape as acceptable. By portraying rape as something committed by characters you actually like and otherwise root for, Game of Thrones complicates the narrative that only evil men rape. And that's a good thing. As Laurie Penny writes in a post on examining assumptions about rape:
As a culture, we still refuse collectively to accept that most rapes are committed by ordinary men, men who have friends and families, men who may even have done great or admirable things with their lives. We refuse to accept that nice guys rape, and they do it often. Part of the reason we haven't accepted it is that it's a painful thing to contemplate – far easier to keep on believing that only evil men rape, only violent, psychotic men lurking in alleyways with pantomime-villain moustaches and knives, than to consider that rape might be something that ordinary men do. Men who might be our friends or colleagues or people we look up to. We don't want that to be the case. Hell, I don't want that to be the case. So, we all pretend it isn't. Justice, see?
Penny goes on to explain the danger of this belief:
it fosters the fantasy that there's only one kind of rape, and it happens in the proverbial alley with the perennial knife and certainly not to anyone you know.
Game of Thrones definitely has no shortage of rape, and it is very difficult to watch. But the show also has no shortage of murder, brutality, assault, emotional torment, and many other kinds of violence. Often, the show juxtaposes a traditional narrative of good vs. evil (like Gregor Clegane's bloodthirsty murders) with a more nuanced and complicated display of a similar violence (like Tyrion's murder of Shae). By demonstrating that so many characters have the potential for violence, the show reminds us that fighting against oppression is everyone's responsibility, and that the enactment of that violence might not always look the way we expect.

Sansa's Victimhood and Declining Viewership

There's something else about this latest wave of outrage that has me frustrated, though, and that's the way the outraged are talking about Sansa. I know that Sansa is not a real person, and I do not necessarily think that fictional characters deserve the same treatment as real ones. However, many of these people are writing on Sansa's behalf, claiming that they are no longer watching because the show took a powerful character they respected and destroyed her through this rape scene. In this way, they are personifying the fictional character beyond the screen. They are making her out to be a metaphorical representation of women in general, and it is on those grounds that they feel disgusted enough by her violation to stop watching the show.

Rastogi's frustration with the show stems from seeing Sansa's carefully and hard-won agency wrested from her: "It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly."

Many others are equally frustrated by this sharp turn in Sansa's trajectory toward strength. Melissa Leon asks:
But when is all this pain and misery going to transform the eldest surviving Stark into anything more than a damsel in distress? She got a Goth makeover, a badass new attitude, and has a network of Winterfell servants willing to come to her aid. Is she ever going to help kill any of these sickos? Or will she take the Jeyne Poole route and just stand by for help, again?
I understand these critics' frustration, but I think there's something troubling in suggesting there's a right way to react to rape. To say that Sansa is merely waiting for help and thus weak or that because she has been raped she cannot reclaim her agency is falling into a trope of dehumanizing victims for the sake of simple narratives. As we explored above, Game of Thrones often distorts traditional narratives of good vs. evil, and I have faith that the show's creators will similarly invert simple narratives of victimhood.

Most importantly for me, though, is that I don't think we should fall into simple tropes of victimhood in the name of feminism. Yes, Sansa's treatment was horrendous. Yes, it was terrible to watch a character who had just recently escaped so much trauma and who appeared to be recovering spirit and strength to be so brutalized. Yes, rape is an abhorrent act.

But real women are raped in real life. Often repeatedly. Often after regaining strength from previous abuse. Often at the hands of people who they depend on. Often. Too often.

To suggest that Sansa as a character is somehow now deficient or that her reaction (which we haven't even seen yet) is somehow insufficient is troubling to me. There is no right way to react to abuse. And abuse does not define victims' entire identities.

Alison Herman's Flavorwire post denouncing the episode also discusses the difference between Sansa's rape and Dany's in terms of their reactions to the violence perpetrated against them:
There’s a world of difference between Dany’s rape at the start of the series, a rock bottom one can and should compare to her next husband literally cowering at her feet, and the casual abuse experienced by Cersei in the fourth season and now Sansa in the fifth. Unlike the encounter between Cersei and Jaime last year, we’re at least meant to perceive Sansa’s experience as rape—but that’s about all that’s improved.
I don't think there is a "world of difference" between Dany's rape and Sansa's rape. The two are nearly identical. They both occur on the women's wedding nights. They both feature men who clearly believe they now own the bodies of the women they've wed. They both feature crying, silent women being bent over and raped in a show of dominance. In both, we don't get to hear the women's voices, only their cries of pain. Just because Dany rises to power after her rape (as Sansa may--we have yet to see her reaction) doesn't mean that her rape was somehow "better." This puts too much pressure on the victims to react a certain way to make them acceptable.

What really drove this home for me was a passage from that The Mary Sue article quoted above.

Here Pantozzi is discussing her frustration with the scene by looking at the way the show compares to the books. Sansa does not marry Ramsay in the books, but her character was combined with a character named Jeyne, who does (and is also raped):
I honestly did have hope Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t go there, especially after the huge and thoughtful discussion by countless journalists and fans surrounding last year’s controversy. But looking at what has taken place this season so far — from Ramsey’s promise to Littlefinger, “I’ll never hurt her. I swear,” to Sansa’s friends at Winterfell, Brienne keeping close watch, and Stannis close to arriving — I assumed Sansa would not go down the same path as Jeyne, especially when you consider Sansa’s own inner strength. As the scene played out, I though she might pull a dagger out of her wedding gown and end Ramsey once and for all. 
She didn’t. What a missed opportunity to do something that would have actually surprised your audience. Rape, on the other hand, is expected.
When I read the line I bolded above I was seriously, deeply offended. I don't think that Pantozzi meant any harm with this analysis, but what she has suggested here is that women with inner strength are not raped. She's suggested that because Sansa didn't pull a knife out of her wedding dress (an act that probably would have led to her own death at the hands of Ramsay's family), she is not a strong woman.

Maybe Sansa did miss an opportunity to surprise (and delight) the audience by giving Ramsay the reaction he so deserved, but does that really make her any less a woman of "inner strength"? Does her rape so weaken her? And if it does, what does this analysis say to all of the real-life rape victims around the world?

I will continue to watch Game of Thrones, and I will continue to root for the characters who are most marginalized and systematically disempowered in the fictitious setting of their universe. Turning away from their reality because they don't react the way I'd like them to or because they become victims of a very real and all-consuming threat of violence around them feels too much like abandoning them.  For me, turning away from the show because a character becomes a victim to sexual violence feels too much like the way that real victims of rape are ignored, silenced, and judged.

I know that Sansa is not a real person, but if critics can use a feminist argument to turn away from the show on her behalf, surely I can use a feminist argument to say that she deserves me to stick around and be on her side.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why Do Fad Diets Make People So Angry? Thoughts on Religion, Being Human, and the Whole 30

Do you want to see people get really, really angry? Talk to them about a diet fad. Go to the comment section of any article about gluten or "clean" eating or any other diet of the moment.

Fad diets aren't new, but the social media support systems around them and the ability to share your every meal with massive amounts of friends, "friends," and strangers is. And I'm guilty of it, too.

I did the Whole 30 challenge back in 2013 and blogged about it at the time. I never believed that I had a gluten allergy, but I was willing to try the Whole 30 as a way to challenge my perspective on food and try out something that made me get creative in the kitchen. I actually felt fantastic while I was on the diet, but it was utterly unsustainable for me (and I suspect most people).

There was a time when I was letting the food stuff get to my head in a way I'm not proud of. I distinctly remember scanning recipes and seeing canned, bagged, or bottled ingredients that would make me stick my nose up at their clear inattention to health. "Clean" eating. "Real" food. These were the guidelines I wanted to follow. I read The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules and felt full of knowledge and power.

My turn away from these practices has been more pragmatic than philosophical. I still believe that eating a variety of non-processed, fresh, locally-sourced foods is the best practice and one I work towards adopting. But I also have a freezer full of Trader Joe's turkey corn dogs and whole wheat waffles. Why? Because making ketchup from scratch takes a whole lot of time, and dissertations don't write themselves.

So I've found myself at an interesting place while watching the backlash to diets like the Whole 30 unfold. I'm not following the diet, but I have before. I'm not adhering to the principles, but I haven't completely abandoned them as useless. I feel like I'm in a middle ground between two very set warring camps, ducking down in a foxhole while hand-crafted, gluten-free pizza crusts made of cauliflower and bottles of Roundup get lobbed over my head.

I'm not here alone. There are plenty of other people in the middle ground trying to figure out what this discussion of eating and science, health and fanaticism, industry and elitism means for us. There's a really great interview with Alan Levinovitz, a religious scholar who looks at the philosophical underpinning of our food manias. He says a lot of smart things, but this is the one that stuck with me the most:
Science is not great at constructing narratives. That’s its virtue and its downfall. Scientific inquiry has to divorce itself from what makes the best story, and science writers, myself included, are in the business of making science compelling by telling stories.
I study rhetoric, and this issue reaches all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Rhetoric has repeatedly been dismissed as a "knack" that ran the risk of clouding the "real" knowledge of science. But people respond to narrative, to stories. And it's not just (as I think Levinovitz is short-sightedly implying here) that rhetoric "dresses up" the real truth to make it palatable for the science-adverse public. Rhetoric is a means of invention, not just a tool of amplification. Truths are discovered within stories, not just through them.

So what are the "truths" of the stories we tell ourselves about food? What do the tales of gluten woe and ethical eating mean for us? Why are we drawn to them so completely, and should we be ashamed at our lack of scientific grounding for our claims?

These are the kind of tasks we often use religion to accomplish. Indeed, many people have noted the connection (with various tones of disgust/reverence) between the way we treat food and religion.

Levinovitz has some thoughts on this as well:
This takes us back to religion. There are a great many things about religion that are extraordinary. It helps us ask and answer questions about mortality, about beauty, about goodness, about truth, that really can’t be addressed by scientific studies. I think that it is a pity when people start trying to answer those questions with the kinds of foods that they eat. It’s kind of sad, right, that now the way we confront death is by avoiding Fritos. What a pathetic ritual, right? Strap on your Fitbit and shop at Whole Foods instead of, you know, sitting down and thinking about Job.
I was with him for a moment. I do think that religion serves the function of giving us answers we can't find in science. Religion is a way of making sense of a senseless world, and the way we talk about food often serves that same purpose. When we're talking about how we nourish our bodies, our fear of mortality, our ethical interaction with finite resources, we are asking questions that go beyond the scope of science alone. Science is very important to all of these topics. Science holds answers about nutrition (even if the scientific community struggles to find consensus). Science holds answers about mortality. Science holds answers about global warming and GMOs and the pain animals feel in the slaughterhouse. What science does not hold is a guide book for what we should do with that information or how we should process it when it contradicts.

And is strapping on a Fitbit and avoiding grains really such a horrible way to check in with your body and forge a path out of that tangle of information? Does it really deserve all of this vitriol?

Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist recently tackled this topic, and I love what she had to say:
What’s missing is an acknowledgment that people do things that are not evidence-based, but are often for very good reasons, nevertheless. People make decisions all the time that are not based on scientific evidence or even a factual understanding of how something works, but rather, they make those decisions based on cultural values, or aesthetic preferences, or as a way of expressing and managing the anxieties of being human. Far from being a sign of weakness or irrationality, I think this can make a lot of sense.
People don't always make science-based decisions, and it's not because they're too dumb to understand the science; it's because science doesn't have all of the answers. Food is a lot more complicated than it might first appear. Every decision we make about food is a tangle of ethics, health, convenience, tradition, and aesthetics. The fact that those decisions are splintered through a prism of societal constraints ranging from fat phobia to aggressive farming practices of mega-corporations funding GMO research doesn't make it any easier.

Michelle goes on to say that the problem arises when people make pseudo-scientific arguments to justify their non-scientific decisions. Why do they do this?
It is very tempting to reach for scientific-sounding explanations, because those explanations are privileged in our culture. They carry a kind of social capital.
She even connects this to her own interests as an advocate of the Health at Every Size approach:
I see people involved in fat acceptance and Health at Every Size do it fairly often. I try, when I can, to acknowledge that a large part of my perspective about body weight and eating is based on a moral decision I have come to: that it is not acceptable to treat people as less-than based on a physical trait, and that fat people have the moral and legal right to eat normally, without dieting, if they want. There may be some scientific evidence to support the principles of Health at Every Size, but for me, the core of this issue is, and has always been, moral.
We make our decisions out of a complex web of resources, and we aren't always equipped to fully articulate just what path we took to do it. The fact that science feels so much firmer than aesthetics or morality makes us cling to it when it does not fit.

Science and religion (or religion-like adherence to food guidelines) do not have to be at odds, but using them simultaneously without an explosion of dichotomies (natural vs. artificial, healthy vs. unhealthy, fat vs. fit, humane vs. inhumane, rhetoric vs. science, corporate vs. individual) is really, really difficult.

Photos: Sarah R, Donna Cleveland, ViktorDobai

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Shelf Life of a "Mommy Blogger"

There was a time in my blogging life when I made at least a post a day, often more. If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed that I'm now posting only three or four times a month. Much of this is because of changes to constraints on my time. I'm now a full-time faculty member, the mother of a very active preschooler, and a graduate student writing a dissertation.

But it's also because of changes to my blogging persona that I haven't quite figured out how to deal with. I never really considered myself a "mommy blogger" although I know that others labeled me as such. And for good reason. The catalyst for starting this blog in the first place was a positive pregnancy test. Many of my connections in the blogosphere were with other "mommy bloggers" whose work I deeply respect. I was featured on lists of "feminist mothers" and participated in parenting themed blog hops.

But the point of it--for me, if not necessarily for every reader--was to design a space where I could wear all of my hats simultaneously. Motherhood was always just one of many roles, and some of my favorite (and most popular) posts had nothing to do with motherhood. Analyses of songs and movies, commentary on politics, and discussions about teaching all have their place here. Often I felt like my blog had no cohesion and wondered who its readers could even really be. I mean, how many people are there in the world who want to read posts about breastfeeding, teaching community college, and Lil Wayne analysis? So the center of the blog is, and will continue to be, me. It's one space (at times, the only space) where I can move in and out of different roles without feeling too exposed, too out of place. I still wear all the labels that I do in my various positions of life, but I do it more fluidly, and that feels good and makes sense.

I was thinking about this tonight because Annie at PhD in Parenting just announced that she's no longer going to post at her blog. Hers is one of the very first blogs I ever started reading, and her work inspired me both as a reader and a writer. She notes a consistent dwindling in her post count, and I've sorely missed seeing her work but have found myself returning to her previous posts time and again over the years. Her post about halting her blog, like all her posts, is full of insight and wisdom:
But I've had less and less to share as my children get older. I feel like I've written just about everything I wanted to write about parenting (and I don't like repeating myself) and I also find there are less common topics to discuss as our children get older.
I, too, have found myself writing less and less about parenting as my daughter has gotten older. I don't know, though, that it's because I have less in common with my readers (potential and actual, known and unknown to me). Instead, I think it's that my daughter's life has started to untwine from mine in a very real, sometimes painful, and inevitable way. In infancy, parenting is all-consuming, but writing about it is more about the experience than the person you're raising.

The more autonomous she's gotten, the more sharing feels like a boundary issue. I've tiptoed around those boundaries in my most recent parenting posts. When I talked about her possible sensory issues and our discussion about an Elsa Halloween costume, I was sharing my experience, but in a way that wasn't true when I talked about my struggles with breastfeeding or the challenges of sleep during those early months, I was also sharing her experience. I've always been very careful to walk that line in a way that feels ethical and right to me, but that means there are a lot of posts I just don't write. There are too many times when the scale tips too far on her side of the equation.

Annie is almost certainly right that there are fewer people who have these individual experiences, but I still think we have a lot of room for overlap and connection. For me, it's not so much that I can't find an audience for those stories as it is that those stories are no longer mine to tell--at least not here.

I don't feel the need to stop blogging because there are plenty of other things I can blog about, but I do think that if I had more fully embraced the "mommy blogger" label, I'd be at a loss right now.

But the thing that I'm really thinking about tonight is how many of those "mommy bloggers" I really found community with when I started blogging (five years ago) have disappeared. And it has almost always been a quiet trailing off into the abyss. The posts get fewer and farther between. Then one day they stop. It's at once beautiful and heartbreaking to see the people you've walked beside find new paths and journey out of your sight.

But it is also scary. There was a time when I felt pretty involved and connected to the blogging world. Technology moves so fast that my lulls for dissertation writing and teaching have left me behind the times. I just kept walking as I watched so many of my companions veer off on paths months and even years ago, and now I'm standing in what feels to me like uncharted territory.

Am I just a mommy blogger blogging past her expiration date? Perhaps. But writing is crucial to my sense of self. It is how I find my foothold in what feels like an endless tumble. So I'll keep walking, humming to myself alone in the woods.

Photos: Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis, David Sterbik

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reading Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as Alt/Dis

Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp a Butterfly made a huge splash when it dropped in March and for good reason. The album is full of deep personal and cultural reflection that are at times catchy and inspiring and at other times so raw and emotional that it's hard to listen to.

In many ways, To Pimp a Butterfly is organized around universal questions of individual vs. collective, nature vs. nurture, and self-reliance vs. communal responsibility. The fact that Lamar harnesses all of these major philosophical themes around the question of being a black man in America comes at a time when major political and racial unrest is dominating headlines. His album alternates between salve and salt for wounds in post-Ferguson America, and the results are powerful.

Tom Barnes, writing for Mic, reflects on the way that the album walks the line between culturalist and structuralist arguments about racism and its impacts. This earns Lamar a spot in a long line of dichotomous perspectives that have been represented in the debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois and between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

Barnes goes on to note that Lamar skillfully avoids falling into the dogmatic perspective of either structuralism or culturalism:
It isn't an either/or for Lamar. It's a struggle, and a question that cannot be reduced to dogmatic responses. This is a dangerous and necessary album. There are no easy answers on it. But this is why it's so important. Hopefully, its controversial depiction will act as a catalyst, provoking more thoughtful discussions.
And thoughtful discussions have indeed arisen.  Micah Singleton calls Lamar America's poet laureate and notes that "Kendrick depicts the struggle of expressing black self-love better than any artist has done in recent memory — the highs and lows, the inner joy, the self-hate, the bravado, the blame." Julian Mitchell calls upon James Baldwin to explain how To Pimp a Butterfly operates:
By experiencing extreme vulnerability, a black man must inescapably confront the inner demons that fuel his self-destruction. As a result, he can run nowhere but within, incapable of blaming the known dynamics of race, nor leveraging the realities of history as an excuse to settle in conformity. The singular point Baldwin sought to make is that for black men to truly experience liberation in society, they must first be removed from that society to liberate themselves.
Mitchell likewise calls upon the American Dream imagery of transformation, a transformation perfectly encapsulated in the album title's allusion to the butterfly that emerges from the caterpillar. That this butterfly is "pimped," sold out, commodified, and packaged speaks to the torn sense of identity inherent in Lamar's success.

By focusing so heavily on these themes of the way individual drive clashes with a sense of collective responsibility, the way that success can feel like a betrayal, the way that self-loathing coexists with self-love, Lamar places himself in a long trajectory of (mostly minority) artists and authors who have explored these themes. Nowhere are these themes so pronounced as within the genre of "alternative discourses," or "alt/dis." In fact, a close comparison of Lamar's work to some of the most prominent examples of the alt/dis genre indicates that he's not just playing with the same themes; his album fits as a representative work of alt/dis itself.

Alternative Discourses

Alternative discourses are typically defined as works that are made up of "mixed" or "braided" discourse forms. They're typically identified by an intertwining of traditional academic discourse conventions with more personal, narrative-based discourse. Representative works in the genre run along a spectrum with some works tending to be more academic than personal and some works more personal than academic, but all works within the genre shared this mixed nature.

Geneva Smitherman's Talkin' and Testifyin', for example, is a primarily academic work that weaves in personal narrative and slang to help illustrate her point that African American Vernacular English is a powerful and legitimate discourse. Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary uses his own personal story of educational struggles stemming from a test mix-up landing him on the remedial track to advocate for policy change. Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory reflects on the pain and isolation he felt as he moved away from his family's cultural practices and into an assimilated version of himself for the sake of academic success.

One key marker of alternative discourses is the way that the authors depict themselves as torn, conflicted, and mired in struggle with their sense of identity. These writers illustrate the process of determining their new sense of self in the face of this conflict to be painful and often isolating. They're left without a clear place to stand, distanced from their families and "home" culture but also never quite fitting in with the mainstream academic culture either.

Gloria Anzaldua and La Facultad

Perhaps no one puts this more powerfully than Gloria Anzaldua does in her work Borderland/La Frontera. Anzaldua reflects on how her identity has left her no stable self in terms of gender, race, or language. The book switches in and out of prose and poetry and Spanish and English, leaving the reader cognitively immersed in the erratic switches that Anzaldua is trying to illustrate within herself. She identifies as a queer mestiza whose white, Mexican, and Indian ancestry represents "the conquerors and the conquered.”

To illustrate her sense of conflicted identity, Anzaldua uses the metaphor of the "Shadow-Beast." She says that she first saw the Shadow-Beast while looking in the mirror, and she identifies it as the part of her that “refuses to take orders from outside authorities,” refuses to assimilate. She feels the pressure from mainstream society to hide this part of herself, to try to erase the remnants of her cultural heritage so that she can fully assimilate. But her attempts are unsuccessful because she's left constantly fearful that the Shadow-Beast will escape, and even when it is properly "caged," she's left waging an internal war that she is supposed to hide from the surface.

The other option, embracing the Shadow-Beast, is equally unappealing to her. She says that she has been tempted to "make [herself] conscious of the Shadow-Beast, stare at the sexual lust and lust for power and destruction we see on its face” and embrace it. While this kind of embrace makes sense in the face of such a violent erasure of part of one's identity, Anzaldua says that it is untenable and leaves those enacting such an embrace frozen in one place, unable to adapt.

Anzaldua ultimately advocates for a kind of toggling back and forth between the two ways of interacting with the Shadow-Beast. In doing so, she transcends the limits of either strategy and enacts what she's deemed la facultad, “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.” It is only through this painful identity struggle that she is able to arrive at this deeper understanding. And that pain requires a constant, lifelong embrace of tension and turmoil. She will constantly be struggling to keep different versions of herself in motion, but that struggle has given her power.

Keith Gilyard and the Sun and Moon

Another alt/dis writer who embraces the notion of la facultad (though he doesn't use that word) is Keith Gilyard. Gilyard's Voices of the Self is a 1991 work of alt/dis that explores his own upbringing as a black boy in an urban environment. He sets the book up so that the readers are forced to toggle between versions of himself. The odd numbered chapters adopt a strictly academic voice that analyze language policy and educational practices in the way typically expected of work coming from someone with a doctorate in English. The even numbered chapters, however, are written in personal narrative form and tell the spiral from a good, rule-abiding child into a juvenile delinquent and heroin addict.

Gilyard positions the start of this downfall with his move to a mostly white school, leaving him with two different identities to uphold: the one he wore for his friends at home and the one he wore for his white peers and teachers. He goes so far as to give himself two different names. He has always gone by his middle name, Keith, but he decides that all white people will have to call him Raymond. He specifically sees this dual identity as a means of survival: “They cannot meet Keith now. I will put someone else together for them and he will be their classmate until further notice. That will be the first step in this particular survival plan”

Gilyard also includes a seemingly out-of-place vignette about seeing the sun and moon share the same sky as a child. He says it “was weird” because he’d always thought that “their relationship was strictly causal. The moon came up because the sun went down or the sun went down because the moon had to come up.” This mirrors the causal relationship he'd maintained between Keith and Raymond. When one appeared, the other disappeared. He became a master at this toggle until, like Anzaldua, he could no longer maintain the juggle, and the tension between the two became too much. It was then that he learned new strategies, ways to move past the rigid dichotomy without entirely losing either sense of self. This is why he's chosen to write his book from both points of view, why the book is called VoiceS of the Self, why he ends by telling us Keith (not Raymond)  was headed to college. He learned a way to keep both versions of self, and it is difficult and painful, but it is better than losing either piece of himself.

Kendrick Lamar's "i" and "u"

Lamar falls right in line with this alt/dis tradition throughout his entire album, but the dual tracks of "i" and "u" are the clearest illustration of his mastery of the genre.

A version of "i" was released before the album, and it was immediately heralded as a powerful proclamation of self-love. Carimah Townes likened it to Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" and called it "a way to find positivity in the harrowing realities that plague black communities."

The opening stanza of "i" has a direct connection to Anzaldua. Lamar sings "in front of a dirty double mirror they found me," indicating that--like Anzladua--he was trapped reflecting on a sense of himself, one that was "doubled." Here the "double mirror," a mirror that allows someone on the other side to see through while the subject is left looking only at his own reflection, serves to point out the difference between how he viewed himself and how others viewed him.

"When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?" He notes that some of those around him, some of those on the other side of the glass, want to see him as a failure and a menace. "I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police." He knows that many look at him, a young black man, and see a criminal, a danger, a threat to order. But he also knows that many looking at him from the other side of that glass see him as a hope for their future: "Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don't seem shy." This is a reference to the fact that Lamar's work has given him a voice that many are hoping he uses to shine light on systemic issues of racism and poverty. There is a lot of pressure on him to be a positive representative of his community. Just as Anzaldua looked in the mirror and found the tension of two conflicting versions of herself, Lamar has seen through the mirror and found that he's being watched closely--both by those who see him as a threat and those who see him as a savior. How will he respond? "One day at a time."

Later in the song, he says that he "went to war last night," but he follows it up by saying that he's been "dealing with depression ever since an adolescent," making it clear that the war is an internal one. Just like the alt/dis writers before him, the state of his own identity is mired in struggle and strife. He notes that he could "never bob and weave from a negative" and that he's always had to take the punches from the cruelty of the world around him. But at the same time, he's "moving at a meteor speed," so the punches aren't enough to throw him off track. He takes the good and the bad and tries to find some sense of self within its tangles. And of that sense of self he makes it clear over and over again in the chorus: "I love myself."

However, all of the positivity of "i" is put into question with the darkness of its companion track, "u." It opens with a rough, staccato insistence that "loving you is complicated," a direct connection to the chorus of "i." Here Lamar blames himself for focusing on his career while his little sister struggled through teenage pregnancy. He questions how he could be a leader when he's abandoned his family and friends. He reasons "a friend never leave Compton for profit." He reflects on speaking only via Facetime with a friend who was in the hospital dying after being shot instead of meeting with him in person because he was away working on his career. He ends with a meditation on suicide, telling himself he "shoulda killed your ass a long time ago" and deciding that he will send a message that money and fame isn't enough: "the world'll know money can't stop a suicidal weakness."

With these two tracks, Lamar is demonstrating the two options that the alt/dis writers have felt. He's looking through the two-way mirror and thinking about the people watching him on the other side. Should he see himself as a hero who is speaking out about the problems that plague his community or as a traitor who has abandoned those he loves most to a life of violence and poverty while he escapes to luxury? Should he see himself as a talent with a prophetic voice whose abilities have given him power or as a part of the problem, using the pain of those around him for profit?

"i" received much more critical acclaim than "u," but Lamar makes it clear you can't take one without the other, the butterfly without the caterpillar, the positive without the negative, the growth without the pain. His album operates to ensure no simple narratives. His path is ragged, painful, and full of internal turmoil, and he reaches no conclusions that erase that dark, suicidal, guilt-ridden piece of himself from existence.

Instead, he will have to do as the alt/dis authors before him have done and learn to live with that piece as well. To Pimp a Butterfly chronicles that personal journey on a backdrop of societal ills. Just like the other works of alt/dis, he touches on policy and politics, but the heart of the story is fiercely individual: he has to live this life, and that means he has to find a way to walk these lines.

Ultimately, his love for himself is true, but it's also complicated, and that puts him in good company with a lineage of alt/dis writers who have been using their own stories for decades to teach us hard lessons about living a conflicted existence.

Image: Dan Tantrum