Friday, February 27, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: The Gestalt, Ideology, and that White/Gold or Blue/Black Dress

Surely you've seen #TheDress, which is currently the top trending Twitter topic and flooding Facebook feeds across the globe as people argue about whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold.

I didn't know that this image was going viral when I shared the link. I'd only seen one other person talk about it, and it just seemed like a funny question to me. When my husband adamantly said it was blue and black while I saw white and gold (and we were looking at the same image on the same screen), I found it curious, not infuriating. Later, perhaps in different lighting, we each saw the picture the other way, and even though we don't completely understand the science behind it, I can accept and appreciate that this is one of many moments where our biological and cognitive functions as human beings just don't completely align.

What is more interesting to me, though, is the way that this strange little blip in internet excitement is so indicative of larger cultural practices of meaning making.

People are putting themselves into camps. #TeamBlueandBlack is feeling vindicated because the actual dress is blue and black:

But #TeamWhiteandGold insists that the picture is white and gold regardless of the dress itself: 

People have gone into different ways of "proving" that they are right, that their perspective on the dress is the "correct" one. People have gone so far as to say (jokingly, I'm sure) that this is destroying their friendships as they argue with people on the other side of the debate: 

While this is all in good spirited playfulness, the reactions are indicative of a much more serious tendency. We need to be right, to convince other people of our rightness, to have that rightness vindicated and validated. To admit that someone else can look at the same dress, see something completely different, and also be right disturbs many of us on a deep level, and it's something we need to work on.

Rhetorical theory borrows the concept of the gestalt from psychology, and it is in full swing with The Dress. A gestalt is a whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts, and a common illustration of it is the duck-rabbit image. 

Some people look at this image and see a duck. Others look at it and see a rabbit. When someone on #TeamRabbit convinces someone on #TeamDuck to see it the other way (or vice versa), then that enlightened person is now able to toggle back and forth between the two images and see the picture as a whole as duck, rabbit, and most importantly something altogether new: an optical illusion. It is only through accepting that there is a second way to see the image that we an arrive at the third way. 

Louis Wetherbee Phelps writes that making this deliberate toggle between the two images "takes the viewer from literal-mindedness, in which he sees reality as having only one ('normal') aspect, toward polymorphic-mindedness, the ability to fluently shift perspectives on reality" (Composition as a Human Science 153).

However, if we refuse or are unable to make that toggle, our single-minded brains aim to turn everything else into background noise. We are disturbed by the conflict and want a resolution.

Peter Elbow calls on the gestalt when he says that "We are like rats who have been taught to see rectangles and circles. But what happens when they show us an ellipse? . . . for literary critics or political scientists, argument about whether they are looking at a rectangle or a circle will go on forever because there are no rules for proving a mistake: neither side can show there's something wrong with the other person's model . . . People just go on seeing rectangles and circles till they have the sense to start playing the believing game" (Writing Without Teachers 169).

The "Believing Game" is Elbow's term for intentionally switching our perspective to believe what someone else is telling us, even if our instinct is to be critical. Once we've spent some time believing a perspective, we are supposed to switch to the "Doubting Game" where we can turn that critical lens back on. Doing this protects us from accepting ideas that are dangerous or harmful, but it also gives us the opportunity to learn new perspectives and to move beyond the either/or dichotomy to a gestalten third way of seeing. 

Richard Lanham says that teaching students to toggle back and forth between perspectives should be the aim of literary education: "This is a toggle to boggle the mind. It means that the two basic theories of language are placed in permanent oscillation" (The Electronic Word 82).

This extends far beyond silly pictures of duck/rabbits or friendship-ruining dresses. Gloria Anzaldua writes in Borderlands/La Frontera about feeling this push and pull within her own identity. Her multiracial identity is conflicted as she feels on the borders of Indian, Mexican, and white. She identifies as queer and feels neither fully male nor female. At constant conflict with society's attempts to pin her down, she writes that people "caught between two worlds" go on to "unknowingly cultivate la facultad" (61). This is the term she gives for the ability "to see in surface phenomenon the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface" (60). 

It's not a comfortable spot, toggling back and forth between realities. Anzaldua admits that it is painful and that after cultivating the ability she is "no longer the same person [she] was before" (70), but the ability to toggle is a key one to understanding one another and ourselves. When even our own identities are made up of conflicting perspectives, how can we do anything but toggle?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Legislating Developmental Education: How Colleges are Dealing with Changes to DevEd

My state (Missouri) has proposed legislation that mirrors education reforms many states have enacted in the last few years.

House Bill 365, the "Student Accountability Act," aims to ensure college readiness for high school graduates by requiring that any student receiving a high school diploma in Missouri pass at least one of the recognized measures (ASVAB, GED, ACT, Compass, or an exit exam administered by the school that assesses math, communication arts, social sciences, and science).

While I'm sure there will be lots of discussion for the impact this has on high school classrooms and high school students, my interests as a community college instructor who teaches developmental classes is on how this will impact college students.

Point 5 in HB365 is the most pertinent to these concerns:
Every public institution of higher education shall recognize the high school academic diploma as sufficient for a student to be placed in the first college-level course of mathematics and English composition that is recognized for the forty-two-hour general education core requirements.
Right now, students entering community colleges in Missouri (which are open access and accept students regardless of previous grades or test scores) have to take a placement exam. Many colleges use the COMPASS exam. Based on those scores, students are placed into either college-level, credit-bearing courses or developmental education courses which carry no credit but are a prerequisite for the credit-level ones. For many of the disciplines, there are multiple levels of developmental education. Students could test one, two, or up to three levels below college-credit level courses, requiring an equal number of semesters of remediation before moving on to the course they need for their degree goals. Most DevEd students test into multiple disciplines of developmental education, so it is very typical for a student to need two levels of developmental math, two levels of developmental English, and two levels of developmental reading. In addition, some schools require developmental students to take college readiness courses. That means students could be taking 6-8 (18-24 credit hours) of courses that don't count for their degree.

Whether those classes are necessary is a big point of debate. Without a doubt, many students are entering college classrooms without college-level skills. They need to get those skills to avoid failing the credit-level classes. This is what DevEd is designed to do. But, for the most part, it's not doing its job. Nationally, the completion rates for students who start in DevEd coursework are staggeringly low. Less than 25% of students taking remedial coursework earn a degree (a "two-year" degree) within eight years. At some schools, that number is much, much lower. And students requiring remedial courses are statistically much more likely to be minority or low-income students, so issues of race and class come into play as well.

All of these compounding issues have led many of the educational reforms to target DevEd, just as Missouri HB365 does. If this bill passes as written, point 5 means that students entering the community college with a high school diploma would no longer be required to take remedial coursework regardless of their test scores (and since the bill only requires test scores after eighth grade, they might be getting into college based on test scores from their freshman year of high school, scores that might not be representative of their current abilities at higher performance levels).

I have a lot of opinions about this, and while I don't think that legislative measures are the best way to get reform, I agree with a lot of the principles behind moving students through developmental education more effectively and quickly. Regardless of my personal opinion on the matter (though if you want that, you can get it here, here, here, and here), I'm interested in cataloging some of these legislative measures and the subsequent college-level responses.
The Laws


Beginning in 2011, Arkansas enacted legislation (with HB 1454) that regulates the reporting on remedial coursework and has since been expanded to include recommended test score levels for supplemental instruction (co-requisite courses where students take developmental coursework while enrolled in college-level courses).


In 2013, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education established guidelines for higher education institutions regarding funding and implementation of developmental education courses. One of the elements of this mandate is that students should complete all remedial requirements within one year of enrollment. It also requires supplemental (co-requisite) remedial coursework and reports on these courses sent to the Commission. It also grants some students (like those who are non-degree seeking or co-enrolled in high school) exemptions, but it does not go as far as many of the other legislative measures.


Public Act 12-40 mandated state-level redesign of developmental education courses beginning in 2014. This act focuses on a tiered approach to remedial education that encourages embedded-level support (co-requisite courses). At most, it allows a single semester of developmental instruction before moving on to the college-level work.


Florida's Senate Bill 1720 garnered a lot of attention upon its passage in 2013 and is largely seen as the most extreme developmental education legislation to date. This bill mandated that any student receiving a high school diploma from an accredited state high school in the past decade could choose to waive any remedial coursework requirement and enter directly into college-level courses. This is colloquially known as a "Right to Fail" measure.


In 2010, Senate Bill 7006 (known as the Complete College Tennessee Act or CCTA) was passed. This legislation banned four-year colleges from offering remedial or developmental coursework at all. Two-year colleges are still allowed to offer the courses and partnerships have formed between two-year and four-year institutions to deliver the courses.

There have been other legislative demands placed on developmental education and even more states (including West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, California, and Texas) where remedial coursework has become a target for reform through a variety of methods. There is a current student-led push for reform in Minnesota. Some states have given flexibility where schools can experiment with different delivery methods. In others, existing systems surrounding financial aid and the credit hour system make experimentation more difficult.

The Reactions

Reactions depend largely on the rigidity and extremity of the legislation enacted. In Connecticut, for example, the legislation did not completely remove remedial education and instead limited it to a single semester. There, educators now take the tiered approach outlined in PA 12-40, which has had a major impact on the way that the schools deliver remedial content. The three levels are 1) embedded (co-enrollment with college level course) 2) intensive (one semester of remediation) and 3) transitional (students below 8th grade level who work with adult education programs to improve skills.

A thorough exploration of the students admitted and the impact of these tiers through a pilot program is available here. In general, it found that intensive and embedded programs were successful in English but less successful in math.

As the most extreme measure (completely removing remedial coursework requirements for students with a high school diploma), Florida has fewer options for experimentation. Most of the discussion of Florida's response to this broad-reaching legislative measure has focused on how important advising became to help students make an informed choice about which classes they'd take. Many educators have internalized the mantra of "Students Don't Do Optional," however, and this legislation essentially removed the school's power to require any remedial instruction that a student doesn't want.

Since these changes in Florida were only implemented in Fall 2014, there hasn't been a lot of data released about their impact yet, but this article outlines some of the opportunities these changes present, including more intensive and tailored tutoring and supplemental instruction to students enrolled in credit-level courses (regardless of their test scores).

Overall, the attempts to address these public concerns (be they reactive or proactive) tend to fall along some key lines (as outlined in this article from National Council of State Legislatures):
  • Acceleration: Most legislative measures are addressing the sheer amount of time (and, therefore, money) that students tend to spend in remedial education. Acceleration models aim to shorten this time through a variety of measures. 
    • Co-enrollment: If students co-enroll in developmental courses and credit-level courses, they finish the courses faster (but the cost is often the same since they pay for both courses). 
    • Integration: Some colleges (like Chabot in California or the Community College of Denver's Fast Start program) have combined different levels of reading and writing courses into shorter sequences with fewer credit hours, reducing the time and cost. 
  • Learning Communities: Learning communities have been used to address several educational concerns, and some legislation and suggested frameworks for developmental education list learning communities as a way to help students build community and support systems to increase success rates. 
  • College-level Enrollment with Increased Support: Some colleges (especially those where legislation no longer allows compulsory remedial coursework) have worked to add more tutoring and support services for students enrolled in college-level courses. 
Missouri's HB 365 may not pass at all, and if it does it may undergo changes, but since its current form is focused primarily on high school regulations and the college-level implications are only a side effect, I doubt that future changes to the wording will allow for more flexibility in developmental education delivery rather than eliminating it.

I believe that developmental education needs to change--drastically. The flurry of legislative action surrounding DevEd is focused on the disappointing statistics for completion rates and connects them with taxpayer investments and high school performance rates.

Even if this bill doesn't pass, it seems clear that the cultural tide is turning on developmental education delivery, and I suspect that changes will be mandated in one way or another soon. A lot of these experiments are still in the early stages, and we should be watching with interest to see if there are any rays of hope for long-term improvement because the primary goal (in the sea of discussion of taxpayer cost and throwing blame for failures) should be to make sure that we're meeting our goal of making educational attainment a reality for everyone.

Photo: COCOEN Daily Photos

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What Does "Adulthood" Look Like These Days?

I'm reflecting on the notion of adulthood this week after a flurry of cultural norms surrounding the topic intersected and met with conflict in front of me.

It started when I posted on Facebook to ask for advice on how to respond to parents wanting information about students' college classroom performances against their children's wishes. While I knew that FERPA policies wouldn't allow such sharing, I was more interested in what the appropriate response should be.

I got a lot of comments (maybe even some of you reading this, so thanks), and I was interested in how different they were. Many people reacted with horror that such "helicopter" parenting was happening at the college level. Others sympathized with the parent and reflected on their own experiences as parents of college-aged children. The drastic range of responses left me wondering what was at the heart of this debate, and I think it's the concept of adulthood itself.

The Millennial Generation (of which many--but certainly not all or even most in some classes--of my students are a part) has made big splashes about its delayed treatment of adulthood. This Atlantic article on the topic cites the perfect storm of increased college enrollment (and, with it, rising debt) along with decreased job opportunities as the culprit:
If school years delayed financial independence, the Great Recession just about shattered it. Due to economic conditions, 24% of young adults have moved back in with their parents for a significant period of time. "Among those ages 25 to 29, the share moving back home rises to 34%," Pew reports. One in three!
The new economic reality is changing the way we think about adulthood. It's not that adulthood has changed, necessarily, but that  the road to financial independence is getting longer and more fraught. In 1993, a Newsweek poll found that 80% of parents said their young children should be financially independent by 22. Now that up to one-third of those very same parents are still living with their kids, one-third of today's parents say children "shouldn't have to be on their own financially until age 25 or later."
As a technical Millennial myself (I was born in 1985), the Millennial experience often wavers between familiar and foreign to me. I doubt its my on-the-cusp birth year that's to blame, though. Instead, I think that growing up in an impoverished household made my experience of adulthood much different from some of my peers. I've consistently had at least one job since I was 15 years old. I was paying for my own car insurance, phone bill, clothes, most food, and some household bills by the time I was 16. My college years were financed entirely through grants, scholarships, and the two jobs I worked as I went to school. I got an apartment with roommates my sophomore year and another one with my now-husband my senior year. Moving back home was never even on the table, and financial dependency was never an option.

I know I'm not the only Millennial who feels adrift when reading descriptions of "my" generation (as Julia Lapidos recently reflected), but I also think that generation trends (like most cultural trends) tend to be mapped along the paths of the relatively wealthy white middle class. My experience is not unique, and I know there are plenty of other people born then and now who are not going to bask in a quarter century (or more) of financial and emotional security.

But that trend has impacted all of us, and now the conversations around adulthood are skewed toward that new normal.

I saw other cultural artifacts floating around this week that connected to this topic.

A series of Progressive insurance commercials operate around the command for viewers to "act your age" by dumping our parents' insurance company and switching to Progressive.

Whenever I drive back to my hometown, I notice a billboard in the sprawling exurbs that features a young white woman's hands holding a cardboard box and implores "MILLENNIALS" who are "sick" of living in our parents' houses to apply for a housing loan.

There have been several articles written about the connection between adulthood and cutting the metaphorical cord on shared services like cell phone plans and Netflix accounts as a signifier of adulthood. 

Where are these pressures coming from? Largely, they're being supported by those with a corporate interest in getting more young people into financial "independence" by tying them down with their own contracts, monthly bills, and increasing debt. But they're doing so by playing on the notion that accruing your own debt is a sign of responsibility and independence. They're cutting to a core American value when they call into question our individuality.

Ironically,  Millennials are actually more individualistic as a whole than previous generations. We marry less and later, have lower levels of trust for others, and value individualistic pursuits like "finding ourselves" and taking selfies.

Whatever one thinks of his/her own individuality, society cares about the money.You're not really an individual, our culture tells us, until you can stand monetarily on your own two feet. Nevermind that this benefits the corporations who depend on those dollars rather than the families who could negotiate more financially responsible arrangements for everything from housing to cell phone bills. After all, in many cultures it's perfectly normal and acceptable for extended families to live together forever, not just until the moment of arbitrary adulthood. What we define as "adult" is as much a function of corporate greed as it is ethics or philosophy. It's always about the money.

This brings us full circle. I started this reflection by thinking about FERPA and parents' rights to see their adult children's college grades. Many who balk at FERPA as overreach do so on economic grounds. If the parent is paying for college, they reason, then the parent has the right to oversee their investment. I suspect this extends further than simply paying tuition as many parents are still providing food, housing, and clothing for their college-aged child even if the bill is being paid through financial aid or scholarships. This article is written by a teacher who works at a school where FERPA doesn't apply, and he reflects on parent-teacher conferences as important pedagogical tools.

And it's worth noting that FERPA was enacted in 1974 in a different generational norm.

Still, I find myself appreciating FERPA as an instructor. I made a conscious choice to teach adults. I value the philosophical differences between teaching adults who have made a choice to come to my classroom rather than children who are required to be present. Many of my students are older than me. Many have had children of their own, built and lost careers, retired, fought in wars, and generally lived adult lives before entering my classroom. It is my policy to only share grade information with the person enrolled in my class. If that student chooses to share that information with a parent, that is up to the student.

I teach adults, but I do understand that parents play a very valuable role in their children's lives, and I can certainly see how younger students who still depend on their parents financially and emotionally may benefit from some parental intrusion in their college performance, so maybe I'm just out of touch with the realities of the new normal.

But if I'm out of touch, so too are our laws which charge these "children" as adults when they commit crimes or the military that encourages them to sign up for the front lines of war. 

If "adulthood" is a moving target, then the policies and regulations that operate around that target must move, too. But we also have to recognize that even if the norm of adulthood trends up, there are still plenty of people who operate well outside of them.

Basically, I thought I had a clear understanding of my own opinion on adulthood and how that arbitrary standard should be impacted by legal codes. But now I'm not so sure. I can see every side of this debate, and I can't quite untangle my own experiences of adulthood from the mix.

What do you think? When is someone an adult and what difference should that make in terms of privacy and autonomy?

Pics: Dominick Gubi, Artotem

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rust Cohle, Raoul Duke, and the Meaning of Life: True Detective & Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Companion Pieces

As usual, I'm behind the times. I finally watched Season 1 of True Detective, thoroughly enjoyed it, and then went to catch up on all of the critical analyses I'd been avoiding because I hadn't yet seen it. (And I'm about to spoil the hell out of it, so if you are also late to the game, go ahead and save this link for a later read.)

Most inspiring to me was seeing Rust Cohle's personal philosophy wax and wane throughout the show. While many have rightly praised the dynamic friendship of Rust and Marty, for me it was always Rust's story. He was the one whose obsession for solving the case never wavered. Marty was happy to go about his new life as a private investigator and try to put his past missteps on the job and in his personal life behind him. Marty's return to the quest was driven by Rust's insistence, and Rust's insistence was driven by his own personal relationship to the universe: a complicated minefield that he explored in snippets from the very first episode and that came to an understated but profound conclusion. (We'll come back to that).

As soon as I turned to the critical response to the show, though, I was met with a barrage of criticism damning the finale as "a letdown" and "simplistic." I read through those reviews and had an almost visceral reaction (and I'm no stranger to seeing things I love get taken to task. In fact, I take to task things I love all the time.) There was nothing factually inaccurate about the way these critics were tearing apart the show, but their premises seemed so off to me. It was like I asked someone what they thought of their car and they spent the whole time talking about the shape of the hood ornament instead of its performance.

Not all critics were so harsh, and Andrew Romano went so far as to call the finale "close to perfection." His analysis used criteria that were more meaningful to me, as he focused on the way profundity manifests itself in simplicity, how philosophy must be enacted in the daily and mundane:
 The true meaning of True Detective doesn't have all that much to do with Robert Chambers or the stories he wrote way back in 1895. Instead, the true meaning of True Detective is about the power of storytelling itself.
 Later, Romano explains that the power of storytelling shows itself in Rust's last line:
In the last seconds of the season, the nihilism and misanthropy that have characterized Rust's worldview soften, however briefly, as he realizes that maybe he is here for a reason.
Rust's Final Speech

You can read Rust's final speech in its entirety here, and it's worth it because the key to understanding the meaning of the show rests in this interaction.

Leading up to this, Rust has been hinting that he is suicidal. His life's work has just come to a dramatic end when he put a bullet through the brain of the ritualistic serial killer he'd been seeking for years. Rust knows that Errol Childress was just one link in a chain of violent rapes and murders, a chain that wound its way around the power of Louisiana's government and justice system. It quickly becomes clear that while Rust and Marty got their man, that was all they were going to get. They would not expose the real seat of evil, and they'd have to carry that knowledge with them for the rest of their lives.

That burden is so great that Rust seems on the verge of suicide. Having spent most of his adult life chasing down the root of this evil (and having sacrificed his safety, friends, morals, and body to do so), the acceptance of a consolation prize seems unfathomable.

Marty, always more pragmatic and grounded than Rust, accepts this reality more willingly, especially when his heroic act of catching Errol reunites him with his estranged family and helps him feel his own individual purpose once more.

This, though, is the real crux of the dilemma, as Rust is also given the opportunity to indulge in his individualism. His opportunity, in fact, is more complete than Marty's. Rust, suffering a near-fatal wound, recounts some of his moments of unconsciousness:
I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.
He had the opportunity to sink down into a nothingness that promised an eternal presence of the love he missed out on as a breathing, walking, acting being.

But that promise must be read in the context of the rest of his realization because that promise is one of "darkness."

As Rust breaks down while describing this love that he didn't take, Marty looks up at the night sky and asks Rust about the stars he used to see in Alaska. Rust explains the story he would tell and how it was ultimately the oldest story of all: good vs. evil, light vs. dark.

Marty looks up again and tells him, "it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory." Rust agrees.

But then he recants. In a barely audible line as the two walk off the scene, Rust tells Marty that he's looking at it wrong:
Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.
Fear, Loathing, and Hedonic Escape

After finishing True Detective, I woke up the next morning with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on my mind. Something about Rust's final speech had me echoing back to Thompson's wave speech.

Parts of this speech parallel nicely with Cohle's, although the context surrounding it is radically different. Cohle was discussing his own decision to reject the comfort of the darkness and its promise of eternal love. He was justifying his continued presence in a world that had left him weary and abused.

Raoul Duke (Thompson's autobiographical narrator) is reflecting on his presence in life, too, but he's doing so in the midst of a drug-fueled haze of hedonism and destruction. Flitting between various hotels on the Vegas strip that he leaves in shambles, consuming everything from rum to ether to a human adrenal gland in pursuit of the next great high, and shirking even the most nominal enactment of the promised responsibilities to other people, it's hard to imagine a more individualistic pursuit of life than Duke's.

Yet in this moment, he's reflecting on the fact that it hasn't always been that way. He remembers being part of something bigger than himself:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
Not only was he a part of this greater whole, but that whole had a purpose, one that was deep and meaningful and necessary:
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave
 Ultimately, though, that promise was unfulfilled:
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
And that is why now he chases fleeting, selfish moments of pleasure. That is why he ignores the magazine's demands to write an actual story for the money he's taking from them and instead stuffs himself full of narcotics until he hallucinates reptiles and floors of blood. That is why he feels no sense of responsibility to the greater whole. He once had that promise, and it was bullshit.

The book's full title is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. While the subtitle didn't make it into the film's title, the theme certainly did: Duke wrapped in an American flag, high and on the beach; the red convertible signifying freedom; the lavish displays of wealth and excess all around. The American Dream is "savage" because, at its core, it is unsustainably individualistic. If everyone pursued his/her own "dream" with this enthusiasm, society would collapse.

But Duke's selfish betrayal of societal standards is excused (or at the very least explained) by this speech. He had come face-to-face with the power of the collective, and it had proved inadequate. He had felt himself pushing against the edges of evil, felt himself on the verge of a win, and watched the wave break. He had trusted in the power of the collective and been denied. He had believed and been duped:
We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. . . What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
So who can blame him for getting high and enjoying what was left of life? It is, after all, just a ruse. There's no one controlling the light. The darkness will always win.

The Same Answer; Different Reactions

Rust Cohle and Raoul Duke ask the same question of life, one we all ask: "What is the purpose of it all?"

Both men find a purpose in their fight against the greater evil in the world. Both men find themselves tasked with pushing back the ancient forces of darkness. Both men find themselves driven so completely by this urge that it becomes their life purpose, their identity, their soul.

And both are deeply, profoundly dissatisfied.

Cohle realizes that all he's done is catch a single murderer out of a network of evil that was barely dented by his lifelong efforts. Duke realizes that the moment has passed and all that's left is a stain on history's wall to mark their presence. Both men were promised a future in which their contribution mattered to the collective whole, a chance to have light brazenly illuminate the dark, and both were denied it in the end.

How they respond to that realization, though, is the most important part of it all.

The Individual vs. the Communal

In Rust's final speech, he breaks down after explaining the comfort and love he felt in the darkness he rejected. He immediately went on to the metaphor of light vs. dark to talk about good and evil. For him, collapsing into that darkness--however full of love it felt--was ultimately succumbing to evil.

By letting go, he would have given up all of the pain and responsibilities of the greater world around him. It would no longer be his burden to chase murderous networks of power to a lackluster conclusion. It would no longer be his role to play pawn in the sexual exploits of his friends' spouses. It would not longer be his task to carry the weight of such philosophical quandaries of whether humanity is an evolutionary error or if we are doomed to repeat our actions in an endless loop. All of those are concerns of the collective experience of being human; all of those require the interaction with others and the world around him. Instead, he could selfishly let go and dive only into the pleasures of his own experience, a fully individual act. And who could blame him, this bloodied, weakened, lonely man who had been systematically and purposefully denied the only satisfaction he had dedicated himself to seeking? Who could blame him for letting go? Letting himself drift off into that darkness would have been the equivalent of Duke's drug-fueled haze of existence. It's an escape from a reality that is too much to bear. Considering just how much Rust had lost, it would be understandable.

Instead, though, Rust chose to see himself as a punch of starlight in an immense sea of black. His act, however tiny, was a necessary part of the whole. He did not take down the interconnected web of evil that would continue to rape and murder innocent people. And that was just the act of one family in one state. How many other such atrocities were being committed across the globe? What, in the grand scheme of things, did Rust Cohle accomplish by giving up his life to get his man?

He accomplished all any of us can hope to accomplish. He sent a pin prick of light out through the blanket of darkness. And if we all do the same, if we resist the urge to fall into the darkness of individual hedonism or giving up entirely, then the light will truly win. Ultimately, his act is one of profound faith in the community around him, a belief that everyone else will also punch through their own light. He played his tiny part, and he trusts others to do the same.

And so he cannot let go. He cannot succumb to the comfort of darkness and individual emotion. It is his job, just as it is all of our jobs, to continue along our path, however unsatisfying and painful it might be.

It reminds me of another great philosophical pop culture line you might recognize:
The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it.

Photo: David DeHetre, florriebassingbourn,

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Panera's "One-Hour Rule" For Who?

Like a good little doctoral student, I woke up at 6 this morning, got dressed in my comfiest sweat pants, and walked thirty minutes to the coffee shop in order to work on my dissertation for a few hours before the rest of my family got up.

One of my normal work spaces is the St. Louis Bread Company (Panera, for those of you outside the St. Louis area, "Bread Co" for those of you inside it) near my house. But today I was meeting a friend who lived closer to a different Bread Co location (the one in Soulard), so we decided to meet there. It was my first time visiting here.

I walked in about 7:20 and immediately ordered a bagel with cream cheese and a yogurt parfait, found my seat, got my computer out, and waited for my friend. I sat near the back in a booth, and behind me was an older black man who had plastic bags containing food from outside the restaurant. He appeared to be homeless. The man said good morning to me, and he was sort of wandering around the restaurant for a while.

When I first came in, I noticed there was a security guard, which I found a little odd. This same security guard came and confronted the man a little while later. I didn't hear the entire conversation, but I did hear the guard tell him "you're disturbing the customers." The man loudly replied, "I'm not disturbing anybody! I'm just sitting here!" As they walked past me, I heard the man indignantly yell, "I've got money in my pockets! I can buy anything in this store if I want to!" The guard escorted him to the door, and he left.

I thought it was a little sad. The man didn't seem to be bothering anybody (and he certainly wasn't bothering me). I couldn't tell if someone had complained about him, but I did think to myself that he was clearly loitering with outside food, so that was probably the problem.

About fifteen minutes after that (forty minutes after I first arrived), the security guard came up to our table and asked me, "Ma'am, are you aware of the one-hour rule?" I give him a puzzled look, "The what?" He explains, "You have to make a purchase every hour to take up a table." I narrow my eyes, thinking about the two items I've already purchased and how I would have split them up over time if I'd been aware of that policy in order to get the two hours I needed. "Why isn't there a sign?" I asked. He told me he didn't know and that I'd have to ask the management. Then he asked me if I'd purchased anything yet. I indignantly motioned to my half-eaten parfait and listed off the purchases I'd made.

So I went to management.

I went to the counter and a young white woman asked if she could help me. I told her I needed to speak to someone, and she came closer. "Why isn't there a sign about the one-hour policy?" I asked. She responded by saying that people couldn't take up tables without making purchases and she hadn't seen me purchase anything (so I assume she sent the security guard to confront me). I explained that I had purchased multiple items and had been there only forty minutes, so her confrontation was completely unwarranted and that if there was a one-hour policy, it needed to be clearly posted so that customers could better plan their purchases to be in compliance. I was starting to get frustrated. She apologized, and tried to explain her suspicion of me. "I've never seen you before, and I didn't know who you were." I am now flabbergasted, "This is my first time at this location. I was meeting a friend, but don't worry, you won't be seeing me again." My voice was rising.

"Ma'am, can we please not do this here," she motioned to the line of people making purchases who had stopped to watch our conversation. "Let's talk in private." I storm back to my seat, preparing to leave, telling my friend I'm going to go. The woman gets very apologetic and the security guard joins us. "Ma'am please understand. Because of our location and the homeless situation here, I have to have this policy. I've had people shaving in the bathroom. It's not meant for you. This is a new security guard. He made a mistake. You can stay as long as you'd like." I was now even more angry. I was reading between the lines: "This policy is for poor people--not for students with laptops. The security guard made a mistake by using it on you instead of who it was meant for."

I continued to argue that if that was the policy, it needed to be clearly stated. She continued to apologize and say that it wasn't a policy for me. I realized she wasn't hearing what I was saying, and she became desperate as she said, "I've apologized. What more do you want me to do?"

And the answer is there was nothing more I wanted her to do. She had made it clear that there was no real one-hour policy. In fact, there was a table of six young men sitting and slowly sipping coffees as they talked about a book for well over an hour. The one-hour policy wasn't written on the wall because then it might scare off customers. It was an unstated policy that only applied to the members of society considered unacceptable for her space. The new security guard had simply made the mistake of not reading the classism and racism in her rules and thinking he should actually enforce them across the board.

I ended up staying and finishing my work, but I won't be back to this location.

There are a few more observations I want to make about this encounter:

1) The Bread Co I normally frequent also has a pretty visible homeless presence. I'm frequently solicited for change as I enter and leave the premises, and there have been many times where I've seen people who appear homeless come in and use the restroom or sit in the booths without making a purchase. I've never seen anyone escorted out of the building who wasn't causing a disturbance.

2) There was a sign on the door of the Soulard location that said "No public restrooms. Restrooms for paying customers only." This is not an uncommon sign, and I understand its purpose (especially since this location is right next to an entertainment district and the site of the huge Mardi Gras parade). What caught my attention was the "No public restroom" part. Just because I am a paying customer does not mean I cease to be part of the "public." This coupled with the woman's insistence that I was suspect because she'd never seen me before is particularly baffling. I was a new customer in a public space. I don't have an obligation to personally introduce myself to the manager before making a purchase. If she wants to serve only people she knows in a private space, she needs to stay home.

3) This interaction and policy as a whole is very out of line with St. Louis Bread Company's public ethos.

It's this last point I want to discuss a little further.

Panera has an official charity organization called Panera Cares. Their mission statement demonstrates their commitment to addressing food insecurity. They've even gone so far as to open special Panera Cares restaurants that operate on a pay-as-you-can model:
These cafes operate on a pay-what-you-can model and depend on your donations and support to ensure our sustainability. Panera Cares cafes provide suggested donation amounts for all menu items to help you understand the cost of “paying it forward” and assisting those who struggle with food insecurity. 
The funds collected are used to cover the operating costs of the cafes while also covering the cost of the meals for those who come in and are unable to contribute the suggested donation amount for their meals.
The pilot run of this model (which has sparked others in Dearborn, Portland, and Boston) is in St. Louis. . . kind of. It's actually in Clayton, MO, an affluent St. Louis suburb.

I remember when this store first opened in 2010, getting tons of positive media attention for its generosity and humane spirit.

Explaining the mission behind the model, the then-CEO and current chairman Ron Shaich said:
“I’m trying to find out what human nature is all about . . . My hope is that we can eventually do this in every community where there’s a Panera.”
That's a noble goal, and I want to believe in its sincerity, but I can't help but notice a few things. I don't know what neighborhoods are like for the non-Missouri Panera Cares locations, but the one in the St. Louis is located in one of the richest communities in the area. The homeless population there is considerably less visible (and ostensibly smaller) than the one near the Soulard location, which is next to Downtown. Since the model depends on some customers choosing to pay more than the actual cost to help "pay it forward" to the less economically stable customers, it makes sense to ensure that you'll have richer customers around. But it's also true that this location selection allows the positive press for a single affluent location without having to address the more serious realities of homelessness and poverty in other locations.

Whatever the motivation behind the location, the model has not expanded beyond this store in the five years since it began. An attempt to expand the concept on a smaller scale (by choosing a single item on the menu that would operate under the pay-as-you-can model) failed.

And I've got to tell you, that ethos of community care and humanity was definitely not present in the store I visited this morning.

I've got some questions for Panera's corporate representation:

  • Is this "one-hour rule" supported (if unstated) company policy?
  • If so, why isn't that rule clearly communicated to customers and enforced fairly and across the board? 
  • How do you reconcile this policy and the general atmosphere of the Soulard location with your company's overall ethos and mission statement? 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Plight of the ABD (Illustrated with Parks and Rec GIFs)

Parks and Recreation is, obviously, amazing, and the fact that it's ending isn't something I can talk about calmly. So instead of mourning the loss of my imaginary best friends, I'm going to pay homage to this cultural touchstone by using pieces of it to describe the highs and lows of reaching the nowhere land gray area of ABD (all but dissertation) status in a PhD program.

See, for my particular program, I spent a long, long time taking coursework because I was a part-time student and a full-time employee. This meant I took only one class at a time and the prospect of completing oral and written doctoral exams, completing a dissertation, and graduating were so far in the distant future as to warrant no actual concern on my part.

I just went along taking classes and reading books not realizing how close I was getting to actually being face to face with a set of exams that would literally take more time than anything else I had ever done. 

So there I was with a list of 100 books, only 20 of which I'd read before, that had to be finished before I could start the exams. 

That included reading some heavily philosophical texts that left me wondering about the meaning of life and the nature of reality. 

And then I read some things (cough, Kenneth Burke, cough) that left me wondering if I actually knew what words meant.

But I also read a lot of things that were amazing and made everything click into place--if only for a moment.

Once that task was complete, I started the written exam. I was given a question to answer in a 25-page paper that was due in exactly one week using as many of those aforementioned books as possible.

Not only did I have to face this stressful mental task, I had to balance it with the responsibilities of being a wife, mother, and full-time college instructor. The sheer chaos of this was enough to make me question why I'd ever entered graduate school to begin with. 

But I buckled down and decided to throw myself into the task, using my husband's accrued hotel points from work travel to rent a room for the weekend and write ferociously. 

So I packed up about 40 of my 100 books into suitcases and locked myself into a room, full of energy and optimism but also the constant nagging reminder in the back of the mind that this meant I was abandoning all other responsibilities like grading papers. And washing dishes. And walking the dog. And parenting. And talking to other human beings. 

But then an even greater dread settled upon me as I realized that I actually had to write this thing. The best way to write is to just write, so I did that. It was a mess. 

And after about hour twelve, I started to panic and called home for support. 

Eventually, things started to fall into place, and I was fairly confident that it would actually be a draft of something coherent . . . maybe. 

I left the hotel room with a fairly solid draft, fixed it up between grading papers over the next few days, and turned it in a full day early, feeling really good about myself and life and whatnot. 

But then I had to sit and wait to hear if I passed or not. This is a stressful time. You have to find ways to cope. 

When word came that I passed, I was ecstatic . . . for about fifteen seconds because the same email also contained the plans to schedule my oral exam: a two-hour task in which I would be drilled on the paper I'd just written as well as any of the books I hadn't mentioned in it. 

But I took some deep breaths, and decided to just dive in and get it over with. I bugged my friends and family to reassure me it would be okay. 

But their kind words didn't stop the horrendous nightmares of me getting in front of the panel and being unable to form sentences. 

But that didn't happen! I formed words. I said things. I passed. I immediately thought of ways to celebrate. 

And I left that day feeling like a superhero, fully capable of conquering the world. 

But that exam isn't actually the end. In fact, it's really not even close. Even though I had spent hours and hours and hours preparing for it over several months, the buzz from passing was an incredibly brief one as I stared down the prospect of writing a book-length dissertation in the midst of full-time teaching, parenting a preschooler, and trying to keep at least a little sanity. 

And the stress of balancing all of these complex tasks has led me to make some questionable choices when it comes to health and well being.

And since I have very few uninterrupted hours in the day that I can devote to brainstorming and writing, I have to send myself texts and emails whenever an idea strikes me. 

I'd be lying if I said I never thought about just giving up on this Sisyphian task.

I may have once or twice (or six times) thrown a book across the table and declared that I will never read anything ever again. 

Because, really, getting comments back on a chapter draft that tells you to cut a fourth of the material can be a little demoralizing. 

And the stress can make you get a little testy with the innocent people around you who are only trying to interact with you like a normal human being. 

But, I'm going to keep pushing through because I know that my hero Leslie Knope would never let little things like sleep deprivation, humiliation, and despair stop her from her dreams, so neither will I.