Saturday, April 1, 2017

"Next Year": When I Decided "Being Present" Wasn't Just BS

In my many attempts to gain some order over my life and fight off the ever-present dragons of anxiety, I've often been given advice to be "present-centered" or "live in the moment."

Most times, I smiled blankly and nodded, feeling as if this advice (whether coming from a friend, a motivational piece of writing, or a mental health professional) was akin to telling me my lungs would work better if they "just stopped needing oxygen."

I'm a planner. It's central to my identity to have a sense of the future and what I'll be doing in it. I love designing curriculum for my classes down to the minute details. I like organizing lists of possible summer camps for my daughter and color coding them to determine the best fit.

I distinctly remember a conversation with my husband after a particularly rough day of living life where I was sitting on the bed and opened my computer to look at my Google calendar with all of its to-do lists and color coordinating activities. "Ah," I said out loud. "This is the calmest I've been all day long."

"Really?!" He was incredulous.

"Yeah, looking at my calendar makes me feel so at ease."

"That is literally the opposite of how looking at a calendar makes me feel," he replied.

It was an interesting insight into the dynamics of our relationship, but it is also a clear picture of how I function. I like my time to be planned, ordered, and controlled. I hate being late, and I want meetings set weeks in advance so that I can come to them prepared and confident. My brain often focuses on the future, and I've always thought that advice to do otherwise was asking for trouble. After all, my future-focused brain had allowed me to accomplish a lot. It was at least partially responsible for success in my education, career, and family. All of those areas of my life had required planning and the ability to map out ways to achieve complex, multi-faceted tasks.

My spirit animal, Leslie Knope.

My husband and I bought our first home eight years ago when we were 23. We reasoned it was a "starter home," as the terminology goes. It has three bedrooms (though one doesn't have a closet, so I think it's technically a "bonus room") and one bathroom. It is about 1400 square feet. 

When we first moved in, it was just the two of us and two cats. We added a dog that first year. We told ourselves we'd probably move again in about three years.

We added our daughter two years later. We told ourselves we would move when we were settled into our new role as parents. "Next year. We'll move next year." 

Things kept moving along. We even put our house on the market once, but we didn't put much effort into it (more out of laziness than anything). We didn't get any interest, so, "Next year." 

We looked into options to rent it out instead. In the meantime, we didn't hang pictures or paint walls. We didn't replace carpet or fix up the yard. We weren't sure what we were going to do with it, and it felt like a waste of time and energy. "Next year." 

Then we added our son in the past year. Surely moving with an infant seemed silly. "Next year." 

We're now a family of four in a space that many of our professional peers would deem "too small" for our needs. 

When we first moved in, there were rooms we never even entered. Beyond our own bedroom, the other two were simply storage, and not well managed or maintained storage. We basically just threw stuff in there and shut the doors. When our daughter came, we crammed all that stuff into the bonus room and shut that door. When our son came, we finally had to deal with it. In the end, we kept almost nothing from that room, and why would we? If it could sit untouched for more than five years, we obviously didn't need it. Over the past two years, we have donated, recycled, or trashed most of the things we don't use. That process isn't complete, but most of the things in my home now serve purpose and are intentionally placed there. It's a nice change. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading about minimalism quite a bit. In my dabbling, I've found several people talking about downsizing. In the extreme, this has led to the "tiny house" movement as a way to push back against a notion that bigger is better when it comes to living space.

While I do have general ecological and sustainability concerns as a human being aware of my impact on the world around me, I am not looking to join a tiny house movement or push myself to the extreme in avoiding consumption. I just want to make my life simpler and more enjoyable. 

But reading all of the discussions about the housing question in these minimalists groups and writings did start to raise some questions for me. 

Houses are getting bigger, even post-recession. This 2016 NYT article explains that a third of newly constructed homes top 3,000 square feet. The average is 2,687. Even as the size of families has been steadily falling and reached a low of 2.5 in 2016, the number of bedrooms in newly constructed houses has grown with nearly half having four or more. 

Couple that with the social media pressure of being "Pinterest-worthy," and that's a lot of space to not only inhabit but decorate and fill (and heat and cool). 

Getting rid of many of the superfluous items in our house and rejecting some of the pressure to refill those empty spaces has done a lot to alleviate my ongoing struggles with housekeeping, and that has made me recognize that my "too small" space isn't really too small at all. Sure, we're cramped by the standards that have made homes twice the size of ours average, but the more I examined our habits, the more I realized that we don't actually need more space. In fact, there is a lot to suggest that much of that extra space is actually being used as storage. And even with vastly larger homes, the storage rental industry is booming, with many people paying a monthly fee on an indefinite basis to have even more storage for their stuff. What is the likelihood that all of those people (1 in 10 have rental space) are actually going to their storage sheds and using those things on a regular basis? It seems much more likely that those items are just sitting there, untouched, waiting to become fodder for reality TV. 


All of this reading and reflecting on the role of possessions, the value of space, and the way that cultural norms regarding housing size standards across the world, I began to question the internal pressure I was putting on myself to leave our "starter home." Once I began questioning, I realized it wasn't actually internal pressure at all; it was entirely external. I wasn't unhappy with my space. I wasn't feeling cramped or frustrated (though I would definitely appreciate a second bathroom; a project we're now planning to embark upon). I didn't think my kids were suffering with small rooms. 


Instead, I was asking myself what other people would think. We already live in a neighborhood far more run-down than most of our professional peers. We already chose to stay in the city when most of the people we knew had left for the suburbs when they had kids (and trust me, I understand the choice; the school situation alone is enough to drive you mad.) Were people questioning why we hadn't moved? What would people think when I invited them over? Could I have people over at all if my kitchen table only seats four? If my daughter has a friend come play, will that friend go home and tell her parents our house isn't nice? 

Those were the questions that were making me want to move, and those questions are ridiculous. So what if I have to throw crappy dinner parties? I have good, real friendships. They won't care. I bet they're also not questioning why we live where we live, and if they are, so what? I know why I've made the choices that I have, and I'm not spending my day worrying about why they made different ones. I wasn't hearing the voices of real people; I was hearing the voices of imaginary ones, and so a decision was made. 

I'd be damned if imaginary people were going to run me out of my house! 

We're staying put. Perhaps eventually we'll decide that this house really is too small: when both kids are bigger, when we decide we have to have more furniture, I don't know what the future holds. But for the foreseeable future, this space is plenty, so we're staying. No more "next years." 

Once I made that decision, it was like a switch was flipped inside of me. That very next weekend, I printed pictures, bought frames, and hung things on the walls. Two weeks later, I asked my mom to come help me paint all the rooms in the upstairs, rooms that had been the same beige color since we moved in nearly a decade ago. I'm making plans now to landscape the mud pit of a back yard so that we could actually, I don't know, use it to hang out? 



I started living in my house. 

Before that, I had been merely waiting in my house, waiting for some fictional "next year" to start my "real" life. But this was my real life, and it was fine. It was better than fine. It was pretty good. 

Suddenly, all that advice to "live in the moment" made a lot more sense. By loaning out my happiness and contentment to a hypothetical future, I was robbing myself of peace and gratitude. I was constantly looking at my surroundings as a vehicle for something better instead of recognizing the good I already had. It wasn't until we made the decision to stay put that I really felt invested in and committed to my space, and once I did, I started making it reflect the appreciation and love that I really do feel for it. What if I had done this years ago? I lost out on a decade of being happy and satisfied with my home, and I have no one to blame but myself. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Five Thoughts About this "Boot Camp" Ad

These began popping up all over the city just as the early-blooming daffodils started to die in the forty-degree temperature drop that happened to coincide with my "spring" break.


As I'm driving past all of these other harbingers of warmer weather in the form of body shaming calls to get "summer ready," I've had some thoughts. 

1) A pound a day?! Is "boot camp" a euphemism for "back to back to back to back stomach flus?" 

2) 678? Where the hell is that? (Googles, but not while driving. Safety first.) Atlanta. Well, this is St. Louis, so that's weird. 

3) That shadow woman certainly looks confident with her Wonder Woman pose, and her shadow hair is nicer than my real hair. I don't think this image conveys what they want it to convey. 

4) Speaking of that image, did they cut that other woman out of her? Is the thirty pounds she lost out there dancing somewhere with those jazz hands? 

5) Maybe this was originally an Atlanta-based pixie exorcism company who decided to recycle their logo when they picked up and moved out of town in shame. 



Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Bored and the Restless: Teaching Composition as a Cure for Mental Wanderlust

I have a bad habit of trying to do too much. I'm not just talking about doing too many individual things at one time (though I'm also sometimes guilty of that; I almost set my phone in a frying pan the other day). I'm talking about trying to master too many trades, explore too many hobbies, understand too many fields. 

I appreciate the value of going deep into a single subject instead of skipping like a stone across the surface of a broader field, but at the end of the day, I think I might just be better suited at being a skipped stone. 


It's not that I can't commit to something and stick with it. I mean, I have a PhD, and that required  years of deeply studying the same ideas. But even while I was getting that degree, I was taking a non-traditional path that wove through several different points of focus: working as an academic program coordinator, parenting, playing roller derby. 

If I end up sitting in one place too long, I feel myself burning out fast, and I start to get restless. The urge to move onto something else becomes thick, like something choking me. 

That's why I think that teaching composition is the perfect career for me. I still get restless. I still have the urge to start over with something new. I still feel like an animal caught in a trap now and then and panic. 

But then I just choose a new book and plan a completely new class. Problem solved. 

I started to feel that familiar feeling a little last semester, but I had just had a new baby and didn't think I should rock the boat all that much, so when the book order forms came up, I went ahead and stuck with the books I'd been using: Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions per Minute (a book about the history of protest songs) for one class and Monsters (a collection about, well, monsters) in the other. 

This is my fourth semester teaching 33 Revolutions, and the organization of my class really clicked this time around. I feel like the pacing, the timing of the readings, the supplemental assignments are all working really well. In some ways, it's kind of a shame. As soon as I get a class running really smoothly, I know it's time to let it go. 

For a while I worried that making changes whenever things got too smooth meant I was cheating my students out of the best possible class: the one where I don't feel the need to change anything because it's all working so well. I've been reflecting on that, and I don't feel that way anymore. 

Teaching should be messy. If I've gotten any particular class down to the point that I don't feel the need to tweak it, then I'm not as engaged as I should be. Choosing a new book to frame the class forces me back into a place of exploration and innovation. It makes me pay more attention, and it makes me more likely to hear my students' ideas anew instead of constantly sorting them into categories that I've already carved out for that particular topic. 

I teach best when I'm a little off balance. My best teaching comes when there is a dash of fear and a bit of anxiety thrown into the mix. 


This summer, I'm going to be planning courses around two completely new books, and just choosing them has made that restless feeling lie back down and take a nap. The sense of possibility and wide-openness makes me feel calm. I start looking at the world around me with new eyes, trying to find possible supplemental texts to save for the class. Voluntarily stepping back into the chaos of not having a plan makes me feel more ordered. 

In the fall, I'll be teaching John Hudak's Marijuana: A Short History to my developmental writing students and Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future to my research writing class. 

Both present challenges that I'm finding energizing. 

I worried about putting down a book called Marijuana on my book order forms, but the more I looked at the book, the more possibilities I see for a well-rounded, interesting, and relevant class. There are so many lenses through which we can tackle the issue: etymological (marijuana vs. cannabis), criminal justice, biological, and public policy. There are so many real-life writing exercises with built-in rhetorical purposes: letters to legislators, public safety bulletins, advertisements. 

Rise of the Robots offers me the challenge of teaching a topic with full consideration of its impact on my students. These are college sophomores. Discussing the threat of a "jobless future" could be pretty bleak for people just starting out (or starting anew) in the workforce. I believe this class can be taught in a way that ends on a high note of innovation and creativity, but it's going to take some careful navigation. 

If anyone out there has good sources or suggestions for either of those topics, I'm in the brainstorming stage and would love to hear your thoughts. 

I think I've got a good three or four semesters before I feel the need to wander off again. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

How to Tell a Trump Voter "I Told You So"

How should you go about telling your friends and family who voted for Trump "I told you so!" now that Trump's worst campaign rhetoric is being enacted as policy?

Don't.

How should you mock your uncle who forwarded you all those chain letters and blog posts about Clinton's private email server now that Trump's administration is doing the exact same thing?

Don't.

How should you demonstrate your clear superiority, the fact that you saw this coming and yelled loudly that we had to stop it?

Don't.

How should you point out that all of the Trump supporters on your social media feeds who between November and January were constantly telling you to "let it go" and "wait and see" have fallen completely silent in the last week?

Don't.

I'm going to make an assumption that if you are as disgusted, angry, and fearful about what Trump has done with a mere week in office as I am that you--also like me--want to fight back with the greatest power possible. I am going to assume that seeing this man lie repeatedly (with "alternative facts") with a straight face about all of the voter fraud he "knows" happened has made you realize that we're dealing with something unprecedented. I am going to assume that watching legal US residents get barred from returning home this weekend sent chills down your spine, and your head echoed with the reminders of how other human atrocities have begun. I am going to assume that you weren't surprised when he didn't release his tax returns or divest himself from his businesses as promised, but that you are outraged that the highest office in our country is being used to line a failed businessman's pockets instead of governing the people. I am going to assume that you watched Bannon get handed an insane amount of power for which he has no qualifications and shuddered.

I am going to assume that you want to fix it.

If that's the case, then we have to give the people who voted for Trump (many reluctantly) room to pivot. We can't give the impression that half of the country is okay with what's happening because I know that they're not. I know that many, many people who thought Trump would suffice now see that they've made a mistake. It's a mistake we need to discuss. We can talk about social media echo chambers, legitimate news sources, religious-like devotion to partisan identity. We can talk about all of those things--but not today. Today we need to come together. Today we need to recognize that we have far more in common than this administration would like us to believe.

Think about what they've done. They're throwing so many executive orders (and I say they because I believe Bannon is as much behind it as Trump--maybe more) at us at once so that we can't get our feet under us. They throw out the most divisive topics (abortion, immigration) to ensure that we're fighting each other instead of recognizing we've all been had. They're banking on us tearing each other to shreds while they walk away with our democracy.

We can't let that happen.

The strongest moments of our democracy have come forth when unlikely groups formed focused coalitions around shared ideals. Those coalitions don't always last long, and we can go back to arguing over the meaningful differences we have after our work is done, but right now--today--our work is to reclaim our democracy, and we do that together.

If we don't, I fear it really will be too late. Don't make me say I told you so.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mayoral Debate Summary

I realize that I have readers for whom this will be completely irrelevant, but I went to a St. Louis mayoral debate tonight and have been asked to share my thoughts, so this is the easiest platform for me to do that.

This debate was put on by several non-profit (and progressive) organizations around the city, including the amazing folks at Arch City Defenders, Empower Missouri, Hands Up United, and the St. Louis Action Council. (See the full list of sponsors here). The debate as a whole was amazingly well organized and focused, and I was very impressed. It was also well attended, with standing room only even after an entire row of extra chairs was added. (I heard someone say they estimated 1500 people). They also provided a very detail map of endorsements and campaign funding sources for the candidates (which doesn't view well on a phone, by the way). Finally, they provided a pre-debate survey with detailed responses from all participants.

The participants did not include all of the many people running for mayor, but it did include the frontrunners. We heard from Antonio French, Tishaura Jones, Lyda Krewson, Lewis Reed, and Jeff Boyd.

My overall impression of the debate performances is pretty much summed up in this tweet:

I have some more personal reactions to the candidates and, though I entered an undecided voter, I exited with my mind made up. Before I get to that, here are some highlights from the issues discussed.

Homelessness

Addressing the problem of homelessness came up in a couple of different points of the debate through a few different lenses. Reed was asked early on to clarify his pre-debate survey response in which he was critical of the current efforts to address homelessness but offered no concrete policies of his own. He mentioned better understanding the population to address causes of homelessness in a more focused way, but the specific policy was still lacking. Immediately after that Boyd was asked about whether he supported more police training to handle addiction with more sensitivity, and he said we should find additional resources to do so, but didn't offer where they might come from.

Krewson was hit with some questions about previous support to criminalize panhandling (which included a fine and jail time). She defended her action as having been part of the Real Change Program, which was put in place in conjunction with well-known organizations that help the homeless. Similarly, she countered criticism over wanting to shut down downtown shelter NLEC by pointing out that they don't provide continuous care and put people out on the sidewalk with no real resources. (This debate has been covered with some differing viewpoints here and here).

Minimum Wage

Jones and French sparred a bit over minimum wage. Jones proudly boasts of having protested alongside Fight for 15 activists and cited her own role as a single mother to be a primary motivator for her passion on the topic. French said that he supported a state-level minimum wage increase but did not want to disadvantage the city by making increasing the wage city-wide only to have businesses flee. He then took a jab at Jones by saying that her staff in the Treasurer's office wasn't paid $15 an hour. She shot back that she immediately gave her staff a raise upon entering her position and pays all of her campaign staff $15 an hour.

Elsewhere in the evening, minimum wage was discussed because both Boyd and Krewson were absent (in their roles as alderman and alderwoman) when the city-wide increase to $11 was implemented. Krewson noted that it was her amendment they were voting on, and she was there for the perfection vote, just not the final vote. Boyd first insisted that he was present for the vote, but the moderator insisted he was not. (I looked when I got home, and the record says he was there. I let the organizers know that, and they responded back that they got their information from this article, which lists him among the absent voters.) He then said he would have voted yes and voted yes on the perfection vote. (French voted against it).

Cash Bail and Jail Conditions

Jones made it clear that she wanted to end the cash bail system and proposed payment plans and community service alternatives as possible solutions that would keep people out of jails and from the snowballing issue of losing jobs, disrupting lives, etc. due to incarceration over minor offenses. She even said that people had taken their own lives because of the impact of the cash bail system.

Boyd also stated his support for ending it, but his solution is ankle bracelets. The audience was vocally opposed, and the moderator followed up to ask if he was concerned about whether that was a liberty issue for someone who had committed a minor offense. He doubled down saying, "I'm not saying they have to wear short pants!" as if it is the visibility of the monitor and not its tracking mechanism that makes it invasive. It was a disturbing answer.

On a somewhat related note, there was a question involving "The Workhouse," the medium security prison located in the city. Both French and Reed responded that it should not be closed. French pointed out that closing it would further overcrowd the jail; instead, he wants to issue a bond to raise funds for improvements like air conditioning. Reed said it should not be closed and that we should instead focus on prevention and treatment instead of incarceration. He did not, however, address the current conditions of the prison.

City Development and Stadiums 

Development was a topic that wound its way through the debate consistently and often as a supplemental topic to unrelated questions. It seemed obvious that all of the candidates want their stance on development front and center and understand it to be an important drive for the campaign as a whole.

Jones was very critical of TIF money and its past use and passionately laid out a plan to ensure development would be routed out of the central corridor and into the mostly-ignored north and south parts of the city. She also said that any development plan would have to have community benefit and living wage agreements and anything that didn't would be vetoed.

Krewson also talked about her past experience in helping to develop The Loop area, specifically mentioning driving around with developers to show them potential properties they might not have considered on their own. She said that any development she approved would have to provide neighborhood services and meet minority participation requirements.

The potential funding for a MLS stadium was discussed. Jones and French were both adamantly against it, both citing the myriad of other funding needs the city has. Reed was questioned somewhat critically for voting to put the MLS funding on the ballot, but he insisted that he didn't support the funds; he supported the voters having a say. He said he was always on the side of voter empowerment. He was then questioned over the (non-voter approved) use of $4 million for Scott Trade Center, but he didn't provide a real justification for that beyond the explanation that it was "different" from the MLS issue.

City-County Merger

Jones voiced support for putting a city-county merger on the ballot and said that she personally would vote for it, but she also acknowledged that a lot of financial housekeeping had to take place before that vote would be feasible.

French somewhat flippantly said that the county doesn't need a "91st municipality" and said that he had no interest in a merger, explaining there were other ways to cooperate without joining a county that hasn't shown progress on important issues like addressing inequality.

Marijuana Legalization

All of the candidates voiced support for decriminalizing marijuana. French went further by saying that he would love to see it made legal in the state, and Jones--speaking immediately after him--took it up a notch by calling for taxation like Colorado to get tax revenue.

Notably, Krewson added the phrase "of small amounts" to her statement to decriminalize it, and the audience noticed (and boo'ed).

Sanctuary City

All of the candidates were adamant that St. Louis should be sanctuary city. French mentioned his involvement in the airport protest that sprung up this weekend following Trump's immigration ban. He said that we needed to be prepared to resist the Trump administration at this and other turns.

Jones mentioned that she had been in touch with New York on the topic.

Krewson was questioned about her statement in the pre-debate survey that she wouldn't risk federal funds to maintain status as a sanctuary city. She was pressed hard on it, and tried to wiggle out of it by saying, "but we shouldn't have to give up those funds to be a sanctuary city." Ultimately, she said that we should fight to keep the funds and the status, but she never gave a clear answer on which she would choose if both were not an option.

Policing and Police Shootings

I saved this one for last because it was by far the biggest issue. It came up in different ways, and it was also the elephant in the room because--for the first half-hour or so of the debate (until they were told to stop, I assume)--there was a group of people who held up signs like this every time Krewson spoke.


Beyond the signs, the boos and cheers in the room showed a clear issue with the fact that Krewson received the endorsement of the SLPOA. The issue hung in the air for most of the debate, and Krewson fielded questions about policing by repeatedly focusing on funding for training. She also said that we need more police officers, saying that we need at least 1300 and only have about 1200. She connected training with staffing by saying training couldn't take place if everyone was overworked. When asked explicitly if training would include implicit bias training, she said yes. She also acknowledged her own white privilege and said "Black lives absolutely do matter." 

Later, though, her ties to the SLPOA were brought up more explicitly. She said that though she did not support Roorda, whose comments she admitted were racist, she did support the police officers. She said, "I can't control who they hire." When asked if she would ask Roorda to step down, she said that wasn't within her control. The audience booed loudly. 

For contrast, Jones was asked why she didn't meet with SLPOA (the only candidate present who didn't), and she said it was because she had no interest in their endorsement or having anything to do with Roorda. She also demonstrated a difference with Krewson by saying that she would focus on placing social workers on staff to work with police instead of hiring more officers. 

Tef Poe, local musician and activist, mocked Krewson's call for "training," a theme that French picked up on when he said that the people weren't asking for better training; they were asking for accountability. He said that there would not be trust between the citizens and the police until accountability was obvious. He also said that he supported community policing practices and wanted to move away from military tactical style training, a training style Reed also condemned. French also made it clear that firing police chief Sam Dotson would be a priority on "day one." 

Boyd cited several times that his own relative who was killed by police, but he also talked about black-on-black crime and the community needing to "take responsibility" for the shootings. 

Another point about policing was French's support for security cameras around the city, something he helped implant in his own North City ward. He emphasized that as a citizen, he wanted there to be footage to help solve crimes, and cited that 60% of the cities homicides go unsolved. He also mentioned that there are plenty of cameras downtown in areas that attract tourists; he believes neighborhoods should have the same security measures. He frequently mentioned a disparity between the midtown area and areas north and south, and this was another place where he sees that divide. Response times, he says, are slower to areas outside of midtown, and it needs to be corrected. 

Some Other Stuff 

Of mention are some issues that were more personal and less policy-driven. 

Reed fired some nasty shots at both Jones and Boyd while trying to cast himself as the anti-Slay candidate. He said that he was the only one who had been brave enough to run against Slay in the past, and then he accused Jones of hiring Slay's campaign team (and why wouldn't she? After all, they ran a winning campaign.) before getting really angry with Boyd for handing out campaign literature supporting Slay during the previous election. 

Jones responded that her father runs her campaign, and then Boyd shot back with a fiery "how dare you tell me who to support" before calling out Reed for not having integrity and lying to the alderman board. The two men duked it out for a bit, and though it was fiery and passionate, it seemed to be getting into the weeds in what they did or didn't do for one another in their professional relationship rather than stick to an issue the voters should be concerned with. It did make for an entertaining couple minutes, though. 

Jones was asked about the controversy surrounding her use of funds for travel and a city-issued vehicle. She explained that she traveled to trainings that allowed her to make direct changes to the city. She also said that she had saved the city $5 million dollars (I think in conjunction with her implementation of the parking meters, but I'm not certain) because of the things she had learned. She said that she would "take advantage of every perk" offered with her position as long as it allowed her to do a good job. 

Krewson was obviously in front of a hostile crowd. She is the least progressive candidate in a room filled with progressive voters. She tried to address the issue a few times, but it often fell flat. She insisted we were in "Missour-ah" drawing out the alternate pronunciation intentionally. To what end? I can't say because it certainly felt divisive. She also answered a heckling "Can I live on your street?!" with a folksy "You betcha" that didn't help the tension. While she did directly acknowledge her racial privilege, the room as a whole did not seem satisfied, and I often felt like she was giving her answers with a remote audience in mind rather than trying to win the votes in front of her. 

My Takeaway

It's no secret that I am progressive and want progressive policies in my city. Going into this debate, I was undecided. Jones and French were at the top of my list, but I hadn't ruled out voting for someone else. I was particularly interested in hearing from Krewson because she is the best funded and the frontrunner.

After reading the pre-debate responses and listening to this debate, I am voting for Jones.

Boyd doesn't seem to be a serious candidate, and he answered too many questions with platitudes. He was even asked a question that was basically "You've lost three city-wide races already and are only polling at 5%. Why not drop out instead of taking votes away from someone else?" and responded with "Quitters never win and winners never quit." Perhaps, but he's not winning. Nothing he said tonight made me think otherwise.

Reed gave some good answers, but I think his attack of Boyd and Jones over their relationship to Slay made him look insecure and petty. It wasn't a focused moment. Generally, his best answers were only equally good as another candidates, and his worst answers were, well, worse. Nothing he said made him stand out to me as a particularly good choice. He also did not adequately address his controversy over the sexist comments against alderwoman Megan Green.

Krewson seemed to be, as I mentioned earlier, addressing a different audience. She did not handle the questions about her police endorsement well, and she certainly had to know they were coming considering who sponsored this event. I was disappointed in how she handled it. I also wanted a stronger answer from her about the sanctuary city status, especially considering she was giving this response today, immediately following Trump's horrendous anti-immigrant actions.

French gave a lot of good answers, and I like his policies. He, however, doubled down on his cocky response that he "regrets nothing" he's ever done in his political career, which was off putting.

French and Jones share a lot of the same ideology and plans, but Jones was much clearer and more focused when it came to implementation. She had detailed plans for every initiative, and she handled herself like someone with experience and political skills. She seemed confident, passionate, and clear. I got the impression that she would step into the role of mayor with an immediate and actionable plan for the city, and I liked it.

That's why she is going to get my vote.

The bottom line, though, is that I was thrilled to see such a big turnout, and I hope we pack the polling stations in March.



Friday, January 6, 2017

Teaching Research and Writing in the Age of "Fake News"

It's almost hard for me to imagine it now, but growing up, I never watched the news. It was never on in my house. I remember taking "current event" quizzes in my history class and feeling completely disconnected from the world. I only heard of the topics in the few minutes we spent before each class naming some things going on at the moment.

This is still the state of things in the house where I grew up. My mom doesn't watch, read, or listen to the news. She gets her knowledge of current events from snippets of conversation with the people she works with (and me and my little brother, who frequently go on political rants). When I ask her why, she suggests that the news stresses her out, feels overwhelming, doesn't really add value to her life.

I've been hanging out in some "minimalist" groups online, and--while definitional battles abound--one of the core principles is to remove things that don't add value to your life and to simplify what remains. Perhaps, then, it shouldn't have taken me so off guard today when someone in one of these groups asked if people had cut news media out of their lives as part of their minimalist principles. Many, many people chimed in to say they had done exactly that.

It kind of startled me.

Several commenters immediately connected their rejection of news to the "fake news" epidemic. Unfortunately, I have now seen that label applied haphazardly to any news that the assessor doesn't like, not just the content that is in fact completely fabricated by its author for clicks and revenue. This label has given people like Rush Limbaugh a new tool in a right-wing attempt to dismantle and disrupt news media. 



I got in a heated Facebook debate with an uncle who chastised my little brother for sharing "fake news" when he posted about the recent ruling that gave police a lot of latitude if they made the choice to shoot someone's pet. Admittedly, my brother had shared this information from a click-baity site with a headline designed to be inflammatory and an obvious agenda against expanding police authoritarianism. However, the presence of bias and even a lack of journalist ethical standards does not make something "fake." When I linked my uncle to more legitimate news sources reporting on the case and eventually to the actual court ruling itself in an attempt to demonstrate it was not "fake," he responded by saying that it just didn't feel real to him. That was the end of the discussion. "Feelings" replace facts, journalistic integrity, and multiple sources (including a primary document).

I'm a community college English instructor, and I taught research writing for the first time in a long time last semester. Many of my students (online students, many enrolled in other colleges and universities who had theoretically been educated in media literacy) reported having no idea how to determine if a source was valid or not. Seeing how uncomfortable my students are with critically analyzing media and applying media literacy principles to their own thinking and writing made me realize that these issues go far beyond the Facebook rants of my elder relatives. The landscape of information is universally overwhelming, and people like me (as a professor of rhetoric) are responsible for helping make it less so.

I think that there are a lot of factors in the mix right now that could make turning away from news media attractive: the political climate is toxic, we're very polarized and human nature tends to make us want to consume news that supports our own views, the sheer number of sources available at our fingertips is overwhelming, and the pay structure for journalism has become so dysfunctional as to make even some otherwise ethical institutions turn to some rather questionable practices.

It's coupled with a turn away from experts and expertise. We're reacting to information overload by trying to simplify and condense what there is to process. I think that's an understandable reaction, but we're doing it (as we do all things) within the confines of our own social conditioning and prejudices. The result is that we pick and choose what makes us feel comfortable and filter out the rest, leaving us with a very narrow worldview and the option to reject anything at any time if it happens to conflict with whatever general framework we've aligned ourselves with at the moment.

In other words, our desire for stability and simplicity as individuals has led to chaos and confusion as a collective.

National Geographic has an interesting post about this anti-science phenomenon that asks why it seems that "doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts." 

Author Joel Achenbach makes a lot of smart observations, including this one about the risk that we take to our identity when aligning ourselves with particular beliefs: 
Americans fall into two basic camps, Kahan says. Those with a more “egalitarian” and “communitarian” mind-set are generally suspicious of industry and apt to think it’s up to something dangerous that calls for government regulation; they’re likely to see the risks of climate change. In contrast, people with a “hierarchical” and “individualistic” mind-set respect leaders of industry and don’t like government interfering in their affairs; they’re apt to reject warnings about climate change, because they know what accepting them could lead to—some kind of tax or regulation to limit emissions. 
In the U.S., climate change somehow has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.
He also notes some of the more obvious reasons that people are finding it easier and easier to establish their own parameters around "truth," namely that the internet has removed the gatekeeping institutions that used to determine which information was widely disseminated.

I agree with his claims and conclusions, but I don't think they're quite complete. He briefly mentions distrust of corporations when he discusses people's reluctance to accept GMOs as safe, but I think that corporate influence deserves a much closer look. We've been socially trained to "follow the money" and figure out how economic interests might influence someone's perspective. When we do that in a world where corporations are funding the research about their own fields, our skepticism is more than understood--it's responsible.

Furthermore, I know several people with left-leaning political ideals who have a dogmatic adherence to the scientific method in a way that operates as a blind spot. Yes, the scientific method is a wonderful tool to help us ascertain truths that are free from human bias, but the reporting of those findings and even the decision to research them in the first place is just as tangled in bias as everything else. We have awfully short memories if we want to pretend that science has not been used as a tool to further political agendas. Just consider how phrenology was used to justify racism or how homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in the DSM. And these approaches are far from old and dead.

Also, many of the "anti-science" people I know are not actually anti-science when the new scientific findings fit their existing beliefs. I've met several people who reject any scientific evidence that vaccines do not cause autism or that climate change is manmade but who are quick to adopt new scientific evidence about the early development of a fetus as part of an anti-abortion rhetoric. This suggests to me that defending science for science's sake isn't going to be the answer to this riddle.

There's a part of me (the part that has researched rhetoric across centuries) that feels a kind of optimism about everything. That part thinks that we're in the midst of a rather predictable upheaval surrounding notions of truth in the face of massive technological advancements and changes to human communication. That part of me has read about the pendulum swings that have followed every technological revolution to communication (the advent of writing, the printing press, open access education). Things will settle. They always do.


But that's kind of the coward's answer, isn't it? After all, things don't just "settle" on their own. They settle with the work of the people of those times (the thinkers, the writers, the scientists, the artists, the philosophers) to reign the pendulum back in. People work from either side to pull it back until the swing is manageable and less disruptive, until the next advancement can throw it back into wild motion and it's someone else's turn to do that work.

And it's my turn now, right? I mean, it is literally my job to teach people how to tell what sources they can trust and figure out how to use them in conjunction with their own perspectives to make ethical, informed decisions and disseminations.

It's hard, though. I suspect that it has always been hard, but I think that those of us who are trying to teach research and writing skills in today's climate have a particularly and uniquely challenging task.

In a very interesting and important post, Danah Boyd at NYU asks if media literacy has backfired:

Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have? The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’s universal agreement that major news outlets like the New York Times, scientific journal publications, and experts with advanced degrees are all highly trustworthy. 
Think about how this might play out in communities where the “liberal media” is viewed with disdain as an untrustworthy source of information…or in those where science is seen as contradicting the knowledge of religious people…or where degrees are viewed as a weapon of the elite to justify oppression of working people. Needless to say, not everyone agrees on what makes a trusted source. 
Students are also encouraged to reflect on economic and political incentives that might bias reporting. Follow the money, they are told. Now watch what happens when they are given a list of names of major power players in the East Coast news media whose names are all clearly Jewish. Welcome to an opening for anti-Semitic ideology.
What her post makes clear to me (and I hope you will read the whole thing and supplemental links at the bottom) is that media literacy cannot be introduced as a concept in a class with basic principles and then built upon slowly over time. We do not have the luxury of a stepping stone approach to teaching media literacy because teaching only the basic principles is a liability. Students have too many influences on their attention and ideas for educators to pretend that what they learn from us will stay pristine and safe until we meet again next class period, next semester, next year. If we want media literacy to work as an educational tool, we have to go ahead and pull back the curtain and show its messy, chaotic reality from the very beginning. We need to admit that it's not easy. The rules aren't always clear cut, and we need to create assignments that allow for that mess.



I was trying to identify the core ideas I want my students to take away from my class, ideas they can apply in a variety of frameworks and ideologies to make their own thoughts (and hopefully the world around them) clearer, better informed, and more solidly supported. Here's what I came up with:


  • Biased Does Not Mean Untrue- This might seem like a bad precedent to set. A lot of the composition textbooks I've seen teach identifying bias as a way to figure out if a source is credible or not. Often, it is simplified (intentionally or not) as "biased=unusable." I understand how this could be a good starting point for a discussion about credibility, but the reality is that every single source of information available is "biased" in one way or another. Even a completely fact-based report was chosen as a headline over some other fact-based incident. If we tell our students that they can't use a biased source while they're simultaneously hearing that all of the sources around them are biased (from our class and elsewhere), they're left with very few options. Instead, we need to teach that bias must be identified and accounted for, but it doesn't make a source unusable. Information found in an obviously biased source should be verified more carefully. It should be included in a paper with some sense of balance and a clear identification of its bias, but it can be read, it can be used, and most importantly, it can be true


  • Stop Hating on Wikipedia- I don't let my students use Wikipedia as a source in their papers, but I tell them to use Wikipedia as a working bibliography that links to other sources. I also tell them that it's fine to use as a starting place to generate ideas or to find out some basic information about a topic before determining whether they want to research it further. Many of them are absolutely shocked when I say this because they've been told over and over again that Wikipedia and "real research" never overlap. But we all know that plenty of information on Wikipedia is valid and informative. If we teach students to reject all information on Wikipedia outright and they then go and see good information on Wikipedia, we're helping to create a culture where good information is rejected. Yes, Wikipedia (and many other open source sites on the web) are problematic and tricky to use well, but let's just go ahead and embrace that conflict and tension from the beginning. 


  • Including the "Other Side" Is More than a Cursory Paragraph- One habit that students are picking up as a direct result of media literacy is to include a paragraph (sometimes two) showing the "other side." This often leads to choppy, disconnected information included in a perfunctory way without any real reflection on what it means for the author's own argument. It's a troubling habit that is being reflected in legitimate news sources all the time as they attempt to appear "fair and balanced" in an increasingly politicized world. But balance isn't a given. Some things don't have an equally valid counterpoint. Teaching students to hunt for one and then drop it into their papers (whether that's what we meant to teach or not) isn't helping anything. This balance fallacy has to be addressed, and it means that when students investigate the "other side," they're necessarily going to have to also investigate the validity and weight of those viewpoints. 

I think that these goals in my classroom all reflect one underlying principle: be straightforward and upfront about the chaos and messiness of research and writing. It's only natural to want to present things concisely for students, especially when we're required to evaluate what they produce. We want set standards and hard boundaries. If we teach at an entry level, we reason that students will get more advanced media literacy standards elsewhere, in higher level classes. We do these things in an attempt to make a very difficult topic more manageable for our students, but I think we do them a disservice. If we really want to provide them the tools they need to navigate a messy world, we need to admit its messiness from the very beginning. It might be harder, it might be more frustrating, but it will ultimately serve our students much better in the long run--and that serves us all.

Images: Gary Thompson, Robin Malik, Sharyn Morrow