Sunday, December 31, 2017

Every Episode of Black Mirror Season 4, Ranked

I thoroughly enjoy Black Mirror both as a general concept and in the execution of its individual episodes. While there are a few duds and the series is a bit ham-fisted with its moralizing much of the time, it ticks a lot of boxes for the criteria I use to judge a television series. It's entertaining, balances out optimism and pessimism, examines the crucial intersection of humanity and technology, and provides talking points for very real ethical dilemmas.

I just finished Season 4, and here is my ranking for all six episodes. (Spoilers, obviously.)

6. Crocodile- 

My least favorite of the season was overwhelmingly "Crocodile." In fact, this is the only one that didn't make it into the positive category on my "is this good?" initial test.

I'm not alone in my distaste for the episode. David Sims writes: "I don’t know if I’ve ever been as frustrated by an episode of Black Mirror as I was by “Crocodile,” a miserable hour that left me both emotionally and intellectually unfulfilled. . . . It is, undoubtedly, relentlessly depressing. And yet it also didn’t seem to have much of a deeper point."

That pretty much sums it up for me, too. Crocodile opens with a couple drunk driving through open countryside when their car slams into a cyclist, killing him instantly. The male driver of the car convinces his female passenger to help him dispose of the body in a nearby lake despite her insistence that this is a terrible plan. Flash forward 15 years later, and the woman (Mia) has made an incredibly successful life for herself as an architect as well as a nice family with a husband and son. When the driver from the past accident shows up in her hotel room to tell her he's going to anonymously write to the widow of the man he killed, she freaks out about the possibility of getting tangled up in the murder investigation that would likely follow. To avoid the possibility of being discovered as the accomplice to vehicular manslaughter nearly two decades in the past, she murders her friend with a display of brash (and completely unrealistic) violence.

The technology part of the show doesn't make an appearance until it's well on its way, and then it takes a long time to fully reveal itself. We see an insurance investigator who is trying to find out the details of a crash involving an automatic pizza delivery car. To do this, she uses a standard-issue device that reads people's memories, subjective data that she uses to piece together a more complete picture of the accident in order to help her company with lawsuits and assigning blame. Mia had witnessed the accident right after she killed her friend, and the insurance investigator eventually finds her, hooks her up to the machine, and sees the memories of her murder.

Mia, completely terrified that she will now get caught for that murder, ties the investigator up in her shed, tortures her with the fact that she will also hunt down her husband and kill him, and then bludgeons the investigator to death with a log. She vomits, which I guess is supposed to show she doesn't like beating people until their brains are exposed, but she drives 50 miles and breaks into the investigator's house to quietly sneak up on her husband and beat him to death with a hammer. Then she notices their infant child and murders her, too (off screen, thankfully, but probably with the same hammer).

The twist is that she forgot to kill the guinea pig, and we see police hooking it up to a memory machine just before the episode ends.

I don't have a problem with gore or nihilism, but this episode fell flat in so many ways. Mia's motivations made absolutely no sense. There was no development of her character before or after she snapped that would give us a lesson from her actions. On top of that, I'm pretty sure that murdering four people with your bare hands in the span of two days is the kind of thing we can already investigate and prosecute pretty well, and that's without the help of memory machines that makes every passer-by who might have driven past your car as you made this 100-mile round-trip murderous trek into photographic evidence.

The plot feels lazy, and the end reveals that the child was blind, a line that felt like it was supposed to be packed with meaning that they forgot to write (or maybe got cut out in editing). Finally, the guinea pig felt like a glib joke in the middle of what was otherwise played as a pretty straight, serious piece of writing. It just didn't work. Any of it.

Entertainment value: 1/5
Ethical exploration: 1/5 

5. Arkangel- 

I already wrote a post analyzing Arkangel as a piece of commentary about modern day parenting and the constantly renegotiated boundaries of privacy. I won't re-hash the plot summary and analysis from there.

It was a little surprising to me that this episode ended up so low in my rankings because I really did enjoy it. It was meaningful and interesting, and I felt invested in the characters and their stories.

The message was often a little too shoehorned into the plot, but overall it was relevant, if not particularly groundbreaking.

In the end, this was just an okay episode, and there are much better episodes, so "okay" lands it in fifth place.

Entertainment value: 3/5
Ethical exploration: 2/5

4. Metalhead

This episode was the most thematically striking of the bunch. Shot in black and white, the entire feel of it was darker and less playful than all of the episodes (expect perhaps Crocodile, but I'd rather just pretend that it didn't happen, so I'm going to ignore it in comparisons).

In Metalhead, we're introduced to three characters who are on a mission to get some very important but unknown object from a warehouse. They're in a post-apocalyptic, barren landscape where cars and buildings are abandoned and falling apart, a clear sign that whatever terrible thing happened was widespread and pretty thorough. Our protagonists are discussing other people to whom they hope to bring comfort, so it's clear that there are survivors, but it seems like more of a hanging-on-by-our-teeth kind of survival than a rebuilding-society kind of survival.

When they get to the warehouse, they toss a rock at a van to make some noise as a test but leave the keys in their ignition, so we know right away that whatever villain exists in this dystopia isn't human. When they find the box they're looking for (contents still unknown to us), they accidentally trigger a "dog," a robot that has been designed to serve a surveillance and protection role. And by "serve a surveillance and protection role," I mean kill anyone it encounters. It is really, really good at this. It is nearly indestructible, able to open any door lock with a its universal passcode abilities, and able to hunt down people both by shooting tracking devices into them and by using clues like blood, sound, radio waves, and heat. In other words, once you've triggered a "dog," you are very likely going to die.

To underscore this fact, two of our three protagonists are killed pretty much immediately, leaving most of the episode as a tense, well-paced suspense where one woman tries to escape one robot. They both take a lot of damage. It loses a leg; she digs the tracker out of her thigh, leaving a gaping wound. She runs its batteries out; it recharges and keeps hunting. It loses its shooting capacity, so it finds a knife instead. It's like the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons but with a lot more emotional investment in one side.

The thing I liked about this episode is how much I was rooting for the woman and rooting against this machine, to which I most certainly ascribed agency and intention. This was an evil robot. I hated it. The sight of it making a comeback made me angry.

I was treating it like a villain. A human villain. A sentient villain. But it wasn't.

It was just doing what it was programmed (and left behind--forever?) to do.

In the end, the woman finally destroys the dog, but not before it fills her face and, most importantly, throat full of trackers. There is no way she can remove them without slitting her own throat, and so that's exactly what she does, killing herself rather than face the doom that's on its way to her. As the camera pans away from the house she's in, we see several dogs quickly but also somewhat mundanely and routinely marching across the barren landscape. The final scene takes us back to the warehouse where the box they wanted so desperately, the one that contained an item that would bring some measure of comfort to a never-seen but obviously-hurt companion, was stored. Its contents had spilled. It was full of teddy bears.

The implications of this episode are on protectionism and the way that capitalism has taught us to value possessions and profits over human lives and compassion. Those dogs were programmed by someone to protect the contents of the warehouse, and though the humans who care about such things are long gone, the dogs remain, wreaking havoc on every tiny bit of humanity that remains with them.

It's a solid episode that didn't really teach me any new lessons but made me reflect on ones I already knew in a more powerful way. The tension was palpable throughout, and the tone (though bleak) was even and consistent.

Entertainment value: 3/5
Ethical exploration: 3/5 

3. USS Callister

This one seems to be coming out as the fan favorite of the season. It's getting high praise from people like David Sims, Darren Franich and Charles Bramesco.

This is the one I have seen discussed most often, so I'll keep my recap brief. It opens with a terribly corny Star Trek spoof where the crew of a spaceship fall all over themselves to fawn over their captain, Cole (a man who looks like he would come in fourth place at a local Matt Damon lookalike contest). It was a jarring way to start the new season because the throwback film quality and the obviously tongue-in-cheek acting as well as the overall jovial but completely nonsensical plot (they're hunting a bad guy with a jewel or something) didn't feel like a Black Mirror episode at all.

Because it wasn't.

That was a glimpse inside a video game where the "real" Cole is co-founder of a gaming smash hit but garners no respect from his employees or partner. Instead of standing up for himself in the real world, he secretly collects the DNA of the people surrounding him and replicates their consciousness into the game so that he can torture them at his leisure. His character is played perfectly with equal parts pitiable stooge and sadistic dictator, a dangerous combination when he's handed God-like power.

Like many episodes of seasons past and present, it explores the ramifications of consciousness being separated from the bodies that we assume hold it. The "real" versions of these characters continue on in the "real" world with no knowledge that a version of themselves is being tortured day after day. This episode adds a particularly interesting twist when an uploaded character manages to communicate with her real-life self, further throwing into question what identity and consciousness really mean.

The imprisoned crew hatch a plan with the help of their newest member that allows them to escape the clutches of Cole by plunging themselves into a black hole update patch. They think this act will merely "kill" the code and eliminate their existence, but it instead strips away the modified version of the game and gives them an eternity to act of their own free will within the online version of the game, interacting with actual players from the outside world.

Perhaps the most interesting to me from a moral standpoint is that I (as I suspect is true for most viewers) felt that Cole got exactly what he deserved when he ends up trapped inside the game as his modification deletes itself, his real-life body left limp and unresponsive. What does this mean about my own moral code? The crew didn't know this would happen to him, so it wasn't a premeditated killing, but even if they had, they would have acted out of completely justified self defense. Still, the "people" he tortured were just lines of code. Does everyone who has removed the door from a burning house on The Sims in order to watch them die deserve such a grisly demise? What turns a line of code into a being deserving of justice or revenge?

The episode is at times overwhelmingly silly and at other times horrifyingly sad. It's an impressive roller coaster of emotions to pack in. In places, the pacing feels a little off, and some of the acting left a bit to be desired, but overall, it was a very fun and thought-provoking episode. I can see why it's shaping up to be the favorite, but there were two other episodes that outshined it for me.

Entertainment value: 4/5
Ethical exploration: 3/5 

2. Black Museum

I had a hard time arranging my first- and second-place picks. One packed a harder punch when it came to ethical exploration, and the other packed more entertainment value. They are both superb episodes.

I went into Black Museum cautious because I had seen rumblings online that said it was a very disappointing finale for the season. Caroline Framke says the end "isn't quite good enough to hold the episode together." Charles Bramesco gives it only 2 out of 5 stars. Zack Handlen calls it a "dud."

Most of these critics fault it on technical lines. The set up was too complex (it has two dense mini stories leading back up to our frame story). The plot connections were overly contrived. The required level of suspension of disbelief was too much.

I can't disagree with them on any of these statements. I will agree that it is not the best episode in terms of technical execution. The seams tying the stories together are much more like the oversized stitches holding together the body parts of Frankenstein's monster than the streamlined precision of, say, Metalhead.

But I don't care. I'm giving it second place anyway.

This episode opens with a young woman (Nish) pulling into a deserted charging station. The scene mixes a 60s feel with modern technology as she pulls out a solar panel charger for her vintage-looking car. She's stuck there for a few hours while it fills up. Looking bored, she wanders to an abandoned-looking building titles "Black Museum."

This is (apparently, though I didn't know it at the time of watching) a reference to a real museum. Scotland Yard's Black Museum is full of real-life artifacts from famous crimes. My first thought (especially since Nish is black and the setting has a 60s feel) was that it referred to race. I had assumed it was a reference to George C. Wolf's The Colored Museum. After I watched the show (still not knowing about the Scotland Yard museum), I assumed that the "Black" in the museum's name referred to Black Mirror itself. This is because the museum, like the real-life one, is a collection of criminal artifacts, but they are all crimes from the Black Mirror universe. Several of them are recognizable as objects from previous episodes. The implication that all of these terrifying technologies have strung together in the same reality (and that somehow that reality is still more-or-less functional) is sobering.

The museum is owned and operated by Rolo Haynes, a superbly acted conman type who puts on a magnificent performance that mixes slimy salesman with cold-hearted capitalist and unattached scientist.

As Rolo takes Nish around his museum, she stops at two particular artifacts, the catalysts for the aforementioned mini stories. The first is a mesh net that fits on someone's head, a device that allows a doctor with an implant to feel whatever the wearer is feeling. At first, this gives him the remarkable and altruistic ability to diagnosis very difficult medical cases, and we are sympathetic to his willingness to put himself in excruciating pain to help his patients. All goes awry, though, when he wears it through a death, turning him into a pain-seeking sadist who first slices himself to ribbons trying to seek his next high. That doesn't give him the mix of pain and genuine terror he craves, though, so he turns to drilling through the head of a homeless man to get his fix. This leaves him in a vegetative (but ostensibly eternally blissful) state.

The second object is a stuffed monkey. It turns out that the monkey still contains the uploaded consciousness of a woman who was hit by a car just as she was starting a happy new family with her partner. Her partner visits her weekly while she's in a coma. She is able to answer yes or no questions with a light up device attached to her brain, but she is otherwise unable to see or interact with her partner or son. Rolo (who worked at the hospital and was responsible for finding "volunteers" for devices like this one and the pain connector above) offered her partner the chance to download the woman's consciousness into his own mind. She could hear, see, and feel everything he could, but only he would be able to hear her. As you might imagine, this turns out to be a miserable experience for both of them. He can't get any privacy and has a constant nag in his mind. She has no agency and has to watch her whole life from the background. She starts referring to his body as "theirs," and he is clearly not on board. He eventually upgrades to a way to pause her, allowing her to only be "on" on weekends so she can see their son. When he meets a new woman, though, it becomes too much, and she is finally uploaded into the stuffed monkey, a monkey that can only respond as happy ("Monkey loves you!") or sad ("Monkey needs a hug!") Her son tires of this toy almost immediately, so she spends her life (which appears to last an eternity) as a discarded and disembodied being with no way to physically interact with the world.

The most chilling part of this whole episode to me is the throwaway commentary Rolo gives for why the woman still inhabits the monkey and what makes it count as a "crime" artifact. He says that it is now illegal to upload consciousness into anything that doesn't have at least five emotional responses, and it is also illegal to delete her from the monkey. That means that the technology itself is still alive, well, and legally regulated. It also means that uploaded consciousness is akin to immortality, at least from a legal standpoint.

In the end, these two pieces of technology come together as we find out Nish is not who she seems to be. Rather than a random tourist who needs to charge her car, she is a hunter on a mission of revenge. Her father (or, rather, his hologram consciousness) has been trapped in the museum and tortured until he is a slobbering vegetable. A man wrongly accused of murder, his actual body was put to death by electric chair. Rolo convinced him to give up his consciousness in exchange for financial security for his family after his death (something I assume was a lie). Visitors got to throw the switch on the man themselves, keeping a permanent copy of his consciousness in the moment of the most pain as a keychain with his hologrammed, agonized face screaming for all eternity. Nish poisons Rolo, uploads his consciousness into her father's hologram, mercy kills them both, and keeps a keychain of Rolo's final moments as her own keepsake. Then she rides off into the sunset with the monkey by her side. At this point, we learn that she actually has her mother's consciousness uploaded into her own brain, so her acts of revenge were a team effort.

My love for this episode is not in its technical execution. The critics are right that it is a bit sloppy and overwrought. However, what it lacks in that arena it more than makes up for in ambition and purpose.

Zack Handlen writes, "Squint enough, and you could mark Haynes as a satiric version of Charlie Brooker himself; or at least, a version of the writer the show’s most vehement critics often conjure up."

Scott Beggs takes the same observation one step further and suggests that this episode is Brooker calling for help:
In short, why do we watch this show? 
That’s for each of us to decide, but if Nish represents us, Rolo represents Brooker, and the Black Museum represents Black Mirror, it says a cursing mouthful that Nish poisons Rolo and lets the museum burn.
Are we complicit in the same kind of torture that the museum visitors inflicted upon Nish's father when we watch the show? Or does it at least point to this same sadistic impulse within us that would make us those kinds of monsters given the right technology?

The racial overtones (including a set up that feels a lot like the way slave artifacts are displayed for voyeuristic consumption across real America) and the fact that they bring back an electric chair (as the way Nish's father is actually executed in the real world, not just a prop in the museum) point to the true depravity of human beings. We're terrible to one another in the flesh. We hurt, we kill, and we justify it through notions of utility and vengeance. The question isn't what could we become. The question is what are we already. What have we always been?

Entertainment value: 4/5
Ethical exploration: 5/5

1. Hang the DJ

I'm ending on the fun one. This was by far the most enjoyable episode to watch, but that's not the only reason that it gets to be my top-place pick. It packs a meaningful punch as well.

In Hang the DJ, we're introduced to a futuristic dating landscape where people are coached by a device as they are matched up with a partner for a predetermined amount of time until the machine's algorithms gather enough response data to find a "true match," something the creators claim to do with 99.8% accuracy.

I spent a good chunk of this episode frustrated and incredulous. We're introduced right away to two people (Frank and Amy) on a date. They find out that their "expiry date" is only 12 hours away, so (despite their obvious chemistry and attraction for one another) they part ways and begin meeting their other potential mates. Some they end up paired with for only a few hours. Others they stay with for months and months. Frank, in particular, is tied to a terrible match for a full year. While matched, a couple must live together and, at least as far as we can tell from the show, spend all of their time together. One of the things that bothered me is that these people seem to have no other purpose. They don't have jobs. They aren't shown with friends. We don't even see them talk on the phone. They are sometimes reading while lying next to one another and sometimes jogging alone while waiting for their next match, but otherwise their entire purpose seems to be to date, knowing full well that their relationships will end, and mostly being miserable in the meantime.

It becomes clear that this world has some kind of dystopian authority hanging over everyone's heads. The "matched" characters in the background seem cult-like and wooden. There are guards with tazers to keep people in line, and people aren't allowed to be together once their time is up. When Frank and Amy finally decide to run off together because they know they're truly in love and will find no one better by waiting for their "true match," they climb a literal wall in a scene that is every bit as silly as the climax of The Truman Show.

Then comes the twist. Frank and Amy weren't real people. They were the uploaded consciousness of real people sent to play out a simulation to test their compatibility. We see that the versions we watched were actually the 1000th iteration of such a simulation, and 998 of the versions had rebelled to be together. This triggers the real-life Frank and Amy to both get notifications on their phones that they are near a 99.8% match, and they look up and smile at one another.

There's so much that we don't know in this episode. Were all 1000 simulations the same scenario, or were virtual Frank and Amy put through the test in multiple venues and circumstances? Are there an infinite number of these virtual selves paired with literally every other participant in the program, or is there some kind of initial screening that only puts likely matches through this rigorous test? Are the virtual selves deleted after the simulation, or are they left holding hands at the finish line for all eternity?

What makes this episode work so well for me is that Frank and Amy have such genuine on-screen chemistry that I was truly rooting for them. The unfairness of being ripped apart in the name of some algorithmic decision-making was visceral for me. Machines don't know more about love than people do! Of course, when they run off together, I felt vindicated in that belief, but then they turned it all around to tell me that maybe I was wrong and machines do know more about love than people do; they just had to use the very human system of narrative and storytelling to get the information.

That's what ultimately makes this episode my top pick. In a (usually very bleak) reality where technology shows us the very worst of human nature, this (like San Junipero before it) gives a more optimistic outlook on the merger of humanity with technology. In both cases, though, that successful (and not horrifying) merger is dependent upon the humanities: storytelling, the mess of human emotion. Algorithms can work to make our lives better, but first they must be rooted in the stories and meaning of what it is to be human.

Entertainment value: 5/5
Ethical exploration: 4/5

It's no coincidence that my top three picks all deal with the same basic theme: what happens when human beings are exported out of their bodies and given consciousness beyond themselves? This idea absolutely terrifies me. The thought of not having control over my body is my biggest fear, and the scariest future I could ever imagine is being trapped without the ability to respond to the world around me. The cookies in White Christmas or the monkey in Black Museum point to the absolute horrors of these possibilities, but even the feel-good versions in San Junipero and Hang the DJ chill me to my core even as they offer a more optimistic outlook.

If we enter a world where people's consciousnesses can be turned into transferable code, what's the difference between spending an eternity living your best life like in San Junipero or spending an eternity suffocating by your own mouthless face like in USS Callister? Why, the difference is simply what human coder has control, and history doesn't bode well for how that will eventually turn out.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Black Mirror's Arkangel: Privacy is Relative

This post contains spoilers for "Arkangel," Season 4, Episode 2 of Black Mirror.

I just finished watching "Arkangel," and I had some thoughts about it.

First, the show does an excellent job of making the mundane and ordinary moments of terror in daily life come through in a pitch perfect way. The episode opens up with a shot of a mother giving birth, but all we can see is her head and torso as the rest of her body is blocked from view (from us and from her) by a sheet. On the other side are men apparently poking and prodding as a female nurse peers over the curtain. They're testing her numbness to make sure they can proceed with a c-section. She turns to the nurse and apologizes, shamefully, for not being able to push anymore.

The episode is not at all subtle in the territory it treads. This is a look at modern parenting that shows us from this opening moment that the guilt, sense of competition, and desire to do it "right" are setting us up for failure. By playing on the idea that women will feel guilty if they don't give birth in the "right" way, the show establishes from the opening shot that this woman (and by extension, all of us trying to navigate the barrage of expectations of modern parenting) are doomed to fail, if for no other reason than one person's right is another person's wrong.

There are a few terrifying moments where the baby appears not to be breathing, and the shots of the mother's face capture that true terror very well. The baby starts to cry, and all is well. The doctor's hand her over, and the pure love of a mother cradling her newborn fills the screen.

This opening scene turns out to be a precursor to the episode's premise. The mother's terror was rooted in what she could not see. The curtain blocked her view of the c-section that brought her baby into the world, and then--while she was immobile on the operating table--the bodies of the doctors blocked her view of her daughter's first few moments of life. Shrouded in the unknown, the terror of the worst possibilities fill the scene.

The little girl (Sara) gets older, and when she is three, she follows a cat away from the playground while her mother is preoccupied chatting with another mom. The screams of Sara's name from the whole neighborhood joining in a search once again pull the very real terror of a very common occurrence to the forefront. Yes, this is a regular thing (that usually turns out just fine), but it is also a terrifying one (that could turn out in the worst way imaginable). The what-ifs, the unknowns, the imagined horrors of the world are the ones that haunt us all, but they haunt parents in ways that can be paralyzing.

Obviously impacted by this scare, the mother elects to have her daughter implanted with a chip called Arkangel that tracks her location, gives her mother access to her daughter's field of vision and audio, and grants parental controls that block out scary images and sounds based on the child's biological responses to fear. As a result, little Sara grows up under constant surveillance from her caring and loving mother but also unable to interact with her peers the way she would like.

The show skips ahead to her pre-teen years, and we see her trying to fit in with a crowd that is obviously a little more rough-and-tumble than her bubble-wrapped existence has allowed her to become. In particular, she is enamored with a boy named Trick.

Our introduction to Trick shows him watching incredibly violent videos online of people beating one another. Of course, Sara can't see these images because of the filters. Her friend is grossed out by the images and tells Trick she wishes she couldn't see them either, but Sara doesn't have that luxury of arriving at her own ethical boundaries. They've been put in place for her, and they are therefore artificial with little meaning. Trick agrees to describe the images to her, and she becomes fascinated with the idea of blood, which she's never seen. When she draws an image of a beaten body with blood spewing and then subsequently cuts her own finger to see it bleed, her mother becomes concerned and takes her to a psychologist who tells her that the Arkangel system has been banned in Europe and was never approved for full-scale use in the U.S. He says there is no way to remove the chip, but the mother can simply throw out her monitoring platform. Sara can still have a normal life with appropriate peer interactions if her mother is willing to give up her window into her mind.

Sophie Gilbert has a post up about this episode, and she points to the interesting potential exploration of the mediated material kids in the show's world (and, by extension, our own) can access:
Acting out is a normal part of human behavior, it preaches, and parents who deny their children the freedom to experiment will end up losing them. Far more interesting to me was the episode’s subtext about what kids already have access to. When young Sara’s chip is turned off, a kid in her class shows her hardcore porn and execution videos on his iPad with disturbing nonchalance. Later, in her first sexual encounter, Sara mimics the women she’s seen in pornography, horrifying her mother, who’s turned on the long-dormant Arkangel device to find out where her daughter is. The impact of this kind of instant access to adult imagery is as novel as the implant is, and as unclear. But the episode seems more concerned with lining up a tidy parable about helicopter parenting than peeking into the prospects of the nearer-present.
Gilbert's desire for a more nuanced exploration of how mediated reality can impact developing minds is a valid one, and the show definitely seems to have a ham-fisted goal of taking on parenting choices, but I still think that it packs a little more subtly into the conversation than this criticism gives it credit for.

The mother does indeed turn off the filters and hide away her monitoring device in the attic (a clear sign that it will be making a comeback later), and for several years Sara develops just fine, even with exposure to hardcore porn and violence on her friend Trick's screens.

Later, we see Sara and Trick enter a sexual relationship, and Sara (a virgin) uses the pornographic language she saw in his videos. He tells her she doesn't have to talk like that for him. With this, the show dances into the territory of questioning what impact this access to mediated realities has on children, but it also seems to close it up pretty neatly. It might give them a warped sense of the world, but they'll figure it out pretty quickly, the show suggests.

What happens next, though, is a very clear critique of overprotective parenting. When the mother realizes that Sara has been lying about her whereabouts to be with Trick, she dusts the device off and starts secretly monitoring her, witnessing her having sex and snorting a line of cocaine. She then confronts not Sara, but Trick, threatening to turn him into the police if he doesn't cut off all contact with Sara. She also makes it clear that she'll be watching Sara's every move, so he can't even tell Sara why he's ignoring her.

When Sara, as teenage girls are wont to do, breaks down because of his rejection, her reaction tips her mother off that she is actually pregnant--something Sara doesn't even know herself. Her mother slips an abortion drug into her smoothie, and when the side effects send Sara to the doctor, she finds out what has happened and that her mother has been watching her. Understandably upset about finding out not only that she's being constantly monitored but also that she was pregnant and has unwittingly had an abortion, the confrontation with her mother turns violent. Sara beats her mother with the monitoring device until the filter that keeps her from seeing the harm she's doing shuts off. At that point, she flees, leaving her mother bloody and the device non-functional. We see her hitchhiking away when a truck stops for her on the highway. Her mother wakes up, realizes she has lost her daughter and cannot use the device to track her, and breaks down sobbing. The end.

The obvious lesson of this show is that children need privacy and the freedom to make mistakes and learn their own boundaries. While she isn't in many scenes, we have Sara's friend to act as a counterbalance for a child who has boundaries without technological enforcement of them. The friend sneaks off to make out with boys at the lake, too, but she gets caught the old fashioned way (by not being where she said she'd be when she said she'd be there) and has to face her parents and the consequences. Sara has no such experience, and I can't imagine a very happy ending for her hitchhiking adventure, especially since she has very little worldly experience and spent most of her life literally blocked from seeing the worst the world had to offer.

A more interesting lesson to me, though, is about the relativity of privacy. Sara has a hard time fitting in not because her mother sees her every move alone, but because her implant makes her an anomaly. Her mother sees her every move, but the other kids' don't have such a burden. Privacy is a relative term, and you tend to notice how much you have or don't have in relation to the people around you.

This is something we see in the real world with the rise in social media. The sharing of pictures, thoughts, and life events that seems commonplace among my generation (and even more so those younger than me) feels like an affront to privacy for many people older than me. The concept of privacy didn't change, and I think that younger people still value privacy. What changed was the boundaries around what constituted privacy in the face of shared experiences.

In some ways, the breaking down of privacy can be a good thing. When we remove the barriers to sharing about common experiences of being human (say, having anxiety or depression or the gross but totally normal bodily responses to childbirth) we empower people to open up about their own experiences, seek medical attention where they might otherwise have been ashamed, and otherwise feel more comfortable in their own skin.

That only works if the majority are on board, though. A breaking down of privacy for a select few while everyone else gets to keep their boundaries firmly in place creates an imbalance that makes privacy social capital.

This isn't to say that I think the Arkangel episode would have been a happy tale if everyone had microchipped their children and spent their days staring at a mediated version of their minds instead of actually parenting them. It's a creepy concept that would have damaging effects on everything from ethics to parenting itself. Can you imagine how much mom guilt and the mommy wars would grow if you could literally demonstrate to other parents what your child was thinking? Your responsibilities to be a "good" parent would be beyond overwhelming! No, I definitely think that the message against the Arkangel is a good one.

But it's not just a good one for us to think about individually. The lesson is not simply to make sure that we give our own children freedom to explore their world and make their own mistakes. It's also a lesson to carefully monitor and push back against attempts to change the overall definitions of privacy and acceptable breaches of it. It's not just our own participation at stake; it's the overall norming of privacy itself that has to be protected.

Photo by Siarhei Horbach on Unsplash

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Loss at STLCC is a Loss for St. Louis

Two weeks ago, I got the devastating news that I would be among the 58 faculty members laid off from the community college where I work. I wrote this post at the time, saying I wasn't ready to talk about it in any concrete way. I'm a little more ready now. 


St. Louis Community College just lost 58 full-time faculty members. This means there will be fewer teachers, counselors, and librarians for the thousands of students who attend STLCC. This loss is tremendous for the individuals who were informed they would be laid off through the controversial Reduction in Force, but it is a loss that will be felt most keenly by the students that STLCC serves, students who by-and-large come from and will remain in the St. Louis region. The loss is all of ours, and the response should be, too.

I was one of the faculty members laid off last week. Half an hour before I was scheduled to meet my students for their final class period of the semester, I received a call scheduling a meeting to hear that my position was being eliminated.

The first person in my family to even attend college, I worked hard and rose through the ranks of academia to attain my PhD, and I knew early in my professional career that I would dedicate my life to teaching at-risk and vulnerable student populations. To me, it would be a testament to the teachers who had made a difference in my own life. These were teachers who saw through the statistics telling them that I, a child on food stamps in a single-parent household in rural Missouri, wouldn’t have much chance at academic success. Those teachers gave me every opportunity to succeed by providing challenging learning environments and an unwavering system of support. I knew that all students deserve exactly what I got: the chance to learn anything they want from teachers who believe they can do so. Before STLCC, I worked with low-income and underrepresented minority students through Upward Bound and the McNair Scholars Program. Through these experiences, I realized that my true calling was in the classroom.

In 2012, I started my career at STLCC as an English teacher specifically hired to teach developmental writing classes. I teach at the Forest Park campus, which serves one of the most diverse student populations in the state. I have worked with students who are homeless, students who were just released from prison, students whose families do not approve of their efforts to earn a degree, students who are going to college for the first time in their 60s, students who report never having read a whole book before, and students who graduated with high grades from their high schools.

At Forest Park, most students have to take developmental coursework. Some of them are returning to school for the first time in decades and need the courses to help refresh their skills and memories. Some of them were not adequately prepared in high school. Some of them are trying to turn over a new leaf after missing opportunities earlier in their educations. All of them come in with big dreams and hopes for the future. Developmental students are those who do not pass the entrance exams placing them in college-level classes. Before they can enter English 101, they have to take courses designed to fill the gaps in their education and provide preparation. Without this opportunity, these students would not be able to complete any degree.

During my layoff meeting, I was informed that there would be adjunct positions I could apply to in the future. In addition to being an incredible personal insult (with what would amount to a 70% reduction in my salary and complete elimination of my benefits), this is also a loss to the students. To be sure, adjunct faculty members serve an invaluable function in our educational system, working tirelessly for what often amounts to minimum wage pay to provide students quality courses. However, they do so without the stability, compensation, or institutional support that gives them access to all of the tools necessary.

As a full-time faculty member, I hold a minimum of thirteen office hours a week, time where I meet face-to-face with students to discuss their work, their goals, and their challenges. Adjunct faculty members are required to hold one such office hour per class, and the fact that they often have to work at multiple campuses to make a living means that their availability is often limited. Full-time faculty members are given professional development funds, funds that I have used to take additional training beyond my doctoral degree specifically geared toward teaching developmental students and toward conducting research in the field. I made developmental writing the focus of my doctoral research and completed a dissertation about the history and theory behind teaching these classes. Full-time faculty members also serve on committees across the district. I have worked to redesign curriculum, train incoming faculty members, and create programming for students outside of class.

An elimination of full-time faculty is more than an elimination of the jobs for the people who served in those roles. It is a systematic deconstruction of the support for our most vulnerable student populations. Chancellor Pittman’s previous position at Ivy Tech and his own strategic initiatives for STLCC point to a future that will rely heavily on online coursework and automated content. While this kind of education may sound efficient and cost-effective, this vision does not serve developmental students, thousands of whom come to STLCC specifically because of its open access admissions policy. Many of these students have nowhere else to go and cannot get their needs met with disconnected online classes.

Of the 58 positions cut, 14 were in English and 9 were in Reading, by far the hardest-hit disciplines, and two-thirds of the disciplines that serve developmental students. The teachers who were cut are among those who are the most passionate about and who have the most training and experience in developmental education. Falling enrollment numbers have been cited as the justification for these layoffs, but of 29 developmental writing courses offered at Forest Park this past fall, 13 of them were already staffed with adjunct faculty, and 12 more of them were staffed with faculty members who received layoff notices. It’s obvious that the students’ need for these classes already exceeded the resources given to meet them, but now those limited resources have been decimated to make way for administrative raises and flashy new building projects to house those administrators.

St. Louis Community College does not exist to provide cushy administrative positions (complete with housing and car allowances) on the taxpayers’ dime while the people who do the work of actually serving students are eliminated. It exists to provide opportunities for education to the people in our community—all of the people in our community.

The current vision for St. Louis Community College is orchestrated by a Chancellor and approved by a publicly-elected Board of Trustees who answer to us, the citizens of the districts served by STLCC. Our classes are full of our future nurses, chefs, police officers, small business owners, lab techs, and childcare providers. They are filled with the future of St. Louis. It is up to all of us to make sure that we communicate loudly and clearly to the Board of Trustees what kind of future we want to have.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Anti-Consumption as Personal Moral Failing: Dixie Cup Knows Best

I recently threw my daughter a birthday party that involved a lot of paint, some decorate-them-yourself cupcakes, and a house full of busy, happy children. It was a lot of fun and generally went a lot smoother than I expected.

I typically don't buy disposable dishes, but I did buy some for this party. In particular, I purchased some Dixie cups to put the frosting in to make the cupcake decorating less of a free-for-all of licked spoons being dipped into a communal tub of sugar.

While I was getting the supplies out for the day, I noticed something interesting on the side of the box of Dixie cups.

It says, "Dixie everyday cups are versatile and affordable, so you can focus on your day and not the dishes.
Be more here"

I was curious, so I looked into the campaign and found a few commercials with the same slogan.

The entire campaign centers on the idea that dishes are distracting us from the more important things in life. We are implored to "be more here" by engaging in conversations and family experiences rather than dishes.

I take issue with this on several different levels.

First, let me be clear. I hate doing dishes. I am not here to defend doing the dishes. It's a miserable, endless, thankless task that I did tonight, and yet magically when I go downstairs in the morning, the sink will be full of dirty dishes. This despite the fact that all the people who use the dishes will have been asleep upstairs all night. It's a mystery. I can't explain it.

Anyway, even though I really hate doing the dishes, I still don't feel the need to be pressured into a constant supply of disposable products to avoid them. For one, someone still has to wash all those serving bowls and utensils and cookware that produced the food on those plates, right? The dishes are a-callin'.

Secondly, even though the campaigns don't overtly gender the would-be dish-doer, I think it's pretty clear that this is tapping into mom guilt. You already waste so many of your precious moments away from your children. Are you really going to miss out on the chance to help with homework just so you can wash that plate? Well, are you, Susan? And whose fault will it be when little Timmy gets a C?

Finally, this campaign suggests that being "here" (a call upon the general trend toward mindfulness in our lives and specifically in consumer practices) is a wholly individual, self-centered thing. My being "here," according to Dixie, means in my own home, focused on my what is right in front of me.

But the drive to use fewer disposable products (the drive I am sure Dixie is reacting against with this campaign) is also about being "here." They just define the "here" in a broader, more collectively impactful way.

People who refuse to buy more than they need do so often with an eye toward reducing the negative impacts of consumerism, particularly on the planet. They are "here," too.

This meme sums it up pretty well:

Dixie's attempt to make doing your own dishes a source of guilt over missing out over life's better moments is shameful. I understand that this might be a challenging time, ethically, to sell disposable products, but this kind of doublespeak about the motivations behind efforts to consume less isn't helping.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Reflections on Losing Your Dream Job

I'm not ready to write about it in any concrete way because I am too close, too in it, too surrounded. This week, I was notified that I would be "RIFfed." A projected future budget shortfall due to state budget cuts made the salary I get to teach developmental writing too much to bear (despite the funds existing for a new $50 million building to house upper administration and a brand-new administrative position hired just this month. Despite a Chancellor who makes $300,000 a year and still gets a housing and car allowance. Despite. Spite.) Fifty-eight full-time faculty members received the same notice. 


"That's mommy's work," I proudly declared to my daughter, strapped in to the carseat in the back, as we passed the old red brick building. "Mommy's work!" she would call out in her lilting toddler voice every time we passed. I would swell with pride. 


"You know, part of college is learning to follow directions and paying attention to the details. It's really important that you type your papers and submit them through the online system."

"Well, you see, I . . ." 

"What? What's wrong? Do you need help finding the computer labs? You could use the public library, too, if that's easier. I can open the lab classroom for you after class if you want to be near my office to ask questions." 

"Ma'am, it's just that I have to leave right after class. I can't come back to the computer lab."

"Well, I know that everyone has very busy schedules, but we'll have to find some time you can make it to the lab."

"Yes, ma'am. I'll work on it. It's just that . . ."


"It's just that if I'm not in line for the shelter by 4pm, I probably won't get a bed, and it's been so cold this week, and I just . . . I'll figure it out."

"You can turn it in handwritten. It will be fine. We will work this out." 


I'm bad at treasuring items. I don't have shadow boxes or scrapbooks.

In some plastic basement tub sits the high school graduation cards full of love and congratulations. I was the first person in my family to be heading to college.

In some other plastic basement tub sits the cords I wore around my neck at graduation. Honors. English Honors Society. Summa cum laude.

In a stack of notebooks and novels and books full of advice on parenting a spirited child, a blue certificate holder embossed with silver letters holds a piece of paper. PhD. 


I'm handing back graded papers with handwritten comments along the margins. 

"Wait. You actually read these? None of my teachers have ever read my papers." 


Fuck them. Fuck them. Fuck them. Fuck them. Fuck. 


"I've never read a whole book before." 


One student comes to my office after every paper grade is returned. She's an angry tornado. Papers spill out of her arms and onto the floor. She can't sit she is so furious. She paces. She yells. 

"I can't believe you gave me this grade! I can't believe you! Do you know how hard I worked on this? I asked you if you thought it was a good topic! I did the work!"

"Do you want to sit down?" 

"I can't do this anymore! I never should have taken this class. I never should have come to college! You don't even want me to pass this class!" 

"Do you have any questions about the comments?" 

She plops into the chair. She's crying. I hand her a tissue.

"So are you going to revise it?" I ask.

"No! I'm done! I'm just dropping out. This is stupid!" 

"Do you want help revising it?" 

"Yes! I have no idea what to do! You told me that I need a clearer thesis statement, so I guess I need to change this sentence, and then you told me that none of these paragraphs are focused, so I guess I would put this one here and then put this one here." She sits and plans out her entire revision without me saying another word. "So what am I supposed to do?!"

"That." I gesture at the flurry of notes she angrily wrote in front of her. She looks at them like she's never seen them in her life. 


"It's due next week." 


She takes two more of my classes over the next year and a half.


All my colleagues have closed their doors or hidden away off campus. It is too hard to look at one another. It is too hard to see it in the eyes, feel it in the hall, breathe it into truth. 


"I know you worked really hard, and I think you can do this, but you didn't quite make the grade to pass. You can take it again next semester. There are a lot of teachers teaching this class, so if you want to take it with someone else . . ."

"Oh. No! I'm taking your class again." 


"You can check the College website for employment opportunities. There will likely be plenty of adjunct positions available." 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why I Hope Al Franken Resigns

Kate Harding has an opinion piece up for the Washington Post explaining why she doesn't think Al Franken should resign amid allegations that he sexually assaulted Leeann Tweeden. She says plenty of smart things, and she is positioning herself as a voice of pragmatic reason in a sea of knee-jerk reactionaries with short-term thinking:
When you combine these things — an awareness that the Democratic Party is no more or less than best of two, and an understanding that men in power frequently exploit women — it becomes difficult to believe that Franken is the only sitting Democrat with a history of harassment, abuse or assault. The recent #metoo campaign demonstrated how normalized unwanted kissing and groping are in our culture. Donald Trump was caught on tape crudely admitting to both of those transgressions, and we made him our president. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1 in 3 women experiences some sort of contact sexual violence in her life. Sexual harassment and assault are simply too widespread for Democrats to respond to Franken’s offense with only Franken in mind: We need to respond in a way that helps us develop a protocol for meaningful change.
She's making a very similar argument to the one that Nate Silver makes to explain why he thinks Democrats are punting on what could be a politically safe move for them:
Of course, what might be politically expedient for Democrats isn’t necessarily expedient for Schumer — or for McConnell, or for the White House, all of whom may be acting out of a sense of institutional self-preservation. If there’s a precedent that sexual harassment is grounds for removal or resignation from office, then a lot of members of Congress — including some of Schumer’s colleagues and friends — could have to resign once more allegations come to light, as they almost certainly will. President Trump’s conduct could also come under renewed scrutiny, as could the conduct of former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Politics is a male-dominated institution, and a conservative institution, and conservative, male-dominated institutions have pretty much no interest in flipping over the sexual harassment rock and seeing what comes crawling out from underneath it.
Both of these writers are making the same basic claim that Franken's response will be precedent-setting, and that politicians might need to be careful in setting the precedent that former sexual misconduct should lead to present resignation. The whole system, it seems, could come crashing down.

Let. It. Crash. 

I'm serious. Donald Trump is president of the United States. This is a man who is grossly unqualified to play the mayor in a school performance, let alone lead our country. He ran on a ticket of, basically, promising to blow shit up, and a lot of people across the country said, "We're with you on that." Obviously, the discontent is running deep already.

If our system is so fragile that it can't handle having an actual process of accountability and value-based standards for its participants, then it needs to crash because--and this is important--it isn't working anyway!

I have been involved in approximately 11,000 debates about Al Franken since the story broke, and the vast majority of my liberal friends seem to be taking this wishy-washy "pragmatic" view that wants to preserve the party's effectiveness rather than hold a member of it accountable.

The bottom line for me is this: either we meant what we said or we didn't.

Here, I'll let Al Franken explain it:

At the end of his Facebook post, he quotes from the Gretchen Carlson piece and says this: 
[Gretchen writes,] 'I encourage victims to stand up and tell their stories, which I know requires immense bravery. And I’m hopeful that we’ll see changes in our laws and our culture that will allow them to do so without being victimized yet again.' I couldn’t agree more."
He encourages women to stand up and tell their stories. If they do so, even though it "requires immense bravery" we will see changes in our laws and our culture. CHANGES IN OUR LAWS AND OUR CULTURE! It doesn't get to return to normal. It doesn't get to be business as usual. The system doesn't get to continue running merrily along its patriarchal, violence-laden track. We (including Franken himself) collectively asked for women to come forward. And they did, and they keep coming, and they're going to keep coming.

I am not on a "witch hunt." I do completely recognize the difference between the accusations against Franken and those against, say, Roy Moore. They differ in severity, number of victims/repetition, and age of victim. All of those things matter. It matters, too, that Franken's victim says she accepts his apology and isn't trying to force him out of office. It all matters.

But none of it changes the fact that Franken needs to hold himself up to the standard he set. (I am also not interested in arguments that he wasn't really touching her, it was trick photography, it was a thick coat, the military escort says it didn't happen, blah, blah, blah. Both Franken and Tweeden say it happened. The man doing the action and the woman having the action done to her both say it was wrong. We don't need to play mental gymnastics on this one).

I think that this piece from The Establishment titled "So You've Sexually Harassed or Abused Someone: What Now?" does an excellent job of laying out what the next steps should be. It lays out steps for accepting responsibility, avoiding re-victimizing victims, and moving forward in a way that transforms the cultural landscape for the future.

Here's the thing, I like Al Franken. I support his work in the Senate. I think he means it when he says he's an ally who wants this world to change. But now I need him to walk the walk and demonstrate what taking responsibility for those past actions means. Are there other ways to do that besides resigning? Perhaps. Are there other ways to do that besides resigning that don't become a huge distraction and road block for the momentum building against actually changing the culture surrounding sexual assault? I don't think so.

The chorus of "it's not as bad" that people are using to defend Franken in comparison to Moore, Weinstein, Louis C.K., etc. runs the risk of morphing. "It's not as bad" can easily become "it's not that bad," and that's a risk we cannot take at this moment. That's a risk we cannot afford at this potential tipping point.

There are lots and lots and lots of people out there right now desperate to hear "it's not that bad." They are coming to terms with the fact that all of those #MeToo posts mean that some of the behavior they passed off as "just a joke" or "boys being boys" or "I got a little tipsy" was actually incredibly damaging and weighed on the women in their lives. They feel guilty, confused, and frustrated. They don't want to be labeled as sexual harassers, assailants, or sometimes even rapists. The fact is that if 1 in every 6 women reports having been raped, there are a lot of rapists out there. There are even more sexual harassers. And many of them have never thought of themselves in those terms. Many of them have never considered that the acts they took could have long-lasting damage. But now that they see people they love and respect coming forward to say how harmed they've been, they're pausing, reflecting, and recognizing.

This is important. This is necessary. This is the step we have been missing! 

Al Franken demonstrating true remorse while simultaneously displaying the seriousness of committing to doing better is the symbolic response we need right now. That isn't short-term thinking. It's long-term thinking. It's hoping for a better future where we no longer accept sexual harassment and assault as the natural side effects of being human. If Franken really wants to be an ally, the easiest way to do it is to resign.

I hope he will do the right thing. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Acceleration to Nowhere? Only If That Was Always the Destination

There's an article over at Inside Higher Ed called "The Fast Lane to Nowhere" and it decries developmental education acceleration because "we have already promoted so many students at all levels who don’t know the material that we are drowning in a sea of bogus diplomas and degrees -- and far worse, the holders of those dishonorable documents are floundering."

Author John Almy makes many claims that I can't argue against. He says that "[w]e cannot continue to pass students and then hand them high school diplomas that they cannot read."


He says, "We are hurting students by not teaching them the material before we pass them, and that process begins in kindergarten and continues through college."


But he makes a logical jump from those valid points to an angry tirade against acceleration without connecting the dots.

Let's all jump to conclusions!

In part, Almy writes, "
We put remedial students who are incapable of surviving remedial classes into transfer-level classes alongside students who are supposedly prepared, and that, along with a little extra tutoring, will somehow provide the lower-level students with the desire and abilities to quickly acquire all the skills they have failed to gain in the first 12 years of their educations. Baloney!"

Except it isn't "baloney." We have the data to back it up. Acceleration (often by shortening the developmental course sequence) and co-requisite enrollment (where developmental students are placed in credit-bearing courses at the same time they take their "remedial" class) are sweeping the nation and making plenty of people nervous because we're disrupting the traditional gatekeeping mechanism of blocking student access to "real" college.

I take a lot of issue with Almy's claims. First of all, he himself admits that these students "failed to gain [the necessary skills] in the first 12 years of their educations." So one more semester is the magic bullet? They had 144 months to learn these things, but four more should do it?

This is especially troubling when so many "remedial" classes follow curricular models that look a lot more like high school, or middle school, or even elementary school than they do college. Students doing endless grammar drills or being forced to write a perfect sentence before they are given the freedom to express their ideas in robust and complete essays is a surefire way to kill any interest in the subject. Turn writing into an exercise in proving one's academic identity rather than a way to express one's ideas, and you're going to send a whole lot of first-generation, low-income, and minority students running for the door feeling like they don't belong. 

That's what we lose when we disrupt the traditional model of developmental education. We lose the chance to protect our precious definitions of what college writers should sound like (and by extension, often what they should look like, dress like, and spend money like).

This isn't to say that we should embrace all efforts at developmental education reform without question. Accelerated models deserve scrutiny, and they are not all created equal. This article from Alexandros Goudas points out that some attempts to create a co-requisite ostensibly modeled off of the very successful ALP model from Baltimore Community College have actually become nothing more than a cost-saving measure that slaps a one-credit-hour lab component to traditional credit-bearing English 101 with no curriculum support that actually follows the model.

I personally think that many conversations surrounding developmental writing reform have focused too much on the structure and not enough on the curriculum. Acceleration works only when both components are taken into account. Students don't magically learn the same material at a faster rate just because you deliver it quicker (though many students who are capable of doing the work but who have life issues that prevent them from successfully completing multiple semesters of developmental coursework might still benefit). The true benefit comes from a curricular model that puts belief in students' abilities to succeed at the forefront of course design. If we get rid of the grammar drills and insultingly low hurdles and instead place high standards and the means to reach them in our students' paths, we see success. It is really that simple . . . and that hard. 

The challenging part of developmental education reform is that it means not just reforming our classrooms and our curriculum, but reforming ourselves. We have fallen into tired stereotypes about developmental writers for decades, and Almy is going through them like a greatest hits record. His claim that students haven't learned any skills in twelve years of school is a ridiculous one. I have never had a student come into my developmental writing classroom without a rich rhetorical skillset. I have never had a student come into my classroom without complex experiences of rhetorical dexterity. They are not blank slates arriving to us to learn kindergarten-level sentence structure. Just because they do not write the way we want them to write doesn't mean they can't write.

I have been teaching remedial writing classes for a decade, and I have had hundreds of students enter my classroom. Nothing in my experience matches Almy's description of developmental students as "those who don’t want to or can’t learn" and who are "draining our valuable resources." I can count on one hand the number of students I have met who seem truly incapable of meeting the demands of a rigorous, complex writing curriculum. 

Furthermore, Almy pleas for us to "[t]each those of us who have the desire -- really teach us -- what our instructors neglected to teach us the first time. And above all, make us learn or leave. Make us accountable. Make us earn our way." 

That is exactly what I do! The fact that I do it in an accelerated format doesn't make it any less rigorous. In fact, my accelerated classroom is leaps and bounds more challenging than the remedial course profile I was teaching from before our redesign. My students are absolutely, 100% held accountable. They do "learn or leave," though I try very hard to make them learn rather than leave. I don't understand why Almy thinks that an accelerated model is somehow a guaranteed A. It isn't.

It is ridiculous when he goes on to suggest that acceleration is somehow at odds with the goal of high standards and accountability, that I am somehow not letting students "
feel pride in what [they] have accomplished" and am instead bestowing upon them "arrogance in how [they] circumvented the system."

The only "system" they are "circumventing" is one designed to make them take classes with no college credit while they eat through their financial aid allotment, dragging out their "two-year" degree for years and years while we continue to steep them in current traditional rhetoric practices that didn't work in the first place and then pat our backs about our "rigor" when they give up.

Then he calls upon remedial education and its lengthy sequence as a way to build grit. And we all know how I feel about that. 

It's a bad system, one rooted in systemic discrimination against minorities and anyone whose discourse identities don't align with our own sense of superiority. If it makes us uncomfortable to dismantle it (or, really, just disrupt it a little), then that says much more about us than it does about the students who have become collateral damage in a historical battle over our attempts to shore up our academic boundaries. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Archer in a Blindfold (A Look at Modern Parenting)

"You have an auto car!" my daughter said excitedly from the back seat.

"Huh?" I wasn't sure what she was talking about.

"I saw the button up there. It says 'AUTO.' That means it drives on its own."

"What button? This car doesn't drive on its own, but if you tell me where the button is, I'll explain what it does."

It is the button for my driver's side window, and it means that the window descends completely with a single press instead of having to be held down continuously until fully open. I explain this, but then I am struck by a realization that I hadn't really had before. I am talking to my six-year-old. She has another decade before she will learn to drive. Will she learn to drive? 

"By the time you're old enough to learn to drive, though, it probably really will be an automatic car."

"Cool," she responds absently. She's moved on to other thoughts, humming along to the four thousandth playing of the Kidz Bop version of "Seven Years," which is being broadcast through my car's stereo system from one of her many personalized Spotify playlists via Bluetooth. A thing that holds no marvel for her.

I'm lost in a dense web of quickly connecting thoughts. What will teaching someone to drive look like in ten years? If she doesn't have the skills to drive, will that be limiting somewhere down the line? It's not that big of deal. I don't know how to bake my own bread, and that's not a big deal. Not all skill sets need to be preserved. Wait. Maybe it is a big deal that I don't know how to bake bread. What other skills are we losing? What do we lose with them? Will there be rogue parents who teach their children 'old-fashioned' driving? Will we be legally allowed? Will we have to buy antique cars with outdated features to do so? What else will she not know how to do? But think of all the things she gets to do that weren't even a fantasy when you were her age. It's a trade off. Everything's a trade off. 

At this point we arrived at our destination and my thoughts shifted to the minutiae of getting two kids safely out of the car and into the house. It didn't come back to me until I was in bed, trying to sleep.

It's not just automatic cars. It's everything. As I've mentioned before, I'm homeschooling my daughter, so that means that the parameters of curriculum are on me. I get to decide what knowledge is necessary for her, and it's a responsibility I take seriously. It makes the future-focused concerns of parenting emerge from the fuzzy darkness in a crystal clear way. I've read Outliers. I know about the 10,000-hour rule. What she learns now matters, will shape her skillset in the future, will determine where she places her focus somewhere down the road, will open some doors and shut others. It's not that I think my choice of which math workbook I buy will make or break her future career choices, but I do know that these early years are framing her worldview and her interests in a way that lasts. That matters.

The New Yorker ran a cartoon this summer entitled "Things I'm Afraid My Daughter Will be Doing in 2026."

It included anxiety about the continued encroachment of technology on our lives and also anxiety about the downfall of society as a whole. Her daughter, in her mind, has equal chances of spending her teenage years "hacking into my Facebook account and reading all the mean things I said about her as a baby" or "watching a flame in a busted-out TV like those kids in 'The Terminator.'" 

It feels like a coin flip. Heads: a world so technologically advanced as to be unrecognizable and threaten the core principles of society. Tails: a world in impoverished, dystopian ruin where the institutions of education, government, and social order have completely broken down. In the meantime, what songs would you like me to add to your Spotify list this week, baby? 

I try not to fall into paranoia about the future. I try to remain hopeful, but the fast-paced news cycle bringing a constant barrage of doomsday scenarios intermixed with constant signals that the future will be nothing like the present is whiplash inducing. Today I read about Jeff Flake resigning from a career in politics because (as he said in his speech announcing the decision) "our children are watching." He couldn't bear the thought of contorting himself into a Trumpian pretzel of debased values in order to win his primary. Today I also read that Amazon Key will now allow delivery drivers to enter your house when you're not home so that you can get your packages with ease. (A move that is surely making a blueprint for a future when the human element of the delivery is removed entirely, and I can't decide if the thought of robots entering my house when I'm not home is better or worse than the thought of flesh-and-blood delivery drivers doing so.) 

I'm prone to anxiety and overanalyzing things, I realize, but I don't think it's far-fetched to think that the world my daughter enters won't look much like the world today in many ways. Truth be told, even the five-year age gap between my children is a big difference. When my daughter was born in 2010, I didn't have a smartphone. My son, born in 2016, has been video recorded and had near-daily pictures snapped of him since the moment he arrived in this world. Their earliest experiences of reality are already very different from one another, and they were born in the same decade. If my daughter sees no marvel in the pleasures of Spotify or Osmo games, my son will see even less reason to be impressed. He will probably see things that I would have looked at as alien technology as outdated relics from a distant and irrelevant past. And we're talking about five years. 

How do you raise kids in this environment?! 

I realize this is a question born of privilege and surrounded by privilege. Plenty of people throughout human history have raised their children in times full of much more perilous uncertainty. People have raised children through genocides and the ravages of active war. I'd much rather ask myself how I am going to prepare my daughter for an uncertain future career than watch the Black Plague claim my children before they escape infancy. Things aren't so bad. I know that. 

We focus on the constantly oscillating matrix of fear and hope wrapped up in technological advancements. Maybe we'll all lose our jobs when the robots take over and end up without a means to support ourselves in a pseudo-capitalist society under Hunger Games-esque wealth inequality . . . . or. . . maybe we'll be freed up from menial and dangerous labor to pursue nobler acts like art and philosophy, enacting the Greek ideal life without the unethical practice of forcing slaves to make our wages. Again. Toss up. 

In some ways the uncertainty is freeing. Instead of chasing after some specific future end point, it strips us down to our bare principles. What do I teach my child? To love. To learn. To think. To question. To explore. To experiment. To analyze. To grow. To adapt. 

And maybe also how to make electricity from a potato--just in case our robot overlords throw us into eternal darkness.