Thursday, January 18, 2018

Well, What Was She Doing There Anyway? (On Buying Cars and Owing Sex)

By now, you've probably read all about "Grace" and her unpleasant encounter with Aziz Ansari. You've likely also read, or at least heard snippets of, the responses, many of which revolve around tried and tired tropes like "Well, why did she go to his apartment if she didn't want sex?" "What kind of mixed signals was she sending?" "Why did she give him a blow job if she didn't want sex?" "Why didn't she just leave?" (Even though she did, um, leave guys. That's literally what she did.) 

Writer Ann Glaviano had a reaction to these reactions that she published on Facebook. The whole post is worth a read, but I want to specifically focus on one part that really resonated with me. Glaviano wrote this:
it sounds to me like she was expecting some sexual encounter to take place, but at a pace that perhaps included her own arousal (!), and with some amount of skill (!). when he made it clear that he wasn't about those things, she perhaps had second thoughts about continuing to have what sounds like objectively terrible sex. (not terrible because of his moves - terrible because of his complete refusal or inability to notice his partner and how she was responding.)
So many of the conversations about whether or not Aziz's behavior was acceptable (it wasn't) or indicative of a larger problem (it was) ignore this crucial point: Grace didn't owe him sex even if she initially wanted to have sex. Grace could have gone into his apartment with every intention of having sex all night long, and that doesn't make what happened once she got there any less disturbing. All those "Well what was she doing there anyway?" questions are really saying, "Come on! She wanted sex!" as if that somehow makes it all okay.

I have been vocal in the past about the problems with analogies that turn bodies into physical property. I stand by those assertions. That said, I'm going to give an analogy here that veers into that territory just because it seems like the kind of thing that might make this understandable.

Let's say I see an ad on the internet for a used car. The car looks awesome. The pictures are taken from just the right angle. It lists the amenities like a sunroof and a Bluetooth-enabled audio system. I decide to go check it out in person and show up at the dealership.

Now, I want to buy a car. I have every intention of buying some car. I might want to buy this car, but I haven't decided yet. I have certainly walked into the dealership in a way that communicates the possibility of buying a car.

The car dealer comes out. He's rude. He's pushy and aggressive and not very friendly. He rolls his eyes when I tell him which car I would like to see and huffs as he goes and gets the keys for me to test drive it. When I get to the car, I see that it is not as advertised. There's a huge dent that those pictures conveniently hid. The sunroof isn't operational. The engine doesn't turn over right away when I try to start it, and the whole thing reeks of cigarette smoke.

At this point, I'm going to leave the dealership. If the dealer cornered me, pressured me, tried to force me to sign a check, he'd be wrong. I am not going to buy that car.

"But why did you even go in the dealership if you didn't want the car?!" "Why did you ask to test drive it if you weren't going to buy it?!"

Do you see how silly these questions are?

Maybe if I really, really want a car and the dealer changes his attitude and starts showing me better cars, I'll stick around and consider a different purchase, but at some point, I'm likely to realize that this isn't the place for me. They don't have the car I want. This whole dealership is full of shitty cars, and I am under no obligation to buy a shitty car.

We are under no obligation to have shitty sex. Even if we have made plenty of indications that we were considering having some sex, we are under no obligation to have this particular sex. We are probably likely to reject this particular sex if the signs start to demonstrate it is likely to be particularly shitty sex.

I'm not going to presume to know what "Grace" intended to do when she went to Aziz's house, but there are plenty of Graces in the world, and there are lots and lots of Azizes. That's the problem. This is a very common story, and our collective reaction to Grace is a very common problem.

We are still operating under some Puritanical ideal that women's virtue is the foundational reason that rape, sexual assault, and rape culture are a problem. If we can demonstrate that a woman was not quite as virtuous as we thought, then we can excuse whatever else happens to her.

Rape culture isn't bad because it sullies virtue. Rape culture is bad because it promotes rape. Rape culture is bad because it violates another person's autonomy and boundaries about what happens to his/her body.

Wanting to have sex is not an obligation to actually have sex, and indicating that you might want to have sex does not excuse anything else that happens after that if it become non-consensual. When we can fully wrap our minds around that apparently very difficult concept, I think a culture of consent might start to emerge. Until then, we'll be hearing a lot more people saying "me, too."

Photo: Michel Curi

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Signs Pointing Toward the Future of Education

Laura McKenna has an excellent article at Edutopia about the shift away from letter grades. Here are some key takeaways from the article, but if you have a minute, you should go read the whole thing:

  • Assessment policies don't match modern workplace demands. "Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration."
  • The changing of the guard will result in major changes to education as a whole. "The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike."
  • The new methods could cause even deeper educational inequities for marginalized student groups.
    "Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities."
Watching what is happening in higher education right now (from the very front row, in fact, you could even say I'm watching it from the stage, and my character is about to get killed off), I have a personal stake in this game. Of course, you can never really tell when you're at a watershed moment until time has passed and you can look back with the clarity of hindsight to connect all the dots, but I have both the sinking suspicion and the cautious hope that this is one for education (and maybe also our economy and our cultural values since those things are pretty tightly braided together). 

Assessment is important because the evaluation of the final product shapes the process by which the product is created. This is what we mean when we complain that standardized testing forces well-meaning teachers to "teach to the test." It results in a school environment where "covering" the material is more valued than "mastering" it. Most importantly, standardized testing leads to standardized thinking. 

If the answer can be boiled down to a multiple choice question on a test that everyone takes, then the information isn't novel or creative or probably very interesting. Most of being successful on standardized tests (and I say this both as someone who is very good at standardized tests and who has spent many years helping other people do well on them) is a combination of short-term memorization and being able to break down language patterns and use process of elimination to figure out likely right answers. 

The type of reading you do when you are preparing for a standardized test is superficial. You spend a lot of time skimming for key words and definitions, thinking like a test writer rather than a researcher. In fact, if you read the text in a way that no one else has, you will fail the test because that means no questions will arrive at your answers. 

The bottom line is that standardized testing makes for standardized thinking and standardized performance. And here's the thing, if the way that you think and perform can be standardized, it can be automated, and if it can be automated, in the next five to ten years, it will be automated. 

We don't need to produce human cogs for the machine anymore because we now have robot cogs for the machine, and they don't need vacation time, sick days, or overtime pay. They don't get distracted from the task because they are in a fight with their sister. They don't get tired because they were up all night with a sick baby. They do routine tasks better than we do with more consistency while costing less. We cannot compete. 

Some schools (*cough* I'm looking at you STLCC), see the change coming and are reacting by doubling down on standardization. They're turning higher education into course-in-a-box cookie cutter classes that can be easily automated. Eventually, they'll likely replace (or at least greatly reduce the need for) flesh-and-blood teachers and turn to automated grading software and self-paced courses that require very little teacher interaction. I can't tell if this motivation is made in earnest and they really think this is the wave of the future or if they are just short-term thinkers who are trying to make as much money as possible while the making is good. Either way, it's a bad plan for all the reasons pointed out in the Edutopia article. We're going to shift away from standardization and automation in education, not toward it. 

I'm going to make a prediction. If schools don't operate with some foresight and reject standardization and automation as the models for their underlying philosophies, we will soon see a complete de-coupling of credentialing from institutions. 

Think about it. The students coming out of these course-in-a-box programs will not have the skills necessary for the only jobs available, jobs that require creative thinking, flexibility, and independence. When those doing the hiring recognize (as many already have) that a college degree doesn't mean much in terms of matching the skills they're seeking, they'll turn to in-house training and accepting more and more non-traditional methods of demonstrating "education." 

The rise of unschooling homeschoolers, online class platforms like Udemy, Outschool, and Coursera, and a host of other fledgling trial runs demonstrate a likely future. People will be able to get educated in whatever way they see fit: online classes, one-on-one instruction, apprenticeship models, etc. All they'll need to do is demonstrate that they have the skillset necessary for the job, and when the transcript full of A's doesn't do that anymore, the employers will stop asking for it. 

I think it is very likely that we're entering a period where educators will all become independent contractors. The adjunct crisis is already a sort of model for this, albeit one that was arrived at through cruel exploitation rather than innovation. Adjunct instructors, who now make up the bulk of the higher education workforce, have very few formal ties to an institution and instead are free to take their skills anywhere (or to several anywheres simultaneously). If the decoupling of credentialing and institutions continues, we will soon return to an education model much like the Ancient Greeks. We'll all be Plato or Quintillian standing outside the gymnasium trying to convince people to train with us. Except now we'll have Facebook and YouTube to help us.

Photos by Vita Marija Murenaite and Steve Halama 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Postpartum Depression: The Recovery

A friend of mine shared one of my old posts today, and when the page views made it pop up in my blog stats, I re-read it and thought back on the experience that led to writing it.

It was this post about suffering from postpartum anxiety and depression after the birth of my son a year and a half ago. It made me think about what my life has looked like since writing that post, and the truth is that it took a long time to stop feeling the way that I felt the day I described there: 
Even as it's happening--the panic, the shaking, the breaths that catch in my throat--there's a part of me that's outside of it all, watching it. There's a part of me screaming, "This isn't a big deal! Get it together!" But I can't hear her. In that moment, I feel like I am in fight or flight, but the threat is me. How do you run from yourself? 
With a quick glance or in the right light, I still seem like myself. I still make wry jokes and plan to meet with friends. I still smile. I still love and enjoy both of my children. 
But like a copy of a copy of a copy, if you look closer, the picture isn't quite right. I'm not quite me. The edges break down and the lines start to blur.
In the first weeks following my son's birth, I felt like this all of the time. Every single thing in my world overwhelmed me. I was particularly frustrated with myself because my son was such an easy baby (especially compared to my high needs daughter who, for the first four years of her life, never slept more than an hour or two at a time).  This newborn was sleeping for three hours, waking up to nurse, and going right back to sleep for another four hours. He was the infant that they use to write those parenting books that make all the rest of us feel like we're failing at everything. Even when he was awake, he was just as happy to coo quietly in a bassinet as he was to be held in my arms or swaddled up in a carrier. He just went with the flow.

And I still couldn't handle anything.

The microwave would beep and I'd fall into hysterics because the thought of dealing with finishing lunch would be too much. I'd have to call to pay a bill over the phone, and it would feel like someone was asking me to climb a mountain barefoot while juggling fishbowls that I couldn't spill. Everything was just too much.

At the worst moments, I would fall into a heap on the floor and sob until I had nothing left to sob. At most moments, I walked through my day with my muscles tense, as if I were permanently braced for a blow that never came.

It got better . . . slowly. It was like a pendulum swinging wider and wider with each arc. My normal was on one end, and the terror of being completely consumed by daily living was on the other.

At first, the pendulum would swing from one to the other every couple hours. Eventually it would swing back and forth only a few times a day. Then a few times a week. Then a few times a month. Then once a month. All told, I have only felt like the swinging stopped (fully rooted in my normal world) within the last few months. Part of me wonders if it is really done or if it is just on a particularly long arc.

As time went on, I learned to treat the anxiety like a monster that would sometimes escape a cage but that I knew couldn't actually hurt me. I just had to let it wear itself out until it was too tired to resist being led back into the cage. It was always there, waiting and growling from the darkness, but as long as I could keep it contained, it couldn't ruin my day.

Looking back now, I think the thing that hurts the most is that it feels like time lost. My memories of my earliest weeks with my wonderful son are of terror punctuated with tiny moments of love and joy. I am so glad that I have pictures and videos from his earliest days now that I can look back on them with a clearer mind, without a monster snarling in my face.

Postpartum anxiety and depression is very common. The chances are high that someone you know and love has suffered through this roller coaster of emotions . . . even if you don't know about it. The fear we have about being open and honest about our mental health holds us back from getting the help and support we need.

Monsters are strongest in the dark. Once we turn on the lights, they never look quite as terrifying. Let's make sure we shine them brightly.

Photo: Shannon Kokoska