Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

I’ve got to disagree with Clarissa on this one: It’s not fair to equate pregnancy with a hangover (even if the nausea can be similarly overwhelming). Specifically, a student who misses class for pregnancy-related disability should not be treated the same as one who misses due to oversleeping or a hangover.

But let’s back up. Clarissa was responding to a post by The Feminist Breeder on prodromal labor, in which TFB also mentioned that she was feeling crappy enough in her 40th week of gestation that she just couldn’t hang with her college-degree program. Here’s the bit that set Clarissa off:

I have to keep going to class until I’m really in labor, and school is pretty far away.  My Tuesday class is a reasonable half hour away, but my Wednesday class is 90 minutes away in traffic.  If I started hard, active labor at school, I have no idea what I would do.  Also – get this – I left class early last Tuesday because I was so sick I couldn’t see straight, and my professor actually had the balls to dock me 20 out of 25 possible Participation points just because I had to leave.  Clearly she’ll be docking me ALL 25 Participation points for each class I miss while I’m doing a silly little thing like trying to have a baby, so I cannot take off a single extra day other than what is absolutely necessary.  (And yes, I am SOOO writing a letter about that.)

Now, I think jumping straight to a letter to college administrators, rather than trying so say, talk to her prof, is pouring gas on the flames. If a student has a beef – especially an adult student like TBF who’s got the cojones and verbal skills – she should first talk to the the instructor, preferably when she doesn’t feel on the verge of hurling. Personally, I would be much more receptive to a conversation than a formal complaint. Going slow offers a chance to preserve the student-teacher relationship as a collaborative one. Going directly to the administration strikes most teachers as an act of aggression (which is why I’ve never done that to my kids’ teachers, even when it might have been warranted). Often, too, the instructor will cool down and reassess a rash decision, opening the gate to a reasonable compromise. If not, there’s still time to write a scathing letter, though I suspect TBF, who could very well be in labor as I write this, felt the hourglass was empty (prodromal labor has a way of remininding one of the clock). And so I understand perfectly why she might skip negotiating and just lodge a formal complaint.

That said, I just can’t sign on to Clarissa’s reaction:

There is no doubt in my mind that her pregnancy is very special to this woman. It must also be very special to her relatives and friends. For strangers, however, of which her professor is one, it is neither more nor less special than another student’s hangover. Both the pregnancy and the hangover are the results of the choices these students made as adults. In my capacity as an educator, I don’t think it’s my place to judge whose choices are more legitimate and deserve of greater consideration. All I need to know is that the student wasn’t there and, as a result, didn’t manage to participate.

This is a false conception of “fairness.” As my friend Moonglow (who just happens to be the mother of a brand-new daughter, yippee!!!) told me today: “I never promise my kids that I’ll treat them all equally. But I do commit to treating them all fairly. That means knowing what each of them needs and when they need it.” (And if I misquoted you, my dear, please blame it on the delectable distraction of brie with fig jam.)

Much the same goes for my students. Last spring, a student of mine landed in the ER with appendicitis and only appeared two weeks later (full documentation in hand). I’ve had multiple students felled by mono, over the years. I’ve had students come to me with serious mental health issues (sometimes exacerbated by the portion of my syllabus dealing with sexual violence). I’ve had students totter to class on crutches due to slippery messes in the dorms. I’ve had students with arms in casts due to (ahem) barroom brawls.

I am not happy about the last category of problem – injuries that result from drunken stupidity – but I am grateful for those students’ frankness. And once a student acquires a disability, don’t I have an obligation – both human and feminist – to accommodate it? Would I not be a monster to mark down a student on participation just because his appendix tried to kill him? How could I live with myself if a student went into a spiral of depression, and I exacerbated it with rigid expectations of attending every single class meeting?

Last year, I had a graduate student announce to me that she was likely to give birth within the next couple of weeks. I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant, only that she’d put on a few pounds. (That alone should’ve given me pause, because I tend not to notice even major changes in people’s shapes. I’m obtuse that way.) The very next class meeting, she was absent, because she’d just come through labor. A week later, she showed up for class, her iPhone brimming with baby pictures. She worked very hard not to let her pregnancy interfere with her coursework, but I certainly could have found ways to accommodate her if she’d asked for more time off.

There’s an easy, pragmatic, fair solution to most of these situations. Exempt the student from work missed (as long as it’s not a major project) and weight the rest of their grade more heavily. This little trick works as well for a pregnant student as for anyone else struck by unexpected disability. The student does pay a small price, in that there’s more pressure on the rest of their work and less opportunity to dilute a crummy grade. But it’s a fair price that makes allowances for the fallibility and vulnerability of our flesh. However much a university might pretend that we’re all disembodied brains, in the end those brains still rely pretty heavily on their whole-body support systems.

I guess I’m a bit of a feminist-Marxist on these issues: from each according to hir ability, to each according to hir needs. That doesn’t mean abandoning all standards. It simply means realizing that life intervenes. Death intervenes. And all kinds of other shit – good, bad, and ugly – intervenes, too. Students are whole people, often needy people, coping with lives more complicated than we instructors often know. They cannot be reduced to their throbbing-in-a-petri-dish brains (or pickled-in-a-game-of-beer-pong brains, either).

This isn’t a matter of trusting my students. (Mostly they deserve my trust; sometimes they prove that they don’t.) It’s a matter of trusting my own judgment. I trust myself to distinguish between the student who couldn’t turn in her final paper on time due to strep and the one who added my class late, then fell asleep in the back row after a mere three minutes! Hey, at least he zonked out so fast I couldn’t take it personally; there was no time for me to bore him to sleep.

This is also an arena where I have to live true to my principles. Any feminist ought to be committed to disability rights. Heck, even Sarah Palin (a nightmare feminist, but a feminist nonetheless, in my book) at least pays lip service to disability rights. You cannot honor human rights without acknowledging that most of us, if we live long enough, will eventually live with a disability. You cannot work toward gender justice but then insist it’s only for those of completely able bodies and minds. What does that mean for me, practically speaking? If a student is struggling to achieve with a disability – of any sort, be it a physical, mental-health, or learning-style condition – it’s my job as an educator, feminist, and mensch to help them perform at their peak, on as level a playing field as I can cobble together.

But hey – isn’t pregnancy a natural, healthy condition? Well, for all the work that women’s health educators, natural childbirth advocates, and feminist historians have done to unseat the idea that pregnancy = disability, we do childbearing women an awful disservice if we insist that pregnancy never spawns disability. Most of us suffer at least debilitating fatigue. Most of us have stories about how we nearly ralphed at work. My students from fall 2002 and winter 2003 – when I was gestating the Tiger – can consider themselves lucky that I maintained a barf-free classroom. And I got off easy, compared to my friends who landed in the hospital, hitched to an IV, after weeks of incessant vomiting.

If you care about women, you must care about mothers, and thus you must be willing to honor pregnancy-related disability as real disability. And yes, pregnancy usually results from a planned, voluntary choice, these days, but not always; women still find themselves pregnant against their will, and they still sometimes decide to carry out a surprise pregnancy, even with the option to terminate. Anyway: Should I only make allowances for students’ injuries if they can prove that, say, the other guy started the fight, or the other driver broke the law? And do I really want to start interrogating a pregnant student about why she and her partner didn’t both get sterilized before they ever had sex (after all, every other contraceptive is fallible), or why she didn’t terminate the pregnanacy early on? That way lies fascism.

To be crystal clear – and fair! – Clarissa doesn’t advocate bare-bulb interrogations. She instead argues that one should never cut students slack when their free will contributed to their inability to participate; that a class missed due to a hangover is no different than one missed due to pregnancy symptoms, because in both cases, “choice” was involved. I trust Clarissa enough to believe her when she says she’s a good teacher – and actually, I trust that in a few more years, because she’s smart and tuned in to her students, she may very well trust herself to draw finer-grained judgments, which just might put the pregnant students in a different category from the hardcore imbibers.

But this other extreme – harshly penalizing pregnant women for making a “lifestyle choice” that most couples eventually make (but predominantly women  pay for) – sets feminism back a couple of generations. It tells women, “It’s fine if you want to compete with the men – as long as you’re just like the men!” Didn’t we leave that trap behind us in the ’80s, along with big hair, shoulder pads, and Tears for Fears?

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You wouldn’t think I’d be angry, would you, given that I’ve just been declared part of management? In less than three years, I’ve gone from a lowly adjunct teaching position to a “managerial” function. The real magic? I might have been a management employee all along! Next year: world domination!

This great gift comes via Ohio’s Senate Bill 5. As you’ve might have heard, S.B. 5 – which will drastically curtail collective bargaining rights for Ohio’s public employees – was signed into law by Governor John Kasich yesterday. S.B. 5 will outlaw strikes by public employees, upon penalty of fines and jail time. It severely curtails the collective bargaining rights of teachers, police, and firefighters. And with language that echoes the Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision (1980), which smothered faculty unionization at private colleges, it prohibits collective bargaining entirely for the most faculty at public universities. Here’s how the Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes the ban:

The classification provision defines as “management-level employees” those faculty members who, individually or through faculty senates or similar organizations, engage in any of a long list of activities generally thought of as simply part of the jobs of tenured and tenure-track professors. Those activities include participating in institutional governance or personnel decisions, selecting or reviewing administrators, preparing budgets, determining how physical resources are used, and setting educational policies “related to admissions, curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction and research.”

As “managers,” faculty won’t be able to organize. And the bar is set very low indeed for faculty to be classified as managers; it’s not just department chairs or faculty senators who will be swept up in this. Virtually all tenure-eligible faculty sit on hiring committees, so the “Yeshiva language” would instantly bar them from collective bargaining. But those of us off the tenure track also have influence on curriculum and instructional methods. Even as an adjunct, I served (gladly) on a curriculum committee. Voilà! I’m a “manager.”

Now, the faculty on my campus aren’t unionized, though some of us have been involved in a sustained drive to organize under the auspices of the American Association of University Professors. I sunk a bunch of time into this drive during fall and winter, trying to rally volunteers and launching our local AAUP blog. I take S.B. 5 personally.

Organizing against the attack on unions in Ohio has been harder than in Wisconsin because our capital is not a stronghold of liberal and left-wing politics. If Madison can be likened to Berkeley, Columbus is more like … Sacramento, complete with the sprawling suburbs and strip malls. Still, faculty and students have been hauling up to Columbus to demonstrate, and we’ve had a few demos here in Athens, too. It’s hard to know where to go next – sink more of our scant resources into the union drive, hoping S.B. 5 will be overturned by referendum? Work on the referendum instead? Sit in a corner and whimper?

But now that I’m a manager, I guess I need to buck up and start demanding some of the perks of the job. Our university president has access to a private plane. Upper-level administrators have enjoyed free country club memberships. And then there’s our football coach, who earns more than any of the top administrative bananas. I’m willing to forgo the plane and country club once I start getting the six-figure salary that’s now my due.

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First things first: If you’re local to SE Ohio and already know why you should contact Jimmy Stewart today and give him an earload on why SB 5 is bad for Ohio, why here’s his phone number! (614) 466-8076 – and email! SD20@senate.state.oh.us – I’m sure he’ll delight in hearing from you. [Update, 2/21/11, 9:50 a.m.: Stewart's office is closed for President's Day - gah! My plan is to leave a voicemail and send an email today, then follow up with a call early tomorrow.]

If you don’t know why SB 5 is evil, or why you should mix a call to Jimmy with your morning Joe, or what sort of earload you might deliver … well, read on, preferably with said Joe in hand.

We here in Ohio do not have a governor who has been parodied as a Mike Myers character – yet.

We don’t have 70,000 protesters as Madison did on Saturday – yet.

But we do have a fugly bill, S.B. 5, that makes Wisconsin’s anti-union agitators look like they’re playing bumper cars while we’re up against John Kasich’s Monster Bus Madness. Where Wisconsin’s legislation (as far as I understand) preserves the facade of collective bargaining, Kasich is going to kill collective bargaining dead for state employees. Be alert for the speeding gubernatorial bus at the end of this otherwise turgid passage! (It’s underlined, so you’ve got no excuse to miss it.)

Here’s the relevant legalese:

Sec. 4117.03. (A) Public employees have the right to:

(1) Form, join, assist, or participate in, or refrain from forming, joining, assisting, or participating in, except as otherwise provided in Chapter 4117. of the Revised Code, any employee organization of their own choosing;

(2) Engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection;

(3) Representation by an employee organization;

(4) Bargain collectively with their public employers to determine wages, hours, terms and other conditions of employment and the continuation, modification, or deletion of an existing provision of a collective bargaining agreement, and enter into collective bargaining agreements;

(5) Present grievances and have them adjusted, without the intervention of the bargaining representative, as long as the adjustment is not inconsistent with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement then in effect and as long as the bargaining representatives have the opportunity to be present at the adjustment.

(B) Persons on active duty or acting in any capacity as members of the organized militia do not have collective bargaining rights. Employees of the state, of any agency, authority, commission, or board of the state, or of any state institution of higher education do not have collective bargaining rights. The state, any agency, authority, commission, or board of the state, or a state institution of higher education shall not bargain collectively with its employees.

At first glance this passage seems incoherent. There’s a lot of lahdeedah about procedures for collective bargaining, only to have it become red asphalt in the final scene! (Eerrrrrrrg. That’s me. Run over. Damn, that bus was big.) The apparent contradiction melts away when one realizes that local public employees are in a different category from those of us who work for the state. The local folks – including teachers – won’t be sitting pretty, either, but in principle they retain access to collective bargaining; it just won’t help them much, thanks to a set of arcane new rules in the spirit of Wisconsin’s. (Progress Ohio lists local public employees’ proposed tribulations.)

Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio is not exempting police and firefighters, and this may cost the Repubs dearly. Several Republican senators have already balked at this, realizing who lines their pockets. Other State Senators, such as Jimmy Stewart from my neck of the woods, realize that anti-union votes won’t go down well in dying coal country, where unions once secured not just a decent living but also self-respect and community. (See Friday’s Dispatch article for a list of wafflers, and contact them if you can! Or better yet, check out Plunderbund, which dishes up the list of fence-sitters with verve, style, and snark.)

The Ohio bill also tries to out-badass its neighbor to the north by hiking health insurance premiums more steeply. Again, the legalese from SB 5:

Sec. 124.82.

(F) A state employee who receives insurance under this section shall pay at least twenty per cent of the cost of the premium assessed for any insurance policy issued pursuant to this section that covers health, medical, hospital, or surgical benefits.

Wisconsin public employees, by contrast, will be forced to pay at minimum 12.6% of their healthcare coverage. We already pay around 10% – not counting deductibles and other tricks for evading the current cap.

I realize that there’s enormous populist anger at the thought that any public employee would receive benefits while many private employees are completely shorn of them. The solution, though, isn’t to hollow out state employees’ benefits. By that logic, we’d all soon be earning minimum wage. The strategy has got to be expanding collective bargaining and revitalizing unions to ensure that all employees receive decent pay and benefits. (A single-payer healthcare system would, of course, solve half of these problems. A girl can dream.)

There’s also populist resentment of public employees getting paid more generously than those in the private sector. Professor Rudy Fichtenbaum, labor economist at Wright State, just decimated this preconception in his testimony before the Ohio Senate, opposing SB 5. Basically, Fichtenbaum notes that state employees have amassed a whole lot more education and training than their private-sector counterparts. Controlling for education, studies find that public employees actually earn less than those counterparts. Seriously, if you have even a passing interest, read Dr. Fichtenbaum’s testimony, which is lucid and very, very persuasive.

It is those “coddled” public sector employees who teach our children, or our neighbor’s children. It is they who determine whether Ohio will nurture innovators and informed, critical citizens, or whether we will have to try to compete with Sri Lanka – on their terms. (I’m still trying to figure out who’s coddled, by the way: those who stay up emailing students from 9:30 to 11:30 and then write about politics until after midnight, perhaps?)

What’s at stake here is nothing less than my adopted state’s economic future. As long as the marginal tax rates for rich Ohioans remain unchanged, we have no moral right to fatally undermine unions, pull the plug on the middle classes, and sell our children’s education to the lowest bidder.

Which brings us full circle. If you’re moved to contact Jimmy Stewart, please do it today (Monday) as the vote will likely take place on  Tuesday. He’s no doubt waiting for your calls. (614) 466-8076 or SD20@senate.state.oh.us. Sen. Stewart is also Majority Floor Leader, the #3 position in the Senate, so folks outside of his home base (the 20th district) might feel free to contact him, as well.

Oh, and if you can make it to Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 22), there will be a massive rally starting at 1. Word is that SB 5 will come up for a vote that day. I’ll be in my classroom, preparing the rising generation to compete with Sri Lanka, but I am thrilled to hear that some students and  colleagues will make the trip. Wish I could join them!

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Just after 10 this morning I got an email from the campus police, reporting that a gunshot had been heard in or around one of the dorms at 6:15 this morning. One student – who had been videotaping himself – had caught it on tape, and the police confirmed that it was indeed a gunshot. A second person also reported the sound.

It’s now nearly 3 p.m., and though I’ve been checking the university’s emergency page, there’s been no further information from the police. Probably everything will be just fine. But it’s disquieting that the initial safety alert came nearly four hours after the incident, and that updates are so slow in coming. I don’t live on campus and I spent the day working at home, but my neighborhood is a five-minute walk from the area where the gunshot was reported.

More to the point, I worry that someone obviously has a gun on campus, despite their being banned in all campus buildings. I worry even more that this person has ammo and chose to use it. I can’t think of any benign explanation.

I also worry that Residence Life staff were going door to door, checking on dorm residents. What on earth is an unarmed R.A. supposed to do if she or he actually finds a student with a gun?

Update, 2/10/11, 4:30 p.m.: I spoke with a police officer at the OU men’s basketball game last night. (There were two officers posted very prominently – which I hadn’t noticed at past games.) He told me that while they had no further information, whoever created the noise wasn’t likely to do it again just for kicks. He further said it was still possible the sound came from some source other than a gun. All very reassuring – but then he casually mentioned having taken guns away from people on Court Street, where students go bar-hopping, on numerous occasions. So much for feeling safe again!

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Most of the students I teach, I never hear from after the final exam. The exceptions are almost always utter delights – the folks who sincerely took interest, who liked to learn, who were kind and thoughtful and real. Every once in a while one will re-emerge from the ghostly wisps of the past, reminding us that our work isn’t ephemeral, even if it usually feels that way.

Two former students resurfaced this weekend. One, whom I taught in 2007, wrote me for a reference – no, not a recommendation letter, but the title of an essay! A piece she’d remembered and wanted to reread! Turns out she’s well on her way to a Ph.D. in psychology. She tells me my class made a lasting difference in how she views the world. Judging from her request, she’s got an abiding interest in sexual assault. I hope she’ll be able to marry that with her psych skills. She says she’s developed an abiding “passion” for women’s issues. Words like “powerful” and “inspirational” were bandied about. Let’s just say I’m the one who felt most energized and inspired.

The other ex-student was more of a monster rising up from the deep. [Edit: That comes across as unduly harsh: The ideas she espouses are the monster, not the ex-student herself.] Technically I’d never taught her; I’d only read her column in the school paper, marveling at its wingnuttery. I also listened to the venting of colleagues who had the dubious pleasure of teaching her in WGS and journalism. There, she was intermittently hostile to her feminist teachers and consistently too cool for school. I always thought her ambition was to become the next Ann Coulter.

Surprise! She’s publishing cheek-by-jowl next to Coulter at Town Hall! (Via Renee at Womanist Musings who braved the ooze of the far right – a far more intrepid gal than I.). Now that our young alumna is halfway to her goal, it’s fair to name names: Meet Ashley Herzog, recent Ohio University grad, proud denizen of wingnuttia, author of Feminists against Women. Oh, and she’s also making those lists of “top conservative women who are HAWT!!” (to which we owe the following photo).

In her latest post at Town Hall, Herzog takes aim at my university’s new gender-neutral housing option:

The idea that college life is so tough for gay and transgendered students that they need separate housing is preposterous. Far from being uniquely oppressed, the LGBT contingent is often the most catered-to of any group on campus. Administrators go to great lengths to satisfy these students while simultaneously nurturing a victimhood complex.

(Read the rest if you think it could possibly get better. I promise it won’t.)

Hahahaha! You’d think gender-neutral digs would feature jacuzzis, wall art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Judy Chicago, and surroundsound cycling through Liberace and Elton John, Holly Near and Bikini Kill.

No. Dude. It’s just a dorm room. In fact, said rooms won’t have any extra features. It will merely lack one simple furnishing that used to come standard: a roommate harboring homophobia and transphobia.

As for a “victimhood complex,” Herzog’s been nurturing her own for at least half a decade, spurred on by silly instructors who insisted she work for a grade. By now, her wounded victimhood is festering quite nicely. I’m sure she’s finding that what failed in the classroom will stand her in good stead at Town Hall. Ann Coulter, prepare to move over.

Me? I reserve the right to snark at Herzog in the future when she deserves it. (And she will, she will.) In the long run, I’m far more interested in what becomes of my smart, altruistic former students who don’t see self-promotion as their best quality.

Update 1-27-11, 4:30 p.m.: I want to make it crystal clear that I will never, ever mock students for statements they make in class. That is a zone of privacy, a safe place for exploring ideas, even (or especially!) half-baked ones. I will occasionally blog about interesting things they teach me, but I won’t publish their names. If a student places themselves in the public sphere by publishing views that are reprehensible, criticism is fair play. I still wouldn’t call him or her out for anything that happened in class. By the same token, I’ll link to any student who publishes something interesting, and I’ll do so with great pleasure. All of this goes for former students as well as current ones.

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What a bracing way to start the day! One morning, you wake up, log on, and find that a commenter has called you a cunt. Another day, you’re equated with white supremacists. The former hasn’t happened in a while. The latter came just this morning, before I’d had my coffee.

I’m not approving that comment, which was aimed at my previous post (on guilt versus responsibility in anti-racist pedagogy). This isn’t censorship. This is simply following my comment policy, which disallows hate and ad hominem attacks. I’m willing to engage with criticism, as long as it’s constructive. You be the judge: helpful or hateful?

If you look at the guilt pedophiles possess because of what they do to children and the fact that none of their kind has ever been cured of the desire for sex with children, you can see how far Whites still have to go to cure themselves of the inferiority complexes known more commonly as White supremacism and Negrophobia.

You can read this analogy, and the rest of the long comment that accompanies it, elsewhere on the interwebs. I’m not linking to it, but you can google the quote. Or just search on the name of this blog and “white supremacist.” It’ll pop right up.

Another highlight:

Kittywampus’s problem is her lack of experience of human variation – a typically White supremacist stance that proves her attempt to hijack the national debate on White supremacism in favor of Whites.

I would love to have a chance to hijack the national debate! We would have universal single-provider health care, an end to hate-talk on the airwaves, generous grants for troubled schools, a vastly shrunken military, chocolate bon-bons for all – and that would just be my first day’s agenda.

But seriously. Am I a white supremacist?

I do not believe that any white person can shed every vestige of racism. We can and should examine our attitudes and privileges, but there’s an unconscious level that is highly resistant to change. An example I often use with my students is the myth of the black rapist. White women continue to see media portrayals of black men as sexual predators that go straight back to the days of lynching. (For the record, I am not nostalgic for that era, which I fear makes me a rather poor white supremacist.) I think it’s important to acknowledge that racism is visceral. Conscious ally work does not magically erase decades of harmful stereotypes being funneled into our unconscious minds.

You can take the Implicit Associations test on race to see if your subterranean thoughts are completely free of race bias. Mine are not. For the record, I don’t come out “pure” on the gender tests, either. Go here to try the test – then select “Demonstration,” click through the next two subsequent screens, and select “RaceIAT.”

The fact that racial stereotypes persist somewhere in our id does not mean we should throw in the towel as allies. If anything, it’s a reminder of our obligation – our responsibility – to do something about it. “Something” shouldn’t end with self-examination and guilt, either. It should lead to action.

For me as a teacher, “action” means challenging students’ views in the classroom when they complain about affirmative action. It means learning and teaching about black feminism, womanism, and womanist theology. It means examining white privilege – again, not to make my white students feel like crap but to inspire them to act against racism in their lives. It means showing up for attorney and strategy meetings when a young black man (a former student of mine) is being framed for a felony. On this blog, it means denouncing Arizona’s stupid and draconian law that gags ethnic studies teachers; undermining the racist trope of “reverse racism”; and questioning Islamophobia.

Funny thing – none of that involves wearing a white sheet.

Yes, I realize that racism is more subtle these days than in the heyday of the KKK. I ask my students to consider how it’s woven structurally into the very fabric of our institutions, economy, as well as lurking in our unconscious minds. But true white supremacy is alive and well on the intertubes. Can we reserve the term “white supremacist” for those who deliberately embrace and cultivate racism? Can we discuss differences of tactics in antiracist pedagogy without stating that all white people are as morally bankrupt as pedophiles? (And no, this isn’t “reverse racism,” either. It’s just plain old hate and prejudice, because the author does not exert any systemic power over me due to our racial backgrounds.)

If everyone who questions the political utility of guilt is, um, presumed guilty of white supremacy, then it’s a crying shame that Audre Lorde is no longer here to defend herself. I quoted her words on guilt in my previous post. She saw it as a barrier to fighting oppression. Anger, in her view, was a more useful emotion, as long as it was focused fiercely on ending oppression rather than simmering corrosively inside us. Her essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (pdf) poses challenges that are (unfortunately) still relevant to white allies. She asks white feminists not to fear the anger of women of color, but to listen, and to understand, and to acknowledge that anger is justified.

Lorde also distinguishes between anger and hate:

And while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric.

This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change. We have been raised to view any difference other than sex as a reason for destruction and for Black women and white women to face each other’s angers without denial and immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea. It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves: Who profits from all this?

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, p. 129)

Who, indeed, profits when constructive engagement with allies and potential allies is replaced by hateful invective intended to silence? Hint: It won’t be people of color, or any other marginalized group.

How about seeking that “common basis to examine difference” instead?

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Last month, a clip of Tim Wise speaking on “guilt versus responsibility” for racism appeared on both Sociological Images and Womanist Musings, where it drew diametrically opposed reactions. Sociological Images posted it without comment from the bloggers, but reader comments were strongly positive, apart from one obvious white-supremacist troll. By contrast, Renee at Womanist Musings was scathing:

Isn’t that nice?  No guilt, only responsibility.  I think the problem with this little speech is that from the moment that White people are born, they do take advantage of every single ounce of privilege that is bestowed upon them.  They don’t have to feel guilty about slavery, or Jim Crow, but they should sure as hell feel guilty for the perpetuation of Whiteness.  Tim may have gone to multicultural daycare, but his Whiteness made that an option, rather than a necessity.  When he was streamed into university courses and the teachers worked hard to ensure that Blacks were not, he didn’t feel the need to question.

(The whole post is here.)

Here’s the clip, so you can judge for yourself.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

The discussion on Renee’s post made the important and valid point that white people shouldn’t dominate our conversations about race. Ultimately, a person who has grown up white needs to make the effort to read what people of color have written and listen to what they have to say. They can’t just listen to Time Wise and stop there.

But I would take issue with some of the other criticisms that Renee makes. First, Renee says that Wise should feel guilty about the unearned privileges he enjoys – about advantages he did not personally choose or seek. He should feel guilty about his daycare experiences? Really? How is he culpable for choices his parents made? Should he have foregone college, just because black and Latino boys are funneled away from it (and often into prison instead)?

Fighting privilege – or even “renouncing privilege” – shouldn’t mean voluntary abjection. Privilege comes in two basic forms. The first relies on power over others; it’s a zero-sum game. An example of this type of privilege would be the tendency of many audiences to take white middle-class male speakers more seriously than speakers from a marginalized group. (See, for instance, some conservative pundits’ dismissive comments on the Native American blessing given at the Tucson memorial service last week.) The second form of privilege need not entail the degradation of marginalized groups. Attending college falls into this category. These privileges shouldn’t be abolished but should be made so widely available that they cease to be privileges. (That doesn’t mean that every kid should attend college, or that colleges couldn’t be selective about admissions; instead, we would need to mitigate poverty, substandard K-12 school, dangerous neighborhoods, etc. until the racial makeup of colleges – including highly selective ones – looks very much like the demographics of the U.S. in general.)

More basically, I do not think guilt is a helpful emotion. Guilt paralyzes. It focuses attention right back on the feelings of the white person. It leads to inaction. It can even help perpetuate white privilege. As long as I wallow in guilt, I may have the illusion that I’m achieving solidarity with people of color. But that’s bullshit. Guilt is solipsistic. It’s a natural reaction, but if it’s more than transient, it’s toxic.

When I reject guilt, am I just shoring up my own privilege? After all, I’m a white woman who grew up in a practically all-white farm town in the overwhelmingly white state of North Dakota, dimly aware as a child that the civil rights and black power movements were taking place somewhere else.

So please consider, instead, the words of Audre Lorde:

Guilt and defensiveness are brick in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. … (124)

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. …

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. (130)

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, pp. 124, 130)

In fact, Lorde saw guilt as an obstacle to white women acknowledging difference, which in turn stopped them recognizing their own role in perpetuating racism.

In my teaching about racism, I’ve consistently tried to reframe the discussion as about responsibility rather than guilt. I try to show how racism is structural and systematic, rather than limited to outright bigotry. Most of my students are white, with backgrounds varying from rural poverty to suburban affluence, from highly integrated schools to all-white gated enclaves.

This past week I used the Tim Wise clip in my intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, and I thought it was very effective. More effective, in fact, than my teaching alone. Does it trouble me that may have Wise resonated with some of my white male students in part because he can draw on male privilege? A little. But I’m also pragmatic enough to see the value in male allies in anti-sexism. If Wise’s analogy of the manager who can’t ignore the debt side of the ledger makes some students more receptive to Patricia Hill Collins and bells hooks, then that’s a good starting place.

Many of the commenters on Renee’s post seemed to assume that Wise’s voice is crowding out the voices of people of color. I can understand why people of color would resent his earning an income as an anti-racist educator. I agree he has a responsibility to promote the voices of people of color, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to judge whether he does this adequately or not. From my perch here in Appalachia, I think Wise could do better in understanding the nuances of white poverty (in this otherwise useful piece, for example.) Overall, though, Tim Wise is helping to challenge young white people, especially, to see anti-racism as a cause that should matter to them.

Allies don’t have to be perfect. They/we need to be willing to listen. They/we need to be willing to speak up. They/we need to be willing to examine their own privilege. We’re all a work in progress. We all have opportunities to be allies. We’re all called to engage constructively with potential allies. Guilt doesn’t advance any of these processes. But a sense of responsibility sure does.

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I’ve been reading a lot more than writing the past few days. One of the themes that has popped up repeatedly in the discussion of the Arizona shootings is whether college officials should have been far more proactive in seeking help for Jared Lee Loughner. The New York Times today ran no less than three pieces on this topic:

Couldn’t a caring teacher have intervened? It’s an appealing what-if, isn’t it?

Take for instance the piece that appeared yesterday in Salon, where Sarah Hepola interviews a psychiatrist, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, on the probability that Loughner has untreated paranoid schizophrenia:

Hepola: … What do you do when you see someone like this?

That’s the $64 million question. Among his classmates, if you took all the information known about him and looked at it together, you’d say this guy is potentially dangerous. But one classmate saw one thing, another classmate saw another. The college apparently had enough information to know this guy should be off the campus if he didn’t get mental help. They knew people were purposefully sitting by the door so they could run fast in case this guy did something. This guy clearly struck people as dangerous.

In Arizona the laws are fairly liberal compared to other states. In lots of states the only way you could act on this is if he had demonstrated dangerousness to self or others. But in Arizona, it would have been legal to involuntarily take him to the clinic and have him evaluated. People don’t do this much, because we’re very concerned about people’s civil rights. How do you weigh the fears of a college atmosphere against the civil rights of the individual — an individual who will go in and say, “Look, I might be a little strange, but there’s nothing really wrong with me”?

That’s a key question. Did the college behave properly? Should the school have mandated some sort of mental health treatment for him, rather than kicking him out?

Legally, they could have. Whether they should have or not depends on who had what information and what it looked like at the time. The retrospect-o-scope is a hundred percent.

Exactly. The people around Loughner had only piecemeal information, the impact of which is “obvious” only now that we know how the story ends.

But that’s not the only problem colleges face. For one thing, the actual contact hours a professor has with students are pretty limited. I typically see a student four hours per week (unless they’re taking more than one class with me, the poor dears!). Loughner gave off enough scary vibes that the instructor reported him and the college ejected him until he got treatment. That didn’t happen at Virginia Tech, where as far as I know just one instructor was alarmed enough by Seung-Hui Cho to advise him to seek counseling.

In my eight years of teaching, I’ve had a handful of students who were disruptive of classroom dynamics. There was one guy I considered my “mini-MRA,” who belligerently challenged every idea I presented, but also seemed to think he could kiss up to me by calling me repeatedly at home. Another apparently aspired to become Jonah Goldberg’s clone. But I’ve only had one who gave me an intensely uncomfortable vibe. He talked about how people thought ill of him because he liked to wear a trenchcoat, just like the Columbine shooters. I spotted him again on campus about five years after I’d taught him, and I wondered if he’d had to stop out for mental health reasons. As a new instructor back in 2002, I just thought he was creepy and eccentric. Today, in the post-Virginia Tech era, I’d probably consult with a campus counselor.

But actually reporting someone isn’t a simple matter. Will the student retaliate once he’s put under a microscope? One of my graduate advisers was stalked for many months by a former student, and she had only given him the low grade he’s earned. Loughner, too, acted out when he didn’t get the grade he wanted:

Even in his gym classes, there were problems. In May, the police were called by Mr. Loughner’s Pilates instructor, Patricia Curry, who said she felt intimidated after a confrontation over the B grade she wanted to give him. She said he had become “very hostile” upon learning about her intention. “She spoke with him outside the classroom and felt it might become physical,” the police report said.

Ms. Curry told the police she would not feel comfortable teaching Mr. Loughner without an officer in the area, and the officers stayed to keep watch over the Pilates class until the class ended.

Ms. Curry must have been alarmed indeed to call the police. In her place, I’d be even more frightened about retaliation after class.

The danger of retaliation would be great if the student weren’t treated or didn’t adhere to his treatment. My university does offer psychological services, but they’re woefully understaffed. Severely depressed students are routinely told to wait a month until they can see a therapist qualified to prescribe medications. This has occurred even when the student was suicidal, and said so. Multiple students have told me that they sought help and endured a long wait to get in, only to find they had no rapport with their assigned counselor. One rape survivor told me her sessions were downright counterproductive. Much of the counseling is provided by graduate students. The experienced therapists are quite good, I think, but they’re far too few in number.

Pima College, where Loughner took classes, provides no mental health services. It has over 68,000 students. Much of Loughner’s behavior was bizarre rather than threatening – for example, insisting that the number 6 was actually 18. I can understand why they Pima expelled him but didn’t petition to have him involuntarily committed.

One of the New York Times articles makes the argument that colleges can keep a closer eye on troubled students if they remain enrolled. That’s true as long as students are in dorms. (Incidentally, the same holds true for substance abuse problems.) But when a student lives off campus, we cannot expect an instructor – who in community colleges may teach four or more classes – to keep tabs on a student she sees only four or five contact hours per week. Pima is not a residential school. Did I mention it has 68,000+ students?

It’s striking that no one is asking why Loughner’s former restaurant employers didn’t call in the state. Or why the dog shelter where he volunteered didn’t so the same. Or the Army! All of these entities recognized that Loughner had serious issues. The Army rejected him for having a drug arrest. Quiznos fired him for bizarrely refusing to respond to a customer, and his manage recognized a “personality change.” At the shelter, he exposed puppies to parvovirus after being clearly told to keep them out of a contaminated area. But the New York Times is not asking why these entities didn’t intervene.

I think the difference is that Americans still expect colleges to operate in loco parentis. Even residential colleges haven’t really borne that responsibility – or wielded that power – since the 1960s. We no longer have housemothers and curfews. Young people 18 and older aren’t legally children. Universities can’t act like their parents. Especially when the student is still living at home with his parents.

I don’t want to indulge in blaming Loughner’s parents. His father is reportedly an unpleasant fellow. They still deserve pity and compassion. They have lost their only son forever.

But we surely cannot expect an underfunded, overgrown community college to stand in for his parents, either.

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Those of you with any contact to academia have probably already seen this fascinating first-person exposé of professional plagiarism, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Ed Dante” (whose name is as genuine as “Sungold”) makes a little over $60K annually churning out faux dissertations, term papers, and plain old essays. His story is a fascinating portrait of a guy who makes about 50% more than I do (and my Ph.D. is real!) just by having no scruples.

I’m enough of a dilettante to understand the appeal of conducting research all over the map. I’ve translated texts ranging from marketing blather to the inner workings of a Porsche. I’ve taught a religion class (though my training is in German history and gender studies) and I wrote a dissertation that immersed me in old German medical journals without a lick of formal medical training. So I grok the fun of roaming among every discipline except for math and animal husbandry (Dante’s two no-goes). What I don’t get is how Dante sleeps at night. Then again, with all-nighters right in the job description, I guess the sleep of the just is bound to elude him anyway.

On top of his amorality, Dante tries to shift blame to professors, who he alleges are too checked-out to catch obvious cheaters. This is complete and utter bullcrap. Let’s peer more closely at Dante’s tripartite clientele: spoiled rich kids, unprepared ESL speakers, and native speakers whose education has abjectly failed them. The rich kids are usually capable of the work but too lazy and too moneyed to bother. Dante says that we profs ought to be busting the latter two groups, however, because the disparities between their formal written work and other verbal expression are so glaring.

In rare cases, professors are negligent. My own university had a celebrated plagiarism case a few years back where a certain engineering prof overlooked multiple cases of plagiarism in the theses he supervised. It was celebrated precisely because it was an anomaly – and because the rest of the faculty were furious! The vast majority of my colleagues are adept at spotting plagiarized work and willing to call our students out on it.

So why aren’t we busting Dante’s clients? The reason is not laziness or laxity. It’s the impossibility of proving our case. Students with poor writing skills can avail themselves of tutoring services – and indeed they should, because they can’t expect remedial instruction in their regular classes. But tutoring services muddy the waters. Even the most diligent teacher can’t prove that a student hired a ghostwriter rather than consulting a tutor.

When it comes to garden-variety cut-n-paste Internet-based cheating, though, making the case is a snap. It’s remarkably easy to spot the paper that’s cobbled together from various websites and a student’s own prose. I caught three students cheating this fall. It’s not a pleasure – in fact, I’m always quite upset when I discover plagiarism – but it’s also far from rocket science. You just need to google a suspicious phrase  that jars with the student’s own style, and the source usually pops right up. Sometimes you need to slice and dice the phrase a bit to compensate for slight paraphrasing by the plagiarist.

What does this mean for our students’ educational experience? At Big Think, Pareg and Ayesha Khanna suggest that the easy availability of scholarly and semi-scholarly material online may spell the death of academic integrity as we know it. They fear students will cobble bits of the Web into a serviceable or even honors-level paper.

I think not. Cut-n-paste plagiarizing is easily minimized through three main strategies. You start by including a clear policy on academic integrity in each syllabus, which lays out a definition of the delict and the range of penalties. You then create assignments that resist simple cutting and pasting. I no longer assign a novel in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, for instance, because SparkNotes sadly proved too tempting. The second third (ooops!) strategy is to read carefully for style. The paper plagiarized through Internet bricolage reads like the patchwork that it is. It veers from Wikipedia-style prose to ad-speak, then devolves into jibberish (that would be the hapless student’s original contribution), only to soar to the loftiest heights of poststructuralist theory. Oh, and if your U.S.-American student writes of “colour” or “kerbs,” your next stop better be the Google.

Of course, a few students will still be rich or desperate enough to resort to the Dantes of the world. Their number is declining, I suspect. Most students would rather spend disposable income on fun (often, drink). Most students are not organized enough to engage Dante’s service in a timely way. Instead, they seek refuge in Wikipedia at 3 a.m., not realizing that their profs can read Wikipedia, too. Much as I’d love to see students make use of actual books in the library, at least their over-dependence on Wikipedia is likely to hurt Dante’s business.

At the end of the day, I wonder why anyone bothers to copy from the Web. The results are typically incoherent. Sometimes they’re unintentionally hilarious. My recent favorite? Definitely the paper that tried to explain patriarchy and ancient Roman sexuality with stuff swiped from Conservapedia on pagans, a neo-Pagan site called Nova Roma, and interview material from Starhawk – all unattributed, of course. Hey, I’d love to see Starhawk hobnob with Conservapedia’s founder, Andy Schlafly (spawn of Phyllis!). Thanks to my unfortunate student, I got to experience the next closest thing.

(The title goes back to a post on plagiarism allegations against Barack Obama in 2008. I couldn’t resist recycling it.)

(From ICHC?)

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As I’ve written before, I’m not in any way opposed to casual sex. Still, I think there are real problems with hookup culture. The Duke “sex list” that I wrote about yesterday gives some clues to what’s wrong with it.

First, too often the sex is  just not very good for women. Karen Owen, the list’s author, raves about one guy – Subject 12 – who made sure she came first. This speaks volumes about what was likely lacking in her other encounters. But it’s not just her. I’ve heard innumerable stories from students who hooked up with (or refused) guys who were basically out to get serviced. Even if the guy is interested in mutual pleasure (and I think the majority of men are), he’s going to have to make a serious effort to get it right with a new partner if it’s only going to be a one night stand. He’s up against the orgasm gap, which is especially pronounced in younger women, as I wrote last spring.

Second, most of her hookups are drunken. She’s astonished when she discovers that sober sex can be pretty great. On “Subject 7″:

My second hookup with Subject 7 was an entirely new experience for me: a 100% sober booty call.

She enjoys it enough that they do it again. And again.

I don’t see anything wrong with having sex tipsy, some of the time. I’m not talking about the sort of inebriation that can result in sexual assault charges, just enjoying a drink or two – or at least having a pre-existing agreement, as a couple, that you’ll get drunk together and get naked. It’s hard to forge such an agreement if there’s no communication outside of bars and bedrooms, and it’s even harder in a one-night stand.

At any rate, it’s sort of sad if sober sex is a novelty. Here, too, I see a lot of students stuck in the same rut. Everyone relies on liquid courage. As long as that’s your only mode of interaction, you’re going to miss out on a lot of fun. (Maybe that’s where a Powerpoint presentation is useful – in jogging one’s memory?)

Owen also seems to view sex as being about conquest to a degree that feels highly transactional to me. The “subjects” are always described in terms of their alpha status. Lacrosse/baseball/soccer player. Good looking. Aggressive. While Owen also talks about who manages to be entertaining, these various status markers overshadow their personalities in most instances. Again, this is unsurprising. Because of its emphasis on surface traits, hookup culture is far better suited to assessing (and advertising!) status markers than it is to promoting mutually joyful, rewarding sex.

I do think it’s possible to have casual sex that’s not transactional. The obvious prerequisite for this is respect, an ability to see your potential partner as a full-fledged human being, and a sincere interest in your partner’s pleasure as well as your own. This is easier to achieve if you’re at least acquaintances before you begin.

It’s telling that Owen’s best sex was, apparently, also the least transactional, with the aforementioned Subject 12. He’d floated under her radar because he’d been in a relationship. Also, he evidently wasn’t her physical type, because the few times he’d been out to the bars she hadn’t noticed him. Significantly, they didn’t meet in a bar; they were hanging out with friends.

There’s some real sweetness in this story. Yes, they were hungover in the morning, but they hadn’t been sloshed, and they had no regrets by daylight – just more helpings of what they’d had the night before. What if hookup sex routinely ended this way? Well, most likely, there’d be a lot more hookups that segue into other sorts of relationships. For sure, there’d be fewer people just using their partner to get off, and a lot more having good, real sex.

Owen’s out in the “real world” now, beyond the comfy nest of Duke, and lying low while the hubbub over her list dies down. But for all of my students, male and female alike – I hope they’re having fun this weekend. I hope they’re being safe. And I hope, for those who do hook up, a “Subject 12″ experience, brimming with mutual lust, good humor, and a sense of truly being appreciated.

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A couple of folks have asked me off-blog if I’m okay in the wake of my post last Monday when I wrote, “I’m wound up, worried, and sad about a bunch of things I can’t write about here.” I’m sorry I tripped some alarms. There were several students of mine involved in deep, severe crises last week. They pushed most other thoughts out of my head. I couldn’t find a way to talk about their various plights publicly while maintaining their privacy and confidentiality. Their stories point to some broad social problems, so they’ll probably inspire me to write about them in some way, maybe just with a time lag to shroud identities.

Anyway, I am okay. Overworked and overtired, but okay.

And I has a moonflower. In fact, I have heaps of them. They’re five to six inches in diameter. They open in the evenings and close during the day – the opposite of morning glories, with whom they share heart-shaped foliage.

How could I not be okay?

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My last post is a whole week ago, marking my kids’ back to school daze. Maybe I had to get back to school, too, before I could feel energized about blogging again? My classes started yesterday, and I think I’ve got a great crop of students this term. I’m not yet sure they’ve got a great instructor. I nearly left my notes, handouts, and class roster at home this morning! My brain is mired somewhere around August 25th – jubilant to have a moment to think without hearing “Mama, Mama,” yet unencumbered by responsibility. Ha! Responsibility? That rump brain of mine had better catch up, stat.

Anyway. I taught my first Feminist Theory class today, and the students were an absolute joy – already engaged and passionate before I did anything to ignite them. They also show indications of thinking hard and deep, and while that’s just what I’d expect, it means I’d better get with the program! I asked them to introduce themselves by going around the room and describing what brought them to feminism/gender studies, and what most stuck with them from their coursework so far. Next thing you knew, we were in the midst of an old-tyme consciousness-raising session. After the break we got back to more detached theorizing, but our mini-CR session turned into a spirited ice-breaker.

All hell broke loose when a student I know well from a previous class described her frustrations: “I just feel so angry and bitter.” The class erupted in nods and yeses and “me toos.” By that point, several students had disclosed or hinted at some difficult personal situations: assault, family violence, and the like. Even more had described becoming aware of the little, everyday things that made them feel diminished because they were female-bodied.

Their response set me thinking about anger, and bitterness, and what’s politically useful, and what’s personally poisonous.

I see a big gulf between anger and bitterness. Both are legitimate emotions, and both may need to be expressed so that we can master them before they master us. But bitterness? It’s paralytic. Bitterness springs from hopelessness and despair. Bitterness rests on the assumption – or fear – that nothing can ever really improve. Bitterness consigns us to passivity and fatalism.

Anger, on the other hand, calls us to action. That only works if we can imagine strategies and tactics that will lead us toward a better world, which is easier said than done. Anger, too, can become toxic, especially if we direct it inward rather than outward, or if we keep it bottled up, or if we hallucinate that any and every expression of anger is productive. Sometimes, anger is just stupid and hurtful. But at least it doesn’t pin us down like captive butterflies. If we combine it with analysis, it can give us the energy to make the world incrementally better.

I don’t have all the answers. This is what I said to my students: When you’re feeling frustrated and hopeless, know that in time, you’ll observe how change occurs, even if it’s glacial. The signal issue that has changed during my adulthood is marriage equality. It wasn’t even on the map in the early 1980s, when I was the age of my students. Now it’s a no-brainer even among many conservative and/or fundamentalist students.

Basically, I launched into a far less eloquent version of Martin Luther King’s famous statement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Except my version of it featured my youthful anger at James Bond movies, complete with steam puffing out my ears (for some reason, my students found that image hilarious), and I didn’t quite dare to offer them the promise of justice, someday. Instead, I held out the more modest promise that generational change would extinguish Neolithic ideas about gender.

I don’t have all the answers. I’ve merely lived roughly twice as long as my students. Which doesn’t stop them from being further and faster evolved than I: a whole bunch of them mentioned intersectionality and trans issues as dear to their hearts. I’m blown away by their casual use of the term “cis,” which no one even imagined publicly when I first explored gender issues in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Maybe I’m less caught up in anger and bitterness only because I’m old (in internet and cat years) and a natural slacker?

If you’ve got favorite tactics for turning anger – or even bitterness – into something positive, I’d love to hear about them.

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Why let an ideology or worldview compete on its own merits when you can spread it as propaganda to tender young minds? Better yet, how ’bout paying to download it into young brains? That’s what’s happening with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which – as best I understand it – is a mishmash of “reason,” capitalism, untrammeled competition, and unenlightened self-interest.

I first got wind of this earlier in the week, but feared things had gotten even further out of hand today, when Jill at Feministe quoted from this post by Eric Hague at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency:

I’d like to start by saying that I don’t get into belligerent shouting matches at the playground very often. The Tot Lot, by its very nature, can be an extremely volatile place—a veritable powder keg of different and sometimes contradictory parenting styles—and this fact alone is usually enough to keep everyone, parents and tots alike, acting as courteous and deferential as possible. The argument we had earlier today didn’t need to happen, and I want you to know, above all else, that I’m deeply sorry that things got so wildly, publicly out of hand.

Now let me explain why your son was wrong.

When little Aiden toddled up our daughter Johanna and asked to play with her Elmo ball, he was, admittedly, very sweet and polite. I think his exact words were, “Have a ball, peas [sic]?” And I’m sure you were very proud of him for using his manners.

To be sure, I was equally proud when Johanna yelled, “No! Looter!” right in his looter face, and then only marginally less proud when she sort of shoved him.

The thing is, in this family we take the philosophies of Ayn Rand seriously. We conspicuously reward ourselves for our own hard work, we never give to charity, and we only pay our taxes very, very begrudgingly.

Since the day Johanna was born, we’ve worked to indoctrinate her into the truth of Objectivism. Every night we read to her from the illustrated, unabridged edition of Atlas Shrugged—glossing over all the hardcore sex parts, mind you, but dwelling pretty thoroughly on the stuff about being proud of what you’ve earned and not letting James Taggart-types bring you down. For a long time we were convinced that our efforts to free her mind were for naught, but recently, as we’ve started socializing her a little bit, we’ve been delighted to find that she is completely antipathetic to the concept of sharing. As parents, we couldn’t have asked for a better daughter.

That’s why, when Johanna then began berating your son, accusing him of trying to coerce from her a moral sanction of his theft of the fruit of her labor, in as many words, I kind of egged her on. Even when Aiden started crying.

You see, that Elmo ball was Johanna’s reward for consistently using the potty this past week. She wasn’t given the ball simply because she’d demonstrated an exceptional need for it—she earned it. And from the way Aiden’s pants sagged as he tried in vain to run away from our daughter, it was clear that he wasn’t anywhere close to deserving that kind of remuneration. By so much as allowing Johanna to share her toy with him, we’d be undermining her appreciation of one of life’s most important lessons: You should never feel guilty about your abilities. Including your ability to repeatedly peg a fellow toddler with your Elmo ball as he sobs for mercy.

Look, imagine what would happen if we were to enact some sort of potty training Equalization of Opportunity Act in which we regularized the distribution all of Johanna’s and Aiden’s potty chart stickers. Suddenly it would seem as if Aiden had earned the right to wear big-boy underpants, and within minutes you’d have a Taggart Tunnel-esque catastrophe on your hands, if you follow me.

Johanna shouldn’t be burdened with supplying playthings for every bed-wetting moocher she happens to meet. If you saw Johanna, her knees buckling, her arms trembling but still trying to hold aloft the collective weight of an entire Tot Lot’s worth of Elmo balls with the last of her strength, what would you tell her to do?

To shrug. Just like we’ve instructed her to do if Child Protective Services or some other agent of the People’s State of America ever asks her about what we’re teaching her.

(Read the rest here.)

Unlike Jill, I quoted nearly the whole thing so that you’d have a fighting chance to realize that this is, indeed, satire. Myself, I first thought it was “by real,” as my Tiger says – maybe because the default framing of anything on a major feminist blog is “outrage” rather than “funny”? But this piece is, in fact, very, very funny. Anything that evokes Elmo in the same breath as Ayn Rand and throws in a poop joke or two has great comedic potential.

But now that we’ve had our LOLs, here’s true and rather sinister side of this story. The Ayn Rand Institute is indeed out to capture the minds of young ‘uns, starting with college students. And this is no spoof.

The latest issue of Academe (the journal published by the American Association of University Professors) includes two articles detailing how the Ayn Rand Institute is channeling funds through the charitable offshoot of a major bank, BB&T (which I confess I’d never heard of until now):

Stipulations range from the seemingly benign—funding for faculty and student research and support for a speaker series on capitalism, leadership retreats, and the establishment of Ayn Rand reading rooms—to the sharply contentious. At Western Carolina University, for example—as at UNC–Charlotte—in addition to the creation of new courses involving required reading of Rand, the original 2008 agreement included a condition that faculty members who teach the new course on capitalism “shall work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude towards Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” In this and other agreements, the BB&T Foundation’s close ties to the Ayn Rand Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Irvine, California, are evident. The institute’s stated mission is to work “to introduce young people to Ayn Rand’s novels, to support scholarship and research based on her ideas, and to promote the principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience.”

(Read the whole article by Gary H. Jones here, plus a case study by Richie Zweigenhaft on how this all shook out at Guilford College in North Carolina.)

I find this absolutely chilling. Imagine if a donor said I had to teach David Irving, the infamous Holocaust denier, in my Nazi Germany course. Or if I were required to teach Phyllis Schlafly in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies! I do mention them both – but certainly not with “a positive attitude.”

The corporatization of the university has advanced so far that this new incursion on academic freedom isn’t entirely surprising. It is, however, breaking new ground. And why am I not surprised that it’s spearheaded by precisely a movement whose “philosophy” (if it deserves to be dignified as such) meshes neatly with that of a corporatized university, where units are pitted against each other according to shady metrics, and where pillars of a liberal education such as Classics face possible extinction because they don’t generate enough revenue?

The irony, of course, is that if Ayn Rand’s acolytes really believed in the free market, and if her ideas were truly so stinkin’ brilliant, there’d be no need for such shenanigans. Rand’s ideas would succeed on the open market. Full stop. No donations required.

So, no, Rand’s not being taught in nursery school – yet. I have to wonder, though, if the ARI is only waiting on the release of a pop-up book version of Atlas Shrugged .

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Scene 1: I spend most of the year freezing. I’m usually the first person to complain about air conditioning running too cold. I can hardly function in an office that’s cooled to 60 F, as our university consistently does to the Women’s and Gender Studies offices. I don’t think well when I’m cold, and (rather inconveniently), thinking is in my job description. We’ve taken to running space heaters when it gets really bad, since the university seems incapable of fixing its HVAC system.

At the same time, the university regularly sends out emails exhorting us to save energy.

Scene 2: The university also has trouble keeping its AC system working, period. Way back in April, we had our first heat wave, which provoked one of my students to complain to the school newspaper:

I began my day in Porter Hall at 9 a.m., measuring a comfortable 72 degrees. I had class from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Clippinger measuring 83 degrees, and immediately following a different room in Clip from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. measuring 85 degrees. Thinking that the worst of my overly warm classes were over and that the last would surely be comfortable, I entered Bentley and climbed to the second floor to find a room that was 98 degrees.

As our professor teased that class would end if she passed out, and I watched the sweat of my neighbor form a puddle on our desk, I found that what little focus I had for history was quickly diminishing in the unbearable heat. I began to wonder instead how, even in light of necessary budget cuts, Ohio University could think that students could actively learn in such an uncomfortable environment. Having soaked through my shirt I found myself racing outside to “cool down” in the 80 degree weather outside after class (well cool down in the sense that at least there was moving air).

(Read the rest here.)

Yep, I was that professor in the 98-degree room. And no, I didn’t pass out, but my students weren’t the only ones who struggled to stay focused.

Scene 3: The temperature in Berlin is 99F, as I write this. No one has AC in their homes. Not even all movie theaters have it. Lots of people don’t even own fans, and in fact, many Germans believe that any moving air constitutes a draft. When the city gets this hot, the apartment houses stay cool for a day or two, but then the cement and stone start to heat up, and they retain the heat instead. We’ve been opening windows whenever it’s cooler outside, closing them when it’s not, pulling drapes, and running fans. It’s not enough to live with any comfort. Last night the low was in the upper ’70s. Tonight we’ll be sleeping in a sauna. Or not sleeping, more likely.

All of which made me keenly interested in Salon’s interview with Stan Cox, who urges us to radically shut off our AC. (Amanda Marcotte has some very reasonable commentary on it at Pandagon.) I agree that we overdo it like crazy – do restaurants really need to be cooled to 65 or below? – but he underestimates the health impact where there’s no AC in a heat wave:

But I think we need to look at it is as a fail-safe mechanism and recognize that a lot of the health problems that we need A.C. to solve, it may have contributed to in the first place. We need to look at the conditions under which people die in heat waves, the harsh life conditions that they’re enduring more generally. That’s the real root of the problem.

(The rest is here.)

No. It’s not just a matter of harsh life conditions, though poverty, old age, and isolation are huge risk factors for dying in a heat wave. There’s no mystery to it. But if there’s nowhere cool to escape, people will die. In Europe’s 2006 heat wave, at least 20 died in Germany and at least 40 in France, even though both are wealthy countries with excellent social welfare safety nets. These are preventable deaths.

Basically, our systems are poorly designed, with too much cooling delivered to lots of places, and none to others. My university offers some prime examples of this. Here’s another. My sister- and brother-in-law traveled from Frankfurt to Berlin on Friday in a train where the AC failed. The windows are hermetically sealed because it’s a high-speed train whose name, ironically, is abbreviated “ICE.” Yesterday, three similar trains had to be evacuated after their AC failed. (Sorry, the linked article is in German.) It seems the system is not designed to function in high temperatures! On one of the ICE trains, 27 teenagers on a school trip collapsed from the heat, and some required IV infusions right on the platform once they were evacuated. The desperate mother of a young boy tried to break a window with an emergency hammer. Temperatures topped 120 F.

So yes, by all means, let’s talk about AC. But I agree with Amanda that urging people to go cold turkey – as Cox does – vastly oversimplifies the matter. Complex societies cannot simply ditch AC, unless we abandon any notion of productivity and give up travel by mass conveyance. (I’ve recently been on an airplane and a city bus whose temperatures rivaled those of the ICE trains.) In other words, late capitalism depends on AC, and unless you think we can topple capitalism, we’re not likely to abolish AC. Nor should we, because it really does save people’s lives in a heat wave. But we can and should discuss where it’s used profligately and stupidly. We should think about where we really need it, and where it’s optional. We can adopt other strategies, like using a whole-house fan at night, running ceiling fans, or (in dry climates) installing a swamp cooler. We can drop dress codes that require pants and ties in July. Why not wear shorts to the office?

Oh, and when it’s really hot, we might be wise not to cuddle up to our laptops. I’m off to grab a cold drink and a good old-fashioned, paper-based book.

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(I will forgive you if you’re asking: so what else is new at Kittywampus? Are we not already pedantic enough?)

First comes this recent New York Times piece on the proliferation of valedictorians like bunnies –  via Jesse at Pandagon, who observes:

they [high school principals] simply label each person who’s received honors a “valedictorian”, which is sort of like naming a Pro Bowl team in the NFL and then simultaneously declaring every qualified player the MVP.

(More here.)

Full disclosure: I was valedictorian in a class of about 400. The salutatorian – let’s call him Max – got a B in wood shop his freshman year. He was better than me in physics; I surpassed him in English. We still both earned A’s in those classes. Unfairly, my D (yes, D!) in swimming didn’t count. We absolutely should have shared the honors.

Neither Max nor I worked our asses off. We got good grades with pretty rudimentary study habits. There was none of this “5.0 points entered into the GPA for an A in an AP class.” There were no AP classes. The grade scale topped out at 4.0. We nonetheless learned about parallel construction in English, which fewer than five percent of my college students have even heard of. (Note: that’s fewer than, not less than.) Outside of school, I spent a lot of time tooting my horn (literally) and playing organ for the Christian Scientists (as a crass mercenary). Max played a mean air-guitar version of “Godzilla.” He and I each had a life. I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes and he idolized Jim Morrison, but neither of us were hopped-up overachievers. Much later, Max taught me how to operate a bong (purely on an theoretical, academic level, of course – oh, hai, DEA!).

I gave a speech that was pure pandering to shared memories. It was written in a few minutes after drinking beer all afternoon at Folsom Lake. This turned out to be good preparation for teaching – writing under intense pressure, that is – not quaffing a beer prior to lecturing.

As gladly as I would have shared the honor with Max, splitting it even five ways would’ve sucked. Some of my favorite stats from the Times article:

In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, which the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, complained in an editorial“stretches the definition.” And north of New York City, Harrison High School is phasing out the title, and on Friday declared 13 of its 221 graduates “summa cum laude.”

William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, said he had heard of schools with more than 100 valedictorians, and had seen home-schooled students praised as No. 1 — out of one — all of which has helped render the distinction meaningless.

Exactly! Despite my lifelong slackerdom (or maybe because of it?), I’d like to see my nanosecond in the sun (at age 17) retain its glitter. Folsom Lake glittered. The beer glittered. Quite possibly, I glittered.

But the issue here is really not about me. Since the 1980s, not only high-school GPAs but also the SAT and GRE have experienced major score drift. And yet the poor kids work ever harder. To me, it looks grim and joyless. What’s the help of grade inflation if everyone now must get an A?

Indeed, what happens when you dilute achievement to the extent described in the Times? You invite people to start gaming the system. You give extra points for honors classes, and so students pile on the honor classes just for the GPA advantage, not because a superhuman workload is good for them educationally. Or you don’t reward honors classes but count an A in home ec just like an A in physics, resulting in a pile-up of busy-beaver achievers in home ec. All of this is magnified by a cultural attitude toward college admissions that encourages kids to “build a resume” from preschool onward, rather than learning things they love, pursuing activities just for fun, and gently stretching their comfort zone.

And y’know, it’s possible to be both fun-loving and pedantic. Case in point: my love for this clip that Andrew Sullivan published a couple of weeks ago:

I have to admit, red-faced, that I’d never thought through the phrase “hold down the fort.” I’m a new convert to killing the superfluous “down.” But “I could care less”? Well, I’ve cared less about this abomination – a lot less, to no effect whatsoever – for a couple of decades now. Behold the graph. This is not Monty Python (although I did laugh out loud). This is logic. Bow down before it!

I wonder how many of those 94 valedictorians know the difference? Or couldn’t they care less?

Update, 30 seconds after I hit publish: Now you get to point and laugh at all of my typos in this post. I just found the first one and corrected it. Starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions and ending them with prepositions is not fair game; this is accepted Kittywampus style, as are split infinitives. Otherwise, fire away! :-)

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And I might have become one myself, had I not blown up some chemicals in a high school lab. (My best-friend-cum-lab-partner took that incident as a signal from teh Ceiling Cat to pursue a Ph. D. in microbiology, so go figger.) Throughout college, at least half my friends were in STEM fields, maybe because Stanford was so heavy on engineers. (Conspicuously few were premeds, though, as playing in the Band had a lethal impact on many folks’ GPA.)

I still really enjoy science – and scientists – and so even if there were no gender angle to it, I’d still get a kick out of this website, which features drawings of scientists done by seventh graders. Each has a before-and-after version, with the “after” drawn once the student had met up with a real, live specimen of a scientist at Fermilab.

The paired drawings handily expose all manner of stereotypes – and the students’ growth beyond them. Sometimes it’s terminal nerd-dom that gets swept away, as in these sketches by “Ashley“:

Not that nerdiness need be bad, mind you!  Disclaimer: I too cherish my inner nerd. Though I never really took to Heinlein, I still have a soft spot for the original Start Trek, and some days I like books a bit better than people. And I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone – that most humanities types harbor a little nerdy streak, though we try with varying success to cover it up. The most assertively hip and fashionable big academic shindig, the MLA conference, might be interpreted as a massive exorcism of the inner nerd. Surely there’s a paper in that: “The Return of the Repressed: Post-Freudian Perspectives on the Nerd Within.”

While Ashley’s drawing makes mention of women and men, some of the other girls actually shifted the gender of their “typical” scientist. A great example comes from Amy:

See, the scientist shifts from being obsessive and frankly unbalanced to … being hip circa 1972! A scientist may even be interested in racquetball! (And honey, I’m not snarking about the “even” – I had zero interest in the sport.)

And a scientist can be a gal. A fashionable gal, even, who’s friendly and open and has a sense of humor. A gal who likes to dance.

Now, go flip through the other drawings. They’re cute, they’re enlightening, and they show that Amy was not alone in her preconceptions, even if she did draw the awesomest green smoke.

So the next time someone starts spouting untested, Lawrence Sommer-esqeu theories about women being naturally less suited than men to STEM careers, we might recall Amy’s sketches. We might ask what happens when girls (and boys!) meet real-life scientiests. We might also ask how to make science careers more family friendly – but oy, that’s be a whole ‘nother post. We might wonder how we can offer encouragement to those girls who nearly blow out a ceiling tile in chem lab (ahem!).

In the meantime, I have a couple of scientist friends who I think would rock that turquoise blouse and matching oversized shades.

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The “boy crisis” has made the news, yet again, though it’s unclear whether much is new or different about it. This time, it’s Hanna Rosin in New York Magazine, asking where “the boy genius” has gone. (For an earlier iteration of the “boy crisis” meme, see Ann Hulbert’s smart takedown of it in Slate a few years back.)

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to worries about how boys may be shortchanged by our educational system. I am, however, reluctant to view it in oversimplified terms.

First, the two-ton elephant in the room – which Rosin doesn’t even mention – is the confluence of gender with race and socioeconomic class. Rosin mentions that boys are less likely than girls to earn a high school or college diploma. But she completely glosses over the fact that by far the most troubling disparity is between African-American boys and girls. (I’ve written before about the racial crisis in education, along with the real problems that emerge if college and learning become “girly” objectives.) All in all, white boys are doing pretty well.

My other objection is that Rosin, like so many other commentators, frames boys’ educational attainment as part of a zero-sum game. Remember those classroom games that pitted the boys against the girls? In the 1970s, my teachers often had the girls and boys vie to be the better team at spelling or math. Teachers may downplay gender-based competition these days (or maybe not!), but the media still can’t drop the idea of a “war against boys,” as Christina Hoff Sommers termed it a decade ago.

The zero-sum frame relies on a boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus view of gender. Yet most interventions to improve boys’ learning will help girls, too! Take the much-lamented death of recess. Sure, the antsiest boys will benefit most from restoring recess. So will the antsiest girls! At least in the lower grades, I still see more boys than girls who are high-energy, but boys don’t monopolize that market. (We can leave aside the nature/nurture question here; anyone who’s spent much time volunteering in a first-grade classroom has seen girls as well as boys who have trouble sitting still.) Fresh air, movement, a break in routine – these are benefits that accrue to all kids, not just boys.

And by the way, the villain who killed recess isn’t, say, Mary Pipher (who wrote Reviving Ophelia) or the AAUW. The culprit is NCLB and every other testing mandate that pressures teachers to maximize the time spent teaching to the test.

Or take the main example Rosin pillories: early testing for gifted programs. I’m sorry, but age four is just too young for sorting kids into ability levels! Parents whose kids are exceptional may gain useful information from early individual testing, especially if they have a bright child who’s seriously frustrated and bored. Otherwise, I don’t see much utility in testing before late gradeschool, and I do see great potential for mislabeling and pigeonholing kids of any gender. (Pigeonholing and mislabeling can be a problem at any age, but that’s such a huge issue, I’m not going to try to address it here.) More boys than girls are likely to have their talents overlooked, but again this is primarily a matter of poor educational practices, which can hurt any child.

On average, of course, girls develop faster in their language skills, especially in the early grades, as Rosin notes. She’s also right when she observes that there are problems stemming from school curricula becoming more verbal, even when it comes to learning math. But again, this is not just an issue for boys!

Here’s an example. Recently, the Bear came home with a math problem that asked which operation he’d use for finding the total amount of produce sold at a roadside stand. The answer was, obviously, addition. But then he was supposed to explain why he’s use that operation! Well, duh! I think it’s terrific that kids with less mathematical inclination are being helped to understand math through verbal routes. But for kids who are less verbal (like my Tiger), it’s neither fair nor useful to be forced to explain mathematical reasoning in words. For kids with fairly equal strengths in both math and language, it’s just annoying and alienating! And yes, my son the Bear falls into that latter category – but so did the young Sungold, and I recall being a girl at the time!

I do see one area where there’s a true zero-sum game: admission to self-enclosed gifted programs, which is what prompted Rosin’s article in the first place. I see the sort of standardized testing that the Tiger underwent this year in first grade, and it was all verbally based – including the math – because the instructions were delivered through headphones. For a kid with listening issues, this was fatal: he scored well below average on everything except a simple non-verbal IQ screening test, where he cleared the 99th percentile – a vivid illustration of how pegging all performance to verbal abilities can systematically underestimate a child.

I can imagine three solutions to this problem. The first is a no-brainer: test children for gifted programs no sooner than fourth grade. Secondly, testing needs to ensure that subtests can’t be easily distorted by weaknesses in the areas not being tested. This is not a trivial problem, but it’s one that can be addressed by clever psychologists.

And thirdly, maybe self-contained gifted programs should be a little less contained. Maybe they need to have flexible enrollment limits. Kids should be able to join in if a later assessment shows their promise. And stand-alone programs should probably be deemphasized in favor of flexible, differentiated teaching strategies that meet kids where they are. This is tougher for teachers to implement than simply putting a bunch of high-performing kids in a classroom – who are not always necessarily the ones with the greatest potential, since some extremely bright children check out due to boredom, and others may be brilliant but struggle with a learning difference. Those children, again, are more likely to be boys than girls. All of them deserve a chance to flourish.

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Megan Carpentier, whose usual blogging gig is at Jezebel, just published a scathing critique of Women’s Studies at the Huffington Post. Her piece is misleading and unfair. It represents her one bad experience as standing in for the entire field of Women’s and Gender Studies. It paints WGS as a bastion of intolerance, authoritarianism, white privilege, and regressive body politics. Full disclosure for those of you who aren’t regular Kittywampus readers: I teach in WGS. But my investment in academic feminism doesn’t nullify Carpentier’s biases.

First off, if Carpentier’s goal was constructive criticism, why on earth would she publish this piece at HuffPo? She has a big platform at Jezebel. Not as big as the HuffPo, granted, but plenty big. The Jezebel commentariat includes lots of people who’ve taken a class or two in WGS. They would have discussed Carpentier’s complaints in productive ways. The HuffPo commentariat are much more of a mixed bag, including many who are outright hostile to feminism. (The same can be said for other progressive online communities, sad to say; Salon’s letter section can be a real cesspool of misogyny.) So far, Carpentier’s post has attracted remarkably constructive responses – nearly all of them from people who teach in WGS! Funny thing: none of them bear any resemblance to the rigid ideologue Carpentier blames for alienating her from feminism.

There’s only one plausible reason for publishing this piece on HuffPo instead of Jezebel: page views. And bashing feminism (in any of its variants) has proven to be a great way to advance one’s career. At least, it’s currently working pretty well for Susannah Breslin, as it has for Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and countless other ambitious women writers.

But back to to Carpentier. The heart of her beef is the professor who taught the one and only WGS course she took in college. Let’s take as given that her prof was every bit as awful as Carpentier claims. Some people are authoritarian when they get in front of a classroom. Some don’t like it when their students ask hard questions. Apparently Carpentier’s prof had more than her share of insecurities:

For my professor, the challenge [of dissenting opinions] seemed to be more than she was willing to take. There was no Socratic give-and-take that I’d come to love about my other classes; I was supposed to accept that she was right, I was wrong and that what she said was feminist gospel.

Of course it’s not good practice to shut down students. Very occasionally it may be necessary. I’ve done it a few times when people insisted that racism is dead, or that rape victims bring it on themselves. I won’t allow outright hate speech in the classroom, and I won’t allow intolerance to go unchallenged. Over the years I’ve had a smattering of complaints in my course evaluations that I don’t recognize students’ opinions as equal to my own; for every such gripe, I get at least 20 statements like, “Professor is so open to students’ ideas.” Generally speaking, those who complain are likely to be the same folks who aren’t willing to entertain the idea that sexism – or even more so, racism – still exists.

I assume that wasn’t Carpentier’s problem. She paints herself as much more progressive than her professor. But her single experience is not typical. The irony is that WGS classes tend to be far more discussion-oriented than most classes in other disciplines!

To be sure, Carpentier describes her own, personal experience, but its publication on HuffPo – rather than, say, a personal blog – implies that her experience indicates larger issues within WGS as a field. Otherwise, why bother telling her story to the world? Yet it’s absurd to suggest that this one professor stands in for all. As Shira Tarrant points out in comments:

But the experience of “Rich White Lady” feminism taught by your college professor draws from a very small sample size: N=1. No doubt there are problems of competence across all academic disciplines. And none are above critique. However — and with all due respect — it doesn’t take much digging around to know that feminist politics and theory is also taught more deeply and intelligently than what you’ve described.

Exactly! Surely Carpentier knows other people whose experiences vary from her own! Surely she interacts with them all the time on Jezebel! So why not include even a brief “your mileage may vary” disclaimer?

Instead, Carpentier takes the opposite tack by comparing her WGS course to other college classes she’d taken:

A rigorous introduction to feminist theory — where was Friedan? Steinem? Even Paglia ? — was replaced by rambling lectures about personal experience from the professor and books about “Important Women”(mostly white) that ran counter to my academic experiences with structural history in the history department and my increasing interest in stratification theory — and the intersection of race, class and gender in society — that I found so fascinating in the sociology department.

Here her single experience is posed against the history and sociology departments. It’s this comparison that directs Carpentier’s criticisms at WGS as a field. It’s this comparison that frames her individual experience with one apparently disastrous professor as typical of WGS. She never took additional classes in WGS (not that I blame her), but nowhere does she admit that it’s disingenuous to hold up this one professor as representative.

In fact, most of Carpentier’s experiences are remarkable for their extreme atypicality. She tells one anecdote that’s so bizarre it almost defies credulity. If it happened just as she describes it, her professor was not just unpleasant but completely incompetent:

But it was when the professor told us that, one day, when sexism is over, the government could make abortion illegal again, that I truly lost it — both my patience and, as it turns out, the A that I’d been biting my tongue to earn. She presented this nugget of information not as an idiosyncratic view of her feelings about abortion, but as a tenet of feminist thinking about abortion, and it was one that stood in opposition to everything I understood about abortion and its importance to the feminist movement.

If this is accurate, then her former professor really has no business teaching WGS. If Carpentier truly missed an A only due to this incident, she’d have strong grounds to appeal her grade. But it’s precisely this anecdote that shows how unrepresentative this class must have been!

The same is true for the other appalling incident she relates:

We learned about rape culture in a mandatory group discussion of our experiences with sexual assault that didn’t take into account that the survivors in the group might not be ready, willing or able to relate to a group of students and a professor those experiences.

The very act of teaching about sexual assault in any form can be triggering. If someone asks to opt out of class on a day when sexual violence is on the agenda, I’ll always agree – though I’ll also ask to make sure they’re getting the help and support they need. It’s unconscionable to mandate discussion of individuals’ experience. But again, this incident is an extreme outlier. None of my colleagues would ever act this way. It’s just plain unethical.

In one area, Carpentier’s experience does point to a broader problem. She faults her professor for not taking an adequately intersectional perspective. People working in WGS have had their blind spots when it comes to race, class, disability, and so on – which makes them an awful lot like feminists outside the academy. Most of us are trying to do better. Speaking for myself, I’m still growing and learning. I continue to revise my syllabus. I’m still trying to figure out the most effective ways to help students gain an intersectional perspective. I’m a white gal working in a very white institution, so it’s hard, and I don’t pretend that I’ve got all the answers. Humility is the first step toward improvement. But I will also say that I don’t know anyone who teaches WGS by assigning books about Important (mostly white) Women, as Carpentier describes.

As for Carpentier’s other gripes, they’re pretty thin. Not enough theory at the intro level? Well, in my program, we have a whole course devoted to theory. That’s where we read Friedan – not in the intro, where we assign a mix of theory and more accessible texts. Some of my colleagues use Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate” in the intro class. Frankly, Steinem is not a theorist! She’s a journalist and a leader. Paglia is not a theorist, either. She’s a self-promoter. Whether you consider her a feminist is a judgment call. If I wanted to assign a critic of WGS, I might consider using a chapter from one of Daphne Patai’s books, I wouldn’t pick Paglia. Her writing is unfocused; she too often goes off on tangents and rants.

Carpentier also hated the journal she was asked to keep. I have some sympathy. I don’t assign student journals, myself. From my perspective, they require an awful lot of reading. They can devolve into navel-gazing unless you specify a lot of structure – at which point, I’d rather use a different form. But even when I give an assignment that requires reflection on one’s own values, I would never grade on “feministiness,” as Carpentier alleges her professor did. My colleagues who assign journals similarly don’t require students to toe a particular political line; they grade on students’ engagement with texts and ideas, or they simply assign a check for work completed. Not one of them uses “feministiness” as a criterion. If Carpentier created a “series of faux-incidents with which to populate” her journal, well, that was her choice, and I’m not sure she can blame her prof for that.

I’m glad that Carpentier reconnected with feminism through activism and blogging. I’m sorry she had a crappy professor. Like Shira, I’m all in favor of discussing how WGS do better in our research and teaching. Self-examination is an excellent thing. But if Carpentier is really interested in improving WGS as a field – and thus advancing feminism – she might start by expanding beyond her sample size of one. Otherwise, she’s only bashing it, not criticizing it constructively. Which, come to think of it, is exactly how anti-feminists respond to feminism in general, including – not least – feminist bloggers.

Update 6/8/10 (very belated!): In comments, Erniebufflo notes that Carpentier’s piece was first published at On the Issues Magazine – a more serious venue than HuffPo, to be sure – and that Carpentier is no longer a full-time editor at Jezebel. She’s still got a platform there, however, and she used it to discuss the HuffPo/On the Issues piece. Her emphasis at Jezebel was markedly different:

I thought she was cracked, but I was 19 and didn’t realize that “feminism” meant many different things to many different people, or that there was more than one way to be a feminist. Having been raised in a religious environment in which we were taught that there was one gospel, one Church and one way of looking at a set of issues, it didn’t occur to me that a political and social movement would or could be more multifaceted. I figured if she was a feminist, and feminists believed that about abortion, then I was obviously not a feminist.

Here, Carpentier makes clear that this prof in fact doesn’t represent feminism-as-a-whole. She observes the difference between her 19-year-old self and the woman she’s become, who now draws finer distinctions. That’s precisely what her original piece needed to do, but didn’t. The tone of discussion at Jezebel was very different, as a result, with the focus shifted off of Carpentier’s “cracked” professor and onto the commenters’ personal evolution toward feminism.

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I might just be in a pickle.

Technically speaking, I don’t teach ethnic studies. I teach women’s and gender studies, now with a smattering of history on the side.

And yet, if I were located in Arizona, I might just violate their newly-minted ban on teaching about “ethnic groups” (h/t to The Nation for the summary):

The bill bans classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.”

Also prohibited: all those classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.”

I haven’t promoted the overthrow of the U.S. government recently, but if anyone’s forming a cell of the Arizona Underground Liberation Movement for Disgusted College Teachers? Sign me right up!

I do teach about ethnicity, and ethnic resentments, and white privilege, and historical crimes against subordinated ethnic groups. That’s part of taking an intersectional approach to studying women and gender. Some of what I do could be construed as “advocating ethnic solidarity,” since even mentioning race is now a violation of the New Colorblind World Order. For instance, I teach Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, both of whom call for black solidarity while also reaching out to white allies.

But while teaching about race as an often-virulent social construction may promote ethnic solidarity – and even fully understandable resentment! – I don’t stop there. I try to challenge my white students to think about how one can be an ally. And none of this stops me from “treating pupils as individuals.”

Pitting solidarity against respect for individuals is just the sort of false dichotomy that one ought to expect, though, from people whose thinking is permanently impaired by black-and-white categories. Prejudice and hate are such a rotten match for critical thinking!

Consider the other class I’m teaching this quarter: Nazi Germany. Just today, I spent an hour lecturing on the myriad ways Jews were marginalized in the 1930s, from the ban on kosher butchering to the assault on Jewish artists and authors. You’d better believe I praised the solidarity Jews showed under fire! Otherwise it’s only a story of their victimization (which can become an instance of re-victimization). Would this advocacy of ethnic solidarity put me at odds with the Arizona law? The Nation reports that it wouldn’t – but why not?

Arizona seems to be creating good victims (European Jews) and bad victims (aspiring immigrants from Mexico). Most of the “good” victims are, of course, geographically distant and conveniently dead, while the “bad” ones are turning up in Arizona schools, curious about their own history.

But maybe the real question is: Does anything in this Arizona law (or its notorious predecessor) put it at odds with Nazi policies toward the Jews? Let’s see: A racially-specific requirement to carry identity papers? Check. Scapegoating of an ethnic group? Check. Limiting the role of that ethnic group in education? Check.

I don’t want to indulge in pat historical analogies. I do not think that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer intends to set up concentration camps – though the wall along the border is bad enough. I do not think she intends to issue shirts with a big fabric “I” patch – I for immigrant, I for illegal. I do not suspect her of planning to conscript anyone into forced labor, though she seems sanguine enough at the hypocritical status quo that allows Americans to eat cheap lettuce picked for dirt-cheap wages by precisely those people targeted by the new laws. Nor do I imagine she’s plotting to declare war against Mexico in order to radicalize Arizona’s policies under cover of war.

And yet, there’s plenty troubling about the Arizona laws. Scapegoating and marginalizing are cruel and unethical even if that’s where the damage ends. But they tend to take on their own dynamic. History doesn’t predict how, exactly, scapegoating will claim flesh-and-blood victims. History does teach that once scapegoating spreads, it’s unlikely to fade away without violence.

Also: I am just infuriated at a bunch of no-nothing legislators telling professors what they may teach!

Today, as I was in the midst of lecturing on the November Pogrom, massive thunderclaps shook my well-insulated lecture hall. It was occasion for a rare laugh, in a class where giggles are mighty scarce. It seemed as though an angry god was speaking straight to the topic. I don’t believe in divine intervention – not at all. But as a Republican, odds are that Governor Brewer does, and if so, I’m happy to say that an angry god left a message for her: The angels are on the side of ethnic studies. They sing praises of glory to solidarity. They abide righteously in academic freedom. And they see the hideous stain in your soul when you scapegoat fellow humans.

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Provoked by the discussion here, I’ve been thinking about how “evenhandedness” and “mediation” can become their opposites – how invoking these highminded concepts can inadvertently or deliberately undermine fairness.

I’m reminded of four instances where precisely that has happened.

1. Journalism: When science journalists give equal time to evolutionists and creationists, they are enhancing the credibility of creationists. They are not engaging in responsible, ethical journalism. There are not two valid sides to that dispute. Ditto for global warming scientists and the denialists. Ditto for opposition researchers who manage to slime their agenda into the mainstream media.

2. Academic integrity: Some years ago, my university’s Judiciaries recommended “mediation” instead of a university judicial hearing for a plagiarism case. A brand-new, untenured professor had caught a grad student who submitted a paper that was 90% copied directly from a book. The student’s well-connected, very senior advisor lobbied for him. The young professor started getting not-so-subtle pressure from his superior, who ironically taught an ethics course! This was not a situation where mediation was remotely applicable: One party had behaved ethically, while the other had blatantly broken the rules. (The untenured professor prevailed, a hearing was held, and the student was unanimously found to have plagiarized. Disclosure: I was not the prof in question, but I did say, “Wow, that student’s writing sure sounds like a book’s jacket blurb !” Lo and behold, it was.) “Mediation” in this case was a form of professional blackmail.

3. Workplace bullying: University officials are similarly pressing for “mediation” in a current situation where one faculty member has already been found by an internal investigation to have intimidated, bullied, and threatened three of his colleagues. I’m reluctant to link to the coverage of this case (I’m cowed too, and I don’t even work with him!), but I’ll do it anyway: this article at Inside Higher Education tells his side of the story, while trivializing the experience of his colleagues who were threatened. “Mediation” in this instance is a fig leaf for a university administration that’s unwilling to penalize the offender for fear he’ll sue.

4. Marriage and divorce: A couple I know are splitting up. The have a young child. He initially pushed hard for mediation to arrange for civilized, shared parenting. She refused. Her subsequent tactics have not been civilized. They’ve been dirty. “Scorched earth” points toward the general neighborhood. Now she is publicly complaining to the court that he is unwilling to enter into mediation. Here, “mediation” is a cudgel being used to make him look like he’s the intransigent party.

We all want to be reasonable people. (At least you all do, or you’d be reading a much more fiery blog!) I’m just deeply dismayed when “reasonable” and “fair” are warped into Social Darwinian weapons.

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