Monday, October 20, 2014

All Tech is Assistive Tech

I've written about Sara Hendren and her mantra - "All Technology is Assistive Technology" before - both in my review of John Scalzi's recent book (which is basically about assistive tech) and on the blog.

Hendren has a new piece over on Medium's Backchannel exploring her mantra with 6 rules on design and assistive tech. Please go read it. The piece says so much about definitions of disability, representation, inclusion, and so much more, too much to summarize. I'm thrilled to have Hendren working in such thoughtful ways on the design side. GO READ IT!

The rules are:

  1. Invisibility is overrated (it's ok to show the hearing aid)
  2. Rethink the default bodily experience (don't try to build of an abled model)
  3. Consider fine gradations of qualitative change. (small cheap little shifts can matter)
  4. Uncouple medical technologies from their diagnostic contexts. (this one is complex and hard to summarize in a little phrase. It's to take tech and remove it from the problem-solving of medical issues, I think, and consider affect).
  5. Design for one. (approach design for individual cases, though broader applications may emerge)
  6. And this is perhaps the most important: Let the tools you make ask questions, not just solve problems.
She finishes:
Let’s hope for objects that raise and suspend questions, and employ them alongside objects designed to solve problems. Then we can have a complex public conversation about needs and desires for interdependence. And about tools that provide assistance to every human body.
Every human body. Shoes are assistive tech. Shirts are assistive tech. Doorknobs are assistive tech. The work Hendren and her colleagues are doing to re-think our definitions is vital to our strange and unpredictable future that will be even more densely packed with human-technology interaction.




Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Roundup - 4 articles, 5 blog posts, and Book Proofs

It's been busy.

I got book proofs on Thursday for Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. That means that my writing will not so much stop, but will become erratic and not as predictable daily until proofs are done. Unless, you know, I get really pissed off about something.

In the meantime, I wrote/had published a lot over the last 10 days or so.

Two Friday's ago, CNN published an essay on Columbus. On Monday morning, for awhile, it was getting 1000 views a minute and my email, as a result, as been lively. So many people want to tell me about the Vikings, or wish I spent more time talking about rape and mutilation (this essay is for kids!), or attacked me for slandering the great hero of the Age of Discovery!

Then, for Monday, I had an essay about two novels published by the Chronicle. Both novels are set in the Middle Ages and were written by active medieval professors. This is actually pretty unusual, and, as I elaborated in my blog post, tells us something about public engagement.

On Tuesday, I wrote about a Jewish professor at Fordham who found himself accused of religious discrimination for threatening to fight and destroy the American Studies Department if it supported the BDS movement. While not wholly analogous to Salaita (because he didn't lose his job and had a process, if not so much due process), I emphasize that principles to academic freedom must apply to people with whom we disagree ... or we have no principles.

On Wednesday, Al Jazeera America published an essay on the discourse of cute and sweet in the world of Down Syndrome, a context that applies more broadly to other kinds of sweet-i-fiction (a word I just made up) of marginalized or minority groups.  I also wrote a blog post about my hypothesis of emotional intensification as a communication tool for some people with Down syndrome. I was taken to task, correctly, for over-generalizing from small amounts of data (mostly my son and my observation of people with DS locally). Still, I think the hypothesis is worth considering.

On Thursday, Chronicle Vitae published "Save the Overseas Seminar," on the disaster that is the new NEH policy. I also wrote a quick blog post summarizing my arguments. Much more to come on this.

Finally, the Lawsuit Against The Deputies who killed Ethan Saylor is proceeding. The judge explicitly talked about rapid force-escalation, a phenomenon I link to the Cult of Compliance.

I also hosted and ran the Midwest Medieval History Conference. It seems to have gone very well.

Have a great Sunday. Blogs will be erratic but I'll be around social media, perhaps doing more sharing of links than writing commentary.



Friday, October 17, 2014

#JusticeForEthan - Lawsuit Against Deputies Proceeds

In January 2012, three off-duty deputies killed a man with Down syndrome over the price of a movie ticket. Now, a civil lawsuit over Ethan Saylor's death is allowed to continue, as ruled by Judge William Nickerson, and reported here in the Washington Post.

If you are new to #JusticeForEthan, I have a few links to offer, culled quickly from my own record. There are lots of other pieces out there by many wonderful writers, and please go read them!
The judge's ruling, as quoted in the Post, basically asks the question - why did the deputies get violent so fast? There was no threat, just a non-compliant individual.

Regular readers of this blog will know my answer - these police are steeped in the cult of compliance.

It is, of course, more complicated than that. Ableism links to compliance. It's clear that the officers had no idea what to do with a non-compliant individual with Down syndrome, no sense that communication was possible, so they went physical, even when they were warned not to do so by Ethan's aide.

Ableism plays in the response, too. Ethan, a grown man wanting to watch a violent movie, was not cute. It took a long time to generate wide-spread response, as he didn't fit the semiotic pattern of what Down syndrome is supposed to be (i.e. cute, sweet, angelic).

Here are some key paragraphs about the judge's ruling from the article, all emphases mine.
The judge said the deputies could have waited for his caregiver or mother to coax him out of his seat or allow them to buy a ticket for the next show and let him stay.
“When the deputies were presented with these various alternatives, there was no emergent situation requiring any rapid response on their part,” Nickerson wrote.
Later in the piece:
Nickerson said the theater manager was correct to call security. But he questioned the deputies’ response. The judge said that Saylor did resist attempts to remove him but “responded in precisely the way” his aide “informed the deputies he would respond.”
The judge found it reasonable that Saylor would suffer “significant injury” when “the decision was made to drag an obese individual with a mental disability out of his chair and down a ramp.”
The judge noted the deputies’ defense: that they followed training in steadily escalating force to remove Saylor from his seat.
Once he refused their orders, it was reasonable to arrest him, and that made it reasonable for them to use force to handcuff him behind his back, he added. Saylor ended up on the floor, under the three deputies, and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.
Nickerson said that “perhaps the most significant unsettled question is the reason for the escalation in the deputies’ use of force.” He said that escalation “increased dramatically.”
To my reading, the reason for escalation in the use of force is that Saylor said, "fuck you," and then didn't comply, and so then the deputies did exactly was they had been taught and responded to non-compliance with escalating force.

It's wrong when the victim has Down syndrome.
It's also wrong to escalate at any time for anyone unless there is a threat. There was no threat here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Save the NEH ... from itself.

At the end of September I wrote a post about the arbitrary decision to end the NEH overseas summer seminars and institutes. It's packed with comments from people whose lives and careers were transformed by such programs.

Now I have a piece at Chronicle Vitae on my findings. They are:

  1. The NEH denies political pressure.
  2. The NEH cites budget issues but does not have any numbers. My research shows that the foreign seminars do not cost more than the domestic ones.
  3. The NEH cites maximum impact but has not done a study on impact. My research shows that the ability to access sites, artifacts, and documents has tremendous impact on careers, far more than domestic seminars (which are also REALLY GOOD PROGRAMS!).
  4. The NEH claims it still has programs that send scholars abroad. They mean flagship high profile scholarly fellowships which typically go only to the most elite professors. NEH Seminars included grad students, adjuncts, community college profs, teaching-school profs, and really everyone. 
I'm staying on this. I have FOIA documents coming in soon. Write them. Demand change. 

Write to William Rice - Director of Education Programs - wrice@neh.gov 

He made this change arbitrarily. He can unmake it arbitrarily.

You could write:

"Dear Dr. Rice,

I am writing to register my objection to your decision to stop supporting overseas Summer Seminars and Institutes.  The overseas programs have transformed the careers of educators in both secondary and higher education, from all types of institutions. They represented the best of what the NEH can do and I urge you to reconsider."

You could also write your Congressional Representatives. The oversee the NEH. Time to put on the pressure.

Because what will they arbitrarily cut next?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Empathy as Communication Strategy for People with Down Syndrome

My son is cute. Sometimes painfully so. He also has a kind of intensity to his love. Here's a story from my newest piece at Al Jazeera America (please read it and share it so they publish more pieces on disability!).
At the end of every day, Nico walks into the kitchen, wraps his arms around his chest, then says and signs the word “love.” He calls us — “Mommy!” “Daddy!” “Ellie!” We all come, he leans on a parental shoulder, and the four of us embrace for an intense daily moment of connection. His love is the glue that holds our family together. We are intensely lucky and happy.
This is complete true and, more important, it is Nico's ritual, not ours. He decided that he wants a group hug to complete his day, before snack and brushing his teeth. We, joyously, comply.

My piece today is against the notion of cute, or even "cuteness porn." I've written similar pieces on the "long game" (which cute doesn't really help, I think) and the word "angel," but this piece, I hope, fleshes out the ideas more fully. It was really sparked by seeing the community response to Richard Dawkins' statements about abortion (linked to in the Al Jazeera piece) and Down syndrome, in which so many parents responded by showing cute pictures, as if cute would refute Dawkins' eugenic principles. All it really does is, at most, slide the eugenic line to less cute people.

I'm not interested in cute. I'm not interested in physical appearance. I am, however, deeply interested in the intense emotional interactions that many people with Down syndrome bring to their everyday encounters.

Often this gets labeled sweet, innocent, or angelic. In fact, that's totally missing what typically happens. People with Down syndrome often - and my son Nico does this par excellence - intensify the emotions in a space around him. Happiness or sadness, funny or anger. This isn't passive, the intensification is deliberate and person. It's not an accident, either, as it's not reflection, but a taking of emotion and re-directing it.

I see it as a form of communication, one especially useful for people whose disability often results in a much greater ability for passive understanding than active speech.

This is, in general, the kind of shift I'd like us to see - from passive "he's so sweet" to active, "he uses his facility with emotion as a means of communicating." It's vital, because Nico can't consistently speak for himself, and I don't want to put words in his mouth. Instead, I'll watch, think hard, try to understand, and share what I perceive.

Now please, PLEASE, read and share my Al Jazeera piece. As a freelancer, I depend on you to help move my pieces to a wider audience, and am always grateful.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Civility Wars - What We Learn From Fordham

Throughout the intense debates on Steven Salaita, I clung to one message:

If you do not stand on principle for people with whom you disagree, you have no principles.

It was no problem generating support for Salaita's case (note, not Salaita, the case) for people who agreed with his critique of Israel, the challenge was insisting that people critical of his language must also stand with him, for the sake of academic freedom, due process, and the American university.

So I wrote, "Don't Speak Out," on public engagement in the aftermath of Salaita.

I wrote, "Fix the Hiring Calendar," on reshaping the timing of Board intervention in hiring.

I wrote blog posts about principle and the dual nature of Israel as both a haven for an oppressed minority and a regional superpower and how that complicates the discourse of public criticism of the state.

Today, I offer this story on a Jewish professor at Fordham who came under attack for his position in support of the Israeli government. And so I once again reiterate that the principles of academic freedom must be extended to all, even those with whom we disagree, or we have no principles. Because the pressures brought to bear on pro-Palestinians such as Salaita today can be brought on pro-Israel voices tomorrow. Fight for the principle, not the individual.

Here's the newest story, as I understand it.

The American Studies Department at Fordham voted to support the broader decision by the American Studies Association to endorse the Boycott-Divestment-Sanction movement intended to pressure Israel (in this case via its universities) to end the occupation. Six Jewish members of the department at Fordham, including the historian Doron Ben-Atar, left the program as a result. Then Ben-Atar got accused of religious discrimination and summoned before a hearing.

In The Tablet, Ben-Atar narrates:
During an emotional meeting convened to discuss the appropriate response to the measure, I stated that should Fordham’s program fail to distance itself from the boycott, I will resign from the program and fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry. The program’s director, Michelle McGee, in turn filed a complaint against me with the Title IX office, charging that I threatened to destroy the program. This spurious complaint (the meeting’s minutes demonstrated that I did not make such a threat) ushered me into a bruising summer that taught me much about my colleagues, the university, and the price I must be willing to pay for taking on the rising tide of anti-Zionism on American campuses.
After, the Title IX coordinator at Fordham, Coleman, asked to meet with him on an ill-defined question of a Title IX violation. Ben-Atar got an attorney, allegedly offered to meet with Coleman, but that never happened. In the end:
In late July, however, I received Coleman’s report in which she cleared me of the charge of religious discrimination. It was the first time that I learned what I was actually accused of doing, so I’m still not sure how opposing anti-Semitism amounts to religious discrimination. But Coleman was not satisfied to leave things at that. She went on to write that I refused to cooperate in the investigation (even though my attorney informed DeJulio weeks earlier of my willingness to meet her), and concluded that my decision to use an attorney was an indication of guilt. Coleman determined that in declaring I would quit the American Studies program should it not distance itself from anti-Semitism, I violated the university’s code of civility.
So let's parse some of this. This is not, to be sure, Kafka. Kafka speaks of secret courts with overwhelming power and secret charges; Ben-Atar had a single officer with limited power who ultimately decided he didn't do anything wrong. Still, the process was clearly flawed and Fordham should revisit these procedures. When being investigated, we all deserve to know what we're accused of doing.

I don't know what happened at that meeting of the Fordham American Studies department. I don't what words were said, but I'm sure they were angry in tone on all sides. I don't know what the consequences would have been for Ben-Atar had the officer found him to have violated Title IX, if then it would have moved into a more transparent phase. It's definitely all troubling.

Importantly, compared to Salaita, Ben-Atar remains employed, did have a process (if not perhaps due process), and seems to have been protected by the rules of tenure and rank. I'm sure it was troubling to him to be accused of religious discrimination.

Here's the key takeaway - The "next Salaita" could well be an ardent anti-Palestinian voice who lacks the protections of rank and tenure enjoyed by Ben-Atar. Ben-Atar cannot now move universities safely, lest he find himself in the liminal space in which Salaita became vulnerable. An ardent anti-Palestinian writer who lacks tenure could easily find themselves mired in a Salaita-like situation in which a risk-adverse administration decided not hire/tenure someone in the future.

Salaita needs to support Ben-Atar. More crucially, because Ben-Atar still has a job, Ben-Atar needs to support Salaita.

It is the only way to protect academic freedom.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Public Engagement - The Novelists

I write a mostly monthly column for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm interested in the way that both individual academics and institutions engage with issues and spread their expertise in the public sphere. My columns look at what people do and how it works within an academic career.

Recent columns are:
Today's column takes a different approach. I am writing about two novels, both set in the Middle Ages, both written by active medieval scholars. You should read both books!

Holsinger - A Burnable Book
Lucy Pick - Pigrimage

Here's my key review part of the essay, as opposed to the broader discussion of being an academic and a novelist:
Each of the two novels offers a distinct vision of medieval life. Both authors carefully deploy both invention and fact to erode myths about medieval people and society.
Pick describes the Middle Ages as "modernity’s closet," an imagined past from which we distance ourselves. For her, too many depictions of the period rely on horror and savagery or else depict a simplistic golden age of pure faith and chivalry. In Pilgrimage, she presents a textured view of medieval religion, explores the opportunities and limitations for women in that era, and filters it all through the experience of a character who is blind. Gebirga, the main character, leads the reader through the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of the medieval world. Pick’s novel dabbles in magical realism, letting the miraculous and sacred pierce through to the mundane and political. It isn’t fantasy, but an attempt to describe the whole of the medieval world, especially for pilgrims, as they would have believed it to be.
In contrast, Holsinger believes in grit. His London is a city of blood, semen, and savage realpolitik, with crowded bureaucracies and an angry church. In the halls of power, those who aren’t corrupt are compromised. It all seems terribly modern, and that is Holsinger’s point. We believe that complex political infighting, lawyers, and bureaucracy are aspects of the modern—or at least Renaissance—world. That’s a perception based on myth rather than historical truth. He gives us killers, lawyers, and manipulative bastards all shaped by their historical period, but who are also fully complex humans. He wants to break down the centuries of mythmaking about the Dark Ages. If those ages were dark, the novel suggests, so is today, and so is every era in which humans murder and betray for profit and power.
So read, review, share, and otherwise enjoy! Writing this piece was one of the most enjoyable tasks I've had as a journalist, as I got to read two wonderful novels and talk to their smart authors.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Columbus, Football, and Other American Myths


I started the week with a piece on the academic hiring process. It didn't get as much social media sharing as I think it deserves, not out of any ego, but because this lens displays a problem we can fix. It's not a big fix. It's not an answer to the huge power inequities in higher ed, but it's real. If you're in academic, please read it and consider sharing.

But the main business of the week was on American Myths.

I wrote a piece for CNN on Columbus. I actually first started drafting it a year ago for this blog post, then realized I had an essay here and could get it published if the timing was right.

Also, I didn't say this - I'd be happy to just end the holiday. My piece is about how to talk about it to my children until such time as it's off the calendar.

For CNN, I wrote:
In October 2013, my daughter came home from school excited about Christopher Columbus. He had come to visit her class! During his visit, he told the children that he had figured out the world was round and then bravely led his crew to discover America. Then they all made telescopes.
As a father and history professor, I was caught off-guard. Columbus actually didn't figure out the world was round. He didn't really discover America, either. And telescopes weren't around until about a century after Columbus died. But what do you tell a 5-year-old who has bought into a myth? And how do you do it without constructing an anti-myth, pegging the explorer as one of the most evil people to walk the Earth? What should we tell our children about Columbus?
In the piece, I try to write a nuanced explanation of the basics, which is always challenging in a sub-800-word piece. One of the elements I left out, coming from LeAnne Howe (who was wonderful to talk to on the subject), was the way that Europeans had no system for incorporating new peoples into their cosmology. For Europeans, the post-Flood diaspora of peoples, descending from Noah, provided a structure to account for the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Europe. It offered nothing to make sense of the Americas.

The indigenous peoples in the Americas, on the other hand, were very comfortable with the concept of new encounters and new peoples. The whole, "white man is a god" myth comes from later, post-conquest, discourse. At the time - they were just new, they had things to trade, and trade came naturally.

Otherwise, I'm satisfied with the piece and its reception, including the shouting, "COLUMBUS WAS A HERO" trolls and white supremacists yelling at me. That's a sign I've walked the line reasonably well.

Thanks to all who read and shared.

In other pieces on American myth:

I talked more about the ethical implications of watching Football.

I wrote about Disney's Racist and Orientalist Middle Ages, and the way that all the good guys are Americanized.

And finally, the History Wars: The American Right Will Not Surrender Their Myths.

All of these pieces, including Columbus, link up for me as examinations of American culture.

Meanwhile, too many police continue to kill and beat and abuse, mostly black people, mostly with impunity.

Next week:

A critique of "cute" in the Down syndrome world and reviews of two wonderful novels.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Are You Ready for some Football?

Last Sunday, my wife said to me, "I miss football." We miss the sound of it in the background on Sunday, checking in to watch games of meaning, chatting about it. I miss reading long weekly articles about each game and what to watch for. I miss playing, and winning sometimes, fantasy football. Watching football was a part of the rhythm of my week in the fall and winter, and I miss it.

But for me, watching football carries an ethical weight that is too heavy to bear. It means that my entertainment, and it really is just entertainment, is worth a game that by design slowly destroys the brains of its players. By design.

It also means that entertainment is worth supporting a corrupt business, a business that tries to conceal criminality from its employees while basking in jingoism. Here's the latest:

Former Bears Exec Jerry Angelo says he covered up "hundreds and hundreds" of domestic violence incidents during his thirty years in the league. Perhaps he's exaggerating. Perhaps he only means 150, or 75, or 230. We don't know yet.
Angelo, who was general manager of the Chicago Bears from 2001 to 2011 and has been out of the league since, said his typical approach after learning of a player's involvement in a domestic violence case was to inquire, "OK, is everybody OK? Yeah. How are they doing? Good. And then we'd just move on. We'd move on.''
"We knew it was wrong,'' Angelo said. "…For whatever reason, it just kind of got glossed over. I'm no psychiatrist, so I can't really get into what that part of it is. I'm just telling you how I was. I've got to look at myself first. And I was part of that, but I didn't stand alone.''
Later, though, he tells us what the reason was (hint: winning):
During Angelo's tenure as general manager with the Bears, the team won four division titles and reached the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. He was fired after the Bears finished 8-8 in 2011, a year after the team reached the NFC championship game.
Angelo said he did not report to the league cases of domestic violences involving players because disciplinary action would have put his team at a competitive disadvantage.
"Our business is to win games," Angelo said. "We've got to win games, and the commissioner's job is to make sure the credibility of the National Football League is held in the highest esteem. But to start with that, you have to know who's representing the shield.''
"We got our priorities a little out of order,'' he said.
The Bears have denied any knowledge.

This is the thing - if you watch football, there is an ethical consequence for you. It's a choice that you make. We make ethical tradeoffs all the time (I make bad ethical choices in my food consumption, for example).

What I want is for people watching football to say to themselves - in watching this game, I am being entertained by a sport that destroys brains and profits by protecting abusers. And then do whatever they want, conscious of the choices they are making.

Are you ready for some football?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Police Violence Roundup

Here are some stories I've been following. f the argument must call for strict enforcement of accountability.

This is a story about the warrior cop and the rise of SWAT - There's been no indictment in the case of a police officer who threw a flash-bang grenade into a house, where it landed on a 1 year old, disfiguring him. I'd like to say I don't understand how a jury could not find wrongdoing here, but I totally understand it. Civilians give the police wide latitude to do pretty much whatever they want unless a prosecutor leads the grand jury to an indictment.

Of course, getting an indictment is no sure thing. A manslaughter charge was dropped due to a technicality. The case involves a 7-year-old girl being shot and killed by an officer during a 2010 police raid in Detroit.

Meanwhile, an NYPD officer beat a man for holding a cigarette. “Do you wanna get fucked up?” the officer says. “Yeah, get it on film,” he tells the boy’s friends. That's the power of relative impunity from consequences.

Film has led to two police being suspended without pay for beating a man in the face, but as we've seen above, even if they file criminal charges, there's no guarantee it will lead to anything even with absolute unimpeachable evidence. In court, the men will argue that they perceived a possible threat and that the victim didn't comply, so they had no choice but to hit him. That argument often works.

Here's the big picture - if these are just bad apples, bad cops, bad lapses in judgement, bad luck - if it's not a structural problem, but bad individuals, then we have to hold these bad individuals to an absolutely rigid standard of accountability. They each must lose their jobs. Lose their badges. And go to jail. 

What happens instead is that the bad-actor argument protects police structures generally, while respect-for-cops protects the bad actors individually.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, police shot a man. Was he holding a gun or a sandwich?