Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gender and Bullying at 30,000 feet

Today, a set of tweets from the producer of The Bachelor, Bachelorette, and other programs contributing to the inanity of American culture and transmission of limiting gender norms has gone at least semi-viral.

According to this author at Huffington Post, he's a hero for standing up to an annoying airline passenger. And she does sound annoying.

But if you read the tweets, slowly but surely, the narrative for me shifts. Instead of being a story of chiding someone for being rude and self-centered, it's about a celebrity male bullying a woman, telling her to "eat her dick," provoking her, then using his media presence as a source for shaming.

I don't care how annoying "Diane" was. This isn't justified and it wouldn't have happened if Diane were a man, particularly a big man.

This is gendered. It is not heroic. It is bullying.

Friday, November 29, 2013

How we make Turkey

It's called the Thompson Turkey and most of the recipe is here. We've been making it in our family for a long time.

It involves three bowls for the stuffing - one of meat and bread, another spices, a third fruit, then mixing. A mustard paste coats the turkey. You turn it while cooking towards the end. You baste every 15 minutes for 5 hours.

I'm posting this recipe because I discovered a comment from 2009 at the bottom of the page.
This has been a tradition in my family since 1946. My mother discovered this recipe at the end of a short story in a book that she was editing for the GI's in WWII. The story was "Joe the Wounded Tennis Player," but the recipe was a non sequitor that was probably taken from his father's chef from the Saratoga Inn. My father thought it was a joke. But my mother claims that the second thing they did after he returned from Europe, was to go to Macy's to buy the ingredients for the stuffing. As a side note, this was the turkey that the Guthries: Arlo, Joady, Nora, and their mother, Marjorie, had at our house in Stockbridge, MA, on Thanksgiving in 1960. I've never tasted a turkey that came close to this one. It's simply the best and worth the effort.
It is the best. There are others that are also the best. But I'm sure this one is the best.

Also, this is clearly someone from my family. My mother claims it isn't her. Any volunteers?

Traditions matter. Off to play with the kids.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving and Genocide

Happy Thanksgiving.

As my children came home from school with paper pilgrims' hats and "Indian" headbands with feathers, I winced, I groaned, and I kept silent. They are 4 and 6. It's not time yet.

But here's a serious question, asking as both historian and parent, in lieu of a longer post on this busy day:

Can you talk about the origins of Thanksgiving, to children, without discussing genocide?  What about the religious bigotry of the early Protestant settlers?

I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

P.S. I'm Jewish

The following is a genuine email exchange. Names and locations have been changed as appropriate.

From: J. []
Sent: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 11:52 AM
To: Perry, David
Subject: Your beautiful article on pope Francis on

Thanks David for a very well written article on the pope.

First big surprise: It is written in correct English, a first for CNN!!!

Second big surprise: It is written by a person who does not have a non-believer perception of papacy, and of the catholic church.

While pragmatic and devoid of emotion, your article scored a few direct hits with me, and I thank God that you wrote it as you did. I do find Francis' attitude, his behaviour, to be very refreshing, while at the same time, not deviating from Christ's core teachings and those of the church. I do think that Francis, over the course of his papacy, will have brought a large number of people to the catholic church, or at least to Christianity as a whole.

Thanks again David, and may God bless you!

Dear J,

Thank you so much for writing. It means a lot to me when people read my work, think it makes sense, and reach out to let me know. So much of the discourse on the internet is hostile or otherwise just noise and shouting, rather than conversation.

That said, your comments have provoked a few thoughts that I thought I might share with you. I would be very careful making assumptions about the relationship between identity, especially public identity, and truth. I do try to write in a pragmatic, careful, way, making only what claims I feel I can support, as a way of building a case for my perspective.

But while I don't wear my religious identity in public, plenty of CNN writers do, so I think you're wrong there to see some kind of CNN anti-Catholic bias. They employ John Allen Jr., of National Catholic Reporter, one of the great writers on the papacy in the English-speaking world. He's on CNN all the time, including today, to talk about Francis' latest encyclical (which is quite something!).

More to the point, CNN also gives a platform to Bill Donohue, the arch-conservative Catholic who has built a message of division and rigidity into a highly profitable media profile. In fact, CNN published an essay of Donohue's right next to mine, in which he argued that Francis' papacy has a new tone but no new message. I disagree with Donohue. I wonder sometimes how he can justify his positions and his profits in light of Scripture, but I was glad CNN put our essays opposite each other.

At any rate, I just wanted to suggest that message and identity might not always be as linked as they appear, nor do I see evidence of anti-Catholic bias in CNN opinion selections.

But I really do thank you for writing. I am filled with joy when people read my essays, consider them, and respond positively. It's why I am a writer.


P.S. I'm Jewish

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Girls, Goldieblox, and the Perils of Princess Culture

I think about toys and gender a lot because of the ways that early experiences shape our brains. My daughter gets invited to a lot of parties - because almost every kid in her pre-school invites all the other kids in their class if they have a party. Well, not every kid. One girl invited all the girls to a "princess party." Come dressed as your favorite princess, the invite read. We skipped it. Our first instinct was to disrupt, to send Ellie as a Valkyrie or Pirate princess, but we can't force Ellie to match our agenda. I can't make Ellie the Trojan Horse (borrowing a metaphor from the blog I discuss below) of my feminist values. It's not Ellie's /job/ to be the agent of subversion, as much as I want her to do that. Her mom and I, our friends, our community, can just try to provide strong counter-models and offer her the tools to write her own narratives.

But princess culture everywhere. Lego offers girls "friends." If you eat McDonald's, and we do sometimes (it's a place Nico is happy to play on the slides while not eating anything they serve), they will ask for "boy" vs "girl" toy, even though they are not supposed to do so (according to unenforced corporate guidelines). Girl toys are pink, purple, and passive. Boy toys are multi-hued and active (cars or violent action figures). This is a problem for both genders, though in different ways.

All of which brings me to Goldieblox, also known as "Engineering toys for girls." They recently unveiled their newest toy. Not a spaceship. Not a car. Not a computer. Not an engineering lab. Not an underground lair. It's a parade float. With a crown. She's a daydream believer. She's the homecoming queen.

And the feminist blogosphere is in turmoil. 

A lot of friends sent me this fairly awesome ad (which parodies a sexist Beastie Boys song, itself derivative of "Shout," called "Girls," and has engendered a fairly hypocritical response from the Beastie Boys and a lot of bad publicity for them from hip maker types who have otherwise stayed loyal).

Here's the ad. It's definitely fun and you should watch it and then read the lyrics. Then I'll offer some thoughts with the help of a thoughtful post from @@deborahgirlwpen (Deborah Siegel).

So that's fun. Here are the lyrics, directly critical of princess culture.

Girls, you think you know what we want
Girls, pink and pretty's it's girls
Just like the fifties it's girls

You like to buy us pink toys
And everything else is for boys
And you can always get us dolls
And we'll grow up like them, false

It's time to change
We deserve to see a range
Cause all our toys look just the same
And we would like to use our brains

We are all more than princess maids

Girls, to build a spaceship
Girls, to code a new app
To grow up knowing
That they can engineer that

Girls, that's all we really need is girls
To bring us up to speed, it's girls
Our opportunity is girls
Don't underestimate girls

Note the direct critique of "princess" and "pink." Goldieblox is lavender and yellow. It focused on STEM, which I guess is fine, but I'm interested in creativity, not one special brand of creativity. But it definitely counters that Lego "friends" toy with which I started this essay. It's also sparked a real debate among feminist writers. Siegel has a round-up of some of the critiques, though I note everyone seems to think the advertisement and the subversion of the sexist song about "girls-as-objects" is pretty great. My emphasis below:
I’m in partial agreement with my feminist colleagues who are in outrage over the fact that GoldieBlox is selling a princess-themed toy. Many had been rooting for the start-up toy company, which started on Kickstarter, with a full on mission to spark a love for STEM in girls. They feel rightly let down that the sequel to the original product (a building toy, with a narrative story) features a princess tale. They critique the manufacturer’s market-straddling approach. Writes media studies scholar Rebecca Hains, “GoldieBlox is having it both ways: appealing to parents with anti-princess rhetoric and then, in stores, selling girls on a princess-themed toy.”...
Melissa Atkins Wardy (whose new book, Redefining Girly, will be published on January 1), perhaps says it best: “[W]hen we use princess culture, pinkification, and beauty norms to sell STEM toys to girls and fool ourselves that we are amazing and progressive and raising an incredible generation of female engineers we continue to sell our girls short. It is the equivalent of covering broccoli in melted processed cheese and thinking we’ve very served a healthy meal.”
Wardy is asking - Do we have to use princesses and pretty to sell products to girls?Can we trust girls to buy toys not covered in lavender?

I have to say that I find these critiques persuasive. I have tried, personally, to re-brand Disney princesses (gifts to my daughter. Please don't get us anymore, if you're reading this blog. Although I appreciate the thought! And Barbie is out too), as "Norns," or other powerful queens of the universe riding their three-headed Dragon (it's a cool puppet) and otherwise being active. Am I trying to "boy" Ellie in this? I'm definitely trying to de-princess her toys and make them strong. I'm trying to work against the grain, as always, knowing that the larger society will give her plenty of ideas that run counter to mine. And if you're horrified, don't be, because I'm totally failing. The ubiquity of princess culture means that my micro-efforts are almost irrelevant. At best, as I said above, I might be giving her the tools to I generate counter-narratives should she want to do so. 

Because there's nothing wrong with choosing to play as a princess, so long as the choice is made in an array of other choices, not pushed there by default and the pressures on our sub-consciousnesses to conform.

So if Princess culture can't be escaped, then what do we make of Goldieblox and their ad (in contention for the Superbowl). Siegel suggests that maybe what Goldieblox is doing, by selling out to girls with princess toys, might not be so bad. It's sneaky. It's subversion. And we should recognize that it creates a pathway into the homes, hearts, and minds of people who are not feminists or even anti-feminists.
I’m not convinced the ad isn’t progress. I’ve watched every video GoldieBlox has produced and have gotten teary over every one. I’ve played with the original toy in the Marbles store with my 4-year-old daughter (no princesses in that one) and am still considering it as a Hannukah gift. I’m a sucker, perhaps, and an easy target. But let’s put personal reaction aside.
I believe in evolution, as well as revolution. I’m a writer who wrote a book on feminism and let her publisher slap on a hot pink cover. I wanted people–and young women in particular–who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book on the women’s movement to read about it. And they did.
I find Siegel's thoughts persuasive as well. In other words, I'm torn.

But here's a deeper question. Is this a divide between waves of feminism? The feminists of the 70s and their children grew up in a world of browns, yellow, greens, and de-stablized gender norms in child-related marketing. The millenial feminists and those slightly older, just having children, seem just as wedded to causes of equality and the battle against patriarchy, but are often seemingly less concerned with the color pink and all its ilk. This is just an impression of mine, not based on data, but it's an impression I have re-confirmed all the time as I survey feminist discourse across generations.

That doesn't mean that the new waves are correct, but in Goldieblox we have an interesting test case to see how it sells, see what kind of messages it encodes, and to see, ultimately, if our kids play with it by choice.

Maybe I should go shopping for presents now.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Motherhood: Not the most important job, because "job" metaphors devalue.

Earlier in the week, the Australian writer Catherine Deveney published a piece on motherhood and discourse in The Guardian. It mirrors some of my own arguments about the ways that our emphasis on motherhood is bad for women and men, albeit in different ways.

She opens by talking about the line, "Motherhood is the most important job in the world," writing (emphasis mine):

For any woman who uses that line, consider this: if this is meant to exalt motherhood, then why is the line always used to sell toilet cleaner? And if being a mother is that important, why aren’t all the highly paid men with stellar careers not devoting their lives to raising children? After all, I never hear "being a father is the most important job in the world".
Now the commercial use of things we allegedly value is a much bigger topic. One could talk about the way we market the armed forces then use patriotic symbols to sell everything from cars to cereal, or the way fatherhood is likewise marketed (man strong!), or the small family farm, or whatever. But it's true, on a marketing level, the "mom" is used to sell household cleaning products and products related to child-rearing.
The deification of mothers not only delegitimises the relationship fathers, neighbours, friends, grandparents, teachers and carers have with children, it also diminishes the immense worth and value of these relationships. How do gay dads feel about this line, I wonder? Or the single dads, stepdads or granddads? No matter how devoted and hard working you are, fellas, you’ll always be second best.
And yes, that pisses me off. I work damn hard as a caregiver, and somedays I succeed better than others, I get irritated when I hear, "well, sometimes it just takes a mom to ..." My internal response is always, "You have no idea how we order our lives." Sometimes, perceived traditional gender roles to make the most sense for a given period or situation, but only sometimes, and always intentionally. We try never to let society's sense of who should and can do what dictate our systems of parenting.
 Or is a "mother" simply a term to describe an expectation to care for children without payment? Is this empty slogan used to compensate women for gouging holes from potential careers by spending years out of the workplace without recognition?
Enabling this dogma devalues the unpaid labor of rearing children as much as it strategically devalues women’s worth at work. If being a mother were a job there’d be a selection process, pay, holidays, a superior to report to, performance assessments, Friday drinks, and you could resign from your job and get another one because you didn’t like the people you were working with. It’s not a vocation either – being a mother is a relationship.
 And here is the really important point from this piece to me. As soon as we construct motherhood as "job," our analysis has to fall into all the complex issues related to labor and value. That's fine if you live in a privileged prestige economy, but most people don't. Employers treat their workers as disposable, or as the enemy to underpay and exploit to the extent the law and market will bear (all while lobbying to keep the law on their side). Employees are forced to choose between work and family, pushed away from integration into a whole. "Job" is not a value-added term in our lexicon, at least not for most people who need jobs or are trapped in one or underemployed etc.
It really is time to drop the slogan. It only encourages mothers to stay socially and financially hobbled, it alienates fathers, discourages other significant relationships between children and adults and allows men to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with heteronormative roles in nuclear families (despite men sucked into this having their choices limited as well).
Turning back to men, Deveney makes the points that I want to make as well: Fathers are alienated, benefit from perceived traditional roles, but - and it's far more than a parentheses for me of course - are severely limited in how they can express themselves as man or father.

Father. Mother. Working. Stay at home. Tag-team. These are choices. Relationships. Trade-offs. Not jobs.

Speaking of jobs, can we fix those other labor issues too while we're at it?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Roundup

Some weeks, when I look back at my posts, I admit to myself that I leaned heavily on other writers, linked to them, and provided little new content of my own. But this last week was different, if I may say so myself. I write these round-ups in hopes of catching a few more readers for some of the better pieces and I think there were a number of important issues that emerged over the week. Please read. Please share if you like something. Maybe your friends will too.

  • Monday: I took on Autism Speaks, citing two powerful essays that critique the popular, well-funded, and well-meaning charity (it's the Komen foundation of Autism Charities) for 1) Not having anyone with autism actually "speak" for the organization. 2)  Their war metaphors.  Read this and share it, as you know people who are donating to Autism Speaks. I recommend the "Autism Self-Advocacy Network." Their motto is "nothing about us without us." I'm in.
  • Tuesday: I took on academic conference interviews as an issue of economic justice. This piece was widely shared, for which I am grateful, and contested politely, for which I am also grateful. I like pushback and counter-opinions, and I don't pretend this issue is simple. But I do think I'm right. And on Wednesday I expanded on the first essay to explain why.
  • Thursday: More academia. The founder of Udacity, a big for-profit MOOC maker, packed up his toys and went home. I rely on a few smart commentators to parse the fallout and what comes next.
  • Friday: Inclusion is not same-ness, holiday version. I explore Ellen Lonquist's thoughts on holidays for families with special needs.
  • Saturday: Another chapter in the cult of compliance, this time in a Miami Gardens convenience store.
  • Sunday: And earlier today, the highlight of my week, Nico's holiday show and more on inclusion not being same-ness, this time with super awesome cute video.
Thank you for reading.

Inclusion not Same-ness: Nico's holiday performance

As promised on Friday, here's a video of Nico's fall performance that illustrates my principle of "inclusion, not same-ness." Inclusion is complicated. We demand reasonable accommodations, and we sometimes get them without litigating "reasonable," but inclusion requires thoughtful, intentional, good-will from all parties.

Sometimes inclusion means bringing someone into a group and enabling them to do the same thing as everyone else through some clever means. Sometimes they need to be included by sitting on the edge or the fringe, present but not in the group. Sometimes, inclusion means creating space for an entirely different expression of self or participation in an activity or class. Inclusion requires creativity and highly individual solutions to problems.

Inclusion also operates in the passive voice. A person is included. The action comes from the rest of us in this construction. But in fact inclusion requires action from everyone, and that's what I love about this video. The whole first grade, the special ed program, the music teachers, and really all the kids and parents, created a space for Nico to be included. Then Nico included himself by taking center-stage. There are three songs and they get better, with the third Nico acting as "junior band-leader," holding up signs that say "Boys" and "Girls," helping the music teacher direct who gobbles at any given time.

It's also a sign of growth, as during the last two years he really refused to participate during the performances, overwhelmed by noise and so many people.

So congrats to Nico and to his school for creating a space for Nico and for understanding that to be included, he'd need a different space than everyone else. He cannot stand on a riser and sing like the other kids, so what to do? Watch and smile.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cult of Compliance: Miami Convenience Store Edition

On Thursday, a vigil was held for Ethan Saylor, the man with Down syndrome whose death led me to coin the phrase, "cult of compliance." I see the consequences of that cult everywhere. It's a world in which police demand total compliance and use lack-of-compliance as justification for abuses both small and great (and fatal).

A lot of people have been sharing this story from Miami Gardens, in which a store-owner installed cameras in order to catch police harassing his employees and customers.

Earl Sampson has been stopped and questioned by Miami Gardens police 258 times in four years.
He’s been searched more than 100 times. And arrested and jailed 56 times.
Despite his long rap sheet, Sampson, 28, has never been convicted of anything more serious than possession of marijuana.
Miami Gardens police have arrested Sampson 62 times for one offense: trespassing.
Almost every citation was issued at the same place: the 207 Quickstop, a convenience store on 207th Street in Miami Gardens.
But Sampson isn’t loitering. He works as a clerk at the Quickstop.
So how can he be trespassing when he works there?
It’s a question the store’s owner, Alex Saleh, 36, has been asking for more than a year as he watched Sampson, his other employees and his customers, day after day, being stopped and frisked by Miami Gardens police. Most of them, like Sampson, are poor and black.

Read more here:
258 times in 4 years for trespassing at one's place of employment.

Since he installed the cameras in June 2012 he has collected more than two dozen videos, some of which have been obtained by the Miami Herald. Those tapes, and Sampson’s 38-page criminal history — including charges never even pursued by prosecutors — raise some troubling questions about the conduct of the city’s police officers.
The videos show, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and arresting them for trespassing when they have permission to be on the premises; officers conducting searches of Saleh’s business without search warrants or permission; using what appears to be excessive force on subjects who are clearly not resisting arrest and filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.
It's a long piece and worth reading. The deep issues here are about race, class, and the police. But for me, I keep thinking how the cult of compliance enables these kinds of abuses, it builds in justifications and strips away the protections we hold dear.

Read more here:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Inclusion and not Same-ness

Not what my family looks like
A few weeks ago I offered my philosophy on inclusion, illustrated with a picture of Nico dancing in the middle of a circle of musicians. I called it "inclusion, not same-ness."

Sometimes, inclusion means people with disabilities get to do things that not everyone can do. Sometimes inclusion means that people with disabilities do not do the typical things and don't engage, but still have a meaningful experience while on the fringes. Sometimes they do the typical things but in a different time frame. And sometimes, there's no difference.

The key is to keep the goal, inclusion, in mind, and not focus on same-ness. I see lots of people make this mistake in their interactions with people with disabilities (or just people with different ideas of what constitutes a good time). At parties, for example, I have so many friends deeply content to be in a room with other people reading a book in the corner. They are included. They are happy. Check in with them. But don't push to impose your value of "party" on others.

Mostly, I make this mistake all the time, either explicitly or in my quiet thoughts, sometimes laden with sadness, when I want Nico to find pleasure in the things that please me. And they don't always. And some may never be a part of his life. And it's ok to be sad. But what matters is inclusion.

Ellen Lonquist, a therapist and a mother of a boy with Down Syndrome who lives in the area, has written a great piece on What Families With Special Needs Wish People Knew For The Holidays. Here are some excerpts, all of which Lonquist illustrates with quotes from real parents (I know some of them). The first one basically argues for inclusion, not same-ness.

Many families named their wish that people would understand that their kids don’t always find the magic in the usual places- whether it be spinning the dreidl or visiting Santa. Many parents have had to let go of their own wish for their kids to respond to holiday traditions as they did or their other children do and have had to accept a different picture- it can hurt to renegotiate this acceptance with every push from yet another family member. Try to realize that every kid has a different experience.
 That's certainly true for Nico, and I LOVE the followup quote from the piece, with Lonquist's own comment.
“Johnny doesn’t get Santa. And doesn’t care,” says Anna, whose 6-year-old has Down Syndrome. My son, who also has Down Syndrome, LOVES Santa… but he loves all jolly, grandfatherly men. He loves our local crossing guard with equal enthusiasm.
Nico likes to go up to men, put his hand on their bellies, and say, "Hiiiiiiiii." I'm trying to convince him that words, not hands, are appropriate. I have failed so far.

You should read the whole piece as it moves between practical and ways-of-thinking. Here's one practical note with which I'll conclude as we head towards the Thanksgiving Holidays.

Safety issues

Many kids with special needs take off when the spirit moves them. And they take off quickly. “It would be so helpful if people would secure their houses- doors and maybe dangerous basement rooms.  We tell people they need to baby-proof, but to remember that he has the capability of a 12-year-old to figure out locks. But they still don’t quite get it, and then he’s running off into traffic or down the street,” says Hannah, whose 8 year-old-son has autism. Ask parents about reasonable interventions to keep their child safe- or be prepared for them to have to follow their child around all day.
This is one of the most exhausting parts of traveling. This summer we were at my brother's house and Nico got out the front door. We were getting ready for a walk and the door got unlocked and Nico just walked out and was halfway down the street talking to someone driving in a car by the time I came sprinting down to get him. I live with my head on a swivel when I'm in an unfamiliar place, never quite knowing how Nico will react. I hover. I over-protect. This is why.

This is also part of inclusion, being ready to adapt your environment in such a way that you can include the parents, too, and make them feel comfortable that their child will be comfortable.

I intend some light blogging days over the next week as I'll be busy hosting Thanksgiving for the first time. But we'll see. And once there's video, I'll show you one of the greatest examples of inclusion, not-sameness, in the history of history, featuring my son at his school performance yesterday. So stay tuned!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

MOOCS After Thune

.gif from Michael Branson Smith with full credits here.
The academic slices of the internet are abuzz with the retreat of Sebastian Thune, lord of the MOOCs. He thought tech could fix all our problems with higher education and blazed his way into San Jose State's curriculum.

It turns out, as now has been widely reported, that the best teaching takes attentive, carefully-crafted, intentional curriculum design and implementation, taking into account the specific needs, skills, and interests of a given student body. Every professional teacher that I know already knows this, even if sometimes we don't achieve at our highest levels every day, or even every course.

MOOCs, on the other hand, reify rote content-delivery. It didn't work at San Jose State and Thrun has retreated from the audacious claims of Udacity. Tressie McMillan Cotton wrote a devastating response to Thrun's retreat. It's been widely shared, but the specifics of her response deserve as much airtime as they can get:
After low performance rates, low student satisfaction and faculty revolt, Thrun announced this week that he has given up on MOOCs as a vision for higher education disruption.    The “godfather of free online education” says that the racially, economically diverse students at SJSU,“were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.” It seems disruption is hard when poor people insist on existing.

Thrun has the right to fail. That’s just business. But he shouldn’t have the right to fail students like those at San Jose State and the public universities that serve them for the sake of doing business.
Class, race (implicitly), access - these things doomed Thrun's experiment. This is not surprising to any of us who work with non-elite students. Most of them can succeed in college, but it takes more than a system of remote content delivery.

But chortle not, o fellow academic, but instead look at Cotton's second paragraph. Actual students, real people, people a lot like my students, were experimented on by Thrun, and they were failed.
Cotton compares Thrun's process, wining and dining and TEDing (a new verb) elites in order to get access to SJSU's students to her own process of experimenting with teaching.

Many faculty members questioned the morality of a publicly funded college with a mission to serve diverse students should spend tax-payer money and invest the hopes of students with fewer options than those at the Stanfords of the world into being Thrun’s guinea pigs. It is a fair question that in many ways the academic and scientific communities have already answered with a resounding no. When I want to interview students for a research project I have to present a carefully, detailed plan to my University for approval. The plan is vetted by an Institutional Review Board.
She then continues to talk about the dirty history of American science which tested all sorts of drugs, procedures, and techniques on humans without informed consent or appropriate risk assessment.

I'm actually in the midst of my first IRB-approved study. I've created a new version of "Western Civ," the oldest chestnut in the history curriculum, as a first-semester Freshman course meant to build skills that they can carry across their college experience, while also doing the job of introducing them to historical content and historical thinking. Is it working? I think so, but I'm collecting data, and I had to go through an appropriate process to collect that data in order to make sure it was safe for the students. Even then, I gave them the option to opt-in or opt-out and I won't know how many chose to opt-in until after grades are submitted. This is appropriate to my task at hand, even if it sometimes seems annoying (I'm not giving them drugs, just copying their papers and thinking hard about learning), and I was more than willing to do it.

Connor's indictment of Thrun & Co's disregard for the needs of the students is scathing. Emphases mine:
Udacity always knew that the non-completion rates were high for its courses. They may not have known why, but that was a reason for greater testing, not a reason to roll-out the for-profit product for University clients. With sanction from the California governor on down the political line, Udacity  had to meet no ethical requirement to prove that the risk of failure was worth the promise of rewards. And what was promised? University partners could prove they were innovative, forward-thinking, and cut expensive faculty out of the complex equation of teaching students.
To prove that teachers don’t matter and Stanford knows best what the world needs, a public university gave a for-profit company unfettered authority to experiment on its students without informed student consent or consideration of an ethical threshold. We may need more experimentation in higher education but it should be as explicit and ethical as any other we conduct in the name of science and progress.
Thrun says it wasn’t a failure. It was a lesson. But for the students who invested time and tuition in an experiment foisted on them by the  of stewards public highered trusts, failure is a lesson they didn’t need. Students like those at SJSU tend to know quite a bit about failure — institutional, social, and political. They did not need to learn again what Thrun, a smart guy from Stanford and Google, could have learned from a book.
Again, a public university told a for-profit company to go ahead and experiment on students who most need our attention.

As an aside, and perhaps a plug, this is one of the reasons why I love teaching at Dominican University. We provide intense, relationship-centered, teaching to students that skew first-generation and increasingly Latino/a (some ESL, more bilingual, I think). Some of our students would thrive anywhere, but others need to match their own hard work and motivation with the highly specific efforts of Dominican's faculty and staff. We try to create an environment designed to bring out their best qualities and reduce the power of the obstacles they carry with them. When we succeed, when I've seen it succeed, it's breathtaking for everyone involved.

But we don't have to bury MOOCs, even as hopefully we bid farewell to the likes of Thrun.Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Matt Reed also weighs in on the issue, beginning with a long discussion of Udacity's failures. But he concludes on this note:
 The great danger at this point, now that the MOOC backlash is kicking into gear, is missing the positive possibilities that MOOCs and other innovations offer. I understand the impulse to wipe a collective brow and sigh with relief -- or, let’s face it, crack snarky jokes -- at Thrun’s discovery of what we on campuses have long known. But leaving it at that would be a mistake. 
At their best, colleges are bundles of resources knit together by a shared mission. MOOCs, OER, and other new technology offer new resources to incorporate into the bundle.  As I argued in January, professors can use MOOCs now much as they have used BOOKs over the years.  Like books, MOOCs can perform some of the raw explication outside of class that allows for higher-order discussion and application in class.  Instead of replacing classes, they can make classes better.  That’s no small thing.
So farewell, Sebastian Thrun. You overshot, and failed, but you left behind a nifty resource that we can use in ways you never seriously considered. 
I don't know that this is the "great" danger, as I suspect the great danger is the continued attempt to wedge corporate models and meaningless testing into higher ed, a process that already happened in secondary ed. But Reed is right that the lesson here is not to reject tech or new ways to deliver content.

It's just that means of content-delivery can NEVER be the pedagogical innovation by themselves, but have to reflect deeper understanding of how learning happens. Means of content-delivery are just tools. We have lots of tools as teachers. What makes a great teacher is figuring out which tool to apply to the situation at hand, a dialectical process involving study, experimentation, and sometimes just asking the students.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Conference Interviews - Not Worthless; Still worth replacing

More thoughts on academic cattle calls
Over the past few weeks, I have been watching graduate students, adjuncts, and people on fixed-term appointments struggling with the decision of whether or not to book plane tickets and hotel reservations for their academic conferences. None of them have received interviews yet, all of them hope to do so, and are playing the game of wondering whether to buy when the tickets are cheap or wait until the last minute.

There's a problem here. If, by the time the conference comes close, they have received at least one interview, then they really have to go. If they do NOT receive any interviews, though, they can't cancel, because an interview could always come up the next day.

Yesterday, I argued that this system was a problem. I wrote:
But this small injustice is easy to fix. We can stop making the vulnerable, poor, hopeful, desperate members of our community pay to attend a conference in order to have a chance at a job. We can just change it. We can change it this afternoon.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was enormously privileged during my time on the job market.  First, I had a bunch of interviews and got at least one relatively early in the process, both years. Second, it only took two years. Third, my university (Minnesota) did a great job preparing us to enter the job market, with help developing portfolios, practice interviews and job talks, teaching development, and more. Fourth, I was working as an adjunct at St. Olaf for my first AHA and a visiting prof at Macalester for my second - in both cases, these spectacular colleges helped fund my travel to the AHA. Fifth, and finally, I had my parents.

Both of my parents are history professors. When I went to the AHA, my mom and dad were right there, ready to support me whenever I needed it, but staying out of the way when I needed that instead. They took me out to dinner and on both occasions I got to dine with other historians. They'd help me parse my interviews, think about what I needed to say, and encourage me. None of this is fair and I spend a lot of time thinking about my privilege and how we might change the playing field to make these benefits less necessary.

Because we are seeing an accelerating process in which academia becomes closed to people who do not come from privilege. This is not a new problem, but that doesn't mean we have to just accept it as done. We can change systems in feasible ways to support entry to academic life for those who lack privilege.

Across various social media sites, yesterday's posts received a lot of feedback. Many responses were supportive and I appreciate those. But I'm also interested in the gentle, thoughtful, pushback from various and sundry academics I know in my social media world. I thought the counter-arguments were interesting and have summarized some of them here. Basically, I agree with all the defenses of the conference and the conference interview as important and useful. But to me, they do not override the fundamental economic issues.
  • The AHA has slashed costs for membership and conference fees for graduate students and entry-level/non-tenure-track faculty. 
 This is great news. It doesn't solve travel and hotel costs, but it definitely helps.
  • One person with knowledge of the budget said that the conference is not a major provider of income for the MLA
 I do have this sense that the conferences suck money from people who can't afford it in order to fund their other activities. That sense may be completely unjustified and I should re-examine my own biases here. And collect data.
  •  Going to a conference is a sign that the institution is serious about the job, the department, and that their funding is in good order.
I don't remember thinking in quite these terms. I did phone interviews and conference interviews and did look for signs of financial stability, but didn't make that equation in my head. I believe that others do. I remember seeing Dominican's new science building and thinking that at least they had decent credit if they could get that built.

So I guess the return question is how does one code for wealth/stability without booking a suite at the conference hotel?
  • Quite a few people argued that attending national conferences is GOOD for graduate students. The AHA, for example, holds all kinds of formal programing to help graduate students learn how to navigate the professional world. I'm sure other conferences do likewise. Also there's lots of informal networking and professionalization that goes on, just by participating in conference life.
This is exactly the kind of knowledge I soaked up through privilege and want to make available to everyone. These programs and experiences are essential.

But I wonder how these programs could be delivered if entirely divorced from the job interview process? Could regional conferences pick some of this up? Would networking at the annual meeting attract students to the national meeting, at least once, to get this experience? Because while these programs matter, so many of the people struggling at the conferences are not raw graduate students, but early professors who are wandering through the wilderness of contingent labor. I'm sure the conferences are good for them too, in terms of networking, sharing ideas and strategies, and even advocating for change in the profession.

But none of these defenses of the conference, defenses with which I agree, relate to the mandatory attendance and outlay of funds for job seekers desperate for a first-round interview. They are adjacent to the interview.
  • Graduate schools should pay to go to the major interview conference
And some do. I agree that all schools should do this, but in practice it creates a have/have-not situation. And what about the adjuncting faculty without conference support who are trying to move into the tenure-track?
  • Conference interviews are a vast improvement on the "old-boy" network that pre-dated them. I know this to be true from many conversations with academics who started their careers in the 60s and the stories that they tell about how they get their jobs.
The conference system is more equitable, and in an era when universities relied less on adjunct labor (even if the job market was still tough), the benefits of both going to the conference added to the increased fairness of the interview seems like a workable system.

But times have changed.
  • Skype interviews are not really all that good. They can be buggy and hard to process what's going on for both interviewers and candidates.
Here are two of my interview stories. I received a phone call for my phone interview and just couldn't hear it. They tried turning up their phone, but of course the real issue was that my phone just wasn't loud enough for this particular call, even though it was usually fine. I couldn't tell who was talking, I couldn't read facial expressions, I could barely hear, and I hated it. All of my skills as an interviewee were muffled, and the thought that other candidates were having just as tough a time didn't make me feel any better.

At a conference, I went to interview with an R1 school in a suite in a hotel. I sat down, we did introductions, and then an interviewer asked me about my dissertation. I went into my spiel, which in retrospect maybe was structured the wrong way. I said, "There are two small contributions and one MAJOR one, the first small one is ..." and there was a knock at the door. Housekeeping. They dealt with that. I started talking again and the phone rang. Not long after, the next job candidate, early, knocked on the door. So by the time I finished talking about my dissertation, the small contributions dwarfed the big one and I don't think my scholarship sounded especially impressive.

As for the cattle call in the big interview rooms at these conferences, they are deeply unhappy places, as you wait, dehumanized, surrounded by your competitors and colleagues, then have to sell yourself amidst the hubbub . It's functional but awful

My point is that all formats of interviews have problems in terms of how they go for people on both sides of the table. The best option? Clearly, it's face-to-face interviews in the living room of a private suite with candidates who have travel funding. But that's not realistic. It's not doable.

As opposed to making video-conference interview the norm. Again, we could do this, as a profession, tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Academic Conferences

The conference interview as cattle call.
In academia, for those not in our small world, job applications in many fields work as follows: 1) Submit applications 1a) Get request for more materials. 2) Go to first-round interview at national conference (10-15 people) 3) Get on-campus interview (3-4 people) 4) Get job.

Below follows something of a manifesto, perhaps even a rant, though I have tried to stay calm.

Phase 2, the conference interview, has to go. Skype works. The current system is exploitative, helping fund national organizations by taking money from the poorest members of our community who have no choice but to pay if they want any chance of academic work. It's not right. And we can stop it tomorrow.

All of these conferences are very expensive. You have to join the organization first then buy conference membership. Then you have to travel. Maybe you're lucky and the conference is in driving distance, but I've been to my annual meetings in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Diego. This year is Washington. Travel is expensive. Hotels and food follow, and so forth. One can easily spend well over $1000 for a 1-12 chance of getting a second interview, which is pretty hard on a graduate student stipend (mine was less than $12,000 most years). And sure, if you are lucky, you might have multiple 1-12 chances, which makes it a little less awful, but only a little.

And costs for the people who DO have at least one interview at least have that 1-12 chance. The travel arrangements have to be made either BEFORE you find out if you have an interview or you risk the high prices of last-minute airline travel (plus loss of the conference room block). So applicants either have to book hotels and arrange for travel long before they find out whether they have any interviews, or wait and find plane tickets skyrocketing.

I don't have the data on how much money job applicants bring to their respective organizations, but I suspect it's not a small amount. It would hurt to lose this revenue, and surely they have already lost some as colleges and universities swap to Skype in order to save their money. But they should lose more. No applicants, in this world of debt-ridden grad students, broke universities that don't offer travel funding, and tenuous adjunct employees, should ever be expected to shell out a penny for the right to maybe interview for a job.

Of course, I'm not the first person to talk about this problem. Here's Sarah Kenzdior, a former academic and one of my favorite writers on economic justice, class, and its many tragedies: 
The American Anthropological Association meeting is held annually to showcase research from around the world, and like thousands of other anthropologists, I am paying to play: $650 for airfare, $400 for three nights in a "student" hotel, $70 for membership, and $94 for admission. The latter two fees are student rates. If I were an unemployed or underemployed scholar, the rates would double.

The theme of this year's meeting is "Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies." According to the explanation on the American Anthropological Association website, we live in a time when "the meaning and location of differences, both intellectually and morally, have been rearranged".  As the conference progresses, I begin to see what they mean. I am listening to the speaker bemoan the exploitative practices of the neoliberal model when a friend of mine taps me on the shoulder.
"I spent almost my entire salary to be here," she says.
 Why is my friend, a smart woman with no money, spending nearly $2000 to attend a conference she cannot afford? She is looking for a way out. In America, academic hiring is rigid and seasonal. Each discipline has a conference, usually held in the fall, where interviews take place. These interviews can be announced days or even hours in advance, so most people book beforehand, often to receive no interviews at all.
I'm a little less grim about academia than she is in some ways, and I think we both agree that the problems with academia mirror the larger patterns of class-war and social injustice that have taken over the allegedly "first" world. It's just that academia once seemed an exception, and now it's not.

Well, I don't have solutions to the big structural issues in Higher Ed, including: How to reverse the tide of adjunctification. The use of computers to replace professors (rather than enhance classrooms). The destruction of our public universities. The encroachment of teaching "experts" who have never taught and just want quantifiable data (this has already happened in secondary ed, of course). Student debt, surely the biggest one of all.

But this small injustice is easy to fix. We can stop making the vulnerable, poor, hopeful, desperate members of our community pay to attend a conference in order to have a chance at a job. We can just change it. We can change it this afternoon.

And yes, I'm sure it's better to talk face-to-face with an applicant than to use Skype or other video-conferencing. But how much better? $12,000 (assuming the low cost of $1000 per applicant)? However much money your university spends sending you to a conference, a conference which as an interviewer you will not really see in a city which you will not have much time to enjoy, as the interview pace is frenetic and exhausting.

Save the money. Invite an extra candidate to campus. Use Skype or other video conferencing. Show you respect your applicants and understand that their world is hard. Make it just a little easier.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Disability is Not War. The Disabled are not Missing.

Autism Speaks is a highly successful and controversial autism awareness group. Here's the critique from the feminist website "Tiger Beatdown" that made me aware of the problems first. I've tried to spread awareness of these issues ever since, but I often see celebrities, thinking they are helping, supporting Autism Speaks. To me, they are like the Komen foundation, superficially good, but in some ways contributing to the broader problems.

Here's the quick summary: Many people with autism in fact can speak and speak well and self-advocate. None of them, not one, is on the Autism Speaks board. So it's really about people with autism being spoken for by neurotypical people. This is not agency. This is not controlling their own representation. And it's a problem.

Last week, Autism Speaks announced their "call to action" with a blogpost by one of the co-founders, Suzanne Wright. It's kind of terrible.

This week is the week America will fully wake up to the autism crisis.
If three million children in America one day went missing – what would we as a country do?
If three million children in America one morning fell gravely ill – what would we as a country do?
We would call out the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. We’d call up every member of the National Guard. We’d use every piece of equipment ever made.
We’d leave no stone unturned.
Yet we’ve for the most part lost touch with three million American children, and as a nation we’ve done nothing.
So here we open with autism = missing, vanished, kidnapped, and requiring military response. But people with autism are not missing - they are living with us, often in increasingly inclusive environments, and we have lots more work to do.

Each day across this country, those three million moms, dads and other care-takers I mentioned wake to the sounds of their son or daughter bounding through the house.  That is - if they aren’t already awake. Truth be told, many of them barely sleep—or when they do – they somehow sleep with one ear towards their child’s room—always waiting. Wondering what they will get into next. Will they try to escape? Hurt themselves? Strip off their clothes?  Climb the furniture? Raid the refrigerator?  Sometimes – the silence is worse.

These families are not living.
My son, as readers know, has Down Syndrome. He has snuck out of the house (both at home and out of town) twice, both times making it a way down the alley or the road before I caught him. It's stressful. Many kids with autism are more prone to running than Nico. Nico was actually awake this morning for who knows how long! He was sitting in the living room listening to music when we came downstairs, happy, but free to roam the house. It's not great.

But we are living.

In many ways, Down syndrome is easier, emotionally, than autism, but I know hundreds of families with a family member that has autism, it's often stressful, it's often hard, and these families need our support. But they are all alive!

The idea that families with disability are somehow cursed in many ways leads to the kind of shame/seclusion spiral that I do see happen. We go out in public, our kids act atypically, we feel ashamed, and we need to get out of this cycle. But we are getting out of it. Things are getting better. And the pathway is through dialogue, not war metaphors. And just to illustrate the getting better parts, here's a picture from Halloween with our very own Batkid (and his sister, Superkid). 

Moreover, this language of crisis and war evokes, for me, the even worse language of disease and cure promulgated by Jenny McCarthy and her charity (and their allies), in which people with disabilities are diseased needing cures, not amelioration, not inclusion, not accommodation.

Fortunately, many of the professionals in the disability world get it. Peter Burns, CEO of the ARC, wrote a fantastic response to Suzanne Wright's "call to action." Here's a long excerpt, with all emphasis mine.

Back in 1962, President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation* called for our country to “combat” mental retardation, “[exploring] the possibilities and pathways to prevent and cure mental retardation.”  Here we are, 50 years of progress later, and your words connote the same sense that we are at war, suggesting that given the prevalence of autism we should call out the “Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.”

Over the years, though, we have learned that war is no longer a useful metaphor to invoke and apply in the disability community.  People with autism, or for that matter other developmental disabilities, are not victims of the predations of some evil actor, nor are their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.  Instead, we appreciate, as stated in the Developmental Disabilities Act, that “disability is a natural part of the human experience.”

Unfortunately, your description of children with autism and their families is polarizing and divisive, creating rifts within a community that can ill afford it in these perilous times.  Characterizing people with autism and their families as victims suffering from a dreaded affliction ignores the diversity of the community of people with autism, as well as their creativity, perseverance, adaptability, resilience, and overall beauty of their human spirit.   It belittles the many who, rather than seeking to be cured, are striving for their human rights to be accepted and respected. It is far from reality for many people with autism whom I know and who are involved in our work.  All are deserving of dignity and respect.

Certainly, it is true that many individuals on the spectrum, and their families, face serious challenges on a daily basis.  The current system of social insurance and social services and supports fall well short of meeting the needs of too many who are in need of assistance.  To confront this reality and achieve progress on behalf of and with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, the only successful path forward is one which unites, rather than divides.  We all must work together.
Now is the time to come together – people with and without disabilities, including autism – to determine where we want to be tomorrow, next year and 50 years from now.  The rhetoric of 50 years ago has no place in today’s discourse.
This is so clearly worded - history, discourse, and what kinds of actions we need to take. The ARC, an organization with the history of our perceptions of disability bound to its name with the vanishing r-word, is definitely speaking for me on this one.

I hope Autism Speaks eventually learns to listen, to pause, to reflect, and to join in movements for inclusion, not war.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Roundup

Looking back over the week's writing to think about my round-up, I was immediately drawn to Wednesday's post on offensive language. There are, I think, ideas here worth exploring. I started with the principle:
You do not get to decide whether I should be offended by something you do or say; you only get to decide whether you care.
Then I explored some examples of how this plays out. I think it's vitally important, though, to consider some followup rules. One I'm dealing with just now involves this principle - if someone apologizes, try to accept it. I want to lower the stakes on communication about offensive discourse. I really do believe that representation matters in how we shape our reality. Reality and representation have a dialectical relationship - I'm focused on disability and gender, on this blog, but these issues extend much more broadly and get tied up in the most crucial power politics and policies of our era. Representation matters.

But then if we want to shape representation, lowering the stakes in one to one communication makes it easier. If you can just say, "hey, that bothered me," and the other person can say, "oops, sorry" and have that genuinely end an issue, that's a win for everybody. Calling something out is a risk and we owe it to those brave enough to confront offensive language to lower the stakes. Let people express their reactions. Apologizing and trying to correct the situation is also a risk and we owe it to those brave enough to apologize to lower the stakes, so that doing so doesn't raise questions about the quality of the self and one's moral compass, but just becomes an "oops" and a chance to do better next time.

Here's the roundup.

Have a great day! I've got a few hours to rake before the rains return.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Whole People - Virginia Tech edition

I spent the last two days as a guest at Virginia Tech. On Thursday, I spoke about my current scholarly project on stories of material exchange in the Venetian mythographic tradition. The audience was mixed, with undergrads, faculty from Tech and other area schools, and even a few people from the community. They stayed awake and seemed interested, then asked both complimentary and challenging questions, just as one would want. I hope I offered some new ideas and some interesting examples, and I know I learned new things both in writing the talk and the many fruitful conversations that followed.

Yesterday, though, I experienced something entirely new to me. Virginia Tech has created several "residential colleges" in which students share communal space and participate in a number of different kinds of activities intended to build community. One of the more innovative aspects (at least in my experience) is the "faculty principal" program, in which faculty members live in (splendid!) apartments in the midst of the dorm, with their families and/or pets, and participate in community life. I know other universities do this, some famously, but I haven't seen it in operation, especially at a big public university.

I was here and the guest/speaker at a weekly tea in the faculty principal's apartment. The tea and snacks were splendid. The turnout of mostly first and second year students high (I did mention there were snacks, right?), and I spoke about my public writing. I talked about the complexities of finding a public voice and a platform to speak, as well as the issues on which I write most often - gender, disability, parenting, and the influence of history on everyday life.

But what I really talked about was this: First, the importance of a liberal arts and science education in preparing you to play the cards you are dealt. Life is unpredictable. Education gives you specific skills but also, ideally, intellectual flexibility to adapt. That was certainly true for me when the nurse midwife first said the words, "Down syndrome." Second, if you know something, if you understand something, find a way to share that. Take an informed position and seek out areas for discussion (which is not the same thing as internet comment wars), whether in formal publications or just around the dinner table.

Then came a long discussion - perhaps 45 minutes of it? The time flew by. Students asked hard questions - not aggressive, just really trying to get at the core issues related to my remarks. One woman asked about feminism versus equality (she was on the side of equality). I was ready for that. Another asked about the word "disability" versus, say, differently-abled or other neologism. I wasn't ready for that actually, as no one has ever asked be that specific question before. We talked about special education labeling and race, issues relating to adults with disability, and ways of being an activist. I was so impressed by these thoughtful young men and women and their willingness to take a few hours out of their Friday afternoon to sit around a (giant) living room and talk.

Which leads me to my final point. In these residential colleges, Virginia Tech is trying to create an environment which nurtures the non-classroom components of a college education. We know these things happen - it's not just the coursework, but the community building, the conversations between study sessions, the relationships (romantic and otherwise), and all the other ways we encounter ideas and peoples as students. What I admire so much about this program is that Tech (as they call call it there) is trying to be intentional about these things, rather than just hoping they happen on their own.