Friday, May 30, 2014

CIT Training - A police beating that didn't happen.

There's been a lot of focus lately on Crisis Intervention Training for police officers. It's being billed as an antidote to the failures of police to handle situations involving mental illness. Maryland just became the first state to mandate it state-wide for all officers, thanks to the work of the #JusticeForEthan movement. I'll be writing more about it over the summer, but here's a single anecdote from the Boston area.
Earlier this month, Somerville Police Officers Alan Monaco and Timothy Sullivan responded to a call about a fight between two young men. They found one of them, Mike, in an agitated state.
“He started flipping out — get your effing hands off me, don’t touch me!” Monaco recalled. “He was up and down, he would be screaming and yelling one minute, nice and talking and smoking cigarettes the next. We talked about what the issue is; he said the other kid said something detrimental about his mother, and his mother’s sick, and he spit in his face.”
Coincidentally, the two Somerville officers had just been in a training session on mental disorders — including Asperger’s, one of Mike’s diagnoses. So they knew people with Asperger’s can be hyper-sensitive about being touched and insensitive about how close to get to other people. Like Mike, who got far too close to the officers when he talked to them, right up into their faces.
“Normally for a police officer, if you invade our space, we have a safety zone where we don’t want people close to us,” Monaco said. “I would have pushed him away. I would have physically pushed him off me.”
Instead of getting physical, the officers just let Mike talk, and rant, and spit, and de-escalate. No one went to jail. No one got beaten. This is the opposite of the cult of compliance. I'm genuinely optimistic about this training as a pathway forward for us, not just in terms of disability, but in general what it looks like when you have a police force trained to empathize, to guard, not to be warriors.

We'll keep watching.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tale of Inclusion: Down Syndrome and Violence at the Play Area

Yesterday I got a comment on another post from a parent who ended up on my blog. The short version is that at a public play-place her son was hurt by a child with DS and she didn't know what to do about it, because how can you blame a child with DS for anything? I offer the comment in full and then my response. 
I need advice. I have a four-year-old son who does not have Down Syndrome. Today, we went to a restaurant that had a play area. My son is big (tall and muscular) for his age, and I've always been worried about his playing in the play area there in fear that HE might hurt someone. Today at lunch he came screaming and crying out of the play area. It took five minutes to calm him down to the point to figure out that another child hurt him.
At this time, I saw a mother enter the play area and then come back out (by herself) but look at me as if I were a horrible parent because my child is screaming in the restaurant. So, after I finally calm my son down enough to find out that another child pinched him on the cheeks hard (and also I later found out from another child that the same child had first hit my son on the chin...and on the way home discovered that the child had pulled my son's legs out from under him), I decided to go find the child, explain to him (possibly not in the nicest tone of voice) that hurting my child is not acceptable, and then tracking down the child's parents (by the way...the woman who stared my child and me down for my son's screaming was the boy's mother and she knew what he did and still did nothing to stop the child) to explain to them that their child's behavior was unacceptable...it turns out the child had Down's. The one who violently hurt my son.
Of course, I couldn't take action against the child or the parents, but how do you explain to a four-year-old who only understands that he was hurt for no reason? (By the way, my son did not behave with aggression to the child. Several other children and the parents who were sitting in the play area--the only reason I was not in there physically was because there was no more room for parents--substantiated that the other child turned violent toward my son for no reason.) How is anyone (whether they "know" what they are doing or not...and this child knew that what he did to my child was wrong) allowed to do violence to another? How is it more acceptable for some?
Because I even knew it was "taboo" to blame a child with Down's for his behavior. I hate to say it, but I'm furious with the parents because they knew that their child was violent, knew that he was the one who hurt my son, didn't remove their child from the play area, didn't apologize to my son (but instead looked at me as if I were a horrible mother and my child a horrible child because my child was screaming because THEIR CHILD HURT MY CHILD).
DEAR READERS PLEASE NOTE - The person with the comment and I have exchanged emails and I anticipate she will read this blog. If you are rude in comments, I will simply delete your post without warning! It's fine to disagree thoughtfully, I'd love to hear better ways of framing a response, but no rudeness to someone genuinely looking for help. 
Dear S.

I'm really glad you wrote me and want to have this conversation. It's important. When my son was three, the idea that he could just go into a play area and be around the other kids as seemed impossible. How could he control his behavior? What if the other kids didn't understand his limitations? Most of all, what if he got stuck in one of the big climbing contraptions? Could he even physically, ever, go up those ladders and down those slides?

Now he does it all the time. I'm so proud of his physical and social development, but I'm still always worried something will go wrong. So far mostly so good, but your story reminds me of the challenges.

Here are my two key points:
First -  Having Down syndrome does NOT mean one can hurt other people without consequence. That is exactly the opposite of the message that I would hope to convey. I actually think it's extra vital that we make sure that our children understand the consequences of their actions. It's a harsh world out there for people with disabilities, and learning control is vital to inclusion. The problem is how. How do you make the connections between actions and results apparent with someone who has speech/developmental delays? There are solutions, or at least ideas, and I'll offer them below.

Second -  I was struck by how often you talked about feeling shame. Other parents were looking at you, you felt like a bad mother, but you know that you didn't do anything wrong. It's not a good feeling. Here's something to consider - That shame you were feeling, the shame that the other parents are looking at you and blaming you, parents of kids with disabilities live with that shame all the time. It can get really oppressive, making parents like us self-isolate. We just stay home, keeping our kids out of the grocery store, playground, or even school.

I've felt it, I feel it all the time when my son acts in a non-typical way, or his nose is too runny and people are judging me, when he shouts in the barber shop, when he dances randomly in the mall, I encounter so many micro-aggressions on a day-to-day basis that you'd think I'd be used to it, but no. I still feel shame.

So I'm asking you, as a parent, to think about that emotion you felt, to know that you were in the right here, but to approach those parents with compassion and empathy.

So now what? I operate under the principle of inclusion, but not same-ness. My goal is to have your son and the boy with DS included together, safely, in the play-space. That doesn't mean consequence-free violence, but it also doesn't mean that you can respond to the incident as you would for other kids, because the usual methods of parental reaction - yelling (sadly), time-outs, removal of privileges - might not have any meaning. Yeah, a parent can take away a toy or fun activity from a four-year-old with Down syndrome, but depending on their developmental level, it might not have any meaning. How do you connect the consequence to the act of hurting your son? That's the challenge here.

The first step is to understand what might have happened. What does the violent behavior - pinching, tripping, hitting - mean in this case? Does it come from anger? Aggression? Confusion? Fear? Sometimes it's from over-stimulation. Or, and this is pretty common, people with Down syndrome use physical responses as an alternate form of communication. When you don't have words, hitting or hugging communicates perfectly well from the perspective of the child, and it might not even communicate what you think it does.

People with Down syndrome are not any more likely to be violent by nature than anyone else, in fact probably less so, but they do often have boundary issues. Maybe the parents knew their child was violent, as you say, but maybe not. We - parents - are often surprised by our children's response to situations. I knew a boy who liked to grab hair and pull - it was an interesting texture and sensation for him. My son often pushes hands away, sometimes slapping, when he's angry or frustrated. One time my son Nico was so afraid of splashing water that he reached out and grabbed my face with his hand, cutting the skin with his nail, terrified. That's violent, but different than fighting from aggression or anger, or from knocking someone down because you're playing ninja and don't have good control.

The goal here is to communicate. We don't want four year olds, or fourteen year olds, hitting as a way of expressing their frustrations. On the other hand, typical interventions - yelling, time outs, taking away privileges - might not have a lot of meaning for the child with Down syndrome. When my daughter misbehaves, we talk about it, we make sure to verbalize a clear cause-effect relationship. When my son, who has DS, misbehaves, we have to be more creative.

There are intervention strategies for kids with Down syndrome who are "challenging." You focus on skills. You focus on communication. You find positive reinforcement rather than punishment (which works better for all kids). 

One technique we've used with Nico is the social story. They are picture and word-based behavioral stories that try to make sure a person understands a situation and the consequences of actions, to help them make better decisions in the future. They use a lot of positive affirmation and perhaps one or two pieces of instructional advice to try and achieve better response to situations.  Therapists make them for their patients, though parents can make them as well. Here, for example, is a story about playing nicely with a brother, easily adapted for a public playground. Here's another. Social stories have worked wonders for my son, but each kid is different.

So what might you do if you see the parents again, or if something like this happens again?

Comfort your son and comfort yourself! I'm sorry that people looked at you as if you were a horrible parent, but don't let them get you down! People judge all the time and are usually clueless about context; ultimately, the opinions of strangers aren't that important (to me anyway). Remember that no outsider ever has a clue about what's going on in a family and try to just do what's right.

Engage the parents. Tell them what happened. I would be devastated to know my son hurt another child, and so might they. Remember that raising a child with special needs is pretty difficult, so once you have calmed yourself and your child, engage with empathy

If you see these parents again, I can't tell you they'll be happy to hear from you, but I think you have the right to talk to them because your son was hurt. Moreover, I think building an inclusive society requires someone to make the first conversational move, to reach out, and I'm hoping you are the one to do it.

I would say something like, "I know you've got a lot of challenges, but I felt it was important to tell you that that your child hurt my child today in the play area. Is there a way we can talk to him about more appropriate play? Is there anything that I or my son can do to help?"

In the end, I'm really sorry that your son got hurt.

I hope, though, that this is a moment that can lead towards a more inclusive society, not away from it. Inclusion, not same-ness. We don't respond to this boy hurting your son the same way that we might from another child. Same-ness just won't accomplish anything. But we DO respond. We must respond, and respond with dialogue, patience, creativity, and empathy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Talking While Privileged - A continuing series

I write a lot about privilege and I have a lot of privilege. I've long argued that it's important to be very thoughtful when writing about academic labor while tenured, gender while male, race while white, disability while able-bodied, and so forth.

When writing about a given power dynamic, I often have the power by virtue of my race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. And yet, I really do want to engage on these important issues. What to do?

My response was to come up with some guidelines, writing first about gender (my rules for male feminist discourse) then academic privilege. In the wake of #UCSB, I've been watching men talk, even men who take the label of feminist, perhaps especially men who call themselves feminists, who could really use these rules.

For example, here are two posts on Charles Clymer, who has said some amazingly offensive things in pursuit of his perfect male feminism. Some of the issues here aren't new, but they have re-emerged in recent days. Here's one particularly telling quote:
"Stephanie, I'm going to let you in on a little secret that, apparently, no one has had the guts to tell you up to this point in your life: having a vagina does not grant you magical powers of perception and nuance anymore than my penis magically blinds me from the horrors of the world.
This may, I guess, have some truth in it. Our genitalia does not necessarily determine our degree of knowledge. And yet, our gender identity does position us on various power spectra that come into play here.

So for Mr. Clymer and anyone else who need it, it feels like it might be a good time to revisit my rules, with a few revisions.
  1. Don't talk at all. Listen for awhile. 
  2. It's not about you (it's about the people with less privilege)
  3. It's sometimes about you (i.e. it's very important that men talk to men about rape)
  4. It's always about them, so amplify their voices.
  5. When you speak, don't expect gratitude and take criticism graciously.
Make sure, throughout the process, that the people with less privilege, with less power, have their voices at the center of the discussion. For example, I never publish about feminism or gender, or really just about anything, without linking to articles written by women, usually women of color, and preferably naming them and their expertise in public. 

I do this for two reasons: One, rule #4. 

Two, these people are brilliant. And while folks such as Amanda Marcotte, Brittany Cooper, Jessica Valenti, Soraya Chemaly, Melissa McEwan, Tressie McMillan Cottom, just to name a few who I read and from whom I learn, don't especially need me to amplify their voices, they lead me to lesser known feminist writers who do.
Men have a crucial place in this conversation. But instead of asserting it, I try to ask those who are disadvantaged by the power dynamics what would they like from me? Sometimes, I get told to listen. Sometimes, I get told to call out sexism when I see it. Sometimes, I get told there is in fact no place for me in this conversation. I think that's wrong, but by understanding the privilege at play, thinking about my rules, I let such things go.

My advice for Mr. Clymer, which is clearly too late, is this - When you have privilege, sometimes people will get angry at you, be rude to you. It will feel unfair. It may be unfair. Be gracious. If you are a male feminist, there will be women who are deeply angry at men, who just want men to shut up, or more reasonably want men to allow women to have their own conversation without you. And you will REALLY REALLY want to insert yourself into the conversation, to show that you are a great ally, that you really get it, that not all men are bad, and that maybe you even understand feminism better than lots of other women!

Instead, please revisit rule #1.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"It's so sad when people have special needs": Thoughts on Inclusion from the Bus Stop

Not Nico's Actual Bus
"It's so sad when people have special needs."

A caring, sweet, 4th-grader said this to me at the bus stop a few minutes ago. My son and I crossed the street, running and laughing, happy. Then he asked me to go see a dog that was being walked across the grass, I said no, we had to go get in line for the bus, so he said no to me, and then pouted. Nico is really developing his pout lately.

The girl, M, came over and reached out her hands to Nico asking if she could help. He said, passionately, "No!" Then she turned to me and smiled and said, "It's so sad when people have special needs."

It's one of those moments when, as a parent, words fall with a kind of physical force. It's not that they hurt, at least not in this case, but for me my whole body tenses in these kinds of interactions. I know, or I suspect, that I'm hitting a moment in which I might shape language, perception, action, reaction, and more - not just for my son, but for anyone this child interacts with who has special needs, and her friends and family.

If I handle it right, I hope, I might help build a more inclusive society and I might even manage to erode the gap between help and friendship (seriously, follow that link. It's really interesting).

I said, "I don't think having special needs is sad. I think it can be sad when people with special needs don't get the help they need, and even worse when they don't have a good community of friends and family around them."

M. thought about this and said, "I used to help my grandpa. He was in a wheelchair because of the war and his leg."

I replied, "Exactly, and imagine if he didn't have you and your family and his friends not just to help push his chair, but to be his granddaughter, to be his friends, and to make sure he has what he needs. And if our community didn't build wheelchair ramps or automatic doors, so he couldn't have moved around."

She nodded. Then the bus came and I had to get my surly boy onto his feet and onto the bus, which he did with only mild protest, surrounding by his aide and three girls, M, F and H, with G waiting for him on the bus.

I'm not quite satisfied with my answer, but I'll keep working on it.

Two other stories about inclusion and the girls who go to school with my son. And yeah, it's pretty much the girls, a sign of the ways that girls are pushed towards caregiving early, but that's another essay.

I've written about H before, back on the first days of school, when she included herself with Nico in a way that made me weep. She comes over and has playdates sometimes, and while she and my daughter have a beautiful big-sister/little-sister relationship, she's never satisfied just playing with Ellie for all my daughter provides her with an imaginative hyperverbal playmate for their games. Instead, every few minutes, she breaks away to go find Nico and see if she can bring him in. Sometimes, it works. On Sunday, the three kids sat huddled in a corner of couch passing two ipads around, giggling and happy. It was so powerfully inclusive, especially given that Nico had refused to participate in my daughter's birthday party earlier that day (too many kids, too loud, too hot).

F, on the other hand, lives across the street, but I haven't really processed her relationship with Nico. She's quiet, or at least a bunch of the other neighborhood kids are really loud. Two Fridays ago, though, Nico's aide wasn't on the bus and F was one of the girls who volunteered to help. It didn't go well at all, but everyone made it home safely.

Monday morning, though, I saw F with a plastic bag with little rectangles of paper, pencil drawings, and words written on it. I asked her what they were and discovered that she was trying to replicate one of the communication systems that the teachers and aides use for Nico. They carry a bunch of communication cards (bathroom, thirsty, desk, marker, etc. They look more or less like this.) to supplement the use of an Ipad-based communication program. F decided to make her own cards. As near as I can tell, no one told her to do this or helped her - she just observed what the teachers were doing and decided to generate her own assistive technology.

So, M, thinking more about the community in which my son lives, I can say pretty strongly that it is not so sad when people have special needs. Thanks to you and his other friends who are trying to do their best to create a more inclusive society. I'll do what I can to help you.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Elliot Rodger and Intersectionality. Fighting "the shrug."

A representation of possible
intersections. Not representative of Rodger.
The murders in California and the subsequent #YesAllWomen hashtag (an overview) have, appropriately, dominated my social media world since it happened. For some, the murder is a clear call to action - but to act where? How? For others, the response has been to shrug, to say, "it's complicated," or just to say the guy was crazy, it's tragic, but what can we actually do?

Who is to know, such voices ask, why he did it and what we ought to do in response?  For some, this shrug of "what can we do?" is genuine. For others, though, it's a strategy to keep attention OFF of misogyny or gun violence, in particular (two fields relevant to this crime on which large groups of people do not want attention focused). "The shrug," as I'm calling it, serves the pro-gun and misogynistic status quo.

It turns out, though, that feminist theory has (since the late 80s) come up with a way to proceed through this morass of fields, ideas, and complexities: intersectionality

I hesitate mentioning the feminist origin of this concept, as it will immediately turn some people away, but perhaps that's important to acknowledge as well. It emerged as a way of talking primarily about race, class, and gender together, then sexuality, and now any other relevant field. It allows us to say - today, I am focused on one topic, but I acknowledge the others exist. More importantly, I see that they interact.

I see clear arguments to make the UCSB killings about misogyny, about guns, about class, about mental illness. And that's why the concept of intersectionality is so important - it allows us, when confronted with life, which is always complicated, to get past the almighty shrug.
Intersectional thinking allows us to:

...take his misogynistic words and link them to other groups who say the same things, and say that perhaps these trends in our culture matter, but that we tend not to notice the quotidian horrors and only the extraordinary, and maybe think about what it might take to classify such as hate groups and how we might want to respond after that, given that MRAs (Men's Rights Activist - here's a not-objective primer on the movement) and their ilk have regular access to mainstream discourse (as opposed to white power, for example)

...consider access to guns and whether it is reasonable to advocate for a policy that might have allowed the police to easily realize that he had been buying guns and ammo after the police received a call from his parents.

...think about the limitations of psychiatric care and how we might do better with people experiencing these kinds of issues and try to better integrate, if that was indeed his needs.

....think about the complexities of class privilege, race, bullying and all the other categories that intersected in this lone, deranged, killer.

Then ask - in which of these fields might we reasonably do better?

I personally have spent many hours in my context as a writer about gender talking to MRAs, trying to see their side of the story, trying to find common ground. I wonder if it's time to shift and deal with them as I do antisemites and the white power folks who, like MRAs, do sometimes notice real problems with their lives but blame them on the wrong things and inspire fringe members to direct acts of terror. 

I'm thinking about it.

Intersectionality matters. We can focus on the controlling ideology of misogyny that underlies this particular crime without losing sight of the intersections.

In case you aren't convinced, here's another way of looking at it:

On Saturday, three people were shot at a Jewish Museum in Brussels. There may be many things involved with the shooter, but it's reasonable to suspect antisemitism is part of the cause. A month or so ago three people were shot near Jewish community center in Kansas City. It was reasonable to suspect antisemitism was the cause, and it was, even though one can certainly argue the killer was mentally ill and could have done the killings without firearms, and even though he actually killed Christians.

It's necessary, in the wake of such killings, to think about the ways that antisemitism is replicated in our country and what we might do to change attitudes.

In Isla Vista, a man said misogynistic things - he hated women, he hated men who had access to women - and then he killed people. Like the killers in Kansas City and Brussels, we can note that other factors matter.

It is necessary, however, to think about the ways in which his ideology is replicated in this country and what we might do to change attitudes.

Note: heavily updated with an explanation of intersectionality after 10:00 CST 5/26:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sunday Roundup

It's Sunday and it's my birthday. Here's my blog post.

I wrote good stuff this week. Please go read it and share it. :) I published three essays - Chronicle on being a working dad, CNN on trigger warnings, and Chronicle Vitae on labor identity for full-time faculty, which is a record for me. All of these are themes to which I will return frequently in the year ahead.
I did an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio. The segment is here. I closed with:
If as professors, we just teach empathetically and respectfully, and think about what is our material and who our students are, I do feel that we're going to take care of a lot of these cases before it comes up.

To some extent students are taking responsibility, it's students who are driving this conversation who are asking for these policies. And we need to listen to them. That doesn't mean we have to enact the policy that they are requesting, but we do have to be very open to the conversation and think about what's happening in our classroom.
As an off-the-cuff remark, I'm pretty pleased with that. Approach conversations as dialogue, meet people with respect, and we'll accomplish a lot in trying to be good humans.

Thank you, as always, for reading. Next week I am probably on semi-break as I work on footnotes. I do have a dozen essays I want to write, but I really need to do these notes.

And now, Venice cake.


    Not actually my cake!

    Saturday, May 24, 2014

    Resources: Scorn

    I'm working on a piece about the various ways that writers about higher education, especially those within the academy, write about students with absolute disdain. Here are some of the responses to the Trigger Warning and Commencement issue, both filled with scorn and not getting it.

    Here's the worst, one so bad I am hesitant to even include the link. It's from Chester Finn, who has "devoted his career to improving education in the United States."
    Maybe not, for such unfamiliar and provocative views might make them, precious as they are, feel unwelcome, excluded, even distressed. And they surely don’t want that. Let’s face it. A growing portion of today’s student population, at least on elite campuses, holds expectations that are both schizy and spoiled: They should be free to do absolutely anything they want without institutional barriers or interference of any kind, yet the institution must protect them from every conceivable sort of harm or upset. Try to thread that needle. While you’re at it, write a very large check to pay for your child’s opportunity to benefit from four years in such a high-status center of learning.
    There's another conservative voice, "No Wonder Putin Sneers at Us" from a non-educator who makes much the same argument.
    What a bunch of titty babies American college students can be. Who spends $50,000 per year to send their kid to a college where they are coddled like mental invalids? These aren’t institutions of higher learning; these are sanitariums. These Special Little Snowflakes are going to be as bunnies in the gator pit when they hit the real world.
    "Titty" babies." Mental invalids? It's interesting how Finn, with "schizy," and this author, with "invalids," relies on such language to talk about something that is in fact about mental trauma.

    Jonah Goldberg, of the American Enterprise Institute, does some similar work in the LA Times, writing:
    I can sympathize. But this way leads to madness.
    And what a strange madness it is. We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units — but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning? Even questioning the ubiquity of degrading porn, never mind labeling music or video games, is denounced as Comstockery, but labeling "The Iliad" makes sense?
    I do wish these people would make up their mind. Alas, that's hard to do when you've lost it.
    The psychologist Michael Hurd, in "Is Academia Going Mad," ruins some interesting points when he writes:
    Why is it automatically and always assumed that people wish to be taken care of, fussed over or given special attention because of their victimization? In my experience, people actually want just the opposite. They’ve been put upon enough and they don’t wish to draw even more attention to their problem. It’s not that they’re ashamed. They’re desperately looking for a way to move on, and being given an Official Victim Permission Slip in order to make some vapid college undergraduate feel superior does not help them
    "Vapid college undergraduate feel superior."

    In The Stranger, we get "not about protecting delicate flowers from the sadz"

    Salon calls it "dumbing down education."

    In the New Yorker, Jay Caspian King is really upset that someone told him Lolita is about the systematic rape of the young girl, because it distracts him from Nabokov's amazing sentences. I'm not really sure how to respond to that.

    There are lots of ledes saying: trigger warning for trigger warnings. Hah hah!, I say. I get your joke.

    Then there's the strange argument: Life doesn't come with TWs, so why should the classroom? Professors who think their classroom is "life" are, I believe, not thinking about the complexities of their highly mediated environment.

    Karen Prior comes out against empathy in The Atlantic.

    Meanwhile, in the commencement story front, we see some similar patterns. Stephen Carter, law prof at Yale, writes in a spoof address:
    And, before I go any further, I would like to express my personal thanks to all of you for not rescinding my invitation. I know that matters were dicey for a while, given that I have held and defended actual positions on politically contested issues. Now and then I’ve strayed from the party line. And if the demonstrators would quiet down for a moment, I’d like to offer an abject apology for any way in which I have offended against the increasingly narrow and often obscure values of the academy.
    In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas. Pure argument was our guide. Staking out an unpopular position was admired -- and the admiration, in turn, provided excellent training in the virtues of tolerance on the one hand and, on the other, integrity.
    At Haverford, William Bowen, former president at Princeton, did Carter one better. Carter was an op-ed for Bloomberg. Bowen actually scolded the graduating seniors:
    A commencement speaker at Pennsylvania’s Haverford College called college students “immature” and “arrogant” Sunday for protesting a different speaker who ultimately withdrew.
    Bowen and Carter are criticized nicely here on "Dad's Rule."

    Then there's Matt Bai, who ultimately blames us for being too soft on our kids.
    America's college kids are back and resting at home this week, which is a good thing, because during the long months away they seem to have gone completely out of their minds.
    Bowen talks about Vietnam war protests. Bai talks about PC protests. These were "real" debates. More on that later.

    UPDATE: From the Wall Street Journal, this diatribe. I can't even quote it, as the whole thing says - students are babies, parents and employers will thank me for being cruel, and you humanities professors (i.e. me) are semi/post-literate.

    So, what did I miss?

    Friday, May 23, 2014

    The Last Acceptable Prejudice is ________.




    I think those four tweets say it pretty clearly. I link to two higher ed pieces. Both pick an issue - rural and religion - that imply the following. Higher Education may still contain prejudiced people about all kinds of things (race, gender, sexuality, for example), but those "mainstream" prejudices are at least not broadly acceptable. MY CAUSE, whatever it is, remains under the radar - it's the last acceptable prejudice we hav to deal with.

    People, there are lots of prejudices. Some of them are more called out than others. Some of them in fact need to be rendered more visible. None of them are "last." I wish it were otherwise.

    I am by far NOT the first person to notice this. s.e. smith wrote a great post in 2013 that said (focused on the widespread use of "last acceptable" in regards to obesity):
    The phrase keeps popping up, over and over and over again, in a wide variety of media, and it often remains unchallenged; I see it coming up in quotes, in titles, in lengthy essays, with minimal pushback. When Tasha Fierce confronted it at Bitch magazine a few years ago, people seemed genuinely surprised and offended when she said she didn’t agree that fat was bigotry’s last stand.
    Later, smith adds [my emphasis]:
    There’s a bigger issue at play here, which is the genuine belief that something is the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ in a world full of prejudicial attitudes. People use this phrasing because they think it’s true, and because they think it furthers their activism, and in the process, they do a lot of damage, in addition to making themselves look absolutely ridiculous...
    More than just being wrong, it’s also a classic example of setting marginalised groups against each other, rather than helping them work in solidarity, and it explains why intersectionality and an understanding of intersocial prejudices is so important. Because when people hear that ‘x is the last acceptable prejudice’ and they’re members of group y, what they’re hearing is that they don’t experience prejudice—which is in direct opposition to their personal lived experience of the world, and to what members of their social group know to be true.
    I am focused on issues related to disability and gender, where they intersect and where they don't. I recognize all other kinds of intersocial prejudices exist. I am a little more concerned about the visibility of disability issues. I do think people in higher ed, and elsewhere, are more aware of sexism than ableism. So I try to raise the profile there.

    But it's not the last anything.

    When you are an activist and you see your issue being ignored, it's frustrating. Fat jokes, class jokes, rural jokes, religious jokes (just to take a few) permeate our culture, even our leftist intellectual academic culture, giving the sense that they might be "acceptable." That's a good conversation to have, the ways in which our ignorance of difference might lead us to perpetuate discrimination and prejudice.

    When we privilege one category over the other, though, we say that it is only our issue that needs attention. That we are the most oppressed. That you (collectively) are the most ignorant in regards to our cause. It's not true. It is easy rhetoric to use, but it's actually not all that savvy for building alliances and trying to shift language, perception, or policy.

    As s.e. smith says - the pathway out of these "last acceptable" woods remains: intersectionality.

    Thursday, May 22, 2014

    Work is Work!

    On International May Day I wrote a little hymn. I wrote:
    Teaching is work. Programming is work. Scholarship is work. Science is work. Grading is work. Committee service is work.
    Today Chronicle Vitae published a column on academic work as labor, as work.

    It's a linked column to this first piece on the language of adjunct labor. In that piece, I worked through a number of different ways in which adjunct advocates speak about their work, using the language of slave, sharecropper, or migrant laborer. I think this language is mistaken. But here's how I finished the piece.
    The issue here is not that writers are loosely deploying hyperbolic metaphors. The real problem is that adjuncts and their advocates believe the rest of us aren’t on their side.
    We tut-tut and say it’s too bad, but then throw up our hands, blame the budgets, and let the system continue. Civil rights, slavery, sharecropping, migrant laborers—these are terms that evoke sympathy and demand action within the neoliberal world of higher education in ways that just calling adjuncts “temps” does not.
    So let’s not be too quick to blame adjunct advocates for invoking historical inequities when trying to change the system. Instead, let’s question why such metaphors seem necessary. I propose that the plight of the adjunct lies squarely alongside that of a long-recognized historically oppressed group: the working class. Why are faculty so resistant to seeing themselves as labor who need to act in solidarity with the exploited adjuncts?
    In my next column, I’ll look at what happens when we put all these metaphors aside and just look at adjunctification as a basic labor issue, one in which we all have a stake.
    In today's piece, I really just want to make a simple argument.

    Work is work.

    As academics, we know a lot about the nature of labor, the ebb and flow of power mostly up to management, but not always. We read about the changing nature of the workforce across the country, but for those enough of us lucky - and let's be clear that luck is a huge part of it, there is no meritocracy - to be on the tenure-stream side of things, it's hard to apply such lenses to ourselves.

    I find it hard. Maybe you don't. But plenty of other people see little connection between the plight of the adjunct and their own labor situation.

    Work is work.

    You are paid for your work. You should be paid for your work. Let's apply the lens of "labor" to what we do in academia, to think of administration as management - maybe nice management, maybe trusted management, but management none the less.

    I am very lucky in my job and my bosses. I trust them. But they are still my bosses (some of them read my blog! Hi there!). There's nothing wrong with having a boss, but we need to remember that there is a power dynamic here. And once you bring power into the equation, well, we're back to the labor movement.

    I finish today's piece with the following:
    We need to recognize that what’s happening to our universities is happening across the North American labor market (and beyond), and that we’re not special. Other highly-trained, specialized industries have turned to contingency work. Higher ed is no different. In fact, we could learn from the industries that increasingly argue that one must treat contingent workers as full members of the community.
    Why not embrace the pressures that are falling on the university? Be proud of being laborers, identify with your fellow workers, and organize across the tenure-adjunct divide. Ultimately, it’s the only thing that’s going to improve the situation.
    Best of all, it’s the right thing to do.
    It really is the right thing to do.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2014

    Awww, What a Good Father

    In my Chronicle piece on being a father, I wrote:
    No one has ever questioned my work ethic to my face because I’m a father. In fact, one day I was so tired from caring for my two children—at the time a 2-year-old boy and a 3-month-old baby girl with colic—that I simply lost my ability to speak coherently in front of my colleagues. I stood up to talk at a very important meeting and nothing came out. I invoked my exhausted state, apologized, and went home. There were no consequences. If anything, my role as a working dad raised my profile within my institution, even before I started writing about those issues for CNN.
    Thinking some more, I wrote the following:


    First of all, I chatted with my dean this morning about various things. He does not remember this and I'm not surprised. I also believe, very strongly, that my institution is such that if a mother had a similar moment, she would be treated very well. But we are an institution founded by nuns and infused with their culture even as their numbers decline; I'm very lucky to be in this special place.

    I've been talking about academic parenting for a long time now and have heard hundreds of stories. My sense is that few feel their institutions would be so supportive; moreover, few women would have felt safe enough to say such a thing.  Likely, our hypothetical tired mother would have just sat silently, knowing herself to be exhausted, unable to risk speaking, and so her voice would be silenced.

    This is male privilege - to escape consequence even after you screw up. Awww, what a good father, they say. And you know what? I try really hard to be a good father. What a good father is the right answer! The question is how do we create space so that reaction tracks across genders.

    The point isn't that I got away with something; I was doing my best. It was a moment of failed work/life integration, but one of my lessons about work/life issues is that it's ok to let a ball drop sometimes.

    The point is that the consequences track with privilege.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2014

    Trigger Warnings Continued

    I have a new piece up on CNN on Trigger Warnings in the Classroom. I make two arguments.

    1. Psychological disability involving trauma is serious and should never be dismissed. However, we have a mandate through the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Let's increasingly support, fund, and use those services, make them more robust.

    2. Let's practice good teaching. Good teaching involves preparing students for their homework, not springing things on them. All the people who study reading and learning focus on scaffolding (as one metaphor) so that students know what they are reading for. It definitely helps my students.

    I write:
    I would never want my students to be surprised by something horrific in their reading, whether the "Red Wedding" on "Game of Thrones" or the rape of Philomena in Ovid. Instead, I want them ready to work with challenging texts so they learn. Spoilers might be bad for entertainment, but they are good for education.
    Once most students know what they are likely to encounter in their work, the surprise factor in triggering situations ought to be mitigated.
    So I am coming out against mandatory trigger warning policies, but I also think that some of the demand for trigger warnings might be alleviated by scaffolding readings in advance. Why try and shock your students?

    I see the issue linked to multiple factors, including the corporatization of the academy. It makes universities and faculty risk adverse, turning the syllabus into a EULA, and worried about being sued. In that context, a warning label on Shakespeare makes sense, so that if a student is upset, you can say, "warned you! Can't sue!" This is not good teaching, like so much else linked to the arrival of a corporate mentality in higher education.

    That said, I really do not like the language that equates requests for trigger warnings with fragility, with being "special snowflakes," with "helicopter parenting." I put a big list of resources on trigger warnings in the classroom here. Both in some of the published pieces and in lots of academic conversation, I sense some scorn for students asking for these policies.

    We can argue against trigger warning policies without dismissing the students asking for such policies. Instead, think about what they are really asking for and how, in responding, we might focus on learning.

    Ultimately, when as academics we ask - what is the best decision we can make to enhance the opportunities for learning? - we usually make good choices.

    Monday, May 19, 2014

    Working Dad

    I have a new piece in the Chronicle today on being a "working dad," a phrase I intend to own and explicate a lot over the next year. It ends:
    Academic dads operate with the privilege of separating their home life from their work life in ways unavailable to women. We get to be silent if we want to. We feel no need to attend sessions on the challenges of parenting—even though surely we encounter those same challenges—because they are perceived as "mommy issues." That perception is untrue yet remains a root cause of persistent gender discrimination. Female faculty members have been advocating for change for a long time; they still need more allies.
    The discussion of caregiving must move beyond the discussion of motherhood. Fathers, too, need to advocate for paid parental leave, child-care assistance, flexible tenure clocks, and a culture that accepts the notion of male caregiving as normal. And they need to advocate loudly, using their privileged position as a lever to move the structures of our profession and lead the way in the broader culture.
    I suggest we start by embracing the term "working dad."
    I've been writing and speaking about these issues awhile now. Here's a post I wrote about the first day of the school year. It was a busy day, beginning with my wife leaving town at 4 AM and packed with so many details to work on before 8:30! At the end of the litany, I wrote:
    This quotidian litany is in no way spectacular. But somehow we still live in a society in which men cleaning, parenting, cooking, etc. is not quite masculine. It's odd. I get a lot of praise for it, often couched in the terms of "my husband never ..." or "I wish my husband would ..."

    This is what masculinity looks like. For me, anyway, on this Monday.
    That post got the attention of the Northwestern Work/Life Office in HR and the Northwestern Women's Center, where I gave a talk. You can see a clip from it and some of my major themes at the link.

    There's lots more work to do: First, to move parenting out of the conversation of motherhood. Then, to move caregiving out of the conversation on parenting. I want to be clear that this isn't a "not all men" or a "but what about men" post or theme. It's that patriarchs have to get involves to tear down patriarchy. One tiny incremental move at a time.

    Sunday, May 18, 2014

    Resources: Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

    The issue of trigger warnings in the classroom, whether they are useful, attack academic freedom, are to protect our helicopter-parented elite students, or what, has become a fairly important topic in higher ed circles. I'm writing an essay on it now.

    Here is a list of resources. Please recommend additional materials.

    • Start with Amanda Marcotte (one of my absolute favorite feminist writers) on "The Year of the Trigger Warning." It's from the end of 2013, which suggests that the mainstreaming of trigger-warning is, in fact, relatively new. I always wonder if I've just missed it when a new idea suddenly seems everywhere to me, as the "TW" discussion now does.
    But what happens when a student is trapped in a classroom where a discussion brings up terrible and traumatic memories? How can a student easily and subtly remove herself from that moment?
    I have thought about prefacing our discussions with a trigger warning introduction to the class but I question how effective that would be. By saying that we are going to discuss topics of a sensitive nature that may make some people uncomfortable and offering students the chance to leave, aren't the very students meant to be spared then singled out and isolated in front of the entire class? While well intentioned, that offer seems useless at best and marginalizing at worst.
    The other option? Steering clear of volatile topics in the classroom and playing it safe. But by not talking about harassment, the sorry state of gender equality, and the heroic efforts put forth by activists seems akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There has to be a better way. But how does one work trigger warnings into the classroom lesson plan? How does a teacher effectively and sensitively negotiate topics that require trigger warnings and how are escape options presented in a sensitive and appropriate manner to students whose past traumas follow them into the classroom?
    That's what I have so far on the "origin" of the Trigger Warning - Higher Ed debate. You can also read these Shakesville threads for a general defense of Trigger Warnings: here and here.

    Things changed when the media started covering student-driven efforts to mandate trigger warnings in syllabi.

    • The earliest piece I have comes from March, in The New Republic. The author, Jenny Jarvie, culled lots of information from student newspapers. I'd be interested to know if anyone has anything earlier?
    • Scott McLemee, on Inside Higher Ed, worked through teaching a book about rape in the era of the trigger warning. I'm a little confused by this piece, as it seems to conclude that triggering trauma is real then says, nah, no need for warnings as they don't do much good. Am I reading it wrong?
    What interesting pieces as I missing?

    Finally, here's a piece on "Exposure Therapy" - a treatment for PTSD on encounter, not avoidance, of trauma. I offer it just as a counter-model to avoidance. Is all trauma that has triggering episodes a form of PTSD? I think so, but am not an expert. Are you?

    Updates:
    In the UK, professor of English at University College London John Mullan said the issue had "never come up, as far as I know".
    "I think academics talk quite a lot about how particular literary texts might play to or provoke particular sensitivities – we do talk about that privately. But once we have taken the decision about courses and reading lists, we do not put health warnings on. Essentially literature is full of every kind of upsetting, provoking, awkward-making, saddening, embarrassing stuff you could ever think of. That's what it is like. [And] the time you would start labelling it with warnings – it seems to me that that way madness lies," said Mullan.
    "What do you decide is upsetting, and what actions does it leave you open to [if you get it wrong]? It's treating people as if they are babies, and studying literature is for grownups at university. You might as well put a label on English literature saying: warning – bad stuff happens here.
    Dismissive. Professors, we can do better!

    Sunday Roundup!

    Yesterday I spent the day with the Op-Ed Project, thinking more about this new craft (it's been over a year, but it still feels very new) of public writing. It was an inspiring day and I left it even more committed to developing my public voice and, even more importantly, working to amplify the voices of others.

    Speaking of which, last Sunday I published my remarks from a conference on "Going Public: A Medievalist on CNN." Thank you all for reading and sharing, as I think it's important. My question - what do we owe society when we reach an important conclusion? - dovetails nicely with the mission of the Op-Ed Project.

    I wrote two other pieces on writing. Hyperscribal Society rambles through some of the implications of all the writing we do now. More importantly, I've been asked for Advice for Writers lately. I have no real advice, but I do have some advice to readers - share. And share from the least visible to the most visible.

    On Monday, I wrote about a lawsuit involving an Arab man from Dearborn, MI, beaten by police. He has a psychological disability. I wrote:
    In the wake of Ethan Saylor's death, some advocates suggested developing a universal "I'm disabled" hand-signal or even a t-shirt so that police will know not to beat people who are disabled for being non-compliant.
    But I have a better idea.
    Don't beat people for being non-compliant.
    I stand by that radical idea.

    I also linked to a great set of videos about disability and inclusive society. I like that they acknowledge that inclusion can be tricky and awkward, but also that you can get past that awkwardness pretty easily.

    Finally, I wrote about the layered nature of privilege (thinking about the Princeton boy who has no white privilege) in There Is No Meritocracy and then revealed the exciting news that McDonald's Solves Gender Norming with Hot Pink Purse.

    It's been a good writing week. Next week the Chronicle is publishing my next essay, and this one is a big one as I think it's the precis of a book. I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts. 

    Saturday, May 17, 2014

    Awkwardness and Inclusion

    I'm off to a workshop today, but wanted to offer a few quick thoughts on a great series of videos.

    Scope, a British advocacy group, has made an outstanding series of videos that are fundamentally about inclusive society - how to you shake a hand that's not there, how do you talk to people in a wheelchair, etc. What I like about it is that it acknowledges that inclusion is hard and disability often makes social norms confusing. Ok, they all say, now you've been awkward, now what?

    The answer turns out to be - acknowledge the awkward, then change it and do better.

    You can see the videos at the link above, but Vox has a nice write-up and a few addendums on language.

    Videos below. What do you think? Using humor is always dangerous, but my gut reaction is that these hit the marks pretty well.










    Friday, May 16, 2014

    Hyperscribal Society

    From http://mimiandeunice.com/2011/01/05/killer-of-scribes/
    A week or so ago, on Twitter, Virginia Heffernan introduced me to the word "hyperlexic" in the context of her piece on the speed-reading app Spritz (which Bogost has addressed here). She talked about the way we  generally valorize certain kinds of reading, like novels, and dismiss others, like texts or Facebook.

    However one assigns value, there's no question we are a hyperlexic society. More people are reading more words than has ever happened in human history, and that's interesting.

    The flip side of hyperlexic is hyperscribal (or hyperscriptoral to use the analogous Latin form to "lex," I think).

    We're all writing. I don't even mean the kinds of performative writing on blogs and beyond, but that we have become a society that communicates via the written word. It started with letter writing, email spurring a rebirth of epistolary arts, but now extends throughout society, from the flip OMW to the urgent TORNADO WARNING on our ubiquitous devices

    I grew up in Nashville, moving there when I was 10. It's an interesting town for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it's filled with poets. Throughout the city, the people you meet seem "normal," but late at night they are sitting in their apartments and houses, holding guitars, trying to find rhymes and rhythms to talk about love, loss, substance abuse, desire, and identity (Thank God I'm A Country Boy). Throughout the city, you find people embedded in careers across class lines, though concentrated in service industries, who are writing songs, performing when they can find the courage, looking for that break.

    You might say this of New York and L.A. too, but those are giant metropolises in a way that Nashville is not. In "The Thing Called Love," a 1993 Boganovich film about Nashville, there's a moment in which Trisha Yearwood is in a police station, and the police officer (played by Fred Thompson) is singing at her trying to pitch a song to her as she's going in to fill out her paperwork.. It's totally realistic.

    Poetry and music, much of it cliched and commercial to be sure, infuses the city and changes its culture.

    I offer this anecdote about Nashville not because I'm a booster - I haven't been back since I was 21 or so - or to boost my country music career (I play driving Tennessee Irish music though in my two bands: The Tooles and Mulligan Stew). For me, thinking about Nashville helps me process what I see going on in society.

    We're all writing. We're all trying to communicate important things via written word over spoken word. sure, a lot of it is "bad" writing, it's cliched, it's unexamined, it's "Do you like me, check yes or no?" But it's writing and its ubiquitous. That has to have an impact on society. Maybe, like Bogost suggests, reading is already dead. Maybe, like Heffernan offers, reading is reading is reading.

    Here's what I know - As a teacher, I'm going to skew optimistic and try to level the hyperscribal and hyperlexic elements of society to improve learning, to whatever extent possible. 

    As a teacher, I constantly think about how to leverage our students "natural" social media use, their natural writing, their natural forms of communication - and I use nature in the context of things they are likely to do without being instructed to do so by the teacher.

    Here, for example, is an essay on using Facebook in the Classroom. I expect it to work for about another 3 years, tops. If I taught art history, you bet I've have an instagram account and try to get students to follow it. I giggle about snapchat (folks, your lecture notes will be on for the next 5 minutes), but surely a more creative teacher than I has figured out a way to leverage its temporary nature to try and enhance learning. Twitter is a natural tool for forming pathways of communication in a large class (here's a piece by my grad advisor and some students on its use in a World History class).

    All of this is to say that if students are reading more and writing more, we can "Go where they are," my motto, and try to move them to where they want to be. We don't have to say that all writing and all reading is good writing and reading. But it is, if you'll excuse the tautology, writing and reading. And it's new.

    I have more say on this topic, especially about the way that medievalists and early modernists, people straddling the emergence of print culture in the West, can help us understand what's going on in our society and what these changes might mean for the future of reading and writing.

    But having written 800 words before breakfast, I need to go make some food then get to work on my "real" writing. I'm "writing" a "talk" on narratives about objects across the Medieval-Renaissance divide in Venice.

    Being hyperscribal is hard on the carpals but good for the brain.


    Thursday, May 15, 2014

    Advice to Writers; Advice to Readers

    In the last two weeks, I have received a half dozen requests for advice from newish writers looking to expand their readership or break into more formal publication. They all ask me roughly the same questions - how did you do it? Does blogging help?

    Unfortunately to those seeking my advice, the true answer is that I have nothing useful to tell you.

    I have no advice on how to break in, how to get your word out there, whether blogging helps, whether you need a twitter account, whether instagram is better than pinterest, whether Facebook is dead, how to pitch, how to get paid, how to get noticed, how to get on TV, how to get published, how to make a living, or how to not die as a writer.

    I stumbled into writing, driven by irrational overconfidence typical to my set that my opinions would matter, first placing a few op-eds, exploiting the randomness of a global event relevant to my medieval expertise, then starting this blog.

    Did blogging help? Has it worked to make me a more successful writer? More importantly, will it help you?

    I have no idea.

    My only advice for aspiring writers is this - if you blog, make sure the blogging itself sustains you even if no one is listening. Make sure that when you blog, you are writing things that you want to write, that you want to get better at writing, so that the iterative process of homing in on your core arguments makes you better at them. The blogging must satisfy you because surely, you will write brilliant essays that you love, and but 25 people will read it, or 10, or 5, or no one.

    If the writing feeds you, sharpens you, gets you ready to say the things you want to say more effectively, then blog. If you find yourself writing only to get readers or make money of advertisements, well, I have no objection to commercializing your prose, I wish I were better at it, but you're doing something very different than I (I have a great day job; I have privilege) and I can't tell you whether blogging is a good idea.

    So for writers, I have no real advice.

    But for you, dear reader, I do have some advice. Share Good Work.

    Every RT, every Facebook share, every email - these things make all the difference to writers, especially small timers like me, and even more to people just starting out. If you read something you like, share it.

    I get around 100 views per post. That's nothing in the world of social media. But when about 10 people RT or share on Facebook, I get around 200 readers. Double! You have a huge impact for a writer like me.

    Now think about the blog that has only a few dozen readers and the kind of impact you can have? The blogs of these fascinating people seeking me out for advice sound wonderful, but to grow they'll need readers who share.

    There's a problem in charitable giving in which people are too ready to give to the big ticket players. Big donors like to give to Harvard, but a fraction of the money at a smaller school would transform lives. Big donors like to give to the mega museums or even, dare I say, symphonies (my sister is the concertmaster of the Omaha symphony. Everyone should give it money!) - rather than to smaller arts institutions. Whereas a few thousand dollars might save a small institution or endow a scholarship, such money just vanishes into the vast pool at the huge place. There's no impact for the small or medium donor, but still they give.

    I see some of the same forces at work with media. Think of whatever giants in the blogging world that you like, people with tens of thousands of readers a day. They probably write good stuff and it's good to RT good work, but spreading the word of a blog so that a piece gets 10,020 readers instead of 10,000 isn't such a big deal. But raise a post from 200 to 220, well, that's significant.

    Sharing, of course, is not like giving money. You could share 20 posts just as easily as you could 1. But my sense is that most people don't. Most people don't want to spam their friends with lots of links in a given day, but maybe just post one or two to Facebook, maybe tweet something every hour. People treat sharing as something they have to budget - and they probably do. Think about spending some of that budget by sharing someone just starting, someone just finding their voice.

    Comment, too, if you can. Most new writers (me for sure) love comments, even just a "great piece!" Let us know you at least scrolled to the end.

    What I'm saying is this - if you read a post you like, seriously consider sharing it. Share from the least visible up. I think about the voices of women, people of color, the disabled, or writers who are LGBTQ. Share the people who amplify such voices (that's what I try to do). Share people with fewer readers instead of those with more.

    But mostly, just share.

    And then maybe I can tell writers that yes, blogging is a good use of their time.


    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Layered Privileges - There Is No Meritocracy

    There have been two debates about privilege recently.

    One was Tal Fortang's barbaric yop that he, Princeton undergrad, is not privileged by his whiteness, because his family was persecuted by the Nazis. The second was a Thought Catalog essay on female privilege.

    The first essay demonstrated two key facts:


    1. Tal Fortgang does not understand the concept of privilege.
    2. American Media works likes this: Conservative white boy feels oppressed by liberals? How interesting! Let's give him a forum to air his many grievances. This reaction was not just limited to Fox News, a place of naked partisanship, but much more widely. I think it has a lot to do with the white media also feeling that they worked damn hard for their achievements and being suspicious of the whole privilege debate. Also, it's good for ratings.
    The second, less well reported but still circling through my social media circles, was a snarky list of 18 types of female privilege.

    I'm not linking to it because I think it's basically clickbait and trying to sell a book about women and sex. Moreover, it's mostly typical male grievance discourse. I've dealt with it before. To the extent that these grievances are legitimate, which some of them are, the solution to the problem is more feminism.

    On the bright side, in reaction to Fortang, the New Yorker just published an interview with Peggy McIntosh, the Wellesey academic who first developed the term "white privilege" as a way of explaining structural advantages experienced by white people. In the interview she offers a very useful short-hand for thinking about layered privilege.

    Here is McIntosh's original paper from 1988, "“White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.”

    It's a great piece. One of the main criticisms is that it's a little blind to class privilege (she's highly aware of gender privilege, in general), but it started a conversation that sometimes is really useful. Here's how she responded to the Fortgang piece [my emphasis]:
    When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.
    That's useful language - that there are many variables that create structural advantages and disadvantages. It's worth thinking about which ones are at play in any given situation.

    In particular, this subject matters to me in the context of undermining the myth of a meritocratic society. I write this in regards to higher education all the time, but it's a much bigger problem. By default, the people with the power to change society peacefully are those who succeeded. Those people who succeeded impede structural change because they know they worked hard and they believe in their own merit. Therefore, those who do not succeed must have done something wrong or otherwise have less merit.

    I work very hard. I know, however, that my success in school, my success in work, and my ability to leverage my work into media access cannot be divorced from my class, my gender, and my race. That doesn't mean that I have to feel guilty, but I also can't feel smug and deserving.

    Identifying the layers of privilege at work in my life has been good for me. It's given me a sense of purpose in my writing and freed me to take different kinds of stands. It's helped me figure out when to speak and when to listen (always a problem for us talkative white guys, and still something I'm working on). It's pushed me to focus as much class as on race and gender, to push new variables into the equations of privilege.

    Here's my main take-away: recognizing privilege means working to undermine it. An equal society is not one in which everyone is, in fact, equal, but in which there is an equality of opportunity.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    McDonald's Solves Gender Norming with Hot Pink Purse

    A few weeks ago McDonald's toys and gender norms zoomed into the zeitgeist, with all kinds of interesting articles, complaints, and even positive corporate response. I blogged about it here.

    I was pleased that McDonald's had resolved to change the norms so that kids & parents wouldn't be asked for boys' toys or girls' toys but the "car" or the "pony" or whatever. I also wrote:
    So that's nice. I suspect the toys will still emerge in pink and passive vs colorful and active. Why can't we have a pink ninja robot? A bright blue lipstick with lightning bolts? There's room for variety here.
    Still, small victories are victories. Good work Ayres-Brown
    Small victories ARE victories. That said, this one felt a little bit Pyrrhic when pictures of the new spiderman toys were released.


    Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance dealt with this in a piece called: "McDonald’s Offers Up Gendered ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2′ Happy Meal Toys, So You Can Finally Have That Hot Pink Spidey Purse You Wanted."

    Now first of all, I know a lot of people who might really like a hot pink Spidey purse or headband. If these are the toys they want, then that's fine. Sims, though, points out a bigger problem [my emphasis]:
    That said, there’s a pretty big problem that you can see just from looking at the toys that goes beyond just the stereotypes at play. Boys get cars and girls get fashion, yes, but while girls get Spider-Man themed purses, bracelets and stickers, boys get the Spider-Man mask. The subtle — or maybe not so subtle, considering how much this comes up in this industry — is that girls can like superheroes, but boys can be superheroes.
    It’s worth noting that the TV commercial for the ASM 2 Happy Meals features a boy and girl boy both equally web-swinging and stealing each other’s food (which is weird, Happy Meals are like four bucks, you can just get two), but the toys don’t really reinforce that. Instead, they drop kids into those same limiting stereotypes that show up everywhere.
    The bolded line is so important. If we divide into boys and girls, even unstated, and only the boys get to BE spiderman, we've got a problem.

    Working against gender norming is hard. You have to parent against the grain (this link goes to a picture of my daughter dressed as batgirl). Our children are pressured by society into picking the pink or blue, the passive or active.

    To resist this you can't just present choices and think your work is done; you have to find ways to suggest that the non-normative choice is superior, without going all totally nuts and giving them a complex about it (i.e. pink needs to be an option, just try to get your daughters to pick blue pretty often, because their peers, marketing, etc. are all pushing towards pink).

    Comics do and don't matter, much like toys. They are just one locus of much bigger problems, but they are a place where kids learn and imagine and act and play. They are male dominated and are continually an emerging site for us to work on these issues. When comic artist Janelle Asselin took apart a terrible new cover for Teen Titans, focusing quite a bit on Wonder Girl's massive and fake breasts (this is a teenage superhero, remember), she started getting rape threats.

    We can do better.

    I asked my daughter who was her favorite superhero. She said, "Elsa, because she has the same powers as me." Then she raised her hands in the air and made freezing superpower sounds.

    One point for Disney, I guess.