Monday, July 16, 2007

Helicopters

I have such trouble blogging on the weekends. And even now I'm cheating. I wrote this for a department newsletter and edited out some identifying information.

My original title was "Blessings of a Chagrined C," but the editor didn't like it, so I changed it.

Reflections from the Helicopter Generation

I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and a mother for 7, but it’s only recently that I’ve been self-conscious about the way these two roles intersect. At first I thought that being a teacher would help me be a better mom. I know how to communicate, how to be patient, and how to break down a seemingly unmanageable task into smaller, more easily mastered steps. Suffice it to say that my expectations proved to be wishful thinking.

Nowadays I’m more interested in how being a mother has started to affect my teaching. I can’t remember when I realized I was using similar techniques to manage students in the classroom as I do to manage my active three-year-old and six-year-old in my living room, but I can tell you I felt quite a bit of guilt about it. Was I infantilizing my students? Isn’t it insulting them to treat them like toddlers? When I need to get my children’s attention in a non-threatening way, I often make a silly face or sing a song. How much different is that from singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to wake up a classroom of drowsy students bored by a lesson on simile? For most parents, anticipating trouble times is the key to parental success with moody toddlers. “We’re leaving in 5 minutes,” I often tell my son to prepare him for leaving the playground. How is that much different from warning students, most of whom have watches and all of whom know how to read the clock on the wall, that they have 5 minutes left to complete an exam?

I often fear I am coddling my students the way I tell myself not to coddle my children. We live in a world of helicopter parents, hovering over their children every minute of the day, ready to swoop in whenever their children face the slightest obstacle. I often vow not to be that kind of parent, but inevitably I cannot help seeing myself as my children’s advocate. I come from a generation where we expect ourselves, as parents, to take on this role. And now, having turned 40 this year, I have entered the same decade as the moms of most of my students. Though my children are younger, I share these values with my students’ parents.

So does being a mom help me be a better teacher? Or am I merely replicating the same dynamic many of our students have with their parents? Should I be a different kind of role model, a different kind of authority figure?

Last summer, the line between parenting and teaching became even more permeable to me when I read a book on parenting called Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel. Mogel is a family therapist who had an epiphany about her parenting philosophy as she was re-exploring her Jewish spiritual heritage. Mogel realized that many of the tenets of her religion offer important life lessons for parents trying to raise happy, successful children. Too often, she says, the parents she works with in her therapy sessions are overly invested in making their children happy. When that desire guides all their actions as parents, the results are devastating. The children that these parents want to be happy instead lack confidence and become overly dependant on their parents.

Mogel argues instead that parents should be motivated by the desire to create resilient, self-reliant children. Instead of making their children happy, parents should see their job as preparing children for adulthood. This doesn’t mean treating children as adults but instead encompasses the idea of gradually preparing children to handle future obstacles and problems they will face – with confidence, strength and grace. The skinned knee can be a blessing because it teaches a child to handle being hurt, and an overprotective parent who tries to cushion the child from pain and risk does the child a disservice.

And both as a mom and a teacher, I understand that gut reaction to make the child happy. When I’m in a store, it gives me pleasure to buy my daughter or son a toy; it’s easier to let the children have chicken nuggets for the fifth time this week instead of making them eat their vegetables; when they’re bored, why not let them evict me from the computer instead of requiring them to use their imaginations and make up a game.

The same often holds true in teaching. I find myself choosing stories on the basis of what I think the students will like to read, as if making them happy is the main reason for the choices on my syllabus. The students like group work and they seem grumpy today, so should I throw out my lesson plan and put them in groups? When they moan at a challenging assignment, I feel an internal pressure to immediately console them or offer them a treat if they only read their broccoli.

But why should I be so invested in making them happy? On one hand, faculty assessment is based on student evaluations, thus creating a culture where happy students mean happy faculty and administrators. But on the other, I think it’s a generational problem. This is how I and my peers act with our children; it’s unsurprising that we feel compelled to act this way with our students.

So in the end, with a bit of reflection, I’m finding that being a mother is teaching me a lot about education. It’s teaching me to be self-conscious of my own desire to please rather than to guide. Reading books like Wendy Mogel’s reminds me of the principle underlying what we do when we teach. I am here not just to make my students happy in my classroom but to prepare them for the world outside of college. And that means that the classroom is going to be a little bit like my house right when I’m reminding my children to brush their teeth: “But do we have to?”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Closer

The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, is one of my favorite shows. I used to call Brenda one of my two favorite blonde tv detectives until Veronica Mars started sucking. So now Brenda is it. In fact, I often refer to the show as "Brenda," as in "I have a new Brenda to watch tonight!"

Brenda is in some ways a typical Ally McBeal type of character. In a New York Times piece (not available online, though it was in one of our composition textbooks), Karen Durbin argues that Ally McBeal is endearing to many modern women because she is good at her career but somehow clueless in her romantic and interpersonal relationships. Brenda is similar, except that she does have a working, long-term romantic relationship. She did have a romantic past with her boss, but she gave it up, along with the junk food. In fact, I'm trying to remember if I've seen a junk food scene in Season 3. I think not. At the end of Season 2, she ended up choosing not to re-entangle herself with Pope, her boss, and her rejection of him was telegraphed by the way she scooped up all the junk food she'd hidden in her office and threw it all away.

In some ways, the recurring theme of Brenda's love for junk food was irritating; portraying a woman as addicted to junk food? Wow, original. But the way it was portrayed was so wonderful. Each scene where she contemplated eating a Ring-Ding was like watching foreplay. I sometimes found myself almost as interested in whether or when she'd eat the Ring-Ding as in how she solved the case. In Season 2, the squad themselves became involved in her games with the junk food, hiding it or providing it as necessary, offering up some clever nonverbal background action alongside the primary dialogue in the scene.

But that's over now. Meanwhile, Brenda is a working woman who isn't sacrificing love (so much) for her work. Yes, work causes conflict in her relationship with Fritzie. (OK, his name is Fritz, but like Brenda, I call him Fritzie.) Yes, her high status (Deputy Chief of Priority Homicide, a high-profile job) is in some ways more demanding than Fritzie's job in the FBI, and his co-workers hassle him about it, calling him "Mr. Johnson." But Brenda and Fritz are making it work. Yes, they have fights. Mainly over her work, sometimes over her family. I guess I'd like to see more conflict over his work or family, but hey, that's what we have Season 4 for, no? Gotta leave some drama out there to mine.

In many of the fandoms I've been involved in, "shipping," i.e., the viewing strategy involving rooting for a couple to form a romantic/sexual relationship, has created divisiveness. As I tend to like shows featuring lead female characters and I tend to like shipping, I've often been put on the defensive for wanting to see a lead female character involved with a man, accused of being somehow anti-feminist for not appreciating that a strong female character does not need a man to be complete.

And yet, most women today, strong and otherwise, do have partners, and about 90% of those who do have male partners. I am interested in seeing how a strong female character works through a relationship. Why? Because I'm a strong female, and a bit of a character, some say. ;) And I have a relationship (15 years of marriage), and I like to see these relationships onscreen in ways that don't offend me.

Brenda and Fritzie never offend me, except when Brenda is a bit too concerned about her father's view of her. But when they fight because she works too much? How many times has my husband complained that I am answering e-mail from my students that I could just as well leave to tomorrow? Using work as an excuse to avoid doing something she doesn't want to do? I've done it, too.

I'm also interested in the gendered implications of Brenda as leader of her squad. Sometimes she seems like a mom, especially when she has to chew out Flynn and Provenza, which is humorously often. In one of my favorite episodes, she shuts out Gabriel again and again, to his consternation, but we know and he later finds out that Brenda was trying to protect him because she was doing something ethically questionable, and she wanted him to be out of the loop. There was some pragmatism there as well; she knew that if her attempts to deal with the situation failed, she would need Gabriel there to pick up the pieces, and she trusted him to do so.

That makes this past week's episode all the more interesting. Brenda has saved Provenza's skin more than once when he's made mistakes. But this past week, Gabriel beat an admission (not a confession) out of a suspect, and after Brenda fixed the situation so that she could close the case, she promptly suspended Gabriel without pay for use of excessive force. Garance Franke-Ruta notes this development as well, with praise, and I agree. This was one of the hardest things Brenda has had to do on this show, and you could see it. But she would not sacrifice her principles for her favorite. Not only that, by doing so, she was in many ways saving him and saving his career. She's making sure that he will turn into the ethical and superb law enforcement professional she knows he can be. And you don't do that by covering up their wrongdoings.

Gabriel has two mentors: Brenda and Taylor. Both care about Gabriel and his career. But Taylor will use questionable policing methods (such as putting a child murderer suspect into general detention to let him be beaten up) again and again without a lick of conscience. Brenda knows she is there in that department to bring honor and integrity as well as skill to the office. She knows Taylor has his strengths, but he also has flaws. She can't let Gabriel turn into Taylor when she knows he can be so much better.

We know Brenda has feelings, and we know they inform her work. But she balances those feelings with integrity. We have so often been trained to see the expression of feeling by a woman leader as an example of her weakness. In last week's episode of The Closer, it was an example of her strength.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Road to a Teaching Job

I went to a high-powered graduate program in English, one that has made the news many times, particularly during my grad school years. And I knew what we were there for: to get high-powered research jobs, teaching as few courses as possible and producing as much writing as possible. And for quiet little me, back in 1987, that seemed ideal.

Then someone put me in front of a classroom.

My students find it very hard to believe that I was once the quiet student in the class. I tell them that so they know I empathize with their concerns about speaking in front of the class. But man oh man, being given the role as teacher changed me.

In a way, I didn't want to go back to research. We all always complained about how teaching took time away from our classes, but really, I didn't feel it did. Rather, I resented the time that classes took away from my teaching.

Most people thought I loved writing, would love a writing career, but the fact is that writing exhausts me. I fall asleep while writing (not blog entries, but academic writing :). It is hard work for me. But I love knowing things, and I love explaining things to people. I love being the one people come to with questions, and I love being able to answer them.

I struggled for years with the expectation that success for me was a high-powered research job. And it didn't help that I was surrounded by people who felt that way, too. In my Big City Administrative Job, I was told that my administrative background (I ran the tutoring program) and part-time teaching status ruled me out of any jobs in the English department.
They just didn't take me seriously, I was told. At the one-year position I took, hoping to get hired full-time, I was surrounded by others who assumed that I too wanted that magical job at a "serious" institution with prestige.

But then I learned something else about myself. My father used to tell me I needed to teach "better" students, but at Small Liberal Arts college, I learned that I can't stand teaching people like me! I prefer to teach students with weaker skills. Maybe that speaks to my need for power or something. Who knows.

I finally allowed myself to aim "lower." I rejected job postings from schools with better reputations and sought out the smaller colleges, the community colleges. And finally my current job came through, with a little help from some insider mojo. Recently, my chair told me that I was hired (even though she prefers to hire from within her part-time pool or from the area--I lived 3 hours away and had to move when I was hired) precisely because of my tutoring experience. And indeed, this experience has served me well as I have been spearheading a developmental writing initiative. I enjoy doing this kind of work. I like teaching writing skills to the weakest of students, feeling proud when they improve. I hate teaching English majors. I love that I can teach all the African American literature I want, and it means something because I'm teaching it to students in a general education course, not someone voluntarily taking an African American literature course. I'm preaching to the unconverted!

Why all this reflection? Our university is updating its web site and we've been asked for faculty bios. I looked at the list of places I had taught before my current job and had an attack of "How did I get here?" Well, however it happened, I am glad.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A conversation with a friend who is 12-13 weeks pregnant and a thread I got involved in at Mad Melancholic Feminista make me feel as though I should write my Manifesto of Pregnancy and Childbirth.

I believe:

1. It is better to avoid too many tests and ultrasounds during pregnancy. A lot of them are unnecessary and just create undue anxiety.

2. Many of the foods that women are encouraged to avoid ingesting are really harmless in moderation. I include in this list: deli meats, caffeine, aspartame, alcohol, cheeses, etc.,

3. Taking antidepressants during pregnancy is probably safe and is a good idea if you're suffering from depression. I wish I had taken anti-depressants during my pregnancy with my son. Unfortunately, I had enough issues taking them in the first place, much less taking them while pregnant.

4. Women should try to have a childbirth without interventions if possible. I think women giving birth are afraid of the pain because we're trained to see it as a signal that something is wrong. But the pain of childbirth is not a bad pain. It's a pain telling us that something is happening. If a woman can't handle the pain, she should take advantage of her options. But I think it doesn't hurt to remind people that there are consequences to the use of epidurals and other drugs.

5. The c-section rate is too high. I hate it when people say "I had a c-section because the doctor said the baby was too big." I wish they would just be honest and say "I had a c-section because I was afraid it would hurt" or "I had a c-section because the doctor told me to." This is similar to the excuses of women who "tried" breastfeeding. I hate it when women say "I tried to breastfeed, but I didn't have enough milk." I wish they would just say "I didn't want to breastfeed." Why? Because what they are doing is spreading falsehoods about childbirth and breastfeeding. In very few cases are babies "too big" to deliver vaginally, and in very few cases do women have insufficient milk. But by lying about their own reasons, they propagate fictions about childbirth and breastfeeding and make it harder for women to make informed decisions.

6. (This is the most controversial): abortion for the reason of fetal birth defects is wrong (though I think it should still be legal). My feeling is that I would love any child who was disabled after birth, and so I would love any child who was disabled at birth. Strangely, I tend not to mourn miscarriages in the first trimester* because I feel they are often non-viable embryos that the woman's body is rejecting.
*I've never had a miscarriage; I don't mourn miscarriages in and of themselves, but I do mourn for the woman if she is saddened by the miscarriage.

7. My position on abortion is this: legally, it should be a matter of a woman's choice. That is not to say I agree with all the choices. However, I believe that women have the right/authority to make those choices no matter how much I disagree with them. I do reserve the right, however, to express my disagreement.

If I think of any other manifesto-ish positions on pregnancy or childbirth, I will edit this post.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Well, that was an unexpected break. After promising myself I would write every day, I've basically been silent for the past week. Part of that can be explained: we were in New York for 4-5 days visiting family. But also, I just haven't been able to stay focussed at night when it is prime blogging time.

My biggest obsession lately has been organizing: organizing rooms, furniture, paperwork, food in the kitchen. Planning planning planning. I am great with the big ideas and not so good with the follow through, which pretty much describes 90% of people, right? I make lists and lists and lists and slowly cross off items I've completed. I have a 4-part list right now with 4 categories:

1. Monday with kids (list of everything I need to do with them).
2. Home (pretty much all my organizing/cleaning things)
3. Outdoors (gardening etc.; can't touch these tasks till at least 5 pm, when it's cooler)
4. Shopping (oh, I have been making quite a dent here).

I've spent hundreds of dollars in the past few days. I've bought:
- curtains
- a storage ottoman
- a purse organizer
- dresser drawer organizers
- Quicken

What is sad is how much work it takes to get organized. And even once you do it, you're never as organized as you think you will be. My issue is this: during the school year I am always so busy and tired that I want to do everything now so that all processes are streamlined and I can devote more time to fun/kids/relaxation between September and May than to cleaning/organizing.

My secondary goal is to make home improvements. I am so glad I pushed myself on painting in June because the heat now is rendering me fairly immobile. I also managed to pull my left hamstring, which makes bending difficult.

I wish I had something ... wise to say, but I don't. I'm just explaining myself. Tomorrow is Monday, and I hope to write something tomorrow more thoughtful and less whiny.