Sunday, December 14, 2008

Holiday Cards

My husband and I are hardcore about our holiday cards. Today he spread them out over the floor to get an historical overview of our card-making, dating back from 1995.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Holiday Gifts

I celebrate Christmas, very secularly.

But even if I didn't, at this time of year, we give gifts, not just to family and friends, but to all the people who are in our lives once a week. Here is my list of "small gift recipients":


Mail carrier
Miss T
Miss M
Tom the guitar teacher
Jim the milkman
Newspaper delivery person (unknown name)

And then there are my kids' teachers:
Mrs. K
Mrs. M

Now, I don't mind gifting the first group. The mail carrier is so nice and once when we forgot to hold mail delivery, he figured out the situation and took care of our mail for us. The newspaper deliverer comes out and asks for tips, and we always do. Tom the guitar teacher has to deal with my non-practicing, joke-telling son once a week, and he deserves a little extra something. Miss T and Miss M are my daughter's dance teachers; you couldn't pay me enough money to hang out with a dozen 9-10 year olds, much less teach them dance moves. In a strange coincidence, Jim the milkman is married to Mrs. M, my son's teacher.

But strangely enough, I resent having to get the teachers gifts. My father was a teacher (ok, junior high school level) and never got gifts, afaik. When growing up, we never gave the teachers gifts. But I find myself at odds with the other women on the parenting e-mail list I'm on. I mentioned that my daughter's teacher and the other 4th grade teachers all asked the kids to donate gift cards and necessities to the local Human Services organization to help people in need. I thought that was wonderful. My fellow parents were not as impressed, much to my surprise. They feel it's taking away from the children's need to give presents.

My mom used to work in a thrift store. She said she saw so many tchotchkes that were so obviously teacher gifts that had never been used.

I am thrilled at not having to buy one more present I know won't be used. My daughter would go for a tchotchke over a gift card any day. This way I can take her to the store and we can buy useful stuff that will mean something to someone, and it will mean something to the teachers as well.

Plus, when do students stop giving presents to teachers? Middle school?

Am I a Grinch, an anti-materialist/anti-consumerist, or a sensible person?

ETA: Many WSJ Juggle readers agree with me!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Cookies!

Today I'm baking some cookies. And when life gives you egg whites (the eggnog cookies required egg yolks), then you should make meringue cookies! My mom always made a recipe she called Aunt Mae's Kisses--meringues with chocolate chips inside. So I found this recipe and made them first, then I made these eggnog cookies, which I found via FoodBlogga.

If I had a camera (my daughter tripped while holding mine and broke it :(, I'd take pics so you all could vicariously gain weight along with me.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I just posted a reply over at 11D that gave me pause. I wrote about how I finished my diss at age 30, and I was lucky that my workplace was flexible.

Now, at 11D and GeekyMom and other places, there's been discussion recently about women in academia and what needs to be done to make academia more family friendly. And I am at heart a liberal and a historicist and someone who understands the problems of social inequities, but I keep finding myself turning to the issue of *personal responsibility*. And I hate that I'm doing this, but I am.

Over and over again in my life, I have had stressful work and life situations, but I never felt trapped by my workplace. I've always felt my workplace was flexible and accommodated my juggle of work and family. Part of that may be my attitude. Part of that may be luck. But I've had two jobs including the one I have now that have been super workplaces.

When I needed to finish my diss 12 years ago, I took 2 months off from my job (I ran an academic support department at a university). One month was paid (I hoarded comp time and vacation time) and one month was unpaid. I scraped my pennies together and sublet an apartment in Durham and finished the diss through sheer force of will.

What kind of workplace lets you do that? Well, it was a workplace that valued me. They might not have done it for anyone else, but they did it for me because 1. I asked, 2. I adapted (I took these months in the summer, during our least busy times) and 3. I was damned good at what I did and they didn't want to lose me. They wanted to help me. I always went above and beyond and had loyalty, and they knew that.

Two years after I finished the diss, I got pregnant. Totally planned. My daughter was due in July (again, I adapted to the schedule--July is a fine time to take time off). And then my workplace did have a 60% plan where I could work for 60% of my salary for 60% of the time for 6 months. Sure, other workplaces don't have this. I guess I lucked into finding one that did. Then I took vacation time judiciously for a few more months, working 4 day weeks. Again, I got away with it because my workplace valued me.

(What were the limits of the job's flexibility? Well, I couldn't maintain my job title/responsibilities at fewer hours. The funny thing is that they *would* have given me a job with fewer hours, but I couldn't face working there without having the same level of power/responsibility. Plus I was a bit bored, so when the one-year teaching job in Maine came up, I took it.)

I spent 3 years of hell in Maine. I did a one year job. The workplace wasn't really adaptive to me, but my husband's job was more so (at the same college, but in a staff position). Then I worked part-time in a staff job and adjuncted. The money wasn't great but hey, it was Maine. The big problem with Maine was that there were few full-time jobs within a driving radius of my husband's job. As it was, my part-time job was a 45-minute drive away (I was on that very drive the morning of 9/11; will never forget switching the tape in the car and having the radio come on and hearing the seriousness of the voices and pausing to listen).

And now here I am at this job. When I took the job, I interviewed twice, once with the committee, and once with the chair and dean. I remember thinking that I liked these people a lot. I took the job. First, I do like teaching gen ed courses. Second, it was closer to my family (though still 3 hours away). And third, it was not in Maine. :) This job has been terrific. And it has been flexible.

Why? Well, the first thing to understand is that I didn't take the job because it was flexible. I didn't know. Second, the people I work for/with are mostly women, and most of the people (men and women) have families. I have to live with some inflexibility. The courses are standardized; I can't pick my own textbook. I teach the same 4 courses in variations every term, though I can adapt those courses somewhat. I have to uphold the attendance policy, which I loathe. I have to wear business casual, no jeans! But in exchange? When my kid has an emergency, I tell my chair and she tells me to go home and deal with it. When Eric was first diagnosed with asthma and we struggled with managing it and I had to take several sick days, the dean came to me and told me I shouldn't worry about having my pay docked (we get 10 days of personal leave a year--I'd exceeded it by a day or so).

This is my favorite story. We had a problem with a student, and the parent called, and I sat with the dean while she took the call. The parent was angry, the dean was firm, and eventually they worked out a plan. The dean finished the call with "Now, Prof. Wendy will contact your son with the information, but she has to leave right now to pick up her children, so she can't do it today. You will have to wait till tomorrow." How many deans do you know who would assert a faculty member's right to put her family responsibilities over dealing with an irate parent?

So hey, I have it good, don't I? I have the flexible workplace so many people dream of. But I've had the same kind of workplace before, as well. Is it luck? Or is it something I'm doing? Well, here are a few thoughts on my good fortune.

1. I work for women. I know there is a perception that women bosses can be harder than men in some ways, but my experience has been the opposite. When I've worked for mothers as chairs/bosses/deans (and right now my chair, dean and provost are all women, though only the chair and dean are mothers), I've had a lot of sympathy for my juggle. I don't know if I unconsciously avoid working for men, or what. I'm just saying that when my bosses have been mothers, it has worked out for me.

(In Maine, which has been my most negative experience, my chair was a childless woman, and she was unsympathetic. I never asked for anything, but one day I was expressing some of my struggle with managing time and mentioned that my daughter had been sick and I'd been up all night, and I got the "we all have responsibilities" speech. I honestly think that was the moment I started to hate Maine.)

2. I am a valuable and valued employee. I never say no, except I do not often do evening activities. But I will do anything asked of me between 7 am and 5 pm. Someone needs a sub? Sure. Someone wants me to help with a computer problem? Sure. Part of this is my personality. I do love to help. But it also makes people want to help me. I'm also smart and offer thoughtful feedback when asked. Again, this is me. But it's probably you, too. Do more of it. I'm also a really likable person in person. I'm one of those always-happy-looking, roundish women. I sing or hum a lot. I express enthusiasm when I feel it. People like to be around me.

3. I ask, but I don't expect. And I work to understand the conditions my superiors are dealing with. I have a schedule where I'm done by 2:30 most days, except for when I have meetings. If my chair gives me a schedule that gives me a class till 4 pm, I tell her I'm not crazy about that time, but I know she needed someone to cover that class and I'll deal with it this term. When my schedule is being made, and if I know I have Thursdays where I take my daughter to dance, I will say "I can handle anything except I do need to be free Thursdays after 2:30 to pick up the kids and chauffeur them." I am clear about my wishes but not unreasonable.

4. I find joy/happiness in whatever I do. I realized I might not be able to get a tenure-track job in African American lit, which was my diss topic. I found joy in teaching composition and intro to lit. I am doing a section on the Harlem Renaissance right now, in fact. Did I want to be a writing tutor when I was first offered the job in 1994? No! I needed money. But I figured out a way to love what I did, and that has led to a fascination with pedagogy that has animated my work in so many ways.

5. I choose day care centers instead of family day cares or in-home nannies. Day care centers by their nature have to be open certain hours, which provides great flexibility. They have multiple staff members, so if someone gets sick, you don't have to worry. I also have kids that don't get sick. I don't know if it's genetics (I have a good immune system) or the fact that I raise them in squalor at home (see #6), so they've built up immune systems before they even got to day care, but my kids are rarely absent. We struggled the first year with Eric's asthma, but that was a management issue. Sophie has been absent maybe a handful of times (for illness reasons) in her 3 years of elementary school.

6. I don't give a fuck what my house looks like most of the time. This helps when sharing housework with my husband. I can let it go a good long time in order to push him to clean if he is at all slacking his responsibilities. After 18 years together (2 living together, 16 married, 7 of those pre-kids) though, we do a pretty good job of negotiating the household responsibilities.

So, to sum up:

1. I work for women.
2. I never say no at work and am valued.
3. I ask for flexibility, but I don't expect it.
4. I find joy/satisfaction in whatever job I am doing.
5. I choose day care centers as my preferred child care option.
6. I don't care about housework.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I mentioned somewhere today that I blog daily on my LJ, which is more anonymous for me. I am also more fangirly and weird there. But maybe I should be posting some of my LJ stuff on my more "professional" blog.

Here's the basic content of my last 10 posts on LJ:
1. What I'm planning to do today.
2. Quiz results identifying my sexuality with a country's. Apparently, my sexuality is Dutch.
3. Noticing that in an article about the Obama girls going to Sidwell Friends, Letitia Baldrige said the kids are probably "athletically inclined" and wondering what that meant.
4. The 30 Rocks Sesame Street sketch from You Tube.
5. Expressing happiness that Geithner was named SoTreasury.
6. Plans to bid on a dogwood tree at a local charity auction. (Got outbid, fyi.)
7. Complaining that I have a headache, am sleepy and have a lot to do.
8. Drooling over Nate Silver after he bitchslapped John Ziegler right good.
9. Describing incident with Security over doing the gated-parking-lot version of jumping the turnstile. Oops. My excuse: I was giving a final in 10 minutes.
10. Complaining about missing papers from students.

Should I be writing more about this stuff? Unclear.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Abolishing Tenure: Short-sighted

Laura mentioned the NYT article on Michelle Rhee, which gives me an excuse to post some thoughts that have been swirling around lately.

Michelle Rhee wants to abolish teacher tenure. Bad idea. Actually, I could possibly see arguments for abolishing tenure in the very long-term, but what bothers me is that a lot of people seem to think of abolishing tenure as some kind of quick fix to the problems in education, and it is not.

Rhee claims that tenure makes it hard for her to fire incompetent teachers. But the problem is not tenure in and of itself. The problem is that tenure is sometimes given to incompetent teachers. Competent teachers do not become incompetent teachers. Incompetent teachers were always incompetent. They just either hid it well or the people who gave them tenure didn't care then that they were incompetent.

I can see abolishing tenure as a long-term plan. However, as it stands now, abolishing tenure would just lead to more chaos in the schools and fewer competent teachers. The problem is that we don't know how to assess student learning effectively. And that is because we have so many stakeholders, few of whom agree on what the outcomes for student learning should be.

Today's Inside Higher Ed has a column titled Stuck on Student Learning. It deals with the issue of assessment in higher education, but a commenter to the article raised an interesting point:

those most likely to exert pressure on the system (parents who pay for schools including public higher education) simply do not care all that much about what and how much assessment occurs at their son’s or daughter’s school. The most recent PDK/Gallup poll of America’s K-12 schools revealed that most parents think there is too much emphasis on testing. Only 1 in 10 respondents felt there was too little."

We're caught in some sort of Escher painting here. We're climbing up stairs that we don't realize are going nowhere until we pull ourselves back and look at the big picture. We think taxpayers/parents want accountability, so we assess students in order to prove that we are holding ourselves accountable, but the parents don't seem to care about test results. Honestly, I think parents distrust test results. They make you "feel" good but they don't tell you anything useful. Knowing that students at your kids' schools scored 90% proficient in reading in statewide testing doesn't explain why your kid hates to read and won't do his or her homework.

What do they care about? That their kids will get into good colleges and get good jobs. That their college-bound students will be able to get financial aid and that they won't fail out of school (i.e., waste money) because they weren't prepared for college.

So one of the huge problems I am seeing is that K-12 education is not sufficiently linked to college education and to an understanding of what constitutes workforce readiness.

OK, back to tenure. The question is: how is a teacher's incompetence determined? What makes a teacher incompetent? How do we know a teacher is incompetent? Can we really measure whether students learn by looking at grades? As a teacher, my father always felt a little bit of pressure not to fail too many students. Wasn't a high failure rate that a sign that he wasn't doing his job?

We can't hold students to high standards unless we're willing to fail them for not meeting those standards, but current emphasis on "assessment" and accountability doesn't encourage teachers to do so. And parents certainly don't want their children to fail.

But I think we need more failure. The surefire way to prevent failure is to never take risks. And cautious a person as I can be, I still think it's important to take risks, to try the harder courses or the more challenging project because you'll learn more from it instead of taking the "safe way" and getting the A.

Furthermore, teachers cannot be the only ones telling children/students that their work doesn't meet standards. Right now, the only people who seem to be held responsible for students' failures are teachers. Parents, family, friends, the surrounding community, television/pop culture, even our own (current) president - all seem to suggest that learning is not important. We excuse bad grammar and lack of historical knowledge. We think politicians who are ignorant are charming "real" people. I've never heard of anyone who was fired for poor writing skills. Yet schools are criticized because they're not producing graduates who can write.

The entire community has to figure out what the hell we want high school graduates to learn, then we need to *all* be responsible, and then we have to understand that the teacher's teaching is only one of many factors. We cannot evaluate teachers solely by their students' success.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!



An astronaut and Princess Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy prepare to go trick-or-treating.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Helicoptering

I think I must be a bad person. Because I read this and all I could think of is why a 26 year old woman with a good job, who had interviewed the Vice President of the United States, still needed her mommy to make sure she got up in time to go to work.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Realization

Over the past few days I've been researching online about various sensory processing and communication disorders as part of preparing myself for addressing my son's needs. The school set up a "pre-meeting" to decide on which evaluations to do.

Of course, being me, I've already figured some stuff out (or think I have). I was reading the NY Times' very valuable Lessons Plan blog and found this post on kids who repeat their favorite words and phrases. My son does this, so I started using a lot of the terms/concepts from that post and doing research, and I came across the syndrome of hyperlexia.

Lightbulbs flashed all over the place.

Not only do I think Eric has hyperlexia, but *I* have/had it. I was reading by my third birthday. My mother helped me along, but I was self-taught. I have always needed to understand the world through words/language, which is partially why I love the Internet so much. I have always had an outstanding memory. I have poor auditory processing; I hate podcasts and BloggingHeadsTV and stuff like that. I will read a transcript over watching a newscast or interview any day.

The difference, my mother thinks (I called her yesterday and expounded on my theory, getting lots of confirmation of my childhood behaviors), is that I was a very social child. Most hyperlexic children tend to be boys; I wonder if the difference is that I am female and thus socially conditioned to be empathetic and social.

Anyway, it's been incredibly illuminating for me, though it makes me a little sad. Here I thought I was gifted, but maybe I was high-functioning autistic instead. On the other hand, I think I'm assigning too much negativity to the term "autism." And I think maybe the problem with the "growth" of autism today is not that there is more of it but that we recognize it more as a result of our greater sensitivity to individualizing children's education.

More as my thoughts develop. :)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Time to Evaluate

So, today I heard what I thought I'd hear some day this year. I heard from my son's teacher that she thinks he could use an evaluation and that some of his behaviors are odd and not within the norm of 6-7-year-old behavior.

Whatever is going on is very likely not a huge problem, but it's enough to (and I'm sorry to say it this way, but I'm sure you understand) make for a lot of work. My husband isn't really skilled at dealing with this sort of thing, so it's up to me. But it's time-consuming.

I've spent most of my afternoon and evening reading/researching various OTs and psychologists, trying to figure out where to bring him for an evaluation. (He's had an evaluation once before, but I was underwhelmed by the psychologist we saw.) I have to call the OT at the school to have him observed/evaluated, as well. And I have to choose one of the many doctors/OTs/whatevers to evaluate him. (Note: the first eval was done by a psychologist my pedi recommended, so I've exhausted that easier avenue of research.)

Part of me resists because I don't want to overreact. I hate the idea of being a helicopter parent. I don't think kids should be perfectly clean, perfectly behaved angels all the time. However, I haven't really been exposed to many 6 year old boys; I came from a family of girls. Is there a gender difference? I don't know. People keep saying to me "Well, boys are different." I've always suspected that maybe it's my son who's different.

Meanwhile, I have a community service project I'm managing this term, a presentation on social media to give next week, an online course to develop to start the last week of November, and a conference presentation to give in 3.5 weeks. *sigh* I have no time for this!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Parenting and Pedagogy

Repost of my article on how becoming a parent has changed me as a teacher.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Conflict and Politics in the Classroom

This term, my introductory composition class has a theme: education about voting and politics. One of my classes will be working with a local high school to produce documents that define and explain political labels and issues. The other will be doing the same thing without working with a high school (it's a 7:10 am class, and we couldn't find a class that meets at the same time).

For their first in-class writing assignment, I gave them the following 5 questions and asked them to write an essay on one:

1. In 1972, when 18 to 21 year olds were first given the right to vote, approximately 55% exercised their new right. However, by 2000, the percentage of young people voting had fallen to 40%. Though the numbers have risen a little since then, the percentage of youth voters is still much lower than it was in the 1970s. Why are young people voting far less often than they did in the 1970s?

2. The previous question asked why young people don't vote. This question asks how to change the situation so that young people vote at the same rate as people in other age groups. What solutions do you propose to encourage young people to vote?

3. Should all eligible voters be required to vote in presidential elections? Take a position on this issue and explain your reasoning in a well-developed essay.

4. Should high school students be allowed to wear t-shirts or pins advocating particular political candidates or criticizing political figures while they are at school?

5. At Lake Superior State University, a professor who has been teaching there since 1969 has been ordered by the administration (which had received an anonymous complaint that the materials were offensive) to remove from his office door items that reflect his conservative political views. Do you agree or disagree with the administration that he should not post these items on his office door? What kinds of materials should be considered offensive and inappropriate for the office door of a college professor?


I have two goals: the first, obviously, is to get a sense of how much they know about constructing essays. I'll review/teach them the 5 paragraph essay (and its relatives, the 4, 6, 7 and 8 paragraph essay ;) and talk about development of paragraphs with supporting ideas. The second goal is to get them thinking about why young people don't vote.

For the second class, I put them in groups and had them brainstorm outlines (thesis and supporting points) but I also asked them to think about challenges to the points. For example, if you say "young people don't vote because they're lazy," how would you challenge that point?

Two things came up:

First, I started talking about "yeah, but." Some years ago, I got into enneagram personality analysis and found I was a 6. An unhealthy 6 is known for being a "Yeah, but." And I have certainly been there. "Yeah, but" people are the ones who always have an argument with everything you say, not necessarily on a political level, but on a day to day level. "Hey, let's go to Starbucks!" "Yeah, but they don't really have decent food." "Want to go to see Tropic Thunder?" "Yeah, but I heard it's not that funny."

I explained that while "yeah, but" is bad when you're trying to figure out what to do tonight, it's actually a great mental exercise to do with problem-solving and analysis. "Young people are too lazy to vote." "Yeah, but they also have to work much harder today to afford their college education. They have to study more information, work 20-30 hours a week, do their extracurriculars, and so if they're too "lazy" to go vote, who can blame them?" When they start thinking like that, they will do deeper thinking.

The other thing I realized as I eavesdropped on conversations is that my students were not telling each other whom they planned to vote for. I found this FASCINATING. However, they also used "free speech" as a justification in many of their discussions. They think everyone has a right to free speech, but they are afraid of exercising this right! They realized that speaking your opinions has consequences; other people may judge you, and as first term students, they didn't want to be judged yet.

In other words, I think that another reason why young people do not vote is because they feel ignorant about the issues, and they have few to no safe places to explore these issues verbally.

On a personal level as a blogger/commenter, I don't always discuss things civilly. Then again, I'm generally talking with adults I feel comfortable with when I do get ranty. But I do think our young people are growing up in an atmosphere where people are afraid to discuss conflicts of ideas. (Of course, as a professional, I consider professional behavior in the classroom to be a very high priority.)

One of the problems with having discussions is that you have to agree on a set of facts first before you can discuss different ideas about applying belief systems, solving problems, and speculating about consequences. And I think that's one of the problems we're having--and young people are having. They don't know what's true.

And our media outlets sure aren't helping.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Guns in schools

Wow. I never expected this.

Education Week has free content this week, so I poked around the site and came across a poll with this question:

Should teachers be permitted to carry guns in school?

Then I clicked on the results.

83% say yes, teachers should be permitted to carry guns in school.

OMG. Please tell me that poll was freeped by the NRA because I could not bear it if 4 out of 5 teachers thought they should carry guns.

Monday, September 01, 2008

End of Summer

Tomorrow I go back to work, but I'm clinging on to summer with chewed-up fingernails. I haven't gotten anything DONE, I think to myself. Not true.

What I accomplished:
1. A week at Disney.
2. Two major birthday party events for the kids.
3. A week at a beach house.
4. An AACU proposal (rejected, but at least submitted).
5. An online course on how to teach online courses.
6. 10 days in the Pacific Northwest.
7. Painting and refurbishing the basement.
8. Taking on a power-hungry School Department.

What I didn't accomplish:
1. Writing a paper on CSL.
2. Painting my bedroom.

Why do I focus on the latter two???

Monday, August 25, 2008

School Troubles

The latest on my school situation is that the district is still refusing to budge. They will not enroll my son unless I submit a notarized residency affidavit--in fact, I must submit their specific form.

What's happening is that they do not dispute my residency. They are asserting their power to force me to comply with the policy they have set up. On one hand, I can see that people need to follow the policies of the district. On the other, the policy exists only to ensure residency.

I got the most cracktastic letter from the district's lawyers on Saturday. I had sent a letter indicating that I was going to use my right to pursue legal action under Massachusetts General Law 76.16, which reads:

Section 16. Any pupil who has attained age eighteen, or the parent, guardian or custodian of a pupil who has not attained said age of eighteen, who has been refused admission to or excluded from the public schools or from the advantages, privileges and courses of study of such public schools shall on application be furnished by the school committee with a written statement of the reasons therefor, and thereafter, if the refusal to admit or exclusion was unlawful, such pupil may recover from the town or, in the case of such refusal or exclusion by a regional school district from the district, in tort and may examine any member of the school committee or any other officer of the town or regional school district upon interrogatories.

The lawyer claimed that since I have not fulfilled the residency requirement, I am not a resident, thus I can't sue.

*mind boggles*

OK, if I'm not a resident of the town, then I must be homeless. At which point I am entitled to certain protections under McKinney Vento, one of which is that the district can't require a residency affidavit from me.

See how ridiculous this is?

Further ridiculousness: they are not disenrolling my daughter.

In my research, I have learned that school districts often violate the laws. Pennsylvania seems to have a particular problem. (pdf file) New Jersey has a whole Education Law Center devoted to protecting student rights. I wish Massachusetts had something similar.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Facebook Etiquette

The eternal question for the social-media-connected teacher:

Do I friend back students who request to friend me on Facebook? This is a new freshperson, and I want to be welcoming. I also do not want to hear about how much beer he drank last night, you know?

For now, I friended him back.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Story

My local school district is refusing to enroll my son in 1st grade because I have not proven my residency to them according to their policy. Why? What have I done wrong? Am I really a resident? Well, let's back up.

First of all, I am a resident. I live across the street from my kids' school. The school secretary literally can see my house out of her window.

Second, apparently, we have a problem in our district. People are sneaking their kids into our schools from neighboring communities even though they do not live here. Or, the parents are divorced, and one parent lives out of town and one lives in town, but the child lives out of town most of the time.

So the superintendent decided to do something about it. He and the school committee decided that all residents would have to fill out an affidavit of residency and supply 3 pieces of info. The first would be some sort of proof of ownership or tenancy; the second would be some sort of utility bill; the third would be some sort of financial bank statement or tax bill.

Then the resident would have to fill in the details about the children involved and agree to let a residency investigator for the school district visit the home to verify residency.

And then the resident would have to have this affidavit notarized. Free notaries are available in the library and in town hall, which is open till 7 pm on Wednesdays.

OK, now compare that to the proof of residency *you* have to show.

When I got the affidavit in the mail, I said "I'm not filling this crap out" and ignored it. The district hired someone full-time to deal with the residency policy and I got several calls from her. I picked up by mistake once and ended up having to explain to her that I wasn't going to complete the affidavit. What could they do to me? I asked her.

Well, they could refuse to enroll my son without proof of residency. Even though my daughter is already enrolled and about to attend 4th grade.

So what has happened? There is so much wrong with this policy that I am embarrassed for ignoring it for so long. This should have been nipped in the bud much sooner.

1. One parent filed a complaint with the state Department of Ed because she felt that the district was asking for too much personal financial info. The State DoE agreed and told the district to back off requiring 3 pieces of info. One would be enough.

2. The community in general expressed disgust with the item allowing a residency investigator to visit the house. At the last school committee meeting, they agreed to let that item slide. If people wanted to sign the affidavit but cross out the part about the unreasonable search and seizure, that would be fine with them. How kind of them.

3. My issue? The notary. In fact, that's always been my main issue. It comes across as laziness, I'm sure, but I don't understand why I should have to have this affidavit notarized. This is a child's education, not a legal contract. If a parent lies on the affidavit, do they really intend to press criminal charges against the parent? And what about the sheer difficulty/burden of having stuff notarized. I'm a professional person and pretty knowledgeable, but even I find this whole notary thing a little confusing.

What this reeks of is bullying and intimidation. They figure they will scare people away. And the residents of CorruptSmallTown have let it slide because ... learned helplessness? Well, not me.

When I went to a school committee meeting, the superintendent said that another school district had the same affidavit, and "if it's good enough for OtherTown, then it's good enough for CorruptSmallTown." If that's the case, then it's good enough for any town or city in Massachusetts. Now try imagining the city of Boston requiring all residents to have notarized affidavits of residency. Now imagine how many children in challenging circumstances of poverty and immigration and custody issues whose parents would be caught between a rock and a hard place.

The superintendent brags that 18 fraudulent moneysuckers have been expelled from our district as a result of the policy. He would imply that, because it costs $7000+ per student to educate them, then he has saved the district $126,000+.

Except that we have 4 schools in our district, 2 K-5, one middle, one high. That's basically 1 student per grade. That student could hardly cost the schools $7000 each. I'm not an economist, but isn't there a word for this, economies of scale or something?

Tomorrow, having returned from vacation the middle of last week and finally readjusting to this time zone again, I am girding myself for battle tomorrow. I sent in my "affidavit" with supporting documentation. I rewrote the affidavit to take out the offending unreasonable search and seizure stuff, and I signed it, and I showed proof of ownership via my deed.

I did not have it notarized. I sent it on August 1, the day before we left, and I haven't heard back yet. So I call the superintendent's office tomorrow.

I don't want to go to court, but I will. I find it hard to believe that the state of Massachusetts will refuse to give my son an education even though he is a resident, simply because I won't have an affidavit notarized. That would be a violation of Massachusetts General Law. Chapter 76, sections 5 and 16, to be exact.

We will find out.
OK, I have a question for you all. What is reasonable for a school district to ask of parents in order to prove residency in the district?

What does your school district require of you to prove residency? Is it enough? Too much? Are people trying to sneak their kids into your school district? What actions should your school district be permitted to take in order to prevent people from fraudulently enrolling their children in your school district?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summer Vacation


This is actually the second of three vacations we're taking this year. Our first was to Disney, and our third will be to the Pacific Northwest. This one was to the NoFo, oh excuse me, the North Fork of Long Island. When I was a child, my grandmother rented a house out there on the beach and we visited her. I was 13 when my grandmother died (in 1979), so we're talking the mid-1970s. I have few but intense memories: my grandmother always had plums. She loved to go shelling, especially for jingle shells. The house was on Peconic Bay, and the waters were shallow and filled with shells and horseshoe crabs and minnows. We played for hours out on the beach, without sunscreen! We slept on the floor or on the screen porch of the house.

The house we stayed in this past week was much newer and very well-equipped for families. A large pool is the main feature of the yard, but there is a short walk to the beach. An ice cream parlor was a mile's walk away. It was sunny and beautiful all week. All of my sisters came and stayed for at least a day, and my mother even came for an afternoon (normally, she needs to be at home with my bedridden father, but my sister stayed with him, and his 3x week home health care aide came to do clean-up).

We took the ferry from Orient Point back to New London yesterday afternoon. A very nice woman sitting in the next booth complimented us on how nicely our children interacted with each other. The drive from New London is about an hour. As we reached Providence, though, I became teary. Not with joy, but with ... dread? regret? I had a mini-emotional breakdown right there in the car.

Going back to Long Island for vacation then returning to Outside Providence reminded me of how much of myself is a Long Islander at heart. I belong there. I don't belong here in the RI/MA area. On Long Island I have family, and I have history. I have context. Here in RI/MA, I have friends and colleagues, but I also have a kind of existential loneliness. I am living here. I am not *of* here.

We moved from LI in 2000 when our daughter was a year old. We never saw ourselves as Long Islanders. We were wrong.

Now, I don't plan to move back to Long Island. I love my job, and it loves me. I have colleagues I respect and enjoy spending time with. I have friends among the moms and dads in my community. This is the only home my son has really ever known (my daughter has lived in 4 different cities and 5 different homes in her 9 years of life).

But I was surprised at how intensely the loneliness hit as I drove into Providence yesterday. I don't know how to get past it, either. Or if I ever will.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Webkinz

Today is my son's 6th-birthday party., and the theme is Webkinz. We have a Wheel of Wow, a Wishing Well (really a portable slot machine), a Zingoz and t-ball set to play Wacky Zingoz, balloons to play my version of Balloon Darts (I refuse to give 6 year olds darts to throw, so they will sit on them and pop them), and the piece de resistance, a Gem Hunt. The cake will be decorated as the Wheel of Wow. For pre-cake snacking, there will Farm Fresh strawberries, watermelon and (baby) carrots. The colors of the paper goods are all Webkinzy blues, greens, yellows and neon pinks. There is a Frog Pinata for "Candy Bash." (I wish I could have found cheap sombreros.) There will be a cooler full of diet Coke and beer for the parents.

Photos will be forthcoming.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Parenting as an Academic

I was just reading this post from Mama PhD, the blog at the Inside Higher Education site (founded by an old college friend of mine, if I may name-drop a moment). The question at hand is whether or not academia can become more family friendly. And of course the answer is "of course."

I feel incredibly fortunate because my university makes it incredibly possible for me to be both an involved parent and a college professor. And most of my colleagues feel the same. We understand our work commitments and don't shirk them, but we also respect each other's roles as members of families, both the women and the men. How is it so easy for us and so difficult for the rest of academia?

I always credit the fact that I have women bosses. My chair is a mother of two, and my dean is a mother. (Let me tell you one story that recently happened. We were dealing with an angry parent, and my dean was on the phone with the parent, and they eventually worked out that the I would e-mail the student with some info and cc- the parent; my dean said, "Well, Professor X is here with me now, but she has to leave in a minute to pick up her children, so she will contact your son tomorrow." How many deans would assert the professor's right to deal with family matters and put off the student until the next day?)

But I've had women bosses who were not so understanding. One that comes to mind was childless. As I was talking with her once about some work I was doing, explaining that it had been difficult to complete recently because my toddler daughter was waking several times a night, she looked at me and said "We all have responsibilities." Uh, yeah. And when you face those responsibilities, I will give you a break. I know for a fact that her biggest problem at that time was finding a coffee shop close to her new apartment.

At my current job, I have a 4-course teaching load (actually, I teach 5 classes now, but 3 are half-classes, so I teach the equivalent of 3.5 classes, 14 hours a week in the classroom total). I serve on many committees, including Writing Across the Curriculum and the Publicity Committee. I run the writing assessment program as well. One of my classes is a service-learning course which requires me to go to the community partner site with my students. I don't shirk my service duties.

This summer I am writing an article on my service learning project, and I am working on a conference proposal on the writing assessment program with my colleagues. I recently submitted a biographical article for a journal issue on American Romance Novelists.

And yet I work most days from 7 am to 2:30 pm. My kids are dropped off by their father, though sometimes I don't teach till 9:20 and can do it myself. I am able to leave most days at 2:30, but sometimes I have meetings or a class scheduled, in which case I take advantage of my children's school's very flexible after-school program. In unusual situations where I have no flexibility, my husband can often take the time to fill in, but that's unusual.

So what are the structural differences?

1. I have flexible before- and after-school care which is provided at the school by an outside contractor.
2. I am allowed "sick/personal" days. The official number is 10, but one year when my son's asthma was just being diagnosed and we were figuring out how to manage it, I might have gone over that amount by one day. My dean chose not to dock my pay.
3. We work a 4-day week. I have 6 child-free hours on Fridays to get grading/prep done. The four-day week is for the benefit of the students, who work in their careers, mostly in the food services/hospitality industry.
4. My chair and colleagues value family and help each other out. I sub whenever I can for others having problems. They subbed for me when my mother-in-law and grandmother died in the same week and I had to miss a week of classes. Also, my chair will try to accommodate our needs whenever possible. We try not to ask unless it's really important. (Examples: my colleague who was still nursing her son and needed a schedule a certain way; another colleague who was taking classes for her PhD and had a last minute schedule change there which required a last minute schedule change at work.)
5. Publication of books and high-level articles is not required for promotion (we have no tenure). We are expected to do professional development, such as attend conferences, and we are rewarded if we publish, but it is not required. Many of us choose not to publish.
6. We all teach a slate of 4 courses that are required of all students. There are additional courses in food writing, travel writing, news writing, developmental writing, technical writing, but mainly we all teach all 4 core courses. That helps when schedules have to change last-minute.
7. I can imagine that some colleges have a student body that prefers classes in late afternoon and evening. Our student body would prefer that if possible, but they also understand that they are preparing for careers. In some cases, they know they need to work on the discipline to get up for 7 am classes, and in other cases, they work in the afternoons and must schedule their classes in the mornings for that reason. It helps that the bulk of classroom hours are before 3:45.
8. Personally, I live only 6 miles from my workplace. But other colleagues live a 45-minute drive away, and they have no major problems balancing.

If I think of other structural issues that help make my family-friendly job possible, I will post them, but basically, IT'S NOT THAT HARD IF YOU WANT TO DO IT. I think academia just has to want to do it.

Stormy Weather

Tuesday was an unusual day. I rescued a rather large turtle from the middle of the road. A deer was caught in my office building in the middle of the city, far away from any wooded land. And the skies opened up and rained hail.

My garden? Beaten down.

The broccoli.

The zucchini, once mighty. Those ragged edges were caused by hailstones, not slugs, bugs or bunnies.

Lightning strikes caused fires in two houses in my area. It was a wild set of storms.


Edited to add:

And now falcons?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Soaps and the Average Person

This article has already been blogged here and here.

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

So very alien to me on one hand, but on the other, I can see how this comes to be. All my life, people had been telling me that I was "too smart" to read the junk I read, and I should read "real" books. I loved series fiction even then, gobbling up Bobbsey Twins books at age 6, Nancy Drew at age 7, and Narnia, Little House, the Little Women books... anything I could get my hands on. I did not like fantasy and sci fi very much; I preferred mysteries and domestic stories, t(w)een precursors to romance novels, I guess. My nine year old daughter is much the same, by the way. I can't get her interested in Harry Potter!

Anyway, for a while I lied, telling people my next book would be, I don't know, "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates." I didn't know what people wanted me to read. I learned to just shut them up by assuring them that the very next thing I read was going to be "good for me." But on I went, finally, when I was about 15 or so, discovering the shelf of romance novels on my best friend's mother's bookshelf. I had been watching soap operas for a while, since I was 11 or so; I was 15 and a half when Luke and Laura got married. For a while, soaps were, if not popular or accepted, at least a subject of discussion.

But I resented people's interest in what I read and their tsk-tsking over my choices. I was the one with the genius level IQ. I was the one who was the smartest kid in my class. Why were other people telling me they knew better for me?

After a while, I started defending my tastes, not aggressively, but when possible. I wrote a paper tearing apart Ann Barr Snitow's article on romance novels when I was a freshman at Cornell. Thank Janet Dailey for being a romance author ahead of her time and portraying a level of complexity in her Harlequin American romances that, I admit, didn't exist in other lines. I started watching soaps again; my parents had bought me a little black and white tv so I could watch Guiding Light (and the Mets games). My housemates teased me for reading Cosmo (so much so that they bought me a subscription for my birthday so I "wouldn't embarrass [them] by reading it on line at the grocery store."

Then it became a way I tested people. I would get to know a person, then, when I sensed they were impressed with me and my intelligence, I'd slip into the conversation that I liked soaps. I enjoyed watching their faces change. And their reaction to me often determined whether I pursued a friendship with that person. (The exception: a boyfriend, but what can I say? Physical attraction outweighed common sense.)

I gave up soaps in 1999 not because I learned to hate them, but because I no longer had time for them once my daughter was born and I went back to work. We didn't have TiVos or YouTube in 1999! I thought having a VCR was pretty hip. :)

But I'm pretty thankful for my love of soaps. It kept me connected to a world outside of academia, even as I tried to integrate my love for soaps into my academic work. (I wrote a conference paper on rape in the soaps, and I was interviewed for an academic book on soap fandom.) I was part of soap fandom. I met fellow fans through pen pal ads in the back of soap mags. I wrote fanfiction. I joined fan clubs and went to fan club luncheons. I always contended that soap operas were the one form of pop culture/writing that was co-created by fans.

Henry Jenkins says that this kind of participatory culture is crucial to the future of democracy in America:

In Convergence Culture, I argue that we are learning through play skills which we are increasingly deploying towards more serious purposes: in this case, a generation of young people may have found their voice in online debates and discussions around their favorite television programs. In this space, they felt empowered to express and argue for their points of view, precisely because talking about popular culture lowered the stakes for everyone involved. And it was through these conversations that they developed a strong sense of social ideals and values which they carry with them as they venture into real world political debates. I am unshamed to say that much of what I now believe about diversity and social justice I learned growing up watching Star Trek in the 1960s, watching a multiracial crew operate as friends and team members on the bridge, seeing how they responded to the challenges posed by alien societies radically different from their own.

I can't disagree. Though I was older (26) when online fandom and discussion became possible for me, I have found that it has helped me find my voice and my self-confidence to be a soap fan (and later, a tv fan).

So 4 years of Ivy education and 9 years (ack) of graduate school at Ground Zero in the 1990s Culture Wars, and I still don't have a problem chatting with pretty much anyone. Except now everyone else watches reality tv, and I can't stand the genre....

Friday, June 20, 2008

Testing

Flock is a new browser that promises to make social networking and web surfing easier than ever.

Still not sure what I think.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, June 16, 2008

Party Time

This weekend we had a birthday party for my 9 year old daughter. The theme was ice cream, which is my daughter's favorite thing in the world, and it was in part inspired by the best birthday party I ever went to, Laura Gaizo's party right after 6th grade ended. We had make-your-own sundaes then played ringalevio as darkness fell. I never wanted that party to end.

We planned games like Pin the Cherry on the Ice Cream Sundae, and a relay race with ice cream cones and cotton balls and "Freeze Dance" to the Hairspray soundtrack. In reality we got only to the first because we have one of those Intex pools:

Note: I do not have my husband's mad photography skills, alas.

When the girls arrived, I had them all decorate plastic margarita cups with paint-markers; they would be each girl's individual sundae cup. Then I had a treasure hunt, which was HUGE fun. Then they begged to go in the pool. *shrug* OK. They had a BLAST in the pool, and I dragged them out for their sundaes. But then it felt like we squeezed pinata-hitting (shaped like an ice cream cone, natch), Pin the Cherry on the Sundae, and present-opening into about 15 minutes, punctuated with pauses while the girls jumped into the pool. Oh well! I heard many say sotto voce that it was the best birthday party ever, so I'm happy. :)

Next on my agenda: a Webkinz birthday party for my 6 year old son. Yes, I plan to try to recreate Webkinz World in my backyard. Wish me luck.

I don't do this party thing out of any sense of "bigger and better." I have a blast doing it. And I just can't bear the thought of having this huge backyard and kids with summer birthdays and then having a party in some sort of indoor place.

Bird blogging!


Look at our new friend! Photo by my husband, who has mad photography skills.

I read/skimmed a book once about the suburban backyard and all the wildlife there. I grew up in Long Island, where we had blue jays and squirrels and occasionally tiny frogs if you lived near a sump. But here in SE Mass, we've had:
* nest/eggs, which hatched into baby catbirds
* a lost painted turtle (we brought it back to the local pond)
* bunnies
* groundhog (which my husband kept referring to as "the hedgehog")
* a star-nosed mole
This summer we finally have a backyard deck (small but serviceable), and it's so much fun to sit outside and watch the wildlife visit. Strangely, we have no cats hanging around (which may be why we get so much wildlife).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

School Volunteering

I enjoy volunteering at my daughter's school. Third graders are cute, and I like spending time with them. My daughter also likes it. I'm lucky that my job is flexible enough that I can make time now and again. Most days I'm in the office and/or teaching from 7 am to 2:30 pm. And I always have Fridays off because my university strongly believes in the 4-day teaching schedule.

What I don't like is volunteering for Sports Day. When I was a kid, we had something similar, Field Day. I loved Field Day. We had awards and stuff. Tony D always won the running awards. I was the team pitcher in the kickball finals in 5th grade. We had sack races and egg races and long jumps.

But Sports Day makes me feel so inadequate. First of all, it always seems as though the other parents all know each other. I keenly feel my lack of history in CorruptSmallTown at these times. Second, I don't know half the rules of the games they play. Last time I volunteered, the kids were assigned to play soccer. Ack! I know nothing about soccer. And M, a student in my daughter's class, seems to be a pretty good soccer player and basically just commandeered the ball every time we tried to play. How do you to tell a second grader to stop showing off his skills?

And then, it's all outdoors, and after an hour or so, the sunscreen wears off and I start to worry about getting sunburned and dehydration. I can't even focus on enjoying the kids.

I have to stop reflexively volunteering for things just because I'm free. It's that guilt, though. I see all these other parents, mainly but not always moms, volunteering so much of their time, and I feel competitive.

Oh, and in case you couldn't tell, Sports Day is tomorrow. And I signed up to help out. Volunteer's remorse!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Travel

My mother-in-law passed away a year and a half ago. She went quickly, a particularly aggressive ovarian cancer. Affectionate but not close in life, in death, she has become somewhat of an inspiration to me. Living on very little money, she still managed to indulge her greatest love, travel. She also managed to leave my husband a little money, and this year we're trying to use that money to travel the way we know she'd want us to. We've already spent a week in Disney (for the kids!), and right now I'm planning our trip to the Pacific Northwest in August.

Planning a trip with two kids is a bit challenging. We have to always consider whether they'll be able to handle an attraction. I think we've planned our trip well, 2 to 4 days in each part of the PNW we'll be visiting. 3-4 days in Seattle, 3-4 days in Portland visiting one of my oldest friends, and 3-4 days on the Oregon coast. It's enough variety to keep the kids - and us - from getting bored.

What's funny is that money isn't really an obstacle. Our plane tickets have been paid for (we no longer keep debt on the credit cards) and all we need are accommodations for about 6 nights in Seattle and on the Oregon coast. And yet I cannot bring myself to pay the $200+/night prices in the midrange Seattle hotels.

There's a frugality inside me, born of years of living on a teacher's salary (my father's, then my own). I remember September as being the hardest month. My father saved part of his 9-month salary to cover the summer, and he supplemented with summer work such as building houses, working at summer camps, and even working as a seasonal US Customs Inspector at JFK. But it was never enough, and we waited and waited for that third Thursday in September, the first paycheck of the year.

I guess I do not understand how paying for a more expensive hotel nets any benefit to me. I can see that location may be worth the extra cost, but there is a pleasure to be had in navigating the non-touristy areas of an unfamiliar city either by car or public transit. Amenities? All I want is a cold Diet Coke in the morning and a hot shower. A pool for the kids would be nice, but not necessary. Higher quality beds or linens? That can't compensate for not being in my own bed; I can't see that luxury ensuring me a good night's sleep.

When you scrimp on some things, you can splurge on others. We may be staying in a quite affordable guest apartment on a college campus in Seattle, but that means that on the Oregon coast we can splurge on an oceanfront or oceanview beach house. I won't pay $200+/night for a cramped hotel room, but for a hot tub overlooking the Pacific Ocean? You bet I will.

I don't remember if my mother-in-law ever made it to Seattle or the Pacific Northwest (she was well-travelled in Europe and the Caribbean and had been to Alaska). But you can be sure I will dip my feet in the water (she loved the water and loved swimming) in her memory when we're there.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Garden Blogging


Inspired by Laura's photo.

This is our third summer in our house. The first summer was just crazy, and we were broke after buying the house in the first place. Last summer was when my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I spent a lot of time with family and didn't think much about gardening. This summer, I set my plans into motion. I removed the huge yews that overwhelmed the front of the house. In their place, I planted some blue star junipers, a butterfly bush, and trellised up a honeysuckle. I also planted marigolds in a row (you can sort of see them--they're orange), circling the bush, then used spare rocks from our very rocky lot as a border. There's also a not-dead-yet small rose plant next to the honeysuckle. I'm seeing what happens.

Later: What to do with the flowering quince I loathe but I can't seem to dig up.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Something is wrong

When I was in Florida sitting at the bar watching the Kentucky primary results come in, I started chatting with the pool bartender. He made it quite clear how angry he was that Florida delegates might not be seated. It had never occurred to me how the people of Michigan and Florida might feel. And what they feel is pissed off.

A professor of politics will explain over a three-hour lecture why these people just don't understand the brilliance of the American electoral system. But they seem honestly angry with the Supreme Court in 2000. They are angry with the Electoral College. They are angry because they think that the each vote should count and the voters should pick the president.
...
The Democrats may have good reason to punish Florida and Michigan for moving up their primaries. Perhaps they think in the long run, it will be better for the primary process and democracy. But they are doing a rotten job of explaining it to people.

This matches up with what I said over at 11D:

I will say that from the perspective of the average person, Clinton and Obama are tied. I mean, I'm a smart person and politically savvy, and really, I just can't see how it's so obviously an Obama win. Yes, I know, delegate numbers and stuff I don't quite understand. What's happening is that there is a *process* that is accepted by insiders but doesn't seem to match up with a democratic vote. Obama has been ordained the "obvious" winner, and yet state after state continues to give Clinton 10- to 35-point margins of victory. You will have to excuse the average voter for being unclear on the matter.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Movies

After about six months without a babysitter, we have found a new one (my husband's work was accepted in this exhibition, and he desperately wants us both to go to the opening reception next weekend, so it was time to go searching for a sitter again), and as a tryout, we're going to a movie tonight. So, do we go to this? Or this (scroll down)?

Oh reader, this blog post ends not in the usual way, with virtue. Yes, I chose the road more traveled, and I don't think it will make a bit of difference. I'll report back later.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Teaching and Change

This spring I was unusually busy. I turned my advanced comp courses into community service learning courses, which had its challenges. For four years now I've been developing my courses as "machines that would go of themselves" (HT: Kammen), but the problem with (or benefit of, to be honest) community service learning is that one has to deal with ... the community. Having the community partner provided an audience and a real-life context for my students, but it was so hard to organize. Everything kept changing, and we kept having to adjust to the new realities.

I don't teach a content area. I teach skills and application of skills. Even when I'm teaching literature, I'm not interested so much in having my students learn facts, names, dates, etc. but in having them learn *how* to read tone, meaning, symbolism, etc. effectively. These are transferable skills that will serve them well in their careers.

Last Thursday I got back from Florida, where I attended the Teaching Professor conference and extended the trip and brought the family so we could go to Disney. Disney--a whole 'nother post. What I'd like to talk about is what I learned at the conference.

When I got back from the conference it took me two days to go through hundreds and thousands of emails and blog posts of various kinds. Somewhere I came across a post about how PhD students are trying to get jobs at "desirable" colleges and move out of jobs at "undesirable" colleges.

Wow. Right there is everything that is wrong with the whole institution of academia, as source of employment, that is. I suppose I am at an "undesirable" college right now, even though my PhD is from one of the most prestigious grad programs in the country. But I am the happiest I've ever been in academia. Why? Well, one of the reasons is that I am not caught up in the idea of "status."

What I saw at the Teaching Professor conference was a lot of people who were not at "desirable" colleges. But damn, they cared about their jobs. I don't know, maybe some of them saw attending this conference as something to put on their CV to say they care about teaching and are professionally active. But the people I talked to were excited about teaching and looking for new ways to do it better.

I think one of the most important things we can do is make our teaching "real." How are the skills we are teaching important? How do they help us survive in the world? Is writing just an abstract exercise? Absolutely not. Once students enter into a real-life context with a real-life audience, as in the community service project I did, they start taking what I say seriously. When we talk about rhetorical appeals and they have to find some way of reaching recalcitrant 9th graders, what I say *sticks*. I become someone with a lot of experience and advice instead of a person who is just making them jump through hoops.

The subject of my community service learning project was "Civic Engagement and Youth Voting." I am doing it a little different next term because I'll be doing it with my Intro Comp class, but the basic idea is the same: to give students the information they need to vote. But I am also thinking of doing something similar on Financial Education. These poor kids are shelling out thousands of dollars and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for jobs that may not be there when they graduate. And if they work with a local high school, the materials they create could be terrific for those kids, too.

One of the areas missing from the conference had to do with the integration of Web 2.0 tools into college teaching. Yes, we hear about blogs and wikis and IM and Twitter. But I'm talking about things like Del.icio.us and Google Map Mashups and RSS readers and collaborative notetaking programs and web page annotations. I started trying to work with blogs a few years ago but got frustrated over how difficult it could be to keep up, and the students didn't know what to write about, and it required an investment of time I wasn't sure I had, both to run and to figure it out. But in the past few years, we're seeing pretty much every company starting to use blogs as marketing tools. My marketing students need to know how to write blog entries. Friends of mine who work at a computer company in NY were required to attend a training on Web 2.0. These tools are making it into the workplace. I'm not sure I'm the person to teach them how to use these tools, but they need to be learning how to use them and to practice using them.

These are the real-life applications we can bring to our teaching. When I read about Professor X's experiences, all I can think about is that s/he's going about teaching all wrong. We need new kinds of teaching, because we're not teaching the elite any more. Teaching the elite may be a "desirable" job, but it's also the career strategy of conservatism. Kind of ironic, isn't it?

And I'm just realizing anew how writing to learn works. I finally got to the thesis of this blog post in the very last graf. :) I just didn't know it till I got there.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

What Obama Really Meant

Fortunately, for Clinton fans, I am around. Because I speak "creative class," I can determine What Obama Really Meant. Let us take his most recent alleged flip-flop in Iran.

Via By the Fault:

Barack Obama, last night in Portland, on Iran: “They don’t pose a serious threat to us.”

Barack Obama, earlier on the afternoon of May 19th, in Billings, Montana, on Iran: “I’ve made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave.”

Let me explain. The answer is that Obama is being totally consistent and he does not think Iran is a threat.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says, "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." By this, Mercutio, who had been mortally wounded, meant he would be dead. In other words, "grave" = "dead." So when Obama said the threat from Iran is "grave," he meant it was dead, no longer alive.

See, no inconsistency if you know Shakespeare, which the creative class does and those redneck hillbillies do not.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Journalism

I wonder if the Pulitzer Prizes will ever adapt to accommodate reporting like this:

Two or three people are killed each day by others in Los Angeles County. Most of them died anonymously until Jill Leovy and her blog, The Homicide Report, came along.

For more than a year, Leovy made it her job to document every homicide in Los Angeles County. It had never been done before.

Like most big-city newspapers, the one Leovy works for -- The Los Angeles Times -- reports only the most "newsworthy" cases. But those killings, elementary school drive-bys and celebrity murders only account for 10 percent of the county's homicides, Leovy found.

She wanted to go deeper, to put a human face on the toll homicide was taking, particularly in L.A.'s black and Latino communities.

"The Web offered what the paper did not: unlimited space," Leovy wrote in a front-page story summarizing her year as creator and the first blogger for The Homicide Report.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Obama's Electability

Personally, I cannot for the life of me figure out how the electoral math works for Obama. Clinton has won New York, California, and Ohio. She will win Pennsylvania. She would win Florida and Michigan, obviously (or why else would Obama be opposed to a revote). But what do I know, apparently. Everyone else says the electoral math is on Obama's side.

I also think he's going to get totally attacked post-primary.

This editorial, which I've seen little reference to in the blogosphere, has also caused me great concern. I am excerpting it in total because I am concerned the link won't work.

Peter Navarro: My own ‘Obama experience’

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

IRVINE, Calif.

I WAS BARACK OBAMA before Barack Obama — sort of. My strong advice is that he should graciously embrace a “unity ticket” with Hillary Clinton at the top and himself as the vice-presidential candidate. The likely alternative is a McCain victory — and the ritualistic Republican gutting of a once promising politician.

My own “Obama experience” occurred in 1992, when, as a whiz kid, I ran for mayor of what was, then anyway, the sixth largest city in America — San Diego. Like Obama, I was a gifted orator who could stir a crowd. Like Obama, I had a Harvard pedigree and was full of new ideas. Like Obama, I also had a horde of grassroots supporters who could swarm precincts all over the city.

However, like Obama, I had never run much of anything, especially a major city. Like Obama, I was more prone to mistakes than most seasoned politicians. Like Obama, some of my positions were simply too liberal for the mainstream. Nor had I been fully “vetted” politically, which is to say there were yet some skeletons in my closet.

My own election result was what the writer John Barth might have described as a “para-digm of assumed inevitably.” As the white knight running against a gaggle of shopworn politicians, I decisively won the primary election and emerged as toast of the town. However, by general election day in November, I was toast.

What did me in is precisely what will do Obama in: Youth and inexperience flying headlong into the Republican meat grinder and spin machine. As a result of the mountain of mud thrown at me, almost half the city hated me by November while even some of my own staunchest supporters were disillusioned. I not only lost the race (albeit by a few percentage points). My once promising political career was effectively over — all because I reached too high too soon.

These same perils await young Barack and are precisely why a “unity ticket” offers the best long-term path for his political career. As the VP candidate, much of what the Republicans can throw at him, particularly on the experience issue, simply goes away, while his running mate Clinton has taken every possible hit they’ve ever thrown at her and remains standing tall.

Equally important for the strategic calculus, a Clinton-Obama unity ticket provides a much greater chance of victory in November. Clinton brings in women and Latinos while Barack appeals to blacks and Democratic and independent men. Clinton woos suburban and rural voters while Obama has a lock on the urban vote. While Clinton provides comfort to America’s seasoned citizens, Obama can pull millions of young voters out of a traditionally empty electoral hat.

Clinton also offers far better alternatives to moderates, independents and swing voters on two key issues than either McCain or Obama. McCain thinks we should stay in Iraq for another 100 years while Obama wants to get out yesterday. Neither position reflects the mainstream.

Mainstream voters generally believe that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. However, now that we are there, we need to maintain a large enough presence for a long enough time to avoid an Iraqi meltdown. That’s the Clinton position.

On the economy, Clinton likewise trumps both McCain and Obama — and by a wide margin. McCain is a self-professed economic ignoramus while Obama’s major adviser is even younger than he is and has little training in macro-economics. In sharp contrast, the Clinton macro-economic team oversaw the single most prosperous decade in United States history. By November, when we are likely to be in the nastiest of recessions, the Clinton economic touch is likely to be the Democrats’ trump card — but only with Hillary at the top to play it.

Absent a unity ticket, John McCain’s best campaigners leading up to the August Democratic convention will be Clinton and Obama themselves — with each now trying to rise to the top by punching down the other. If Obama is truly the great unifier that he claims to be, he will see the beautiful strategic logic of the unity ticket and do what no other member of his party can do — make the unity ticket happen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rhetoric vs. Policy

I've come to believe that the difference between Obama and Clinton is the difference between rhetoric and policy.

The other night I realized something. So I asked my husband, "If Clinton is elected, what would be her first major policy move?" He said health care. Then I asked, "If Obama is elected, what would be his first major policy move?" He couldn't answer. Neither could I.

Obama's power for people is in his ability to motivate people, apparently, in his ability to listen. I cannot tell you how many conservative people I have heard/read say that they feel that although Obama disagrees, they think he will listen to them. And I still can't figure out what that means. Are anti-abortion activists really saying it's okay if Obama supports abortion rights so long as they can go to him and he'll listen to them? Is that really all it takes? "I'm Frasier Crane and I'm listening."

What really freaked me out this past week is the news that former Buffy actress Emma Caulfield plans to vote for Obama. Emma has always been right-wing, and indeed, her December 25, 2007 post to her Myspace indicates that she plans to vote for Ron Paul, racist libertarian candidate. But last week she announced that she had decided to vote for Obama.

Now, who the fuck cares what a H-list actress thinks about the presidential race? Really, it's just that it is symbolic of people who support Obama. They don't really know or care what his policies will be. They *trust* him. And that comes from his rhetorical skills, no? He hasn't done anything in particular to win that trust. In fact, look how close he came to betraying the trust of feminists.

Meanwhile, feminists all around the blogosphere keep holding the feet of Obama and his supporters to the fire. Here's Shakesville, Talk Left, Corrente, and Anglachel. I count myself among those who really cannot read the "top" bloggers any more--Kos, The Person Who Kidnapped Josh Marshall (tm Bob Somerby), or Aravosis.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Obama Fandom

Ah, the Obama fandom. Much to my dismay, Michael Berube has shown himself to be a member. I haven't been so crushed since I found out one of my sisters was a secret Buffy-Angel shipper, even in the 7th season.

Anyway.

First of all, Michael is funny, and it's always a bit tough to find that line between sincerity and irony with him. It's something I've always loved about his writing. Now, I'm supposed to wait and find out how his conclusion that hick racists are Clinton's base was a joke, but that means I'd have to haunt TPM, and I'm having some blood pressure issues already. I shouldn't add to the stress.

Second, I'm not really paying much attention to the campaigns. I haven't watched a single campaign event, including the famous Obama speech (I read it), so my knowledge is pretty much filtered by others and thus I consider it a bit unreliable.

So let's for the sake of argument say that Hillary Clinton is running a campaign where she is deliberately using appeals to voters' racism in order to garner votes.

Is that really substantially different from Obama's speech? Well, yes. And no.

This may depend, of course, on how you read Obama's approach. I have a few conservative/libertarian friends. Good people, but misguided. And most of them LOVE Obama. Why? Because they think he "will listen" to them. He won't judge them or accuse them of hating the poor or blacks or of being awful people. They feel that Clinton, however, is the kind of prosy, lecturing bore they knew in high school, always telling them what to do and how to feel.

This concerns me. I think what a lot of people do not realize is that there is a whole lot of latent racism there that people want to leave be. It's one of the reasons Libertarianism appeals to the white supremacist/end-of-the-world types. They just want to be left to themselves to be as racist and/or kooky as they want, and Libertarianism is the political philosophy that will let that happen.

Now, do I really think Obama wants to make nice with racists as a matter of national policy? No, of course not. I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that this is a political strategy is using to court support of more conservative voters. I hate the strategy. I don't think we should be making nice with people who want to be left alone to be racist, who want their racist ideas to be heard and listened to. Is that what the national conversation about race will involve? Everyone baring their soul and exposing their innermost racist thoughts, crying on each other's shoulders? I've seen that song before in Avenue Q, and it was a lot funnier and entertaining there.

Obama's campaign relies on appealing to racists just as much as Clinton's does. They take different approaches, and Obama at least is making a hand-wave to the potential transformation of racists. Yes, all the bad stuff is going to melt away before the awesomeness that is Obama. Whatever. I'll still vote for him if he's the candidate in November, and I pretty much believe he is a good guy who'll do his best for our country.

But I don't delude myself into believing that he is any less politically canny when appealing to racist voters than Clinton is.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

You know how you feel when the boy you have a crush on kicks a puppy?

Yet another male blogger/public intellectual disappoints me. This time it's Michael Berube.

After relating the ravings of a few ignorant people in his home town, he writes, "But there you have it– this is now Clinton’s base."

No.

Clinton's base is a significant number of women over 30 or 40. Please don't offend us yet again by ignoring our existence.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

More on Race

I was just reading Pam on Obama's speech:

And yet, he was not afraid to challenge people of all colors in denial that the conversations kept out of polite company need to come out of the closet. All of us need to work through the fear that words will be misunderstood or poorly received. Trust must be built, thicker skin must be developed, and emotional effort must be expended to solve these problems.

This is the kind of stuff that wears on people of color on a day-to-day basis, but I’d rather put my energies into talking this stuff out than taking my ball and going home, or as Obama referred to, retreating to our corners. I wish others would do the same.

I honestly do not know what this means, by which I mean that I do not know what we're going to next. Talk? Where? How? What are we supposed to say to each other? "Hi, my name is Wendy, and I'm a racist"? or "I'm ok, you're ok even if you are a racist"?

I'm a pragmatist. What do we do next?

Once again, Crash did all this navel-gazing already. It took racial prejudice out of the closet and showed people doing and saying all sorts of racist things while also showing them trying to be decent people. And it was decried as crap by a lot of liberals.

Amanda et al talk a little about Crash.

Obama's Speech

Really, I think it was a good speech. But I'm going to nitpick/complicate the uncritical readings of it.

Basically, my PhD is in African American literature, and I specialize in 19th and early 20th AfriAm lit. I went into the study of African American lit somewhat naive but with an overwhelming sense that I needed to make this study about the literature, not about me. I am white, not black. I have spent much of the last 20 years striving not to be a Noble White Liberal. If someone tells me I have said/done something racist, I take that seriously. All I can do is commit to trying to understand and thus to be a better member of my community.

That is my philosophical statement on being white and talking about race.

I don't have any problem with Rev. Wright's statements. Like Obama, I know where they come from:

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. ...

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

But there are a few things Obama said that made me pause. First:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

White racism isn't endemic? I think that's naive.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

First, I do love the allusion to "Theme for English B," the black student trying to figure out how to communicate who he is to his white instructor. I like how rhetorically he transforms the black-white difference to the racist-nonracist difference. However, if we pick at that rhetorical move a little, it can't hold up. Blacks and whites will always exist in our country. But let's not hope/accept that racists and non-racists will always exist in our country. The goal is to transform racists into non-racists. We can *accept* that racists co-exist with non-racists *now*, but are we really saying we accept their racism?

Perhaps what Obama is saying is that people are complex, and we need to accept the *people* while trying to change their ideas. But the funny thing is that back in 2004, there was a movie that made this same point, and it was decried by many a liberal as being simplistic and facile. That movie was Crash.

I don't have time right now to look up every review of Crash. (For one thing, the word "crash" would be so difficult to search for within blogs and news sources because it is so common. Couldn't Haggis have called the move UEFGGW? or something like that? ;) Here is a typical criticism of the movie, from Cineaste.

The film tells us that no one is all good or all bad. This is a facile, obvious notion, and ironically, one Crash propounds only by showing human behavior at its polar extremes.

How is that different from what Obama says? Why is it facile when Haggis says it, but transformative when Obama does? It's not that Obama isn't correct; it's that just a few years ago it was "in" to criticize Crash for the very same points that Obama makes.

The other part of the speech that bugged me is the example he gave at the end of the speech about Ashley and the elderly black man at a roundtable:

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

Obama's example seems heartwarming--the young 19 year old girl and the unnamed (why isn't his name mentioned? Does it not matter?) elderly black man sharing a connection and a commitment to justice.

But you know what? All I can think of is Claudia MacTeer's frustration over Shirley Temple dancing with Bill Robinson, "who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with [her]. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels."

Maybe Obama wanted to make a point about the coalition of the powerless coming together to be empowered, but there is something that galls about Obama's pride in the nameless black man's promise to be there for the young privileged named white girl.

I forget what blog post I read that explained the generational differences here. Obama is espousing a social justice vision that distinguishes itself from the identity politics of previous generations of feminists and civil rights activists. Maybe he can make it happen. But I think we still have way too much history to work through, and there is a whole generation right now of men and women just as angry as the people of Rev. Wright's generation. They're not in the churches; they're on the street corners and in the jails and in abandoned houses without electricity trying to survive.

There is a fine line between looking toward the future, and ignoring the past and the present.