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English Studies and Political Literacy

Here's the second installment of my MLA session-blogging. Two down, two three to go. This is from "English Studies and Political Literacy," a forum which has already been covered at Tech Central Station, the Chronicle, and Acephalous, but I'll throw my notes in there too; why not? As with all my conference-blogging of years past, these are simply notes I took. They're probably direct quotations, but I don't use quotation marks because I don't want to have them in every sentence, and I'm not sure enough of the exact words to use quotation marks. You'll find very little commentary here, because, well, it would take even longer for me to post these if I also offered commentary. Notes are in order of speaker:

Donald P. Lazere, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In his introduction to the forum, Lazere said that students are caught in a double bind: They need a degree for a job, but they can't afford college. Students are pressured to major in areas that are expedient to getting a good job, not allowed to take a variety of humanities courses. They're also having to work while going to school.

Lazere cited the NEA "Reading at Risk" study and the "literacy crisis": only 21% of students read newspapers. (Note: What counts as a newspaper? In my three years of teaching at the University of Minnesota, when I walk into the classroom each day, nearly all the students are sitting in their desks engrossed in The Minnesota Daily. Some of them read City Pages too, which admittedly is mostly an entertainment guide but also contains some very smart articles about social and political issues.)

Feminism, Religion, Coalition

A reader from Moving Ideas asked me if I'd post an announcement about an online chat taking place later today:

Over the past year a debate over moral values and politics has grown increasingly prominent and divisive. To help learn more about the role of religion in politics and policy, particularly for women, the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) conducted research that found that while religious women activists and feminist movements share many goals, they rarely collaborate.

On Thursday, December 15 [TODAY!] from 1 – 2 pm [that's Eastern time], Moving Ideas is hosting an online discussion with Amy Caiazza (IWPR) and Rita Nakashima Brock (Faith Voices for the Common Good) about the rift between religious women activists and feminist movements, how we can bridge this rift and how issues of race, ethnicity, and class both contribute to the rift and point to ways to overcome it.

I think the disconnect between religious women's associations and feminist groups is real, and I agree that it's a problem. I remember back in the days of the Ms. boards, there were MANY vitriolic flame wars about religion, especially monotheist religions with a masculine godhead. They were casually referred to as the Holy Wars. I'm sure plenty of former Ms.-ers remember them.

Chapter 4 Vignette

I've been very reluctant to write this post lest it spur another round of "Where are the women?" for me to contend with, but I figured it was time for a dissertation post. I owe it to you, right? Well, a while back I finished Chapter 4 and am now in the process of revising it. In Chapter 3, I give a thorough overview and chronological description of the "Where are the women?" case: the posts, descriptions of the (onymous) people involved, and the contexts and exigencies of each instance of WATW. For example, the Larry Summers speech had a degree of influence on many of the comments. I also give a more detailed micro-rationale for my project than I give in the introduction. To clarify a bit, the macro-rationale is "why rhetoric should study blogging" and the micro-rationale is "why the 'Where are the women?' case." As anyone who has participated in them can tell you, the WATW threads are quite rhetorically unproductive; nothing really changes as a result of them, and that's one reason I find them so interesting. So in Chapter 3, as part of my detailed micro-rationale, I bring in some of the MANY metacommentaries and parodies of WATW, plus some of the interview responses.

Now for Chapter 4. I'm mostly drawing upon Nancy Fraser's article "Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy," but in this chapter I'm not going into her thoughts about multiple, subaltern counterpublics. I'm more interested in the four problematic assumptions she points out on which Habermas’ idea of public sphere rests: first, that inequalities in social status can be “bracketed” in a public sphere; second, that a singular public is preferable to multiple publics; third, that issues and interests deemed “private” should be excluded from the discussion; fourth, that a public sphere’s fruition depends on keeping “civil society and the state” separated (p. 117-118). Fraser claims that “[o]ne task for critical theory is to render visible the ways in which societal inequality infects formally inclusive existing public spheres and taints discursive interaction within them” (p. 121). That task, rendering visible these inequalities, is the raison d'être of this chapter.

I'm reviewing the various stereotypes and ideas about women's speaking in public that get tossed around in WATW. To illustrate, see this comment, and tell me if this guy didn't totally nail the "maiden, mother, crone" archetypes/stereotypes that feminists have been talking about for years (sincerely, I think this is really well put):

[I]n the world of Big Punditry women get one of three jobs:

1. The Soft-core Liberal Infobabe. Doesn't say or do much. Her entire function is to perpetuate the idea that if you're a liberal, you can have sex with women like this.

2. The Breast-Feeder from Hell. Begins every argument with "As a mother, I ..." Uses nurture six times in a single paragraph. Her function is to serve up chocolate-covered liberalism to guilty insecure housewives.

3. The Uppity Old Lady in Tennis Shoes. See Molly Ivins. This is where Infobabes go when they get put out to pasture. They're supposed to be sort of funny - Driving Miss Daisy kind of funny.

Specifically, I look at 1.) the role of sex, beauty, and attraction and how it can create noise; 2.) "women aren't interested in politics; they're more interested in fashion, gossip, and babies"; 3.) "women and men communicate differently," i.e. the "women can't handle the food fight, boxing match, swashbuckling, Crossfire, Hardball, insert agonistic metaphor here flavor of political debate"; 4.) "women are too busy with the house and the kids to have time to blog"; and 5.) "women aren't as technologically savvy as men." Mind you, I'm not saying there isn't any truth in any of these, especially #4. I'm just laying them out there. I may say more about these later, but for the vignette I want to focus on #2, because there are pictures!

Consider these sample comments:

There are simply less females than males passionate about politics, hence less females blogging.
If there is a blogosphere concerned with sales at Nordstroms or Hollywood gossip, that blogosphere will be predominately female. (Reader at Kevin Drum's weblog)

and here:

As for the gender thing, I still don't know if this is a problem in search of a solution or just the way women are. I'm leaning toward the latter, frankly. They don't like war, don't like hard-nosed arguments and have a hard time separating the personal from the political. Case in point, a girlfriend the other night told me Bush was too stupid to be president, and anyway she didn't like his family--his daughters didn't seem engaged enough (unlike who? Chelsea? Amy Carter? I was confused). This, apparently, was enough to decide her vote--Laura is a bit chunky and I don't like her shoes, it's settled!

Let me first say that I mean no disrespect toward the people who made these comments. The ideas represented here have a long history. In fact, in keeping with Jonathan's creative 'Aleatory Research' methodology, I happened upon some political cartoons from the suffragist movement, which I ended up using in the chapter. From January 27, 1909, a comic by T.E. Powers titled "When Women Get Their Rights":

Also from the 1910s:

The caption says, “Woman Devotes Her Time to Gossip and Clothes Because She Has Nothing Else to Talk About. Give Her Broader Interests and She Will Cease to Be Vain and Frivolous.”

I'll stop there; this is only a vignette, after all. As always, feedback is welcome.

Quick Takes

  • I'd intended to do something for Blog Against Racism Day, but I ended up being too busy yesterday. A day late, I would at least like to point to a couple of posts about low expectations and race: one at Girl Genius and one at Girl-Mom. Go read them now.
  • It has now been about four weeks since I last shopped at Target. I need some toiletries, though, and today I looked to see if there were any stores that have a birth-control-and-Plan-B-friendly policy. Turns out that Planned Parenthood has this handy chart. CVS and K-mart, here I come (actually CVS because they mailed me some coupons). I guess some people already saw the list, but it's new to me.
  • Tina Turner was honored by the Kennedy Center for "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts." When I saw that story, I thought of What's Love Got to Do with It. I saw that movie in the theater -- I must have been in my late teens -- and I was So Moved by it that I sat down and wrote Tina Turner this multi-page letter. I got a postcard from her fan club.
  • I smiled when I saw this post at Mike's, and I thought of it when I saw a student as I walked into the building to my office today. He was walking in the opposite direction, and as he walked, he was reading comments he'd received on a paper. It was subtle, but he looked up from the paper and was beaming. It was so clear that he was proud of his work and thrilled that the teacher had praised it. I was immensely happy for him. I don't think he saw me, but I'm glad I saw him. And the music swells... "This moment brought to you by Sylvan Learning Center." No, seriously: Seeing him got me excited about being able to teach again in the fall, wherever it may be.

Monday Notes

Remember Charles Victor Thompson, the death row inmate who escaped from prison? In case you missed it, he walked right out the door:

Thompson fled the Harris County Jail late Thursday, using a smuggled set of clothes and a fake identification badge to get past the guards.

His escape resulted from "multiple errors" by jail personnel, Martin has said.

Well, yes. But what's bugging me about this case is that no one -- at least no one white -- has to my knowledge made any remarks about this man's race. Stating the obvious here, but don't you think this successful attempt at escape was made possible by Thompson's whiteness? Not that I'm arguing for equal opportunity escape from prison, but still, I didn't want to let it slide by without comment.

Speaking of escaping from prison, the following was the best line in tonight's Prison Break episode:

Mob boss Philly Falzone, to Michael: You get elliptical with me for one more second, and I will cancel you.

That'll come in handy for conversations with Jonathan.

Biopics I want to see: Walk the Line and Capote (though I realize that's not a biopic proper).

I just got Halloween IV from Netflix today, and I'm going to see what all the fuss is about.

Quelle surprise

Miers withdraws her SCOTUS nomination.

UPDATE: More here, the president's statement, and Miers' letter.

Link Roundup

Advice for new graduate students from Fontana Labs at Unfogged.

The recent Blogging For Kids With Disabilities event hasn't gotten NEARLY enough uptake, in my opinion, so please go and read (and link to) the posts now. Laura's posts about her son's severe verbal apraxia are here , here, and here. A humble query: Wouldn't a "culture of life" allot far more resources for these children and their parents?

An interesting thread about teaching and research at The Valve. Matt Greenfield asks:

I am talking to a colleague about how my semester is going. I find myself talking about “my work.” And I feel a twinge of uneasiness. If my research is “my work,” what should I call my teaching? Is it someone else’s work? Is teaching work done on behalf of someone else, or work done by another version of me?

This dissonance, as well as the question of whether or not instructors should bring their own research into the classroom, is discussed.

An excellent article about students in two-year colleges in the Chronicle. I can just see John Lovas nodding vigorously in agreement.

[W]hat I've found surprising, during my 18-year teaching career in the community-college arena, is not how many of my students aren't well prepared for college, but how many of them are. One of the best-kept secrets in higher education today is the proliferation of honors programs at two-year colleges.

Those programs are designed to accommodate students whose SAT scores would allow them to get into "prestigious" colleges, but who find themselves at a community college for any number of personal reasons.

[. . .]

For many of those students, the local community college is an attractive alternative, because of its low cost, proximity to home, or popular programs. Tuition is often two-thirds or even half what students would pay at a four-year college. And they can usually cut expenses even further by living at home.

I'm nodding too. In the class I taught this summer, which had only ten students, two or three had gone to community colleges. They cited the reasons above (proximity to home, low cost), but they also pointed out that their community colleges' career and personal counseling services far surpassed those of the University of Minnesota -- not that the U of M's are bad or anything, but there are so many more students that the counselors don't seem to have as much time to meet repeatedly with the same person. One student, referring to the community college he attended, said, "There, you could meet with someone every single day if you wanted." Anyway, just my two cents. I recommend the article highly.

Seems that this service is treading a little close for FERPA comfort. I guess it's good for enrollment and retention, though.

How'd I miss this one? A university is hiring Smarthinking to assess student essays:

In a move that may take outsourcing past traditional levels, Kentucky’s community colleges this fall have started a pilot project in which an outside company is reading and providing evaluations of student essays in freshman composition courses. The program is small to date — only 48 students are having their papers assessed in this way — but Kentucky officials are enthusiastic about the potential for expanding the effort. And the company — Smarthinking — sees this as a service it would like to offer other colleges.

“The idea is that we can take the grading burden off of professors, and free up their time to do other things, such as working with students who need extra help,” said Burck Smith, CEO of the company, which has previously focused on providing outsourced tutoring centers for colleges in which students receive assistance online.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect of outsourced grading. “I’m appalled,” said Douglas Hesse, board chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. “This is abdicating something that is crucial to instruction,” said Hesse, a professor of English and director of the honors program at Illinois State University.

[. . .]

Faculty members have long complained about the “laborious grading process,” yet at the same time the system needs to find ways to educate more students without getting much more money, Cook said. Currently, class size tends not to exceed 25-30, she said, but the system would like to double or possibly quadruple that figure. “Our faculty have said that to scale up, they need more support,” she added.

Sounds kind of assembly-line to me. Lots of people have commented under the article; check it out.

Taking Women Students Seriously

I'd rather find someone else who blogged about that article about women in elite colleges who want to forego career for stay-at-home childrearing, but I haven't found anyone who's written about it yet. Oh well. I was both disturbed and encouraged by various parts of the article.

While the changing attitudes are difficult to quantify, the shift emerges repeatedly in interviews with Ivy League students, including 138 freshman and senior females at Yale who replied to e-mail questions sent to members of two residential colleges over the last school year.

The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely. About half of those women said they planned to work part time, and about half wanted to stop work for at least a few years.

Two of the women interviewed said they expected their husbands to stay home with the children while they pursued their careers. Two others said either they or their husbands would stay home, depending on whose career was furthest along.

At least the Times does acknowledge in the article that there are many people who don't have the financial luxury of being able to choose not to work outside the home. And "depending on whose career was furthest along"? Fair enough, I guess, assuming that lots of people marry outside their economic classes and that we're on a level playing field in terms of gender. But I don't think either of those assumptions is a safe one.

In recent years, elite colleges have emphasized the important roles they expect their alumni - both men and women - to play in society.

For example, earlier this month, Shirley M. Tilghman, the president of Princeton University, welcomed new freshmen, saying: "The goal of a Princeton education is to prepare young men and women to take up positions of leadership in the 21st century. Of course, the word 'leadership' conjures up images of presidents and C.E.O.'s, but I want to stress that my idea of a leader is much broader than that."

She listed education, medicine and engineering as other areas where students could become leaders.

In an e-mail response to a question, Dr. Tilghman added: "There is nothing inconsistent with being a leader and a stay-at-home parent. Some women (and a handful of men) whom I have known who have done this have had a powerful impact on their communities."

Well, okay. This line of thought is promising, but do all the faculty share Dr. Tilghman's view of leadership? I doubt it.

University officials said that success meant different things to different people and that universities were trying to broaden students' minds, not simply prepare them for jobs.

"What does concern me," said Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, "is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn't constructed along traditional gender roles."

THANK YOU, PETER SALOVEY! Mr. Salovey's point will be illustrated later in the article.

Sarah Currie, a senior at Harvard, said many of the men in her American Family class last fall approved of women's plans to stay home with their children.

"A lot of the guys were like, 'I think that's really great,' " Ms. Currie said. "One of the guys was like, 'I think that's sexy.' Staying at home with your children isn't as polarizing of an issue as I envision it is for women who are in their 30's now."

Okay, this just makes me shudder. Cf. Salovey.

"I'll have a career until I have two kids," [a student at Yale] said. "It doesn't necessarily matter how far you get. It's kind of like the experience: I have tried what I wanted to do."

Ms. Ku added that she did not think it was a problem that women usually do most of the work raising kids.

"I accept things how they are," she said. "I don't mind the status quo. I don't see why I have to go against it."

Cf. Salovey. I'm trying to figure out all the reasons this article bothers me so much. The first, I suppose, is reflected in my title, which is also the title of an essay by Adrienne Rich about inequality in the educational system, both public and private, from elementary, to secondary, to college level. Isn't it true that some professors already see women as interlopers in higher education who, but for a few bluestocking exceptions, are there for an MRS degree, as the joke goes? Obviously it would be a better situation if: a.) the distribution of wealth in this country were such that more people could have the choice to stay at home with kids; b.) parenting were valued in our society, and I don't mean in the "revered in rhetoric, reviled in policy" sense; c.) staying at home with kids weren't viewed as an almost exclusively feminine vocation (even to the point of being SEXEE!), and as a corollary d.) masculinity weren't inextricably linked with breadwinning, such that the men I know who stay at home with their kids seem to feel obliged to explain it or apologize for it; and e.) education weren't so closely tied to career, i.e. learning has inherent value, and every student is worth teaching, equally, whether he or she goes on to apply that knowledge in a conventional career or not.

That's a start.

UPDATE: More at feministing and Rebel Dad.

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