Monthly Archives: February 2010

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bell hooks and the challenges of teaching in higher ed

Though the month is nearing its end, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the amazing African-American thinkers and visionaries who have influenced my life. It’s unfortunate that we need to designate a month to ensure that topics that should be covered year long get mentioned.  Many have argued this same point, including someone I greatly admire–bell hooks. An African-American feminist teacher, hooks has inspired me with her progressive pedagogy and her unfailing willingness to venture into waters that many scholars avoid, such as the topic of love. I had the great pleasure of meeting her at the 2004 NCTE convention in Indianapolis and the even greater pleasure of discussing how love is ignored as a scholarly and pedagogically relevant subject. Her work on feminism, pedagogy, racism, and diversity have nourished me in my academic career. Her consistent commitment to accessibility has not only proven inspirational but has encouraged me to maintain my own commitment to making academic work and theory accessible to those outside of academia. hooks’ works are consistently easy to read and understand, accessible to multiple audiences, even as they express complex ideas and theories. Unlike theorists who preach accessibility while writing jargon-laden articles and books, bell hooks practices the kind of accessibility that she preaches. She manages to convey complex ideas to a broad audience without sacrificing quality, something that I also try to accomplish in my work as a teacher and scholar.

Since I am particularly fond of student generated media, here is a short YouTube video created in honor of bell hooks. (Point #7 is particularly relevant to Black History Month.)

A recent talk that bell hooks gave at Burton Street Community Center and Peace Gardens in Asheville, NC is also on YouTube. In her talk, she discusses community, technology, gender, and race and reads from one of her children’s books Be Boy Buzz. She ends her talk with the following: “In Buddhism we talk about the fact that the earth is my witness. So, we are here today to witness together the need to build community on all levels, to remember that community is not one-dimensional, to remember that we can come together in many different fronts and be together and belong.”

hooks’ scholarship and perspectives on community have been instrumental in my dissertation research. They have continued to encourage my belief in participatory research and education. Her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom profoundly influenced my own pedagogical approaches and introduced me to the Pauolo Freire’s “liberatory pedagogy.” I have continued to follow her work with great interest.

In a discussion with The Media Education Foundation, hooks talks about how “popular culture is where the pedagogy is; it is where the learning is” revealing how her interest in analyzing pop culture arose out of her experiences in the classroom. Students had difficulty understanding concepts of difference and otherness and how these were relevant to their lives, but when discussed in the context of films or tv shows, the students were better able to grasp the concepts. Part one of her discussion is included below:

An additional point that I appreciate here is her insistence upon the importance of critical thinking for all people and how the ability to think critically is an important tool that can make a difference in the lives of everyone, regardless of their material wealth or class status.

The most enabling resource that I can offer as a critic or an intellectual professor is the capacity to think critically about our lives. I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life and I really believe that a person who thinks critically who, you know, may be extraordinarily disadvantaged materially can find ways to transform their lives that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful in the same way that someone who may be incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically.

In addition hooks speaks against this idea that certain students should only be taught what are considered “practical skills” that they can use to get a job and make money. She doesn’t claim that this is unimportant; she simply emphasizes the importance of critical thinking as a tool and the right to learn it. Having taught in the Ivy League and at open admissions universities, hooks notes that the distinction between the students at the two types of schools is mostly based on their perception of their future:

My students were equally brilliant when I taught in Harlem as when I taught at Yale or Oberlin, but that their senses of what the meaning of that brilliance was and what they could do with it, their sense of agency was profoundly different….They don’t have that imagination into a future of agency and as such I think  many professors do not try to give them the gift of critical thinking. In a certain kind of patronizing way education just says all these people need is tools for survival, basic survival tools, like their degree so they can get a job and not in fact that we enhance their lives in the same way we’ve enhanced our lives by engaging in a certain kind of critical process.

The points that hooks makes here are some that I have struggled with myself. It’s crucial that we find the balance between equipping students with the skills that they expect to learn in order to find a job. The reality is that most students enter higher education with the objective of attaining a job, specifically one that is higher paying than the one they would get with a high school education. When I chose to go to college, while I certainly expected to get a job, my primary motivation was to learn knew things. I was lucky to have already been instilled with a belief in the importance of critical thinking and perhaps more importantly with the belief that it was my right to learn these things. (hooks mentions that Yale students feel entitled to that kind of learning in a way that her Harlem students do not.) I was also privileged enough that for me higher education was a given; I never doubted that I could and would go to college. Many of my students at Purdue have had similar experiences though it seems that most of them entered college with attaining a well-paying job as a primary objective. As educators we are faced with the challenge of meeting the wants and needs of our students as they perceive them and as we perceive them.

Ultimately, I believe that teaching critical thinking skills and the more “practical” on-the-job skills expected by our students are not incompatible goals. As educators we have the responsibility of providing students with the education that they want while maintaining our goals as teachers. Much of the challenge that arises here has much to do with not wanting to assume that we want to teach our students is more important than what they want to learn. The important point to recognize is that we have been educated and trained to know (or determine) what “global” tools that they need to learn the more specific or “local” tools. Teaching students how to think critically is a way of teaching them how to learn new things on their own. If we equip them with the global tools that they need in order to make learning a lifelong enterprise, we give them the gift of education and not just training. At the same time, if we are to successfully teach them the global tools, we must demonstrate how these tools can be translated into learning the skills that they seek. The important thing to recognize is that we can’t teach them all of the skills that they need for the workplace and the world, but we can help them learn the tools that they can use to continue to learn those skills beyond our classroom. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot and should not choose critical thinking over workplace skills or vice-versa. Instead we should create curricula that enable the learning of both. It’s analogous to the way that we teach revision in writing. Students work from global concerns such as content, clarity, organization, etc. to more local concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and editing. A grammatically correct piece of writing is of little use if it is not clearly written, well-organized, and contains well-researched and carefully considered content. In the same way, skills are only effective if they are accompanied by an understanding of how the skills can be used and are learned.

Friday Link Roundup

…a little late. I seem to be having difficulty getting my link roundup out on Fridays. Maybe I should just call it the “Weekly Link Roundup.” Hmmm, we’ll see. Anyway, here are the links for, uhm, last week.

Intellectuals do not understand the genius of the market. They ignore empirical evidence. They are elitists. They operate with ideological blinders. Ultimately, they are “unaccountable to the external world.” They judge ideas by how clever or complex they are, not whether they work.

Jacoby also notes that Sowell

writes that his book is “about intellectuals,” but not “for intellectuals,” and he cannot be bothered if his victims find fault with him. But who besides intellectuals would be reading a book on intellectuals?

Ultimately, Jacoby offers a fairly scathing review of Sowell’s poorly argued text.

Comments on the Huntsville Tragedy

At this point most of us in academia* know about the tragic events at University of Alabama last week when Amy Bishop, professor of Biology, opened fire during a Friday afternoon faculty meeting killing three professors and injuring three others. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the matter extensively with readers posting a range of comments in which they have speculated and responded to the violence that seems to be becoming so prevalent in the world of higher education. (Note: School shootings in secondary ed have been going on for some time, long before Columbine, which was more highly publicized because it was not an inner city school.) Since speculation has attributed to Bishop’s tenure denial this year, the shooting has raised questions about academic culture. Some have argued that the stress of tenure is partly to blame while others have wondered about how we care for mentally ill faculty and still others have firmly resisted making connections between the circumstances of Bishop’s work life and the shooting.

Let me begin my own commentary by saying that the tenure process is not to blame for this shooting. While few things in this world easily fall into black and white (the gray areas are far more prevalent), there are times when homicide can be understood. [I'm feeling chills of discomfort even here. I seem to be at a loss for words as to how to describe my feelings here.] A child whose parents have abused him or her mercilessly can suffer from PTSD (or a range of other mental disorders) causing him or her to dissociate and murder the abuser. I know that I am treading on shaky ground here. As I write this, I am still torn by my belief that murder is never right, never the answer. My next position is also shaky, given that I have just claimed that homicide can be understood. Still, I must say that many people do not receive tenure, and they don’t all go into faculty meetings and start shooting. By that same token, not all children who are abused kill the abuser. So, I don’t want to say that just because other people who don’t attain tenure don’t become shooters that Bishop’s failure to attain tenure could not factor into what she did. To be clear, this does not justify her actions. Ultimately, we will continue to have more questions than answers about her motivation and psychological state. Hopefully, her psychological evaluation will provide insight into why this obviously disturbed individual killed and injured her colleagues. All factors considered failing to attain tenure does not justify homicide.

In spite of some of the arguments that academic culture and tenure requirements can be blamed for Bishop’s actions on Friday, perhaps we can gain something by discussing the culture of academia– not as a justification for homicide, but as a part of our lives that might benefit from careful consideration, perhaps even a bit of excavation.

I have long been of the opinion that the culture of graduate school does not encourage self-care but in fact rewards behaviors that are unhealthy and even dangerous. How many of us have complained about the little sleep that we get while being secretly proud of our dedication? We work through the weekend, late into the night, at the expense of sleep. We fail to eat regular meals and crowd our schedules with additional projects and committees. Being busy demonstrates our ambition and dedication to our work, even when it comes at the expense of our health and relationships. I am completely guilty of buying into this culture and even having pride in my capacity to deny myself. In fact, it comes naturally to me. I’ve always been dedicated and obsessed with my work. It has been my life for so long that I almost forget that there are other things in the world. I inherited my mother’s workaholic gene. Yet this dedication that is so prized when demonstrated through our busy lives, sleep deprivation, and singular obsession with our work has often been to my detriment. Those who know me are aware of my health problems, which are extensive and at times have been disabling. There have been countless times where my obsession with work (and demonstrating the dedication that I have) has been extremely detrimental to my health, often resulting in set backs that I could ill-afford. As an epileptic, I must have a certain amount of sleep and avoid stress as much as possible. Two of the biggest factors in triggering seizures are stress and sleep deprivation. I know this and have tried to get enough sleep and avoid stress. (The latter of which is kind of a joke when you’re on the job market.) Yet even knowing all of this, last March I was working feverishly on a project, not getting enough sleep, and feeling the mounting stress of dissertation work and the upcoming job market. As a result, I ended up in the hospital emergency room, having my clothes cut off of me, and getting fourteen stitches above my left eye. I had a seizure and fell on my face, the cause of which, my doctor adamantly insisted, was my stress and sleep deprivation. This seizure could have caused me to lose an eye; the head trauma could have killed me; I was lucky. Every time I look into a mirror and see the arching scar above my left eye I am reminded of this. Yet even with this powerful reminder, I don’t always get enough sleep and the stress of dissertation and job market is such that I am losing my hair. My point in revealing all of this is simple: I can’t do this alone. I still live in a culture that praises lack of care and views care of self as indulgent. Continue Reading →

Remixing or Plagiarism?

The New York Times reports on a case about plagiarism in literature. In her novel Axolotl Roadkill, German author Helene Hegemann has taken large portions of her text from a previously, lesser known novel, Strobo. In an interview with German publication, The Local, Hegemann claims that her work challenges our previous ideas regarding originality and that it is about the “displacement of this whole copyright excess through the laws on copying and transforming.” Hegemann also states that:

I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me.

I’m not certain of the veracity of that claim given that she also claims that she did not understand the protocol for appropriate attribution of sources. Not having read the novel, I don’t know if this was somewhere within the text or not. Unless of course she was referring to this line by one of her characters: “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything.” Ironically this claim is also taken verbatim, and without attribution, from the blog written by Strobo‘s author, Arien.

While I am a proponent of remixing and sampling in the context of multimedia, I also believe in using appropriate attribution in those contexts. In addition, the remixing of a single work or sampling from a variety of works to create something new (like a mashup) should serve a specific rhetorical purpose and be presenting in a context that is not identical to the original work. In my own practice and in my teaching, I follow the standards for fair use as defined by The Center for Social Media at American University in their publication Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. Their video Remix Culture is a great representation and follows their Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in Online Video.

Check out the  Remix Culture video here:

Wi-Fi Enabled School Bus

When I saw this article in the New York Times, my first thought was: What about the kids who don’t have laptops? Happily, I discovered during the reading of the article that the school being discussed–Empire High School outside of Tucson– had started issuing laptops instead of textbooks in 2005.  In other words, all students have laptops that enable them to take advantage of the available WiFi. Because the school serves many of the exurbs of Tucson students spend hundreds of hours on the bus each year (and we all know how long drives make us cranky). As a better illustration of  why students spend so much time on the bus:

The Vail District, with 18 schools and 10,000 students, is sprawled across 425 square miles of subdivision, mesquite and mountain ridges southeast of Tucson.

School officials came up with the idea during their own long drives in which they took turns driving so that they could work on their laptops during the ride.

Karen Cator, director of education technologyat the federal Department of Education, said the buses were part of a wider effort to use technology to extend learning beyond classroom walls and the six-hour school day.

Apparently the result of the change has been largely positive. “Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared.” And while not all students use their laptops for homework at all times (not so surprising), they are still occupied and, in my opinion, still learning how to use technology to behave in more constructive ways.

And for those who argue that technology keeps people from enjoying the simple pleasures of the world, I leave you with this:

A ride through mountains on a drizzly afternoon can be unpredictable, even on the Internet Bus. Through the windows on the left, inky clouds suddenly parted above a ridge, revealing an arc of incandescent color.

“Dude, there’s a rainbow!” shouted Morghan Sonderer, a ninth grader.

A dozen students looked up from their laptops and cellphones, abandoning technology to stare in wonder at the eastern sky.

“It’s following us!” Morghan exclaimed.

“We’re being stalked by a rainbow!” Jerod said.

Friday Link Roundup

Well, technically it’s already Saturday, but I forgot my new resolution to post interesting links that I’ve happened upon during the week but didn’t have a chance to post. I didn’t originally choose a specific theme, but the world of academia seems to be a constant.

Hope everyone finds these edifying!

Verizon Has Blocked Access To 4chan

The notoriously awful 4chan, home of Anonymous, has been blocked by Verizon. (From what I understand this is only on their wireless network, but I’m not entirely sure.) Regardless, as much as I truly hate them and their misogynistic tenets and peculiar ideas about what constitutes “lulz.,” I can’t condone any type of censorship. The following article on Gizmodo provides more information.

Verizon Has Blocked Access To 4chan, But What Are They Gonna Do About It? – Verizon 4chan – Gizmodo.

To read more about Anonymous and their oh-so-unimpressive exploits, check out my paper, “Healing as (We)blog in a ‘Show Tits’  or ‘GTFO’ World”. (Not my best work, but it gives a general overview.) You might also want to check out the digital version of my poster session–“A Rape Culture in Cyberspace”.

apparently I am researching a myth

According to a recent book by Susan Clancy, The Trauma Myth, childhood sexual abuse is not traumatizing. In fact, according to Clancy, children may even enjoy it. Let me begin with this caveat: I have not actually read Clancy’s book. I read the Salon.com interview discussing her book. While Clancy is clear to point out that sex with children is a crime, her primary argument is that it does not result in trauma or PTSD. This is the “myth” she is referring to. According to Clancy

Most victims do not understand they are being victimized, because they are too young to understand sex, the perpetrators are almost always people they know and trust, and violence or penetration rarely occurs.

My first response to this is: of course they don’t understand that they are being victimized, they’re children and since, as Clancy notes, the abuse is usually perpetrated by people (and I would add “adults”) that they trust, they may very well think that it’s normal. Not consciously knowing that one is being victimized is quite distinct from the reality of being victimized. Many children who experience physical abuse at the hands of parents are also frequently unaware that they are being victimized. Quite simply, if it is the norm in their household, they assume that it is the norm in all households. Does this make the abuse less “wrong” or traumatizing? Furthermore, I wonder how Clancy defines “violence.” I would argue that all acts of sexual abuse are violent by nature. Perhaps these children aren’t being beaten, but they are certainly being coerced and forced to do something that they cannot freely consent to.

According to her interview, Clancy does believe that childhood sexual abuse is harmful but that the resulting psychological state is not traumatic. She cites the fact that few people seek treatment for the abuse in adulthood and that most of them first describe the experience as “confusing,” which she says is “a far cry from trauma.” She also notes that shame is part of the reason people don’t come forward about their sexual abuse. This is one of the few points that we agree on. However, Clancy argues that the shame isn’t so much a result of the abuse but rather that victims don’t see their responses as consistent with what they see portrayed in the media and pop culture. In other words, their response to the abuse isn’t identical to cinematic representations, etc. I disagree. The shame does not come from the fact that their responses may be different from those of others (although that may be a factor; I can’t say since I’ve seen no research on this) but is instead the result of feeling as though they are somehow to blame for the abuse.

I’m trying to not have a knee-jerk reaction to her argument, but knowing what I know makes that difficult. I’m sure that this is something I share with other researchers and survivors. Unfortunately, many of the comments posted on the Salon site reflect agreement with her argument. Certainly there are those who disagree and they have posted their refutations, but I am saddened by the number of people who dismiss the traumatizing effects of childhood sexual abuse.

In all honestly, I will probably not read Clancy’s book. I have neither the time nor inclination. This is a song that, sadly, I have heard before.

why I fight

And when I say fight, I mean research and write. For me, fighting (in the sense of working to accomplish something) is particular to who I am–a scholar, a writer, a teacher. As many of you know (or will discover from reading my blog), my research deals with psychological trauma. I research trauma because I believe that the people who have experienced trauma matter. That they deserve to have their voices heard. That their experiences have not been in vain.

While watching a rerun of one of my favorite television shows, Criminal Minds, something important occurred to me. My research focuses on those who experience what I call “personal” traumas. All trauma is personal, so when I say “personal trauma” I mean people who have experienced trauma as a result of individual acts of violence like sexual assault, childhood abuse, and domestic violence. One of the reasons that I focus on them is because of the stigma that is still associated with these traumas. For a long time all traumas and their aftermath, PTSD, were stigmatizing. Soldiers returning from war were seen as malingerers rather than as victims of the trauma of war. Since Vietnam PTSD has become a recognized psychological disorder and since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is greater public awareness of psychological trauma and with that awareness comes less stigma. However, it is important to note that the lessening of stigma does not alleviate the pain of trauma. The pain is real; it remains a living memory that haunts the individual who has experienced it. People who experience trauma during “public” acts of violence, like war and terrorist events such as 9/11, are more accepted as “real” sufferers. Their stories are less taboo, and their experiences tend to be validated more. Validation certainly helps. In fact, validation and awareness help to alleviate some of the sense of alienation felt by those who have experienced trauma. In spite of that, the reality of the trauma and the suffering that it engenders does not go away.

The fact that I focus on personal traumas and thus do not focus on the trauma of war compels me to write this post. While I am not researching and writing about soldiers and veterans who blog about trauma, their experiences are not unimportant to me. In fact, one of the reasons that my dissertation deals with blogging about trauma is due to reading the blogs of soldiers and talking to them. My original dissertation idea actually focused on veterans. I wanted to study narrative ability in people who’ve experienced trauma, and I hoped to conduct my study through the VA. Unfortunately, my qualifications do not include a PhD in Psychology, and the IRB isn’t keen on letting rhetoricians study protected populations. As a result, I returned to an earlier research idea conceived when I began stumbling on trauma blogs. I was researching blogging and continuing my research on trauma when the two somehow converged. I became interested in this counterpublic (to use Michael Warner‘s term) who were loosely connected through their strategic use of blogging. The subgenre of the trauma blog became the research topic for my dissertation, yet I chose to exclude the blogs of those traumatized as a result of war or terrorist attacks. Partly this was practical, I needed to limit the number of blogs that I used in my analysis. The other reason for this choice was more ideological in nature. Drawing attention to those who speak out about traumas that are still highly stigmatized will hopefully lessen the stigma or, at the very least, draw attention to these survivors brave enough to speak out.

In the future I hope to apply the same research strategies to the blogs written by veterans.

An homage to the snowflake

As a photographer and self-proclaimed lover of snow, I found this PBS article interesting. (Not to mention cleverly titled: “Winter Forecast: Art to Blanket Region” –especially given the hyperbolic language of recent Weather Channel forecasts in which the “epic” snowstorm was discussed ad nauseum.) In 1885 Wilson Bentley was the first person to ever photograph a snowflake and I don’t mean in the beautiful fluttery “I’m in a snow globe” sense. Mr. Bentley ingeniously found a way to “jury rig” (as the article author describes it) his camera and microscope enabling him to photograph, in detail, a single snowflake. And, according to the article, Bentley photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes before his death in 1915.

Bentley was a pioneer in the world of photomicrography and his techniques have been used since. I was particularly impressed by the fact that Bentley was self-educated and by his dedication. By all accounts it took him years to get the microscope-camera combination right. Then there’s the brilliance of the idea–what prompted him to want to photograph a snowflake. Granted, having grown up on a farm in Vermont, he certainly had a lot of time to contemplate snow. Still, I am intrigued by the mental process that led him to photographing snowflakes. Perhaps it’s the rhetorician in me, but I want to know the motivation that led to the act. Perhaps part of the answer is in this quote:

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated., When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

Well, regardless of motive, the act itself is most impressive. I suppose we can thank Bentley for our knowledge that no single snowflake is identical to any other, truly amazing given the sheer number of snowflakes that have fallen on this earth.

One question remains: how did he keep them from freezing? I can’t find any lengthy description of his process. Extreme cold temperatures should have interfered with the camera equipment. Any illumination (if you will) would be appreciated.

Photo credit: Wilson Bentley’s work is in the public domain and this photograph was copied from a website in his honor SnowflakeBentley.com

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