Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Day One

We woke up on and off all night, checking our phones and then briefly holding each other, trying to will away the horror. We tried to believe it would right itself in an overnight decision, a reversal of Florida or Pennsylvania. A miracle. We tried to have faith, despite the encroaching darkness.

I got up at 5:30 to the final news. We embraced, tried to steel ourselves for the day. I would face dozens of students directly threatened by this turn, and soon, as well as pockets of gleeful good cheer and blinding lack of compassion. I dreaded both, trying to marshal the emotional forces to do what must be done, or at least to figure out what that means now, right now, in this terrible new world. He would face a torn staff, with many devastated and others gleeful. He would swallow that down to sell his lab's science to another room of executives. After all, only corporate interest can matter, now more than ever. What is science in this new world? Only that which can make money can have a home at the university.

My 7:10 class, almost entirely Latinx and Filipino first-year college students, was church-house quiet. One of the few white students tried a joke, "So, what country are *you* moving to?" I stopped and looked him in the face to get a sense of the intended tone. He dropped his gaze. "It's awful." The joke died on the vine. Everybody hurt too much.

A student I usually think of as a smiling ball of light sat at the front of the room and conferred in whispers with his friend. She put an arm around him. I asked them what was up. He said he was telling her about Pence's effort to divert AIDS funding to "conversion therapy". Tears welled in his eyes, and then in mine. He's terrified. This could happen to him. Policy director and VP Mike Pence would have him tortured and brainwashed in an effort to make him fit Pence's preferences. He would call his suicide "God's plan to save him from his sin."

I tried to draw them out, but few wanted to talk. I asked how many had voted, and told them how sorry I was that this was their first election. "They aren't all like this," I told them. They looked at me, eyes too full of emotion in many cases, dead in others. It looked exactly like grief counseling, because that's what we were feeling--grief. Too many people lost hope today, experienced betrayal on such a fundamental level it cannot be unwritten. They will not forget. "I'm so sorry," I told them. My voice broke.

G, a quiet young man in the back who moved here from Mexico only months ago, spoke up. "Even if he'd lost, we'd know half the people wanted him. Half the people hate us." I wanted to hug him. I wanted to weep. I am supposed to teach them English. I don't know what they learned today, other than the worst lessons of adulthood: people choose hate over love all the time; bullies often win; rear-guard action is often the most awful. I fear they learned the worst thing of all, the thing all survivors of violence learn--trust is very fragile, and once it's gone it's even harder to get back. It's true that once imperiled, you never really feel safe again.

Every semester, I weave in civics questions as extra credit, extol the virtues of the ballot, encourage them to know how U.S. government is designed to work. I teach them to reason, to research, to express themselves and gain ground in a ground war rigged against them from the start. I try to show them that these can be foundational principles, that they matter. This is the first time the whole enterprise, the thing I have given my entire adult life to, felt like a lie and a waste. For the first time, I felt like a liar and a fraud. But, I was supposed to go on teaching them English.

My 8:35 class is a veterans learning community. I didn't know what to expect, and was nervous approaching them. "Please don't let my evaluator come today. I don't have it today." I cycled these thoughts anxiously as I approached the room. The students already there were quiet. Several were all in black. I said good morning, and asked how they were.

"Well, that happened" a young ex-Marine said. Her usual blue jeans and hoodie were replaced with an all-black outfit. I raised an eyebrow at her as she approached with a missing assignment. "Seemed appropriate" she said. There were nervous laughs. I felt, horribly, relief. We aren't so different. Despite their conservative values and deep acculturation to the party, many of them were also uneasy or bothered or scared. Okay, let's do this.

"Where are you all with everything?" I asked them a vague question, trying to take the temperature. Nervous chuckles.

"I guess we're just a TV show now?"
"Fucking good jobs with Border Patrol now though, right?"
"Yeah, anyone in construction better gear up, start building that wall."
"I still can't believe it."
"I've still got four years of Guard time. I'm gonna get called up again."
"Goddamn it, really?"
"Yeah, right? What the fuck?"

Always a rowdier group, and full of amusing and baroque cursing, today their voices were loud but their words were simple. As one would sum it up, "I don't know what they're happy about. We're all fucked now."

As the voices overlapped, one small group pulled into themselves. The self-titled "white boy corner" was busily trading phones around. I broke into the conversation to ask what was up. They told me they were sharing memes, so I asked about them. "Oh, just stupid shit, you know. A lot more of them today, though." They started putting the phones away, still chuckling to themselves about the social media frenzy. One said, "I'm going into law enforcement. This is good for me." I asked him if he knew what "entitlement reform" meant, and how it relates to people on disability. He did not, but wrote it down to Google later. I know his afternoon will be a lot less amusing. I am torn between feeling bad for him and glad to open his eyes, though it is far too late.

A chronically-late student arrived, well into class. I took his papers and noted that he's even later than usual. He got stopped at the border, which he crosses every day. When he showed his military i.d. and asked why they were hassling him so much when they see him every day, they told him to shut the fuck up and wait. After class, he told me he's used to getting a lot of grief because he grew his hair out and dresses like a slacker. Today, though, it wasn't the same. When he asked them to hurry up because he had somewhere to go, he was muscled aside. "Come on, man. We do this every day. I'm just asking you to step it up."

"It's a whole new world today, fucker. You'll wait."

He tried to laugh it off when we spoke after class. This combat veteran and native-born son of the United States has seen shit before. We both know this. "I always knew I'd live to see the end of the United States," he said with a nervous laugh. "I just didn't know it would be so soon."
All of this happened between 1 and 10 a.m. today. In the hours since, I have talked to my sister and best friend and husband. We have shared tears and stilted talk and speculation, all of the usual parts of grief. We have shared our mourning process, and will continue to do so, because that is what we're doing: mourning. All of us keep briefly forgetting, and then having to wade through the dream-like feeling, and the horrible realization all over again, and again. This is a death.

I looked at social media briefly, but it's too heartbreaking. Several of my most progressive friends are leaving social media, especially Facebook, out of a belief that it dumbs down the discourse. They seek to protect themselves, which I understand, but also seem to forget that taking the smartest people out of the room does not elevate the conversation. On the other hand, people I went to school with decades ago are crowing. They celebrate what they see as the preservation of their way of life. I believe them to be right, and so cannot have them in my life anymore. It hurts too much; their way of life is predicated upon my erasure and the erasure or enslavement of too many other people. I see the feeds of my Canadian, European and Asian friends and feel their horror, mystification, and dread.

I don't want to leave, but I have no idea what to say or how to help. I am disgusted and physically ill.

I suspect that anyone who has wondered what they would do if they saw fascism rise is about to learn the answer. Civil war is not impossible; unrest, suppression, and suffering are a certainty. We are witnessing history of the worst kind and, as always happens, millions are celebrating it openly and will never be called to account for the pain they will inflict on others. We stand at the crossroads.

I have work to do, both because I am paid to do it and because I believe it has value. I need to work.

But I also know that, as my best friend so accurately and heartbreakingly summarized, my country took a referendum on my value and the value of many of the people whom I most cherish, and rejected us outright. It's hard to feel like I have value today. And then I think about how insulated I am, as a white person, a person whose differences of orientation and religion are easily closeted, and someone with healthcare and citizenship and the advantages of the relative political freedom of the Pacific coast. I think about that and I know that I have to be here, to provide safe harbor, to hold up a fucking light in this dark night. We all do.

I just don't know how to find the strength, yet.
Help me, friends, please.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


This doesn't really have a home and I don't know what it connects to, so I'm putting it here. 


I'm in my car, on the road to work on a sunny, smoggy, warm day just before spring. I am listening to Mark Bramhall read Open Heart, Elie Wiesel's last meditation on his life, work, and approaching death. His frank unwillingness to see his death approach, even as they prepared to open his chest and heart, both inspires and appalls me. 

The skilled voice gives a dying man’s words richness and humor, steers them away from self-pity or indulgence. Wiesel’s confrontation of his mortality and the contents of his heart turns my mind toward my mother. All discussion of hearts, open or not, does that now.

Now off the highway, I stop behind a cherry-picker truck at a stoplight. It is a kind I have never seen before—black-framed and huge, far longer than the utility trucks I am used to seeing in my neighborhood. 

I see warning signs in both red/white and black/yellow color schemes, alternating between Danger and Peligro depending on who’s looking. Inanimate objects code switch more easily than I can. This both amuses and depresses me.  Which is typical.

I drift between the words, so somber and reflective, and my own broody avoidance. She seems, as the dead so cruelly do, very near. That is not my feeling, but his. He speaks of a sister, lost, and found again in a granddaughter who bears her name. We are all the daughters of daughters, sons of sons. We are all lost and found again. I am not sure whose prayer that is.

Tears prickle behind my eyes. I take a deep breath, look up again at the black frame of the truck. Just in front of me, stuffed into a gap in the back frame, is a green bit of felt. It is the head of a Kermit the Frog doll. One eye is missing the black plastic that gives it context. The other stares blindly at me. It, he, grins in my direction. I am washed in nostalgia, bittersweet and full of lies. I laugh out loud. The light changes. Baruch Hashem.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A few totally unsolicited thoughts on religion and terrorism

I was reading this New York Times article about Robert Dear this morning, and had some reactions. Things like: See how he gets a humanizing picture and a backstory? See how he's a "lone wolf", a crazy person, and not representative of an agenda? It was infuriating in several ways, but also illuminating of some trends in both violent action and reportage on it, and got me to thinking. Those thoughts quickly got lengthy, and so here we are.

There are a lot of things to think through here, but what struck me the most was the "lone wolf" treatment he gets--very similar to other shooters. Some people were attempting to call his actions terrorism, and to tie it to his religious convictions, which is important to examine, but also fraught. There was also a seemingly related sense among some Christians that their religion was being targeted, offensively, by the secular. I read so many comments claiming versions of these things.

Except that's bullshit, and spin. He's an extremist and a religious hypocrite with an agenda of destruction meant to scare people into changing the rules of society. That's textbook terrorism. Terrorism is not a thing done by brown people, or by Muslims, or by any group exclusively. It is a human tactic, one frequently linked to exclusionary ideologies. And we have to start really looking at terrorism, and terrorists, if we are going to change the current state of things.

Robert Dear is not alone. Within the U.S., anti-women and anti-Black agendas, in particular, have had a lot of proponents act lately--as individuals, mostly--in violent and deadly ways. Those acting on local (and typically, but not always, far-right) agendas within the U.S. do not see how their actions align them with Daesh and Islamist terrorism. Yet, the process is much the same.

Extremist religious proponents with aims at economic and/or political power espouse reactionary and potentially violent beliefs. They claim the actions of an Other bring negative judgment from Deity and that it's the duty of the believer to enforce Truth. The politicians and the media terrify and inflame members of the impoverished and confused, disenfranchised public. They particularly target able-bodied men, potential shock troops. They use their religious convictions and personal failings against them. They blame their struggles on a targetable Other. They direct their feelings of anger and revulsion toward those Others. Then they turn their backs on the wrecked lives of their own followers, claim credit for the carnage when it's convenient to their purposes (and deny it when it's not), and move on to the next objective.

The terrorized populace fears and hates the combined forces of religious extremism, partisan media, and political demagogues (entrenching the proposed antagonist relationship), and their own current and potential followers look at them with a combination of fear and awe. In the U.S. the three pillars overlap but maintain a hypothetical separation. That separation is eroded by a number of forces, which is a related tangent for another time. Under Daesh, it's all conveniently folded into one power block--religion and media and government all under one massive and terrifying umbrella. The combined forces of these messages allow them to stand in for deity, to speak for God. This is how terrorists are made.

It is not about religion, not really. Religion is an enabler, because of the intense level of emotion and the inherently irrational nature of belief. Some religions (and, probably not coincidentally, the most violence-prone) contain elements of dehumanization which make it easier. Misogynist, xenophobic and otherwise hierarchical messages within religious texts are ripe for exploitation. These elements are convenient for a propagandist, particularly one looking to motivate violence. That is not the fault of the religious, or even really of the religion. It is part of the complexity of faith, its containing of contradictions and ability to be manipulated for evil. Few beliefs run as deep as religious conviction. The deeply felt nature of religious belief, and the terrible experienced shame of falling short of one's convictions, is powerful and the combination is volatile.

True awe, a combination of wonder and fear at the power of something, is rare and lives very close to religious belief in our experience. That which can inspire awe will bring us back to our feelings about deity. An organization that can create awe by shocking you with their power over life and death in a chaotic and confusing world, while also reminding you--even forcing you--to experience regularly your deepest and most overwhelming religiously-inspired emotions, can make you into a crusader.

If you are a serial philanderer with a string of pregnancies in his wake, and a violent abuser of women with a proven disregard for them as a group, what is the effect of being told by Rush Limbaugh that only "sluts" want birth control? If you are a person with deeply-felt religious belief who keeps falling short of right behavior within it, what is the effect of being told by Donald Trump that sexual assault is inevitable if women and men are in close proximity? If you do not know how many pregnancies you may have created, or what has become of them, what is the effect of being told by Carly Fiorina that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts? And by Ted Cruz that Christians are being targeted for genocide? It might start to look like women can't be trusted, men must and will have sex by any means, babies are being slaughtered by irresponsible women, and there's a war on people of good faith.

This is how religious convictions are used to create killers.

None of this is meant to exonerate Dear or others like him. Nor is he more worthy of humanization than any other murderer and terrorist. However, all murderers and, yes, even terrorists are people first. No matter their crimes, and even if the species cannot abide their continued existence, there was a process that got them there. And if we are ever going to prevent these acts of violence and the process of hatred that motivates it, we have got to try to understand how it happens.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What I learned from (teaching) Television

Last semester, I made a conscious decision to teach television as primary text for unpacking in my analysis classes. It was an experiment, practically, but a pedagogically sound one. I intended to follow up with what texts I taught and how they were received by students. So, lo these months later, here are the five key results.
Students LOVED talking about and watching television. Because they were enthusiastic about it, and because the text wasn't threatening to them (everybody, after all, is an expert at watching television), they seemed to put good effort into the experience of viewing and discussing the shows we watched.
Students are savvy watchers of satire, but have little experience explaining how it works. I was prepared for students to struggle with some of the more political critiques offered, or to need considerable context in order for some more obscure jokes and references to land. In reality, many of the jokes landed resoundingly well, suggesting a level of sophistication to their collective sense of humor that I may not always give them credit for. BUT, when pressed to discuss it, most found it very difficult to express why it was funny, or what ideas were being sent up in any particular section. A lot of our efforts went to acquiring that language.

Their Netflix and other streaming history puts us on surprisingly even footing. Now that I'm approaching forty, I'm used to my cultural references having drifted somewhat from theirs. After all, there is now a generation between us. However, in the last few years, I've noticed that we're coming back together again in our reference points via the internet. That was never more pronounced than during a semester in which we spent a lot of time discussing television watching habits and content. Binge watching and the instant availability of older shows mean that we're still sharing viewing experiences, but in new ways. Also, a show about which they may have known nothing at the start, they would sometimes then binge watch after seeing an episode or two in class.

The analysis papers were every bit as sophisticated, well-developed, and insightful as papers about more traditional narratives. This wasn't surprising, really, as I have read a lot of smart analysis about television in both popular and academic venues. But, it was validating as to the value of television as a text-producing medium for the classroom. Also, I got more surprising observations about television than I tend to get about books or other traditional written texts. I don't know if it's their familiarity with the medium, the wealth of information available to them on the web about these texts, or some other factor, but they had some things to say.

Comedies worked better than dramas, overall
. They each wrote one paper on an episode of a half hour comedy, and an episode of a  hour-long drama. I got strong papers on each, and at least one strong paper about each single episode, but overall the comedy papers were better. I suspect it has to do with the tremendously fast pace of joke content in contemporary sit-coms. There so much to unpack there that it's easy to find enough to say. Also, the dramas tended to require more context in order to make sense, which was a limiting factor for some
  • Best episode for class discussion, comedy "Return of the King," The Boondocks
  • Best episode for class discussion, drama: "Man on the Street", Dollhouse
  • Strongest overall papers: "Diversity Hire", Archer and "Jaynestown", Firefly
  • Wouldn't teach again: "The Pain in the Heart", Bones
  • Surprised it still works: "Cherokee Hair Tampons," South Park

For my next TV challenge, this semester I will be teaching Season 4 of Jersey Shore, in which the cast goes to Florence, Italy. We will watch and analyze a full season, rather than individual episodes from multiple shows. My own students are travelling to Florence, so it's relatable. It's relatively recent, but also fading from the cultural awareness quickly, as tends to happen with reality television. Most importantly, it affords a great opportunity to examine identity construction (with the cast self-identifying with the "Guido" sub-culture, and many of the cast members espousing strong but mixed ethnic identities), the editorial process and narrative framing, and cultural dislocation. In December, I'll update with how it went. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

So, about that Atlantic piece on trigger warnings...

This one doesn't have any fun gifs, because it's just not that kind of post. Sorry. Next time, I'll work in some silly.

My social media has been blowing up with The Atlantic article on trigger warnings that came out this week. That, of course, followed up immediately with the usual roster of angry responses and taking it too far, unhelpful agreement. I try not to get sucked into this conversation anymore, because it's so maddening. It just...these are the times when I realize that my specific circumstances kind of obligate me to keep informing fellow educators about PTSD, and it's exhausting trying to push that particular boulder up the hill. But, that's all just to explain this long and rambling post, which I have nowhere better to put than here. So, here's one version of my trigger warnings rant, because someone on Facebook asked me for it.


I really have no problem with content warnings. I use them myself. It says something like "we will discuss issues and review material about race, sex, class, sexual orientation and culture. If you find disagreement on these subjects uncomfortable or cannot participate calmly and respectfully in a conversation about them, then this isn't the right section for you." What I do not do, under any circumstances, is allow student to opt out of material because it makes them uncomfortable. I would if it were going to TRIGGER--which is a flag word for PTSD, a specific disorder with very specific symptoms and pathways--them. But, it isn't. Because that isn't how triggers work.

Before anyone thinks I'm full of shit, here are my bonafides: I've had PTSD, I did my dissertation research on violence and trauma, and I have for many years taught traumatized vets in the home city of the Pacific fleet. If anything, I am uniquely qualified to witness the realities of trauma in the classroom. And it doesn't work like ANYBODY writing seems to think, which leads me to believe that very few of the people writing about it have any real experience with it.

Here's the thing about PTSD: it has little to do with content or conversation.The worst classroom PTSD events I've seen in my teaching life have been caused by events, not material. One was a woman who'd been shot in a carjacking. Her PTSD was so severe she could no longer drive nor leave her suburban town. In her class, we watched 2 movies dealing with violent crimes against women, one with a gun. Because of her DSS status, I had been prepared for her to need to step out or take some other anxiety-managing steps. But, no. She was fine with the material. The compartmentalization techniques of the logic class were ultimately very helpful to her, so much so that I collaborated with her psychiatrist briefly on her case plan. BUT--our classroom was near the auto yard. The day there was a big backfire, she hit the floor in a cold sweat, full-scale flashback. Sound is a major trigger.

The other big event in class was with a veteran who'd survived a sniper only to be IEDed later. Someone came up behind during a heated conversation, and there was a full meltdown. Typically, the soldier's back would have been to the wall, as that's a standard move to take with PTSD cases, especially vets (who always tend to half-watch their six). But, because it was a classroom full of separation-service vets (either at the end of careers or mustering out due to injury), it hadn't been possible to put everyone with their back to the wall, and in a classroom with a rear door, that poses problems. Surprises , especially body proximity surprises, are a major trigger source. Several other members of that classroom recognized the event for what it was, and so we were able to clear physical space for the anxiety to flash over, and the traumatized vet's service dog was able to help him calm. That was a group event. It was better that he wasn't alone. It was better we were all there (including the service dog, of course). And, again, it had nothing to do with the conversation or content, but with suddenly seeing a person behind him.

You'll notice that neither of these events has anything to do with content. And that's the way of it for my own PTSD (now almost entirely resolved). Sounds, smells, and surprises--particularly body-proximity, and/or from behind--are all major sources of trigger. Fiction, conversation, ideas? Not at all. In fact, ideas and conversation--finding new ways to approach the ideas around the trauma--are crucial to healing. Avoidance does not contribute to healing in the long term. Don't believe me? Believe Dr. David Riggs who writes "Because these memories and feelings are unpleasant, you may have the urge to avoid the triggers. Avoiding things that make you uncomfortable is normal and will make you feel better in the short run. But in the long run, this avoidance will make things worse. If the pattern continues, you can make your problems worse. Instead of avoiding triggers, it is probably better to learn how to manage your reactions when they are triggered." Avoidance is a management strategy for newly-diagnosed PTSD, but that's about all. Resolving PTSD relies upon more subtle methods.

I have two significant problems with the trigger warning debate. The first is that the discussion tends to use the language of neurological trauma--PTSD--to describe all people who have had negative experiences. While microaggressions and bad experiences of all types take a psychological toll, that is not the same as trauma in a neurological sense. Also, not all of what we call trauma creates PTSD (and therefore, the potential to be triggered). It doesn't create flashbacks, or the other physical symptoms of PTSD. Mixing the language of pain with that of neurological trauma/PTSD not only makes sure that those who have had negative experiences and could use the chance to consider, evaluate and understand them are sometimes guarded from doing so, it helps to undermine understanding of those--such as a decade's worth of returning veterans now in the classroom--who face the neurological realities of PTSD. If we water down the language, when it's already hard to get the VA to treat PTSD and help vets who have it, I worry that it only enables DoD's avoidance of the issue.

The other problem is that trigger warnings are used by conservative college administrations to stifle academic freedom. Some campuses (including one at which I work) curtail the use of "controversial content" to avoid making waves. One of their flags for content review and removal is the "trigger warning". The logic is that if it is going to be too upsetting to students, then we shouldn't be teaching it. That's just several kinds of wrong.

Cognitive dissonance is a real, and important, part of learning. The hard conversations rile us up and often bring up our most painful moments. It makes sense to provide a neutral space in which to think the hard thoughts, and to moderate the conversation around it. That's the role of a teacher--to guide and to provide space. Trauma, however, is both not the same thing and not something that will be ameliorated by limiting the conversation or opting out of the curriculum. PTSD healing requires an integrated therapeutic plan. At most, a teacher can be included in that plan (as, ultimately, I was with the gunshot survivor). Never should the teacher step in and pre-emptively play psychiatrist "just in case". We're not qualified, and most importantly, by doing so we're not helping.

If you don't know much about PTSD, but would like to know more, here are some resources:

American Psychological Association (APA)
Phone: (800) 374-2721

Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)
Phone: (240) 485-1001

Freedom from Fear (FFF)
Phone: (718) 351-1717

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS)
Phone: (847) 480- 9028

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Phone: (800) 950-NAMI (6264)

National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD)
Phone: (802) 296-5132

National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC)
Phone: (202) 467-8700

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Phone: (866) 615-6464

Screening for Mental Health (For Military)
Phone: (781) 239-0071

The Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute
Phone: (410) 825-8888


TL;DR: trauma and discomfort are different, and treating them as the same does a disservice to all students, but especially those struggling with PTSD.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Texts to Teach

Remember libraries? With books? How did you pick yours?

I was always a stacks-wanderer, and then a follower of particular authors and topics. I'd slip between stacks and look at colors, words, even the numbers of the spines, pulling out any that grabbed my attention.

I know, I know: don't judge a book by its cover. But, I did. It wasn't all about pretty pictures, but it definitely took something visual to pull me in, at least that first time. Once I'd had a good experience with an author or a topic, I'd be ready to look past covers and prepare for the good stuff inside, but the first time was all about hitting on the pretty one at the dance.

And I was, and am, a "book person." Yet, my choices were made in exactly the way we caution people not to do it. They were superficial, visual, and sometimes even instinctual or reflexive.

At bookstores, it had more to do with price. I didn't take risks, the way that I would at a library. I chose authors I knew I'd enjoy, and bought them at the lowest possible price (if at all). I didn't have much money, I moved a lot, and books were both an investment and a thing likely to be lost in the continual reshuffle of transience.

The reason I bring this up is that it factors into how I choose texts to teach. I think about my students and their financial woes and relative disinterest in reading. I think about their avowed disinterest in anything that smacks of authority, formal schooling outside of a career track, or the distant past (anything before Clinton). I don't acquiesce to it by rote, but I am very aware of the limitations. I consider it part of my job to get them interested in thinking about texts, but not necessarily about texts themselves. I try to get them to see that they are already immersed in texts. Sometimes, that opens the door to books. Other times, it just gets them to see what's really going on in the icky global and sexual politics of the Iron Man series.

So, in choosing texts, I have a few simple criteria I use to help me find something workable.

  1. Curriculum requirements: naturally, it needs to fit the needs of the class, the system, and the state boards. Also, for a lot of classes, it needs to be on an approved list of some kind, or I have to go about getting approvals.
  2. Cost: less is more. So many books, and so many of them can be gotten cheaply. I avoid the needlessly steep sticker-prices where I can. As a result, I use a lot of texts which have hit the public domain, been through many editions with minimal change, or which are available online.
  3. Bite Sizes: I often have classes of 50 minutes to 1.5 hours, and that means we don't have a lot of time to run a long discussion. In order to make real sense of a text, we need to be able to break it into smallish pieces and discuss it in chunks over a number of days or weeks. Longer texts, then, need to have clear breaks in chapters and/or action. Films need to have discrete themes and clear plotlines. Television shows need to work when viewed without narrative continuity. We don't have the time for extensive recapping.
  4. Thematic content:  What makes it relatable is what makes it work, I think. That boils down to themes and how available they are for parsing. A good Bildungsroman is often good, because youth and growing up are relatable to everyone, but particularly to traditional college students. I also like to use texts which consider themes of power and corruption, authority and resistance, sexual mores, ethical responsibilities and dilemmas, and mistakes. These help to reach a wider range of students, including resistant or alienated folks. Also, they provoke passionate discussion, wide disagreement, and keep me interested. 
  5. Informational content: for composition classes, the needs are pretty clear. But, I've also taught sociology, psychology and anthropology-based courses, where the needs were more diverse. In those cases, I've often chosen texts which offered a variety of essays on a topic, or which gave a discussion-friendly overview of a topic.
I don't think there's a magic formula for this. I have to be interested enough to cheerlead for their interest and participation. They need to "get" it, and be willing to talk about it. Everybody needs to able to obtain and afford it. The rest is up to interpretation.

Some books I have taught which worked well: The Reader; The Good Brother; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden; Coyote Blue; Tallgrass; Welcome to the Monkey House; Like Water for Chocolate; How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food; Bodies in the Making: Transgressions and Transformations.

Some of the films: Fight Club; Dr. Strangelove; Scream; Hard Candy; Tape; Freeway; The Curve; The Truman Show; But I'm a Cheerleader

TV shows: Firefly, Scrubs; Parks and Recreation; The Boondocks; South Park; Archer

My next textual experiment will be some pairings. The ones I have on deck at present are Dante's Inferno and the comic-book film Constantine as well as Romeo and Juliet and the zombie film Warm Bodies. And that's the thing I've had to keep learning: evolution. It gets too easy to rely on what I've already done. So, I try to change up my texts at least every 2 years, so that I'm getting to look at something with relatively fresh eyes as well. 

How do you choose texts to teach? What tends to work? What doesn't? Has your process changed over the years?

Monday, March 9, 2015

School is not an App: Resisting the Gamification of the Classroom

Warning: Long argument, with lots of imbedded evidence links, ahead.

I warn you about this because I know that very few of us have the concentration to finish reading a 1500-word blog article. Fewer still follow up on linked evidence, even if the topic interests us. And that should tell us plenty about how technology is affecting our ability to think.


My students live for, and through, their phones, tablets, and laptops. They come in with earbuds in place which they are reluctant to remove. They have deep feelings about their phone carrier, their video games of choice, and their streaming services. They weep, inconsolably, if a smartphone is lost, stolen or broken. They identify themselves by the consumer-driven binaries of Mac/PC, console/computer,  and Android/IPhone.

The few who resist the consumer-electronic branding of their generation by huge corporations face teasing or stony silence should they mention their abstention. One of the points of critical thought is to interrogate and challenge our assumptions, so I start there: I have them put their phones in their pockets or face-down on the table. Then, they will check them--sometimes unconsciously. What they find there is usually meaningless, and often doesn't even exist. It is just the urge which drives their action. It is their boss. They are slaves to the machine.

That machine is full of pictures, text messages from friends and family, YouTube videos of things they found fun or were assigned as educational, creative content illegally downloaded for free, and a window to the infinite variety of the internet. But, ask them to find something online and they are lost if it cannot be put into the form of a question, as though Google (and all algorithmic search engines) are Alex Trebek. Despite being the digital generation, they have little idea how to engage meaningfully with the resources available to them online.

It is not a coincidence that during the same time that job security, academic funding, and content-based teaching have all been undermined or eliminated we have also turned, ever more, toward technology as a solution for all the problems of our seriously adrift and ever-lower-performing educational system. We increase class size but think that computers will make that workable. We undermine educational advancement possibilities and funding for state schools, but suppose that giant online education factories will fill the gaps, at a profit. This is just...wrong. Technology is not a solution. It is, at best, a tool which can enhance an already-functioning classroom environment. Technology will not stand in for competent and knowledgeable teachers, meaningfully considered pedagogy, ethical resource allocation, the opportunity to discuss ideas with peers and subject-matter experts, and the dissemination of actual information. It just will not.

Now, I'm not an idiot: I know the internet is here to stay, and technology drives the economy and therefore will continue to grow and change much more quickly than our biological or social understanding of its ramifications. So, I accept its presence. I try to teach my students to make better use of the resources available to them online. I teach them how to manipulate Boolean search strings, how to find content for free without stealing from artists, how to evaluate online information for accuracy, relevance and scope. I bring in digital content and we unpack YouTube videos and stream movies or television shows to discuss. We connect over this week's super-cute llama videos, or last week's blue dress/white dress controversy. I answer emails and rely on Blackboard. Technology is part of the class.

But, I draw boundaries.

I do not allow cellphone use in the classroom. To take a call, send a text, or go online, they must leave the room. If we need a spot-answer during discussion, I turn on the projector for the class computer and we search together, so they can see what I did online to arrive at and validate the information needed. They do not pull out their phones and start Googling without guidance.

I do not use social media in the classroom and I don't engage with students over social media away from class. (That's a slippery slope I want no part of. At all.) Personally, and just for me, I don't think it's helpful to bring social media into the classroom. I am trying to engage them in a millenia-old conversation. I don't think that conversation is particularly helped by the introduction of more abstraction or more distancing, both of which technological intervention brings. Also, I am trying to help them learn how to engage deeply and in a continuous fashion with ideas and concerns, and I believe that is actively undermined by technology.

I'm not alone in this. Even some advocates of technology have turned against its use--and especially social media use--in the classroom. And yet, I seem to encounter ever more proponents of its use, many of whom I know to be engaged educators actively seeking classroom success and student improvement. So, what gives?

Some people who advocate tech in the classroom, especially "social learning" models, suggest that by embracing social media (et al), we are just embracing the world students actually inhabit and helping them to navigate it. That's a problem, to me. Since when is it our job, as educators, to accept the world's problems and limitations and just teach students to live within them, rather than to understand and challenge the world? Also, even if it were the mission to teach students to operate within the limitations of their era and resources, it would still require that they first learn. That requires sustained focus and deep engagement, neither of which is at all stimulated by technological intervention.  

The other big argument is something along the lines of "It's fun" or "It keeps me young." This actually does square with the research, but the message is not an entirely positive one. We do it because we enjoy it, not because it works. I've been searching, and I've yet to find one peer-reviewed study suggesting that multi-tasking improves outcomes or experience, other than it being entertaining. Are we privileging that metric?

I've heard the arguments in favor of a high level of tech use in the classroom, and the associated distraction, but I do not embrace or accept them. We are not teaching them to multi-task. There is no evidence that we are actually good multi-taskers, as individuals or as a species. The few who are have not been taught to be so, either. There is little to no evidence that smartphone use creates any meaningful knowledge or substantially improves classroom outcomes (at least, in the developed world). The few studies which promote technology in the classroom are not only backed by education-tech money, (looking at you, Brookings) but riddled with internal contradictions and false equivalencies. (Seriously, read that Brookings study. It's a primer in logical fallacies.)

In fact, all of the evidence--both epidemiological and cognitively longitudinal--suggests that reliance on technology creates distraction, undermines productivity, delays the development of interpersonal communication skills, and even causes physical problems like thumb-based carpal tunnel syndrome and neck strain from craning one's head downward to stare at the mini-screen all day. That says nothing of eye strain, or even the ability to make eye contact.

So, I use technology to enhance what we're already doing. I use it to show visual media, sometimes to bring in a relevant clip to discuss, and to streamline our communications. I use SafeAssign to help throw a roadblock in front of cheaters, and I take homework by email when a student cannot make it to class on deadline day. I also use it to distribute handouts, now that the lack of funding for education--and lack of prioritization of the classroom within school budgets--has made it ridiculously difficult even to get copies made. (Just take it to this building, six blocks away, between the hours of 3:17 and 3:42 a.m. Don't forget your sixteen digit access code, proof of citizenship, and to bring your own paper.)

Technology isn't educational. It's entertainment, It's problematically anti-ecological consumption. It's a good way to avoid work. It's a great way to figure out where you will meet your friends for pizza. It's an additional expense (or more) in everyone's month, which shows no signs of getting less expensive, despite market saturation. It's a source and stimulus for change, which can be good, bad or something else. Conversation is educational. And that's the one thing everyone's smart phone seems not to help at all: engagement with a conversation.

So for now, I'm going to ask them to put the phones down and close the laptops. I'll ask them questions and look them in the eye while they answer. I'll write things on the board and ask them to write them down, in their own hand. I'll do it the slow way. Somehow, we all still manage to arrive, even without the little birdie in our pockets chirping at us which way to go.

TL;DR: 1) Technology will not make anyone who already has access to it smarter or better educated, and 2) your inability to read this whole blog entry illustrates why that is true.