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Category Archives: education

A second line of thought that came out of my reading of Huw Lemmey’s “Devastation in Meatspace” was: How would I teach undergrads about this? This is the kind of thing I’ve been considering a lot lately, perhaps because I’m not teaching this semester for the first time since I started teaching in earnest, and I’m unable to exercise my educational creativity muscles.

But then, part of it is being struck by feeling like it’s impossible to have conversations about social inequality with anyone who hasn’t had the years of training in thinking structurally that I have—and students in my classes are the most common example of that in my life, living as I do in an academic cocoon.

Third, there’s the particular challenge of this case, because support for Israel is such a knee-jerk, unquestionable thing for so many Americans. Certainly, as demonstrated by the hubbub over the 2012 Democratic Party Platform not including Jerusalem in its original iteration and the subsequent revision to add in a statement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, it’s basically impossible not to support the Israeli state in mainstream American politics.

I’m not really sure why that is, historically. A historian friend of mine speculated that it had to do with the US’s role in establishing Israel in the first place and also suggested that the linkage between the two nations intensified as a result of the Six-Day War, as the idea of Israel as a nation under attack fit nicely with late-60s white anxieties about the US as under attack and helped produce the special bond that’s come to exist. Now, the historian in question would make no claim to certainty on this explanation—since, though he’s a well-read and geopolitically-aware human, he doesn’t study any of those places and times in particular—but it’s a compelling supposition.

Regardless, though obligatory mainstream support for the Israeli state was well established by the time 9/11 happened, it clearly intensified after that terrorist attack, as Muslims and Arabs were moved into a category of assumed-automatic-enemies for many Americans—a position they already occupied for the Israeli state and some portion of its citizenry (though clearly not all, and maybe not even most).

So, this is the lay of the land: in the American mainstream, Israel is always right. Indeed, questioning Israeli state policy in many circles is automatically equated to anti-Semitism. (Even though Arabs are also Semites, which I have never understood. I asked Judith Butler about this once—because I was 20 and we were reading Holocaust literature and Palestinian poetry in her class on loss, memory, and mourning, and it seemed like a good idea at the time—and she couldn’t explain it either, sigh.)

Though obviously my formative years were in a different, pre-9/11 era when the Middle East was much less central to the American imaginary, I certainly never remember having any awareness of Palestinian refugees and their conditions until college. I was, like many of my students are, a well-meaning white liberal teenager with a savior complex very concerned about all kinds of injustices, but the Palestinian situation was not on my radar until probably Ananya Roy’s Women’s Studies 14 class in Spring 2001.

I can’t assume my students will share the level of un-awareness I had when I was their age, of course, but given the lay of the political land on this issue, it seems fairly likely that my students will come into any discussion believing that Israel = good, Palestinians = terrorists.

And indeed, I already teach the topic of terrorism in my upper division Gender in the Media course, using Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai’s Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots, trying to get my students to pull back from their beliefs about the 9/11 attacks, whatever they are,  enough to see the weirdness of the particular gendered and sexualized forms the reaction took.

This went pretty well the first time I taught the course, but on the second go-around I remember vividly having a student exclaim something like “but they killed all those people!” or “but they attacked us!” Her comments about sports teams in online discussion had already revealed she was from New York, and so there’s a fair chance that she had only a few degrees of separation to someone who died in the towers.

(It was also at this point that I realized I had been assuming that the South Asians in the room [of which she was one] a) were aware of the racist backlash and b) would be less knee-jerk in favor of post-9/11 jingoism, but that’s my failing as a white person and a teacher.)

So then I had to slow down and go back and come down from my big structural discussion back to the grounding in “Some people did something awful, that we don’t condone, but the response to it doesn’t make any sense in the absence of a history of imagining the East as a site of gender and sexual deviance.”

And I guess that’s the way forward to teach Palestine as well: We never condone violence. That includes acts undertaken by Palestinians, but it also includes the violences of the Israeli state. So, we can hold that in place and think about broader structures in how those particular violences arise and what forms they take.

Because the fact is that I do parse these kinds of complexities for my students, and expect them to, about other issues. Though I suppose the ones who are actively racist, sexist, or homophobic, rather than having a passive, culturally-received sense that whiteness or maleness or straightness is superior, probably quickly realize that mine is not the class for them to air those beliefs.

I think it’s possible to condemn terrorist tactics but also understand the backed-into-a-corner-ness that makes them seem like a/the viable option. I think it’s possible to get across that there are real, legitimate concerns being expressed in illegitimate ways.

I think it’s possible to get students to disarticulate the actions of the Israeli state, which even not all Israelis agree with, from Jews writ large. I think it’s possible to help students see how individuals within structures benefit from the violence done on their behalf and thus share some responsibility even as they do not directly or completely control the system that produces the violence.

I think it’s possible to push back on the culturally “obvious” without alienating your students. The trick lies in keeping the large, structural factors and the concrete, tangible loss of life both in view at once.

I’m taking the next 2 weeks off, since there’s no point in posting on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve when no one will read it, but I’ll see you back here in January!

Apparently, I’m turning into an education blogger. If it’s not your cup of tea, bear with me. I’m sure something else will catch my attention soon.

When I read the headline “Public high school grads struggle at college,” I was concerned. It’s always possible—and indeed likely—that there could be a public school vs. private school divide in terms of quality, because private schools have so many more resources and so do the students who attend them.

But as I read the article, it turned out that it discussed the ways public high school graduates struggle in college only to the extent that the Tribune was reporting on its own analysis of “data available to Illinois citizens,” produced in accordance with a mandate from the state legislature, that measured college vs. high school grades.

Less interested already, I nevertheless pressed on through the article. And, lo and behold, what did they discover? Student grades go down in college: “The average freshman GPA was 2.52 across all state universities and community colleges, roughly C+ work, based on the state’s tracking of more than 90,000 public high school students who graduated between 2006 and 2008. In high school, those same kids exceeded a B average — 3.08.”

The article suggested that this “for the first time raises fundamental questions about how well the state’s public high schools are preparing their students for college.”

They even tried to find an explanation: “College and K-12 officials blame the performance declines on myriad factors, from inadequate high school preparation to high school grade inflation, newfound independence and increased partying away from home.”

They argued that “there is a real lack of alignment (between high school and college)” and “kids aren’t necessarily ready for freshman-level classes.”


Let me get this straight. Getting B and C grades in college means that high schools aren’t doing their job? I don’t dispute that probably many high schools aren’t doing a great job, but is this really the measure of a problem? Or alternately, B’s and C’s result from independence and partying and high school grade inflation?

All of that is ridiculous. Of course there’s a “lack of alignment between high school and college.” College is harder. Your grades should go down. Or, if they don’t, you should have to work a lot harder to keep them at the same level as previously.

Farther down in the article, there was a comment from “Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education,” who “said that a C+ average as a freshman ‘is not a horrible thing,’ pointing out that college-level work is more complicated than high school courses, and college instructors have a tougher grading system.”

And I was like, “Great, a voice of reason!” But then, he went on to say that “as students adjust to college, they can improve their GPAs.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

Okay, I get that with the job market being as tight as it is, the GPAs that college grads have earned are coming to matter to employers increasingly much. So, students want to do as well as possible. I understand this. But I have to ask: What the hell happened to C as average?

And here I thought it was just my students—unfortunately many of whom fit the “overprivileged kid from the Chicago-suburbs” stereotype—who thought they should all get A’s just for trying.

And, interestingly, my campus is, in fact, singled out: “Among the four-year state universities, only at the state’s flagship campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did these freshmen average at least a B, with a 3.14 GPA for freshmen coming out of Illinois public high schools. Those U. of I. students had an average high school GPA of 3.7.”

This is not so shocking, when you consider that the flagship is going to have the highest admissions standards.Those students are already exceptionally good at school, so they cope better when school gets harder.

Though, of course, this better result could also be because the kids who are in a position to get in to this institution are more likely to be pushy about their grades (the Overprivileged Kid Theory). Or, it could be that there’s grade inflation at UIUC because we all (me included) assume that we’re teaching high-quality students, whether that’s true or not (the Flagship Fallacy).

But here’s the thing that worries me the most about this whole conversation about grades. A provost at Northern Illinois University, one of the state schools, said “It costs a lot to go to college now, and people want to know …’What am I getting for my dollar?'”

I’ll tell you what you sure as hell don’t “get for your dollar”: you don’t get to buy your grades. Maybe at for-profit institutions, but honest-to-deity colleges are not fee-for-service places. What you get for your dollar isn’t your GPA but the content in the classes, the stretching of your brain to think critically that will serve you for the rest of your life.

The idea that we somehow owe students a certain grade for their (parent’s or lender’s) dollar is worse even than the professionalization of undergraduate degrees that I complained about a couple of weeks ago.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some actual causes for concern in the article. The Tribune points out that “BolingbrookHigh School graduates had an average 2.44 at theUniversity of Illinois, while those from Glenbrook South High School earned a 3.43 — even though college-bound students from both schools had similar average high school GPAs.” That’s worth commenting on, because it points to disparities in the preparation at those two institutions.

Similarly, when the chancellor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale says that “more and more students seem to be less prepared for college; particularly math and English skills are not where we would like them to be when they come to college,” then we can get worried. It’s if they come in and can’t do the work, rather than if they come in and find it harder than they did before, that determines “struggling” in college, not what grades they get but “Can they hack it?”

Not some misguided sense that one’s GPA should stay the same even as the difficulty increases.

I taught some selections from Anne Fausto Sterling‘s Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality to my Gender in the Media class this past week, and it was an interesting experience.

The students were predictably horrified at cutting up infants to make them conform to normative genital configurations, especially within 24 hours of birth and without giving parents enough information or time to make a reasoned decision.Some wondered if it was feasible to wait and let the child decide for her- or himself.

They were (perhaps, in hindsight, also predictably, though I didn’t see it coming) not sure that deciding not to correct intersex babies was ethical either, worrying that this might lead to social or psychological distress.

That is, when I asked them to think about the quote from a surgeon calling ambiguous genitals “a medical and social emergency” (p. 45), they were certain that it wasn’t a medical emergency, but they thought it might be a social one.

But what I didn’t expect at all was their reaction to the discussion of sex testing in sports. They were pretty adamant—the women as much as or more than the men—that sports had to be-sex segregated. Men are stronger, they said, and it’s not fair to women, end of story.

I reminded them of Hermann Ratjen, who competed as the woman Dora Ratjen in the 1936 Olympics despite being a man . . .

Hermann “Dora” Ratjen

and didn’t win. Surely here was evidence that women can beat men at sports. But no, they didn’t find that compelling.

(Incidentally, there are a number of conflicting stories about this athlete. Wikipedia says Ratjen was named Heinrich, raised as Dora, and only found out about hir biological maleness much later and competed innocently as a woman. But elsewhere in the article, it says the Nazis put him up to it deliberately, which Fausto-Sterling also says. Except that, if you believe Halberstam [who I often cal J-Hal just to refuse/mock the Judith/Jack hipsterfest] the Nazis would have been totally opposed to men behaving in any way feminine. So, this is a bit of a mystery and possibly not the best example.)

I tried again. Okay, so men might on average be stronger (though, I pointed out, averages mean that sometimes they aren’t), but not all sports are won by strength. Women might be more agile. Or they might have superior endurance. What about sports that are won on those criteria?

They really weren’t having any of it. The idea that women can’t compete with men was just too much the truth for them to be able to think anything else. And it was a little disappointing. I was a little frustrated by how far gender politics had not come. Or maybe I had stumbled into a time machine and not noticed. Something.

One male student told a story of the one girl in his football league (whether high school or youth it wasn’t clear) and how “she had a target on her back” as all the boys went after her because “if you’re going to play you have to take the consequences.” And he was totally unabashed about it, probably seeing it more as “this is a rough game and we’re not going to take it easy on you” even if the reality was more like “this is our game and we’re going to hurt you to show you you’re not welcome.”

But right alongside finding it sad, I found this fascinating. People dismiss or dislike feminism because they feel like it makes women into victims. That was the reason for the anti- or post-feminist sentiment at the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.The panelists wanted to feel empowered, not like if they chose to be sexy they were being objectified by men or pandering or anything but owning their own bodies.

But here were a group of young adults who probably don’t identify as feminists, who chuckled (as intended) when I showed them a “OMG women are victims” YouTube video and then told them I wasn’t teaching that class, reproducing the exact “women are weaker” party line all by themselves.

And I guess that’s why classes like mine are important (which I say with no self-aggrandizement). That’s why paying attention to gender is important, either in day-to-day life with one’s friends or for part of a class session or the whole semester. I have to hope that by the end of the semester my students at least will be able to start questioning the obviousness of this kind of thing.

So, despite the dis-ease with feminism I expressed in the Sexy Geek post, maybe we do still need it—at least, in the non-victim flavor. This incident would seem to call for feminism (or something like it) to continue to point out

a) the pervasiveness of these assumptions about what it means to belong to gender categories and

b) the fact that they’re only socially real and it could actually be another way if we worked to change them.

Because, as much as I thought it would be obvious to a group of relatively bright people once it was pointed out, it apparently still isn’t.