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Category Archives: education

My presentation in the Self Awareness and Identity Politics in Media Pedagogy workshop #g16 at the 2014 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference.

I want to talk about a young black man subjected to violence by a law enforcement figure. No, not 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, stalked and killed by a vigilante neighborhood watchman who was acquitted—at least not yet.

Nor 14-year-old Tremaine McMillan of Miami, FL,  “forced to the ground” and “choked in a headlock” “as he played with his puppy on the beach” “because the police said his body posture was ‘threatening’—and then charged with a felony.”

Nor 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington, whose shooting death by a police officer here in Champaign was ruled an accident and the officer was suspended for 30 days for poor firearm handling.

Nor the thousands with whom I could go on except that they haven’t been brought to national attention so I haven’t even heard about their stories.

I want to talk about 22-year-old Oscar Grant, fatally shot in the back while lying face down on a BART platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. The BART police officer served 11 months for involuntary manslaughter after claiming he meant to use his TASER.

This is, of course, because I saw Fruitvale Station last week. And you know, even though one goes into it knowing how it ends, it’s still incredibly moving. The film has some problems, but effective acting is not one of them.

As I was walking out of the screening, I commented to my movie buddy that some people were upset because a scene where Grant is nice to a dog was fictional, put in to make it clear he was a nice guy (which I read somewhere but can’t find now).

She replied that the film had gone overboard with making him seem like a nice guy. The result, she said, was that it conveyed that he shouldn’t have been killed because he was a nice guy, not because he didn’t do anything wrong—a critique echoed by the negative film critic reviews at The Dissolve and Variety.

And she has a point to the extent that even not-nice people shouldn’t be shot to death for no reason.

But you know, (and now I come back to that first young black man in the list of those subjected to violence by a law enforcement figure) I think about how many times I read in comments (and, I know, I know, “Don’t read the comments!”, but-) people calling Trayvon Martin a thug because he apparently smoked pot and got in fights at school sometimes (neither of which carry a death penalty, last time I checked).

I think about how the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Martin hinged on whether six women (either all or 5/6ths white) bought the narrative of “Zimmerman was threatened by a black thug” or that of “Martin was a child attacked by a vigilante,” and the first narrative won the jury over.

Putting those things alongside my friend’s feeling that the treatment of Grant was heavy-handed makes me think that she and I, white people who already understand both “Even not-nice people don’t deserve to die” and “Young black man does not equal thug,” are not who that aspect of the movie was for. (Which isn’t to paint us as “enlightened” so much as meeting a basic standard of understanding that, surprisingly, is not so basic.)

The movie was making a case to those people who look at someone like Grant or Martin and see not a human being but a threat, and people with that view may well need to be hit in the face with the argument to have a chance at believing it. Certainly, the odds of people who equate youthful black masculinity with thuggery going to see Fruitvale Station may be low, but that’s who the continual insistence on Grant’s niceness at every turn was having an argument with.

Bad film-making, perhaps. But culturally vital.

Overall, recent events make me think that, given the systematic devaluation of black men’s lives, the tiny intervention of “He shouldn’t have been killed because he was a nice guy” might be what there is, right now. That “Thugs are people, too” might just save somebody’s life, since “Not a thug” seems to be incomprehensible to far too many people with guns and authority.

A disclaimer feels necessary here. I know more about how race works than the vast majority of white people because of my education. I have had that vertigo feeling of realizing my life is worth less in the social ledger than other people’s because I read as queer. But I am aware how limited that knowledge is, that it’s not the same.

I understand that I fundamentally can’t imagine what it’s like to live under the threat exemplified by the cases of Trayvon Martin, Kiwane Carrington, and Oscar Grant. Of Rodney King, Tremaine McMillan, and Calvin Miller. I write, then, from a position of knowing enough to know what I don’t know.

But even if “Thugs are people, too” is all there is right now and what we have to work with in the short term, in the long run the systematic devaluation-fear of blackness (mostly masculinity, but the refusal of legitimacy to Marissa Alexander’s “stand your ground” warning shot that hurt no one demonstrates the ways black women quickly get moved into the “irredeemably violent” box, too) is where the fight is.

I haven’t posted anything about Trayvon Martin since the verdict. I’ve retweeted smart things that came through my feed, pointed out a very telling Google algorithm moment, but mostly it felt like a more important time than ever for white people to not be deciding what Trayvon Martin’s life and death meant. Who was I to think that my opinion mattered in that moment?

The Crunk Feminist Collective posted on Facebook: “Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. [ . . . ] Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors?” (Via Amanda Ann Klein’s blog post taking up the challenge.)

The poster is right that this is work white feminist humans need to do, even as I’m still uneasy even in this blog post with asserting that what I think about this matters.

But I think my role as an educator is exactly a place to make an intervention in the systematic devaluation-fear of blackness. Maybe, if I’m lucky, even one slightly larger than tiny.

In my Intro to Gender Studies class this year, I want to find a way to work in a discussion about the role of masculinity in Trayvon Martin’s death, and how it intersected with race and class in the killing and the trial (and, at times, homophobia in suggesting Zimmerman’s following seemed like impending gay rape). I want to help my students understand the role of whiteness and femininity with those jurors from selection to verdict. All of it.

It’s pedagogically sound, but more importantly ethically incumbent on me as someone who understands these things and has an opportunity to help others understand them. There’s also the role of my (racial, educational, employment) privilege in making me someone to whom the flock of (mostly) middle class white kids on the other side of the classroom is likely to listen to.

If you’re a teacher interested in pitching in to help change the cultural narratives that, ultimately, killed Trayvon Martin (which is not to absolve Zimmerman, clearly), keep an eye on, curated by my colleague Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D. and going live mid-August.

Maybe I should be blogging about the end of DOMA or the Supreme Court’s awful blow to the universal franchise. But I’ve already said what I have to say about same-sex marriage, the tunnel-vision it has produced in lesbian and gay activism (because, let’s be real, bisexual and trans folks are not invited to the party), and the contemporary undermining of voting rights.

So instead, inspired by a piece I read recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I want to talk about the trouble with understanding college as a form of vocational education rather than an academic project.

One of my pet peeves is rise of administrative language that we need to teach undergraduates things that are “useful”—“real world” “skills” that will supposedly get them jobs.

And, to be sure, there are jobs where you need specific training in that field to do them—electricians as much as doctors or lawyers. Vocational training is valuable, and should not be treated as substandard or what people do who aren’t intelligent the way it currently is. Electricians and plumbers should get the same respect as doctors and lawyers.

But the value of a four-year undergraduate degree is something different. It’s a time to learn how to think (not what to think, despite what the one cranky conservative student inevitably in my class each semester seems to believe), how to ask questions, how to assess evidence and make arguments and write. This is the “liberal arts”-type model, but I’d suggest that it’s the intellectual capacity cultivated by any undergraduate degree that doesn’t share its name with a profession. (And, I suppose, some that do, like journalism.)

And it turns out that the Chronicle piece, based on surveying employers, shows that the latter type of capacity is exactly what they want.

“93 percent of the employers surveyed said that ‘a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.’ They were not saying that a student’s major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree.”

“More than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on five key areas, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

I have been arguing for years that critical thinking and related skills are what make people good employees (one example), so I have to say that I’m glad to have my previous argument validated and to have some ammunition the next time someone tries to make the skills argument.

And, just as more proof, I happened (coincidentally enough) to be talking with a friend from undergrad about how my job as an academic is like or unlike her job at a major Internet company just as I was starting this blog and Lo, and Behold! Her job requires her to be able to write and argue a position!

To propose a new idea at her workplace, they have to write a paper that lays out the suggestion and provides evidence to back it up. She says, “as a liberal arts graduate, I’ve been in heaven”; she likes doing this writing, she’s been trained for it, and she’s good at it where some of her colleagues shy away from having to stand up to the “intellectual rigor” it requires. This is what she does, and the skills she needs, in a job in corporate America.

What this means is that when we treat college as an extension of high school, as learning “facts” to be regurgitated on multiple choice tests, we’re selling our students short. The survey said that employers felt “college graduates were most lacking in ‘written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem-solving.’”

It means that when we teach our students how use a particular software or do a particular business procedure, we’re selling them short by setting them up for their first job (maybe, if the instructor’s knowledge isn’t out of date) but giving them no tools for the next job or the one after. As the Chronicle piece put it, employers “want a student who has learned how to learn and how to adapt flexibly to rapidly changing demands.”

And I think the survey reported in the Chronicle piece is an important step forward, but it only helps readers of the Chronicle (so, faculty, grad students, some administrators) understand what employers really want.

Unless that is widely disseminated, we’re stuck grappling with what students think employers want, and the ways they choose their majors and course work and evaluate their classes on the basis of that. Then there’s what parents think employers want as they help their student choose those things and sometimes foot the bill.

Then there’s what the class of university administrators who are more administrator than educator think employers want and the requirements that come down the ladder as a result. Perhaps most crucially, there’s what legislatures think employers want, since they have a lot of financial control even as state funding for higher education is less of the budget than it has ever been.

If all of these stakeholders still think skills are where the jobs are, we’re going to be stuck.

I am likely to miss the next 2-3 weeks since I’ll be traveling and using my limited work time to keep up with my dissertation timeline rather than blogging. See you in August!

I received an email on March 29 from the University of Illinois Gradlinks service announcing “MOOC Monday is almost here,” which feels like it should have an exclamation point but doesn’t.

This strikes me as a bizarre thing to have as the kickoff event for “Grad Student Appreciation Week.” Grad students don’t teach MOOCs, not least since much of the selling point is having free (unfettered and unpaid) access to famous professors. Moreover, my understanding is that the “massive” and “open” parts mean there aren’t really grades and so grad students don’t TA for MOOCs either. And graduate students definitely don’t take MOOCs as students, since graduate education is not suitable for the format (I’ll come back to suitability later).

The email’s own explanation is that “with more and more online courses, future faculty will want to be well versed in the ins and outs of online teaching.” This collapse of all online teaching into MOOCs sounds a bit like a memorable post  from Academic Men Explain Things to Me, retweeted to me by I can’t remember who, in which “an older gentleman” mansplained to the poster that “although he had never taught nor taken an online class, he was quite sure that I was wrong…all online classes were MOOC.”

There is a chance that the title was chosen for alliteration (the others are Tax Tuesday, Work Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Fitness Friday, Skating Saturday), but the ways in which MOOC stood out to someone as a good idea because it’s a sexy buzzword should not be discounted.

And now for the part of the blog where I argue that seemingly disparate things are related and indicative of a broader phenomenon (I figure I should embrace being predictable). This arrived in the week after Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma introduced an amendment to a funding bill that would “prohibit the NSF [National Science Foundation] from funding political science research unless a project is certified as ‘promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States’” (Huffington Post).

Now, I’m agnostic on whether part of the motivation for Coburn’s amendment (and his apparent overall hatred for political science) is a desire to defund research that is potentially lefty and exposing of his party’s machinations. It’s an appealing theory, but I don’t have any basis to assess it. What I think is much more likely (and maybe the two operate in conjunction) is a fiscal conservative outrage at federal funding for research that seems not to benefit the nation.

And given that hunch about fiscal priorities, I think the MOOC-ification of education and the Coburn amendment (though later defeated) both speak to the same set of beliefs about what knowledge is valuable to teach or to discover, respectively.

This is a logic that values only knowledge that is tangible, immediately apparent as useful, and/or applied, at the expense of other sorts: knowledge for its own sake, knowledge that will be applied one day but whose applications are not yet apparent, and the thing I tend to teach my students—in the phrase of a University of Illinois INTERSECT project—“learning to see systems.”

Online courses in general, and massive, open ones in particular, seem to me to lend themselves only to the first sort of knowledge. They’re suitable, as I usually put it, to things that “have a right answer”: introductory math and science, history when the goal is to learn facts, skills-based learning like business or accounting or advertising.

I don’t think those kinds of subjects are unworthy of study (though, as often happens, this division is hierarchical and those practitioners may not extend me the same courtesy). I also don’t think online teaching is inherently bad. Certainly, the Chronicle of Higher Education piece on online courses I read a while back had suggestions for a successful class that aren’t so different than in person teaching: “Respond to all student queries within 24 hours”? I do that; “End with a post that sums up the conversation”? Not really different than summing up a class discussion; “constantly be on the prowl for YouTube clips, articles and essays, photos, and even online crossword puzzles that highlight and reinforce themes in your course”? Yep.

But the online course cannot substitute for the work of trying out frameworks of thought and asking “what if?” nor for laboratory or problem-solving activities, and this is the stuff of advanced technical subjects, studying society (contemporary or historical) as a structure, and philosophy/theory.

As Suzanne Scott noted in her comparison of SCMS as a “massively open online conference” to MOO-courses, “they can never fully replicate the social experience of a class, or the social dynamics of a class cohort” either. Of course, this kind of work is devalued in the “useful knowledge” paradigm that says anything that doesn’t teach students “skills” is a waste of tuition and tax dollars.

But it’s this definition of what constitutes a “benefit” to society or to an individual that I want to question. In terms of research, lots of things had unexpected benefits that weren’t planned when the research was done. Penicillin was discovered by accident (which is common enough knowledge to be a Google autocomplete option), etc. Shutting down legitimate, fundable research to only that which already has apparent uses prevents us from ever making those kinds of discoveries again.

Similarly, if we think of “benefit” in terms of teaching, I never learned any job skills in my undergraduate education, but my high-quality liberal arts education made me great at the “real” job that I had before coming back to academia. Because I knew to not take things at face value, but look at the bigger picture, I could ask whether there were better ways to do the work I was assigned. I streamlined processes and my efficiency was greatly appreciated by our clients, but it’s not anything I was taught in school directly so much as the outcome of learning to ask “why?” or “why not?” and “what if?”

It’s tempting, as with the suspicion of Coburn’s motives, to see this as some sort of class-demarcating move—the rank and file learn skills and not how to question (or rather, they don’t learn that they should question), so they will be docile underlings. The problem is that if this becomes the model, those managers will just learn “management” skills, and not broad thinking either. Moreover, after watching my supervisor at that office job struggle with the fact that the person who replaced me had no ability to problem-solve, having this sort of employee actually makes more work for management.

Ultimately, the MOOC-ification of education and the Coburn Amendment are both salvos in the battle over the meaning of education. And, while I will definitely argue that knowledge is worth learning—and worth paying for—even if it never has a practical application, I don’t even need to make that argument. Because the “squishy,” nebulous, allegedly useless topics without right answers are the key to personal and business success.

Now, if only we could get the powers that be to recognize it.

As part of my work of professionalization, I have signed up for table of contents alerts for various journals in my areas of interest so that I can keep up on recent work. One such alert came through recently for the journal Sexualities, and Shannon Weber’s piece What’s wrong with be(com)ing queer? Biological determinism as discursive queer hegemony caught my eye.

Though I think the piece does some oversimplifying, I was struck by the feeling that it would be great to teach with–uncomplicated being good for undergrads and then I can complicate in lecture. (Inability to exercise my educational creativity muscles strikes again)

I was thinking, in particular, of starting class discussion with the statement that has become the title of this blog post: Homosexuality is a choice. I think this will be quite a jolt, given, as Weber describes, “the success that the Christian Right in particular has had in framing the debate over LGBTQ rights: telling queer people that they are not normal and do not deserve equal rights because their behavior is chosen and sinful” (687).

To say non-heterosexuality is a choice has come to be tightly linked to an antigay position, that is, and correspondingly saying that it is innate has come to be the only politically acceptable pro-gay position.

As Weber points out, following Jennifer Terry, the idea that sexuality is biologically determined positions it as something one cannot control (680). First, this participates in the same logic that stereotypes non-heterosexuals as sexually out of control—manifesting as homosexuals will always hit on every person of their “same” sex or as bisexuals are slutty.

Moreover, it participates in the same logic by which non-heterosexual desire is seen as a bad thing—that no one would choose it freely. As Weber put is, this is “an always already defensive position that argues not for sexual agency and freedom, but an acceptance of same-sex desire only inasmuch as it cannot be cured away into reformed heterosexuality” (682) which takes me back to beating my dead horse on the trouble with tolerance.

Weber speaks of strategic essentialism in LGBT politics (682), but I don’t actually think it is strategic. When you talk to an average person on the street, most of them believe that whatever orientation they have was innate—I was present recently for a round of “gayer than thou” where people were competing to have been gay earlier, but was too tired to intervene and point out their essentialism, too tired even to put my finger on why the whole thing irritated me. And if that bunch, who has read their weight in queer theory, can do that, it’s pretty pervasive.

But of course, it absolutely is a choice. I am agnostic on where desires come from, but once we have them we have to figure out what they mean and what we are going to do with them.

Even if we could prove that homosexuality was genetic and occurred in a certain percent of every population throughout time (which would be a benign variation like eye color, incidentally), how people responded to those desires in themselves and others has varied wildly. How people have made sense of such desires (as holy, as sin, as act, as identity, as mutable, as immutable) has also varied wildly, as is has how people have perceived nonnormative configurations of relationship (as failed heterosexuality, as nonsexual companionship, as sexual).

People can perfectly well choose to never act on their desires. They can choose their religion over it. (Which, incidentally, as Weber points out, using the framework of religion as a way to make cases for same sex rights is pretty clever: you’re not born locked into a religion forever, you can choose a different one, but if you have one it is a very important part of your identity that many would find it appalling  to try to force someone to change–and it would definitely be unconstitutional if the state did it.) Choosing to suppress rather than act on desire makes a lot of people miserable. But it makes other people less miserable than feeling like they’re sinning. Either way, it’s a choice.

This way of thinking of non-normative configurations as a valid choice rather than only defensible as uncontrollable is a useful framework. Weber gives the example of the way biological essentialism frequently attends narratives about transgender status, critiquing how this, like biological essentialism around same-sex desire, disallows the experience of an identity that has changed over time.

Weber stops with pointing out the trouble of essentialism, but it occurs to me that the framework of choice is also useful here: “I want my body to look like this; I want to be perceived in X way” produces a more livable life than “I can’t control this and am forced to change my body because I really am this on the inside but I was born in the wrong body.” (Though I acknowledge that the latter self-narration is often a strategically necessary essentialism for those who want access to medical body modification.)

We might contest the system that produces the self-loathing of the ex-gay or the sense that having certain wants or desires means anything about a sex or gender category to which one belongs, but people choose how to respond. It’s a sane response to an insane system.

What I’d want to get my students to see is that it’s a choice. It’s not an entirely free choice, of course, because it’s constrained by the socially available options. But it’s a choice people can make how they want to respond to those constraints. The world I want to live in is not one in which we all have to accept that the non-heterosexual can’t control it and tolerate them, but rather to open up the things that are socially possible to choose.