Saturday, March 31, 2007

A picture says... what?

What is this picture saying?

Why would the photographer choose this angle on the shot?

Why would the NYTimes use this picture to write a story about Hillary's campaign and its use of Bill in fundraising?

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Just a few questions on a nice Saturday morning before I leave to go into work.

Fish is in too deep

Nothing like a Stanley Fish column to brighten your day! The illustrious Dr. Fish states in his March 24th New York Times Op-Ed that he wants academics to stop teaching advocacy.

An issue at a social work program in Missouri serves as his case in point. The program was sued by a former student, Emily Booker, who complained that she was punished for not signing a letter written by her social work class supporting adoption by gay and lesbian adults . She says that she was persecuted for her Christian beliefs, and that she was brought up on grievance charges. (Read more specifics from her legal complaint online.)

I don't know everything about the situation--in fact, all I know is what I read in her complaint and in the newspapers. Neither does Fish. Neither one of us has heard the teacher's perspective, the school's response, or the university's findings from their internal investigation. So, I am uncomfortable speaking on the specific issue. Instead, I want to speak to Fish's main point, which seems to be about taking the "teaching of advocacy" out of universities. He writes:

For what the professor was requiring of his class was public advocacy, and it doesn’t matter whether an individual student would have approved of the advocacy; advocacy is just not what should be going on in a university.

Once advocacy is removed from the equation — once issues, including gay adoption, are objects of study rather than alternatives to be embraced — the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of either students or professors, become irrelevant.

Now, I teach advocacy. Truth is, it is the main focus of one of my courses. Advocacy is a skill; you have to learn how to do it. There are books and articles written about how to do it. Moreover, like any skill, students have to practice it. So, I have my students advocate on bills and policies of importance to them. I do not require that students adopt a particular position on an issue. I have taught advocacy skills to the leaders of the campus anti-abortion group and the pro-choice group. We have students in our program this year who are advocating on opposite sides of the same bill. What matters is less what they support and more how they support it.

We do challenge them to consider the values embedded within the legislation they support, as well as their own values and the values of the discipline. They also have to consider values and ethics issues in their own advocacy approaches.

While developing a nuanced analysis of political and social issues is important--I teach them to do that, too--students have to learn how to act on their beliefs. Analysis is simply not enough.

And Fish is being purposefully obtuse when he says that issues like gay adoption are "objects of study, rather than alternatives to be embraced." They are both. In fact, in Missouri, there was another case of note: a well-educated lesbian couple, one trained in counseling and the other in child development, were refused the right to be foster parents in 2005. When they challenged the decision by the foster care administrators, a decision based on an unwritten agency rule, they won and the decision was overturned. As a result of their win, Missouri legislators made noise about introducing a bill restricting gay and lesbian couples from adopting or providing foster care. This was the bill the students' letter addressed.

This bill had sides: pro and con. Advocates take a side--that is what they do.

For those who take a practical approach to education, it is important to note that there are jobs for "advocates." People with advocacy training work for groups like ACLU, FIRE, NARAL, Concerned Women for America, and other advocacy groups, as well as political parties and community groups. These groups need people who know how to do advocacy, who have experience doing advocacy, and who are comfortable with advocacy.

So, how did Fish get into this position of arguing against teaching advocacy in the first place? It seems that he wanted to find some way to deal with Horowitz and his nightmare bills, one of which found its way into the Missouri state legislature. In taking on Missouri House Bill 213, the Emily Booker Intellectual Diversity Act, and the student experience in question, he looks for common ground with Horowitz' argument--offering a critique of classes invoking or discussing professors' and students' beliefs--and uses this as a way to draw a line a little less egregious than Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights. He wants to toe the line between Horowitz and the rest of the intelligentsia by removing the teaching of advocacy.

While I appreciate his desire to save us from the excesses of Horowitz, I think Fish--an English scholar and public commentator--is swimming out of his depth. Perhaps he should learn a little more about the goals and objectives of social sciences like political science and professional disciplines such as social work, education, medicine, and public health. Advocacy training is academic, and it belongs in the university.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What kind of omen is it?

Okay, so I will own right now that I am not much of a party girl. After spending Thursday afternoon walking around stunned by the news of my tenure and promotion, I did little more than have a drink with the gf and watch basketball. But that Friday, the gf offered to do whatever I want. So, being the cinefile that I am, I asked to go to a movie and dinner.

Now, the gf and I have several genres of movies we both like (historical films, documentaries, queer films, and action flicks), but I like many many more. I come from a family of film buffs--and we will watch almost anything. (For a short while, you couldn't be in our familial circle of friends if you had not seen "Heathers." Oh, the humanity.)

Anyway, I was in the mood to see one of *my* films: nothing too serious, something funny and engaging. So, I asked her to be a sport and go with me to see a matinee of "Night at the Museum."

Because it has been out so long, the only place it was playing was in suburban hell, about 35 minutes from home. We agreed to meet there (it is between her work and home) and we made it on time. Unlike the college town theater, which is empty at matinees except for opening weekend, this theater was crawling with families, small children, boisterous teens, and older couples. While the gf hates crowds and movies with lots of kids, I am LOVING this. Nothing is better to me than a crowd in a theater.

The previews come on, and they are all for either cartoon features (i.e., The Simpsons movie and Shreck 3) or goofy movies (i.e., the new Will Ferrell ice skating flick). The gf is sighing while the children and I are tickled by the previews (esp. Shrek 3). We get about 10 minutes into the feature when a young usher opens the door and says, awkwardly, "There has been a fire alarm. Everyone has to leave!" Everyone in the audience looks around (the theater is still dark and the movie is playing), but we all eventually decide that we should probably vacate.

So, we make our way to the hallway...where we find billowing smoke. Really.
It looks like the concession stand is on fire!! All I can think about are the two 18-20 year old kids who had been working the concessions, and I hope they are alright. We hustle towards the far doors, along with a mother and her 2 small children. The mother explains to us that this is her children's first time at a real movie. They seem somewhat bewildered by it all. You can almost see them thinking,"Does this happen every time??"

We make our way to the front of the theater, where everyone is just milling around. In short order, there are 5 fire trucks, an ambulance, and 3 police cars. The kids are enjoying the firetrucks, sirens, and firefighters in full regalia (including axe). Parents are taking pictures with their camera-phones, as am I. The gf and I stand and watch while snacking on remaining popcorn. After a little while, everyone starts to figure out that the movies are out for the night. The manager and employees run around and hand out refund tickets (we get 2 each for our trouble, though that means more trips to the 'burbs to use them).

The gf and I decide to pursue plan B: a great homecooked meal (steak, portabello mushrooms with goat cheese, sweet potato, and salad) and more basketball. (Lucky for me that the gf likes to cook and she is good at it!)

So, what does the failed movie-watching/fire mean as an omen for my career as a newly-tenured associate prof? Is my career ablaze with possibilities? Is it just going to be memorable, but not quite what I imagined? Does doom and danger lurk ahead? What do you think?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Oh, YEAH, baby

Yes, wonderful readers, I am pleased to announce that my school has agreed to tenure and promote me! I got the letter today.

All I can think is, "Phew! That is over!" Seriously, I just kinda want to sleep and chill out. I have been more and more anxious as the notification date drew nearer, and all I can feel is sweet relief.

So, call me "Lesboprof, Associate Professor!"

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Privilege You Can Feel, Even If You Can't Always Name It

If you get a chance, go read Tenured Radical's response on her blog to Horace's posting on doing reviews and other professional service. While her post is most clearly about tenure and the limitations and problems brought on by those expectations, she also brings up the issue of the competitive nature of tenure and the inequality of those competing. As someone who has frequently felt undervalued and undersupported (but doesn't now, which is incredibly nice!), it struck a chord with me.

When TR discussed the issue of privilege, I was reminded of my grad work in "Other Field." In that department, those with great GPAs, GREs, and references from the right undergraduate schools got better financial support than those towards the middle of the crowd in one or more of those areas. (As a girl with very strong GREs but a problematic transcript from state schools, I fell into the latter group.)

Strangely enough(!), the students who had fellowships (read: no labor attached) got through the program faster, did better in classes, and graduated more quickly than those who had TA's. And those with TA's did better than those of us doing other jobs, like work-study, residence life, and other low-pay labor. Some might argue that this clearly showed that they chose correctly--the cream rose to the top, and they funded the people who should have been funded.

But what would have happened if we had all had better funding? If we had all had to work a little, teach a little, and have time just getting funds without any strings attached?

As someone who worked, I always felt a little behind my "supported" colleagues. And none of the faculty would acknowledge how our time spent working impacted our capacity to produce and succeed. Instead, those of us who were doing low-paid labor got seen as less capable, got less mentoring, and never became the "teacher's pet." One of the most thoughtful and capable students I know who did not finish her doctoral degree worked almost full-time during her grad study. But everyone treated her like she should have been able to compete with our fully-funded counterparts, and they were reluctant to give her any financial assistance through the program. I wonder how her life would be different if she had been fully funded.

My experience in Other Field raised questions for me about the long-term outcomes of these earlier disparities. Could it be that those with funding in grad school then benefited from better mentoring? Did they get included on publications, recommended for the post-docs, and gain more opportunities? This then makes them more competitive for tenure when they go up... and the cycle would go on as people pursue promotion to full. For a profession that likes to think that we honor merit, these issues raise troubling questions, from my point of view.

I know all programs are not like my 1st grad; my second grad program put everyone in the same boat in terms of funding--we all had RA positions for the same number of hours and we were paid the same. And I feel that we all got reasonably similar mentoring support (okay, the boys didn't like feminists, but that is no surprise), though we were affected by the status of those who mentored us. Those with high-profile mentors had better access to resources than those who did not, but those differences seemed a little less aggravating to me. But nonetheless, when I look at the outcomes for the grads of that 2nd program, it turns out that we have progressed in a similar pattern.

I know you can't equalize every aspect of university life, but the closer you can get, the better for everyone in the long run. Someone has to address the inequities, and the earlier they start, the better we can all do.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Me and Thee and Thee and Me

Okay, okay, so students suck. At least, that is the banter on the web. Azpazia has on her site probably the craziest student phone message I have heard in some time. The discussion has led to a thorough trashing of student laziness, inability to study appropriately, poor preparation, etc. She writes about how most faculty cannot relate to students because:
After all, the majority of us are total nerds who decided to stay in school forever. We either already knew what sort of work was required of us, or some of us are just plain gifted.

I don't know if I am gifted or not, but I can tell you that I can empathize with my lazy, flawed students in a way that many of my colleagues don't. I am on the same page as Melanie Mock, who wrote a recent column in the Chronicle. She argues that we need to remember who we were, back when we were lazy, flawed students.

School was easy for me until 8th grade Algebra kicked my ass. The problem, I came to realize, was not that I could not "get" math. Actually, I pick up mathematical concepts quickly. My problem was that I had never really done homework before...not the kind of homework that took time, energy, and focus. And this was a new challenge. I eventually pulled that one out, but I learned a valuable lesson.

I learned another lesson early in college, after I failed courses I hated and excelled in courses I liked. My transcript looked like a lovely field full of F-pocked landmines: A, F, A, F, A, F. After a while, I realized that if I wanted to do well, I had to apply myself even when I hated the class, the teacher, or the subject. I later learned that if I wanted to do even better, I should go to classes regularly. If I showed up AND did the homework, the results were incredible! It only took me my 5 years of undergrad to get that.

Later, I also learned how NOT to get de-registered every semester, how to actually visit someone during office hours (and how much the instructors liked it!), and how to work with other students in class to divide up readings and study together. Unfortunately, these later lessons came in grad school. So, how can I be pissed that my students, most of them between 18-22, don't know these things yet?

I did not face some of the stupid decisions, barriers, or challenges my students face. I was not a party girl, I didn't date much, and I did not join a sorority or become a "little sister " (I never did get the point of that particular brand of self-negating, 2nd-rate groupthink--at least sorority sisters have their own independent club). But I did have to battle depression, homesickness, and eventually coming out in a college setting. And my academic career was further complicated by inherited familial habits of lateness, passive-aggressive tendencies, and the worst memory one can possibly imagine. I remember how all of these things made it harder to study, to feel confident, and to succeed in and outside of the classroom.

So, when I advise students or talk to them in and outside of class, I try to help them along with some of these lessons. I tell them my own stories of failure and success and share some of the mechanisms and practices that I have found helpful. I am usually not mad or frustrated with students; I get it. I was them.

In one of my earliest classes as an instructor, my students constantly complained about how they would not do well on the quizzes, "even though they read the book." I would tell the students, after the first few weeks, to bring their books to class. I would then ask them to open to a page they had read and hold it up. We would then, together, look at the highlighting. If the page glowed, I said, they didn't understand the purpose of highlighting as a reading/studying technique. And we took about 15 minutes to share, as a class, what worked for us as students--how to get the most out of reading, what techniques were helpful in improving recall, etc. It was amazing what a difference that made. I truly believe that they do the best they can, but that our students need to learn how to study in a way that works for them.

I told a group last week that I don't want to hear one more faculty member in my field complain that, since we are not in the English department, they should not be responsible for "teaching students to write." I see helping students to write better as everyone's responsibility. What if each of us took or created teachable moments with students to address the life skills, academic skills, and other important lessons that we know because we learned them the hard way? And what if we spent our time reinforcing the life lessons when students learn them, instead of obsessing about why students have to learn them in our classes?

It doesn't mean we can't be hard-asses...It just means we feel a little less angry and more hopeful about it, as we look at those mirror-images of our own failings and hope that they are taking away some learning along with the consequences of their actions.