Sunday, December 31, 2006

FOR PW: A Primer on Feminism

My student PW asked me to write a little overview on feminism. He wrote:

I am going to be quite blunt here; I don't get feminism. I do not really understand why or if there is such a stress on women as opposed to men.

It's a tricky thing when anyone asks you to explain what feminism is, especially when they stress that they don't see the need anymore and that after all, everyone is struggling. Sure, in some ways it is true that all people are struggling, men, women, people of color, disabled people, poor people, rich people, Westerners and non-Westerners. We could just describe struggle as a generic human thing. This is not, however, what feminism does. So, I will attempt to answer PW' question for three reasons: (1) I should be able to give a really straightforward answer to what feminism is since I am the Mad Melancholic Feminista; (2) PW is asking me sincerely, not to "bait" me; and (3) It's always a good idea to review why feminism is still important and worth considering.

When I teach Feminist Theory (a Philosophy class), I often ask students a series of questions:

(a) Do you think that young girls in Thailand should be sold into prostitution?
(b) Do you think that women and men should be paid the same wage if they are doing the same job?
(c) Do you think women should be allowed to pursue any career field they are passionate about and have talent for?
(d) Do you think women who were raped should be stoned by their villagers?

If you answered: no, yes, yes, no, then you are a feminist. Why? Because feminism is the struggle for social, economic and political equality for women worldwide. That's it. Ok, well, it's not that easy, right? After all, what the hell does equality mean? What most feminists mean by equality is political equality, e.g. equal protection under the law or the right to be valued as full and equal citizen. Equality does not mean that men and women are essentially the same.

Many critics of feminism like to make a strawfeminist argument and claim that all feminists think that men and women are essentially the same (i.e. talents, potentials, strength potential, etc.) and what makes us different is social conditioning (nurture). However, this is an absurd view only rivalved by the perhaps even more absurd view that all men and women are is a product of their biology. The latter claim is absurd precisely because most people who make that claim have little to no understanding of biology, or science in general. They are generally the same folks that denouce evolution and global warming, but hey, men and women are completely determined by their biology. It's a sort of convenient picking and choosing of scientific theories, i.e. when they accord with one's ideology.

Men and women are different; no one serious challenges this fact. However, biological differences among men, for example, do not lead to political differences. I have yet to hear a good reason for why biological differences means that political equality is impossible. But, let's leave that for another discussion, shall we?

So, I think, perhaps, one way to show PW why someone like me would be a feminist, and why it is still relevant is to give you a picture of what it is like to grow up as a girl in the U.S. From birth, a little girl is socialized into a role that our culture deems proper and fitting for all girls. The first question that anyone asks of a new parent is: boy or girl? Once that important distinction is worked out, the family, relatives, and friends can begin participating in the socialization, e.g. a pink blanket and pink booties. Walk into a toy store this week and compare/contrast the toys deemed appropriate for girls vs. appropriate for boys. At 3 and under we are having little girls wash fake dishes, bake fake cakes, and take care of their babies. Boys, however, have lots of weapons. I am hard pressed to see the real differences between 9 month olds, but we do a good job culturally sending those signals out.

Now, consider you are a 6 year old girl and you get up every saturday morning to watch cartoons. Who are your heroes? Frivolous girls who obsess about boys, fashion and pop music. You could be the nerdy little sister who always gets in the way of your smart and clever brother. Or, you could be a Power Puff girl who, while saving the world for evil, talks like a grandmother sucking on helium. The role models send a clear message to little girls: sure, you can be important as long as you look cute, pink, play in a band, and are attractive to boys. If you are a scientist, fine, but as long as it doesn't interfere with your more important qualities, cuteness.

Now, let's fastforward to the teenage years. The popular culture--through advertising, pop music, magazines, TV shows, and films--makes it very clear what young girls should be worrying about: weight, looks, 'personality,' popularity, and fashion. What is even worse now is how sexualized pre-teen bodies are in advertisements. Take a look at advertisements for watches, jeans, cars, perfume, electronic equipment, diamonds--you name it--you will see lifeless dolls, portrayed as adornments, allurements for the male gaze to purchase the products. We see millions, perhaps billions, of advertisements a year and the effect they have on young girl's self esteem cannot be underestimated.

What message do these young girls get about their worth, their talents, their future?

Now, let's skip to young adulthood. Let's say that a young woman has emerged from all this socialization and still desires to enter into a previously male-dominated profession. How many other women are in the Finance class? Even if women are outperforming men academically, how many of them are landing a spot at the power table? How many women are high ranking policians? How many are CEOs of fortune 500 companies? How many female Presidents have we had in the U.S.? All around you are messages that you are lucky if you make it and those who do make it often tend to be harder on the women coming up--sort of like hazing in Fraternities.

While this is a gloss on why feminism is relevant, I hope it gets PW and others to start paying attention to the powerful ways in which the culture attempts to socialize women into a particular role. And, to fight against that role is hard enough, but once you do, you still have to confront pervasive sexism.

Let's go back to the six year old, who grew up listening to her older brother call his friends "girls" of "pussies" if they didn't do what he thought was tough, cool or if they showed signs of human vulnerability. It doesn't take long to learn that being a girl is tantamount to be inferior, deficient and unworthy. Feminine traits are frivolous, grating, catty, vain, narcissistic, passive, bitchy . . . (this list was compiled by my students when I asked them what they associate with femininity). What do we associate with masculinity? (Go ahead, make a list).

So, you see, the differences between men and women have been used to rationalize giving women less respect, less opportunities, and laying at their feet the full brunt of nurturing others: their children, their elderly parents, and their spouses.

Saturday, December 30, 2006


I took a long walk with Za today and we fell into a long, philosophical discussion about what the word 'normal' means. It all started when we were trying to articulate what we thought a 'normal' family was.

I realized pretty soon into the conversation that we were going to have an impossible time pinpointing what normal is. After all, is it the statistical mean? Is it the status quo? Is it a self-sustaining population? Is it middle-class values? What a mess of concept normal is. In fact, is there any real content to the notion of normalcy?

Might a good logical positivist point out to us that it is a pseudo-concept? Or, is it contextual, e.g. one can define 'normal" only within a frame of reference.

In any case, normalcy has got to be one of the most powerful concepts around, even if we can't define what exactly it is.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Impulse to Organize

So I have been trying to get myself organized today. About this time every year, when I have a few weeks to myself between semesters, I promise myself that I will get organized. I start putting all pertinent dates on my PDA. I update address books. I consider what conferences I can apply for and their deadlines. I catch up on neglected correspondences. And, I finish the letters of recommendation that I should've got to before Christmas.

One of the hardest parts of getting organized, is that I can't figure out which of these things to do first.

Anyway, this impulse to organize always fascinates me. It is a wish to be "in control" and untroubled by whatever comes my way during the semester. I make promises to eat better, exercise more, do more yoga and work on meditating. I promise myself not to take on too many responsibilities and I review my career: where is it going?

No matter how good my intentions, I never quite get organized and I end up winging it all through the semesters. I rely on my intuition to find myself to meetings sometimes--and believe me, it fails. I never take full advantage of the blocked off research days.

I know there are some people out there who can abide by a schedule. There are others who never let anyone steal away their precious research time. But, I am not one of those people. The fact is that something in my personality works against organization, even if I aspire to be one of those organized people.

I think that my secret weapon is that anxiety actually forces me to produce and to do so fairly well. But, the downside is that anxiety totally wears away at my mental health. Organization is a way to manage stress and yet, if I manage stress, I don't get half of the things done that I should.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Right Wing Attack on Academia Comes to Gettysburg

Our esteemed Rhodes scholar forwarded me this "news" piece claiming that a course that I teach, Contemporary Moral Issues, is among the most "dangerous college courses." I wonder where this jack ass gets his information since he refers to it as "Psychology" course. But, let's take a look at his text:

College Courses

By Jason Rantz

With the war on terrorism intensifying, and the fact we will be at war for decades to come, it has never been more important that our nation's students truly understand what is at stake. Unfortunately, you cannot count on our nation's colleges to embolden our students to fight our enemy; instead, they are either teaching students that we are the enemy or that we are not using the right methods to fight terrorism. Indeed, some professors teach their students that we can reason with terrorists by writing them an angry letter, not blowing them to Kingdom Come.

The following courses are some of the nation's worst. They represent courses that have an agenda far beyond simply teaching students how to function and excel in the real world, but indoctrinate students into working against our Nation's interests.

Gettysburg College – "Contemporary Moral Issues"

Under the guise of a psychology course, Gettysburg Colleges questions the "defensible use of violence, limits of freedom, extent of our obligations to others and to nature, rightful state authority, and the nature of duties and obligations." Something tells me they wonder if it is defensible to attack those who wish to see this country be wiped from the face of the Earth.

Good lord! Where do these people come from? Can you believe that there is a Philosophy course on college campuses that actually discusses "defensible use of violence, limits of freedom, rightful state authority, and the nature of duties and obligations toward others?" Parents! Lock your children up! It's just not safe to send them to school anymore.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Familial Alienation

What is it about being around family that strips away all that you have set out to accomplish in your life. No matter how the world sees you, your family always sees you as the bratty six year old or the dorky teenager with braces. I find myself amazed by how reduced I feel in the presence of family. Don't get me wrong, I love them and I cherish spending the holidays with them, but I am always amazed by how out of touch with myself I feel. A flood of old hurts, disappointments, fears wash over me and and old wounds reopen. When I walk outside and find some solace, I remember who I am now: the accomplished young woman, newly engaged and respected by my colleagues and students. But, the minute I walk back through the door and see everyone taking their usual places, I am immediately on the defensive. I interpret every sigh, every slight look askance as a judgment on my shortcomings. The people who know me the best, who gave me all that I have turned into my success have unbelievable power over me? Why is that?

I look at my brother, his ease with people, his gregariousness and I feel like a socially incompetent teenager in braces again. I tried to talk to my cousin, who I haven't seen in years and I am awkward. I am happy to hear his voice, pleased to hear about his children, and yet I can't find myself able to say anything interesting or even funny. I just panic. My brother takes the phone and yucks it up for another 5 minutes before hanging up. I turn to my mother and confess how inadequate I feel and she reminds me: your brother is a salesman. That makes me feel better for a moment, until I realize that was a weird way to feel better. What is wrong with me?

Maybe spending too much time in the blogosphere has atrophied my social acumen? Or is it my often insular existence in the Ivory Tower (don't think that I don't know this will be used against me by some troll in the distant future!) I just don't quite feel at home, at home. My guess is that many of you can relate to this alienation.

What's your Christmas with family been like?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Gender Pay Gap Woes

My Christmas Eve started with this depressing article on the stagnating Gender Pay Gap. The Times surmises that there are two main sources of the narrowing Gender Pay Gap: discrimination and women's choices. I would say that the latter is tied up with the former. Mabye it was just me, but I got the impression that the Times thought women's choices to stay at home in larger numbers was a more important factor in why they earn less than men. They lead with that analysis and it fits a great deal of their "trend" stories on highly educated women opting out. The analysis of discrimination was weak: no bold assertions of discrimination really, some suggestion and pointing to the lack of federal iniatives to close the gap. But, what bugged me above all was the explanation for discrimination: i.e. that men have internalized their role as breadwinner and might be more committed to their job. Barf!

There is no shortage of rationalizations for why we treat women unfairly in this country. Furthermore, all rationalizations tend to blame women for their own setbacks. But, I think above all, what the Times failed to take into consideration is why women would opt to stay home with children. Some of them opt to stay home because they can afford it. Some of them opt to stay home because there is no affordable, high quality day care. Some of the opt to stay home because men still stay peripherally involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the home and raising of children. Some of them opt to stay home because they have internalized the message that they alone are responsible for the excellence of their future children. Some of them opt to stay home because they want to be the most important influence on their child's life in the midst of otherwise out of control American chaos.

Whatever the scenario, it always follows from total lack of creativity on the part of the State about parenting and public policy. Raising children is, no doubt, one of the most important endeavors that any human being can undertake. And, yet as a country we wholly undervalue it. The state takes no substantial interest in its future citizens: no quality day care, no subsidies for parents, no guarantee of a high quality school in their neighborhood, no guarantee of health coverage--damn it, you are on your own. No, wait, the woman is on her own! Afterall, men have internalized the image that they are the breadwinner--that's their contribution according to the Times.

The Women's Movement will be unnecessary the day that women are not caught between choosing a career and chooing motherhood. Let's not forget why so many women wanted to enter the professions in the first place: because they too wanted to contribute to the greater good, they wanted to exercise their talents, and they wanted to enlarge their world. A smart, capable, worldy woman is an excellent mother. She is someone her children can look up to and emulate, just like their fathers.

Now, don't get me wrong: I am all for division of labor. It's just that when I hear that phrase, I guess I have a little more imagination. It doesn't mean: women consign themselves to all domestic details and men dedicate themselves to the public sphere. So 19th century! It means that parents figure out how to share both the labor of childrearing and their careers. Perhaps both scale back a bit during the early years? Or, it means that Dad does the diapers, dishes, nighttime duties while Mom does feeding and laundry? Division of labor means that each person does what they do best and contrary to entrenched public prejudice women don't always do the domestic details best, nor do men always do the breadwinning best. But, beyond this silly discussion of divison of labor, how about someone get some real vision about how to actually support families in this country in ways that brings out the best talents of both parents? Why not take seriously the labor of raising children and the recognition that no nuclear family can do it well without total insanity unless they have real help and real support.

Above all, why not restructure the workplace not around the archaic understanding of what a man's role is, but rather around the understanding of what a parent's role is--mother and father.

Enough of my diatribe! Now go enjoy your holiday feast!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Religious Correctness

I think Mark Taylor is right on the money in this op-ed that describes the right's new "political correctness" campaign. Religious students refuse to question their faith and thereby create the same kind of hostile atmosphere to learning that the oppressive era of political correctness on the left ushered in.

MORE college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.

At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of “political correctness.” But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche’s analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)

My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including “unacceptable” books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.

Distinguished scholars at several major universities in the United States have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts in their classes and published writings. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.

At a time when colleges and universities engage in huge capital campaigns and are obsessed with public relations, faculty members can no longer be confident they will remain free to pose the questions that urgently need to be asked.

For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.

Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices — though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line — but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.

It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic; they are networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within, and among, religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with one another than they do with many members of their own tradition.

If chauvinistic believers develop deeper analyses of religion, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn — one that extends well beyond the academy.

Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life’s unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.

Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College, is the author of “Mystic Bones.”

Luckily I wasn't accosted by such students this semester as I explored the Problem of Evil in my first year seminar--at least not overtly. What really frustrates me about this right wing move is how corrosive it is to true faith. Faith requires that one undergo spiritual trials, doubts, and in the face of these challenges to one's faith, one wills to believe nonetheless. To turn faith into something "certain" is to miss the point.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Pitfalls of the Mainstreaming of DV

I have been noticing more and more how mainstream the issue of Domestic Violence (DV) has become. At the end of the semester, almost all of my WS students expressed concern that we didn't cover this issue during the semester. I attended a fundraiser for the new Child Advocacy Center in Gettysburg, and was surprised to see how many of the attendees were male and staunch Republicans. BBC had a large segment on the occurence of DV in England a few days ago. Everywhere I turn, DV is talked about.

This maintstreaming of DV is a bittersweet phenomena for me. While I am thankful that finally Police Departments, D.A.'s offices, and average folks see DViolence as real and painful epidemic, I worry about how the mostly male and staunchly Republican supporters of initiatives to fight Domestic Violence frame the issue. Radical feminists put the issue of DV on the map: the started shelters, protests, lobbying, and public awareness campaigns. Their message was clear: Men who abuse are not sociopaths, rather they believe they have a right to treat women the way they do. The feminist framework for understanding the roots of DV lay in the analysis of our patriarchal society: men have more social, political and economic power; men believe they are superior to women; and, men believe they have a right to "control" women through physical and emotional abuse. Abuse, from that feminist framework, was a product of a pervasive imbalance of power, not unlike abuse stemming from ethnic and religious conflicts--when there is a power imbalance, the more powerful internalize a belief that they can treat subordinates any way they wish.

This framework still exists in the philosophy of the DV agency that I work for and in much of the literature. However, when I look upon the "mainstream" supporters, I can't help but think they have a different framework from which to understand DV. First of all, I think it is significant that the male, conservative supporters that I saw were at the Children's Advocacy Center dinner. I don't see the same crowd at fundraisers for our DV shelter. My guess is the difference is children. It's easier for them to care about the child victims of abuse, rather than the women?

But, to the point, I think the framework they use follows from a very traditional, conservative sense of what a man's role is: men are to protect, and provide for, their family. Men who hurt their wives, children, or fail to provide adequately for their family should be emasculated. In fact, I will go one further and argue that the mixing of DV advocacy with conservative politics has ripened the conditions for a new era of lynching. What? Did I just say that? Yes, I did, and let me explain.

The reason why it was difficult to get DV on the map before was because those being accused of DV were nice, church-going men who were successful business leaders, on civic boards and from all outside perspectives looked like ideal fathers. There has never been much trouble believing that there are losers, dead beat dads, and otherwise assholes. But those are "trailer trash" and the mainstream just doesn't give a shit, unless to watch the spectacle on Jerry Springer. But, to go after the ideal patriarch was unthinkable and hence why DV took so long to take hold in the public consciousness. Now that it has, I think that the images of the average wife beater that has been supplanted in the minds of the mainstream are men who aren't taking seriously their patriarch role. I take it that the mainstream is more willing to accept that men abuse women, and even men who look "decent" from the outside. But, what happens once a man is tagged an abuser, other men start to ostracize him on the grounds that he is a "bad apple." There is noting systemic about DV in their minds. The men doing it are "wimps" who need to pick on someone "weaker" than them to feel a man. This view of the typical abuser makes it possible for the mainstream to face up to DV and do something about it.

The political ramifications of ignoring complaints or accusations of abuse for an elected judge are deadly. The courts and the police take DV more seriously now and they dutifully fill out reports and award mothers who accuse their spouses of abuse full custody of children. I should be happy with this, right? Well, I am, partially. But, what concerns me is that the conservative, protectionist bent to the laws protecting women from abusers makes it easy to lynch an innocent man who is falsely accused. If you know that judges will err on the side of caution and that the mainstream now disdains any man accused of abuse--much like a woman who might have been accused of being a whore in another era--then you, if you are manipulative woman, effectively ruin the life of an innocent man. Don't get me wrong. All laws are imperfect. But, nonetheless, I fear that the particular danger to men in this political climate--conservative--is substantial.

I think the likelihood of false accusations increasing under the conservative worldview that understands DV legislation as essentially protectionist is akin to the dystopia that Margaret Atwood portrayed in the Handmaid's Tale. When Radical Feminists get in bed with the Religious Right, the feminists always lose. How I think feminists will lose if DV continues to be mainstreamed is that we will lose the more complicated view of male abuse of women. We will lose sight that it is rooted in patriarchal power. We won't see women availing themselves of this legislation because they need to free themselves from these misogynist abusers, rather we will see "conservative" women use this legislation to punish men who they think don't live up to their ideals of breadwinner (or other such complaints). We will also lose a complicated view of human nature and sexuality. We will reify in the law the false idea that all men are stronger than women and hence, all women are easy prey. Women will be seen as precious flowers that need to be guarded from the inherent predatory nature or male sexuality. These images of humanity will not support emancipation of women, nor will it challenge patriarchy. Rather, it will consolidate it.

UPDATE: zuzu has an example of what I am talking about here at Feministe.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More on the Barriers Women in Science Face

The NYTimes has an excellent piece today entitled "Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches." While reading through this piece that highlights the many ways that women receive less support from mentors, less funding and have a more difficult time negotiating the "two-body" problem, I stumbled upon a section that discusses the differences in letters of recommendation for women vs. men.

Dr. Steitz cited a study of letters of recommendation written for men and women seeking academic appointments. Though all the applicants were successful, she said, and though the letters were written by men and women, the study found that the applicant’s personal life was mentioned six times more often if the letter was about a woman. (my emphasis)

What do you make of this?

Question of the Day

If you were granted the powers to be able to fast forward to the end of your life with your wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend or partner, would you do it? Would you want to see how your relationship would end up with your loved one?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Dunno, Are Women Allowed to Be Funny?

SteveG posted on Christopher Hitchen's essay, "Why Women Aren't Funny," today. Nathifa sent it to both of us and while I scanned the first page, I stopped reading it because I thought the premise was flawed. Women are funny. Some of the funniest people I know are women. But, after reading Steve's post and thinking more about the kind of funny that Steve is, it occurred to me that it's a lot less socially acceptable for me to be funny the way Steve is. Let me explain.

Steve has been asked to do a lot of speaking gigs lately, notably the opening convocation (yes, you can listen to it!). The word is out, he is damn funny and thereby a great public speaker. He has great joke set ups and knows how to throw in a little zinger when you least expect it. He can also swear in a talk and get a way with it. When I juxtapose his speech with the women on the stage, I can't help but notice that the women speakers were far more somber, serious and, dare I say it, saccharine. Many of them spoke both as intellectuals and as mothers. They were caring and nurturing, not funny.

When Steve and I were asked to speak at the Fall Convocation two years ago, I immediately started crafting my speech. It was exactly the variety of speech I just described above: a bit lofty and self-deprecating. I was starting to write a speech about how much I learned from my students, adopting a kind of Socrates-like irony (but, I wasn't really all that ironic). Anyway, when Steve asked me what I was working on, and I told him, he immediately encouraged me to do a dialogue with him where I play the "straight man" and hence set up his jokes. Btw, we both cracked some jokes, but the talk was the better for it. Basically we kept my saccharine shit, but when I finished speaking, he broke in with the "What a bunch of bullshit!" and the jokes kept rolling after that.

Now, I think I am pretty funny in my classes and I am not afraid to swear. But, when asked to give public speeches, I immediately adopt a more formal and ceremonial tone. And, I think that there is a gendered nature to this. After all, how likely is it that I could pull of the kind of speech that SteveG gave at opening Convocation? If I got up there and started to "ham it up," I might lose some street cred with the parents in the audience. Worse yet if I got up there and started to swear . . . I think that women who adopt this kind of speaking style are likely to get mixed results. It's just not, well, I hate to say it: ladylike. And, when women are in positions of authority, and asked to address a large audience, they are already fighting the tendency of many listeners to tune them out because of their pitch or self-deprecating ways.

So I ask you: am I making too much of this, or am I onto something?

Safe Recovery Senator Johnson

I think I am not alone in being grateful that Senator Johnson is recovering. What a week! The idea of Dick Cheney having tie-breaking powers was starting to really put a damper on my holiday cheer.

Btw, what exactly is redeemable about Ann Coulter? Tell me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Carol Gilligan Slams James Dobson for Distorting Her Research

Apparently James Dobson has written a smear piece in Time Magazine on Mary Cheney's pregnancy, entitled "Two Mommies Is One Too Many." To support his specious argument, he draws on Carol Gillgian's research, twisting it to mean that women would only supply one aspect of nurturing or parental guidance. Essentially, he is making the biological essentialist argument, whereby women are nurturers and men are principled, rule-bound followers. This is not Gilligan's argument, i.e. she is not a biological essentialist.

Luckily, Gilligan fired back at Dobson:

Dear Dr. Dobson:

I am writing to ask that you cease and desist from quoting my research in the future. I was mortified to learn that you had distorted my work this week in a guest column you wrote in Time Magazine. Not only did you take my research out of context, you did so without my knowledge to support discriminatory goals that I do not agree with. What you wrote was not truthful and I ask that you refrain from ever quoting me again and that you apologize for twisting my work.

From what I understand, this is not the first time you have manipulated research in pursuit of your goals. This practice is not in the best interest of scientific inquiry, nor does bearing false witness serve your purpose of furthering morality and strengthening the family.

Finally, there is nothing in my research that would lead you to draw the stated conclusions you did in the Time article. My work in no way suggests same-gender families are harmful to children or can’t raise these children to be as healthy and well adjusted as those brought up in traditional households.

I trust that this will be the last time my work is cited by Focus on the Family.

Sincerely,Carol Gilligan, PhDNew York University, Professor

If that wasn't enough, Kyle Pruett, the other researcher that supposedly supported his view wrote in to say this:

Dr. Dobson, I was startled and disappointed to see my work referenced in the current Time Magazine piece in which you opined that social science, such as mine, supports your convictions opposing lesbian and gay parenthood. I write now to insist that you not quote from my research in your media campaigns, personal or corporate, without previously securing my permission. You cherry-picked a phrase to shore up highly (in my view) discriminatory purposes. This practice is condemned in real science, common though it may be in pseudo-science circles. There is nothing in my longitudinal research or any of my writings to support such conclusions. On page 134 of the book you cite in your piece, I wrote, “What we do know is that there is no reason for concern about the development or psychological competence of children living with gay fathers. It is love that binds relationships, not sex.” Kyle Pruett, M.D. Yale School of Medicine

What irks me the most about Time magazine printing Dobson's piece is that many Americans won't get a chance to see the researchers refuting his psuedo-scientific arguments and negligence of their work. All they will remember is that reserach shows that gay parents are bad for kids. I wish I could say that a smart person would ignore this, but since I just received a paper written by one of my best students on why Evolution is fundamentally flawed, and she used sources that she found in the library written by Intelligent Design people, I have to say that when these lies make it into press they begin to do their evil work.

P.S. Truth Wins Out is encouraging all of you to write to Time Magazine and complain about Dobson's piece.

Here is the address:

Time Magazine

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Engineering Behaving Selves

Today is not going so well. I bit my colleague's head off (sorry SteveG). I convinced myself that two of my friends think I am mean. And, if that wasn't enough, I made a student cry. I think I might have cleaned up on that one though. I helped her get an incomplete in my class because I was certain that she would have a nervous breakdown if I made her rewrite the paper in 3 days. But, I gotta say, I woke up with a kind of emotional intensity that makes no sense. Sure, we can make the usual jokes about me getting my period or other biological explanations for my hysterical behavior.

But, ultimately, turning to the biological as an explanation for my nastiness is an odd move. Sure, sure, the patriarchy has been blaming bad female behavior on the hormones for centuries. And, sure, sure we blame male aggression on testosterone. But each time we appeal to a biological explanation for our behavior, we are moving further and further away from a language of responsibility. (Don't start panicking. I am not going to write a long defense of personal responsibility). I want to reflect more generally on the implications of scientific/deterministic accounts of human behavior. They are appealing because they characterize human behavior in objective language. We can give causal explanations for why I snapped at my colleague or got paranoid about my friends. And, hey, pointing to the biology of my moods and behavior are sure helpful ways of making sense of my actions.

But, is there any room left for a modicum of free will? Could I have, for example, chosen to avoid a certain topic of discussion? Should I have meditated for a few minutes before speaking ? Could I have just worked at home today (which is what I finally decided to do)? Aren't there ways that I can intervene and interrupt my bodily driven behavior?

This question of free will has been preoccupying me for at least two years. I am so excited by brain research, that I forget to stop and ask what the implications of neuroscience are for how we conceive of ourselves; that is, will we be able to see humans as selves at all, or will we become machines and objects?

Will being a moral person consist in altering our biology to behave in accordance with cultural mores? Will visiting the psychiatrist truly replace the parish priest?

If you think this post is too damn wacky, then blame it on the hormones.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Non-feminist Women Don't Complain Less About Men (Maybe More?)

Thanks to Lauren's blog, I was sent over to Shakespeare's Sister to read this excellent post on why "Men are Not Babies." SS really hits on the value of feminism for not only women, but for men. Specfically, she reminds the reader that being a feminist does not mean that you whine and complain about men more. Women do that plenty without any sort of feminist consciousness. In fact, it is sort of ridiculous for anti-feminists to believe that without feminism, women would shut up and accept the sexist bullshit that the culture has to offer. They would be hurt, offended, upset, and disgusted with individuals who engage in this behavior, but they wouldn't necessarily have a framework with which to make sense of this behavior. Furthermore, and more importantly, non-feminist women don't necessarily have any sense that there are solutions and strategies for dealing with sexism.

SS sums up:

Implicit, then, in feminism is not only the belief, but the expectation, that men are not infantile—nor stupid, useless, inept, emotionally retarded, or any other negative stereotype feminists have been accused of promoting—but instead our equals just as much as we are theirs, capable not only of understanding feminism (and feminists), but of actively and rigorously engaging challenges to their socialization, too. Feminists, of course, have the terrible reputation, but it isn't we who consider all men babies, dopes, dogs, and potential rapists. The holders of those views, I think you'll find, are the women and men who root for the patriarchy—which itself, after all, takes a rather unpleasantly dim view of most people.

Go read the rest of the post; it's well worth it!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

That Strange Species of Student Email Behavior

I was browsing over at Hugo's place and stumbled upon his discussion of student emailing behavior. This issue has started to really get to me this semester. I am not sure why it took me longer than most to become irritated at the deluge of student email, not to mention the inappropriate tone that students often take when constructing a late night email. My colleague from the sciences wisely put a kbosh on the email behavior by instituting a no email policy. She made it clear to her students that if they wanted to get help, further instruction, or advising that they had to show up to her posted office hours or make an apointment. Her no email policy was a success. Students showed up in her office and she got back her precious time. But, more importantly, she stopped being so angry at her students.

Which leads me to why I have hit a boiling point with the email behavior: I am getting angry at students. And, the anger is the result of feeling like students are intruding on my non-work time. I don't like getting emails at all hours of the night and the weekends. I have a life too. I don't want to open up my email account on a Saturday morning to find a bunch of emails with drafts of papers attached, asking for my immediate feedback (usually in all bold letters) before Monday, when it is due. I give the assignments out with plenty of time to make it into my office for an appointment.

The medium of email also empowers students to talk to you as if you work for them, i.e. that you are their editor on call or a 24 hour hotline (as I think Hugo put it). Students show little respect for you time and your value as an educator. Above all, they use email to avoid having a real, face to face, conversation with you, which ultimately would be a far more instructive encounter than a rushed email. But, is that the point? Do students not want that kind of interaction with faculty?

In any case, I am sure that many of you out there can sympathize, shed some light on this phenomena, swap war stories, or, give some helpful suggestions. The students that read my blog might have some interesting perspective on this sort of email behavior as well.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Community or Commodity?

Before I launch into the topic of Facebook, Facutly participation and whether you should be "friends" with your students on Facebook, I have to give props to SteveG for the title. So, I confess, I am on Facebook. If you don't know what that is, it is a social networking software program for college campuses. It is an essential tool for college life (one student just told me that it is essential for "stalking"). Very few professors are on Facebook, but of course, I joined. I have found it an enormously helpful way to keep in contact with students after they graduate. I never intended to stay on and I don't advertise this fact to my students. But, they inevitably find me and ask me to be one of their "friends," which brings me to my question: Is it morally problematic to be "friends" with your students on Facebook?

Since I don't like moralistic answers, I am going to avoid the obvious "no," and opt instead to consider what exactly it means to be a Facebook Friend? Aferall, I don't think I know some students who ask me to be their friend, but I agree to be connected to them anyway. I have never given much thought to this habit until Metapsychologist pushed me to think about it this morning. When I agree to be "friends," I am usually really careful about not joining their "groups." I don't add silly flourishes about how we know each other. And yet, I accept their invitations routinely to be counted among their friends. But what exactly does it mean to be a facebook friend?

The way I see it, students "collect" as many "friends" as possible. It's like padding on a resume. They want to present themselves as socially attractive--popular. The more friends, the more writing on your wall, the more "groups" you belong too, the "cooler" you are. But, is that what I am aiming for when I agree to be their friend? I doubt it, since I never invite a student to be my friend. I just hang out and see if anyone invites me to the party.

Bottom line: the point of this social networking software is not so much to create community but turn "friends" into commodities. The more Facebook friends you have, the more social capital you have. And, you can be even more exclusive by turning off certain features of your Facebook profile, only be accessible by those "real" friends in your list that can know everything about you.

What do you think?

Maybe She Wrote on Shame Because She Has None?

I heard about this choice piece in Newsweek from a few weeks ago. It came on the heels of another short piece by a Philosopher describing, in the most brutal of terms, what studying Philosophy is like. After reading this piece, thanks to my colleague, I am convinced that Newsweek not only has an anti-Philosophy agenda, but an anti-Liberal Arts College one as well. I just hope the readers aren't as dumb as the editors think they are.

The essay is written by a recent Philosophy graduate from some elite college:

Having taken seminars on government, I could hold forth on the relationship between taxation and the federal deficit but was clueless about filling out a basic tax form. I'd graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in May, and had decided against going straight to graduate school. But while countless newspapers claimed that the job market for graduates was the best it had been in years, I had no idea how to take advantage of it. I couldn't imagine myself in an entry-level administrative position staring at a spreadsheet for eight hours a day—partly because it sounded dull, but also because in college I had never learned how to use spreadsheet programs. Cocktail waitressing seemed like a good way to make ends meet.

But, she protests, the degree and the college did nothing to help her live in the "real world." She can't fill out a W-4, she can't balance her budget, she doesn't know what a Roth IRA is, and she has no idea how to get a job. Her personal deficits, she argues, are the fault of her elite, pricey education:

My friends and I are incredibly lucky to have gotten the educations we have. But there's a discrepancy between what we learn in school and what we need to know for work, and there must be some way for universities to bridge this gap. They might, for example, offer classes in personal finance as part of the economics department. How about a class on renting an apartment? Granted, it might be hard to lure students to such mundane offerings, but the students who don't go will wish they had.

I have to imagine that this puff piece is a wet dream to all of the disgruntled "practical" minded accountants (I am not talking to you "Just Me.") out there who don't get why someone would study Literature, Philosophy or, hell, even Women's Studies in college. But anyone who reads this piece and blames Barnard or Yale for this woman's deficits is a sucker. The "life skills" that Caitlin sorely lacks are her own responsibility.

After all, when we admit students to college, we presuppose a base of knowledge: they do basic math, they can read directions carefully, they can seek out libraries or reference materials to better understand directions, and, finally, they have critical thinking skills, e.g. they can separate what is important from what is not.

If Caitlin doesn't have the following skills, then I am puzzled how she did so well in a tough major at a good school? In fact, I am damn embarrassed for Caitlin. I hope that years from now, she will re-read this piece with shame, yes, the very topic of her senior thesis. What she has demonstrated to the reader is nothing more than the product of an overprivileged, and thereby entitled sense of self. While the rest of us learn how to complete these basic tasks the hard way: trial and error, reading relevant materials, seeking out those with good advice, etc., she thinks that someone should have pulled her aside and warned her she needed these skills and force feed them to her.

The problem is decidely not her education.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Breath of Fresh Air: A Student's Perspective on the Greek System

Today, I read a thoughtful piece on the Greek system at my school, written by a Philosophy major (of course!). Ted argues that the Greek system has run out of "fresh ideas" and challenges his fellow Greeks to reinvigorate the mission. Here is the full article for your reading pleasure:

What Greek System?
Actions and Ideals in Greek Life.
by Ted Collier

Today I watched with a smile as sisters of Sigma Gamma Rho held a short step-show performance for their founder’s week on the steps of the library. They not only captivated passers by with an impressive display of choreography, but they proudly and publicly proclaimed the ideals of their organization and described the difficulty involved in founding a Black sorority in 1922. As I stood there, I began to think...I began to think about my Greek experience at Gettysburg and what I had heard of other’s Greek experiences; I wondered if my brothers would have the courage enough to stand on the steps of the library and do something different on a campus such as this; I thought about the ideals the girls were proclaiming. Then I thought about the ideals of my own organization, the ones we read about in our manual. I thought about my Greek experience and whether or not it was consistent with the ideals in that manual’s rhetoric.

The ideals I am talking about, for those of you who have never read the manual of a Greek organization, tend to convey a general message resembling something like: “the Greek system should be a source of cultural, moral, athletic, and intellectual strength and integrity on a college campus.” The qualities emphasized are those such as cooperation, creating strong individuals, service to one’s community, and integrity. As I stood outside the library, I began to ask myself: are these the images conjured in your head of Greek organizations, not based on stereotype and rumor, but from your personal experiences? Do the Greek students in your experience embody the ideals which are supposedly central to their organizations, ideals they take vows to uphold?

I found that I could answer myself honestly in the following way, based on my experience of a variety of Greek organizations over the past four years. There are individuals in Greek organizations whom absolutely do their best to strive to embody those positive ideals, and there are times when Greek individuals come together and put a lot of effort into a project which manifests those ideals. However, these individuals and events were, unfortunately, not what occupied the forefront of my recollection of the Greek experience. While I have a lot to thank the Greek system for, including many meaningful friendships, a great deal of my experience has indicated that on this campus, there is a high frequency of Greeks whose actions and mindsets do not convey a commitment to their organization’s founding ideals (and I am not claiming to be exempt from that statement myself).

What is it about the Greek system which seems to place Greek students in an environment in which they are unable to live up to the ideals they proclaim a commitment to? My thoughts on this question are stated below, and whether or not you find yourself agreeing with them, I hope they at least provoke you to think critically about things in your Gettysburg experience which may have become routine.

I believe the single most damaging phenomenon affecting Greek organizations at Gettysburg is a lack of fresh ideas. In other words, the problems are: conformity of individuals to the way the Greek system and the Greek member has been portrayed in popular culture, conformity of the organizations to the norms of the campus, and conformity of new members to the traditions and norms of individual organizations.

Conformity to destructive societal stereotypes and tradition for the sake of tradition will cause the Greek system to self-destruct. The institutions will stagnate, the present focus on destructive habits continue and will cause them to be, rightly, dismantled. Tradition is not an argument for anything; we cannot define the way things ought to be from the way that they are or have been. What are needed, for any healthy organization, are new ideas, critical thought, and a willingness to evolve. The challenge for the Greek leader is to figure out how to develop a shared experience which transcends class year while being able shed the less constructive “universal” aspects of Greek life, i.e. Hollywood’s portrayal of a Greek party or pledge process.

Pledging is the single greatest experience which has the potential to define the mental environment of a Greek organization. A pledge process should foster growth of strong individuals capable of independent, critical thought. It should not create an environment in which a person feels uncomfortable to voice their opinion or to be themselves. Pledging does not have to mean submission to the authority of past ideas and present leaders. A pledge process does not need to rely on negative physical and/or mental reinforcement; if it does, one needs to ask oneself about the value of what is being taught. One way to determine the value of any practice is to examine who else is using similar techniques for what ends. A military interrogator dealing with a suspect focuses on a one-way power relationship, uses stress positions, environmental manipulation (noise, light, temperature), and mental manipulation in an attempt to produce a submissive person he can use. On the other hand, a volunteer in the Big-Brothers/Big Sisters program would focus on positive growth-engendering methods to promote certain behavior via a mentoring relationship. I use these examples because we in the Greek system often claim to be “Bigs” to our new members but sometimes find ourselves under pressure to act more like the interrogator. Both methods try to get someone else to act in accordance with some expectation. While the negative approach attempts to hollow a person out and fill them with someone else’s expectations, the positive approach reinforces individuality and can develop a person who is capable of opening the door for new creative possibilities. What kind of people do we want comprising our organizations?

It is my assertion that it is difficult to see the presence of Greek life on the Gettysburg College campus. I hear the “Greek” community spoken of constantly. I see plenty of Greek letters around campus, and I know where a lot of the parties take place. However, I would argue that we do not truly have a large Greek system here at Gettysburg, but rather something very different. As a Greek member myself, I wonder whether this necessarily must be the case. From what I’ve heard, historically Black sororities and fraternities seem to have a good reputation for their focus on service. I would argue that if all Greeks followed the lead of such organizations and focused on putting their ideals of mutual support and service into action, they would find the bonds formed are much greater than those fostered through pledging and ritual. The Greek system is a powerful institution with enormous potential to positively impact the community of which it is a part. It is for this reason I challenge myself and my peers to be honest with ourselves in regards to our actions and ideals.

Another Victory for Gay Rights!

Today's NYTimes:

The highest legal body in Conservative Judaism, the centrist movement in worldwide Jewry, voted yesterday to allow the ordination of gay rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The decision, which followed years of debate, was denounced by traditionalists in the movement as an indication that Conservative Judaism had abandoned its commitment to adhere to Jewish law, but celebrated by others as a long-awaited move toward full equality for gay people.

“We see this as a giant step forward,” said Sarah Freidson, a rabbinical student and co-chairwoman of Keshet, a student group at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York that has been pushing for change.

But in a reflection of the divisions in the movement, the 25 rabbis on the law committee passed three conflicting legal opinions — one in favor of gay rabbis and unions, and two against.

In doing so, the committee left it up to individual synagogues to decide whether to accept or reject gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, saying that either course is justified according to Jewish law.

“We believe in pluralism,” said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the panel, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, at a news conference after the meeting at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. “We recognized from the very beginnings of the movement that no single position could speak for all members” on the law committee or in the Conservative movement.

Sometimes . . .

the Universe doesn't disappoint.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

If Priests Could Marry . . .

On Monday, my colleague presented the following argument to our class about the Catholic Church and reproductive rights: if Catholic priests could marry, then the Church's stance against contraception and abortion would dramatically change. I have never entertained this idea before, and intuitively, it makes quite a lot of sense. After all, men who live in close quarters with women, and moreover, who are sexually active with women, are far more knowledgeable about the vagaries of fertility.

And, yet I am not yet convinced that this structural change would, in fact, change the Church's position. After all, there are countless evangelical communities with the same prohibitions, and these religious communities allow their ministers to marry, have sex with their wives, and procreate.

What do you think?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Resignation, Faith, and Freedom

Today an event is unfolding over which neither Za nor I have much power. A decision will be made today, by someone far away from us, who has enormous power to affect the course of our future lives. We are pursuing most cherished human ideals: justice, truth and compassion. Whether or not our hopes will be realized--whether or not we will meet, in the world, our ideals is not for us to know. We have, at the end of the day, no power over a universe that is indifferent to our human ideals.

We are subjecting ourselves to fate and neither of us have the arrogance of our youth to believe that justice will be ours. I learned, all too well last year, how unfit our human made institutions are to restore justice, to promote healing, and to find truth. They are, after all, human made institutions. Those who stand in judgment of other men are humans too, befallen to the same prejudices to which we are all victim. In such moments, all we can do is tell our stories, as truthfully, earnestly, and compassionately as possible. Whether or not others are inclined to believe us is not in our power.

As someone no longer cocky enough to believe I have the power to bring about the world I seek to live in, I now have two choices. I can rebel against the cold and indifferent universe or I can resign myself to it and seek happiness and contentment elsewhere. I must, for the sake of my sanity, choose the latter course. I will be forever miserable if I continue to believe that I have the power to make things right, to see justice be done in the world, and that compassion be rewarded. And yet, courage is found in those who maintain their ideals in a hostile universe.

Serendipitously, I was reading Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship today, in preparation for my final class (who is to be credited with most of the insights in this post). I couldn't have found a better, more soothing piece of writing befitting this day. In his essay, Russell writes:

“But there is in resignation a further good element: even real goods, when they are unattainable, ought not to be fretfully desired. To every many comes, sooner or later, the great renunciation. For the young, there is nothing unattainable; a good thing desired with the whole force of passionate will, and yet impossible, is to them not credible. Yet, by death, by illness, by poverty or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.”

So, if the decision handed down today only confirms the indifference of the universe to our human ideals, then the only freedom left to seek is found in resigning oneself to this fact. To resign is not, after all, to give up. It is to accept and to seek elsewhere--in Russell's view the imagination--for beauty and truth. To have faith, at this moment, in a process so wholly at odds with goodness is madness.

Za pointed out to me how absurd it is to pray in these circumstances. After all, those who disagree with us are praying that they will prevail. To seek out help from the divine--if there is such a divine entity--is wrongheaded. If God does exist, he does not intervene in the affairs of mortals. And, those who appeal to him and demand that he see them prevail are likely to meet with disappointment, regret and bitterness. Faith will do little for me today. So, give me wisdom . . .

Sunday, December 03, 2006

With the Wrong People in Charge: It Can Be a Brave New Gender World

Just a brief Sunday post to alert any readers who may not have seen the article in the New York Times, from friday, December 1st, on gender identity issues in children. The article is timely and does a good job showing how gut-wrenching it would be to protect a child, who though born a female wants to be a male or vice versa, from brutal treatment. Some parents have resources to get the their children to more tolerant schools and areas of the countries. Others are not so lucky and so the child is damned either way: if he wants to dress like a boy, he could be subjected to all manner of ridicule and strict enforcement of gender norms by "authorities," if he doesn't feel free to identify as a girl, he is in danger of deep depression, self-mutilation, and suicidal feelings.

Children as young as 5 who display predispositions to dress like the opposite sex are being supported by a growing number of young parents, educators and mental health professionals.

Doctors, some of them from the top pediatric hospitals, have begun to advise families to let these children be “who they are” to foster a sense of security and self-esteem. They are motivated, in part, by the high incidence of depression, suicidal feelings and self-mutilation that has been common in past generations of transgender children. Legal trends suggest that schools are now required to respect parents’ decisions.

Another practice, emerging to protect "gender-variant" children from becoming depressed and suicidal is to use "blockers."

One of the most controversial issues concerns the use of “blockers,” hormones used to delay the onset of puberty in cases where it could be psychologically devastating (for instance, a girl who identifies as a boy might slice her wrists when she gets her period). Some doctors disapprove of blockers, arguing that only at puberty does an individual fully appreciate their gender identity.

In the old days, you would send a child like this straight to the psychoanalyst's couch. The source of the problem would have been psychosexual--a product of arrested development in the Oedipus complex or regression to our primordial bisexual state. Now, everything is hormones, which means that if not now, soon, we can alter behavior by giving the right dose of chemicals. While the issue today is whether or not to artificially keep childern in a pre-puberty state until he/she is ready for the bodily changes of puberty, tomorrow we can imagine holy roller approaches to deviant sexualities: a combination of the Bible and hormone therapy. Perhaps Dr. Keroack will be on the forefront of this crusade.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Are Liberal Arts Colleges Bourgeois and Elite?

While this questions has been haunting me for days (thanks alot Hanno!), I am no closer to the answer. I think part of the reason why I cannot answer is that I am a product of the upper-middle class. I did teach for 5 years in a large State University. I can compare what the mission of that institution was to my current institution, and I wholeheartedly embrace the latter. And yet, the students I taught at the larger State University were often (not always) far more motivated to learn. The students I teach now, are less motivated (with exceptions), but far better prepared. I am not sure that these observations amount to a hill of beans when working through the question: Is the LA tradition elite?

But, let's assume for the sake of the argument, that LA colleges are elite. They focus on educating the whole person, inspiring civic engagement, global consciousness, and general analytical skills. The idea is to make our students interesting, with the hope that investing in the core properties of the student, and fostering that student's innate strengths will prepare that student to succeed in any career. Have I just drunk the Kool-Aid?

But, even if what I am doing is "elite," does that make it less valuable? Maybe the goal is to make this "elite" education accessible to as many people as possible?

Furthermore, what is the real motivation of calling an institution "elite"? Is it to say that it is irrelevant? Is it a kind of indulgence of privilege? Or, when we call something "elite and bourgeois," are we just poisoning the well? Is it akin to urban youth calling each other "punks" or "whitey" if they actually care about education? Is it a kind of insecurity in one's own abilities or life chances?

What do you think?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

New Study: Bush Supporters are Indeed Mentally Ill?

Like most articles that appear in the science section of the newspaper, broadcasting some new finding of a study, e.g. eating fast food makes you obese and eliciting a big "duh" from many of us, the New Haven Advocate just published Christopher Lohse's study (a master's student in Social Work) and found a link between psychotics and Bush supporters.

A collective “I told you so” will ripple through the world of Bush-bashers once news of Christopher Lohse’s study gets out.

Lohse, a social work master’s student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse’s study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person’s psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

But before you go thinking all your conservative friends are psychotic, listen to Lohse’s explanation.

“Our study shows that psychotic patients prefer an authoritative leader,” Lohse says. “If your world is very mixed up, there’s something very comforting about someone telling you, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

The study was an advocacy project of sorts, designed to register mentally ill voters and encourage them to go to the polls, Lohse explains. The Bush trend was revealed later on.

The study used Modified General Assessment Functioning, or MGAF, a 100-point scale that measures the functioning of disabled patients. A second scale, developed by Rakfeldt, was also used. Knowledge of current issues, government and politics were assessed on a 12-item scale devised by the study authors.

“Bush supporters had significantly less knowledge about current issues, government and politics than those who supported Kerry,” the study says.

Lohse says the trend isn’t unique to Bush: A 1977 study by Frumkin & Ibrahim found psychiatric patients preferred Nixon over McGovern in the 1972 election.

Rakfeldt says the study was legitimate, though not intended to show what it did.

“Yes it was a legitimate study but these data were mined after the fact,” Rakfeldt says. “You can ask new questions of the data. I haven’t looked at” Lohse’s conclusions regarding Bush, Rakfeldt says.

“That doesn’t make it illegitimate, it just wasn’t part of the original project.”

For his part, Lohse is a self-described “Reagan revolution fanatic” but said that W. is just “beyond the pale.”

Hat Tip: Ricardo.

What the F***!

So, my WS class is having a nice little discussion of Ken Burn's documentary, Not For Ourselves Alone. In case you haven't seen this documentary, it features Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and their heroic struggle to get women the vote.

Anyway, I got to tell ya, I need to vent. And, let me just say that I know my venting will piss off some people, who will see me as a pious moralizer, but I am venting to the sympathetic ones. I ask the students what they think of the film? Luckily, I get a lot of wonderful responses. And, then, it happens, a student raises her hand and says: I think the point of this film is that Stanton and Anthony gave me the right to not vote.

Look. I am sure many people feel this way. But. Please. Don't. Say. That. Outloud.

Another student raises her hand and says: "I am 19 and I haven't even registered yet."

Then, like a flood, they confess. They confess that they don't really care. They confess that it is nice to have the right, but they don't need to exercise it. And, just when I thought I have heard more than enough, they start letting it all come out . . . "You know, when I watch films like this it just makes me feel guilty. I feel like I am supposed to do something like them. But, what if I want to stay home with my children." I respond, as I have all semester, "raising children is important work. Feminists value motherhood as much as you do. The point is that the fact you have to either make heroic struggles to juggle them both, or feel guilted into one or the other is something we need to change."

The conversation moves onto the ERA. Students start asking about the history of the ERA and what happened. A young man in the back row of my class raises his hand and says: "You know, in principle, the ERA sounds great. But, I looked into this and if we had the ERA, we would have to get rid of Sororities and Fraternities and single-sex schools." Upon hearing this, many were convinced that the ERA would not be a good idea. I held my tongue. I had to hold my tongue. I am not campaigning in the classroom.

I started thinking about these sorts of reactions we get from students, the heightened apathy. Or, the "well, that sounds like a good idea, but it just isn't 'practical'" variety. What the fuck? I can't figure out if they are just too privileged to care about inequality, or that they are overwhelmed with the sorts of demands caring would make on their lifestyle. In either case, there is not point obsessing on this. After all, this is how students are here and it is how they will continue to be.

So, how do I console myself now. Simple. After a long faculty meeting wherein it was made plain that a great deal of our operating budget comes from overenrolling students who can pay their way, a lightening bolt hit. 2 students--2 glorious, curious, hard-working and ambitious students--get their way paid for by 30 apathetic, eye-rolling, "do I have to do something?" students. If you can just keep that algorithm in mind, you can sleep better at night.

(Can you tell it's the end of the semester?)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Women Know Your Limits!

Women: Know your limits

Hat Tip: Kriscinda.

I Like "Soft" Philosophy

I would be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed with Rebecca Goldstein's lecture last night. Part of my dissapointment is irrational, and the other part is more rooted in a fundamental disagreement over the goals, methods and purpose of Philosophy. First the irrational: she begun her talk by disclaiming that she was not Renee Feuer in The Mind-Body Problem. Fine. I should know better. In fact, I have never really liked meeting authors in person. (I don't even like meeting what I think are fantastic Philosphers in person). Goldstein is right that what a good novelist should do is enchant the reader and she did that. When you meet an author and she tells you what's what, why she wrote this book, what her true views are, well, you short of break the spell. That is part of what happened.

I am not sure I consciously thought she was Renee; I certainly didn't attend the talk to ask her "are you Renee." But, the fact she lead with this disclaimer sort of threw me off from the beginning. Furthermore, she made this disclaimer in a way that I found haughty. She begun by saying: "I am not Renee. I was a happy and successful student at Princeton. And, I was temperamentally suited for the kind Analytic philosophy that was done at Princeton. I was very narrow. I hadn't read any philosophy before 1879, which was when Frege published his foundations of mathematics." Ick. Ok, so she made it clear, right off the bat, that she was a successful and beloved Princeton student.

Later on she argued that every character in a novel is part of the writer; the writer has find her way into the character's psychology. [Side note: had I more time or inclination, I might have pointed out for her how interesting her observations are on the process of writing and hearing character is to bringing us closer to resolving the "problem of other minds." After all the mind-body problem is one of those interminable problems plaguing philosophers and what a fascinating insight that novelists seem quite capable of "thinking like X" (an allusion to Nagel's What Is It Like To Think Like a Bat)]. Goldstein also remarked that she wrote the novel at a time of great tumult and tragedy in her life. Her father had died, she was a new mother, and she started asking herself the forbidden question "what is the meaning of life?" These were just odd and interesting observations.

The real source of my disappointment was with her rigid definitions of what Philosophy is, what it does, and what sort of questions it should restrict itself too. For Goldstein, writing novels was not only something quite distinct from doing Philosophy, but it was a source of embarrassment to her among her colleagues. Goldstein clings to the Analytic tradition and thereby asserts that all arguments should be narrow, tight and, I imagine, require the tools of mathematical logic. She confesssed that she is temperamentally a mathematician and therefore prefers solving problems, rather than getting lost in impossible metaphysical questions. (I don't tend to see these as the only two options left to us philosophers).

I, like Goldstein, started in the sciences. I left for Philosophy when my questions outgrew the tools of Chemistry. But, where we differ temperamentally is how we view what Philosophers do, more importantly what they ought to do. I don't see literature and philosophy as opposed to each other. I don't think literature is "soft," while philosophy is "hard," to use her adjective. In fact, if nothing else, I think her talk was a compelling defense of why literature is one of the most profound tools available to philosophers. In literature we engage in a dialogue with the novelist over matters of importance, we glean important insights into other minds, we make sense of the profoundly complicated nature of moral decisions, and, lastly, we find companions for our deepest searches for meaning.

If literature is too messy, too open ended to be counted as "hard" Philosophy, then give me "soft" Philosophy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Do Your Civic Duty Today

Sign this petition calling for a dismantling of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Do you need reasons:

(1) NCLB has not improved public school education.

(2) The most talented teachers are leaving public education precisely because of the straightjacket this act puts them in.

(3) NCLB does not give incentives to students to improve their performance. They are, after all not judged, the teacher is.

(4) NCLB gives incentives to teachers to "cheat" and give their students the key to the standardized tests.

(5) NCLB turns learning into a wholly instrumental act; teachers simply "teach the test." Education used to be one of our most important civic institutions for cultivating valued traits such as discipline, hardwork, creativity, autonomy, and civic engagement. NCLB perverts this admirable goal and sends a message that education is a "hoop" one has to jump through.

(6) NCLB cuts funding for the arts.

Feel free to add more reasons in the comments . . .

Existentialism is Wasted on the Youth

You know, existentialism is wasted on the youth. I don't mean the Jean-Paul Sartre variety. They dig that. And, oh well, yes, they find Nietzsche to be pretty hip too. But, the general gist of existentialism.

Take this passage from Albert Camus, wherein he describes one's confrontation with the absurd:

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Mondy Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm--this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.

I read this passage to my Intro students and asked them if they have ever found themselves reflecting on the seeming drudgery of their days. Why attend Gettysburg? Why study Biology? Why go to Dental School? I thought, at this time in the semester, they must be confronting the absurd. Now, of course, before asking them this question, I took away their crutch. "Don't tell me that you are using the talents God gave you and following along in his plan. How do you know what his plan is? He never speaks . . . he is like a lover you pine for and yet never get your love returned, ever." (I tell ya, I was working hard to get them into the last two weeks).

But, alas, the students gave perfectly lovely answers to how to make meaning out of their seemingly meaningless lives. They talked about tending to relationships, caring for others, loving . . . Damn them! Not enough alienation in them.

Well, I recommended to one of my students that he not sell back the textbook so that he has something to read when his midlife crisis hits him. Do you think I am projecting?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Why We Need Nietzsche to Deconstruct Analytic Philosophy

Tomorrow night, author and philosopher, Rebecca Goldstein will be speaking on campus. We are bringing her to Gettysburg College as part of a book club series on Jewish literature. I must admit that I haven't read any of the other books on the list, but I did read Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem, and I wish I had read it a decade ago while I was still in graduate school. Damn! It's as if the powers that be kept me from this book, that had I found it, I would've made wiser choices in my career and made sense of a lot of the needless hostility of my fellow students and professors.

The protagonist, Renee Feuer, is a graduate student at Princeton. She is finding herself totally alienated from her professors:

The field had made the 'linguistic turn' and I . . . had not. The questions were now all of language. Instead of wrestling with the large messy questions that have occupied previous centuries of ethicisits, for example, one should examine the rules that govern words like 'good' and 'ought.' My very first seminar, given by a prominent visitor from England whose field, they told me, was metaphysics, was on adverbs. The metaphysics of adverbs? From Reality to . . .adverbs?

As someone wholly mired in the messy metaphysical questions I found myself delighted by her penetrating descriptions of the wanna-be-mathematician Analytic philosophers at Princeton. The book gets even better, when we are introduced to Renee's soon-to-be husband, Noam Himmel. Noam is a "minor diety" in the mathematical world, because of his discovery of "supernaturals." He is convinced that reality is not coincident with the material world, but to be found in the a priori truths that only mathematics can capture. We eavesdrop on debates between Noam and Renee's physicist friend, Eva, on the nature of reality. Eva considers reality to be coincident with materiality, while Noam steadfastly defends his idealist stance.

Throughout the novel, we watch Renee move back and forth between her own body (and its sensual needs, cravings and pleasures) and her mind (the philosophical question of what "mind" is). She is trapped in this paradox and her relationship to Noam only worsens her philosophical angst. He is ruthless with her. He considers her questions to be fuzzy, not well thought out. She is trivial in her interests. In fact, her life is to be subordinate to his genius. There is a great scene at the beginning of the book where Noam melts down because he cannot find his pen, and it is, of course, the kind of trivial matter that Renee is supposed to tend to.

The book also explores the conservative Orthodox home Renee escapes from to Philosophy. But, I will leave that analysis for a more astute commenter.

I just wanted to share this wonderful book with my readers because, well, the gender politics of the book are what really captivated me. After all, Renee's mediocrity as a thinker is traced, precisely, to her obsession with bodily existence. Perhaps she is, after all, a living example of how the "wandering womb" corrupts the otherwise rational thoughts of human beings. The female body is a drag on true genius; to be a genius, to be an intellectual giant, is to contemplate the pure forms. However, even geniuses need to eat, need to sleep, and need to find their pens. That is where the usefulness of women come in, and Renee, poisoned by the girlhood fairy tales on knights on white horses, steps in to tend to Noam's obvious genius. He grows to hate her precisely because she tends to his body, the mere trivialities of his existence.

We also see how utterly violent academic debate is. The mathematicians shred each other to pieces, but, Noam and Eva assure us, this is not "personal." If one is willing to shred your ideas, they are doing you a service by showing you how much time you will waste if you pursue it. In such an atmosphere, it is hard to imagine that very many would dare put a word on page. Renee tries to escape the critical eye of her professors by amalgamating herself with a great man; if she finds her worth in his valuation of her, then she is real. And, yet, this sort of move poses a real metaphysical threat to her identity. If he hates her, scorns her, she is nothing but a mere body. She is replaceable and insignificant.

What I couldn't help but think as I worked my way through this novel was how apt Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals is for deconstructing the inverted values of old school Analytic Philosophy. All that is life-affirming, all that is the body, all that is messy and contradictory are dismissed, and what is ethereal, abstract, outside of space and time, and only tamed through logic, is exhalted. And, let's not forget, that what is life-affirming and messy are inextricably tied up with the female body.

When I was younger, my professor asked me: "why aren't there any women in Philosophy? Perhaps they just don't have the aptitude for it?" I am going to send him, anonymously, Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem for Christmas.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why Do We Even Bother Teaching These Last Two Weeks?

Thanksgiving is over and now its the home stretch until the end of the semester. I don't know if it is all the turkey I consumed over the last few days, but I am dreading finding the energy to pull off this last two weeks of the semester. My students seemed to be barely hanging on before Thanksgiving and I imagine that they will be somewhat restless these last two weeks too.

I have things planned on the syllabus. At least one class will be watching a scheduled film. But, I am worried that nothing I teach for these next two weeks will quite sink in. My dear-stressed-out-students are thinking about senior theses, final research projects, job interviews, final examinations and/or applications to graduate school. With all of that on their plate, why do we even bother teaching anything the last two weeks of classes?

Do we do it because it was done to us? Are we finishing out the semester because we actually believe that everything we put on our syllabi was so crucial that, goddammit, we cannot let these students out of our classes without ensuring they read everything we deemed appropriate for the course? Are we doing it because our bosses make us?

There have to be some good, creative ideas out there with how to deal with the end of the semester students stresss out. I am not sure I can keep myself psyched up about going into a classroom where students are looking at me like I take pleasure in torturing them.

What do you recommend?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Yet Another Total Ban on Abortion

Just when you thought the days of crack-pot legislation putting total ban's on Abortion, even when the mother's health is at risk, were over. The Misogynist Anti-Abortion Crew, undeterred by the voter's rejection of South Dakota's ban, have crafted another total ban. Nemohee, guestblogging at Shakespeare's Sister, reports on House Bill 1 in the Georgia Legislature. Apparently Representative Bob Franklin thinks that the real problem with legal access to abortion is that it ends up costing the Georgia taxpayer. How, you ask?

"The practice of abortion has caused the citizens of this state an inestimable amount economically, including, but not limited to, the costs and tax burden of having to care for individuals and their families for the conditions cited above, as well as significant reduction of the tax base and the availability of workers, entrepreneurs, teachers, employees, and employers that would have significantly contributed to the prosperity of this state."

What are the conditions cited above?

"Studies of the three decades since Roe v. Wade have revealed that women have been deeply wounded psychologically, with one researcher reporting that 81 percent of the women who have had an abortion had a preoccupation with an aborted child, 54 percent had nightmares, 35 percent had perceived visitation with an aborted child, and 96 percent felt their abortion had taken a human life."


"Thirty years of abortion on demand have resulted in an increase in breast cancer, and a study has shown that women who had an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy before experiencing a full-term pregnancy may be at increased risk for breast cancer".

As Nemohee points out: Rep. Franklin cites no evidence in support of these claims. And, there has been plenty of evidence that abortion does not cause breast cancer. Honestly, are anti-abortion freaks just plain dumb? Are there special "research" rules for them? Aren't these the same jack asses who wanted to crack down on colleges and universities for indoctrinating students? No wonder. They have no idea what real arguments, evidence, and education looks like.