Monday, April 30, 2007

A Reality Women Would Rather Not Believe: Violence Against Women

I just got finished reading a thoughtful, and yet depressing journal entry that a student from my Women's Studies course wrote. She attended the "Take Back the Night" event on campus a few weeks ago, and decided to really confront the questions gnawing at her as she left. The situation is this: she sees a lot of women get up and tell their stories of sexual assault. She shes women get up, whom she knows and yet they never said anything before. The sheer numbers of women sharing their stories of sexual violence are overwhelming to her.

What this experience does is turn her inward. She admits that she cannot help but wonder why these women weren't more careful? Why didn't they avoid the situations wherein they got hurt? [These are legitimate questions, even if we all "know" that a victim is not to blame for her victimhood; but there is a difference between "knowing" that and really getting it].

She then goes on to tell me a story of a young man she knows who was falsely accused of rape by a young woman who wanted to "revise" the sexual encounter they had, in order to "regain her virginity." The young man lost his scholarship to an Ivy league, but was nonetheless able to successfully sue the young woman and get his good name back. Two years ago, I would've read this journal entry and been frustrated at the student. The difference between now and then is that I witnessed, up close, a young woman falsely accusing a young man of rape and saw how it destroyed his life. In the end, he prevailed, but the scars are still there.

So, what did I say to this young woman, who wrote this journal? Well, first of all, I didn't deny that false accusations happen. But, what I think all of us need to do, who have seen the damage that false accusations can do, is consider how unlikely they are to occur. After all, it takes a rather "sick" woman to knowingly and maliciously falsely accuse a man of rape. There might be incentives to do so in some sexual misconduct policies or laws (I am thinking that women in custody battles might be more tempted to make such accusations to get sole custody). But still, if a woman sets out to do this consciously, she is evil. And, if she actually believes her lies, then she is ill (and needs serious treatment).

What does this all mean? Well, if you start to look at the scores of women speaking out at "Take Back the Night" marches and think that most of them are "rewriting history" and making false accusations (ostensibly to save their reputation), then you are committing yourself to a view that most women are evil or mentally ill. Surely, there are folks out there who take this attitude toward women, but we usually call them misogynists. Look, you don't have to be a feminist to recognize how incredibly detrimental to women it is to take this misogynist attitude toward women: you are essentially indicting yourself. That is, you are affirming a worldview that views your sex with distrust.

It's frightening to me how tempting it is for women (including myself) to fall into this misogynist worldview. It is perpetuated by popular culture and pundits. Moreover, to confrong the reality of sexual violence against women, affirm that it is not "made up," is to suddenly feel very, very vulnerable. One would rather not believe it is true.

I think this is also why it is tempting to assign some of the blame to the women; if you do, then you can convince yourself that it won't happen to you. "After all, I am not so naive as these women were to put myself at risk . . .," thinks my student. But, no matter how clever, strong, or sophisticated you are, you can never completely escape the threat of sexual violence if you are a woman. It is pervasive.

I'll never forget my advisee who was attacked by a very deranged man a block from her dorm. We are not talking about date rape. This was a full on stranger rape. When she finally came to talk to me about it, she said: "I never believed all that hype they throw at you that you need to protect yourself against rape. I always thought it was weak women, or women who couldn't take care of themselves, or stupid women. I never used to allow someone to walk me home at night. I was all powerful. And now, now . . . I am terrified."

The allure of the misogynist world view is always tugging at each one of us, forces us to be vigilant about the reality of sexual violence against women. Unless we speak out about it, unless we believe the women who speak out (at least most of the time), we are tacitly approving of a world where men can be expected to take advantage of a foolish woman.

Friday, April 27, 2007

On How to Overcome Student Entitlement

I just got back from reading Dean Dad's post on the ever-present threat of a parent or student to sue a professor, administrator, or the institution. His post is inspired by Profgrrrl's post. I found Dean Dad's explanation of the importance of process, i.e. posting clear criteria for how decisions are made (i.e. when you are determining a grade or how to lay off employees) to be really helpful in clarifying why must threats to sue are just a bunch of hot air.

No one (knock on wood) has threatened yet to sue me. I imagine that it is only a matter of time before I bump up against this phenomenon, and reading Dean Dad puts me at ease. I have, however, had all sorts of odd conversations with students about what they think they are entitled to gradewise, regardless of my clear polcies and criteria. I was just thinking about this yesterday, as a student asked me during class discussion if I had ever personally felt challenged by students because I was female.

The example that popped into my mind, but I forgot to share with the class occurred in my second year of teaching here. The student challenging me was not a man (I don't think that male students are more likely to challenge female professors than female students are); she was a very mediocre, but clearly quite socially popular and powerful woman. She was enrolled in my Phil of Lit course.

About a week before the course was over, she walked into my office to discuss her grade. I was still pretty nervous about these kinds of conversations at this point in my career (I think it takes awhile for young faculty to develop confidence about their grading practices and standing by their grades). I asked her what in particular she wanted to discuss, i.e. the grade on her last assignment? "No," she responded. "Well, what's up?," I asked. "Well, I figure that I am getting a C- in this course, and well, frankly, that's not what I want," she said. Naively, I tried to make sense of her comment. "You mean you want to really prepare for the final," I responded. "No. You see, I am just not a C- student; I want a B."

I think it took me the rest of the afternoon to actually understand what she was saying. It had never occurred to me that a student would feel so entitled to tell me what she should get. Moreover, she had no compunction about this request. What I am proud about is that in this exchange, probably because I was so throw aback, I simply said, "look, there is nothing that I can do to give you that B outside of you earning it. If you want to talk about how to do well on your final exam, well, there's a conversation, but this . . . .?" She strutted out of my office, flipping her hair, and slamming the door behind her.

But, thank god for this experience, since it really got me over my fear of holding the line on my grading.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Femi-Nazi Tourist Playground: China Style

Za forwarded me this story from Yahoo about a tourism idea to build a "women's town" in China.

Chinese tourism authorities are seeking investment to build a novel concept attraction -- the world's first "women's town," where men get punished for disobedience, an official said Thursday.

The 2.3-square-km Longshuihu village in the Shuangqiao district of Chongqing municipality, also known as "women's town," was based on the local traditional concept of "women rule and men obey," a tourism official told Reuters.

"Traditional women dominate and men have to be obedient in the areas of Sichuan province and Chongqing, and now we are using it as an idea to attract tourists and boost tourism," the official, surname Li, said by telephone.

The tourism bureau planned to invest between 200 million yuan ($26 million) and 300 million yuan in infrastructure, roads and buildings, Li said.

"We welcome investors from overseas and nationwide to invest in our project," he added.

The motto of the new town would be "women never make mistakes, and men can never refuse women's requests," Chinese media have reported.

When tour groups enter the town, female tourists would play the dominant role when shopping or choosing a place to stay, and a disobedient man would be punished by "kneeling on an uneven board" or washing dishes in restaurant, media reports said.

The project, begun in the end of 2005, was expected to take three to five years to finish.

Oh boy! This is precisely what anti-feminists think that a feminist universe would look like. This project must have been hatched from the warped minds of men, whose imagination of what a feminist world would look like is the inversion of their own sexist, oppressive world-view.

A Father Has to Choose

Via Lindsay, I found this father's account of having to choose an abortion for his wife. It is precisely the kind of story that gets left out of the Pro-life rhetoric.

P.S. When I read blog posts like these, it only confirms my view that the dogmatism of the Catholic Church's position on abortion would change dramatically if Priests could marry.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mexico City Legalizes Abortion

While I am still reeling from the Carhart decision, it is reassuring to see abortion legalized in Mexico City. Granted, it is still just Mexico City and that still puts burden on poor women all over the country to try and find a way to the city for an abortion, but it is better than nothing. This will also mean that thousands of women will not risk their lives try to cross the border to secure an abortion here.

Reading through the NYTimes article, it never ceases to amaze me how programmed and thereby unthinking the opposition's criticisms are to abortion. To the very serious claims that women denied abortions are dying, comes this:

“The women of the Federal District are dying from clandestine abortions,” said Leticia Quezada, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which controls the assembly. “What we want is not one more death, not here, not anywhere.”

One the other side, Jorge Romero, of the National Action Party, said legalizing abortion would encourage irresponsible sex. “What we are legislating now, what we are asked to approve, is to support juvenile imprudence, unexpected pregnancies,” he said. “Understand this, lawmakers, you are legalizing killing.”

Honestly, men (or women) like Jorge Romero really frighten me. When faced with all the evidence of why women seek abortions, when faced with the evidence of how many women die when they are denied a legal and safe abortion, his response is (a) to criticize that women will become more sexually promiscuous (???) and (b) that abortion is legalizing killing (but the outlawing of abortion doesn't kill?)?

In a recent study on how the OTC status of Plan B has affected pregnancy rates (a study I need to discuss another time), the researchers also found that:

And the research makes it clear that having emergency contraception on hand does not increase risky sexual behaviors, she says.

Putting to one side the fact that empirically this claim is suspicious, the motivations of this claim are equally disturbing. The focus is always on women's promiscuity, never on men's or the possibility that women were raped by men. The story is always told with a misbehaving, unchaste, and therefore sinful woman at the heart of it. This is just plain fantasy; it bears no resemblance to the reality of women risking life and limb to seek an abortion.

When the anti-abortion folks start grappling with the real stories of women in distress and the real, painful moral dilemmas they have to wrestle with , I will pay attention. But the misogynist ad feminem attacks illustrate how weak their arguments are, not to mention the nefarious motivations.

As for the second objection, that any feminist and proponent of reproductive freedom has heard--abortion is legalizing killing--I say: yes, it is. But, it is not legalizing murder. Abortion does terminate (kill) the life of a fetus. Let's not mince words about this. The abortion debate should never be settled on that pronouncement. The question is: is it morally permissible to kill the fetus (see, I am using their language!)? To resolve this question, you need to actually take a look at the facts on the ground: why do women seek abortions? Is it purely a murderous rage against unborn life? If that you answered "yes" to that last question, then your world view is so frightening and unstable to me that I, frankly, would be more concerned about your actions than the women, who you paint in such unsympathetic and hateful ways.

Can we kill others without justification? This is one of the questions of the abortion debate. The answer, even for the opposition to abortion, is almost certainly "yes." We legalize killing when we allow self-defense. We legalize killing when we send soldiers to war. The very fact of legalizing killing is not what is morally problematic.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Obama on Foreign Policy

A link to Obama's foreign policy speech. I just read it, being sent there from Kevin Drum. Fine speech in my view. What do you think?

Invitation to Debate Some Pedagogical Practices

Today's post is a call for discussion and resources on matters of teaching. One of the real benefits of blogging is my interactions with other academics or students, who have really pushed me to reflect on my pedagogy and the goals of teaching undergraduates. Specifically, what I have been mulling over the last few days are two common practices/attitudes I see among college professors.

The first is the desire to make examinations as "objective" as possible. There are lots of motivations for this: i.e., to ensure that multiple sections of a course are fairly standard or to ensure that faculty preferences or dislikes of students don't factor into evaulation. I am sympathetic to the last goal. I am not so enthralled by the first goal. The desire to ensure some kind of uniformity among multiple sections of a course, such as Intro to Philosophy, seems to me to take the judgement and expertise away from the faculty teaching the course, and opting instead for pre-programmed and "canned courses," which frankly, anyone could teach. If we were to standardize our intro courses, for example, we might begin by adopting a common book, which comes with pre-made lectures, exam and quiz banks. We would adopt a common syllabus and the faculty member would merely be an administrative type: giving the pre-programmed lectures, and the pre-programmed tests and quizzes that are easy to grade.

The obvious downside of this model is that the Ph.D. is totally meaningless in this context. It would be cheaper to hire upper-class students to run these sections, rather than waste the more expensive resource of Ph.D. faculty.

The other problem with this model is that "objective tests" often translate into multiple choice, T/F, fill in the blank type questions. What I want to hear, from my readers, is why on earth faculty think that objectivity is best captured in these sorts of examinations? I fully admit that I am skeptical, but I imagine that there are folks out there who are up on pedagogical techniques and aware of research that demonstrates the value of these sorts of examinations. The object, as I understand it, is to assess if the students are learning the material. But, I remain unconvinced that such standardized tests really teach us anything about what our students know, and how well they have absorbed the information and skills we are trying to impart to them.

My second agenda item is the importance of attendance policies. I am someone who has an attendance policy. I have adopted it for various reasons, including: that I think I am teaching students how to be successful by getting them to participate in their education; that class interactions and discussions are important means for reinforcing the material being learned as well as fostering other skills such as speaking in front of peers or learning to ask questions; and, to be able to better track students who are struggling. However, many of my colleagues forgo such attendance policies.

One common retort I hear is that if a student is perfectly capable of doing well on examinations and papers without attending class, then why force them to sit through a class. What bothers me about this response is that it, once again, demeans the role of the professor in the same way that the "canned" classes do. Why on earth should we even be paid to teach if our courses are so designed that students can do perfectly well on their own? I am not suggesting that we create a dependency in them, but rather that what underlies this attitude, it seems to me, is a very different view of what education is about. If it is merely about teaching students lessons in a book, written by one of our colleagues (who we may or may not agree with), then it seems to me that we are wasting way too many precious resources by hiring "teacher-scholars" to run these courses.

My bias is that faculty adopt these sort of teaching practices solely to free up their own time and to minimize the amount of time they invest in students. Sometimes faculty do this in order to focus on getting enough publications to get through tenure. Sometimes faculty do this because they are lazy. My sense is that they rationalize these practices as being more "objective," but that is not really what motivates them.

I would like to hear from other faculty or students on this, particularly if I am terribly mistaken in my views or being uncharitable.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tarantino's Grindhouse: Did you like it?

Za finally succeeded in convincing me to see Grindhouse last night (along with IsThatLatin and her S.O.). It was a hard sell since I am neither a Quentin Taratino fan, nor a B movie fan, nor a horror flick fan. However, I have to admit that I liked the film (well, it's more than a film, more like two with all sorts of other hilarious 70s type interludes). Za kept telling me that it was a feminist film to try and get me to go. "A feminist film," I asked. "What makes it a feminist film"? Za would answer: "Well there is a chick who loses her leg, gets an AK-47 strapped on her stump, and kicks ass." Now Za knows perfectly well that this sort of description of a film is in no way likely to sway me that it is a feminist film. In fact, every time we had this conversation he would laugh as I would roll my eyes and say "how messed up are you if you think a feminist film denotes chicks kicking ass with large weapons."

So, I stand corrected. I do think that Grindhouse is a feminist film; and, in part, I think it does have to do with the nature of the violent, kick ass female characters in both films. What I finally concluded after the second segment "Death Proof," is that it was refreshing to see women characters, especially in a B movie horror genre, not just get mauled or violently dismembered. Sure, some of that exists in the films. But, overall, the female characters become the heroes, they are the ones who avenge the wrong, and protect the others. Now, they do so while kicking serious ass. But, when they do, man do their victims really, really deserve it. It's like the female Jack Bauer. Why doesn't she exist? So, I am grateful that directors like Tarantino is breaking with the usual formulae for horror flicks and portraying women who can resist and fight evil, while protecting others.

What did the rest of you think of Grindhouse? Some of you may not have appreciated the ode to 70s B Movie films. Some of you might not have liked the length (it was a strain on me these days!). But, of those who saw it, is it a step in the right direction for Hollywood to start portraying women this way?

UPDATE: Amanda already wrote a longer and more thoughtful post on this film. There are spoilers in her analysis, but if you don't care read it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

What if You Could Eliminate Your Period?

Za sent me an interesting article today from the NYTimes debating the cultural consequences of a new pill, called Lybrel, that allows women to "turn off" their period for months/years at a time. The article suggests that there are no serious health risks to taking this pill, and if we accept this as true, we need to debate whether or not it is a good thing for women that they can control more powerfully when they get their period.

Given that I tend to be less anti-technology and science than some feminist critics (not all), I don't really see a moral issue with this pill. I can imagine that some feminists can make more sociological arguments that I would be sympathetic to, rather than the ethical arguments. From the standpoint of whether or not I should be permitted to take Lybrel, I say "hell yes." But, there is always the larger question of the unintended consequences of such biotechnologies (the sociological argument). If the majority of women opt to take Lybrel (the Times quoted a study that said 2/3 of all women expressed an interest in giving up their period), what sort of effect will this have culturally on our tolerance for women who do not opt to take Lybrel?

At this point, the usual move is toward the alarmist, Brave New World or Gattaca type scenario wherein greater advancements in our ability to "intelligently (re)design" ourselves (a phrase I am borrowing from Daniel Dennett) will ultimately mean that we will use the technology for bad, for punishment of deviants, and to set up a superclass of periodless women who dominate all the power jobs over those who cannot access the drug or who choose to renounce such technology.

Over the years I have grown sort of disaffected with the alarmist rhetoric that creeps up everytime a new technology is reported on in the press or other popular journals. I am equally concerned that many of my fellow Philosophers tend to buy into this alarmist and Luddite rhetoric. I guess I don't see that scientific knowledge and advancement always lead to the dystopia scenarios that folks fret over. I don't even think that they necessarily lead to greater sexism or intolerance of sexual difference, as marked by biological events such as menstruation.

The core question here, to my mind, is what's wrong with women intelligently redesigning themselves in ways that fits with their ideals and aspirations. I personally get no deep meaning or satisfaction from having my period (especially since it hurts a whole lot). But, I also don't make the mistake (largely because I don't hold a particular theological view that God created all of nature and thereby it is all good) that what is natural is always better (naturalistic fallacy). There are lots of natural events and phenomena that are bad: let's take viruses. If we didn't try to combat them, I am pretty sure they would (and still might) wipe us out.

In any case, I am curious to hear what you all think of Lybrel. Perhaps you have some compelling arguments that I should pay attention to for why it is concerning to engineer away our periods?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Check out the Gender Genie!

Via Lindsay at Majikthise, I have discovered the Gender Genie. You can test the prose on your blog and the Gender Genie, via some algorithim, will predict whether or not the writer is male or female. I took two different paragraphs (from different blog posts) to test it out. The first paragraph (which I took from the first paragraph of my post today) was deemed to be written by a female. The second paragraph I took from my post on the Supreme Court ruling yesterday and Gender Genie judged it written by a male.

I guess I am an androgynous writer. Cool.

On Being A College Professor after the VT Massacre

I had nightmares about the VT massacre last night. It was on a two day delay. I knew that eventually the horror of what had happened would start to eat away at me. In part, I think my dreams haunted me precisely because I didn't talk, or rather listen, to what students thought about this. I didn't check in to see if they were suffering, in shock, afraid . . . I had to think a lot about why I didn't, especially after the Provost sent us a thoughtful email encouraging us to do so. What it comes down to is that I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to actually confront the horror of this event. I wasn't prepared for hearing any vitriol, anger or racist statements either (not that students would've made such statements, but I worried). I am scared and frightened by what happened, and in my selfishness, I didn't want to hear anything about it, or how it affected my students.

I started to realize how frightened I was by the events yesterday while talking to my colleagues in the Philosophy lounge. I had been studying the faces of the dead at the NYTimes website. But, more importantly, I had been studying the faces of the dead professors. One of them, Jamie Bishop, looked like the sort of colleague I have here. He was young, married, and well-loved by his students. Don't get me wrong, I paused on pictures of young women and men, who could've been my own students, and found myself speechless over the loss. But, seeing the pictures of dead professors haunted me the most. And, it is precisely that which I dreamt: being hunted by a former student, being called to protect my class from an armed assailant. These are not tasks that one signs on for when he/she becomes a college professor.

Kerry reminded me of a student we both had a few years ago, who I am convinced was schizophrenic. He was the right age and gender for the onset of schizophrenia. His papers were long, stream of consciousness writings full of references to disturbing sexuality. The more I was around him, the more frightened I became of him. I would shudder if he came to my office and I never had any idea of what to do with his papers. During his senior thesis presentation, I think we all just sat, aghast at what nonsense had been uttered and scrambled to figure out what to do.

I think that one of the hard realities that we, as college professors, have to face in the wake of the VT massacre is our responsibility to get troubled students serious help (even if they frighten us). Many of us like to just avoid this responsibility (me included). After all, we're not therapists! And, I am not claiming we should start acting like therapists either. But, I do think we have a serious obligation to pay attention to our students who seem deeply troubled, and figure out ways to get them help. If we just try to get them out of our class, or ignore them, or rationalize to ourselves that they are just lazy, mean or insubordinate, then we may find ourselves deeply regretting that we didn't do something to stop them from hurting others or themselves.

The story of Cho Seung-Hui is not an anomaly. We know that there are lots of disaffected, troubled young people in our schools. And while the news reports are starting to show that his professors, at least, tried to take action, what stands out to me is how most people just ignored his behavior. Everyone knows the loners on their campus. And, most of the time these loners are the butt of jokes. Allowing such a disconnected community to exist is no longer safe, forget the moral concerns.

So, the lesson I draw from the VT massacre is that I can no longer afford to ignore the students who are manifesting very troubling behavior; I am responsible to them as well as my community.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Supreme Court Upholds Late-Term Abortion Ban

I can't say that I am at all surprised by this decision. After all, this is precisely why Bush and Co. have been trying to stack the judiciary with folks like Robert and Alito. Moreover, I was out there protesting Roberts during his hearings because I knew, despite what well-meaning folks tried to tell me, he was no moderate.

Of course, my sentiments are best expressed by Ruth Ginsburg:

'Today's decision is alarming,'' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in dissent. She said the ruling ''refuses to take ... seriously'' previous Supreme Court decisions on abortion.

Ginsburg said the latest decision ''tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.''

The most troubling part of this ban is that it will undoubtedly result in the death of women, whose lives are no longer as important as the fetus they are carrying.

I think that what troubles me even more about this decision is drive to "draw a bright line between abortion and infanticide." The sentiment here is that ethical question, particularly difficult and troubling ethical questions, can be easily resolved by "drawing a bright line." It astounds me that the administration even thinks this is possible, especially since we can rarely do this in scientific knowledge. Where to you draw a bright line between some species? When do you draw a bright line between clinical depression and grief? These are hard questions, and the scientists often recognize that such bright lines do not exist.

What hubris of this administration (and the SCOTUS majority) to think they alone have the ability to draw such bright ethical lines on matters that are inherently fuzzy and hence why they lead to such impassioned ethical debates. Ethical deliberation is not intended to answer "easy" questions, it's intended for the very difficult questions, such as a pregnant woman having to consider a late-term abortion to protect her own life.

The opponents of the act ''have not demonstrated that the Act would be unconstitutional in a large fraction of relevant cases,'' Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it is true that most women will not die or suffer significant health consequences if they are denied a late-term abortion. What bugs me is that his own reasoning assumes that there is a small (tiny?) fraction of women who will die or be harmed. I cannot believe it is acceptable to these men (Ginsburg dissented) that any woman would die based on their decision today.

UPDATE: See Ann's post at feministing for more analysis of Ginsburg's dissenting opinion.

UPDATE UPDATE: It occurs to me the hypocrisy of the "pro-life" mindset expressed in this opinion. I wonder how they would consider a law that outlawed all guns?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Serious Pedagogical Differences

A commentor on my blog, Bunetta, just referred to my pedagogical practice of giving students study sheets before exams, as follows:

The pedagogy you describe is a little like drug-testing airline pilots on a schedule that you mail to them in advance.
I have already responded more in depth to the comments. I just thought I would see what y'all think of this analogy. Short story: Bunetta and I have very different pedagogical goals.

Gun Violence

Kerry has written a really kick ass post today, calling the clergy to preach against the NRA and easy access, in this country, to guns. Frankly, the only coherent thought I have had about the VT massacre is that this should, once again, be a wake up call to all of those 2nd amendment loving, NRA card holding Americans.

I am also wondering if there is a connection between where these incidents of violence occurs in schools and the guns laws of the state? Any thoughts?

More later, I am sure . . . .

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tragedy at Virginia Tech

As I wrapped up my afternoon course today, my students informed me of the 31 deaths at Virginia Tech today. It was the first I heard of it and so I immediately looked to the news and am now glued to the press conference airing on NBC.

It is uncanny that this shooting tragedy has occurred in the same week as Colombine, 8 years ago (the very day I was interviewing for my job here). I am not sure what to make of this event yet, other than to be utterly horrified by this event and sorrowful for the community at Virginia Tech. We don't yet know how many of the deceased are students and how many are faculty. These details are sure to emerge over time.

I am dismayed by the tone of the press, who launched into an attack of VT's President for not locking down the campus after the first shooting incident in the morning. The idea of lockdown and the idea that in the future we might have to post guards on our college campuses is frightening. This is a tragedy. This was an event that no one could've forseen (unless I am persuaded by evidence to the contray), and to respond to this event with greater militarism on college campuses horrifies me (perhaps more than the event itself).

I will no doubt have something more to say about this event after I learn more facts and digest the coverage. In the meantime, I would appreciate any links to blogs from VT students or other bloggers covering this story.

UPDATE: From the Huffington Post

A White House spokesman said President Bush was horrified by the rampage and offered his prayers to the victims and the people of Virginia.

"The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed," spokeswoman Dana Perino said


Scientist, Heal Thyself.

SteveG has a really superb and thoughtful post up today on the difference between training and creating intellectuals (what might be the point of teaching, at least at "elite" institutions like our LAC). There is a context to his post: Steve did dare question the usefulness of some labs that are adjoined to science courses and thereby pissed off a great deal of scientists, beyond the gates of our esteemed college. I want to stress that he did not ridicule the notion of lab-based learning per se and I would go so far as to wager that Steve values the sort of learning that takes place in labs that are designed to maximize the learning of how to do science well (not sure, but that is my guess). My observation, as a member of the Pre-Health Committee (which vets applications to Medical and Dental school) is that the students who excelled best in the science departments here are those who did research with professors or were encouraged to design their own research project.

What I find interesting about Steve's post today is how Chad Orzel wholly misunderstands SteveG's point. But, I assume that is because he only knows Steve from his infamous "lab" post. Chad assumes that Steve's call for eliminating "canned" labs from, frankly "canned" introductory courses, is to make science even less threatening to a largely illiterate humanities-inclined student population, i.e. that Steve was calling for more "physics for poets" classes. Hell no! And if anyone knew Steve, they would see how utterly ridiculous this interpretation of his argument is.

The real problem is not that students are "afraid" of science or math. Rather, they are afraid of how science and math courses are taught. And, you know what, I don't blame them. As someone who also loves science and who spent most of her undergraduate career studying science, I can honestly say that what lured me away was not that humanities courses were "easier" (an obvious inference from Chad's comments), but rather that they put more emphasis on empowering me to be an independent and autonomous thinker. They did so, primarily, by pushing me to get the "big picture" first and then equipping me with resources and tools for resolving interesting questions and problems.

My science courses, on the contrary, spent most of the time equipping me with tools and lab techniques while deferring any relationship between these tools and techniques to big picture questions or hell even little picture, yet interesting problems. The material was totally disconnected from what Husserl would call the "life world," and so the exercise of learning all of these techniques and tools would start to wear on me as I could no longer remember why I had embarked on a career in Chemistry.

I think what bugs me more than anything else in the responses I read from scientists to SteveG's lab post was the implication that the only way to be rigorous is to teach in such a way that "weeds out" the students who aren't willing to stay up all night memorizing large swaths of information. Thank god not all science teachers proceed this way. Because if this was the only way to teach science--a sort of macho you-better-figure-out-what-you-should-know-on-your-own-or-sink--then we would see even fewer students entering the sciences.

They show up really interested, because hell, science is really interesting and exciting. But in the death match, demoralizing way that many profs teach--to "weed out"--they not only "weed out" the non-rigorous students, but they "weed out" the really engaged and interesting students who find themselves forced to jump through hoops to prove their worthiness to the sicence faculty, in order to finally get some big picture, exciting research opportunities.

If science faculty want to increase the science literacy, then you need to think long and hard about how you engage and lure students--students mind you who are quite naturally interested in your subject matter--into your departments. I am, frankly, sick of hearing science faculty whine about how students are too science phobic and that we are just pandering to their phobia.

Scientist, heal thyself.

UPDATE: I highly recommend reading Student A's blog entry on this subject for a student's perspective on the role of labs in science education.

UPDATE UPDATE: Another highly recommended read, by a Biochemistry Molecular Biology student, on this issue at A Stranger in a Strang(er) Land.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Poor Wolfie!

From NYTimes:

On Thursday, the World Bank’s 24-member executive board, the body that elected Mr. Wolfowitz to the job after he was nominated by President Bush in 2005, held hurried meetings amid mounting speculation that it might reprimand Mr. Wolfowitz or ask him to resign.

In a chaotic day of revelations and meetings at a normally staid institution on Thursday, Mr. Wolfowitz apologized for his role in the raise and transfer of Ms. Riza to the State Department, where she remained on the bank’s payroll.

He made the comments to a few hundred staff members assembled in the bank building atrium, only to be greeted by booing, catcalls and cries for his resignation.

I am a Pregnant Feminist

Today I stumbled across a student blog, wherein I was referred to, affectionately, as a "pregnant feminist." Mind you, I am not offended by this characterization; after all, it is quite accurate. But, in juxtaposition, to his description of my male colleagues, I am bemused. I am the pregnant feminist with heart, while my colleague SteveG is the smart and funny prof who talks about physics. Of course I am going to have to reflect on this. (Now I know the student is going to read this and perhaps be horribly embarrassed, but let me stress that I took your comments to be sincere, flattering and respectful).

I just can't help thinking about how easily it is to become the "pregnant feminist" professor. From one standpoint, it is almost an oxymoron, since rabid right wingers don't expect feminists to procreate. I recently got a flyer slipped under my door claiming that abortion was the worst genocide on the planet (and claimed more deaths than the Iraq war). So, from that point of view, it is good to be the pregnant feminist, if only to dispel the ridiculous stereotypes that feminists hate children.

But, then I am lead to muse on the emphasis that I am a feminist. While anyone who reads this blog and knows me personally is clear that I am a feminist, I have certainly never proclaimed my identity to be such in my Kant and the 19th Century course. Of course, the reason this student has correctly surmised that I am a feminist is most likely due to the fact that I included the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, J.S. Mill and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the course syllabus. I wanted to make clear that the 19th Century was not "owned" by male thinkers, and in fact what a century in which massive social and political shifts occurred, the abolition of slavery, the industrial revolution and worker's rights, and the beginning of the suffrage movement.

We have read: Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Jeremy Bentham, Mary Wollstonecraft, Auguste Comte, J.S. Mill, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, C.S Pierce, William James, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Friedrich Nietzsche: that is two women and 10 men. But the ratio is just enough to mark my identity as a feminist. (Although this isn't quite fair, since probably the student in question figured out my feminist identity via my blog).

I am, rather, taking off from his description of me to muse, out loud, about how the other students in the class see me precisely because I am have introduced them to 18th and 19th Century texts on the education of women, equality of the sexes and the evil of sexist oppression. When we enter into these discussions in class, I wonder if the students think this is somehow extraneous to what is important about 19th Century Philosophy? (Those of you in the class, what do you think?)

If they do, it is surely a product of the irresponsible ways in which the canon of Philosophy has been constructed (see Mary Ellen Waithe's "On Not Teaching the History of Philosophy"), since without doubt women philosophers have existed since the inception of Philosophy and philosophical discussions on the equality of the sexes and the nature of oppression have long existed as well (see Waithe's 4 vol. anthology, History of Women Philosophers. Martinus Nijhoff.) Unfortunately, these conversations have to be reinvented almost every decade/century, since women's voices get marginalized, lost, left out, and thereby forgotten.

Hence, when I do my small part to reclaim some of these women in my History of Philosophy courses, I am "pregnant feminist."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Give Senator Casey a Piece of Your Mind!

I wish I would have gotten this post up yesterday, when it was still possible to email or call Senator Casey and ask him to support the new Stem Cell Bill. But, it is too late. Senator Casey, the man we all held our nose and voted for to oust Santorum, voted against the bill.

I still think voters should give him a piece of their mind.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

On Being Pregnant and Pro-Choice

Now that it's public knowledge that I am pregnant, I am finally able to write the post on being pregnant and pro-choice that I have wanted to for months. Early in my pregnancy an acquaintance (a man) asked me if I was still so staunchly pro-choice now that I was pregnant and had seen the ultrasound (this was at 11 weeks). I am going to be charitable and assume that it was an innocent question, but I assure you that it was absolutely relevant to me that it was a "he" asking the question. My response was: I have never in my whole life been more committed to widening and expanding reproductive freedom for women, including the option of abortion.

There are lots of reasons why being pregnant has only strenghtened my commitment to a reproductive freedom, but I will focus specifically on my recent experience. I am 36 years old (almost 37). When you get pregnant at my age, physicians will routinely remind you of the risk ratio for having a child with some chromosomal defects (either Down Syndrome (Trisomy-21), Trisomy-18, or Trisomy-13), which is 1/210 for Down's and 1/100 for any genetic abnormality. Now granted, these are not horrible odds, but they are what they are. I should also note that these genetic defects can occur for any pregnant woman. The latter two are really horrible, while Down Syndrome babies can live wonderful lives, lives that will, nonetheless require a great deal of resources from parents (and if parents are older it becomes another sort of moral issue if they die leaving the child without the support he or she needs).

Given the higher incident of genetic abnormalities at my age, physicians should offer you the option of getting a triple-screen, quad-screen, amniocentesis, and/or high risk ultrasound. The first three options need to be performed and results back before the 24th week in order to give the mother all possible options of what to do with the results (meaning she can opt to terminate the pregnancy, join a support group, etc.) My physician, however, made two serious errors with my pre-natal care. First, he forgot to order the triple-screen on the lab form (even though I signed a waiver that I wanted one) and secondly, he forgot to discuss with me the option of amniocentesis. When he realized this, I was already further along than 6 months, meaning that I would not have the option to terminate a pregnancy should I find out that I was carrying a child with severe genetic anomalies.

Now I don't think that my physician made these mistakes on purpose. And, I am a highly educated consumer of healthcare and I didn't catch these problems earlier. But, I wonder what happens to women who are not as empowered to advocate for themselves in pre-natal care (who don't have access to pre-natal care) or, worse, who have a physician who denies them pre-natal testing options out of religious convictions (and does not tell the patient he has done so).

Pregnancy is a time of lots of uncertainty and joy. Women ought to be able to rely on physicians to be honest, competent, and sensitive to the life-changing experience they are going through. Instead, many of them face this period in a highly charged political landscape where physicians or hospitals might impose their own religious convictions on mothers-to-be, denying her any right to be part of crucial decisions that will affect her life forever and thereby denying her basic right to human dignity. The only people who should be involved in decisions of what to do with a pregnancy, whether it is a healthy one or a high risk one, are the parents, and more particularly the mother carrying the child.

Another way in which my commitment to reproductive freedom has been strengthen is that I now prioritize the mother's choice far more than the father's. The reason for this is how risky pregnancy can be for a mother's life and well-being. While I have not (knock on wood) succumb to anything like cancer or other life-threatening illnesses during pregnancy, I did have a taste of viral gastro-enteritis while pregnant. The ER doctor made it clear to me that part of the reason I was suffering so acutely with this virus was because the fetus was getting all the resources that otherwise would help me better fend off the illness. Now, consider a pregnant mother who gets cancer. A perinatologist posed that exact scenario to me recently (I had asked him what sorts of cases face his ethics board). Should you treat the woman with cancer, even though there is a risk to the fetus? Should the woman terminate the pregnancy to improve her own chances of survival? These are very crucial, difficult decisions that need to be made. And, the only person who should be making the decision to get chemo or terminate a pregnancy is the mother. It is not up to the physician, the father, the hospital board or any other party to decide that a pregnant woman cannot get chemo, if she has made the decision to treat her cancer. Likewise, it is not up to the physician, father, or hospital board to overrule a pregnant woman's choice to forgo chemo in order to maximize the health or her child (even if this also poses risks to the fetus).

Pregnant women are not mere envelopes, plowed fields, or incubators; they are moral persons who are endowed with inalienable rights to make decisions about their pregnancy free of unwarranted interference. If you want to debate this issue, then focus on what counts as warranted interference with a pregnant woman's autonomy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stop Replicating Imus' Words!

Lots of ink has been spilled over the Don Imus scandal. The news analysts, pundits, spin doctors, preachers, and Imus fans have had their say. I am not terribly interested in wading further into the debate-that-should-not-need-to-take place. Imus' totally abused his position of power; his words are inexcusable.

What has been bugging me about this incident is how much play his words have gotten play by 'well-meaning folk' who want to harshly condemn him for his slurs against the Rutger's Scarlett Knights. Every article, news report and talk show host repeats, verbatim, what Imus said, thereby fueling the fire of these injurious words.

I just came from my Philosophy of Mind class wherein we discussed the idea of cultural transmission through memes. The idea here is that the transmission of culture, in this case racist and sexist views about women athletes, occurs by the replication of memes. Imus' infamous phrase is now such a meme and each time it is replicated in either the popular press, conversations around the water color, or over the family table, the cutural views therein continue to take hold.

It seems to me that if the press wants to do something responsible here, and thereby really censure this kind of behavior, they should refuse to replicate the very words that Imus used. It is making the phrase almost inert.

You Don't Teach the Driven Ones!

This past semester, Za has been teaching a course at my college. We have been on parallel tracks with how we designed assigments in his Bio class and my Phil of Mind class. We both agree, pedagogically, that it is best to help empower students to learn the material you are teaching rather than devise crafty ways for punishing them for not yet being sophisticated readers and synthesizers of complicated information. Both of us have given the students very clear directions about what we expect them to know for the examinations, e.g. what material they are responsible for, what type of questions are likely to appear, and how to best answer these questions. To put it bluntly, it is as if both Za and I have "broken into our offices, stolen the test, and circulated it to the students before the exam." If students take our study sheets seriously, they are asssured a good grade on the exam. The key here is taking our study sheets seriously.

It has been great fun learning how pedagogically sympatico Za and I are. So many of our colleagues design exams and paper topics that give students very little direction about how to succeed and then when, guess what, students bomb them, and the predictable whining about how lame our students are ensues. Of course, the problem lies in assuming that your students are as sophisticated learners as you are. They aren't. Part of what it means to be a great teacher is to not only teach the content of your courses, but design assignments that show them how to analyze information, write clear arguments, and amply prepare for exams.

I thought I was good at this stuff until Za showed me up. We both gave our first exams and our students did horribly in both classes despite all of the guidance we gave them about what was on the exam and how to do well. I scratched my head on this one, gave my students a good kick in the ass (i.e. told them to spend more than one night reviewing for the exam, form study groups, reread essays and visit my office hours). Overall, I was pretty hands off. I just told them how to succeed better, but basically left it up to them to figure out how to do so.

Za, on the other hand, was far more proactive. He sent emails to specific students struggling and asked them to make appointments with him. He met for several weeks with students before his second exam going over material, teaching them how to study and work together, showing the tricks for memorizing lots of material and showing them how to find ways to make sense of the material in terms or images that make sense to them. In a word: he taught.

So, his students really shined on the second examination (though it was no different in format from the first). The students walked away from this experience learning a lot more than the actual content (which they did!), but they learned what it takes to succeed in your classes, particularly in very difficult classes. The emails he got from students really speak to this.

And, I have been humbly reminded that teaching is work and requires more of me than giving some directions and sitting back and watching many of my students flail. I think what Za intuitively gets and I forgot is that you don't worry about the smart, hard working students. They are going to do well. You worry about the mediocre or failing students who are too terrified to figure out how to get help and therefore do better. Those are the students you teach.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Official Announcement: This Feminista is Pregnant

Many of the people that know me in 'real life' are quite aware that I am pregnant. I am already in my 6th month and am due sometime in mid-July. I wanted to finally unveil this news to my readers who don't know me in the 'flesh.' I am starting to grow very excited about the new addition to our life. Za already has wonderful children from his previous marriage and we look forward to introducing them to their new sister. We found out that we will be having a girl (unless the ultrasound was wrong?), which has delighted me and Za (since he has boys and was very concerned that they do not feel any sort of 'competition' for his affections).

Today I go for my third ultra sound, which the physician ordered because of my age (36). I am by far the most nervous I have been in my pregnancy so any good thoughts would be appreciated. My recent viral illness took a toll on me as well. I kept worrying what sort of potential threat my illness was to my tiny girl. But, the ER doc assured me that the fetus sort of wins the competition for resources (which I find to be a very, very interesting metaphor for the identity of the pregnant woman).

I have been reflecting a lot on how being pregnant has totally altered my relationship to my body. And, what I am striving to do is not become obsessively guilt ridden about everything that can potentially go wrong. I imagine that there will be plenty of guilt ahead, right?

In any case, it seemed the right time to make this news public to the blogosphere. I may start referring more to this reality in the future since it is clearly becoming a huge part of my identity.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Songs About Self-Destructive Chicks

Woke up in a much better mood with my color back and my stomach settled. I turned on my iPod and listened to Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow, while cleaning the kitchen. I usually listen to this music when I am working out and I generally feel a little like a fraud. Afterall, I didn't come from skid row, my dad didn't abandon me, and I am not a angry boy. But today I listened differently and it reminded me of something I was musing on with *I* a few weeks ago: I love songs that portray the female love interest as a wild child, as a bit self-destructive, and therefore causing great woe and anguish in the male lead. How weird is that? I think it's why I absolutely love everything that Lucinda Williams writes. She gets to be the fucked up song writer, breaking hearts, bleeding into her chords and haunting us with her tales. A few of the songs on So Much for the Afterglow feature wild child girls that the male lead wants to help.

So, why am I drawn to these songs? I think the answer is complicated. In part, I appreciate a more complicated female character than the usual "hot chick" or "low down woman." I like seeing men sing their little hearts out about complicated, sexy and damaged women. And, I guess it's partly due to how ironic it is. Afterall, I spent a good deal of time in my twenties tending to the complicated, self-destructive artiste male. I was drawn to their stormy moods and creative impulses, but I always played nurse to their tempestuous mood swings.

What I resented about playing nurse to artiste dude was that it always implied, at least to me, that they were more powerful, more important, more worthy than I. If I was going to drop everything and be on call for crisis, then it must be because their demons were powerful, awe inspiring and thereby in need of all available forces that can be mustered. I started longing for someone to sacrifice so much for me, to be so wrapped up in my demons, my torments. That was my twisted little notion of adoration. To be adored, I reasoned, was to have a man desperate to cure my wild child ways, and yet, I walk all over him and leave him bleeding on the floor.

This is the love you learn from disorder.

I don't have such longings to be the self-destructive woman tended for anymore. But, I am still drawn to music that portrays such a femme fatale. I would rather be her than the muse to artiste dude, who gets cast aside for his greater calling.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Aspazia is Still Recovering

I broke down today and went to the hospital. I was feeling the effects of serious dehydration and the nurses hooked me up with fluids and potassium (guess I was way low). I was informed that what I have is a 3-5 day virus that wreaks havoc on your digestive tract and is infectious. So, I hope Za is spared and I will stay away from the rest of you until this is gone. But, all is well!

Btw, what is going on in the world? I am totally out of it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Aspazia is Recovering

I have just emerged from the worst stomach bug that I have ever encountered. I will spare you all details, but I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. I am staying home today to recover, sleep and catch up on the world. So, again, I have no content, but I leave it to you, dear readers, to clue me in or do some blogwhoring in the comments.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"I Snorted My Father'

LONDON (AP) - Keith Richards has acknowledged consuming a raft of illegal substances in his time, but this may top them all. In comments published Tuesday, the 63-year-old Rolling Stones guitarist said he had snorted his father's ashes mixed with cocaine.

"The strangest thing I've tried to snort? My father. I snorted my father," Richards was quoted as saying by British music magazine NME.

"He was cremated and I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn't have cared," he said. "... It went down pretty well, and I'm still alive."

Richards' father, Bert, died in 2002, at 84.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Aspazia is Sick

I got some awful stomach bug that has put me out of commission. So I am relying on you, dear readers, to cheer me up today and tell me what I should read.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Manufacturing Marketplace Masculinity

I was haunted by this piece, "For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too," in the NYTimes all day yesterday. I gave a presentation at a local church on my work on enhancement, Prozac and Gender and this article was pervading my consciousness through the whole talk. While this article focuses on the pressures that young women face, who want to be accepted to elite colleges, especially when women are overrepresented and men are underrepresented, I was much more intrigued by the insane pressure they live under at their age.

I am grateful that I grew up in California, went to a big Public high school and had never heard of most of the elite colleges these women aspire to attend. I was a girl in high school. I worked hard and enjoyed what I learned, but I didn't drive myself insane. No one pressured me to get into Williams, Smith or Bowdoin. And, I am pretty sure I turned out just fine having not taken that route.

But, the times are different in many ways from when I was in high school. The world of a child or teenager is more structured, more pressurized, and more driven by a fear that anything less than excellence will result in a destitute life. As I was reading about the young women at Newton North I couldn't help but worry about how much more burned out they will all feel once they get to college. I look around at my current students, who are trying to balance lots of co-curricular activities, a social life, classes and work, and they are stressed out. What I failed to note was how they had been living that stressed out life way before they got here. No wonder one of my top students is likely to graduate with an ulcer (yes Abby, I am talking about you!)

Another aspect of this piece that really haunts me is the new sort of 'femininity' fashioned in these high stakes times. These young women are not silly or frivolous. One could not imagine any of them trying to rush a sorority. They are passionate, intellectual, and driven to be leaders in all aspects of their high school experience. Their teachers (who sound excellent, but his is what a neighborhood with a median house price of $700,000 will buy you) groom these women to be intellectual giants.

And yet, it is not good enough to be intellectuals, they must be 'hot,' while putting off boyfriends, dating, or any other distractions from their goal of admission to an elite college. They want to be feminine, but err more on the assertive side than compassionate side.

It is this transformation in 'ideal' femininity that bothers me and was the basis of my talk with the church group. The intense pressures to succeed in 21st America cannot tolerate compassion, sensitivity, and softness. I am not nostalgic for the media-styled femininity of the 50s. But, I am worried about a culture so bent on success that we breed out of ourselves all the skills that are important and required for building communities and relationships.

Let me also add that I am not just worried that the young women are learning to adopt, what I call, "marketplace masculinity," but the men are pushed to even further extremes of hyper virility.

When I finished my talk yesterday, a woman came up to me and said: "Men manage things, women manage people. Things are easy to manipulate, people cannot be controlled. Hence, this is why women fall into bouts of misery and alienation at far greater rates than men." I thought her insight was clever, but clearly an oversimplification of reality. But, what is worth pondering in her insight is how important the labor of tending and caring for people is and why we can't lose sight of that . . . even if it brings us more misery.

More importantly, we need to recognize that if a high stakes competitive culture is at the heart of re-engineering gender roles, then feminism needs to step in and start asking some hard questions. Certainly, this is not the dream of all, or even most, of the foremothers who wanted to create a more just, more caring society.