Thursday, May 31, 2007

Enough of the Biological Essentialism Arguments!

So it appears that Janet Shibley Hyde and Elizabeth Spelke have laid to rest the argument that men and women have different cogntive abilities due to genetic/biological differences. I imagine their findings will take plenty of time before they trickle down into the consciousness of my students, who still tend to agree with Larry Summers that men have higher aptitudes for math and science. For whatever reason, students and adults, who otherwise try to avoid the study of science, love to justify their sexist claims about the cognitive differences between men and women by saying that it is backed by "genetics" or "biology." If you push them, they generally cannot elucidate how, exactly, the biological differences between men and women lead to cognitive differences. But, no worry, some scientist said it somewhere so it must be true.

Not so.

The research shows not that males and females are – cognitively speaking -- separate but equal, but rather suggests that social and cultural factors influence perceived or actual performance differences. For example, in 1990, Hyde et al. concluded that there is little support for saying boys are better at math, instead revealing complex patterns in math performance that defy easy generalization. The researchers said that to explain why fewer women take college-level math courses and work in math-related occupations, “We must look to other factors, such as internalized belief systems about mathematics, external factors such as sex discrimination in education and in employment, and the mathematics curriculum at the precollege level.”

Where the sexes have differed on tests, researchers believe social context plays a role. Spelke believes that later-developing differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but rather cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that really kick in during high school and college.

Gasp! Social context actually plays a role? How surprising when little girls are taught, via popular culture, toys, and alas their parents, that math is too hard.

In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What's more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.

Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility -- Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.

And, the hopes and dreams of the reasearchers--what should we do with these findings?

If males and females are truly understood to be very much the same, things might change in schools, colleges and universities, industry and the workplace in general. As Hyde and her colleagues noted in 1990, “Where gender differences do exist, they are in critical areas. Problem solving is critical for success in many mathematics-related fields, such as engineering and physics.” They believe that well before high school, children should be taught essential problem-solving skills in conjunction with computation. They also refer to boys having more access to problem-solving experiences outside math class. The researchers also point to the quantitative portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which may tap problem-solving skills that favor boys; resulting scores are used in college admissions and scholarship decisions. Hyde is concerned about the costs of scientifically unsound gender stereotyping to individuals and to society as a whole.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Equal Pay for Equal Work is so FemiNazi!

The damage that W has done to the Supreme Court is not going away when he finally leaves office. We are stuck with this new SCOTUS and to remind you how bad it is, here is the latest ruling from the Roberts court: "Justices' Ruling Limits Suits on Pay Disparity." Any employee who finds out that she has been the victim of discrimination in pay, cannot seek remedies if she had not filed a complaint with a federal agency within 180 days that the pay was set.

I don't know about you, dear readers, but I have not been fortunate enough to get any information from my employers on what my colleagues make. I don't see how the magical number of 6 months will be the ticket to discovering that I am being discriminated against, do you?

Equal pay for equal work is a such a uncontroversial value. And yet, this court has decided to jettison it, thumb its nose at women and minorities who are being discriminated against, and say "you had 6 months to file a report, too bad . . . ." What comfort that the Roberts court has the interests of the employer at heart; not enough government officials seem to worry about the rights of corporations these days.

It must be lonely to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

In a vigorous dissenting opinion that she read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the majority opinion “overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination.” She said that given the secrecy in most workplaces about salaries, many employees would have no idea within 180 days that they had received a lower raise than others.

An initial disparity, even if known to the employee, might be small, Justice Ginsburg said, leading an employee, particularly a woman or a member of a minority group “trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment” to avoid “making waves.” Justice Ginsburg noted that even a small differential “will expand exponentially over an employee’s working life if raises are set as a percentage of prior pay.

Some hope (not much):

The impact of the decision on women may be somewhat limited by the availability of another federal law against sex discrimination in the workplace, the Equal Pay Act, which does not contain the 180-day requirement. Ms. Ledbetter initially included an Equal Pay Act complaint, but did not pursue it. That law has additional procedural hurdles and a low damage cap that excludes punitive damages. It does not cover discrimination on the basis of race or Title VII’s other protected categories.

In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg invited Congress to overturn the decision, as it did 15 years ago with a series of Supreme Court rulings on civil rights. “Once again, the ball is in Congress’s court,” she said. Within hours, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, announced her intention to submit such a bill.

UPDATE: Check out Scott's analysis of the decision at LGM. Here is an excerpt:

Despite this, and contrary to the judgment of the EEOC, the Court by a bare 5-4 majority threw out the discrimination claim she brought under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court--in an opinion, natch, written by its arch-reactionary newest member--argued that Ledbetter failed to challenge the initial discriminatory pay decision within the required 180 days, and the ongoing pay discrimination did not constitute an "unlawful employment practice." As Ginsburg points out, this reading of the statute makes little sense; unlike a single discrete act such as a firing, an employee may not be aware of the discriminatory nature of their pay until much later, and moreover it is illogical to hold that only an initial decision to discriminate but not the discriminatory pay itself constitutes an unlawful practice. The effect of the case is to insulate employers from wage discrimination claims as long as they can hide the evidence from the employee being discriminated against for 180 days, a result contrary to the purpose of the statute that is in no way compelled by its language.
Check out Amanda on this too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On Listening Better

I have to get myself to finish writing a response essay today. Here's the story: I was asked to write an essay about what its like to be on the Philosophy side of the Philosophy of Psychiatry (i.e. not a psychiatrist). So, I did, beginning with a reflection about an encounter with a student who took offense with a reading I assigned by Thomas Szasz. I used this vignette to admit that as philosophers we can be, unwittingly, insensitive when discussing certain matters. We don't necessarily want to ignore or be inhuman in our encounters with sufferings of others. But, it is not our task to be therapists; we are trying to think about the experience of others as a way to make sense of larger questions. Its something I am clearly uncomfortable with, which is why I highlighted this story and admitted that this failure on our part can certainly make us seem rather callous to both patients and physicians.

So, anyway, one of the respondents to my essay--a Psychiatrist--accused me of being rather "dismissive and highbrowed" in my dealings with my student. His view was that had I really listened to her, I might have been in a better position to ask the really important questions of psychiatry. If that wasn't enough, he basically upbraided me for my dilettante like interest in the pseudo problems of enhancement (i.e. seeking out medications to be better than well). There were lots of other really interesting responses to my essay, but this one is preoccupying me far too much.

I don't want to spend too much time dealing with his rather ad hominem crticisms, but I do want to reflect a bit on what he is saying about listening. I take it as seriously as he does, but it seems that the voices I am listening to--probably because they are students overly medicated and stressed out vs. committed patients--lead my research interests in a different direction than his own. How do I address this criticism without sounding too defensive or ignoring the valuable contributions of other commentators?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Merry Nuptials

I attended a nice wedding yesterday for my friends-- Zeek and his now bride. I loved that instead of a wedding cake they had lots of yummy cupcakes. Very cool. Anyway, just a short post to congratulate Zeek and the Mrs and wish you many happy years to come.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Impoverished Women Need to Connect with a Reproductive Rights Movement

IsThatLatinjust sent me this really interesting article from Alternet discussing how lower income women seeking abortions are totally disconnected from the larger political movement that made abortions legal for these women in the first place. The authors have conducted a few interviews (16, I think) with women seeking abortions and found that most of them feel shame and isolation from others. More importantly, they believe that they are the only ones with good reasons for getting the abortions, while the other women in the waiting rooms are immoral. I am not surprised to hear this sort of judgmental accusations uttered by many abortion seekers. What they are voicing, ultimately, is their own shame and projecting it onto the other women in the waiting room. Rather than see solidarity with these other women, as the authors note that women in the 7os did, they have nothing but contempt.

Given how successful the anti-choice movement has been in the last few years, chipping away at Roe, co-opting the churches that many of these lower income women attend, and infiltrating and sabotaging the public information on abortions (i.e. spreading lies such as abortions cause breast cancer), it is not surprising that many women seeking abortions are full of self-loathing that they project onto others. It is a powerful coping strategy.

What I found interesting in this article, which identifies a wealth gap in the same way that the marriage article from the Economist does, is how the authors interpret that the best way to help these women who seem so isolated and ashamed is to connect more explicitly and regularly the movement for reproductive rights with a movement to fight poverty.

Yet a clear gap -- of class, income, and education -- exists between those who work in this increasingly professionalized reproductive justice movement and those women who now form the majority of abortion patients. A recent study from the Guttmacher Institute, the leading research organization on reproductive health issues, paints a dramatic picture of the divide between nonpoor and poor women: "The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women living above 300% of the poverty level." Not surprisingly, there is a similar gap in access to contraception, leading the Institute to speak of "Two Americas" for American women with respect to the ability to control their reproductive lives.

The women we encountered in the waiting rooms of three abortion clinics, located in the South and Midwest, have little experience with the contemporary reproductive justice movement, or indeed of politics in general. But they are highly aware of the shame and stigma surrounding abortion. Some spoke of their fears of being recognized in the waiting room by acquaintances. Others, when asked if they would have preferred to have their abortions performed by their own doctors, in their home towns- rather than undertaking a drive of several hours to a clinic- recoiled at the thought. "I don't think that I would be comfortable going to my OB-GYN for an abortion, knowing that's the same man that delivered my children. ... I would think he would think of me differently. ... I mean he sees me in one light and that's the way I want him to see me."

None of the women interviewed said they thought abortion should be illegal. But many expressed ambivalence about their decision to have one. An unmistakable sense of sadness hovered around our conversations. Ultimately, these women made the decision to have an abortion for the same reasons women always have: their recognition that they could not adequately care for a child at this moment in their lives. This seemed especially true for the more than half of our interviewees who already have children.

Most of all, the abortions sought by our interviewees seemed to symbolize for them their personal failures to achieve the lives they wish they had. As Linda [who already had two children] said wistfully, when asked if there were circumstances under which she would not have had the abortion, "If my old boyfriend would still be with me, not caring I was pregnant ... or, if I had the money and my own house, my own car, maybe I wouldn't care about having a man beside me, and I could just move on with my kids."

The stories of the women we met in the clinics are so grim -- with tales of unreliable male partners, minimum wage jobs that don't allow them to properly care for the children they already have, broken down cars, and inadequate social support -- that it becomes clearer than ever that "reproductive justice" means far more than accessible contraception and abortion. Affordable housing, living wages, better child care, intimate partner violence programs and universal health care are things the movement must fight for in order to give these women and their children a shot at a decent life. And if that weren't enough, a challenge of a different nature is to make the lonely women in the waiting rooms feel part of that struggle.

I highlighted the above paragraph because I think here we really see how effectively anti-choice folks have contributed to the low self-esteem of the women seeking abortions. They are making thoughtful, difficult moral choices and yet none of them believe that they are justified in making these decisions. Instead, they have been bulldozed by the black/white absolutist rhetoric of the anti-choice movement--pronouncements, by the way, that are often made by people who have never been in their circumstances and thereby forced to make these hard decisions. These women need to be connected to a community that reinforces their moral agency, i.e. their right to make these difficult moral decisions and rely on themselves that they have made the right choice, regardless of the condemnation of others who foolishly believe they have the only truth.

Marriage: Is it Really Such A Magical Solution to Poverty?

Emma sent me a link to this very interesting article in the Economist, "The Frayed Knot." The overall assertion is that a "marriage gap" (between the affluent, well-educated set and those much lower on the socio-economic rung) is breeding further inequality.

There is a widening gulf between how the best- and least-educated Americans approach marriage and child-rearing. Among the elite (excluding film stars), the nuclear family is holding up quite well. Only 4% of the children of mothers with college degrees are born out of wedlock. And the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were.

At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%. And these figures are only part of the story. Many mothers avoid divorce by never marrying in the first place. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women who drop out of high school is 15%. Among African-Americans, it is a staggering 67%.

Now, this can be interpreted many ways. The Wingnuts, for example, argue that marriage is a poverty solution.

Does this matter? Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, says it does. In her book “Marriage and Caste in America”, she argues that the “marriage gap” is the chief source of the country's notorious and widening inequality. Middle-class kids growing up with two biological parents are “socialised for success”. They do better in school, get better jobs and go on to create intact families of their own. Children of single parents or broken families do worse in school, get worse jobs and go on to have children out of wedlock. This makes it more likely that those born near the top or the bottom will stay where they started. America, argues Ms Hymowitz, is turning into “a nation of separate and unequal families”.
Here is what bugs me: the fact that middle-class, well-educated parents are doing a good job rearing children, and that these parents have a lower divorce rate, doesn't mean that getting married will automatically stop poverty. The way Conservatives have continued to treat marriage as a poverty solution is bizarre; they seem to believe that if a couple utters the "I do" in front of God, Family and Friends that these "magical words" will suddenly make both partners more responsible, more committed and better workers.

But there is more to it than this. Marriage itself is “a wealth-generating institution”, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, who run the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. Those who marry “till death do us part” end up, on average, four times richer than those who never marry. This is partly because marriage provides economies of scale—two can live more cheaply than one—and because the kind of people who make more money—those who work hard, plan for the future and have good interpersonal skills—are more likely to marry and stay married. But it is also because marriage affects the way people behave.

American men, once married, tend to take their responsibilities seriously. Avner Ahituv of the University of Haifa and Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute found that “entering marriage raises hours worked quickly and substantially.” Married men drink less, take fewer drugs and work harder, earning between 10% and 40% more than single men with similar schooling and job histories. And marriage encourages both spouses to save and invest more for the future. Each partner provides the other with a form of insurance against falling sick or losing a job.

Marriage also encourages the division of labour. Ms Dafoe Whitehead and Mr Popenoe put it like this: “Working as a couple, individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their partner.” Mum handles the tax returns while Dad fixes the car. Or vice versa. As Adam Smith observed two centuries ago, when you specialise, you get better at what you do, and you produce more.

Before commenting on the claims of the National Marriage Project researchers, I should point out that this group has some serious critics from the LGBT community (see here). What I would like to see evidence of is that marriage causes married couples to become better workers and more responsible. What is the causal mechanism here? Until I see proof of that, I am free to interpret the correlation findings quite differently. If I reflect on my own experience (granted I am not married yet--the horror!), it seems that the behavior traits that these researchers look upon favorably, might have already been in place before the couple got married. Perhaps, the more affluent/well-educated couples have waited longer before getting married, are thereby more mature and also have made better choices about who to marry?

I leave it to you to read the rest of the article and comment. The highlights: that parents from well-educated, affluent nuclear families spend more time tracking their children (helping with homework, getting them to soccer practice etc.); children who are born to a stable married couple are more likely to find a stable married couple; and partners who co-habitate (eek, that's me) are far more likely to divorce eventually than those who get married before living together. I imagine that latter statistic is correct, but I am guessing that the explanation is far more complicated than: "if you had married before you lived together, you would still be together."

Look, I am not against marriage as an institution. I am not hostile to some of these findings. What bugs me is how they are interpreted through the lens of a political agenda. If we find that stable, affluent, educated married couples tend to breed children who will also be stable, affluent and married, then it seems a bit far-fetched to me to conclude (as many Conservatives do) that marriage is the magic solution.

I keep thinking of Morgan Spurlock's "Mininum Wage" episode from his show 30 days. One of the realities of trying to stay afloat in low paying jobs is the intense stress that economic insecurity breeds. Few of us humans can thrive in relationships, hell thrive in many ways spiritually and emotionally, living in crushing poverty. So, its hard for me to see how getting married means that couples will actually get better paying jobs with better benefits. Moreover, there is still the issues of health care and affordable day care to consider . . .

Let me also address, briefly, the issue of cohabitation:

Two-thirds of American children born to co-habiting parents who later marry will see their parents split up by the time they are ten. Those born within wedlock face only half that risk.

The likeliest explanation is inertia, says Scott Stanley of the Centre for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado. Couples start living together because it is more fun (and cheaper) than living apart. One partner may see this as a prelude to marriage. The other—usually the man—may see it as something more temporary. Since no explicit commitment is made, it is easier to drift into living together than it is to drift into a marriage. But once a couple is living together, it is harder to split up than if they were merely dating. So “many of these men end up married to women they would not have married if they hadn't been living together,” says Mr Stanley, co-author of a paper called “Sliding versus deciding”.

What never ceases to surprise me about Conservative Social Science is the assumption that the man, unfettered by social constraints like marriage, is a dawg. In fact, I want to go on a limb and say that conservatives tend to be far more sexist than us feministas. They assume that by nature men reason "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free"? I am not sure why men don't get more angry at the conservative think tanks that seem to influence the media so much these days and thereby create a popular view that men are essentially assholes unless they turn their lives over to God and commit to marriage.

Your thoughts on Marriage and Poverty?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Feminism and Co-Parenting

AJ, who is one of my oldest friends and co-author, has been sending me post cards throughout my pregnancy, full of lucid, sane, and feminist advice. She has been using the "Women Who Dared" postcards, which I love (I used to have the dayplanner). In any case, the theme of the most recent postcard was "co-parenting" a phrase that most likely bears the mark of feminist critiques of the traditional family. AJ knows full well that I wouldn't have embarked on motherhood unless I had a real partner to do this with me. I will not be quitting my job, nor do I relish the idea of the "second shift."

When I read her postcard, I was pleased by the perspicacity of her advice (the reason why I always return to write and co-author projects with her):

Here's the simplest way to figure out if you have achieved co-parenting equality: when you leave the child with her/his father, do you also leave a set of directions?

Of course, if the notion of leaving the babe alone with Dad iself seems impossible--a situation that is true for an astounding percentage of families, it seems to me--then you already have your answer.

But instructions, or the need for them, demonstrates an unfamiliarity with the rhythms and patterns of the day--an unfamiliarity that can only be remedied with experience.

I have highlighted her last, important phrase here. What is insightful about this is the realization that if the father does not know the rhytmns of the day, it is not co-parenting to pin a list on him, monitor him, and thereby give him the message that he is wholly incapable of doing this without your constant monitoring. Rather, the goal is to ensure that the father has enough experience with your child to know these rhythms as well as you do (this will involve the same kind of trial and error that you had to endure).

I think this last step is really difficult for a lot of mothers. Perhaps the reason why is that we are socialized to see men as wholly incompetent in all matters of childcare and this motif is reinforced in popular culture all the time. But, as I have said before in this post, it is certainly not a feminist perspective to perpetuate this attitude toward men that inevitably results in leaving mothers with the majority of responsibility for raising children.

It is important, however, to distinguish between "leaving a set of instructions" and sharing insights about how your children are progressing day to day. AJ doesn't make this distinction, but it is implicit in her advice. Co-parenting equality occurs when the parents treat each other as equals, respect each other as adults, and can communicate and share their observations, thoughts, and ideas with each other. I imagine that the precondition for co-parenting, a healthy, mature relationship of adults who respect each other, is also woefully rare. I hope I am wrong, but the divorce rates seem to back up my hunch.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Money is Not Always the Root of All Evil

I have been mulling over SteveG's post on the relationship between Blogads (Money) and Blog Authenticity, Message, and Commodification. I am bewildered by Steve's rejection of Blogads as a source of revenue (although, for me a paltry, paltry source) and wanted to spend a day or so thinking about why. I mean, it is odd sometimes how completely differently two people, who agree on a lot of other things, can see something like this.

My first reaction to Steve's post was: geez, he is really turning this into a full blown moral issue! I was surprised that this issue took him to thinking about corrupt columnists, commodification of culture, bloated bureaucracies of liberal causes, and undermining ones' hobby as blogger. So I analyzed why I was so taken aback by this sort of analysis. What I realized is that the level of concern that Steve seems to have with the practice seems so mismatched with the reality of the Blogads service. But, this is from my perspective, a blogger who is dropping in the Ecosystem lately and doesn't get offered to run ads much.

I chose to put up a donation button (which I am sure no one has used) and put Blogads up (thanks to Lindsay!) because I wanted to see if/how one can actually earn income from blogging. Plain and simple. I just don't see what is wrong with this? In fact, I don't see the difference between trying to get paid for the writing and community building that goes on here and getting paid for being a College Professor or getting a contract from a mainstream publisher to write a book or getting paid by a magazine for an article, etc.

I have always thought that best way to pursue a profession is to try and get paid for what you would do as a hobby; the whole point of this is precisely to avoid selling your soul for material gains that will create greater security for your family.

I think the distinction that Steve makes between blogging as a hobby and blogging with Blogads is a false dichotomy. Why can't one get paid for one's hobby? I don't get it? To my mind, and I am probably far more pro-Capitalist than Steve is, this is the very best of the American entrepreneurial spirit. I don't have the moral guilt around getting paid that Steve does. If people want to pay me for what I love to do, what's the problem?

Steve however ties this to a problem of influence of commodification, so, again, I have to ask what is the difference between putting up Blogads and getting paid for a book you put out or getting an advance on a contract with a publisher? Do those acts sully the content and worth of your ideas? Can' t we draw more sophisticated lines between being bribed and hemmed in by advertisers to adjust your content and picking or choosing to run certain blogads on your site (the latter point is salient--one gets to accept or reject and ad)?

So, I open this up to the readers here (although many of them have probably debated this at Philosopher's Playground). I guess I am not a good liberal in the old school way because I am not averse to wanting to make money for my work. But, perhaps I am being politically incorrect?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Stacking the Courts with Activist Judges

I think my single obsession since Bush took office is to watch what he has done to the courts. I remember telling one of my students, who just graduated this year (bye bye Aurora) that it was important to pay attention to who Bush was appointing as judges since these appointments could leave an unfortunate legacy for a long time. The only time I have ever lobbied my senators and organized folks to go and protest was Chief Justice Roberts' hearing.

Every time I ventured into debates about the judiciary with Republicans, I heard the same ole rant: We need to go back to the rule of law and get rid of those activist judges.

Now we hear from Monica Goodling:

The Justice Department’s former liaison to the White House testified before Congress today that she improperly weighed political factors in considering applicants for career positions in the department, and she said she was sorry.

But the former liaison, Monica M. Goodling, told the House Judiciary Committee that, contrary to public impressions, she did not play a major role in the controversial dismissals of United States attorneys last year.

And she said that former Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty had misled Congress, intentionally or otherwise, in his testimony about the firings by minimizing the role of the White House.

Mr. McNulty testified in February that most of those dismissed had been let go for performance reasons, and that Ms. Goodling had not given him all the pertinent information about the dismissals.

“The allegation is false,” she testified. “I did not withhold information from the deputy. To the contrary, I worked diligently to compile and provide the deputy with dozens of pages of statistics and other information that I thought he was likely to need, based on the questions that were being asked at that time.”

As for her own role in Justice Department hirings and firings, she said, “I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions, and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions, and I regret those mistakes.”

Can you get more blatant than that? This administration shows the classic signs of a personality disorder, my pick is Borderline. Every criticism hurled at the Dems or anyone who opposes them is actually true of them--PROJECTION?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Good News for Ugly Men?

The British Tabloid, The Sun, has (forwarded to me by Za, of course) discussing why many "hot chicks" prefer ugly men.

He’s bald and podgy, with a pock-marked face, and is easily the ugliest man in the room. She sidles into the chair next to him.

‘Hi, gorgeous,’ she purrs. The man’s gargoyle face breaks into a toothless smile.

The good-looking men know they don’t stand a chance.

Selena has dated her fair share of hunks, but has given up on gorgeous guys because they’re dull – both in and out of bed.

‘I can’t imagine anything more boring than classic handsome looks,’ she says. ‘I prefer no teeth, baldness and piercings to model looks. I like celebs such as Adrien Brody and Mackenzie Crook rather than Brad Pitt.

‘Ugly men try harder. They care more about you and treat you like a princess. Good-looking guys are self-obsessed. That’s not attractive.’

And Selena is not alone. In a recent study, sociologist Diane Felmee found only a third of women said looks were the first thing that attracted them to a man. Most preferred a sense of humour or financial and career success.

Researchers at Newcastle University also believe ugly men exist as a way of repairing our gene pool. Women would rather date men with good genes, who can fight disease easily, than a classically beautiful man.

So are good looks really that important? Love It! found three women who definitely don’t think so.

Of course this story exploits the commonly held belief that women are looking for love, financial stability, and companionship more than sweaty, hot, sex with a beautiful man. I don't buy it. I think women, particularly younger women, are more likely to objectify men these days as much as men have traditionally objectified women. And, I would wager that the more women gain their own economic security the more we will see them pursuing the "man candy" (remember Sex in the City).

By the way, have you noticed the formula for "family" sitcoms lately where there is a gorgeous wife and a shlubby guy? Who is writing those scripts?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Why I Heart Joss Whedon

Via Pandagon, I found this "rant" by Joss Whedon on the stoning of Dua Kahlil, but more importantly on the specious logic that justifies male oppression of women world-wide:

What is wrong with women?

I mean wrong. Physically. Spiritually. Something unnatural, something destructive, something that needs to be corrected.

How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I’m no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn’t buy into it. Women’s inferiority – in fact, their malevolence -- is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished. (Objectification: another tangential rant avoided.) And the logical extension of this line of thinking is that women are, at the very least, expendable.

I try to think how we got here. The theory I developed in college (shared by many I’m sure) is one I have yet to beat: Womb Envy. Biology: women are generally smaller and weaker than men. But they’re also much tougher. Put simply, men are strong enough to overpower a woman and propagate. Women are tough enough to have and nurture children, with or without the aid of a man. Oh, and they’ve also got the equipment to do that, to be part of the life cycle, to create and bond in a way no man ever really will. Somewhere a long time ago a bunch of men got together and said, “If all we do is hunt and gather, let’s make hunting and gathering the awesomest achievement, and let’s make childbirth kinda weak and shameful.” It’s a rather silly simplification, but I believe on a mass, unconscious level, it’s entirely true. How else to explain the fact that cultures who would die to eradicate each other have always agreed on one issue? That every popular religion puts restrictions on women’s behavior that are practically untenable? That the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death? In the case of this upcoming torture-porn, fictional. In the case of Dua Khalil, mundanely, unthinkably real. And both available for your viewing pleasure.

It’s safe to say that I’ve snapped. That something broke, like one of those robots you can conquer with a logical conundrum. All my life I’ve looked at this faulty equation, trying to understand, and I’ve shorted out. I don’t pretend to be a great guy; I know really really well about objectification, trust me. And I’m not for a second going down the “women are saints” route – that just leads to more stone-throwing (and occasional Joan-burning). I just think there is the staggering imbalance in the world that we all just take for granted. If we were all told the sky was evil, or at best a little embarrassing, and we ought not look at it, wouldn’t that tradition eventually fall apart? (I was going to use ‘trees’ as my example, but at the rate we’re getting rid of them I’m pretty sure we really do think they’re evil. See how all rants become one?)
I have highlighted the passage that really speaks to me. As someone who teaches courses on gender and Women's Studies I cannot tell you how many times I have heard men and women alike justify the oppression of women by the "hunter-gatherer" Ur myth. I am usually flabbergasted that they buy into this myth. Secondarily, I realize how tendentious their biological explanations are. To say that hunter-gathering activity is more important, more worthy of cultural validation than raising children is just plain dumb. More importantly, to say that brute strength should dictate who is in power is as boneheaded as you can get.

Reliving My Old Haunts

Maybe I should blame it on graduation, but I think it has a whole lot more to do with the late stage of pregnancy. Every night I am visited, no haunted, by people and scenes from my early twenties. When I awoke in the middle of the night, last night, to think about why I was dreaming about my roomate from Boston (14 years ago!), I started wondering if it had to do with the knowledge that so many of my students are embarking on their adventures, moving to fabulous cities, finding new friends, and becoming who they are. I started wondering if I was jealous? Do I want my twenties back? I admit to flipping through some of their facebook photos and reminiscing about my own good times before a mortgage, a full time job, and commitment.

I hope those of you who have graduated realize what a magical time this is in your life. I really believe that the years after college graduation came to define me more than any others. I broke free of the artificial cliques that dominated my college life (yes, I too went to a liberal arts college with lots of wealth and social pressure). I moved across the country, not knowing a soul. I had my first real job. And, with total delight, I grew up. I was poor. I didn't have a serious relationship. I didn't have any prospects for making lots of money on the horizon and having a baby was the very last thing on my mind. I wasn't ready for it.

Waiting until my late thirties to have a baby has been one of the best decisions that I ever made, even if it haunts me a little at night. If I had settled down, gotten married, and had children during any point in my twenties, I wouldn't be the mother that I will be able to be. I have travelled, lived in lots of cities, pursued my dreams, been totally irresponsible and then grown up because of it, and read a lot. I would like to think that interesting mothers make for interesting children and if my twenties did one thing for me, those years made me interesting.

I just wish I didn't have to revisit all those people and scenes in my dreams right now. While I am captivated by the memories during my sleep, I wake up in a pained, bittersweet state of mind. I look at my enormous belly and think about what baby preparations I have to make today and I realize that for a time, at least, those carefree years are gone. I don't want to perpetuate that life; that is why I chose to become a mother. I was ready for a new phase, a new experience, a new challenge.

I think that what really haunts me about these dreams is the realization that there is so much unfinished business from that time; so many paths I didn't take. I seem to be reliving the pivotal choices I made--the friendships I lost, the opportunities I turned down, and the people that I seemed to have left behind. Every life is built on these losses, these choices, and I don't think we ever forget them, though they haunt us less and less (unless we get pregnant!) as we get older and embrace the choices we did make.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Blogging v. Political Activism: Huh?

I was disappointed with our commencement speaker, Hal Prince today. We gave him an honorary doctorate and then asked him to inspire our graduates; instead, I am sure he left them feeling scolded and upbraided. He bemoaned the times, how easily we could lose all that we hold dear as Americans, and, chided this generation for a failure to protest their government.

Look, I feel this way sometimes about my students, but I just found it tacky to take the occasion of college graduation to basically piss off the students going forth into the world. A good many of our graduates do act--whether they protest, engage in service or head to policy institutes. Sure, many of them are apathetic to political issues (they can afford to be). But, why not inspire those who are already out there, challenging our leaders and policies by commending their service and asking for more . . .

Lastly, I want to mention a comment Prince made that I found to be puzzling, if not emblematic of how out of touch he is with this generation. He criticized this generation for lulling themselves into blogging each other (almost his exact words) rather than engaging in political activism. I wondered if Prince had ever seen a blog or read about how influential bloggers have been in recent activism and political races?

Has the Civil Rights generation turned curmudgeonly?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Flustered Men Standing in Line at the Grocery Store

I realized today, while waiting in line at the grocery store, that I am a sort of detective for gendered behavior. It's a curse and perhaps sometimes I see gendered behavior when there is none (thank goodness for social scientists who can test my hypotheses). In any case, what I was attentive to today was how rapidly men get impatient as they wait in long lines to pay for their one or two items. I noticed that at all the active registers today there were a few men with one or two items stuck behind women with carts brimming with the household items.

What I also started to notice was the behavior of the men towards these loaded down women. They would sigh loudly, send body language signals that they were in a hurray and thereby try to influence the woman checking out to speed things up. If they had to wait too long (which is a relative amount of time if you compare to the time many women wait all week long doing household shopping), they would start to complain loudly, perhaps criticize any of the women in front of them who might be on cell phones to while away the time, or make fun of how many items were in their carts.

I noticed how powerfully this male behavior influenced the women; they would become apologetic, embarrassed even for holding the men up. They would scramble to pay and move on lest these irritated males have to stand one more second in line. I found myself starting to succumb to their behavior as well, until it occurred to me how fucked up it was and then I stood tall, stuck out my pregnant belly and looked directly at the man trying to rush us. My hope was to give a look that said, "suck it up pal."

When I was leaving the store, I thought about how many conversations I have had with my girlfriends about how easily men get discouraged or impatient in dealing with the quotidian transactions that keep a house together. If a follow up phone call is needed because an email isn't answered, our partners begin to voice loud frustration at how incompetent so-so office or business is. What this male flustered behavior results in is the women (me!) doing more and more of the tasks that keep a household together. Rather than play the role of calming an irritated and flustered male dealing with the inevitably imperfect and inefficient processes, we just do it ourselves.

And, to cope with the time suck that is shopping or household maintenance, we learn how to multi-task. For example, today, while getting some brooms for Za, I catched up with my friend Jack and we commiserated over various job and relationship frustrations. Sometimes I bring grading with me if I know I have to wait in an auto repair place for too long or a doctor's office. There are numerous ways I try to recuperate the lost time.

But, what really struck me today is how easily men can guard their time by exhibiting these frustrated and flustered behaviors when attempting to do their part in the household maintenance.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Conceit of the Liberal Arts College

Maynard from Creative Destruction has decided to call out SteveG and I on the issue of putting more resources toward improving teaching. He asks pointed questions to test our "implied" hypothesis that students benefit more from good teaching than being around great minds (see my post and Steve G's post). Then, Maynard offers up the following thought experiment:

Let’s do a thought experiment. In the Economics Department, we teach about 54 sections of classes per year. We do this (starting in 2008) with 9 full-time, tenure track faculty teaching 3-2 loads (assuming one of our ten faculty members is on sabbatical each year), with nine sections filled by visitors and adjuncts. Suppose we took the 20 introductory-level courses we teach (average class size 20-30) and consolidated them into 4 big lectures with 100+ students in each. Suppose we reduced by one the number of sections we offer of our intermediate theory courses and statistics courses by upping the enrollment cap from 30 to 45 or 50. Bang, now we’re teaching 35 sections instead of 54, of which 26 are taught by tenure-track faculty. This would allow us to move to a 2-1 teaching load. Suppose we did this in all departments, then upped the research expectations accordingly, attracting if not the greatest minds, at least greater minds than we currently have. From the student’s perspective, you’re now taking your introductory courses and some 200-level courses in large lectures, but you get basically the same experience in upper-level courses that you have now. Would we see a decline in applications? Would students get a worse education than they currently do?

I have a few off-the-cuff reactions. First of all, why continue to call ourselves a LAC if this is the plan? Secondly, why assume that "great minds" actually have the ability to rub off some of their greatness on students? I had quite a few brilliant faculty in grad school who couldn't teach to save their lives. I was only able to appreciate their greatness, because the less great minds (like myself) helped give me the tools to be able to figure out what their contributions were to the field. I doubt that many students will benefit from being around smart people, especially in large sections, if such smarties cannot communicate. Thirdly, will you be well prepared for the upper division courses coming from large sections in the 100 and 200 level? Why not just eliminate those courses all together, give the students a list or readings, power point slides or DVD lectures to teach themselves the material?

What do you think?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Grading, Grading, and Grading.

It has been a whirlwind of a weekend. I am trying to get all my grades in today by 5 pm because I spent most of the weekend with my family who flew out to participate in my baby shower. The baby shower was good fun, except for the fact that the guests played a game: "guess how big the belly is" and were off by like 2o inches. Geez.

Za and I are now loaded down with baby loot, and once I turn in my grades today, I am focusing most of my attention on preparing the house for our baby girl. Only 2 more months. Yikes.

In any case, I am pretty distracted today so posting more than this update is unlikely. But, the power of procrastination is mighty, so you never know.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dispelling the Opt-Out Myth

From feministing, I found this interview with Pam Stone, the author of "Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home." She is dispelling the myth of the "Opt-Out Revolution," articulated in the infamous Lisa Belkin trend story from the NYTimes.

It is interesting how Katie Couric leads the interview with reference to the "new trend" of opting out, which Stone quite deftly shows is not a "new trend." In fact, it is not a "choice" in the full sense of the word at all.

I find myself regularly drawn to this debate precisely because I have many students, who take my Intro WS course, who want to be stay at home mothers. We have students interview women in careers that they would like to go into and analyze the race/class/gender dimensions of their choices as well as the obstacles. While every year students interview stay-at-home moms they almost always neglect the fact that these women were in careers before they became stay-at-home moms and therefore do not explore the reasons why they left the careers they did. The students, who are from very elite families in affluent suburbs, focus solely on the "career" of being a stay-at-home mom.

Reproductive Technology and the Law: What Fun!

Justme sent along a link to this story running in the Harrisburg paper today. What is really interesting about this article is how the journalist decided to lead with the story: "Sperm donor must pay support." Ostensibly anyone reading this article would expect to hear an unbelievable story of a court ruling (an activist judge, dare I say) who forced a sperm donor to pay child support to the parents. But, if you scroll down a bit, you learn:

Legal experts said the ruling is unique in making more than two people responsible for a child. It also brings into question when a sperm donor is liable for support, though at least one expert said the ruling shouldn't worry truly anonymous donors.

Senior Judge John T.K. Kelly wrote in the April 30 ruling that Frampton had held himself out as a stepparent to the children by being present at the birth of one of them, contributing more than $13,000 during the last four years, buying them toys, and having borrowed money to obtain a vehicle in which to transport the children.

"While these contributions have been voluntary, they evidence a settled intention to demonstrate parental involvement far beyond merely biological," the judge wrote.

Robert Rains, who teaches family law at Penn State Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle and is a co-director of the school's family law clinic, said the decision should not intimidate men who contribute to sperm banks.

"This should be entirely different from a guy who goes to a sperm bank and makes a donation with the understanding that he will remain anonymous," Rains said.

So what is this story really about? It's about a panel of judges who rule that there are more than two parents involved in the raising of the chid. This ruling is not about implicating anonymous sperm donors as parents, who are now liable for the child. Rather, it is an interesting study of how the courts might start acknowledging that more than two people can claim to be parents. It is also a case that highlights how reproductive technology practices are changing family law.

Lori Andrews, a Chicago-Kent College of Law professor with expertise in reproductive technology, said as many as five people could claim some parental status toward a single child if its conception involved a surrogate mother, an egg donor and a sperm donor.

"The courts are beginning to find increased rights for all the parties involved," she said. "Most states have adoption laws that go dozens of pages, and we see very few laws with a comprehensive approach to reproductive technology."

The state Supreme Court is considering a similar case, in which a sperm donor wants to enforce a promise made by the mother that he would not have to be involved in the child's life. That biological father was ordered to pay $1,520 in monthly support.

About two-thirds of states have adopted versions of the Uniform Parentage Act that shields sperm donors from being forced to assume parenting responsibilities. Pennsylvania has no such law.

Another important lesson to draw from this case is that PA better get with it and adopt a Uniform Parentage Act, eh?

So, I guess the law is starting to recognize that it takes a village to raise a child, eh?

UPDATE: Here is Twisty's take on the article.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Some Lessons from Harvard on How to Improve Teaching

Za just forwarded me this NYTimes article announcing Harvard's new initiative to put greater emphasis on teaching.

You’d be stupid if you came to Harvard for the teaching,” said Mr. Billings, who will graduate this spring and then go to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. “You go to a liberal arts college for the teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.”

And that is pretty much how the thinking has gone here at Harvard for several decades. As one of the world’s most renowned research universities, Harvard is where academic superstars are continually expected to revolutionize their fields of knowledge. Cutting-edge research is emphasized, and recognized with tangible rewards: tenure, money, prestige, prizes, fame.

But now, with strong support from the university’s interim president, Derek Bok, nine prominent professors are leading an effort to rethink the culture of undergraduate teaching and learning. Headed by Theda Skocpol, a social scientist, the group has issued a report calling for sweeping institutional change, including continuing evaluation and assessment of teaching and learning, and a proposal that teaching be weighed equally with contributions to research in annual salary adjustments.

I just returned from a wonderful lunch with SteveG and one of our brighest majors, wherein we talked a great deal about good pedagogy. We were telling our student how poorly trained any of us are for our job: teaching. While we landed at Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs), we didn't get put in the LAC track in graduate school that emphasized responsible pedagogy. No one taught us how to put together a syllabus, how to accomodate different learning styles among students, how to create meaningful assignments that do more than encourage memorization, etc. In fact, as SteveG pointed out, the best and brightest faculty that we gravitated to in Grad school were those who hated teaching, who saw teaching as a real hindrance to his or her "real" work, and who, consequently, sucked at teaching.

It is interesting how much teacher training is involved in non-higher ed public school certification. And yet, parents and students shell out lots of money to attend colleges, such as Harvard, where the teaching is downright lousy. Hell, there are lots of lousy teachers at the LACs too, who are supposed to stress excellent teaching.

What I most admire about Harvard's current task force proposal is the shift to reward faculty for good teaching.

There are plenty of excellent teachers at Harvard, Professor Skocpol said. But some receive little reward for their exceptional talent in the classroom, save for the occasional teaching award. To win tenure, junior faculty members strive to distinguish themselves through research as the best in their fields.

Professor Skocpol’s report quotes one graduate teaching fellow, a scientist, who won the prestigious Levenson Teaching Prize: “I earn high praise (and more money) for every paper or academic achievement while every teaching achievement earns a warning of how I should not wander off research.”

Until now, there has been no systematic effort to tie salary levels to teaching performance. “When we made presentations to businessmen about this, they couldn’t comprehend that teaching wasn’t connected to salary,” Professor Ulrich said.

While we certainly do reward good teaching here at my college more than Harvard would; we could do a lot more. In fact, in my perfect world, I would add a little of the free market approach to the Provost's office as a way of reshaping the academic program in a way that encourages intellectual excellence. At present, we spend far too much time trying to build consensus on good teaching, on good advising, on our curriculum. The fact is that faculty will never agree on these matters and trying to get everyone on the same page is a losing battle. We aren't just going to make nice and commit to a overarching image of what makes our college great.

But, there are faculty around doing the kind of work--i.e. innovative course design, service learning courses, team taught courses, courses with travel/field research built in, doing active research with students, etc.--that epitomize what many of the administrators would like Gettysburg to look like (at least according to the Strategic Planning documents). So, it seems that one way to drive change here would be to reward, and really reward, faculty who are doing what we think best embodies the mission of of this college. As it stands now--like at many colleges--there are not a lot of incentives for creative and innovative teaching (outside of intrinsic desire) and there are NO DISINCENTIVES for bad behavoir.

UPDATE: SteveG just put a fantastic blog post on how poorly trained we are for teaching.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Colbert Cooking with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem

I found a link to this tasty Colbert sketch from feministing
Colbert on Demand.

Let's Hear it for the Vagina!

Last night Za and I saw the video. You know the one: the birthing video where you see the baby's head coming out of the mom's vagina. While I was cringing, fearing how painful that would be, I was more interested in the reactions of all the fathers (Za was not among them), who said things under their breath like "I didn't need to see that." Or, "I was not ready for that." The general tenor of the group of dads was: YUCK.

Now, I am not going to get on my holier-than-thou stage and denounce them with my feminist finger wagging for having such a reaction. It is not an easy sight to see, and it can be uncomfortable in a large group of people to see naked, pregnant women giving birth. What I wanted to focus on was how odd it is that, as a culture, we find these images so despicable, while we have a huge, booming pornography industry and women's bodies are used to sell everything from cameras to power tools. We sexualize the female body all the time, but when her body is doing something really quite amazing, unbelievable, the general chorus is: ICK!

It really hit me last night why productions like the Vagina Monologues are so important to counteract this general disgust with the female body and birthing. The vagina really does get a bad rap. It is either fetishized or treated solely as the site of male penetration, or it is considered ugly, smelly, and frightening (Vagina Dentata). And yet, birth is truly an amazing process that releases a newborn into the world through a woman's vagina. There is certainly not enough praise, awe and wonder at this act.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Feminist Politics of Birth

The grading season is in full swing. Students are furiously studying and scratching out their final examinations, and then piles of papers land on our desks. Whenever we dare sigh at the spectacle of those ungraded piles, a student is usually ready-to-hand to suggest that we just give all of them As. Oh, if I could make it through one semester without a student proposing that to me I would be a happy, happy feminista.

I am trying to get through this grading season because on the other side of it is the beginning of my full-time experience as a mother. I have 2+ months until my daughter is born, and after that I am off for a semester to embark on a new area of study: how to be a mother. It really is uncanny, btw, how many folks do, in fact, give me advice on this. But, I think what amazes me even more is that many of them get offended if I don't actually share their worldview on how to give birth, how to raise children, or what it means to be a mother.

I am not a radical when it comes to the medical model approach to birth. I grew up in a medical family and I am well situated in the field of philosophy of Psychiatry and was recently appointed as an associate editor of a Bioethics journal. I spend a lot of time thinking about what is right, wrong, and problematic with medicine, but I don't tend to see the entire OBGYN practice as opposed to a healthy birth. But, ultimately, this is because I don't seem to share the same definition of "natural" that many of the books that colleagues have lent me hold.

The radical critique of the medical model and childbirth follows from a belief that OBGYNs have "medicalized" birth, and thereby made it needlessly technologically driven and micro-managed. The view is that OBGYNs see birth as something akin to an illness or disease that requires a great deal of medical expertise to negotiate safely. Because the medical practitioners don't view birth as something "natural" they tend to make the experience worse for mothers-to-be by performing unecessary operations such as C-sections and episiotimies.

While I do believe that some physicians are not sensitive to their patient's wants, that they are impatient and tend to want to control how the birth unfolds, etc., I don't share the view that the best approach to childbirth is the "natural" view. Now, having said that, I also don't go around criticizing or even looking down on women/men who do share this view. How one chooses to give birth follows from the assumptions one holds about what birthing should be like, who should be invovled and what the intentions of the medical professions are.

The fundamental reason why I am not vigilantly fighting the recommendations of my physician is because I don't think that "natural" always means "better." Those of you who have read my blog know that I rarely take an anti-technology perspective on medical matters, whether it be enhancement drugs or drugs that eliminate periods. I am definitely a feminist, but I don't see how being a feminist is inextricably linked with a radical critique of technology, that also seems to follow from a rather ill informed perspective on biology. The fact is, just because certain biological processes have evolved the way they have, doesn't mean that we should bow to them and worship them as the best of all possible ways of proceeding. Evolution is not an intelligent designer. And, frankly, there is a lot about birth and pregnancy that only confirms my suspicion that we are, in fact, coping with a rather unintelligent designer.

So, if we humans with our rational thinking can actually develop technologies that improve a "natural" process in ways that makes it less frightening, painful, or risky, then why on earth shouldn't we? I think that many of my friends that reject a technological childbirth, also reject aspirin. They see all technology as part of a patriarchal instinct to rule and tame nature, which includes the feminine. But, you see, I just don't share this perspective. I don't.

But I am never able to engage in these sorts of conversations with others in a way that is productive. It usually just leads to frustration with either my "false consciousness" or, alternatively, the natural childbirth mommies I know think I am judging them and their choices. I can understand why they would. But, what they always seem to forget is that I didn't ask them what choices they made, why they made them, and then launch into a criticism of their choices. Rather, I was told to read "X," to join this or that birthing circle, or to get a doula and when I say that I am not going to, then, well, I get the disappointed look.

The fact that feminists have made criticisms of healthcare and particularly women's healthcare is important. I share many, many of their concerns and devote a great deal of my intellectual life making such critiques. But, my criticisms begin from a rather different starting point that I fear puts me on the outs of many feminists. I am now wondering how I will fare, post-partum on some of my choices about how to rear my child.

No doubt the personal is political, but sometimes I just want it to be personal.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Sarkozy Wins

I have more than a few French friends who most likely cringed upon learning that Nicolas Sarkozy is the new President of France (see here). My colleague pointed out to me a few weeks ago that he is just like Bush, which if it were true is a real shock to the system for France. He is surely far more conservative than what the French are used to, and what that means for France will be interesting. I overheard on the radio last night that France is already bracing itself for a racial riot.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Chimps Are Persons Too

I am not sure what to make of this activist. Either he is making a clever reductio ad absurdum of the Right to Life folks, i.e. if a 3 day old fertilized egg can be declared a person, then why not a chimp? Or, he is as looney as the right to life folks, which is more likely the case. As I have said before, there is often very little difference in the tactics of the Pro-life movement and the Radical Animal Rights folks like PETA.

VIENNA, Austria (AP) - In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Viennese: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint and enjoys chilling out watching TV.

But he doesn't care for coffee, and he isn't actually a person—at least not yet.

In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal rights advocates are seeking to get the 26- year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a "person."

Hiasl's supporters argue he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests.

"Our main argument is that Hiasl is a person and has basic legal rights," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge on behalf of the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal rights group.

"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," Theuer said.

"We're not talking about the right to vote here."

The campaign began after the animal sanctuary where Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul) and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years went bankrupt.

Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless if the shelter closes. Both have already suffered: They were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled in a crate to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned the chimps over to the shelter.

Their food and veterinary bills run about $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal donations.

Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Hiasl, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But without basic rights, they contend, he could be sold to someone outside Austria, where the chimp is protected by strict animal cruelty laws.

"If we can get Hiasl declared a person, he would have the right to own property. Then, if people wanted to donate something to him, he'd have the right to receive it," said Theuer, who has vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Austria isn't the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain's parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes.

If Hiasl gets a guardian, "it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal 'personhood,'" said Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.

Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, petitioned a district court to be Hiasl's legal trustee. On April 24, Judge Barbara Bart rejected her request, ruling Hiasl didn't meet two key tests: He is neither mentally impaired nor in an emergency.

Although Bart expressed concern that awarding Hiasl a guardian could create the impression that animals enjoy the same legal status as humans, she didn't rule that he could never be considered a person.

Martin Balluch, who heads the Association Against Animal Factories, has asked a federal court for a ruling on the guardianship issue.

"Chimps share 99.4 percent of their DNA with humans," he said. "OK, they're not homo sapiens. But they're obviously also not things—the only other option the law provides."

Not all Austrian animal rights activists back the legal challenge. Michael Antolini, president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he thinks it's absurd.

"I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved, said Antolini, who worries that chimpanzees could gain broader rights, such as copyright protections on their photographs.

But Stibbe, who brings Hiasl sweets and yogurt and watches him draw and clown around by dressing up in knee-high rubber boots, insists he deserves more legal rights "than bricks or apples or potatoes."

"He can be very playful but also thoughtful," she said. "Being with him is like playing with someone who can't talk."

A date for the appeal hasn't been set, but Hiasl's legal team has lined up expert witnesses, including Jane Goodall, the world's foremost observer of chimpanzee behavior.

"When you see Hiasl, he really comes across as a person," Theuer said.

"He has a real personality. It strikes you immediately: This is an individual. You just have to look him in the eye to see that."

Friday, May 04, 2007

Bush is Getting Veto Happy

It's not just "timetables" that force him to bust out the veto pen; now it's abortion legislation. What on earth will be Bush's legacy? That he denied women their civil rights to be responsible enough to make hard decisions about their reproductive freedom (under the guise of protecting life)? Or that he authorized a war based on doctored up intelligence that led to the killing thousands of children in Iraq. From Dave Edwards at Znet:

Last December, a conference in London organised by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, reported that since the war began in 2003, hundreds of Iraqi academics have been kidnapped or murdered - thousands more have fled for their lives. In January, the Iraqi Ministry of Education reported that just 30 per cent of Iraq's 3.5 million school-aged children were attending classes. Earlier this month, a survey by the Iraqi Ministry of Health found that about 70% of primary school students in a Baghdad neighbourhood were suffering symptoms of trauma-related stress such as bed-wetting or stuttering. (Dirk Adriaensens, 'Iraq's education system on the verge of collapse,' The BRussells Tribunal, April 18, 2007;

The legislative director for the National Right to Life, Douglas Johnson, applauded Bush's promise to veto any legislation that weakened federal policies or laws on abortion, by characterizing the president's message as "drawing a bright line." There's that language again. I won't rehearse why I find it so naive, if not disengenous to believe that politicians can draw "bright lines" on ethical matters such as abortion.

Instead, I am puzzled why Douglas Johnson isn't rallying his troops to put pressure on Bush to end the war on Iraq in the name of protecting life. Surely Iraqi children (hell any Iraqi civilians) are not less important than a fetus, are they?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Breastfeeding as a Civil Right

Let's hear it for Family Values. Senator Constance Williams has introduced S.B. 34 in the PA legislature protecting a woman's right to breastfeed her baby in public. To show your support for this bill--if you live in PA--you can travel to Harrisburg for the following rally:

In celebration of Mother's Day, please join me for a rally on Monday, May 7th at 1 p.m. at the State Capitol in Harrisburg to raise awareness of the value of breastfeeding.

Last year more than 100 enthusiastic mothers, fathers and children joined me at a park in King of Prussia to rally in support of breastfeeding. The past year has seen a great deal of media coverage about the issue of breastfeeding in public. Unfortunate incidents at a busy airport and various malls have drawn hundreds of protestors to nurse-ins around the country and in our own backyards.

I have introduced three bills to support breastfeeding mothers. Senate Bill 34 protects breastfeeding in public, SB 35 ensures that a woman cannot be fired or discriminated against in the workplace for breastfeeding or expressing milk during breaks or lunch and SB 36 offers tax credits to businesses that support breastfeeding mothers.

This rally at the Capitol will give us the opportunity to show legislators and the Governor the dedication of the breastfeeding community and to educate people statewide about the benefits and advantages of breastfeeding.

If you plan to attend the rally I encourage you to meet with your State Senator and Representative to discuss your support for this important issue. This is a wonderful opportunity to become an active participant in the democratic process and visit one of the most beautiful state capitol buildings in the United States.

Please visit the Pennsylvania Legislature's web site for information about state Senate and House members, standing committee assignments and to view legislation:

If you have any questions or need more information about the rally, please contact Angela Fitterer at or 717-705-6339.

Attached is a flyer about the rally. Please circulate the flyer among your friends, family, organizations and post it on appropriate web sites and bulletin boards.

Working together we can make a difference for future generations.

Connie Williams

Senator Constance Williams
700 S. Henderson Road
Suite 100A
King of Prussia, PA 19406


Room 352, Main Capitol
P.O. Box 203017
Harrisburg, PA 17120-3017

Remuneration for Moms

I remember when I was studying French (years ago at Middlebury), a debate that broke out in one of my courses over the issue of whether or not stay-at-home moms (or even working moms) should earn a salary for their work. I believe it was a bill facing the parliament in France? The idea is that the state would pay women for for their labor.

While I don't envisage such legislation ever having half a chance in the U.S. Congress (perhaps others have smarter things to say?), it is food for thought to consider how much unpaid labor women do as mothers. CNN reports today what, on average, women could earn for their work:

(Reuters) -- When Tricia Himawan was a financial analyst, she worked 50 hours a week and earned about $75,000 a year. Now, she works, by her estimation, about 119 hours a week doing 11 different jobs, and, for 10 of them, she makes ... nothing.

"I work nonstop as a mother," says Himawan, of West Orange, New Jersey, as she breast-feeds her nine-month-old son Jonas and watches over 4-year-old Juliana.

If she were paid for her work as a mother, she would be earning almost $140,000 a year.

That is the conclusion of research conducted by, a firm based in Waltham, Massachusetts, that specializes in determining compensation. Himawan was one of 40,000 mothers who responded online to explaining what their job entailed and how many hours they worked. (Book urges mothers to stay in work force)

The typical mother puts in a 92-hour work week, the company concluded, and works at least 10 jobs. In order of hours spent on them per week, these are: housekeeper, day-care center teacher, cook, computer operator, laundry machine operator, janitor, facilities manager, van driver, chief executive officer and psychologist. By figuring out the median salaries for each position, and calculating the average number of hours worked at each, the firm came up with $138,095 -- three percent higher than last year's results. (Audio Slide Show: Evolution of motherhood)

Even mothers who work full-time jobs outside the home put in $85,939 worth of work as mothers, according to

"My work is my family right now, and my backbone is about to break," says Himawan, who now also works at home as a real-estate broker."My baby is on my hip 24 hours a day."

Find out how much salary you should be earning with the Mom's Salary Wizard at

UPDATE: See Jessica from feministing on this issue.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

International Philosophy

What is a College Degree for Anyway?

Last week my student PW had the following to say about attendance policies:

I'm going to point out the obvious and say that I have a slightly different opinion than everyone else so far. I am not an advocate for attendance policies, but not because I don't think they help the student out, rather because there are certain classes taken at college just to fill the schedule. I am not a hard core academic, I believe life is about having fun and college is about growing up. I am not a philosophy major/minor, nor do I really feel that I get that much out of philosophy. I have taken 2 of your classes because they seem more interesting than some of the other one's offered, they fit in my schedule, and I am more interested in the history of thought than world history. I don't think I should be punished for this either. I am not expecting to get an A, I just want to get the credit, learn a little, or be challenged on something I believe in. But the bottom line is, there are some nights where I am going to opt to have a few beers instead of doing an assignment or maybe skip class to play a round of golf. I am a senior and going to graduate school for biology, a field that I find more useful to my personal life so as such I will allocate more of my time to those classes. Philosophy is interesting, but I don't really find it useful for me. I am never going to be one of the great thinkers of the world, I just don't want to be. I want to be a family man living life to the fullest which for me means playing hard and hardly working. I have always found the phrase 'find a job that you love' interesting because I want a job that allows me to do what I love. The students that are truly driven will go to class and put in the hours and get that A - good for them. But that might not always be me, and I don't think I should be punished for it.
I was reminded of his post today as I read Barbara Ehrenreich's piece "Higher Education Conformity" on Alternet (hat tip: IsThatLatin). Ehrenreich is musing of the real value of college education for future employment:

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear. Jones, for example, was performing a complex job requiring considerable judgment, experience and sensitivity without the benefit of any college degree. And how about all those business majors -- business being the most popular undergraduate major in America? It seems to me that a two-year course in math and writing skills should be more than sufficient to prepare someone for a career in banking, marketing, or management. Most of what you need to know you're going to learn on the job anyway (my emphasis).
I have been known to make this very same point to audiences of parents, future students, or prospective majors. My aim is always to sell the value of a Liberal Arts degree, which is not, primarily, vocational training, but rather "character building" (for lack of a better descriptor). A LAC degree will hopefully make you an interesting person, a life-long learner, an out-of-the box problem solver, and foster civic commitment. It isn't about job training.

This seems to be the focus of my student PW above: "I am a senior and going to graduate school for biology, a field that I find more useful to my personal life so as such I will allocate more of my time to those classes. Philosophy is interesting, but I don't really find it useful for me." The idea here is that the value of courses is measured by how they will pay off for one's future career. (Btw, if this is your approach to education, I honestly cannot fathom why on earth you would spend $46,000.00 a year to attend an elite LAC like my college, especially if you are largely wasting the experience by shunning all of the amazing opportunities you would have for such a price tag because they are not directly relevant to your career goals.)

However, Ehrenriech is not so interested in defending the value of a good education, as I am. Rather, she is asking us to consider whether the real reason that empolyers now require a college degree is to ensure a docile, subdued, and obedient workforce:

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one's ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white collar job, most of the time you'll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end -- whether in library carrels or office cubicles -- does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned -- although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation. Unless your parents are rich and doting, you will walk away from commencement with a debt averaging $20,000 and no health insurance. Employers can safely bet that you will not be a trouble-maker, a whistle-blower or any other form of non-"team-player." You will do anything. You will grovel.

Before reading her piece, I would've said High School (especially in the era of NCLB) is the place to breed a docile, obedient work force. However, her "indentured servitude" point is interesting. A debt ridden workforce cannot afford to buck authority, can they? I will also add that in a conversation I had with a recent graduate about his job in a cubicle in a major corporation, he bemoaned what a waste his education was. He majored in Economics and yet what he was doing did not require 1/1oth of what he learned in college (forget about what his Philosophy minor did--probably made him start questioning authority!)

So, what interests me about Ehrenreich's piece is that she is not poo-pooing the life of the mind, in the way that PW is above, but she is putting the lie to the value of a college education for a better skilled workforce. A college degree, the argument goes, is a valuable only insofar as it tames the human animal (to sound Nietzsche-like).

If that is what I am doing in the classroom, then, well, just shoot me now.

Weed Out Classes

The Incompetent Copier, over at Ethics and Ethos, has a post up questioning the value of "weed out" courses. Here is an excerpt:

We’ve all had those professors. The class huddles silently and fearfully together, trying their best to absorb the technical and often dull lecture, too intimidated to ask or answer questions. Exams are impossible, essays are graded as if they were professional papers, and more and more students disappear as the semester trudges onwards. Those with a legitimate interest in the subject, who put in the effort and complete all the work, are not rewarded for their efforts and are often discouraged from continuing in the course or the discipline. Worse yet, when they approach the professor for help (an extremely difficult task for anyone), they are often mocked and told to give up their academic or professional goals. This mockery can in no way be construed as friendly advice. The professor instead glories in his/her intellectual status, crushing the student out of sheer egotism.

Many professors cite the need to “weed out” those students who will not be able to advance in the field (this phenomenon seems to be concentrated in the sciences, although I’m sure it occurs in other areas as well). I’ve never understood this logic. There is no way you can look at a 19 year old, a teenager who hasn’t completed his or her mental development, and accurately predict the limits of his/her intellectual capability or interests. The goal of an undergraduate education is to explore different subjects, expand one’s mind, and find the courage to be creative and take intellectual risks. Instead of fostering intellectual confidence and creativity, however, “weed out” classes needlessly destroy the interests and ambitions of many bright people. Leave the intellectual hazing for graduate school, please.

Not only do these types of professors damage their students, they also hurt their fellow faculty members. Students end up putting disproportionate amounts of time into one or two courses, struggling to meet impossible expectations. They simply do not have the time or mental energy to focus on their other courses and as a result turn up to class exhausted, if they indeed show up at all instead of spending class in the library, frantically trying to complete the work for other courses. The professors who don’t have a death wish for all of their students, who try to encourage actual learning, often don’t get as much effort put into their courses simply because students don’t have time. This, I think, is quite a shame, for it is these professors that are the ones who inspire their students to wrestle with the material and mature intellectually. [Go read the rest of Death and Classes]
I can imagine some perfectly respectable arguments for "weeding out," i.e. not enough resources in the department to accomodate student interest. I also wonder where these students are sent? Which departments become homes to the students weeded out?

Since our little insiginificant corner of the blogworld has turned out some excellent discussions lately on pedagogy, I turn this over to you, dear readers. What, if any, is the value of the "weed out"?