Monday, December 29, 2008

How about Living the Off the Grid Life

I just returned from a very hectic travel schedule for Christmas. Living up here in the hinterlands makes it difficult to get out of town. Add, on top of that, storms all over the country and you have a nightmare on your hands. I have never been so happy to return home after travel this Christmas.

While traveling, I had little access to the internet and, surprisingly, found that to be renewing. In many ways, moving up to a remote town, coupled with chasing after a toddler, has made me more Luddite than usual. I am enjoying slowing down and this change in my personality had me reflecting quite a bit on Judith Warner's "Living the Off-Label Life," which *I* sent to me (with exhortations to finish my book!). First of all, readers who know me well, already know that I am no Psychopharmacological Calvinist. I think that Henry Greely's arguments concerning enhancement technologies are fine. I do think it is problematic to make bright lines on the continuum that distinguishes morally permissible from morally impermissible enhancement.

I just spent several days with lots of children and family--negotiating airplane problems and customer service nightmares. The idea that enhancement therapies could help a frazzled person better cope with all of these demands and stresses is appealing. It really is. Self-medication is not only morally permissible in my book, but it is necessary.

But, for me, the the real problem with the "Off-Label Life," as Warner cleverly calls it, is not the individual choices of whether or not to take ritalin or ambien to get through one's multi-tasked, fast-paced day. Rather, the problem manifests as political. The technologies that we use to manage the lifestyle we have created here in the U.S. (and increasingly elsewhere) only reifies and thereby legitimates it. We don't ever step back and ask: "Really, is this what life is about?"

No American holiday brings this home for me more than Christmas. We raise children now to expect to wake up on Christmas morning with dozens of "box store" gifts that take a paycheck bonus (if families are lucky to have employed parents) and more food than anyone can eat. This past Christmas, I found myself totally alienated and downright disgusted by this behavior. I thought about how shitty the whole economy is, how many people are struggling to get food and shelter, and then when I saw how much food that me and others made that got thrown away, and how many gifts were wrapped up that cost money that people could've really used for more elemental things, I was bummed.

Now, try to change the rules on kids at this point. You can't. They have been raised to expect this. The entire culture rewards this sort of gluttony. My dad even pointed that if you don't have gifts that children like, then they will start to cry. Gratitude doesn't seem to be part of the picture. But, you can't change the rules on kids who have grown up expecting this (I can however, never have Maddie grow up this way!).

Anyway, my reflections on the waste of Christmas--and how much the consumerism detracts from the real gifts of Christmas, such as spending time together away from work--come from the same intuition I have about enhancement medications.

We build them to persist in a gluttonous, wasteful, hectic and self-indulgent life. Why do moms take Ritalin or drink lots of coffee? To have enough energy to get their children from one structured activity to the next and their equipment and snacks and change of clothes, etc. Parenting=multi-tasking par excellence.

My former colleague Kerry has a great insight about how our consumerist culture expects utter perfection from everyone. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the behavior of uber-mothers. And, they transmit this to their children who grow up with anxiety fits about all the variety of ways to fail or to get hurt or make mistakes. No wonder my students are so damn medicated! So, we have hockey moms souping up on enhancement drugs to get through their structured children play/practice/tutoring/extra-curricular-activities-that-look-good-on-college-applications days. Then, we have their children growing up with unrealistic, and soul crushing, expectations for what counts as success.

Let's face it. This is fucked up. And, to get through our expensive and hectic lives we take enhancement medications, which keep us going and cranking out that American work ethic.

More than ever I count myself lucky to live in this tiny town. My daughter won't grow up around ostentatious displays of wealth or "keeping up with the Jones" Wii games and Barbie Palaces. She will grow up learning how to chop wood, clear trails in the wood, fish (hunt?), cross-country ski, read, build warm fires, make homemade pumpkin pies . . .So, am I a Luddite?

Maybe. But, the alternative really sucks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tim Wise

My student, who I discussed in the last post, was highly influenced by Tim Wise:

I updated this and added more Tim Wise videos.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Race: The Hardest Pill to Swallow

I teach many many courses that turn to the question of race and how it cripples some people, empowers others, and generally rents the fabric of our cultural quilt. I usually need a lot of downtime when I embark on readings and class discussions that have to do with race. It is the concept that causes me the most stress in discussions. I also find myself having to keep in check my disgust at some of the comments students and other faculty make. But, I am equally able to tap into the frustrations on white students. I am white. I benefit from this aspect of my identity everyday.

Anyway, I just can't help being surprised at how unwilling students are to recognize that racism still exists today. They just don't believe the first-hand testimonies of people of color. They don't believe statistics--and look for some other explanation. For them, the only sure sign of racism would be violence on the order of the KKK. Otherwise, it is not there.

Students will, however, grant that sexism exists, that discrimination based on age, class, nationality, and religion all exist. But that is it. Race is passé.

This is only going to get worse with Obama's election. I have noted that many a blog discusses this. But, my specific contribution to this discussion is how Obama's election is allowing white students to once again avoid the uncomfortable realization that non-white people don't experience the world in the same way.

One of my most thoughtful students this semester--a young, white man--pointed out that being White is a psychologically crippling identity. There is nothing one can take pride in--at least in a way that isn't disturbing--about being White. I guess this is it. But, why doesn't it hit students as hard in their identities as Americans? Or women? What is it about being White that is so profoundly psychologically crippling?

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Monday, December 15, 2008


I have been musing on a very touchy subject and I predict that my comments will be either misunderstood or cause offense. But, here goes. I have been thinking about how many of the older academic women I know can be matronizing. In my most charitable moments, I see the overbearing advice of my fore mothers oriented at protecting me from outright and institutional sexism. I am talking about the advice, wherein I am warned about the "patriarchal" style of certain male colleagues--ones I barely know--or administrators. I am exhorted to stand up for myself, to protect myself with mounds of documentation of my excellence, and, this one always gets me, told to constantly set up boundaries with my students (or else I will be seen as their mother).

What usually irks me about this matronizing stuff is how negative it is. (Here is where I am going to be misunderstood). But, it is true. The vibe I get from matronizers is negativity and anger. Men are either sexist pigs or lecherous. In this worldview, no woman is capable of being warm, nurturing toward students and colleagues, cheerful and congenial WITHOUT it being read as unprofessional or unserious. Moreover, in this worldview, sexist pricks are out with their fangs at every turn. No man is to ever be trusted completely. Even the good guys are deficient, insofar as they are insensitive to the sexism out there.

I find this worldview oppressive. I don't see the world this way. I don't experience the world this way. And yet, I am a overt, proud, and outspoken feminist. I am passionate about the ways gender stereotypes harm women. I am concerned about female poverty rates. I LIVE the difficult balance of work and family. I have dedicated my life to fighting all of these.

But, I just cannot live in a world where I see everyone--especially men--as always out to get me. I cannot live in a world where I am to suppress my natural affection for people, in particular students, in order to be "taken seriously." I am unwilling to be grumpy. I don't see where it gets me.

So, what I am left wondering about matronizers, is: does their behavior reflect a trauma, an injury, a pattern of injuries that have made them profoundly self-protective and cynical? Am I one of those happily delusional types (some research suggests that cheerful people are more delusional about reality than depressed types)?

Or, is feminism the vehicle by which they express a kind of temperamental grumpiness?

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Deficit Model of Schooling

I just read a truly fascinating article by Kyunghwa Lee, entitled "ADHD in American Early Schooling: From a Cultural Psychological Perspective." There is a lot to think about in this essay, including the relationship between No Child Left Behind policies and the unbelievably high rates of ADHD diagnoses and consequent Ritalin use among young school children, specifically in the United States. Lee discusses the role that teachers play in prompting parents to think about bringing their disruptive, distractable, or boisterous child to a physician for a diagnosis. Lee points out that what leads teachers, albeit ambivalently, to consider a child ADHD is how often the child distracts the teacher from the rest of the class. And, the most important insight, to me, that Lee has is that this model of distraction only makes sense in a larger model of early child schooling where the goal is to emphasize word use over bodily motion. Our schools, especially if they are overcrowded, rely on children sitting quietly, listening to the teacher and completing their tasks. Lee quotes L. Bresler ("Dancing the Curriculum"): "a moving body in school is typically regarded as disruptive."

What I want to focus this post on, following on the heels of yesterday's post, is the other valuable insight that American schools operate on a "deficit model." Quoting Bill Ayers (To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher): "We start with what kids can't do and don't know. It's as if we brainstormed a list of each of them . . . that we figured out hat they don't understand or value, what they feel incompetent or insecure about, and we then developed a curriculum to remediate each deficiency. The curriculum is built on a deficit model; it is built on repairing weakness. And it simply doesn't work."

Wow, that really grabbed my attention. While the focus of this article is on very young children, I can't help but note how often I hear colleagues frame their exprience with college students this way. The whole process seems like one of punishment and submission. Education is about smacking around young people who don't want to work hard and buckle down (like we did). No wonder students groan and panic when we mark up their papers and find not one shred of something positive to say. Who would be enticed to go on.

And, we also have a whole lot of college students turning to amphetamines, such as Ritalin, to buckle down the way we want them to and get properly disciplined.

What do you think?

P.S. I realize, by the way, that my excited endorsement of Bill Ayers' view of the deficit model is likely to elict all sorts of ire from the wingnuts out there. But, fuck 'em.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Pay Them for Their As?

My hip former-undergrad-and now-current-grad-school student sent me this link from the Colbert Report. Roland Fryer's "incentive" to get black students to perform better is to pay them for A's. I am both intrigued and repulsed by this idea.

First, full disclosure: my libertarian father used this model with me in High School and it worked like a charm. He used it with my brother and it failed. But, in my brother's case it failed because my Dad usually gave him access to money anyway for his excellent athletic achievements. So, the incentive model is not inherently flawed if properly administered. Who doesn't like money?

Here are my concerns and questions about this model.

(1) Cheating. Where there is money, there are always people trying to game the system and get their cut with minimal effort. Or at least, minimal intellectual effort. What might be the relationship between this program and the rise of bullying?

(2) Reification of a commodity view of education. Ok, I am a "pie in the sky" LAC professor who loves to learn for the sake of learning. Yes, this is probably an effect of my class and thereby relative economic security. But, I spend a great deal of time combatting the rich and middle class students' views of education as a commodity-they-are-paying-for on a regular basis. So, what sort of standing will I have in this debate if the our government starts paying students in middle and high school. What happens to the intrinsic drive to learn?

(3) Should education be vocationally focused? Certainly my former brilliant student (you know who you are!), argued that they are. She too is an economist (thankfully with some Philosophy training for good measure). But, really?

(4) What really intrigues me is that paying for grades somehow resolves all the other profound problems plaguing students in bad school districts or coming from poverty stricken and/or poorly educated families. Which students succeed in this model? Does a cash incentive really give the needed push to transcend these circumstances?

What do the rest of you think?
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