Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So it begins

Next week marks the beginning of my sixth semester as a professor. Below are some funny things that have happened in my classroom over the years both at my current university and as a TA in grad school.

1) Student spelling errors are always a treat, especially when MS Word either doesn't catch the mistake or corrects inappropriately. I often have students analyze examples from the media and their real lives to be sure they connect course material with their lived experiences. Once, a young lady was applying a friendship theory to Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy. She meant to say that Lucy would always have her Ethel to rely on, but what she wrote was, "Of course, Lucy would always have her ether." A very different kind of dependence.

2) I assigned people into pairs to work on a small in-class discussion. That day there was an odd number of students present, so I looked at the pair the last extra person was sitting nearest and said, "Why don't you all just have a three-way?"  The whole room looked at me with wide eyes until it sank in what I said. As it dawned on me, I added, "Well. That didn't come out well, did it?"  They all laughed, we moved on, and I learned to be more careful in how I speak. I also learned early on it's better to be laughed with than at. They respect you more if you can laugh at yourself.

3) A student was presenting on the issue of gay and lesbian teachers and parental fears of their children being "indoctrinated." Only she said, "Parents are afraid gay and lesbian teachers will rub off on their children." I am not a mature person, but it didn't help that a few of the other students giggled, too. The student who said it was very smart and kind, and she took it in stride. But I had a hard time controlling myself for awhile.

4) I was teaching a freshman public speaking class early on in my time at my current school. I had a little metal tin that I passed around with numbers so that they were randomly assigned a date and order for giving their speeches. The first time I did this during the semester, I explained the process and then started walking around for them to draw their number. I got to one girl, who apparently hadn't been paying attention to my instructions. I put the metal tin in front of her, and she got a very sheepish look on her face as she reached into her mouth for her gum. She thought I was busting her for gum in the classroom. So cute. I said, "No. You can have gum. That's okay. I just need you to draw a number for your speech." Then she turned from sheepish to embarrassed.

5) In another speech class, a student was clearly wildly under-prepared for his speech on soccer. He was nervous and fidgety the whole time. He got to the part on the importance of proper handling of balls, which would be hard to say under the best of circumstances when you're an 18-year-old boy (or an immature teacher). Under these less ideal circumstances, even harder. He paused. Everyone looked up. He smirked. Then he snickered. Then he desperately fought to regain his composure. Then I had to look down and shake quietly with laughter while he continued on.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my job, and the responsibility, and the students who just don't care. But really. How amazing is it all, really? There are lots of funny, fascinating, and educational opportunities even for teachers. So, I will go on, head into this semester hoping for more funny than frustrating.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Persistence of Violence

Excuse me while I jump on the bandwagon here.

The situation in Tuscon is a tragedy, and now we have to wait to figure out what exactly went on and why this person chose to harm a Congressperson. What I won't be a part of, in the angst, is an overly simplified partisan attack on speech.

On one hand, I absolutely understand the concern being hoisted on the Sarah Palin target ad, the call to violent revolution by the Tea Partiers, the Nevada politician's call for a "second amendment solution," the Glenn Beck wild conspiracy, the rage-filled response to the health care bill last year, the insinuation that Obama is a Muslim/not a citizen/Hitler. Currently, it seems that the Far Right is focused on a self-righteous crusade using violent and angry rhetoric. All of those things have consequences, and that consequence may be that it pushes already imbalanced people over the edge. It doesn't make the Conservatives responsible directly, but it does give them secondary responsibility for their words and actions.


On the other hand, there's no way that I (as a more liberal leaning person) can allow the pundits on my side of the aisle to wash their hands of the whole thing. Keith Olbermann (who annoys the holy bejeezus out of me) calls people "The Worst Person in the World" on every show. Bill Maher antagonizes the Right with spiteful words and a condescending air. I hear liberal friends and pundits too readily dismiss Conservatives and Christians as mouth-breathing hate mongers. None of these, in my opinion, rise to the level of hate I see and hear from the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaugh's of the world, but they certainly aren't blameless or innocent. Just as above, these comments don't mean liberals have direct responsibility for the actions of people like yesterday's shooter...but, again, it does give them some secondary responsibility.

Rumors surrounding yesterday's assassin have him reading the left-wing The Communist Manifesto as well as the right-wing Mein Kampf. Clearly this guy isn't the simple "mouth-breathing" conservative that some have insinuated he is. Regardless, that doesn't mean the current political rhetoric of violence and hate haven't impacted his already screwed up mind. Because what really matters here is that we've created a partisan divide that dehumanizes the opposition, whichever side you're on. Different opinions are too often seen as fundamental flaws, implications of an evil or ill-intentioned heart, as reason to hate. We're all guilty of buying into this, myself included, I admit. A side effect of this is that we also tend to see ceding a point as weakness, because it implies that we might agree with something evil or vile. When we paint the opposition as evil or the enemy, we paint ourselves into a very dangerous, very explosive corner. We eliminate our ability to reason and find consensus and unity...on anything.

And there's more! Beyond the political rhetoric, we live in a culture that values and prizes violence, and to think that has no effect on society is foolish. Our movie rating system is quick to slap an R on a movie with a sex scene or a few too many "f words," but more lenient when it comes to torture, explosions, gunfire, and physical assault. Our network television shows have to limit their vocabulary and sex scenes, but I've seen terrible and deeply offensive acts of violence on nearly every night that I've flipped through. Law enforcement shows, hospital shows, action dramas--all of them are free to show blood, murder, and attacks.  Similarly, our video games are now based on murdering "the bad guys," whoever that might be. Our music often glorifies violent acts, too.

Like the political rhetoric, none of these media portrayals of violence, or their creators and distributors, are directly responsible for the violent acts that occur in our society. But, once more, they bear some indirect responsibility through their glorification of violence and the sheer brutality that an imbalanced person might glom onto.

As a society, we need to stop seeing acts of violence like yesterday's attack as exceptions to the rule. We can no longer afford to write them off as isolated incidents of crazy or unstable persons. We are creating monsters through the violent and demeaning undertones of the discourses we use and surround ourselves with. We are a poisoned culture. We are a particularly violent society. And the sooner we connect the dots between our words/entertainment and the violence that we see on the news, the sooner we can work toward reducing these non-isolated events. We're all guilty.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Academic Me

I taught a course in the fall on the idea that what we know to be true and real is a product of our time and place. What we taken for granted about ourselves, and the world in which we swim, is a product of our upbringing, our experiences, our cultural norms and rules. The world isn't made up of Truth, some universal, mandated Has To Be This Way reality. Instead it is made up of the truths of the moment and the truths of the prior moments.

I teach my students that who they are has some grounding in their genetics and psychology, but that our enactment of our psychological makeup is a product of how those impulses have been cultivated through our relationships and interactions in a world of rules and norms. For example, I believe I am genetically predisposed to my high levels of anxiety...there's a thread in the family that's hard to ignore. However, because I live in 2011, that's seen as just part of who I am. If I had lived in 1911 or 1811, who knows? As a woman, I might have been seen as hysterical with the common curse of feminine frailty and emotional weakness. As a result, back then I would never have been able to channel an of that anxious energy into education or other diversions. I might have become more recluse, more frail and pitiable because society told me that is who I was and that was what I deserve. I would have been Dena, but a very different Dena--the same genetics with a very different lived experience.

Anyway, what this leads to is that I've been thinking about my own hypocrisy. What I teach my students is that there is no Truth, no Inevitable. We live in a culture, we shape our own and others' lived experience through our interactions. Yet, in my own mind, I am somehow forever doomed to unhappiness. I am a I am a Failure. I am an unchangeable force of pessimism. It's just Who I Am.

But how can that be when I'm such an advocate for the lack of such a Truth? I can point, of course, to the fact that every time I've tried to be more positive I fail and go right back to pessimism and unhappiness. But do those failures to overcome signify a Truth of an inevitable future of unhappiness? I also point to the fact that a majority of my daily interactions in my relationships are supportive and should lead me to a positive self-image, but here I am otherwise. In my head, this is proof of the Conclusive Evidence of my own permanent rut.

But can I really be an honest professor, can I really teach my students about the social construction of realities, when I don't practice this in my daily life? How can I become a more honest professor by taking on my philosophy to conquer my own demons? My tendency is always to use theory and philosophy to think through my opinions and understanding of the world. Can I do the same to think through myself and my understanding of myself? Can I do a research study on myself? Review the "literature" on my own mental health, gather the data of my experiences, analyze it within a theoretical--social constructionist--framework and come to some improved understanding through careful analysis?

Is the answer to my problem the research process? And further, can I get tenure on that?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


There's hope for me. It's small. It's fleeting, but it's there.

Yesterday I had a meeting that I was dreading, and I knew I was the cause of dread for another person at the meeting. I hate confrontation most of the time (Delta Airlines being an exception to the rule), but being an adult and a professional means that I sometimes have to have difficult conversations. Yesterday was definitely in that category. I'm blessed to have a department chair who is my total advocate and always goes beyond the call of duty to help me.

So, as I was sitting in my office beforehand, I was experiencing that old heart racing, stomach churning, shaking feeling. And the thought flew through my head and onto my Facebook status before I even had time to fully reflect on it: "So far in my life, I have got through everything that has seemed overwhelming and scary. This day will be no different."

What was that? Optimism? Is there some aquifer of positivity that lives way down deep in the core of me, waiting to be discovered? Given my general emotional state right now, that was profoundly unexpected, but it really worked. I felt my heart rate slow and my shaking reduce. I went into the meeting still nervous, but with an overall calmer feeling than I expected. When the meeting began, I opened it with (I think) grace and a sense of ease. And it all went fine. I got through it, just as unexpectedly predicted. 

So there you go. I may not be a lost cause after all.