Category Archives: This Is What A Feminist Looks Like

when “love” is expressed through violence and what we can do about it

Pride and sadness fill my heart. After reading BlogHer blogger Liz Henry‘s post, Domestic Violence: I called the cops. Where were my neighbors?, I couldn’t help but feel a strange combination of pride and sadness. Pride for the blogger and her partner who risked their safety to intervene when they saw someone else’s safety in danger. Sadness that this kind of violence is allowed to go on. Oh, and I feel fear, for both the woman being attacked and for the couple who stood up for her even as they were threatened with violence and assaulted by racial slurs. After letting all of this  set in, I also feel anger. Not the anger that leads to violence, but the anger that yields a desire to do something, to bring about change. And now, a feeling of hopelessness and desolation. How can I/we change something that generations of women have been fighting against with little result? I’m not certain how correct this is statistically. I studied violence against women for some time, but I’m unfamiliar with any studies that provide empirical evidence of the connection between anti-violence movements and lower rates of domestic violence. Of course given the low reporting rate for violence against women, this may tell us very little. I suppose the best way to make a difference is one person at a time, the way that Liz Henry and her partner did. The outcome wasn’t ideal. The woman refused to press charges and left with her violent “partner,” but she left knowing (or if not, at least having someone show her) that there are people who care about her. People who care when anyone, even people that they don’t know, are being threatened and abused. People who care enough to risk their safety to intervene. People like Liz Henry and her partner. Maybe this knowledge will bolster her strength, remind her that she is important and that:
Last night, my mother told me about the SC woman, Tisha Cason, who went to court twice to get a restraining order against her husband only to be turned down both times and then murdered by the husband that she feared enough to seek help from a justice system that did not take her concerns, her life, seriously. [The linked article does not foreground the denial of the protection order, so I am quoting that segment here:
court records show Tisha spent her final days trying to get the court to protect her from her estranged husband. Nine days ago a judge denied Tisha’s request for an emergency hearing, and two days ago, another judge said no to a protective order against Charlie Cason
This cannot continue. What can we do to protect the men and women of the world from the people who claim to love them but who express that “love” (read: control, possessiveness, hatred for self and others) through violence? I guess we must do what Liz Henry and her partner did: help and protect as much as we can, one person at a time.

bell hooks and the challenges of teaching in higher ed

Though the month is nearing its end, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the amazing African-American thinkers and visionaries who have influenced my life. It’s unfortunate that we need to designate a month to ensure that topics that should be covered year long get mentioned.  Many have argued this same point, including someone I greatly admire–bell hooks. An African-American feminist teacher, hooks has inspired me with her progressive pedagogy and her unfailing willingness to venture into waters that many scholars avoid, such as the topic of love. I had the great pleasure of meeting her at the 2004 NCTE convention in Indianapolis and the even greater pleasure of discussing how love is ignored as a scholarly and pedagogically relevant subject. Her work on feminism, pedagogy, racism, and diversity have nourished me in my academic career. Her consistent commitment to accessibility has not only proven inspirational but has encouraged me to maintain my own commitment to making academic work and theory accessible to those outside of academia. hooks’ works are consistently easy to read and understand, accessible to multiple audiences, even as they express complex ideas and theories. Unlike theorists who preach accessibility while writing jargon-laden articles and books, bell hooks practices the kind of accessibility that she preaches. She manages to convey complex ideas to a broad audience without sacrificing quality, something that I also try to accomplish in my work as a teacher and scholar.

Since I am particularly fond of student generated media, here is a short YouTube video created in honor of bell hooks. (Point #7 is particularly relevant to Black History Month.)

A recent talk that bell hooks gave at Burton Street Community Center and Peace Gardens in Asheville, NC is also on YouTube. In her talk, she discusses community, technology, gender, and race and reads from one of her children’s books Be Boy Buzz. She ends her talk with the following: “In Buddhism we talk about the fact that the earth is my witness. So, we are here today to witness together the need to build community on all levels, to remember that community is not one-dimensional, to remember that we can come together in many different fronts and be together and belong.”

hooks’ scholarship and perspectives on community have been instrumental in my dissertation research. They have continued to encourage my belief in participatory research and education. Her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom profoundly influenced my own pedagogical approaches and introduced me to the Pauolo Freire’s “liberatory pedagogy.” I have continued to follow her work with great interest.

In a discussion with The Media Education Foundation, hooks talks about how “popular culture is where the pedagogy is; it is where the learning is” revealing how her interest in analyzing pop culture arose out of her experiences in the classroom. Students had difficulty understanding concepts of difference and otherness and how these were relevant to their lives, but when discussed in the context of films or tv shows, the students were better able to grasp the concepts. Part one of her discussion is included below:

An additional point that I appreciate here is her insistence upon the importance of critical thinking for all people and how the ability to think critically is an important tool that can make a difference in the lives of everyone, regardless of their material wealth or class status.

The most enabling resource that I can offer as a critic or an intellectual professor is the capacity to think critically about our lives. I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life and I really believe that a person who thinks critically who, you know, may be extraordinarily disadvantaged materially can find ways to transform their lives that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful in the same way that someone who may be incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically.

In addition hooks speaks against this idea that certain students should only be taught what are considered “practical skills” that they can use to get a job and make money. She doesn’t claim that this is unimportant; she simply emphasizes the importance of critical thinking as a tool and the right to learn it. Having taught in the Ivy League and at open admissions universities, hooks notes that the distinction between the students at the two types of schools is mostly based on their perception of their future:

My students were equally brilliant when I taught in Harlem as when I taught at Yale or Oberlin, but that their senses of what the meaning of that brilliance was and what they could do with it, their sense of agency was profoundly different….They don’t have that imagination into a future of agency and as such I think  many professors do not try to give them the gift of critical thinking. In a certain kind of patronizing way education just says all these people need is tools for survival, basic survival tools, like their degree so they can get a job and not in fact that we enhance their lives in the same way we’ve enhanced our lives by engaging in a certain kind of critical process.

The points that hooks makes here are some that I have struggled with myself. It’s crucial that we find the balance between equipping students with the skills that they expect to learn in order to find a job. The reality is that most students enter higher education with the objective of attaining a job, specifically one that is higher paying than the one they would get with a high school education. When I chose to go to college, while I certainly expected to get a job, my primary motivation was to learn knew things. I was lucky to have already been instilled with a belief in the importance of critical thinking and perhaps more importantly with the belief that it was my right to learn these things. (hooks mentions that Yale students feel entitled to that kind of learning in a way that her Harlem students do not.) I was also privileged enough that for me higher education was a given; I never doubted that I could and would go to college. Many of my students at Purdue have had similar experiences though it seems that most of them entered college with attaining a well-paying job as a primary objective. As educators we are faced with the challenge of meeting the wants and needs of our students as they perceive them and as we perceive them.

Ultimately, I believe that teaching critical thinking skills and the more “practical” on-the-job skills expected by our students are not incompatible goals. As educators we have the responsibility of providing students with the education that they want while maintaining our goals as teachers. Much of the challenge that arises here has much to do with not wanting to assume that we want to teach our students is more important than what they want to learn. The important point to recognize is that we have been educated and trained to know (or determine) what “global” tools that they need to learn the more specific or “local” tools. Teaching students how to think critically is a way of teaching them how to learn new things on their own. If we equip them with the global tools that they need in order to make learning a lifelong enterprise, we give them the gift of education and not just training. At the same time, if we are to successfully teach them the global tools, we must demonstrate how these tools can be translated into learning the skills that they seek. The important thing to recognize is that we can’t teach them all of the skills that they need for the workplace and the world, but we can help them learn the tools that they can use to continue to learn those skills beyond our classroom. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot and should not choose critical thinking over workplace skills or vice-versa. Instead we should create curricula that enable the learning of both. It’s analogous to the way that we teach revision in writing. Students work from global concerns such as content, clarity, organization, etc. to more local concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and editing. A grammatically correct piece of writing is of little use if it is not clearly written, well-organized, and contains well-researched and carefully considered content. In the same way, skills are only effective if they are accompanied by an understanding of how the skills can be used and are learned.

Et tu, Jessica? “BUST not feminist?” Really?

This is a sad case of women v. women. I read Bitch, feministing, and Bust. I am a feminist, have been for a long time (possibly forever) and this just annoys me. Jessica Valenti, thank you for appointing yourself the enforcer of the feminist definition. We’re glad to know that you’re here to enlighten us.

Sound bitter? Mostly just annoyed by people who try to “brand” feminism and/or make it exclusionary.

Et tu, Jessica? “BUST not feminist?” Really?.

some notes on gender and documentation

In my 2007 New Media class, I posted a blog entry that I felt compelled to repost here:

My grandmother never had her own social security number. When she was born they weren’t issued at birth and the only time a woman needed to/could attain one was if she went to “work.” Otherwise, a wife used her husband’s SSN with a digit added to the end. First of all, let me emphasize how very hard my grandmother worked. She grew up on a farm and married a farmer. They had a little bit of land and by the grace, a home to shelter them; that was pretty much it (even though it was much more than many people had). My grandmother worked out in the fields with my grandfather, sun up to sun down. And working in the fields on a farm is very different from working in your garden, especially when you are working without the farm machinery that we take for granted now. This one photo remains burned into my mind: my grandmother, scarf tied around her head, breaking up soil with a hoe. Even though this photo is taken later, after they were successful enough to say own a camera, for me this is the document that will always serve as evidence of my grandmother’s work. A social security card would tell me nothing about who my grandmother was, about the things that she did. That single photo contains a world of meaning for me that extends far beyond The documents that prove that she was born, that she married and that she died tell me tell me almost nothing about my grandmother, yet even without the stories that I can associate with this photograph, it would still tell me more about who she was as a person. I could see where she lived, a piece of her daily life, how she held her body, what kind of clothing she wore. All of these seem so much more important than knowing her exact date of birth or death. Yet it is our birth certificates that we place in safety deposit boxes. It’s not that these things are unimportant but if I had to choose between a record of when I was born and when I died and a moment in between that showed what I did, I’d choose the photograph that caught me between the birth and death certificates.

All documentation, all records are necessarily incomplete. Even the official documents that tell you when you were born. They give you a date, a place, and the names of your parents. They don’t tell you about the ambulance driver who got lost taking your mother to the hospital and the elevator that got stuck between floors as your mother was being taken to the maternity ward. The entire story of the day that I was born tells you so much more about the bizarre life that began that day than knowing what day it actually was. The date is important for lots of reasons but the story of that day is so much richer. So, my birth certificate tells you little about the circumstances of my birth. Similarly, my grandmother’s photo represents a piece of a moment and place in time, providing no knowledge of what cam before or after or of what was happening outside of the photo’s boundaries, yet that document makes her real to me in ways that a birth certificate never could. So why is it more likely that evidence of her death and birth will remain long after I am gone than will any evidence of the life that she lived between? How do documents get imbued with value? And what makes an official document more valuable than that photo? And what does it say about the ways that women and men are valued differently, when those official documents, the ones that make you “real,” are denied to women?

(A note on my grandmother’s SSN: several years after my grandfather’s death my grandmother had to apply for a social security number in order to get Medicaid. Already in her eighties, my mother helped her with the complex application process to obtain, for the first time, her own SSN. Until then, in the eyes of government assistance, she wasn’t “real.”)

And a comment on the photograph: I don’t know who took it, although I know from stories that it is reflective of my grandmother’s life. It was only in writing this that I considered the circumstances necessary to take a photograph. Did my grandparents own a camera early in their married life? Wouldn’t that have been a strange luxury for a struggling farmer? Could it have been a wealthier relative? And if so, why take such a photo? Why be a voyeur to another’s hard work? (I know that photographers do this all the time but it somehow seems stranger that a relative would photograph and look on without offering help.) What was the impulse that made the photographer want to capture this particular moment in time? I welcome any possible answers to these questions.

Ralph Lauren threatens to sue over criticism

BoingBoing reports that a recent critique of a Ralph Lauren ad–one that portrays an obviously altered image of a model whose head is larger than her torso–has resulted in threats of a lawsuit and a DMCA infringement notice for publishing the image. This is not, of course, a new story. DMCA infringement notices and lawsuit threats have been received by others who’ve published copyrighted images for the purpose of critique. As Cory Doctorow, author of the blog entry on BoingBoing, points out: “This is classic fair use: a reproduction ‘for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting,’ etc”. The best part of this story is not so much the critique (though as a feminist I am pleased to see that someone noticed this outrageous example of body image distortion) but the fact that Boing Boing and their internet provider have responded by thumbing their nose at Ralph Lauren. Rather than fold under the pressure of a possible lawsuit, they’ve challenged the company to make good on their threats. I, for one, hope that they do engage in this frivolous legal action as that response will draw further attention to their damaging advertising strategies and their clumsy attempts to hide them.