Friday, July 31, 2009

Teaching Birther Babies

I see the Daily Kos has commissioned a quick survey generating the conclusion that some half of all Republicans could be classified as "birthers" with a dispproportionate number of "birthers" coming from the South. Not suprising to me. A dear friend and fellow colleague (20 years working together), had an "I just can't take it anymore moment" after hearing one too many Obama is the anti-christ comments at his Church the other night. He came home and posted his rant up on his Facebook page and within moments had 20 reply attacks. His second rant garnered 15 additional rants before everyone retired to their respective corners. Since it is a Southern Baptist church, I assume no beers were involved--although, judging from the comments they are a long way from the reconciliation moment.

Of course, the children of these people will be showing up in my classes. Flashback to the Spring Semester. Not the Cultural class but the Archaeology. Who woulda known the trouble would start there?

Somehow a handful of students hijacked every discussion with their own (often conspiracy-based) theories, everything from pyramids built by aliens, to government-sponsored death camps, dinosaur-human coexistence creation science myths, and, yes, every anti-Obama rumor you can imagine. I would walk into class and see them clustered in groups comparing notes, the "good" students looking like deer caught in the headlights, the "really good" students absent. Just me and the "mob" (*sigh* what to label them?) remaining. Even the typical foraging cultural ecology discussion turned into an attack: this is promoting socialist values--all that sharing of resources, you know, primitive communism, Obama is trying to do that.....

Now, you could find that a series of really good teachable moments and it should be and in the past, has been BUT, a good number of those needing the teachable moment are just not listening. They aren't using "scientific reasoning". The evidence doesn't matter, the reasoning doesn't matter, the strength of an argument--that package that we label "critical thinking" isn't there. Little birther babies.

Alternet has a very good article exploring the growing entrenchment of belief in the face of reason meme. Arguing, as it is entitled, Racism Is the Prime Cause for Debunked Obama Birth Certificate Conspiracy Theory, quoting Tim Wise, author of Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, the author argues:
The attacks on Sotomayor, the hysteria over Obama's criticism of the Cambridge police, and the persistent rumors about Obama's origins seem symptomatic of something larger, something Wise believes is "the culmination of centuries of ingrained privilege and hegemonic control."

To explain the devastating effect of Obama's presidency on those ordinary Americans who were quite happy with their white privilege, thank you, Wise quotes W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "the psychological wage of whiteness."

"A lot of white folks don't have much. They're struggling, they're hurting, but they've been able to content themselves with the idea that at least they're not black," Wise says. "So they get this psychological wage from their whiteness. The problem is, that's a wage which is diminishing in value. If you say to yourself, 'Well I may not have much, but at least I'm not black,' and then you look around and say, 'Shit, black is the new president!' -- now the value of your psychological wage is reduced in real dollar terms. Now you've got nothing."

In Wise's view: "The people who latch on to the birther stuff (working-class and struggling middle-class whites) aren't any more racist than elite white folks, but their way of expressing it is so much more raw and visceral, because: a) they may not have the filter that you get when you're elite (you sort of know when to check yourself), but also because they're the ones who feel the most threat."
As I read that I was reminded of the work of the great George Fredrickson, anyone out there remember White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (1981)? My Northwestern bias predisposes me to remember that one above his other books. Also, my own Africanist bias. In South Africa, that loss in "real dollar terms" and the threat of the rise of a competing black middle class brought about apartheid. In America, will the fear shut down out ability to engage in reasoned discussion? My fears of the coming year seem awfully real to me.

And my fears for my country. Paul Krugman's piece today addressed that same issue: Where is the health care debate going when most Americans can't/won't understand?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates-gate: The Ongoing Teachable Moment

I don't have a face-to-face class meeting at the moment and I hesitate to bring it up in my Distance Learning one, still finding Discussion Boards awkward for, well... discussion... so I can't contribute much in the way of suggestions and thoughts on the coming beer bash at the White House. I noticed Savage Minds brought the topic up without much committed or useful discussion--which surprises me a bit given our discipline but....its summer maybe we are all a little lethargic.

Its one of those moments where a number of issues intersect: race, class, and the town/gown tension we academics know so well. The latter, as frequent commenter Larry reminds me is the Jefferson/Jackson debate writ large in our current political climate of the supposed intellectual approach of Obama and the frontier moxie of Palin. (Quick, Farley Mowat, hide the wolves.) Guess whose side I am on in that battle of the network stars.

It is a ripe moment. A moment for personal narratives and the sharing of perspectives. It is also a moment when people dig their ideological heels in and refuse to budge. A hard one for students; particularly ones who parrot parental views and aren't quite sure of their own. Its fraught with peril for intro classes. You can lose them when discussing these issues. Welcome to the tightrope of we go.....hands flailing, knees wobbling.

Over the years, I have learned some ways of approaching such issues. IMHO, the trick is to get students to talk about race without talking about race. If you can get them to understand the consequences of social differentiation; give them an immediate and somewhat simplistic vignette from history. As MissivesfromMarx noted in comments on the last post here, you do really need to handle these issues early on in the semester. I find you need to get across two simple thoughts: we humans culturally construct the terms of our existence and, specifically, students have interited a world that they did not create.

I have two ways I do this and I will share one now and save the other for another time. After allowing some open discussion (student-driven) about the social meaning of race, stereotyping, and discrimination, I switch the issue to gender. Follow me on this does work for me.

I tell them that I arrived at the University of Virginia just a few short years after Mr. Jefferson's University was court-ordered to allow women to enroll as regular, resident undergraduates. It was not until 1972 that UVa admitted students without regard to gender. I arrived in 1978. The University had an overall enrollment of about 16,000 students at that time. Prior to 1970-ish that enrollment was almost entirely male. By 1978 it was 50/50. I ask them to contemplate the reality of that situation. In order for 8,000 female students to be admitted. 8,000 male students would have to be turned down. No doubt those turned down would feel angry, feeling they had lost a spot to a female. Perhaps they could even argue they had some score on some test that might show they were a better candidate. Then I ask my students how they think "I" (from the perspective of my gender)felt about that. You got it. Tough shit. How many years did I "stand down" so they could be privileged? Is it tough for the 8,0000 men who could have been admitted in 1972 but did not? Undoubtedly, but they weren't really "entitled" to be there in the first place, were they?

I have always found this to be an easier start to the Teachable Moment of the "race" question posed by Gates-gate. Switching the issue from race to gender, temporarily seems to diffuse all that invested anger so that the actual principles of affirmative action can be understood and the personal perspectives can be explored.

I find it a good first step. But, yes, there is a lot more still to go...

Update: OMG. You must check out MissivesfromMarx today. I swear I wrote this before I saw today's post there. Great minds think alike. LOL.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tribal Musings: Isaac Mizrahi Style

I used to pick my textbook for the Cultural Anthropology class by instantly rejecting all texts which operated on the band, tribe, chiefdom, state model of political organization. If the book was organized around that premise or with a chapter devoted soley to that....out it went. It is a bitch to cover.

Hey students: Here we have these concepts which we used to think had some validity but now we don't really think so but we did think so once and maybe in a broad sense they did but now they really don't or at least we don't think they have the power that the once did and they are often misapplied or just plain wrong, although in their misapplication reality was constructed, which we are continually re-constructing and...get the picture?

Best to avoid the whole thing. Except, you really can't because, invariably, within the first few weeks if not days of class, some student is going to use the word "tribe" and what do you do with that? Cause they just hate, hate, hate it when you try to tell them not to use certain words because the perceive that as "political correctness" and you lose a chunk of them as they roll their eyes at your liberal bias. Because, after all, they already know the way the world works and you need to stop messing that up for them.

Heck, even Isaac Mizrahi uses the word. I was watching the final showdown on The Fashion Show (which was no Project Runway-but that is another discussion) and contestant Reco was trying to explain the guiding influence for his final collection as being the Aztec, at least he made reference to being inspired by a "high priestess of the Aztec empire" (maybe he meant Merlin?) but then I swear he later added the Maya to the mix. Isaac, looking perplexed leaped in there to clarify Reco's vision. "Oh, tribal." Thank you, Isaac for clearing that up.

Well, there were feathers. And pyramid shapes.

Here is the slideshow of his collection. Don't say I don't aim to please.

Which I suppose argues for the need to have the same kind of lecture about "tribe" that you have about race: we sorta made this term up, but it doesn't really work, but we thought it did so now its part of culturally-constructed reality.

Now about that term "band"........

And if you really into the anaylsis of Bravo T.V. reality; I suppose you could have a discussion of James-Paul's post-modern inspiration of "indigenous people" in a "modern" context which he represents by hanging bones from his models' hair and including marsupial pouches since indigenous people need to carry fruit. Kid you not. You can view it here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stupid Is As Stupid Does: Parsing Words and Protecting Feelings: Student Edition

While Obama was getting in trouble for saying the Cambridge Police "acted stupidly", I was dealing first-hand with stupid and learning just how difficult it is to correct stupid.

I have been helping to develop and facilitate workshops that help prepare dual-credit students for their enrollment in classes in the Fall. We have been experimenting with 3 day workshops which attempt to cover a range of suggested techniques in note-taking, reading comprehension, study tips, time management, plagiarism issues, etc., etc., etc. As the facilitator, I have been spending 4-6 hours a day with a group of 16 High School students. OMG. Kill me now.

Someone...anyone, tell me how to your respond to a student who says "I hate to read"?

How about this one. A critical thinking exercise which has them generate arguments in support of and in opposition to a proposition: Nurses should be paid more than lawyers. Student argument: "Lawyers should make less because they are slimy and are liars. They even represent criminals who they know are guilty and try to get them off." Now, try to fix that one up without making some sort of corrective statement. No other student offered an objection. Guess who had to fill the long awkward pause. I didn't use the "stupid" word but I did fumble in the search for the perfect corrective phrase. And, of course, in response, the student had that shut-down attitude going for them. "Well, that is my opinion and I am entitled to it."

I am really sympathizing with the President's words usage. Sometimes, the need to label actions and thoughts as stupid is just too much to resist. And it was: stupid.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Witchcraft and that Slippery Extra Step in Theories of Causation

WWE-PS. What would Evans-Pritchard say? Baseball Magic, anyone?

Check out Illustrator Christoph Neimann's Blog Post, entitled, Master of the Universe at the NYT. Fun Stuff

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Why Students Drop Out": Letters, they are getting letters....

The letters responding to the Brooks article are up at the New York Times, seems we are not alone. Here is an exceprt from the first one by Dalton Conley, a professor and dean for the social sciences at New York University:

David Brooks rightly claims that it is a national crisis that United States college completion rates have been flat for the last 35 years. But his diagnosis is incomplete.

He claims: “Lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.”

This misses the important role that family wealth plays in college completion. In fact, my own research shows that only two background factors matter for college completion: parents’ own education and parental net worth. Race, what job parents hold — none of that matters.

This salience of wealth suggests that student aid has an important role to play, since for disadvantaged students, aid functions like financial equity in easing stress at home and blunting hard tradeoffs (between work and school, for instance). Financial aid and student psychological factors go hand in hand.

Put a couple of faces on that and you have Dolores and Rick.

The letters are most satisfying. Now, if only all those Ed.D.'s would just read them. I would volunteer to help them sound out the big words. Oh no, she didn't.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

David Brooks and the American Graduation Initiative: Rant Continued

I want to thank the Society for Anthropology in the Community College listserv for, once again, refocusing my rants. George you are spot on and I owe this post to you.

Just this past week, I caught a glimpse of the the paperwork of our new faculty performance evaluation and that has made me a bit faculty-centric in my perspectives. But lets push aside my panicked rant at being made responsible for my students' success and focus more specifically on the underlying political implications of Brooks' assertions. As is usual, for me, I am going to take the long way to my critique. Here is the main point: many Community College students do not have the luxury of focusing solely on their education and, contrary to Brooks' unsupported, uncited conclusions, finances are very much involved but in complicated ways.

Student engagement: what it really tells you.

Conference #2, on the third day. I went to a panel on the Students Statistics being collected by the Agency for Educational Stupidity. Facilitator wanted to pretend that it was "collaborative" so we were made to break into groups and discuss a student we knew who had not returned to school. Turns out the whole point was we were to conclude by the end of her little presentation that students who had made some connection were more likely to return. I, actually, had to listen to her stupid story of the merry janitor who knew all students' names and was the sole reason students came to class every day. Ya, that would, totally, do it for me. And I, totally, believe that story. Maybe we need more merry janitors? Throw in a few cafeteria ladies. Now that Isaac Hayes quit South Park, we could get Chef. (Note to self: did he die?)

Needless to say, I lost it, internally. I raised my hand and shared the story of the student I lost. Dolores (name altered). I had her in two of my classes. She volunteered for archy fieldwork and stayed through the rain. We ate pork rinds together. It was almost like we were "engaged". And then her father cheated on her mother and she spent weeks going home to a broken and bleeding family: nurturing her Mom and trying to deal with an increasingly defensive and authoritative Dad. No extended vacations for her parents to try to do whatever Mark Sanford and his wife are trying to do: Dolores family has to keep working. Eventually, her Dad cut out, leaving a family missing an important salary. Dolores found a job as a bartender to help out. When I would see her in the hall, the shirts were lower cut, the make-up heavier, the hair more dyed. And she talked incessantly with false gaiety about the partying she had done the night before. From the pores of her skin came that odor of day old drunk, it was her I was thinking of in my previous post. And, yes, I tried to talk to her, tried to speak of her grief and her need to care for, herself. And, yes, I was glad she had finished taking all my classes because I would not have wanted to grade her. Does everyone forget we need some objectivity with students? It went over like the proverbial lead balloon, except for the four faculty members who followed me out of the door, thanking me for saying it.

Or Rick (name altered) who had found his way to the Houston area and worked his way up to a manager of some sort at Starbucks. Brilliant student. But the really good ones get more responsibilities at work; often their promotions are their undoing. School can't always compete with the ability to make just enough money to be tempting. No future advancement but more than most have ever had. Rick's natal family was, apparently, chaotic. Mid-semester of his second class with me, he disappeared. I had been worried about his long hours and apparent exhaustion. Then one week before finals, he showed back up. His younger brother had been living out on the street and he went and he went back home to collect him. In the process, the normal student flu turned into a sinus infection. It went untreated as Rick has NO HEALTH INSURANCE. He continued to work, supporting and caring for his brother and the infection got worse. When he finally made it back, I caught him up on what he had missed and because he is brilliant, he Aced the final. I don't know if he will be back in the Fall. America would be well-served to give him a free ride at the Ivy of his choice. It won't happen. He missed so much he pulled "F"s in his other classes--no make-ups allowed there; a policy I support and Rick does, too.

I suppose Brooks' would argue these students don't need financial aid or that their parents should be held, somehow, personally responsible for their inability to create stable Leave it to Beaver home lives. Paging Sarah Palin; although in all fairness Brooks is appalled by her, as well. Or maybe, there is something more I am supposed to do to make them successful? Or, perhaps, Mr Brooks, there is something more America could do? That is if your conservative brethren could get their hands off your thigh and, actually, understand the world you live in and not your narrow view of the way you think it ought to be. And, yeah, it is about the money for most of them--in complicated ways. You can't heal them but you can point the way to their success by making your investment in their futures clear and meaningful.

BTW, just like Sydney who commented earlier, I also teach 5 classes of 35 as a normal load. I don't know most of my students' back story. It would be imossible and I can't run a classroom making special accomodations for all--and I don't. The good ones don't ask for it or want it. And sometimes it is really hard to sort out the truly challenged from the "slacker". It is quite a skill set to deal with that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ahh the good old days........

More on the the American Graduation Initiative, Obama's Community College Plan, the one of which David Brooks approves:

Undoubtedly, it is a great thing to be talking of more money for Community Colleges. But it is the part of the Initiative that has expectations beyond financial accountability that worries me. Check out this paragraph from the White House Press Release Fact Sheet on the Initiative:

Fund Innovative Strategies to Promote College Completion: Nearly half of students who enter community college intending to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college fail to reach their goal within six years. The College Access and Completion Fund will finance the innovation, evaluation, and expansion of efforts to increase college graduation rates and close achievement gaps, including those at community colleges. Promising approaches include performance-based scholarships, learning communities of students, professors and counselors, colleges tailored to promote the success of working adults, and funding formulas based on student progress and success as well as initial enrollment. Resources would also be provided to improve states’ efforts to track student progress, completion, and success in the workplace.

Now, really think about what that looks like. We need to find ways in our classrooms to graduate more students who come to an open enrollment institution. Specifically, Obama wants 5 million more Community College degrees and certificates by 2020.

The last statistical data we have for my College, 66 per cent of our students were below the age of 24 with the highest percentage of students being in the 18-19 year old cohort. That means the vast majority of my students just graduated from High School and some 60 per cent of them require remedial courses before they can take a College level class; although they need to have 12 hours to qualify for financial aid (which over 30 per cent of them do--and we are very, very cheap to attend)so they will be in a mixture of remedial and college level if it can be managed. Our poor counselors are very creative and very tired. For example, many of our college classes in Sociology, Psychology, History, and Government have lowered their standards so that you can take them while taking remedial classes; despite the reality that the textbooks are written at a reading level beyond which they are tested to be able to read. Yes, read that again. True dat. So, in short, for a variety of reasons--and there are many--I teach a lot of very young not necessarily conventionally "successful" students and, yes, they disappear. A lot.

In the old days--say, twenty years ago when I first started, we thought that was a good thing. We figured that maybe they needed to go work a few years and figure some things out. Mature a little. Sow their wild oats. Earn some money. Figure out they couldn't earn enough and then they would come back. And they did. And they were better students. And life was good. Or good enough.

But slowly over the course of my career and more so in the past 5 years we have faced pressure to retain them. They track our drop rates. You are a failure if you don't retain them. So, you make accommodations and find yourself thinking more and more about how to keep them even when they don't want to be there--at least not now. Gradually, you are made to feel responsible for their success. And that makes it worse because when you begin to absorb that responsibility they lose it even more. There is simply much more negotiated terrain in your interactions. Case in point, I don't know of one faculty member who has not re-visited their make-up policies in the last five years. I even know faculty who have started to allow retesting. That is right, they let them take the test, again, when they haven't passed the first time.

*Sigh*. Even when you feel compassion for their youth and apparent ignorance, its just so hard because you can't be for them what they should be for themselves.

And in the meantime, you still have a core of good students who do want to be there. Some of them are very, very good. Some of them are positively heroic. Every single Community College Instructor I know can tell you of the single mom who juggles kids and job and shows up with her notebook out and her highlighter ready who hasn't been able to afford a trip to the dentist in years; a young gay man who has been kicked out by his family and is living on friend's couches and pulling all "A"'s or even struggling with "C"'s because he can't get a ride to class; or the young man who showed up for class and told me to wake him up if he fell asleep because he was driving a bread truck all night and he was staying up for my class and he didn't want to miss it. And you just know that you really, really want them to be proud of that degree and not sell it short. And it feels like we are being asked to sell them short.

Of course, the solution envisioned by the Initiative is some kind of special magic which we will be able to do with our teaching which will "engage" students and make them successful, perhaps those alluded to "learning communities". But does any Anthropologist really know of any instance when you can successfully change individual behavior? You can make the condoms available but has anyone truly been able to make someone put them on when its not his/her own idea?

Wouldn't it be nice if we could just give us Community College people the money we need to function properly without unreasonable expectations?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Community Colleges: All that and a bag of chips or two tacos short of a fiesta plate?

A friend of mine sent me David Brooks' column in today's New York Times. I think I was supposed to be energized and excited by it. Just like I think I was supposed to be "all-in" for the Obama administration's latest Community College announced initiatives. I guess when David Brooks is lauding a Democratic President its time to break out the parkas for the resultant frozen hell. But it is still hellaciously hot here in Texas. In my case, that article just opened all my floodgates.

Where do I begin?

Dear Mr. Brooks and Mr. Obama. I have been living under these very perspectives and expectations for a few years now and I would like to hit you both with big sticks. Too bad that I am soooo liberal I feel guilty thinking about acts of violence.

Recently, my Community College has been good enough to send me to two conferences both geared toward improving our success rates. You see, we Community Colleges only succeed in showing a fifty per cent completion rate for our students and it has been decided by the David Brooks of the world that we can do better. And here is my first problem, I think 50 per cent is a great rate. I think we are remarkably successful. After all, huge percentages of our students come needing remediation. (That rate is growing and I can tell in the students who show up in my class, btw.)

Those conferences. Real problem for me. I want to be positive. I want to drink the Kool Aid but my own undergraduate and graduate school experiences didn't prepare me for that. Back then, I was praised for critical thinking. Not in my present life. It isn't valued. Ala David Brooks and Barack Obama, we are to develop innovative measures and we are to be able to, well, measure them. Conference one: ways that I as a faculty member can "engage" my students. Conference two: ways that our college can become more "learning centered" and measure that success.

Here is the perspective we hear at these conferences as written in Brooks' column:

Nor is increased student aid fundamentally important. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.

Actually, I have many students who have severe financial issues and struggle to make it but I think of myself as "liberal" so I guess I just can't wrap my mind around that. Sorry broke students when you are choosing between that one hundred textbook and feeding your kids that just isn't the truth.

The second part is what hacks me off the most, simply, because I am deep fried to a crackly crunch with that thinking. It is true many of my students aren't ready for college. They are emotionally disengaged and lack self-discipline. Do you, honestly, honestly think there is a lot I can do about that? Does anyone seriously believe that you can innovate your way to engagement? If they stay out partying to the wee hours of the morning (I know they do. I smell it. If you have inhaled eau de day-after-student, you have taught at State U or JuCo. Its a smell you don't forget) does anyone seriously think that a Wiki will spur different life choices? And, of course, the answer is, yes, large numbers of people think that can happen. They probably don't, actually, teach. And when you teach long enough you realize that a good number of the party kids will, eventually, come back. Sometimes, its all good. Sometimes, its not but, hey, I can't control that either.

Funny, at conferences two, after breakfast while most of the audience was texting their loved ones or just anybody, somebody to relieve the stupidity; embedded in a twenty minute presentation, I thought I smelt the whiff of truth: in our six years of pursuing these innovated initiatives in our measures of our success, we can't show any. Completion rates remain the same. But then I can't really wrap my mind around the truth, so, I probably only think I heard that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thought for the Day and Possibly my only Sarah Palin Post

I wonder how old Sarah Palin thinks coal (clean or otherwise) is?