Friday, May 23, 2014

Trigger Warning

For the past little while, academics have been getting snarky about trigger warnings.  Exhibit A is Laurie Essig's piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education linked here.  Essig complains "It was my duty, apparently, to make sure no one was ever disturbed by my class." And she's also pissed that students didn't laugh at her Abu Ghraib joke.  Around the same time, Oberlin released institutional guidelines about classroom materials that should have a warning, and then backed down on those guidelines: coverage here.

As a college lecturer for some number of years, I do understand faculty discontent on the subject.  Faculty meetings, random service, mentoring, prep, research, incomprehensible administration, and then you have an 18 year old complaining that you're a jerk because you taught standard texts in your field.  It's understandably a "how long was I in school and how much debt did I rack up for this?" moment.

That said, I think I'm with the students on this one.  I've taught many classes about horrifying topics, and I've never had a student complain about the way I presented those materials.  I've rarely censored my choices (I thought about assigning the novel Precious one semester, but decided I just couldn't stomach it).  Instead, my classes are generally one long trigger warning-that is an extended meditation on what it means to read and think about painful topics.  

One the first day of class, I usually talk about how personally painful it can be to study topics like racial discrimination and violence.  How, as a scholar, I find the need to balance empathy with the people I study (trying to imagine what they thought and felt) with the protective qualities of intellectualizing when feeling the pain of my research starts to weigh on me.  I encourage my students to both try and feel what they study at an emotional level, and understand that sometimes, particularly in heated classroom discussion, they need to set that emotion aside and speak from the head.

Texts and topics I've warned my students about reading include, but are not limited to: Native American genocide and removal, anti-gay propaganda, Lincoln's speeches, Civil War poetry, lynchings, most topics in African American history, the books Native Son, The Street, The Women of Brewster Place, and Narrative of Frederick Douglass.  As I've grown as a teacher, I've done more work to prepare students to engage with the painful themes in these texts.

I don't necessarily seek to protect my students from pain, rather I want to prepare them to sit with that pain.  I want to encourage them to develop a radical empathy.  For me, that is the point to teaching history to future doctors, teachers, government officials, and lawyers.   I encourage my students to see history as a discipline that teaches humility, as we see very smart, well intentioned people make choices that sometimes have terrible unintended consequences.  As we study history, we have the privilege of see the past from multiple points of view, and understanding history from the point of view of historical losers can teach us empathy.  I hope that those perspectives with make my students more complex and compassionate thinkers in their professional and personal lives.  

I like to think that my students have been willing to engage with difficult materials because I've made my classrooms a place where that discussion is always on the table.  I can't fix the individual traumas that my student bring the classroom, but I can make my classroom a reasonably safe place to wrestle with pain.  In one of my first years teaching, I assigned a group of students to watch a viciously anti-gay propaganda video and analyze if for the class.  None of those poor gaybies complained, but if they had they would have been right.  Not that I had given the assignment, but that I hadn't given them any preparation for what they were about to see and what they should do with their feelings.  I came to my own realization of my error after seeing their presentation about the video, and it changed the way I taught.

For me, the point is to channel students' pain as they encounter painful subjects into reflection.  There are students who will not be able to engage with some materials because they bring experiences that make that engagement too difficult.  Now, if a student is unable to engage with topics of racial violence and discrimination, they probably should not take an African American history class, but if they don't want to look at a lynching photo (which has happened) or don't want to read a chapter in book with a rape scene, that is not a problem for me as an instructor.  It's easy enough for me to find work arounds for those students.  I think the most problematic issue with trigger warnings, is that they may discount the everyday triggers that people with PTSD or other trauma disorders may experience, and they reduce and simplify the complexities of trauma.  And, there is little I can do protect students from those everyday triggers.  

“You know what’s worse than images of torture? Being tortured.”   That was Laura Essig's Abu Gharib joke.  I think that some of the young professors who are most dismissive of trigger warnings are operating under a very old school model of education.  If one chooses to pour knowledge into students, who am I to say that's wrong, but professors in that mode need to expect push back.  Student have been actively fighting to engage in the classroom since sometime before, say, 1968, and I see the current discussion of trigger warning as an extension of that fight to be in a conversation with faculty.  Personally, I don't particularly want to encourage students to see terrible images and then "put on their big girl panties" and push their emotions away.  I want them to be moved and horrified, and to say "a person did that to another person."  That's the lesson of history.  If they don't like what I assign.  If they think my class is turning into trauma tourism.  If they think I'm too glib or the text don't add to their knowledge, I want them to say that--preferably in class and to my face--so that we can have a discussion about it.  At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that our class is now an intellectual community.  We need each other, we learn from each other, and that's why I require attendance.  If I truly expect students to contribute to the classroom, I also need to be prepared for their critiques of me.  That's not to say that I will always find those critiques compelling, but I do need to engage with them.

[Aside: A story from an older faculty member: he was teaching at a big state school in the late 1960s.  One day in a big lecture class a hippie girl raised her hand and he called on her.  She said, "This class is a bunch of bull and you are totally out of touch man! " He replied: "Young lady, if you are going to say something like that you need not raise your hand first."]

In closing: the kids are alright.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Books on my list

Jazz history and excellent illustrations

gay parent history

Pride in a picture book, what could be better

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hello to all that

We got a Zappos box today, and I realized I've been railing about gender, culture, and children's shoes (excuse me: boys shoes and girls shoes) for three years now.  First it was the shoes of a non-walker.  And then it was the kittycat shoes.

And now all these shoes, mostly from grammy, are getting a little small.  We've pretty successfully avoided pink: there are "beaver shoes" (Oregon State), "Thomas shoes" (I'm not really sure how tweed Toms became Thomas shoes, but I guess they are her most British shoes), shoes that have no name, and "pink shoes." The pink shoes are actually red shoes, and although LB is still a little weak on colors, the pink shoe designation is clearly aspirational.

And so we come to this year's pair of kittycats.  LB reviewed her options and decisively chose these shoes.

Pink kittycats.  When I opened the box, I thought perhaps a flock of tiny princesses would fight their way out.  So far, no, but I'm sure they're lurking somewhere nearby.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Small Mercies: Mothers' Day Edition

"Why is Mommy Special?: Because I like them (mom and mommy)"
If Mothers' Day had fallen a mere two weeks ago, LB's answer likely would have been: "I like Mommy, not Mama, just Mommy.  I like Mommy." But she's moved on.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Tight t-shirt on a real sweet girl"

Rhode Island has an inferiority complex, apparently we came in last in a poll of state residents who rate their state THE BEST place to live.  Maybe RI isn't the best place to live, particularly for those of us who aren't perched in a Newport mansion, but I still have a little crush on RI.

My childhood New England rests somewhere between The Beans of Egypt Maine and a Wyeth painting, with a dose of Emerson and some Necco Wafers.  I wish Providence had bakeries like Portland, ME, a Northampton juice bar, some Vermont rusticness, and a closer ocean.  But, even without that stuff, Providence is a good town.  It's cute and artsy and has good food and drink.

RI is a cultural junction between northerly New England and New York.  The working class New Hampshire (you don't even have to specify white, because everyone was) accent I grew up with is mostly missing.  Instead you get a little uppercrust northerly New England, mixed with a lot of New York with hints of the DR, Guatemala, Mexico, Liberia, and wherever.

Monday, May 5, 2014

That's what kind of day it was

My work is on the same floor as a printshop and some artist studios, with with a Mexican restaurant and a gay bar on the first floor.  The sound from the printers is usually noise rock/oompha band.  I'm usually gone before they throw on the techno downstairs, but today being a national holiday it was loud.

But I had a refreshing 2.9 mile powerwalk to end the day, and I let LB dillydally as much as she wanted, and let her walk, and waited while she, excruciatingly, clipped Eyeore into her abandoned stroller.  The walk to get LB takes me up a large hill, and the walk home takes us back down.  As we came down the sun  was obscured by a cloud but the rest of the sky was bright.

LB and I walked through the door and I got to cooking, around 6:30.  Usually we are a dinner-at-the-table kind of family.  LB learned to do a silent grace holding hand from my parents, and now she reminds us if we forget.  But tonight was a eat dinner while sitting on the floor and watching Elmo and Katy Perry sing on a loop type of a night.  And then I looked up and realized we were like some advertisement for the disaffected modern family.  But at least we taught the dog to photobomb, that's got to be worth something.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Karl hates Thomas: in honor of International Workers Day

May 1 came and went here with a lot of labor, but not a lot of celebration.  But I didn't come here to talk about my May Day, I came here to complain about Thomas the Train.  LB became obsessed with this show (from chatter at daycare maybe?) a few months ago.  She loves some Thomas.  At first I didn't mind, after all it's got to better than whatever Sparkly Fairy Disney Princess Barbie Pink Craptacular little girls are supposed to be watching.  But there's the Thomas theme song with its inevitable earworm, and there's the oversensitive and whiny trains who can't let even the littlest slight just roll of their train backs.  Dislike.

Then there's the maleness and whiteness of Thomas.  Emily is now the token lady train, and all the bosses and conductors are men.  Then there's the whiteness.  Of the human characters, I've seen a black mayor have a bit part (in our racial TV taxonomy, he should have been Prime Minister or King, because surely if you have a show with a black King you can't be racist).  And maybe there is one black conductor?  I haven't been able to force myself to watch closely enough to be sure.  Perhaps this whiteness is supposed to harken back to the historical moment when railroads mattered (and I'll get to why, if that is so, it also sucks)?  But really, this is a show about talking trains, surely historical white supremacy isn't the detailed realism to which the creators need to cling?  In addition to the human characters, I also think the trains are meant to read white (their "faces" are grey). See my previous musings on the "race" of non-human characters in kids books here.]  [And see Bionics additional info about race and trains on Thomas in the comments, clearly I shouldn't be as annoyed as I am because I've been tuning out a lot of the show.]

Why can't the trains and humans on Thomas represent the racial realities of modern Britain.  And I don't mean that there need to be normal trains and then a Jamaican-Me-Crazy-Jar-Jar-Binks train.  How hard would it be to have train faces and humans in a variety of hues with a variety of non-stereotyped accents?

But maybe the racial representations of Thomas are just a nod to an imagined Industrial Revolution utopia, and if so-dislike.  I can't seem to find my copy of the Making of the English Working Class, but I can remember the vivid description of scrawny children sent into the mines, kept half-naked in darkness for 12 or 18 hours only to emerge like scrawny, blinded little moles.  And there are the children in Sweetness and Power, raised on sugar water, cheap treacle, and bakery bread as their mothers worked long hours in the factories.  And that my friends is your bedtime story about the Industrial Revolution.  Feel free to thank me for excluding details about industrial scalpings and limb loss.

If Thomas is visually a celebration of early capitalism, its message is a celebration of late capitalism.  I opened my Marx-Engels Reader to this passage: "Rather it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso...."  A page later Marx goes on to say that in this context "the worker appears as superfluous."  Like Thomas, perhaps, where there are owners and managers and machines, but no workers of the kind that gets dirty-no one who develops lung problems from breathing coal dust, or a bad back from shoveling coals, or losses a leg under a train wheel.  And in this world of bosses and machines and work, no one ever goes home.  There are no "8 hours for what you will."  For the trains work is self, and the workers who make trains go are invisible.

Luckily for LB, I don't think Thomas will warp her view of the value of workers than The Little Rabbit with Red Wings warped my view of the value of individuality.  And for better or worse, I'll make sure to provide plenty of indoctrination about the value of workers.