sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Jon Stewart on "should Muslims be allowed to build their mosques in the neighborhoods of their choosing?"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 8, 2010

Sometimes Jon Stewart is just so on.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Posted in Congress shall make no law, gay rights, human rights, Jon Stewart, religion | Leave a Comment »

turns out Gallagher has become an evil clown.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 8, 2010

The Seattle newspaper The Stranger is a free alternative newsweekly, so I suppose that explains the strident anti-conservative tone of a recent piece about the aging comic Gallagher.

The primary target of this piece is Gallagher himself; the author describes Gallagher as “a paranoid, delusional, right-wing religious maniac,” then offers up some pretty convincing evidence:

Gallagher is upset about a lot of things. Young people with their sagging pants (in faintly coded racist terms, he explains that this is why the jails are overcrowded—because “their” baggy pants make it too hard for “them” to run from the cops). Tattoos: “That ink goes through to your soul—if you read your Bible, your body is a sacred temple, YOU DIPSHIT.” People naming their girl-children Sam and Toni instead of acceptable names like Evelyn and Betty: “Just give her some little lesbian tendencies!” Guantánamo Bay: “We weren’t even allowed to torture all the way. We had to half-torture—that’s nothin’ compared to what Saddam and his two sons OOFAY and GOOFAY did.” Lesbians: “There’s two types—the ugly ones and the pretty ones.” (Um, like all people?) Obama again: “If Obama was really black, he’d act like a black guy and get a white wife.” Michael Vick: “Poor Michael Vick.” Women’s lib: “These women told you they wanna be equal—they DON’T.” Trans people: “People like Cher’s daughter—figure that out. She wants a penis, but she has a big belly. If you can’t see your dick, you don’t get one.” The Rice Krispies elves: “All three of those guys are gay. Look at ’em!” The Mexicans: “Look around—see any Mexicans? Nope. They’ll be here later for the cleanup.” The French: “They ruin our language with their faggy words.

Holy crap. With hate speech like that, Gallagher deserves as much disgusted critique as writer Lindy West can dish out. But she doesn’t stop there; the audience, she explains, are “rabid, frothing conservative dickwads” who lap up Gallagher’s racist, xenophobic rant. Okay, so the question becomes: Is West responding in kind? Is she unloading hate speech on the group she dislikes in a similar way to Gallagher’s anti-gay, anti-liberal “act”?

First, I want to make clear that while all hate speech is abominable, hate speech that targets marginalized groups is more abominable than hate speech that targets dominant groups. Why? Because of power and inertia. Marginalized groups–the LGBTQ community, for example–in lots of ways exist at the mercy of dominant groups–in this case, the heteronormative community. “Should we give them the right to marry?” “Should we pass laws to protect them against anti-gay violence?” “Should we let them claim each other on their tax returns?” It’s taken for granted that American society needs to decide what rights to “grant” gays. The alternative would be to assume that the LGBTQ community already has the same rights as everyone else, and laws that violate those rights need to be struck down.

Power. Inertia.

So calling a language “faggy,” advocating “girly” names to avoid giving daughters “lesbian tendencies,” finishing up an act by, as West describes it, smashing a plate of fruit cocktail and an Asian vegetable mix and announcing “This is the China people and queers!!!”–way more abominable than calling Gallagher’s appreciative audience “rabid, frothing conservative dickwads.” It’s an audience, as Gallagher himself points out, filled with white people, and the risk of getting beaten, killed, or legislated against for being a conservative white person is fairly low relative to the risk that goes along with being gay, African American, Mexican, or any of the other ethnic and cultural minorities against whom Gallagher is stirring up the pot of hatred.

Which makes West’s response understandable but still not quite okay. I say this as someone who absolutely adored this article, who is aghast that hate speech like this attracts any audience whatsoever, and who has the same impulse to rage against anyone who would even chuckle at Gallagher’s diatribe (which, by the way, doesn’t even seem particularly funny).

Anyway, you should read the whole article, which is fairly short and extremely well crafted, then let me know what you think.

Posted in bigotry, evil clowns, gay rights, human rights, obnoxious | 1 Comment »

message to twitter community: be cool, you guys.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 6, 2010

I’ve noticed an increase in meanness and vituperation lately among the people I follow on twitter. I’m not completely sure why this is–certainly it’s due in part to the steady increase in the number of people I follow, but I also suspect the tenor of twitter has changed as it has increased in general popularity and ease of use.

The behavior I’m talking about breaks down into two loose categories:

Personal attacks. Twitter is not a tool that affords deep, substantive conversation, but it turns out 140 characters is just about the perfect length for slinging fallacies back and forth. And people leverage this affordance to build up a catalog of fallacies that would have made your high school logic teacher proud:

  • ad hominems (“stop being such a dickhead, @twitteruser. anyone who paid attention past 3rd grade knows Glenn Beck is a p.o.s.”)
  • poisoning the well (“where’s the intelligent debate about affirmative action? God knows we can’t ask the feminists to weigh in–all they do is bitch.”)
  • spotlight fallacy (“gay people seem incapable of arguing for gay marriage without eventually getting hysterical & irrational. http://bit.ly/buSY0y“)
  • hasty generalizations (“law students are more ignorant about the law than any group I know.” )

Bigotry. I don’t know exactly why people feel comfortable making disgusting generalizations about entire groups of people on twitter. I just know it happens an awful lot. Most typically it appears to come from members of some dominant group complaining about ethnic, political, or cultural minorities (though I’m also willing to consider the possibility that I only think this is true because it pisses me off so much more than when it comes from someone who’s part of a minority group).

I’m tired of it. I want twitter to be the space of coolness that it used to be for me. This is not, though certain lawyers may disagree, a desire for a “happysphere”; this is a desire to surround myself with the most civil discourse possible, in the highest possible number of communities I frequent.

Srsly: be cool, you guys. Try being exactly as nice on twitter as you would be in person. That way, when the twitter community makes decisions about which users to follow, they can decide what level of kindness or pettiness they’re willing to put up with, on twitter just as in real life.

Being both a witness to and target of meanness and pettiness has made me reflect on my own behavior, too. I will grant that I have been known to vituperate, from time to time, on twitter and in other social networking spaces (primarily in the form of so-called “vaguebooking”). I’m sorry, and I’m going to try to do better, so that you can fill up your life with as much intelligent, civil discourse as you want to fill it with. I ask that you do the same for me.

Posted in obnoxious, Twitter | 2 Comments »

the sleeping alone review of films: Surrogates (2009)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2010

summary: I liked it better when it was District 9; I, Robot; and the middle third of The Matrix. And I didn’t really like District 9 or I, Robot all that much.

The 2009 film Surrogates wonders what might happen if we started letting technology do the living for us. It creates a world in which war is treated as a video game, physical characteristics are treated as malleable, and real-life human interaction is treated as an oddity.

Boy, that sure would be a terrifying existence, wouldn’t it? I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live in that world.

Ahem.

Surrogates stars Bruce Willis as The Good Cop Wracked With Guilt Over the Death of His Son. He mentions his son’s death about 20 different times over the course of the movie, and also, judging by the surprised reaction of his partner at the first mention, has never once mentioned his son’s death before the start of the film. It also turns out that the invention of surrogates (which are basically what you think they are, so I won’t bother explaining) could have prevented his son’s death, so you can think of him as a sort of monosyllabic Dr. McCoy.

There’s a conspiracy. The surrogates aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And not everyone who seems like a good guy ends up acting like a good guy.

Why, oh why, do we have to put up with only one really original action flick every year or two? I don’t know if I’m just getting cranky in my old age, but it seems like forever since I’ve seen a mainstream action film that really blew me away. I did really enjoy Live Free or Die Hard (2007), also starring a rode-hard-and-put-away-wet Bruce Willis; I thought War of the Worlds (2005) was pretty neat, loaded as it was with the dynamic combo of killer special effects and an emotionally harrowing plot. But it’s been a dry run since then. I haven’t seen Iron Man 2 yet. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, due out mid-July, looks pretty good. But if I had a dollar for every movie I waited for with joyous expectation, only to leave the theater feeling swindled, I’d be a rich, rich man.

Surrogates (2009) stars Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, and Boris Kodjoe, with appearances by James Cromwell and Ving Rhames. It’s rated PG-13 and contains some violence, mild profanity, and a brand of when-I-was-your-age nostalgia that nobody under 13 should be forced to endure.

Posted in movies | Leave a Comment »

twinning injustice, one social structure at a time

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2010

My sister, who just finished absolutely destroying her first year of law school, recently announced an interest in pursuing criminal prosecution. Once I overcame my instant misreading of her announcement (don’t blame me; I’m not a morning person), I figured out pretty quickly that my twin sister and I are pursuing vocations that spring from the same moral impulse. To wit: I must serve and defend people who have suffered or will suffer at the hands of others.

It’s just the name–prosecution–that throws us off, makes us think prosecutors are out to punish the bad guys. In certain respects, of course, that’s exactly what prosecutors do–that’s exactly the power we confer to them. But the public interest in punishing the bad guys is an outgrowth of a deeper public impulse: To maintain the social order, to protect our citizens from injustice and victimization, to fight for the good guys.

Protecting people from injustice and victimization. Fighting for the good guys. That’s pretty much what I like to think I’m doing, too, by working in the service of working class kids and kids who are deeply undervalued and underserved by a system that is not designed to help them. I work in defense of those kids. And another way to frame that work is to say that I am a public prosecutor, building a case against a system that’s criminally unjust, criminally cruel.

But here’s where I think Laura and I part company: I believe we need to demolish the social order. I believe that the public education system is deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed, especially for poor kids and minorities, and I believe we need to work to tear it down. That’s the wheel I’m throwing my shoulder against.

Though we haven’t explicitly talked about this, I’m pretty sure my sister believes the criminal justice system is similarly deeply, deeply flawed (see here, here, here, and here)–but it seems to me that her stance is something like “this is the best system we have right now, the only system we have, so we need to use it to protect the innocents and the victims.”

I’m all, fuck the Man and the horse he rode in on! And my sister’s all, yyyeah that’s nice but lookit all these victims who need protecting and defense right now. And I’m all, Yes! And let’s muster up an army made up of those victims and march with them right to the gates of hell if that’s what it takes! And my sister’s all, um, okayyy but this woman was raped and that guy’s son was murdered and this woman was stabbed by her partner and what if we put aside the anger and try to take care of the people who need us right now?

Details, details, right? Laura and I agree that the world is all effed up, and we agree that we are therefore bound to the work of un-effing up things. The rest is just planning.

Posted in crime, education, human rights, law, politics, public schools, racism, twins | 1 Comment »

when the internet implants childhood memories

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 1, 2010

Here’s my beautiful niece Morgan playing in her grandma’s backyard:

I spend an awful lot of time wondering what it’s going to be like for Morgan, growing up surrounded by a digital footprint that already includes more photos and videos of her than her mother and aunts had of their entire childhood. They say that our brains aren’t very good at knowing the difference between something that happened “in real life” and something that happened “in media.” I have some childhood “memories” that I know were implanted through family stories; but knowing I don’t actually remember these events doesn’t make the memories any less vivid.

And those memories–‘authentically’ remembered or not–make up the fabric of my identity, so that it doesn’t matter how the memories got there. I imagine the same will be true of Morgan, except to an exponentially greater extent, since huge chunks of her life will be indelibly imprinted on that greatest of collective memory tools, the internet.

Lord knows how differently she and other members of her generation will remember their childhood. For anyone over 30, the terrain of childhood feels fleeting, tough to pin down, and dependent on the memories of people who loved you and paid careful attention to what you were doing. For lots of people under 30, the memory of childhood will no longer be so intergenerationally woven. It will exist independent of family, friends, and collaborators in experience. It will even exist from a neutral, third-person perspective: the perspective of a detached observer (the camera) capturing a scene. When our memories feel like movies, when we feel like we’re watching ourselves experience something instead of being inside of the experience ourselves, how does that change how we see ourselves within the world?

I’m not necessarily worried; I’m just wondering.

People tell me to stop wondering about these sorts of things. A lot of the people who tell me this are parents of young children, and this probably means that my biggest mistake is in bringing this issue up all the time to people who just want to post videos of their kids to YouTube. And I’ll admit that I don’t want my sister to stop capturing my niece’s every milestone. Another phenomenon of the 21st century is increased mobility paired up with increasingly cheap and ubiquitous tools to keep in touch with the people whose lives have touched ours.

Posted in beauty, joy, Morgan DeGeer | Leave a Comment »

entering graduate school, quitting utopia

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 30, 2010

I just spent several hours revising my curriculum vitae, which I can’t imagine is very interesting to you. I do want to share with you my revised research statement. When I looked at the statement I wrote about 10 months ago, I found it embarrassingly utopian and a little bit silly. Also, it didn’t really say anything.

Here’s that version of my research statement:

My interests lie at the intersection of media studies and education. I’m fascinated by the promises inherent in the emergence of new valued participatory practices and cultures, and specifically on the potential of these to transform how we think about and approach teaching and learning. I’m also deeply obsessed with the Free/Open Source Software Movement, the movement toward open education, and what I’ve started to refer to as the social revolution: A deep, cultural shift in values and practices that enables us to rethink issues of social justice and the ethics of participation.

Ridiculous, right?

Here’s the new version:

Research as activism: All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore conduct research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community’s interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to serve.

The community I serve: I work in the service of working class learners, on whose backs our education system has been built. While ongoing efforts toward “educational equity” sprung from honest and honorable impulses, the dominant conversation about equity promotes ideals that too often fail to serve the needs of working class kids. It’s also premised on a lie: That anyone who works hard enough can escape even the most desperate of economic conditions. We might call this the “bootstrapping myth.” If it really was true that anyone who works hard enough (i.e., anyone who pulls herself up by her own bootstraps) can achieve academic and therefore economic success, then it would also be true that everyone could, in theory, achieve academic and economic success. But if this were true, we would no longer have a working class, would no longer have people to work in the service industry or take jobs in manual labor. Our economy cannot operate without a working class; if working class kids started matching the grades and test scores of the middle and upper class kids, we’d simply adjust accordingly.

I accept but do not embrace this reality, and I therefore want to work in the service of learning communities for whom mainstream markers of academic success are either unrealistic or inapplicable. I wonder: How can we make a college education a possibility for every student while also preparing every student for trajectories that may not include a college degree? How can we empower working class learners to confront the Great Lie of the bootstrapping myth, and how can we help them to make informed, meaningful, and satisfying decisions about their educations, their careers, and their lives? How can we educate working class kids in their own best interests?


My research focus: I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion by Schwartz & Arena (2009) that assessment is a normative endeavor. What we decide to assess, and the strategies we employ in order to assess it, become our belief systems about the nature of learning and about what is worth teaching. I’m interested in developing alternative assessment systems and frameworks that can make explicit an educational approach that empowers, values, and supports working class kids. Currently, my focus is on developing assessments that support learning gains on traditional educational benchmarks while also making it possible to make claims about students’ preparation for future learning contexts and about their proficiencies in areas not measured by traditional assessments.

Now we’re cooking with gas!

I guess now that I’ve revised my research statement,  all I need to do is wait for a Reputable Research Institution to call me for advice and pay me for my thoughts. I’ll just be over here waiting for my phone to ring.

Posted in education, graduate school, politics, poverty | 3 Comments »

paintball sonnet

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 27, 2010

You realize right away that if it didn’t hurt we wouldn’t call it fun.
“Fun”: horseshoed knots skimming slim skin, the harder your muscles
the tighter, the brighter the bruise. Cartoon pops
paint like blood bombs but tastes like those silicon beads that come
in vitamins that you’re not supposed to eat. All for the chance to _________.

So much sweat your facemask fogs on its smooth trip down your face.
I shot my boss right in the nuts: that was fun. Sort of. I felt kind of bad.
All for a reason to say now do you get why boys go to war? If it didn’t hurt
we wouldn’t call it fun but if they didn’t give us facemasks and rules and referees
we also wouldn’t call it fun: We’d call it that horrible game. Anyway. I got hit square
in the breast and it hurt. I awoke the next day with a headache for the ages.
That part about the paint’s taste? I made it up: I really don’t remember.
Advil cut the headache some.
I took pictures of my bruises and sent them to my friends.

Posted in poetry, sports, writing | Leave a Comment »

you don’t need to be that tough

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 26, 2010

Here’s a commercial that ran in Norway. The text at the end reads:

You don’t need to be that tough.
Helpline for gay youth / We guarantee we’ll answer.

In my opinion, this commercial, which the creator has said was developed as part of an advertising competition, sort of fails. Its target audience, gay youth, are supposed to feel affinity with that kid, right? But though the commercial attempts to convince us otherwise, the kid’s behavior isn’t brave–it’s kinda stupid. First of all, whether the other boy is straight or not, he’s clearly into the girl sitting next to him. Even if this is the Most Progressive School Dance in the History of Western Culture, asking someone to dance when he’s clearly into someone else is just begging for public rejection. And given the purpose of the commercial, we can assume this isn’t the Most Progressive School Dance in the History of Western Culture–it’s the kind of school dance we’re all familiar with, the kind at which asking someone of the same gender to dance is an act of extreme bravery, even if that kid isn’t already sitting with someone else.

And what makes this an act of extreme bravery? Well, the fact that it’s insanely risky to publicly present yourself as gay. And what makes it risky? The fact that, according to this commercial at least, straight kids are not to be trusted–they’re dangerous. And coming out to the straight kids is the stupid kind of bravery, at least according to this commercial.

So the messages of this commercial include:

  • If you’re a gay adolescent, coming out to your classmates is extremely brave but kind of stupid and also unnecessary.
  • If you’re a gay adolescent struggling with coming out, it’s better to talk about it privately with people who promise they won’t reject you than it is to talk about it openly with your (straight) classmates, who will probably reject you.
  • If you’re a gay adolescent, the straight kids you go to school with are dangerous for you.
  • Coming out is brave but also dangerous, and before you do something stupid you should talk to us about how to do it right.
  • If you’re a gay adolescent, your impulses about how to perform your orientation are probably wrong, and we can tell you how to perform your sexual orientation appropriately.

Imagine you’re a 12-year-old boy struggling with coming out. You see this commercial where a boy with whom you’re supposed to identify not only behaves really stupidly but then also gets his actions judged by the very people who say they want to help him. “You don’t have to be that tough”–translation: Call us–we can tell you the right way to come out.

Queer kids deal with enough judgment from their families, their friends, their classmates, their culture–they don’t need more people telling them how they should behave, and they certainly don’t need a support agency for gay youth telling them whether they’re behaving appropriately.

Posted in advertising, gay rights | Leave a Comment »

MIT quits open-source Kuali project

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 18, 2010

What happened: Recently, MIT announced it would discontinue partnership with the Kuali foundation on an open-source project called Kuali Student. This came, according to an official press release, after extensive discussions with board members and people and groups directly involved in developing this student-administration software.

What the press release didn’t say is why MIT made this decision. It seems likely that the decision was financial. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, MIT is the second higher education institution in the last several months to pull out of Kuali Student; Florida State University withdrew in February due to budget cuts.

Why it matters: MIT has been a strong and vocal supporter of openness in higher education and research. During my employ at the Institute, administrators officially adopted an open access policy which was designed to support the widest possible circulation of ideas, projects, and research generated by MIT-affiliated researchers. MIT has embraced the open education movement, investing copious time, energy, and dollars into its OpenCourseWare project.

If MIT’s decision to withdraw from Kuali Student is primarily a cost-cutting measure–and again, we don’t know for sure if this is the rationale–this does not bode well for open education. It’s all too easy to treat the idea of openness as a luxury worth pursuing during times of plenty and simple to abandon during times of famine. But the openness movement, in all its iterations (software, hardware, education, access, and so on), is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Transparency problems are part of what got us into this mess in the first place, especially in higher education where access to high-quality learning is still sequestered off behind a series of wrought-iron gates that cost too much–too much time, too much money, too much sacrifice–for many of our learners to be willing or able to gain entry.

We are no longer in an era where we can afford to make powerful, empowering education available only to the few. Indeed, one can easily argue that it’s not openness but opacity that is the luxury.

Posted in academia, education, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source | 1 Comment »