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.

Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

clinging to lampposts: a video remix project

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 14, 2010

A few weeks ago, as my colleague Christian Briggs and I were creating our poetry presentation for Ignite Bloomington, I got myself inspired by creating this remix project of some key figures in the literature and media studies movements.

Though I am not a constructionist, I do find that I can find great personal meaning by engaging with new technologies that allow me to work with, reflect on, and making public both wonderful and powerful ideas.

Here, I’m working with scraps of contemporary popular culture, which I’ve lined up in a way that I hope calls into question how we think about social movements, information circulation, and tools for communication.

Posted in creativity, culture, Doctor Who, literature, television, writing | Leave a Comment »

as goes Detroit…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 22, 2010

file under: if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it’s hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I’ve been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It’s not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it’s worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It’s not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it’s neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors’ signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn’t only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word “decimated” literally means “reduced by ten percent.” Decimated, therefore, doesn’t begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it’s not just the economy that’s imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That’s over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn’t the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it’s the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it’s going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn’t know before: It’s not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let’s say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they’re told to do–working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it–still find themselves realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child’s college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let’s say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry’s feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we’re all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don’t have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It’s shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday’s historic vote mandating health care for all. It’s a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake “good” for “good enough.”

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, elections, jobs, politics, poverty, President Obama, public schools, racism, rage, recession, schools, social justice | 2 Comments »

Blog for International Women’s Day: A call to end ‘horizontal violence’

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 8, 2010

This blog post is part of the call from Gender Across Borders for blog posts written in response to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day.

About a month ago, I posted a review of And Then Came Lola, a film that ran as part of my city’s LGBTQ film festival.

In my review, I criticized what I saw as a heteronormative portrayal of lesbian sexuality: to wit, the more traditionally feminine a character was, the more heroic she was; and any character who stood outside of traditional notions of femininity was either a bad guy or played for laughs. I expressed concern that in treating sexual desire as the exclusive right of the traditionally beautiful, this film reinforces negative stereotypes of lesbians and of women more broadly.

Well. As you might imagine (and as I might have expected), I received lots of responses to this post, including a disproportionate number of personal attacks delivered in comments below the review and in personal emails. It was suggested that maybe I have a problem with lesbians, that maybe my own prejudices are clouding my judgment, that maybe I take myself too seriously. In fact, more commenters wanted to talk about what was wrong with me than about the content of my review–about whether I had a point worth discussing.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day with the theme “equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all,” I want to call for progress within the communities that comprise the women’s rights movement. We know that one highly effective strategy for doing away with a political point that threatens the status quo is to twist it into a question of personal character: She’s just a man-hater. He’s just a pedophile. She’s a hypocrite, a bitch, a traitor. We know this strategy is effective because it’s been used against us time and again. Yet we’re still so likely to pull out exactly this strategy if a member of our community says something we don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.

In lots of ways, it’s not really our fault. This is a divide-and-conquer tactic built right into the fabric of our culture to maintain the subtle balances of power. It’s also a tactic that has, for many members of minority groups, been highly effective in helping them to gain a voice, position, power. If you’re not an official member of the dominant group (which in America is largely comprised of middle- and upper-class, educated white men) you can always cozy up to the dominant group by acting in ways that show whose side you’re on. This is why we hear that women are so often each other’s worst enemies: If you’re a smart, ambitious, driven woman you can lessen the threat you pose to the status quo by helping to smack down other smart, ambitious, driven women.

But, wow, talk about trading off long-term change for short-term rewards. The Brazilian revolutionary Paulo Freire calls this “horizontal violence”: oppressed peoples “striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.” If you want a seat at the table, it may very well be faster and less painful to ingratiate yourself instead of shoving your way in; but on the other hand, you have no power to keep yourself at the table once you get there. If the dominant group ever decides you’re not docile or pretty or respectful or interesting enough, they can pull the table away.

On International Women’s Day, I’m calling for more attention to the long revolution, for more attention to the difficult and complicated work of building a movement based on solidarity, mutual respect and support, and making room for a variety of voices, interests, and needs. I’m calling for more attention to the ways in which we hurt each other, diminish the voices of our comrades, use any power we gain individually as a weapon against others who would like a little bit of power too.

I’m not calling for an end to disagreement or conflict within the movement toward equality; disagreement is useful, and conflict is inevitable. But I am calling for more introspection, for more thought put into why and how and where we disagree, into why and how and where we try to silence each other in the exact ways we find so despicable when it comes from outsiders to our communities and movements. I’m calling for all of us to examine our own behavior, our own attitudes, our own understandable struggles with power, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves and about others who have joined with us to fight for progress and equality. I’m calling for more public generosity and private compassion. I’m calling for it from myself most of all, starting now and henceforth; but I do hope that you’ll join me.

Posted in culture, feminism, gender politics, human rights, social justice | 1 Comment »

the sleeping alone review of films: And Then Came Lola

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 3, 2010

summary: I have a big problem with this movie.

I’ve been sitting on a review of And Then Came Lola (2010), described in press materials as a “time-bending, comedic and sexy lesbian romp-loosely inspired by the art house classic Run Lola Run,” since it showed at Bloomington’s Pride Film Festival last weekend. On the one hand, yay! This film presents a welcome antivenin to the cultural poison of heterosexual action-romances, romantic comedies, action-comedic romances, thriller-romances, romantic melodramas…you get the idea. On the other hand…well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The story is much more than loosely inspired by Run Lola Run, the 1998 German film that has a fire-haired Lola desperate to get 10,000 Deutsche Mark in 20 minutes in order to save her boyfriend’s life. The conceit of this film is that when Lola fails, she gets to try again: shot by a police officer and dying on the sidewalk, she yells “stop” and starts over, armed with an awareness of what went wrong the first time. As the story resets itself again and again, the audience is offered backstory: Lola’s relationship with Manni, her boyfriend, is not fully secure; there are doubts about whether each feels a genuine love for the other. There is a question, then, over why Lola would risk her life, again and again.

And Then Came Lola works with several of the plot points of its inspiration, not least of which is the main character’s ability to go back in time and try again. As in Run Lola Run, there is a punk with a dog; there is a homeless man; there is a beautiful woman named Lola and a camera that cannot look away from her as she runs through the streets of her city. This time, though, Lola is a photographer running through the streets of San Francisco to deliver prints to her girlfriend, Casey, who needs them right away in order to secure a Big Client. Beneath this is a backstory: Lola has issues with commitment, has issues with being dependable and on time, but thinks that Casey might be The One and wants to prove that she can change. As in Run Lola Run, this Lola needs multiple tries to secure the happy ending.

And Then Came Lola is basically a lesbian retelling of Run Lola Run, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. In this version, every character is gay (or gay-curious, as in the mixed-sex tourist couple who invite Lola to share their taxi and then put the moves on her), and the film starts from an assumption that same-sex romances are neither perfect nor fundamentally much different from heterosexual romances. And thank god for that–it’s about time we started moving beyond the startpoint of needing to justify same-sex attraction and romance.

On the other hand, for a lesbian action-romance, And Then Came Lola feels pretty heteronormative. First of all, the main characters are beautiful in a way that most straight men could probably get behind. Here are Lola and Casey, played by Ashleigh Sumner and Jill Bennett:

I don’t challenge the notion that some lesbians look like Lola and Casey (and, in fact, the actors made an appearance at the showing I attended, and they look about the same in real life as they do in the film*). But I do have a problem with a film that aligns femininity with heroism and turns anything else into comedy. In this relationship, it’s Lola who’s the problem–she’s emotionally distant and because of this, as one character explains, sex with her is “like sex with a man.” In order to get the girl, Lola has to learn to access her feelings; her big breakthrough comes when she can no longer have sex with Casey without knowing if Casey loves her.

This film is pretty overtly about sex, and its plot is pushed forward through presentation of sexual fantasy. In their fantasy, Lola and Casey get romance, with candles, caresses, and glasses of wine. They are therefore the heroes of the story.

Here are the villains: The punk with a dog is a little butch lesbian who trips Lola up again and again and, it’s revealed, has a disturbingly close relationship with her dog. The most evil villain of the movie is a lesbian parking officer, who’s presented as a fat, disheveled Latina. She’s ugly, we’re told, and also mouthy; and her fantasies are therefore presented as hilarious. They’re offered up as a joke, as comic relief.

It’s not enough, not anymore, to make films with tons of gay characters. What we need is films with tons of gay characters that also strive to complicate our understanding of sexuality, attraction, romance, and what it means to be human. And Then Came Lola would have us believe that the stereotypes are correct, that the more traditionally beautiful you are, the more right you have to your sexuality. That’s not only blatantly wrong, it’s deeply problematic, especially for a film making the rounds at LGBTQ film festivals.

*Note: I’m making a fairly big leap in assuming that Sumner and / or Bennett are gay, when it’s entirely possible that both are straight. If they are, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are plenty of lesbians who are approximately as heteronormatively beautiful as Sumner and Bennett are.

Posted in culture, gay rights, gender politics, movies, sex | Leave a Comment »

I’m kind of appalled by Clay Shirky

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 17, 2010

You may have read Clay Shirky’s recent post, “a rant about women.” You may also have read, heard, or participated in the chaos and conversation that sprung up around it. And rightly so, given this representative chunk of Shirky’s post:

Remember David Hampton, the con artist immortalized in “Six Degrees of Separation”, who pretended he was Sydney Poitier’s son? He lied his way into restaurants and clubs, managed to borrow money, and crashed in celebrity guest rooms. He didn’t miss the fact that he was taking a risk, or that he might suffer. He just didn’t care.

It’s not that women will be better off being con artists; a lot of con artists aren’t better off being con artists either. It’s just that until women have role models who are willing to risk incarceration to get ahead, they’ll miss out on channelling smaller amounts of self-promoting con artistry to get what they want, and if they can’t do that, they’ll get less of what they want than they want.

There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks….

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

There are enough smart people out there responding to this piece that I don’t need to add more noise to the cacophony. But I do want to speak up as a dues-paying member of Women Who Run With The Arrogant Self-Aggrandizing Jerks And Sometimes Behave Like Arrogant Self-Aggrandizing Jerks Themselves.

Did I mention I’m a dues-paying member?

Because it’s not easy to self-promote. It’s not easy to stand up and say things that might be seen as stupid–or worse, dismissed because they come from a woman. It’s not easy to announce to people “You should listen to me because I am awesome and the work I do is also awesome.” It’s not easy, in part because it takes extreme confidence (or at least something that looks to other people like confidence) to stand up and ask for attention, respect, recognition; and it’s also not easy because the backlash is often so great, and simultaneously so subtle, that it sometimes feels like a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of deal.

My experience, in academia anyway, is that the tradeoff is this: If you want respect, authority, and platforms for broadcasting your ideas to a wider public, you have to self-promote; and if you succeed in gaining respect, authority, and platforms for speaking it’s often at the cost of personal and professional relationships.

Let me say it more clearly: If you’re a woman and you want to be heard, especially in academia, you have to knock on every door, announce your presence to everyone, and holler your qualifications at everyone in earshot. And if you do it right, people will hate you.

It will be harder to get daily work accomplished, because your colleagues will be stiff and formal with you. Male colleagues will challenge your knowledge and authority, and if that fails they will simply demean you in front of others. Female colleagues–and this is the really painful part–will shrink from you because in speaking so loudly, you’ve drowned out their voices. Some women, in an attempt to ally themselves with the people in charge, will also attempt to challenge and demean you.

(Another way to gain respect and authority, by the way, is to ally yourself with the people in charge, who in this case are primarily white guys. The backlash that comes out of this type of effort, though, is that you risk losing your place at the table the minute you misbehave. Then you have to come grovelling back, apologizing with downcast eyes, and take what scraps you can.)

Sure, men who self-promote risk hostility and resentment–but it’s a different kind of hostility and resentment than what women experience. As members of the dominant cultural group, men who self-promote may be seen as a threat to specific people, but they certainly don’t represent a threat to the established social order.

Women who are aware of the social positioning of women as a non-dominant group (and not all women are aware of this positioning, which is fine but sort of sad) develop a complex relationship to the decisions they make in crafting their public personae. They may engage in the kind of “arrogant, stupid” behavior that Shirky says is the best way to get ahead, but they do so knowing that some people (including, apparently, Shirky) will see this as “behaving more like men.” They may choose to self-promote far less aggressively than Shirky would probably find useful, and to either accept that they will have trouble getting heard or find platforms for speaking where less self-promotion, less arrogance, is perfectly okay.

Or–and this is what lots of women, including me, do–they may adopt multiple identities, more identities, with more complicated politics, than those that men choose or are forced to adopt, in order to manage the competing demands on their behavior. This is not, lest I be misunderstood, the kind of identity cultivation that allows people to say “I have multiple identities! I’m an academic, and I’m also a mother, and I’m also a sister, and I’m also a friend.” This is something much more complicated: It’s “I’m this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in this type of context, and I’m this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in that type of context, and I’m this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in that type of context with this person removed” and so on.

I don’t quite know how to end this post, except to say that lots of people I like and respect think that Shirky is right on the money. And to add that my opinions are mine alone and not necessarily representative of all women, and that–and this is really important–I’m speaking from a position of relative privilege, since I’m a white, well-educated woman. I’m also thin, young, and not in any way physically disabled. I can’t imagine how much more complicated this gets for someone who’s even one step further removed from the dominant group than I am.

Posted in academia, bigotry, celebrity, Clay Shirky, culture, feminism, gender politics, human rights, politics, social justice | 7 Comments »

tattooed academics signal the decline of western civilization!

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 14, 2009

file under: time for the old guard to die out

I am alarmed by the elitism exhibited in a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on scholars, tattoos, and piercings. The article, “The Candidate and His Earring” by Dennis M. Barden, frets over the future of academia–not because of a decline in access to or quality of post-graduate education, but because kids these days are getting their ears pierced.

Barden tells the story of a presidential search in which he participated. He writes:

I had interviewed a terrific candidate via videoconference and touted him to the search committee—successfully, as it turned out, because they agreed to interview him in person. That conversation went exceptionally well. The candidate truly was outstanding in comportment and credentials, and he was recognized as such by the search committee.

I, on the other hand, was taken aback. The institution I was serving had a reputation for being a fairly conservative place—Midwestern, faith-based, dedicated to its traditions. As soon as the candidate left the room, I stood to address the search committee with what might only be described as a frightening combination of bemusement and real concern. “I want you all to know that on video I could not see the earring!” Happily, the room erupted in laughter. My candidate had the tiniest little diamond stud in his ear. I truly hadn’t noticed it at all until he sat down next to me; some committee members at the other end of the table couldn’t even see it. It was there, though, and it was discussed.

The candidate was hired, Barden tells us, and “the earring is no longer an issue now that my onetime candidate is well ensconced in that presidency.”

What’s alarming about this story is that the earring was ever an issue in the first place. Barden also frets over tattoos (far more damaging, he suggests, to one’s career than the less ‘permanent’ earring) and The Decline of Proper English as evidenced by young people’s fluency with text messaging language and slang. “Never before,” Barden writes,

have we been so bombarded by images and sounds, so instant, so clear, so pervasive, so permanent. People can change their words, but some of their personal expressions are there forever. Tattoos are only one example; pictures on social-networking sites are even more pernicious, potentially.

Twenty years from now, will search committees be deciding how seriously to take that picture from the ’10s with the then-underage presidential candidate brandishing a joint and displaying his posterior to the admiring throng? Or will there be so much of that out there that it is just expected? And how will that presidential candidate be conducting himself on the day that decision is made? Will he be speaking anything that we recognize today as standard English?

Barden is not, thank god, an academic. His online profile explains that he spent 20 years in academic administration before joining Witt/Kieffer, “an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit organizations.” While he cannot be forgiven for this outdated and prejudiced take on the role of personal appearance on academic hiring decisions, he can be largely dismissed.

And that’s exactly what anybody who cares about gathering up the best scholarly minds in any field should do. The notion that “respectable” academics should be free of adornments like tattoos and excess piercings (presumably he thinks ear piercings for women is just fine, though he worries when his daughter pierces her nose) is an outdated relic of the days when intellectual prowess was assumed to be the exclusive province of the middle and upper class.

We can look at the cultural history of tattoos as one nice example. Because of tattoos’ association with tribal rites, Christianity had to smoosh down tattooing practices along with pagan religious practices in order to complete their conquest of non-Christian peoples. When tattoos made their comeback in America, they were filtered ‘up’ through working class or minority groups. Tattoos, associated with convicts, bikers, and gang members, were increasingly embraced by middle and upper class adolescents and young adults as forms of rebellion against the values of their home communities. Increasingly, tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body adornment have been accepted as legitimate forms of personal expression.

But a significant subset of the population continues to adhere to the notion that the increasing popularity of tattoos and piercings signal the Decline of Civilization As We Know It. They’re quick to link tattoos to broken English–evidenced in Barden’s concern that in future decades candidates may speak in something we no longer recognize as “standard English.”

A couple-three things about this attitude:

1. The anti-body adornment stance is an attempt at gatekeeping. Academia has historically been very good at ensuring its survival as an institution populated by richwhiteguys and scholars who embrace the richwhiteguy ethos. Rejecting a qualified candidate because her appearance sets her apart from this ethos is loathsome at best and, at worst, a direct violation of anti-discrimination policies.

2. Lots of powerful academics have tattoos and / or piercings. At least two male faculty members in my program (Learning Sciences @ Indiana University) bear the mark of a formerly pierced ear, and here’s Sasha Barab, who comes complete with no less than two pierced ears:

At least one of these guys also has a tattoo. Also:

Need I go on? Because I could. But instead, I guess I’ll move on to point 3:

3. I’m getting a tattoo. On my wrist. Where Barden and the entire world–including faculty hiring committees–will be able to see it. I decided on the tattoo, and the location, months ago, and now I’m just working on gathering up the money and the courage to get it done. And here’s the thing: Any school that would reject me based on body adornment is a school I wouldn’t want to affiliate myself with anyway.

Besides, with any luck, the Dennis Bardens of the world are on their way out of positions of authority. It’s time we replaced them with people who can see clearly the underlying power structures whose existence depends on making value judgments based on physical appearance, and whose power relies on excluding people who might challenge the very existence of those underlying structures.

Posted in bigotry, culture, lame | 10 Comments »

Lawrence Lessig’s Educause 2009 keynote

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 12, 2009

If you are an educator, new media activitist, or copyright law hobbyist and you plan to watch only one video this month, I’ve found the video for you. This is video from Lawrence Lessig’s keynote presentation at the Educause conference this month.

Lessig, a Harvard law professor and a founder of the Creative Commons Project, wonders why citizens treat the law with such reverence when even lawyers approach the law with deep skepticism. He argues that it’s time for citizens–especially citizens working in education and science–to approach copyright law with skepticism. He does acknowledge that for much of our cultural history copyright law was a “necessary evil,” but that:

The thing to remember about necessary evils? They’re still evil.

Here’s Lessig’s talk. You’re going to love it. (If you want to watch a version that lines up, across multiple panels, footage of Lessig giving the talk alongside the slides he’s showing the audience, you can click here [requires Silverlight download].

Posted in copyright, culture, education, hacking, intellectual property, law | 1 Comment »

a note on critical computational literacy

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 9, 2009

In Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy, Andrea DiSessa sets forth a definition of literacy that emphasizes the socially constructed nature of the term. He writes:

Literacy is a socially widespread patterned deployment of skills and capabilities in a context of material support (that is, an exercise of material intelligence) to achieve valued intellectual ends….

Although I wring just a bit more specificity out of our preliminary definition in a moment, there is a fundamental lesson here. We must recognize an inescapable diversity in the phenomenon of literacy. There is no essential, common basis of literacy along any of the dimensions listed or along any other similar ones. There are no fixed basic human skills on which it builds.

DiSessa’s point, quite simply, is that we should never forget that the skills we gather under the umbrella term “literacy” are neither firm nor fixed, neither intrinsic nor fundamental to human discourse.

This approach aligns nicely with the critical literacy approach forged by social justice-focused thinkers like Paulo Freire, Howard Zinn, Henry Giroux, Michael Apple, and others. Now, with an increased focus on a new category of literacy that DiSessa Mitchel Resnick, and others have labeled ‘computational literacy,’ we get to think of the social dimensions and equity issues linked to this new (enhanced?) set of social practices. We get to consider what it might mean to develop critical computational literacy.

And a visualization: Check out this page and this page for my take on a few key readings on computational literacy. And one more, here, that I feel is the best of the bunch.

And below, you can scan my very first custom gadget EVAR. Am I a programmer? Am I now? Now?

now?

Posted in culture, education, literacy, Paulo Freire | 2 Comments »

notes from the {gendered} revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 28, 2009

I don’t like talking about gender politics.

It’s not because I’m not interested. It’s not because I don’t see the value of engaging with social issues tied to gender and identity. It’s not because I don’t have tons to say about these issues.

It’s because most of the time, I feel marginalized by the rhetoric of gender, identity, and belonging. I feel like this rhetoric is talking about someone else–it certainly doesn’t represent my values, needs, or beliefs. And I hate feeling marginalized. I hate feeling unnoticed. So I’d much rather not show up to the conversation than feel like nobody’s interested in my needs.

Let me try to explain why by backing up a step to explain why I’m writing about this issue at all.

It came up in a conversation about a recent seminar with Leah Buechley, an educational researcher who directs the High-Low Tech research group at MIT’s Media Lab. Buechley’s recent work focuses on computational textiles, and a big chunk of her focus is on embedding conductive thread and circuitry into clothing.

There’s sewing involved. And when sewing gets mashed in with computation, smart people start talking about gender.

Though I’m going to argue below that the typical conversation about sewing, computation, and gender is marginalizing for some people and therefore problematic, this is in no way intended to discount the important work that Buechley and others are doing. It’s no secret that women are actively avoiding the field of computer science; indeed, one of the more prominent studies in this area is a project at Carnegie Mellon University, where 1995 statistics indicated that women made up only 8% of the entire incoming class of computer science undergraduate majors. After four years of intensive interventions, that number increased to 37%–a roaring success from one perspective and an ongoing failure from another.

Add to this the fact that during the course of this particular study, women changed majors or transferred out of Carnegie Mellon at more than twice the rate of men–30 percent of women changed majors or transferred, compared to 12% of male computer science majors.1 Carnegie Mellon, remember, is renowned for its computer science program, and admission into this program and graduation from it are presumably a source of great pride for students.

The numbers are even more dismal for graduate programs in computer science. Take a look at the steady numbers decline: Women make up 27% of master’s degrees in computer science and 13% of PhD’s; they constitute 7.8% of computer science and computer engineering faculty and 2.7% of tenured faculty in the same field.2

So, yes: The struggle is real. The issue of gender equity is salient and important. And the work of people like Buechley is essential to interrogating the ongoing gender gap in the most gender-biased field we have. Not only that, but anyone who knows me knows I like nothing better than a good equity battle.

So why, when a group of us were discussing how Buechley’s computational textiles work addresses gender disparities, did I get so uncomfortable? Why was I praying for the conversation to drift off into some other topic?

I think my discomfort was mainly because of the rhetoric of gender politics–specifically, the assumptions that undergird issues of gender, equity, and inclusion. They are assumptions like the following:

  • Women often prefer balanced lives (so they don’t stick with computer science, a field that values total immersion).
  • That (female) researcher must be childless (or unmarried), because otherwise she’d never have the time to do that kind of work.
  • Women generally don’t like competing with their colleagues (so they’re less likely to get research funding and tenure).
  • Women often don’t like to argue because they worry about seeming pushy, arrogant, or aggressive (so they’re less vocal in academic or intellectual debate).

I am, it appears, a traitor to my gender.

I don’t doubt that the above assumptions are true for the majority of women3. They just don’t happen to be true for me. And to be clear, this isn’t about my age (32), marital status (single), or family status (childless). This is about the generalizations that get reified through statements like the above. This is essentialism at its most benign and insidious. Women are like this; they tend to want that; they make decisions because this.

I’m not like this; I don’t want that; I don’t make decisions because this. But try saying that out loud some time and see how far it gets you. After a sufficient amount of time, you have two choices: Either try to figure out what’s wrong with you, or try to figure out what’s wrong with the rhetoric.

Because it’s easy, smart people tend to lump people into one of two gender categories: You’re either female or you’re male, and if you don’t align with the values assigned to those categories, you’re probably the exception that proves the rule. Because I’m argumentative, childless, and more rational than emotional, I’m a ‘less feminine woman’; and in our culture, ‘less feminine’ acts in opposition to ‘woman’ such that the very phrasing of that description struggles against itself for meaning.

(For the record, I think the same is true for some men. If you want balance, time to raise your kids, or to be liked even at the expense of your career, then you’re a ‘less masculine man’ with the same struggle inherent in the phrase.)

Too often, strangely enough, liberal feminist rhetoric only adds to the problem. Women should be free, they say, to raise children, to enter traditionally male careers like law and computer science without fear of marginalization or harassment, to make decisions informed by both intellect and emotion, to cry–even at work–without fear of looking weak. And they’re right. Of course they’re right.

But women should also be free to adopt traditionally male mannerisms without fear of seeming ‘less feminine.’ They should be free to walk how they like, to talk how they like, to dress and study and write how they like, without fear of the double penalty of being both not-male and not-feminine-enough.

Gender, after all, is an identity continuum and not a duality. This should go without saying, though it does at times bear repeating.

And the fact that this post has, ounce for ounce, taken me longer to write than anything else on this blog is more telling than anything else (and even still, I fear I haven’t conveyed myself successfully or completely). It proves just how much I hate gender politics, and how important I think it is to talk through exactly why.

1. These stats come from a fantastic study by Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher, and Faye Miller called “The Anatomy of Interest: Women in Undergraduate Computer Science.” (Women’s Studies Quarterly, Summer 2000, pp. 104-127. Accessible with subscription at http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004448.)

2. Spertus, Ellen (1991). “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?” MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315, August 1991.

3. And note that I’m tackling these issues from the perspective of a white woman; I couldn’t even begin to address how the assumptions, values, and discourses about ‘how women are’ marginalize nonwhite women in exponentially intense, insidious ways.

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