On Getting Stuck in our Origin Stories

Last month I accompanied a group of students and another faculty member to Amsterdam and Italy as part of a theological anthropology class. These destinations–one in northern, Protestant Europe and the other in southern, Catholic Europe–provided thought-provoking theological and cultural counterpoints to each other.

Having been raised conservative Anabaptist, I brought with me my own culture’s origin story in Europe where our ancestors were persecuted and martyred by Catholics and Lutherans during the Reformation. The Martyr’s Mirror, a tome filled with illustrated, detailed narratives of Anabaptist martyrdom was a standard feature of my childhood home. (Later this suspicion of all things Catholic would be further cultivated by the lurid illustrations of Jack Chick tracts, Baptist publications that used a popular comic book style to present evangelical fundamentalist propaganda to unsuspecting sinners and bored conservative youth.)

Of course, in the Europe I visited last month, this martyrdom was never mentioned on the tours or in the museums and monuments. Instead, in Amsterdam we heard about Catholics who worshiped in secret when Protestants came to power and in Rome we heard about the persecutions early Christians endured at the hands of the Roman emperors. As we toured the crypt beneath St. Peters, the freshness of that persecution was palpable in the tour guide’s narrative, implicitly framing the opulence of St. Peter’s above as a triumph against all odds. The underdogs finally got their due.

As others have eloquently pointed out, Anabaptists today are no less likely than Catholics to downplay their current privileged status, preferring to overwrite it with their origin story of martyrdom.

And as this NPR story documents, Americans as a whole are no different. Our white-dominated culture cries “Freedom!” from the tyranny of taxes and government without representation all the while conveniently ignoring how our entire culture and economy was built on the enslaved backs of others. We pat ourselves on our backs for “defending freedom” while ignoring all the innocent civilians we kill to do it. We pride ourselves for our advanced culture, while ignoring the millions of bodies chewed up by the machinations of colonization and globalization that funded it.

This happens on an individual level too when a person gets stuck thinking of him- or herself as they were when they were a helpless, impressionable child and continuing to engage with the world as if they were still that helpless impressionable child and not a capable adult. How many bullies are inwardly punching up at a bigger bully as they beat up on defenseless, less-powerful bodies in front of them? How many relationally aggressive people see themselves as just getting their long-deferred due as they ruthlessly exclude and marginalize lower status people around them?

But just because we can slide so easily between the roles of the oppressed and the oppressor doesn’t mean these roles are meaningless or that they are inevitable. Once we know better, we can do better.

As a teacher quoted in the NPR story points out, those of us living today are not at fault for the systemic racism our predecessors passed down to us, but we will be at fault twenty years from now if we don’t do something about it.

Being free from blame doesn’t free us from responsibility.

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Where’s My #metoo?

As the #metoo campaign swept across my Facebook feed, gathering strength from the countless stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, and eventually reaching tsunami strength as it approached halls of power, it occurred to me that I didn’t really have my own story to share. At least not one like the many I was reading.

I’m sure people from my very conservative upbringing would have their own explanation to offer–as if the body-shaming, sexism, and misogyny of religious patriarchy somehow deserves credit for this absence. And as if family reunions and churches aren’t crawling with perpetrators, collaborators, and silenced survivors.

As I began to think through each job I’ve held over the past two decades, I realized that almost all my bosses have been women. Aside from a couple male-female co-supervisor situations, I’ve never directly reported to a male boss*.

Now let’s be clear–some of those women were certainly difficult to work for, and I have no complaints about the one male boss I did have.

But surely it’s not just coincidence that I haven’t experienced the workplace harassment and assault that so many, many women have AND have primarily worked for women. What if supporting more women in positions of professional authority isn’t only a matter of basic justice and fairness but also about making workplaces safer for everyone?

 


*I suppose having a male academic chair for a year would count, although “chair” and “boss” are not interchangeable terms.

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#metoo in a Political Rhetoric Classroom

Over the past few days I’ve been listening to excellent podcast commentary on the #metoo phenomenon and the resulting ground-swell of sexual assault accusations in the news. As a result, I decided to scrap my original plans for my Rhetoric and Political Engagement class today to focus on this topic instead.

Since it was a last-minute change near the end of the semester when deadlines are breathing down the necks of students and faculty alike, I decided to go with a less-is-more approach. Before class, I sent the students links to the podcasts (and one article) so they had a general idea of what to expect, but I didn’t require them to listen ahead of time.

Since we would be listening to podcasts (no visual component), I brought several adult coloring books and colored pencils to class for keeping our hands and eyes occupied if students so chose. I also distributed MeToo Discussion Questions to serve as a listening guide. We paused between segments for questions and discussion.

Here are the podcasts we listened to:

Learn about the official process for dealing with sexual harassment complaints at the U.S. Capitol–and weep.

As allegations of sexual misconduct continue to dominate the news, a look at how we are dealing with high-profile offenders and who is being ignored. Plus, a critical reexamination of Bill Clinton’s reputation, the difficulty of processing good art made by bad people, and how to brace ourselves for the potential backlash.

  1. Rebecca Traister [@rtraister], writer-at-large for New York Magazine, on how sexual harassment stories at the national level resonate with our own familiar relationships to power and gender.
  2. Michelle Goldberg [@michelleinbklyn], columnist for The New York Times, on the claims of sexual misconduct made against Bill Clinton.
  3. Sarah Smarsh [@Sarah_Smarsh], writer and reporter, on the sexual harassment accusations that won’t make the news, especially those of the working poor.
  4. Lily Loofbourow [@Millicentsomer], culture critic for The Week, on preparing for a public backlash against the post-Weinstein moment.
  5. Kathryn VanArendonk [@kvanaren], TV critic for Vulture, on how to parse the fraught relationship between artists and their art, particularly when those artists are accused of violence or abuse.

Unfortunately there wasn’t time to listen to:

Pantsuit Politics is a podcast by two lawyers. Their tagline is “Sarah from the left. Beth from the right. No shouting. No insults. Plenty of nuance.”

Their discussion of #metoo and the other podcasts posted here (On the Media and The Daily) begin about 40 minutes into the show and runs for about 30 minutes.

Background reading from The Guardian:

I’m thinking about how I might run a class like this next time, what readings I might pair it with , or how I might adapt it for a class on rhetorical circulation or women’s and gender studies. What comes to your mind?

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Syllabi and Resources

Minor in Rhetoric and Public Writing 

ENG390 Writing as Social Action Syllabus (Fall 2016)

Economic Justice Lesson Plan  This lesson plan and activity pairs well with a selection of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It helps give students a sense of the reality of trying to get by on minimum wage–even in a rural area with a relatively low cost of living.

ENG278 Grant and Proposal Writing Syllabus (Spring 2016)

Handout: How Resources Flow Between Businesses, Government, and Non-Profits: A Very Basic Diagram 

Handout: Foundation-Program Matching Game

ENG279 Writing for New Media Syllabus (Spring 2017)

ENG277 Rhetoric and Political Engagement Syllabus (Fall 17)

ENG276_Rhetoric, Race, and Eugenics Syllabus (Spring 2017)

LIB105 College Writing: Writing About Writing Syllabus (Fall 17)

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Teaching Resources for Talking About Race in a Post-Truth Era

Reblogging my recent guest post at the Teaching PALS blog.

If your most recent teacherly *face palm* during this high season of grading wasn’t prompted by a paper insisting on a singular, simplistic interpretation of a text, then it may have been provoked by an argumentative paper’s nihilistic conclusion that “everyone has their own opinion.” Of course, while there are very good developmental explanations for why students arrive in our classrooms with these troubling habits of mind, our job to help them grow beyond these limiting perspectives is not helped by a President-elect who gleefully and recklessly disregards contrary evidence in his speeches and tweets. … (Click here to read the rest of the post.)

 

 

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Teaching Goals for This Semester

I finished my classes last May running on fumes. All year I was teaching new classes, trying out new strategies, attempting to keep students engaged with challenging material and projects. The semester wasn’t a flop, but the rewards felt meager when I compared them to all my efforts at professional development, new classroom activities, and stimulating discussion starters. My mind kept returning to a post a graduate school friend wrote now nearly a year ago about conserving energy while teaching, but I kept coming up short on insight into what that might look like in my classroom.

Last year when a more senior colleague and hugely successful teacher observed my classroom, she encouraged me to let students do more of the work and to cultivate a little less formal atmosphere. Her words resonated with me–I didn’t like dominating the classroom with my voice either. But it’s hard not to also hear this feedback as a prompt to change my personality to be more of an entertainer. Still, I spent the summer trying to think of ways to liven things up in ways that wouldn’t feel too weird and contrived.

As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been well aware of the evils of lecturing and hierarchical teacher-student dynamics. But I’ve also been in many classrooms where student-led discussions fell flat and where attempts to get students to take ownership of their own learning resulted in students feel lost rather than empowered. On top of that, working at a teaching institution results in a lot of pressure to be awesome at teaching, and for me that translates to a meticulously prepared lesson plan, non-stop demonstrations of brilliance, and blissfully happy students. No biggie.

At the beginning of this semester I randomly picked up a book left behind by a predecessor, Teaching with Your Mouth Shut by Donald Finkel. In the book, Finkel describes a discussion technique where in each class session a different student takes questions from the rest of the class and writes them on the board. The students select the 3-4 questions they most want to discuss, and the teacher sits back while the students dive in.

Yes! A format I can follow!

So I’m using Finkel’s approach this semester, augmenting it by prompting students to prepare three questions/talking points for each class period as part of earning participation points. Then at the beginning of class, I give them time to write these questions down and briefly share with their classmates nearby. Like the classic pair-and-share, this gives students a chance to articulate and vet their ideas before presenting them to the whole group. Only then do we proceed with collecting questions on the board.*

In my Writing as Social Action class, a student scribe listed different conceptions of community represented in the assigned essays. In the second column, students reported what expectations for the individual members would be for each conception/vision of community. Next students discussed among themselves and as a group which conceptions seemed ideal, realistic, problematic, etc.

In my Writing as Social Action class, a student scribe listed different conceptions of community represented in the assigned essays. In the second column, students reported what expectations for the individual members would be for each conception/vision of community. Next students discussed among themselves and as a group which conceptions seemed ideal, realistic, problematic, etc.

It’s still quite early in the semester, so we will see how turning things over to the students in this way works long term. So far I’ve used this technique for both first-year and upper-level classes, and in both contexts, I was very happy with the insights,  level of discussion, and willingness in these polite Midwestern students to gently push back against each others’ ideas. There’s been surprisingly few extended moments of silence and no individuals dominating the conversation. At least 50% of the class is actively participating in the discussions (and I hope to see this number grow).

Some things that still need fine-tuning include getting the quiet ones talking while still keeping participation voluntary and free-flowing. I also worry about the students who don’t enjoy class discussions and who may be tuning out because of that. I worry about the super smart students who appear bored or uncertain. I worry about the students I don’t know yet and have difficulty gauging at all. Hopefully with enough variation in class activities and readings, everyone will get their needs met at least part of the time.

I’ve long been assigning students reading responses in some fashion or another. Sometimes they submit them ahead of time and then I organize their responses around themes that emerge and use that as a basis for class discussions. Other times the reading response is more like a quiz, demonstrating that they’ve done the reading. Whatever the format, the idea is that students have something concrete in front of them to refer to during class discussions. Where this new technique improves upon those approaches is in giving students the unfiltered latitude to determine the flow of discussion. And prompting them to come to class with talking points assures that at the very least they will have a few places to begin the discussion.

As we know, the great thing about teaching is that there is always something more to learn. That can be discouraging too when learning new approaches and techniques feels like a Sisyphean task, requiring great effort with no finish line.

So here I am, rolling one more technique up the hill, but I have to say it doesn’t feel as heavy this time. I feel less drained and more energized after class. Class prep prompts less anxiety because I know the students are carrying more of that weight.

There’s even energy left over to write a blog post.

 

________

*Now my class time is divided into three distinct parts: 1) A few retrieval activities that recap the preceding class periods, 2) the student-led discussion, and 3) a wrap-up of the discussion with any points that need clarification/connection/context and setting up upcoming readings, assignments, etc. Hopefully this provides some of the variation necessary to address all the students’ learning needs.

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Donald Trump: Our Scapegoat of the Moment

Responses to Donald Trump’s recent “solution” to the ongoing refugee crisis range from outrage to applause. Many appear to be convinced that closed borders, registries, badges, and internment camps are a matter of national security. An yet, as others are pointing out, such policies are strikingly similar to those of Nazi Germany. Here’s the point I’m afraid too many of us will miss: like Trump, Hitler’s approach wasn’t really unique for his time, just more extreme.

This semester I am teaching a rhetorical theory survey course that draws on the ongoing Presidential primary campaigns for examples of the rhetorical concepts we are learning about in class. Two of the names that come up the most frequently in students’ responses and class discussions are, unsurprisingly, Hitler and Trump. (In fact, I’ve stopped just short of banning their names from class in order to bring more variety to our discussions.) Granted, Trump excels at shock-and-awe statements that attract media attention and we read Kenneth Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” so I get it.

In addition to Burke’s thoughtful rhetorical analysis of the strategies in Mein Kampf, we have also discussed the history of race in the U.S. and the legacy of racism institutionalized through eugenics, social policy, and Jim Crow laws. We have learned how pervasive the practices of regulating, marginalizing, and policing the reproduction and behavior of certain ethnic and racial groups were in Western Europe and the U.S. in the early twentieth century. In fact, in the 1930s Nazi Germany based its sterilization laws on California law, and certain U.S. officials expressed admiration for the way Germany was handling its so-called “undesirable” populations (see Dorothy Roberts and Marouf Hasian). In fact, rhetoric scholar Stephen Katz goes so far as to argue that the holocaust was not an aberration in the history of Western civilization, but was the culmination of its emphasis on expediency, efficiency, and rationalism on which the West prides itself.

These discussions have prompted me to think about the way that U.S. politicians, their proponents, and commentators almost reflexively compare opponents to Hitler. In light of these shared sentiments between the U.S. and Germany in the early twentieth century, how is it that Hitler became the benchmark for all that is evil? Sure, the horror of the death camps is beyond words, but the underlying logic was swirling in American waters too. Is it simply a lack of knowledge about our own history?

I want to suggest that just as the Jewish people were Hitler’s scapegoats for whom he blamed all of Germany’s problems, so too Hitler has become a political scapegoat for Americans today. As I’ve discussed with students, scapegoating goes beyond mere criticism, but it is a practice of setting up a particular entity to bear all the blame for all kinds of unrelated problems. It is a process of externalizing all manner of frustrations, disappointments, and failures onto a singular, identifiable entity in order to preserve or construct our own sense of self. In the chaos of post-WWI Germany, Hitler singled out those he deemed unfit in order to preserve a sense of national pride.  Thus when American politicians make–often implied–comparisons to the holocaust and Hitler, Hitler becomes a twenty-first century scapegoat, allowing us to externalize the latent or active racism in our world onto a distant, already-hated entity, allowing us to feel better about ourselves because, after all, we are not personally responsible for the slaughter of millions.

And to take this idea a step further, I want to also suggest that when we denounce Trump for his dehumanizing, unthinkable solutions, we should also remember the ongoing outpouring of hate toward people protesting racist intimidation on American college campuses. We should think about the refusal of the American people to deal with the international trade policies and war profiteering that set off domino-like effects that bring so many desperate immigrants to our borders. We should consider how we have elected and re-elected officials who have helped their friends make millions of dollars by incarcerating massive numbers of Americans of color. In other words, when we denounce Trump’s outrageous ideas (as we certainly should), let’s resist the urge to make Trump our scapegoat by focusing only on him (as he is counting on us to do), but instead, let’s broaden our scope to think about just how normal the logics of his ideas are. That’s the real scandal.

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Comment policy: Please challenge, argue, and contest your heart out–just keep it civil and evidence-based. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face over a cup of coffee, please don’t say it here.

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