Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why English Class Matters

My younger daughter is on the middle school field hockey team.  One of her teammates has a mom who took it upon herself to look up some information about warm-up jackets for the girls.

I think this is a lovely gesture and I fully intend on purchasing a jacket for Bean.  I have been routinely horrified, however, by this mom’s abysmal writing skills.  Unless she’s not a native speaker, there’s really no need for this:

At long last I have the data on jackets. We will order from Collins sport In Randolph the cost is about 48 dollars to be finalized when we give a count. I have printed off photos of the two choices women’s cut and men’s cut either can be ordered we do not all need to get the same. We will have  Field Hockey embroidered on back , name on sleeve and school field hockey logo on chest or a generic one if he cannot find a specific fern wave one. The link to the pictures are in the email. Also we need to pay up front. I have typed out a flyer/ order form and checks need to go to Collins sports no cash please. I would assume if you want to pay with credit card you can call them as they are local just let us get the order organized. Look for the pictures and form and info letter tomorrow with the girls.

(for the record, I have no idea what a ‘fern wave’ would look like)

This email went out to 35 families and the coaches.  It was followed up this afternoon with this literary gem:

A reminder that we will be placing the order for the jackets this week so please have your order information and check or payment information in by Tuesday or at least make contact by then . Thanks so much . We fad a good response so far the girls will look wonderful in then. Most are buying big to last a few years . We are only referencing town not middle school so they won’t outgrow them!!

I… I just… I have no words…

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Sad

When I came home this afternoon, this was in my inbox:

I miss you at school so much, Mrs. Chili. Ms. Danielli is apparently our English substitute this week and I’m about to pull my hair out. She screamed at Elizabeth this morning during class, and the sad part is that though Liz said some bold things; it was what everyone was thinking. The gist of it was that Ms. Danielli was being very unfair and micro-managing our class when Mr. Lannen specifically said we could handle making decisions for ourselves, and Liz spoke out saying something along the lines of, “I thought this school was supposed to be about freedom.”  Liz makes me nervous when she says things like this, but instead of just her feeling this way, this year she’s the only one not afraid to speak about the elephant in the room.

There’s a different mood to the school this year. It’s quieter between classes, cliques are really tightly-knit, there are noticeably less positive shares in the morning, no one has very much enthusiasm about anything, and for the most part, people are absolutely miserable. I can’t speak for all of the teachers, but Mr. Wayne took our sophomore advisory aside and talked about it as a group with the door closed last week and everyone agrees, including him. It’s just a really sad place to be, and it’s been made clear that it’s not just the students who have noticed this.

I don’t want to be another Sarah (ed. note; Sarah was a girl who attended the school last year.  She was generally miserable and felt that her misery deserved everyone else’s company; as a consequence, most of her energy was spent spreading malcontent) and I don’t want to cause trouble, but I’m upset, nervous, conflicted, and angry. I’ve wanted to talk to you about things for a while, not because it could possibly fix things, but because it might make me feel a little bit better. I don’t want to ever give up fighting for this school, because CHS has always picked me up when I was down, and I want to do the same for it. But I feel like power has been taken away from the students, and this hurts me most because you said you’d always be my advocate for these things last year when I felt powerless. I know you were an advocate to a lot of students this way. I think a lot of kids have lost hope this year.

I don’t know how much more I can say, because I’m sitting in advisory and I’m close to tears. Sometimes when I get really upset, I try to read and hear your voice in my head like I used to when we read The Book Thief. Maybe I’m just hormonal and having a hard time, but I’m really upset and I guess I just really needed to let it all out. Consider this a morning write

I love you and I miss you so much, Mrs. Chili.
- Amayah

Oh, Lord.  WHAT do I do with THAT?!  I wrote Amayah back and told her that, while there really isn’t anything I can do to change the conditions at CHS, I AM available to meet with her (and anyone else who wants to see me).  I can be a sounding board, I can help them think critically about the situation and work through possible solutions, and I will do everything I can to empower their voices.

This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen after I left.  I knew that leaving the way I was forced to did would result in at least some of the kids feeling abandoned and that, more than anything else, kills me.

I hate this.

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Quick Hit: The Universe is at It Again

Seriously; The Universe has a way of dumping, square into my lap, timely and relevant and connected experiences that help me to work out a question or problem I’m working on unraveling.  I should stop being surprised when stuff like this happens.

With all the hoo-hah going on over Romney’s “inelegantly worded” railing against the lazy, irresponsible “47%,” it’s been hard for me to not think about the ways in which our economy, our social policies, and our history have shaped the way we think about each other.  I stood in delighted admiration as I watched Jon Stewart break the system down (in a way only Jon Stewart can) in his “Chaos on Bullshit Mountain” piece (really; if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch).  It spoke, clearly and directly, to the idea of “cognitive dissonance” that has been frustrating me for so long.

This morning, as I was reviewing some of the reading for this week’s class, I came across this quote from Gregory Mantsios’s essay titled “Media Magic; Making Class Invisible:”

 For the media, “we” the affluent stand not only apart from the “other” – the poor, the working class, the minorities, and their problems – “we” are also victimized by the poor (who drive up the costs of maintaining the welfare rolls), minorities (who commit crimes against us), and by workers (who are greedy and drive companies out and prices up).  Ignored are the subsidies to the rich, the crimes of corporate America, and the policies that wreak havoc on the economic well-being of middle America.  Media magic convinces us to fear, more than anything else, being victimized by those less affluent than ourselves.

We NEED to figure this out, People.

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Quick Hit: Going it Alone

I had a conversation with my professor this afternoon, and we decided that it would probably be best for me to take this class as an independent study.

The distance between me and my classmates in terms of age, life experience, and general knowledge is so great that I won’t be getting anything useful out of the course.  I’ve got at least 20 years on all of them, I’m the only one who’s worked, I’m the only one who’s married or has children (and, not for nothing, I’m the only one (at least in my reading group) who has half a frickin’ clue about what’s going on in the class.  Oh, and I also seem to be the only one who can get through a sentence without saying “like” 17 times.  I’m not kidding.)  At one point during the last class meeting, one of my reading group said, “WOW!  We’re, like, so lucky to, like, have you in OUR group!  Your explanations are, like, really, really good!”  And, yes; that’s a direct quote.  I’m really not interested in a) teaching the class to my small group-mates or b) being used as the “smart kid” for all the group work (and there’s a lot of it).  Getting out of the class and working on my own is definitely a priority for me.

The professor usually sets graduate students working together, but since I’m the only graduate student taking this class, she suggested to me that we can work out a course of study where I put together a graduate-level plan for the course material and work independently.  Guess what I’ll be doing this weekend?

I think it’s a capital idea.  I was starting to get really worried about what I was going to do for another 12 weeks in that environment.

Watch this space.

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Reading Response Essay #2

In Ore chapter 2, the author discusses ethnicity as an option. Seriously consider and answer the
 question she poses in her first sentence, “What does it mean to talk about ethnicity as an option for an individual?” (p 29). Consider the ethnicities you claim. When, if at all, are these ethnicities (or ethnicity) a choice? When are they not? What influences when these ethnicities are and are not chosen? Give an example to illustrate your points.

In her essay, Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?, Mary Waters posits the notion that, for a great many Whites, claiming an ethnicity is a choice.  The notion that “ethnicity  is primarily a social phenomenon, not a biological one” (30) means that those individuals who are sufficiently removed from the immigrant experience – and those whose physical appearance or attributes are such that society does not automatically assign them a label – are able to designate for themselves which ethnicity, if any, they choose to adopt.

As (primarily Caucasian) immigrant families experience more and more generations in one place (here, we’re assuming the United States), the link to an ethnic identity grows ever more remote (30).  Further, the prevalence of mixed ancestry, which becomes more common as families grow farther from the immigrant experience, offers many people “the option of which ethnicity to identify with” (31).  This willingness to identify an ethnicity – and to purposefully choose to adopt an ethnic identity for both personal lives and the public record – is made more accessible by the options for such designations on official documents (such as the census) and the perception that the adoption of an ethnic identity does not carry with it a stigma, but rather a positive means of identifying oneself against a “vanilla” (34) identification as an “unhyphenated American.”

The tendency to remain a “hyphenated American” seems to be a strong one, however, and is reinforced in a number of our social and political institutions.  My own ancestry is relatively uncomplicated – I come from several lines of essentially undiluted and recently arrived Scots – but I am also disassociated from my biological family, so I do not have any emotional or social ties to them.  As a consequence, I have no particular stake in finding and documenting my ancestry, but I’m finding that, as a regular part of my daughters’ school experience, questions of family history are pretty common.  Once a year since they entered the 5th grade, one or both of my children has come home with some variant on the “family tree” assignment; in fact, my sophomore just finished another genealogy assignment last night.  Because we all “look” like Anglo-Saxons – red-haired, fair-skinned – the narrative we tell about our family’s history is an easy one for others to accept.

The idea of outward appearance is an important one when we’re constructing ethnicity, both for ourselves and as a means of identifying/categorizing others.  Because our genetics conspired to produce living versions of Disney’s Brave heroine, my husband and I don’t have to help our children navigate through the complexities of constructing an ethnic identity; people are willing to accept without question their claim to Anglo-Scots heritage.  For those whose appearance is more ambiguous, however, the idea of self-directed choice in ethnic identification becomes more problematic.  In their essay, Racial Formations, Omi and Winant observed that, “[b]y the end of the seventeenth century, Africans whose specific identity was Ibo, Yoruba, Fulani, etc., were rendered “black” by an ideology of exploitation based on racial logic – the establishment and maintenance of a ‘color line’” (24).  Disregarding the distinctions of tribe by a dominant culture is a means of stripping individuals of a facet of identity.  Taken a step further, reducing identity to the lowest social denominator was perpetuated in this country by the “one drop rule” which determined the racial identity of an individual based on what Marvin Harris called the principle of “hypo-descent.”  “Americans [have been socially programmed] to believe that anyone who is known to have had a Negro ancestor is a Negro.”   He goes on to say that this “rule” for constructing the social identity of others is intended “to keep biological facts from intruding into our collective racist fantasies” (21).

Waters claims that those who have the option of choosing an ethnic identity do so for several reasons.  First, having a symbolic identity “combines individuality with feelings of community” (34).  People reported that choosing an ethnicity helped them to feel “special” and distinct from the “bland” identity of “American,” which is often commonly thought of as a political, rather than an ethnic, identity.  Adopting an ethnic identity also allows the individual to pick and choose those characteristics of the ethnicity they wish to identify with.  Finally, “the option of being able to not claim any ethnic identity” exists for those of White, European background where it does not for people of color.

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Reading Response Essay #1

I’m going to admit to being a little nervous about this.

The assignment says, in part (I’ve left out the insignificant details),  “each student will maintain a weekly reading response journal that is based on the reading response questions that are posted on BlackBoard… Students should respond using examples from the readings to illustrate your points.  The format of the response should include the following: 1) date and response question, 2) discussion and response of the question using at least two examples from the assigned readings to illustrate points, 3) response and discussion of the question based on your personal opinion/experience, and 4) demonstrated critical analysis of the question and integration of the assigned readings into your opinion/experience.

Since I’m still not sure about what the expectations are for written assignments beyond what I’ve got there, I’m not sure that I’ve met them. Regardless, here’s what I’ve come up with for the first attempt.  Critique the hell out of it, wouldja?

 

Reading Response Question
September 1, 2012

In reading #1, Diana Gittins asks “what is a family and is it universal?”  Based on all of the Ferguson readings for 9/7/12, how would you answer Gittins’ questions?  Finally, define traditional notions of “the family” and discuss why we cling to traditional notions of family if, in reality, they represent such a small percentage of families today in the US?

The readings from Ferguson make clear that the notion of “family” is, at best, nearly impossible to define.  While it is true that every culture has an expression of “family,” no single, coherent definition can be applied to the structure that can be expected to encompass every permutation of family; there are simply too many factors to consider that make the composition a universal definition impossible.

The “traditional” notion of family, at least in this country and at this moment in time, is a heteronormative, male-dominated structure consisting of a bread-winning father, a caretaker mother, and the natural children of that couple’s state- and church-sanctioned marital union.  Seen from the outside, it could be argued that my family is the white, Western archetype; my husband (though not always the primary decision-maker) is currently the primary breadwinner; I left my job teaching high school to pursue a post-graduate certificate and, as a consequence, am only working part-time.  We were legally wed in a church, though neither of us subscribes to an organized faith.  Our two daughters were conceived and borne in wedlock.  For all intents and purposes, my husband and I are representative of the “perfect” middle class American family.

There are a number of ways in which the day-to-day of our family differs, though, from what I understand the “conservative” narrative concerning families should be.  Our division of labor isn’t based on traditional gender roles; though it’s true that my husband mows the lawn and snow-blows the driveway, he does those things not because I’m not able to or because he thinks I can’t, but rather because he’s the only one of us who can finesse those machines to do his bidding.  He is just as likely as I am to do dishes or run a few loads of laundry.  I see to the care and keeping of the vehicles and often execute home repairs myself.  We saw – and continue to see – equally to both the emotional and physical care of our children; we each bathed and diapered the babies, we each help with homework, we each provide for the varying needs of our growing children (in fact, my husband is the one who cares for the girls when they’re vomiting; I simply haven’t the stomach for that kind of sickness).  Decisions about household expenses are shared between us, as are the continuing demands of parenting teenage daughters.  While there’s a lot about our family that looks “traditional,” there is much about our relationships that deviate from that idea (at least, as I understand the current conservative narrative).

Ours is a unique situation, though, and there are as many expressions of family as there are individuals who make them.  Considering the components of race, class, sexual orientation, educational level, profession, and physical surroundings and the effect that these influences have on the ways in which domestic arrangements are made and maintained, one needs also to take into account the impacts of faith, “traditional” definitions, social expectations, and governmental policies on the ways in which we arrange ourselves into family units.

My sister and her wife are an excellent example of a family that finds itself outside the sanctioned definition of “family,” though admittedly that definition is changing.  I find it interesting that even those who are accepting of their union as a marriage will still ask them when they plan to have children (and the more bold will ask how they plan to have them); the expectations placed on even non-traditional families to adhere to a socially acceptable pattern of behavior is pervasive.

In her article, Gittins makes the argument that while we may think we have a working definition of “family,” the reality of the various lives that people lead renders that definition unworkable.  She argues that the standards for behavior change with time and situation, that any number of forces affect the customs and social acceptability of certain practices, and that marriage and family customs have been fluid throughout human history.  To try to apply one rigid definition of family leaves out all but a wrenchingly narrow representation of people and, further, denigrates and marginalizes nearly everyone.

As to the claim that we cling to a narrow definition of family despite evidence that so few people actually live in conditions that would be recognized as meeting that definition, I’m not entirely certain that we do.  As our nation becomes more diverse, as children grow up in a more accepting and tolerant environment, and as culture and customs continue to evolve – however slowly that may be happening – so, too, do our definitions of “normal” change and adapt.  My husband and I are raising our daughters to both accept and understand that there are a number of different ways to express love and care, and that no one way is the “right” way.

I understand, because I am reasonably conscious and attentive to the political environment, that there are an alarming number of people who do cling desperately to a codified and proscribed definition of family, and who are at best deeply suspicious of and, at worst, outright hostile to people whose practices do not meet with that standard.  My thinking is that these people are either afraid of losing their privileged position as members of sanctioned institutions – and whatever control or influence that position grants them, whether real or perceived – or they are operating under the mistaken belief that allowing other ways of being to be officially condoned and recognized will somehow threaten their own rights to live as they please.  Sadly, I do know of people who genuinely believe that the acceptance of homosexual marriage will, in fact, threaten hetero marriage, and it seems that no amount of logic or placating will allay their fears.  Fortunately, these are not fears that I or my family share.

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And Away We Go!

A number of my readers have reached out to me to ask that I share the experience of this post-graduate class, and I am MORE than happy to do that; I’m all about the collaboration, and having all of you smart people out there as my homework buddies is going to make this a much more effective and productive experience for me.  Here, then, is the first of what I expect will be many Mrs. Chili as Student posts.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what you all think about the work that I’m being asked to do.

The two texts for my Race, Class, Gender, and Families class are Shifting the Center: Understanding Contemporary Families by Susan J. Ferguson and The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality by Tracy E. Ore (please, don’t go out and buy them; the cheapest copies I could score were about $73 bucks each.  Yikes!).  I haven’t done any of the readings yet (I’m planning to get down to them after I finish a brief burst of housekeeping), but here’s the critical thinking question the professor posted to encourage our digging into some of the big ideas:

In reading #1, Diana Gittins asks “what is a family and is it universal?”  Based on all of the Ferguson readings for 9/7/12, how would you answer Gittins’ questions?  Finally, define traditional notions of “the family” and discuss why we cling to traditional notions of family if, in reality, they represent such a small percentage of families today in the US?

I’d love to hear what you think about the ideas of “traditional” families, and what you think it is that makes us hold up those notions as a cultural touchstone.  I’ll post my response to this question as soon as I’ve finished composing it.

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