Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Way We Think About the Struggles of Others

I’m hoping that you’ll all be open to engaging me on a question that I’ve been pondering for a while now.  I’m pretty sure you are all aware of this by now, but I am an GLBTQ ally and have been for years.  I’m also a fellow at a center for Holocaust studies and am actively involved in outreach and education about the Shoah.  These two activities have given me the opportunity to contemplate issues of equality, personhood, and compassion, and I find that the question of how people understand the struggles of others continues to come up as a primary element of the work that I do.

My husband returned home from an extended business trip last month.  When he’s away on business, he tends to read a lot of USA Today.  This trip was no exception.

One of the first things we talked about over his welcome-home dinner was the question of the intersection of gay rights and civil rights. Mr. Chili got all worked up about these pieces in an issue of USA Today and made sure that he set them aside for me to see.

This is the first article, an opinion piece from November:

Black leaders called on to confront homophobia

Gary E. Kaminski – Buena Vista, Pa.

My great joy at the election results has been severely tempered by California voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which effectively denies gays the right to marry (“Where’s the outrage?” The Forum, Wednesday).

(Rights fight. In Los Angeles this month, 10,000 same-sex marriage supporters march to overturn the state’s anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8.David McNew / Getty Images)

What makes this so tragic? Although many whites opposed the measure, blacks supported the denial of an existing right. It’s appalling that a group so familiar with discrimination could vote to strip rights from another minority.

I urge leaders of the black community to face head-on the blight of homophobia that, as we see in California, has real-world consequences. I urge our new President-elect, Barack Obama, who is uniquely qualified to confront issues of bigotry, to do so strongly and emphatically.

This was a response to that piece, and the article that got Mr. Chili (and me) all worked up:

Race, gay rights don’t mix

Paul Scott – Durham, N.C.

James Kirchick questioned the lack of support among African Americans for gay-rights issues. As an African American, I am tired of folks who seem to think that black civil rights issues should be mixed with the issues of others. To compare gay rights with the transatlantic slave trade is an insult to the millions of my ancestors whose bones rest at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

It must also be noted that since the civil rights era, our movement has been hijacked by every other group that has a beef with America — from gay-rights to animal-rights groups — so much so that many issues that pertain specifically to black people get lost in the shuffle. The freedom of African Americans has been paid for with our own blood, sweat and tears. We do not need gay-rights activists or any others to co-sign.

Okay, so here’s the thing; I’m coming to you with my thinking about this because I feel under-qualified, as a white woman who was raised and continues to reside in a predominantly white environment, to speak with authority about the intersection of race and GLBTQ rights.  Does Mr. Scott, in your opinion, have legitimacy in claiming that “our movement,” as he calls it, has been co-opted by others seeking equality and justice?  Does his argument have firm foundation in the legacy of slavery, or is it less a question of the (relatively) distant past and more about the efforts of recent leaders (and, not for nothing, ordinary people of literally every race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, and faith) who stood up and spoke out?  I would hasten to remind Mr. Scott that Dr. King’s widow spoke often of the very solid connection between the work her husband did and the work that GLBTQ activists are doing now; her premise was that the oppression of ANY group dehumanizes and degrades us all.  That, of course, is the message that all civil rights leaders, past and present, highlight in their work and is, I think, the foundational idea of any struggle for equality.  Race has nothing to do with that; it’s about humanity.

I understand, as a Holocaust scholar, that a lot of people who have been brutalized and dehumanized and denied their basic rights by a larger and more powerful group feel an ownership to that crime.  It is true that a great many Jews will still deny the importance of the other minorities who were victimized in the Shoah – that countless Gypsies, handicapped people, political activist, gays, lesbians, and trans people and who knows who else were slaughtered with the same vileness of spirit that the Jews were is secondary to THEIR suffering.  I understand that they feel that to acknowledge the suffering of others somehow diminishes their own.  I do not understand WHY they feel this way, however; I just know that they do.  My thinking about this as it relates to the question of gay rights and race is centered around this idea; do you think Mr. Scott is operating from a presumption that “his” movement needs to be kept separate and inviolable from others; that to open the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement to encompass the struggles of others for recognition of equal personhood somehow diminishes the work that was done in the 50s and 60s?  Does equating gay rights to civil rights – or, more specifically, to the capital-letter Civil Rights Movement – somehow erode or threaten the progress that’s been made on the issues of race?

I would appreciate anything you can offer me in the way of furthering my thinking about this.  I recognize that there’s a big piece of this puzzle that I, by virtue of the nature of my environment and upbringing, can’t come to on my own.


Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, Gay/Straight Alliance, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, out in the real world, politics, Questions, self-analysis


I’ve managed to get to the bottom of all my Local U. classes’ final essays.  I’ve still got to enter grades for the presentations my TCC lit. kids did, but the assessment piece is all done.  Once I deliver my grades to TCC’s office (I submitted LU grades electronically), I’m DONE.

This has probably been my best semester ever.  I had a great bunch of kids (with precisely three exceptions) and I had a wonderful time with them.  I am far more confident now than I was when I started the LU semester; having taught only in a small (VERY small) community college left me feeling a little inadequate for  a “real” university environment, but I think I did better than hold my own.  My LU boss agrees and has asked me to return in the fall.  I’m already looking forward to it.

Joe asked me to come back to TCC in January to teach a traditional-format public speaking class.  I was pleased and surprised by the offer.  TCC is closing in ’09 and I was pretty sure that I was teaching my last semester there; the place is practically a ghost town and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there weren’t enough students to constitute a class.  I’m glad to have a job in the spring, though, so I’m not complaining at all.

I’m going to enjoy my break.  The holidays are shaping up to be lovely and mostly stress-free.  I’ve taught public speaking before and am excited to have one more opportunity to investigate some of my favorite speeches and essays (and the Chili family is going to Obama’s inauguration in January, which will be exciting both personally and professionally).  I’m going to work on updating my CV so that I can carpet-bomb the neighborhood in the hopes of finding a fairly regular position in a college environment around here.  More than anything else, though, I’m going to relax, regroup, and keep thinking.  I love teaching, and this semester was just further reinforcement that I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do.


Filed under analysis, critical thinking, Extra-curricular Activities, I love my boss, I love my job, job hunting, Learning, Literature, Local U., out in the real world, politics, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, The Job

Grammar Wednesday

In honor of our upcoming Secretary of Education, I’d like to take a moment to clarify the difference between subjective and objective pronouns.

A subjective pronoun is one that acts as the – Bueller? Bueller? – subject of a sentence. I, you, he, she, it, we, and they are subjective pronouns.

She and I went to the conference.

They would have gone, but they missed the registration deadline.

You didn’t miss much; it was terribly boring.

Objective pronouns serve as the – say it with me, now – objects of the sentence.  This seems to be the one that people (*cough*  Secretary Duncan *cough*) seem to have the most trouble with.  Objective pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, and them.

My uncle was especially generous to my sister and me.

This past semester was hard on them, but it was a brutal 15 weeks for her.

If you forget to give me your key, I’ll have to break in to feed the cat.

Finally, Secretary Duncan’s mistake: “I want to thank our mutual friend John Rogers who has been a mentor and friend to me since I was ten years old. He gave my sister and I the opportunity to start a great school in the South side of Chicago…” He should have said “my sister and me.”  Rogers didn’t give opportunity to I, he gave it to me.

Get it?


Filed under Grammar

I Am Hopeful

I heard President Elect Obama deliver this speech on my way to teach a yoga class this afternoon.  As I drove and listened, I found myself talking to my radio.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Accountability.  Raising the expectations of our schools, our teachers, our students and, praise the Goddess, our parents.  If I weren’t already a little in love with Barack Obama, this would clinch it for me.


Filed under admiration, Civics and Citizenship, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, I love my job, out in the real world, politics, Teaching, The Job

A Job Well Done

Last night was the final class for one of my freshman writing courses at Local U.  While I’m sad that the semester is over, I am encouraged by the really meaningful progress that many of my students made over the course of our time together.

I spent this morning reading their final papers and have come away truly and genuinely delighted.  Most of the students chose fruitful and relevant topics, they did decent research, and they presented their arguments in clear, rational, and logical ways.  The content of their work was just short of exceptional, really, and I’m thrilled to see the difference between the papers they handed in to me yesterday and the work that they were doing in September.

There were one or two students who didn’t quite make the mark.  There always are.  I feel as though I got through to even those kids, though, because I can honestly attest to an improvement in their writing (and, by extension, an improvement in their thinking).  Even though they didn’t progress as much as I had hoped they would, forward movement is still forward movement.  I am satisfied that I did my job well this semester, and that I’m sending these students into the rest of their college careers with a necessary skill set that involves more than just putting words on a page by a deadline.

Some classes just work, and this was one of them.  I’m happy to be a teacher today.


Filed under analysis, critical thinking, ethics, great writing, Learning, Local U., self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones, writing

Grammar Wednesday

This question comes to us via Godsweigh.  She wrote me this email the other day:

Mrs. Chili, I have a question.  I live in the south, Houston to be specific, and often see on menus that a restaurant serves “ice tea”.  Shouldn’t it be “iced tea”?  In the same line of thought, since I drive in relatively industrial areas of the city, I am often on the road with tractor-trailers.  Many times those trailers have a sign across the back that says, “oversize load”.  Shouldn’t it be “oversized load”?  Since these signs are usually official placards (official because the state prints them and requires their display), I keep thinking I’m the one that’s wrong, but something about the lack of an ending “d” on the verb feels wrong.

Please set me straight!



You know what?  This is something that bugs me, too.  I was certain that I’ve addressed this question before, but even after some extensive digging, I can’t seem to find it in my archives, so here I go;

The words iced and oversized in these applications are adjectives that describe the nouns they precede; the load on the truck is bigger than average and the cold tea is differentiated from the hot.  My contention is that the “d” is necessary; if we were to rearrange these structures to put the nouns first, we would say “tea that is iced” or “a load that is oversized.;” to leave the “d” off would not make sense in these cases.

I think – and please remember that this is just my conjecture – that the “d” on the end of iced and oversized has been dropped as a consequence of the way the words sound when they’re pronounced in speech.

Though *I* say “iced tea” and “oversized load,” let’s keep in mind that I’m a self-confessed stickler for such things.  I have found evidence that both ice and oversize are used as adjectives; though the definition for “ice” as an adjective would indicate  that the noun in question is “of or made of ice; ice shavings, ice sculpture,” the definition for “oversize” as an adjective is “of excessive size; unusually large.” (All my definitions for this post come from – I’m writing this from L.U. and don’t have access to my OED.)

I think what we have here is a case of prescription vs. description; the words in question are used – and perfectly understood – in the language in a way that seems inconsistent with the grammatical rules which would seem to govern them.  Keep checking the comments for this post; I’ve got a couple of really articulate  (and wicked smaht) linguists who hang out here, and I’m sure they can be far more enlightening about this than I’ve been.

Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!  You can leave suggestions in a comment or you may email me at mrschili at comcast dot net.


Filed under Grammar

The Attendance Policy

My students are tasked with writing a persuasive essay for the final paper of their freshman writing courses at Local U.  One of my students, who had a terrible time getting himself up and out of bed in time to make our 8 a.m. class, has decided to write his paper in opposition to the Freshman Writing Program’s attendance policy.

We were discussing the policy one morning and I, as is my wont, was playing devil’s advocate.  Before we were through, my boy challenged me to write a paper in defense of the policy, and his call was quickly picked up by the rest of the class.  Since I never assign my students something I’m not willing to do myself, I accepted the job.  Here’s the first draft of my final paper.  I can tell you right now that I’m not satisfied with quite a lot of paragraph 4.  As always, critique is welcomed.


Several years ago, the Local University English Department established a strict attendance policy for its Freshman Writing courses.  The policy states that students are allowed three absences without penalty, and that every absence after the third will cost the student one letter grade from his or her final score.  For example, a student who earned an A in the course but  was absent five times will leave the class with a C.  The rule makes no distinction between excused and unexcused absences, and it is up to the individual instructors to monitor student attendance and implement the policy.  Although the rule is met with nearly universal disapproval by students in English 101, I contend that the policy is not only fair, but that it is necessary.

Freshman year is, under the best of conditions, a profoundly difficult time for students.  Most freshman come to college straight from high school and have little, if any, experience in being responsible for themselves.  Most students are living away from home for the first time in their lives and are expected to attend to all of their own needs; to make sure they are out of bed in time to get to morning classes, to see to their own personal care and laundry, and to budget their time so that they can balance the responsibilities of their studies with their desires to experiment with their newly obtained freedom.  Students are often ill-prepared to deal simultaneously with that freedom and the responsibilities of functioning in an environment which demands their mature and attentive participation.  One of the objectives of those who teach freshman in particular is to create an environment where students can learn to balance what they have to do with what they want to do.

Because the successful completion of freshman year is a prerequisite to the successful completion of college, it is important that students be given an opportunity to learn to function as responsible adults as soon as classes begin in September.  The point of freshman classes goes far beyond the material listed on the syllabus; most responsible freshman instructors understand that they are educating their students not only in the discipline of the course, but that they are also teaching their students what is required to successfully navigate college life and, eventually, the professional world which the students will enter after graduation.  Freshman instructors impose deadlines and require that the student demonstrate a great deal of initiative and comprehension of the material because that is what professors expect of their students and employers expect of their employees.  The three-absence attendance policy is a good one in that it reinforces the expectations of the professional world, and is, in fact, more generous than the expectations for attendance at most businesses.  If a teacher failed to teach more than three classes in a fifteen-week semester, for example, it is likely that person wouldn’t be hired back.  The policy reflects the conditions which the students will encounter in their professional lives.

Opponents of the rule claim that it is unfair because it assumes that attendance in the course is necessary for a student to do well.  While it is true that a one or two students come to freshman writing classes with a strong set of foundational skills and perhaps could do well in the course without attending every class, those students are exceptions rather than the norm.  What is true is that many students come from a high school environment where they’ve been told that they are good writers, and they have convinced themselves that that is enough.  While they may have been good writers in a high school setting, the expectations for college-level thinking and writing are quite a bit more rigorous than A-level work in high school.  Those who teach freshman writing know that very few  – if any – students wouldn’t benefit from the work that is done in the classroom, and many of us spend a fair bit of time trying to gently adjust students’ opinions of their own writing skills.  Because clear, thoughtful, and expressive writing is a vital for success in college, it is critical that students begin their college experiences with a strong and comprehensive understanding of the writing process and of how to compose clear, professional, ethical, and well-researched pieces.  The skills necessary for good writing cannot simply be read in a book, memorized, and reproduced; they must be practiced.  Learning how to be analytical and critical of one’s own writing is a process of trial and error that is best understood in the context of group work and guided examples.  Consider a player on a sports team; a player who fails to report to practice sessions won’t be allowed to remain on the team for very long because his or her skills won’t be as polished and consistent as the players who do practice.  Skillful writing is similar in that it is less a knowledge than a practice.  Writing well is far more than understanding the structure of a sentence or proper citation techniques.

Freshman writing classes at LU are about far more than the reading and writing assignments.  The class meetings are often filled with lively discussions about current events, dissection and analysis of readings, and the implications of the use of language.  It is this collaborative effort, where teacher and students interact and learn from one another, that is at the heart of the attendance policy.  If a student thinks of the course only in terms of completing the required assignments – of meeting the page numbers for their papers and of properly citing sources – the student is missing most of the point of 101.  In fact, the greater objective of the freshman writing classes is training in how to think.  My own professional experience has shown me that students benefit greatly from guided class discussions about the material that is assigned.  More often than not, students report to me that they didn’t really “get” the reading assignments until they were discussed in class, and they will write that they see things differently at the end of the course than they did at the beginning.  The instructor is there as a model to the students of what academic inquiry looks and sounds like; the instructor demonstrates active reading and listening skills, opens up new approaches to questions raised by texts, and asks questions designed to get students thinking beyond the obvious concepts of plot and character.  The instructor encourages students to ask their own questions and to wander out beyond their comfort zones of “right and wrong” answers to test the limits of their own thinking.

Students also have the opportunity, in class discussions, to learn from one another.  Each student comes to class with a different set of experiences which color his or her understanding of the material at hand.  Learning to engage peers in academic conversation, to disagree respectfully, to question fruitfully, and to challenge one another’s thinking is a vital part of any college course, but  is especially important in freshman classes.  Students who miss more than three classes are missing opportunities for active engagement.  One cannot learn to participate in academic discourse from a textbook.

Finally, students who disagree with the attendance policy claim that because they are assigned 101 classes and have no choice in which classes they attend, there should be more leniency in the rule.  While there may be some merit in this point – it is true that I, as a mother of two small children, would not choose to take a class that would conflict with my ability to be home after my daughters return from school – it is, at its heart, an insufficient argument.  A student can make use of the University’s add/drop policy to switch sections if he or she finds they have a critical conflict with the course that has been assigned to them.  It is true that the employee does not often get to dictate the terms of his or her working day, and finding a way to balance outside responsibilities with school or work is an important skill that mature adults should possess.  The fact that the policy applies to all 401 courses, regardless of the time of day they’re offered, evens the proverbial playing field for students.  A student in one section doesn’t get to benefit from a more lenient attendance policy than a student in another section whose instructor is insistent that students be in class.  Though many may look upon the policy as being strict and unforgiving, the consistency across the program is fair in that each student is held to the very same standard.

Freshman year is, in my mind, less about academics and more about maturity.  Students come to their first college classes with apprehension and excitement, and it is up to the professors who teach freshman classes to give their students the skills they’ll need to succeed beyond their first year.  The 101 attendance policy is an important part of a student’s development into a responsible, mature professional, and it should continue to be a component of the freshman writing curriculum specifically because it fosters in students a recognition that rules – even the ones that are unpleasant and difficult to follow – are put in place for valid reasons, and often have serious consequences when they’re broken.


Filed under composition, critical thinking, Local U., student chutzpah, Teaching, The Job, writing