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happy birthday, gloria steinem. I wish you didn’t matter.

Gloria Steinem spoke at my college graduation back in 1986.

At the time, as a graduate of a woman’s college, I thought to myself “oh good lord, her. Couldn’t they find someone more relevant?”  It was the era of “divest now” and “free Mandela;” we’d just spent four years at a single-sex college where “gender issues” were as pervasive as the scent of the clove cigarettes many of us smoked.

Yes, it was the mid-1980s: there were shoulder pads, bad perms, Billy Idol on the radio, and we all smoked like our lives depended on it.  We thought that abortion rights were sacrosanct and that surely there would be a woman president before we turned 30, which was about as old as any of us could imagine being.

Now I’m fifty and Gloria, omigod, is eighty and we all of us, men and women, should hope that we do eighty the way that Gloria is doing eighty. Because her eighty would exhaust my fifty, that’s what I gotta say about that.

But how wrong was I—about so many things — lo those many years ago: we’ve recovered from clove cigarettes, bad perms, Billy Idol, and shoulder pads–but women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work.  Mandela was freed, apartheid was overthrown — but the statistics for sexual violence against women in South Africa and elsewhere in the world continue to rise.  We’ve seen the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S. and elsewhere; we’ve seen health care programs for poor women and their families slashed from state budgets.

And ironically, on the same day I was reading gossip on the internet researching very important researchy things, I saw an article on Jezebel about New York State’s new educational guidelines, which have been overhauled to fit with the new Common Core History Curriculum.

I know, I know, it sounds so totally exciting!  But you have to understand: I’m a literature professor. I actually like to think about things like “curriculum” and “reading lists” and “rubrics.” Well, okay, not so much rubrics, but the other stuff? Love it.

So I read the article and here’s the gist: in the pages devoted to all the elements that students in high school will have to learn about US and Global history, would you like to know how many women get name-checked? About seven.  Would you be shocked to find out that on the lists of What You Should Know there are many, many more men?  Jezebel doesn’t connect the dots they way I do, though, in their discussion of the women who are mentioned on this list: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe.  All of them are writers and reformers. None of them are, you know, world leaders.

I’m just wondering … if you’re talking about English history, I’m thinking that Liz I (Tudor, not Taylor) might be a name to consider; ditto Isabella of Span, who I guess maybe didn’t do anything except, I don’t know, bankroll the guy who stumbled into North AmericaAnd what about in the category of “imperialism?” Dontcha think maybe Queen Victoria might have warranted a mention?She’s got an entire era named after her bad dowager self.

A person could read through this list and come away thinking that women have never been involved with any aspect of world governance, anywhere in the world, at any point in time.

I realize lists like these can fuel the “what about” arguments for days; I’ve fought with myself about what to include or leave out, as I write syllabi for my classes (upside? I always win the fight).  I am sure that these guidelines are the product of hours, months, maybe years of people meeting and talking and yelling, of sending endless emails back and forth, of cutting-and-pasting and then cutting-and-pasting some more.  And I know these are “guidelines” and “conceptual” and not meant to be proscriptive or definitive or absolute.

And yet.

If I’m a busy, probably underpaid teacher (yes, I know, hard to imagine but just imagine, okay?) and I were being asked to re-vamp my curriculum for the next school year,  I might just scan these guidelines and zip zap zoop, add some names from the list, swap some titles on my current reading list for the ones mentioned here and be done with it.  Yes, we’d all hope for more thoughtful and considered revisions but I know how hard it is to write a syllabus and I know that it is really tough to teach a brand-new course, much less make sure that I can get all my students to pass a set of proscribed exams as a result of my brand-new course—all of which suggests that following the guidelines to the letter becomes really, really tempting.

That’s how “convnentional wisdom” starts, I think: not with conspiracy or patriarchal malice (okay, maybe a little of that), just an insidious, easily overlooked neglect, and then suddenly there we are (again): women do the soft stuff, men do the hard stuff; women write books and news articles, men write treaties and doctrines and foundational texts; women report on things, men do things.

Happy Birthday, Gloria.  I wish I’d been right, all those years ago: I wish you were irrelevant. But you’re not.

Gloria at my commencement

Continue Reading · on March 26, 2014 in aging, Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics

in defense of poetry, with apologies to Percy Shelley

I spent about six weeks this semester teaching and talking about poetry with my students.  Almost to a person, they started the term with “eh…I don’t much like poetry,” and “I don’t get poetry,” and “what the hell is poetry even about, anyway?”

All reasonable questions, I guess, for students who have grown up in a world where they almost never encounter poetry, other than in song lyrics or spoken-word events.  Poetry, they tell me, is intimidating; it doesn’t make sense; it’s too complicated; it’s weird.

Full disclosure: I spent most of high school and all of college writing poetry. Whenever I’d get too philosophical during those late-conversations about Life that seem only to happen between the ages of 18-22 and only between the hours of 12-4AM, my friends would say “oh go write a poem,” as a way to get me to be quiet.

I kept writing poetry even after college—-poetry workshops, sending things off to magazines, the whole deal—-and stopped only when I got to graduate school, which pretty much thrashed every creative bone out of my body. Took me decades to get the graduate school’s pinched-face editor in my head to stop saying things like “maudlin!” “derivative!” and “you call that writing?”

All of which is to say is that although I knew my students wouldn’t be excited about spending all this time reading poetry, I was looking forward to spending time with words, nothing but words.  Someone said once that poetry is language calling attention to itself, and while I think poetry can be much more than that, that idea isn’t a bad place to start.  Poetry gives us a chance to think about how words feel in our mouths and sound out loud; poetry’s language works by compressing, distilling, wringing an experience or idea to a kind of essence that works on us in ways that we might not ever really understand.

We roamed through Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” in which a gun transforms to a spade transforms to a pen in the hand of the poet; we looked at John Donne’s “Batter my heart three person’d god,” in which faith becomes a kind of ravishment, a physical experience; we talked about the bleak beauty in some of Anna Akhmatova’s lines; and marveled at the incandescent anger of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”  The students put aside “it’s weird,” or perhaps, actually, they began to embrace the weird; they let themselves roam around inside the poems and not insist on absolute meanings.  And I got, perhaps, a little carried away by the whole thing and put a sign on my office door that said “Today’s Poem,” and then every day, I would post a new poem — a famous poem, an obscure poem, prose poem, haiku, nabati lyric — all kinds of poems.

One of the poems I put on my door is Ezra Pound’s imagist poem about being in the French Metro, called, fittingly, “In a station of the metro.”  It reads like this:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black    bough.

And yes, that’s what it looks like on the page, and yes, that’s the entire poem.  And yes, it’s a little weird.

But you know? Think about being in a crowded subway station, on a rainy day. Think about the blur of faces. Now think about the blur of wet, say, cherry blossoms on a dark branch.

See?

In his essay “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley (every time I say his name in class someone giggles, and I totally get it), said “Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”

I guess the student who scrawled this comment at the bottom of the Pound poem wanted to live in a world governed entirely by reason. That strikes me as incredibly limited, and not a little bit sad.

IMG_7485Doesn’t make sense. Quit wasting paper.

Continue Reading · on November 13, 2013 in Books, Education, language, NaBloPoMo, reading, teaching, writing

in which teaching becomes a metaphor. or something.

Next week I am teaching Virginia Woolf’s brilliant and amazing essay A Room of One’s Own.

So on my list of “to do” for the weekend is this note, jotted down while I was in a meeting: “find a way in to Room.”

Indeed.

Of course, what I meant (I think) was that I need to figure out how to help my students tackle this long essay.

But the metaphor?

Woolf says that if each woman could have her own income (which Woolf pegs at being about 500 pounds a year) and a room with a lock on its door (one assumes locking from the inside, not outside, which is to say locking out and not being locked in), then it would be possible to develop “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

It is a room of independence, I guess you could say; and Woolf was smart enough to understand that without freedom from economic worry, it’s very difficult to feel the freedom to create.

In this house that we’re renting, there’s a little room tucked in between the entrance to the garage and the laundry room. On the floor plan of the house, this room is designated “maid’s room.” Lots and lots of people have live-in help in Abu Dhabi, in part because if you hire someone full time, you have to sponsor the person’s visa–and in order to get a visa, you have to have a place to live.  We don’t have any live-in help (I don’t want any witnesses), so I have adopted that room as my office.

My god. It’s another room-based metaphor: my “room of my own” is…the maid’s room.

And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In between driving and errands and laundry and housekeeping, in between earning money and making lists and going to meetings, somewhere in all that, a person should find the courage to write exactly what she thinks.

image source

 

 

Continue Reading · on October 5, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, Feminism, Gender, me my own personal self, teaching, writing

if your dinner guests don’t behave, does that make you an ineffective hostess? (from the archives)

One story: this semester, I teach two sections of the same class. One class meets at 930AM and has sixteen students, all of whom are native English speakers.  The students are lively (probably stoked on the morning coffee); they seem to keep up with the reading. The second section meets at 2PM and has twenty-six students, seven of whom are non-native English speakers. It’s a less talkative class and I don’t think all the students are keeping up with the reading.  On the mid-term I gave last week, the morning class earned far more As; the afternoon class had a higher number of Cs.

Clearly I am an ineffective teacher, if I compare my afternoon with my morning test scores.

Another story: Liam’s first grade class was team-taught by a special ed teacher and a general ed teacher; the students in the class were a combination of kids who needed various types of extra help and kids who didn’t need extra help.  One student that year had some significant behavior problems and subsequently went to a school that could better serve his emotional and developmental needs. One of the two teachers was brand-new to the school and brand-new to the team-teaching concept.  And, horror of horrors, in mid-year, it happened that the brother of one of the teachers was shot and killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of learning happening in that classroom, as the teachers struggled to figure out their partnership and their students, and then had to deal with an unimaginable tragedy.

If there had been testing done that year, I’m going to bet the scores would’ve been abysmal.

A third story: Have any of you ever had a dinner party? A real dinner party, where you carefully  invite the guests, plan the menu, spring for the fifteen-dollar bottle of wine as opposed to the Two Buck Chuck? And then the party for whatever reason fizzles?  But other times, people stop by, you order pizza or whip up some kind of soup, the Two Buck Chuck goes down easy and you have a wonderful night of laughter and conversation?

Teaching reminds me a bit of throwing a party (if you were dumb enough to throw a party two, three, five times a week). You can do all the planning and organizing and prep work in the world, but if the guests aren’t willing, you can’t force them to have fun. We’ve all been at those parties, right, where the hostess smiles maniacally and insists that you have another locally sourced organically grown whipped kudzu foam canapé, and all you can think is “jesus, for this I got off the couch?”

There’s talk afoot these days that “all” we need to do to fix public education is find effective teachers and get rid of the ineffective teachers.  So simple, right? We don’t need to worry about poverty, over-crowding, inadequate classroom supplies, or anything else. We just need better classroom managers!  At least, that seems to be the theory espoused by Michelle Rhee (glam edu-gal about town, unofficial star of “Waiting for Superman,” and free-floating reformer). In this week’s New York magazine, Rhee–ex-chancellor of the D.C. public schools–spends a lot of time talking about effective teaching, and she seems willing to let Eli Broad bankroll her ideas (click here for a less-flattering portrait of Broad than what Rhee says).

New York City has fallen with this effective teacher idea, too, with its “teacher data reports” that measure (or attempt to measure) the teacher’s value-added score. The value-added score gets compiled through some incredibly arcane formula that even its supporters admit might be both too complicated and…um…inaccurate.  So, for instance, a wonderful new teacher interviewed by Michael Winerip in The New York Times last week,  got a score that placed her in the 7th percentile—but that score could be actually as low as zero, or as high as the 52nd percentile.  And even that higher number doesn’t do justice to the glowing reports this teacher regular gets from her peers, her principal, and her students, many of whom go on to the city’s most competitive high schools.

So your dinner party flops because one couple has had a huge fight in the cab on the way over, another guest heard some disturbing news at the doctor’s office earlier and is distracted, your husband drinks too much and tells bad jokes, the scintillating new friends from your job prove to be insufferable snobs. Does that make you an ineffective hostess? Continue Reading →

Continue Reading · on August 26, 2013 in Education, NaBloPoMo, NYC, Politics

blocked

I came back from summer vacation revving with ideas about writing projects. My mind bubbled with book proposals, blog posts, novel revisions, pitches for magazine articles.  Words and ideas tumbled around in my head like socks in the spin cycle. I was on fire, people, on fire.

A Russian composer – Shostakovich, maybe – said you should write everything down because the brain is a fragile vessel (especially if you live in Stalinist Russia), and that’s what I did with all those ideas. I jotted notes and lists and phrases into my new favorite notebook and figured once the fall semester was underway, my jottings would jolt me back into action.

Insert sound of brakes screeching to a halt and maybe add the sound of breaking glass for good measure.

I got nuthin. Oh, I’ve got lists and notes and little phrases; I’ve got pages of those. I’ve got some good photos, some funny photos, some hipsta-insta retro-photos.

But more than that, I ain’t got.

I tease my writing students about the fact that you can’t wait to be “in the mood” to write. Usain Bolt doesn’t wait until he’s “in the mood” to go for a run; baseball players don’t wait until they’re “in the mood” to stroll onto the field. Writing, I say to my students, is a muscle like any other; it needs regular exercise to work fluidly, and that only comes with practice.

You can’t wait for the inspiration fairy to come whack you on the head with an idea, I say, and they laugh, and I laugh, because we all know that ideas don’t come from fairies.

Except right now I am wishing, hope upon hope, that the idea fairy wafts into my apartment on a sandy breeze and whacks me in the head, or at least whacks the thin-lipped, long-nosed, pissyass editor who has taken up residence in my mind.  With each of my attempts to start anew, the editor sneers; she scoffs; she shakes her head in dismay at my frivolity, my lack of insight, the complete absence of intellectual heft. She throws up her hands and asks what the hell any of this blogging stuff is good for, anyway?

I have no answer for that last question other than to hang my head and mutter  “mumble mumble writing practice….mumble mumble creative outlet…mumble mumble connections with home mumble mumble…”  Pissy editor lady is unimpressed. And the longer she reigns, and the longer I go without producing some solid pages of writing, the worse it gets.

To make matters even worse, I teach writing. I spend hours and hours a week talking about writing strategies, about tools and tricks and techniques, about evidence, story, detail; revision and argument and authorial control.  You’d think I could cure myself of writer’s block – physician heal thyself, right?

This physician, however, can’t heal herself, but I think I know who can. One of the staples in my writing-teacher bag of tricks is Anne Lamott’s brilliant, hysterical Bird by Bird. I always give students at least a few chapters to read (a frisson of excitement always runs through the classroom when the students notice that one chapter is called “Shitty First Drafts.” You can see them thinking “shitty…oh boy…this is college!).  If you’ve not read Lamott’s book, you should, even if you never plan to write anything other than a grocery list.

source

Lamott would call my Pissy Editor Lady an anti-writing voice–we all have them, whether it’s the impossible teacher you had in eighth grade, an overbearing father who red-lined your every word, or the teacher’s pet in 11th grade who cheated on her essays and always got away with it.  Wherever those voices come from, Lamott says, imagine picking them up and dropping them, one by one, into a glass jar. Then clamp on the lid.  Then put the jar high on a shelf somewhere, preferably in your next-door-neighbor’s back closet.

Then go to work.

This post, then, is my equivalent of a glass jar and my neighbor’s back closet.

Take that, Pissy Editor Lady. I’m hitting publish right now.

 

 prune picture

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Continue Reading · on September 10, 2012 in Education, language, teaching, writing

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