Monday, July 28, 2008


Especially the "This is your brain. . ." bit at the end:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

First thoughts: the n-word, "redneck," and "queer"

I've been brewing in my mind a post or two on the N-word discussion on The View. In case you haven't seen the clip, here it is:

But I have been beat to the punch by two very thoughtful posts over at BlogHer: Nordette Adams's post "The Season of Our Discontent or Life with the "N" Word" and Laina Dawes's post "The Latest Dust-up on The View and Hipster Racism at it's Worst."

I wrote a long comment in response to Nordette's post, and I wanted to share it here because I know my readers will have plenty to say--either to set me straight or provide more nuance to what was a rather hastily written comment. Here it is:

Thank you so much for this excellent post. I think a lot of well-meaning white Americans' struggle with trying to find the "right" words--I'm thinking here of your example of someone who was afraid to use the word "black"--is that the language of race is slippery. Appropriate terms come and go--Negro, Afro-American, African-American--or linger a bit and then fade.

But there's one term that hangs around, despite its never having been appropriate for white people to use: N.

I appreciate your comparison of N to "redneck," but I'm having a hard time seeing the similarity in terms of intent. N is a far, far stronger word, one with a much more sinister history. "Redneck" refers, yes, pretty much solely to white people, but it also implies a class standing that--as tough as it might be--a "redneck" could aspire to overcome through education or increased income.

The same is not true of N. One cannot hope (and should not have to hope) to change one's race or ethnicity.

I would have no problem with you using the term "redneck" among an all-black or mixed-race group of friends on a Saturday night. I would have a huge problem if a white person used the N-word in front of me, regardless of who else was in the room. "Redneck" brushes aside people of a certain race and class as being hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream, which is sad. N does far worse--it dehumanizes people.

As you yourself point out, "redneck" has become a subculture within comedy. White comics--who might never have been called "redneck" themselves but who are willing to play rednecks on TV--are "reclaiming" the term as one of affection for wayward cousins. But by playing rednecks on TV, these comics also are marking themselves as not redneck. They know what a redneck is, and while they pretend to embrace their, er, neckedness, they actually are setting themselves apart from "real" rednecks by drawing borders around what makes someone a redneck, by defining what that person looks like and how he acts. And rule #1: A real redneck is not savvy enough to land a contract for a comedy series on national television.

There is one word that I don't think anyone has raised thus far in this conversation (at least in this post and its comments): queer. Queer was a term of denigration, but it was reclaimed by queer people as a mark of pride.

In similar ways, as I believe Whoopi Goldberg pointed out (but it may have been Sherri Shepherd--I can't remember who brought it up because it's been several days since I watched the video), N has been reclaimed by African Americans--but in a very different way. It's not a public reclaiming, except maybe in some rap music and comedy like Richard Pryor's. It will never--thank God--become a politically correct term like "queer" has become. It's such a loaded term that we're not even spelling it out in this space.

I can't tie this comment up neatly, but I just wanted to reflect a bit on redneck vs. queer vs. N, and how these words, all of which denigrate to different degrees, have taken very different paths to acceptance in different communities.

Thanks again for a great post, Nordette.

I encourage you to continue the conversation over at Nordette's post, where there is already a good discussion going on.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

McCain's education plan: interesting ideas and tired rhetoric

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Have you seen presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain's education plan? McCain presented his plan in a speech to the NAACP last week. What's most interesting to me about the plan is that it combines federal and very local oversight of schools--and in so doing presents a number of conundrums and possibilities.

As presented to the NAACP, McCain's plan centers on getting more kids into safe K-12 schools staffed with savvy principals and competent teachers. To achieve this goal, McCain proposes school vouchers, school choice, local oversight, and alternative methods of teacher certification.

School vouchers

School vouchers shift government funding to private schools--even religious schools. I find that problematic. If nonprofit organizations want to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools, that's fine with me. But I'm not convinced the government should be funding these nonprofits. The problem with every voucher program I've seen is that these programs don't provide enough money for parents to cover private school tuition and fees. For example, the Washington (D.C.) Scholarship Fund McCain held up as a model provides only $7,500 per student per year--and a family must be quite poor in order to qualify. Under this program, a family of four must have an adjusted gross income of $39,220 per year or less. (The federal poverty guidelines peg a D.C. family of four below the poverty line if the family brings in more than $21,200 per year--a ridiculously low number.) How can a family of four living in DC on less than $40,000 per year scrape together the additional money to pay for private school tuition--especially when the best private schools in the area (the ones that best meet the standards McCain champions) cost more than $25,000 per year? Financial aid from the schools themselves can only stretch so far.

In addition, there's only so much government money for education, and every bit of money funneled to private institutions means fewer dollars for the public schools. In most states, teachers are terribly underpaid (I was raised by schoolteacher parents in California, and I can tell you that keeping up with the neighbors was difficult) and pupils underfunded. I'm not saying the solution is to throw a bunch of money randomly at the public schools--but we need to infuse many of our schools with sufficient funds to, say, provide each student with her own book for each class. In the 1990s, I assisted in public high school classrooms where there weren't even class sets of literature books--which meant students had to spend class time reading instead of learning from their teachers and from one another. This remains the case in many public school classrooms today.

School choice

School choice is controversial, even when it means simply allowing parents to transfer their students from lower- to higher-performing public schools. EdWeek (free registration required) provides a nice round-up of the issues surrounding school choice. As EdWeek reports, school choice benefits some low-income and special-education students, but it does not necessarily benefit the majority of low- or lower-middle-income students, who are more likely to live in neighborhoods with failing schools. An excerpt from the EdWeek overview:

While promoters of school choice herald the autonomy it affords parents, and the potential it has to increase parents' involvement in their children's education, opponents question which families will be in the position to make informed decisions about their children’s educations. Some researchers are concerned that certain types of parents are more likely to exercise choice and leave their neighborhood schools, reinforcing social-class inequality (Fuller, Elmore, and Orfield, 1996).

While proponents tout increased school accountability as a byproduct of school choice reform, opponents find the economic-based free-market theory to be problematic in the public education realm (Henig, 1997). Essentially, they do not believe that allowing schools to fail will help the system overall.

As one critic of school choice argues, choice will cause the system to fail the children who are not lucky enough to remove themselves from a low-performing school and will therefore “pit student against student and family against family in the struggle for educational survival” (Cookson, 1992).

Local oversight

McCain supports the standards enforced by the high-stakes testing environment of No Child Left Behind, but wants to place more control in the hands of school principals. McCain told the NAACP,

Under my reforms, we will entrust both the funds and the responsibilities where they belong in the office of the school principal. One reason that charter schools are so successful, and so sought-after by parents, is that principals have spending discretion. And I intend to give that same discretion to public school principals. No longer will money be spent in service to rigid and often meaningless formulas. Relying on the good judgment and first-hand knowledge of school principals, education money will be spent in service to public school students.

In some aspects, this is terrific. I do think that principals need more autonomy in helping their schools to succeed. That said, not all principals are created equal, so I'd like to see a series of checks and balances put in place that keep principals responsible for student learning at their schools without letting principals completely rule the roost, constraining teachers' creativity and achievement. A colleague of mine wrote her Ed.D. dissertation on "star teachers" who achieved high levels of student learning without necessarily being "highly qualified" under NCLB regulations. These teachers, who had particular success with low-income students and students of color in urban Southern California, succeeded in large part because they had the support of principals who sometimes looked the other way when it came to NCLB rules and requirements. Principals must be thoughtful and flexible; they must be willing to let teachers cater to the students in each classroom, rather than succumbing to an all-encompassing bureaucratic standardization of education.

Teacher certification

McCain also proposes creating alternative methods of teacher certification:

We should also offer more choices to those who wish to become teachers. Many thousands of highly qualified men and women have great knowledge, wisdom, and experience to offer public school students. But a monopoly on teacher certification prevents them from getting that chance. You can be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today. They don't have all the proper credits in educational "theory" or "methodology" -- all they have is learning and the desire and ability to share it. If we're putting the interests of students first, then those qualifications should be enough.

I wish McCain had clarified a bit what he means by "ability" to teach. I do believe that many teachers have a calling to teach--and have some natural talent for it. That said, these talents are best honed through the master teacher and mentoring programs in place in teacher certification programs across the country. You can't throw a Nobel Laureate into a high school context--where she might be teaching 180 or 200 students a day--and expert her to succeed just because she's bright. There is a skill set that comes with teaching, and it needs to be learned from experts--otherwise these new teachers will burn out, and harm student learning in the process.

Does this mean I think all current teacher certification programs are successful? No. Some of them need reforming. But that doesn't mean veering toward the other extreme and letting anyone who is has some body of knowledge and interest in teaching into the classroom. There is something to the "theory" and "methodology" that McCain seems to be dismissing by putting quotation marks around them. These aren't fictional constructions--they're real concepts that teachers need to understand in order to succeed in today's challenging public school contexts.

Obviously, higher teacher salaries would attract those with a commitment to education to K-12 teaching. I have known many college and university professors, for example, who would excel at middle school or high school teaching, but the starting salaries are too low for people with their years of educational training. A Ph.D. who has classroom experience shouldn't have to start at the average beginning teacher salary of $31,753. Double that amount and you might attract more highly educated people who have honed their classroom skills thanks to graduate school training or years spent as adjunct or assistant professors.

Virtual schools

McCain also proposed expanding federal funding of "virtual learning."

We can also help more children and young adults to study outside of school by expanding support for virtual learning. So I propose to direct 500 million dollars in current federal funds to build new virtual schools, and to support the development of online courses for students. Through competitive grants, we will allocate another 250 million dollars to support state programs expanding online education opportunities, including the creation of new public virtual charter schools. States can use these funds to build virtual math and science academies to help expand the availability of Advanced Placement math, science, and computer science courses, online tutoring, and foreign language courses.

Hoo boy. I'm not even sure where to begin. Obviously, all presidential candidates (and presidents!) have educational advisers who help them construct their policies. But by McCain's own admission he is digitally "illiterate" and does not use the Internet himself. It troubles me that someone who lacks experience online would be recommending virtual schools and tutors. I'm a huge champion of carefully crafted digital learning initiatives as a supplements to K-16 curricula, but I'm not sure virtual schools are the way to go. There's something to be said for face-to-face learning across the disciplines, and I worry that we'll be further diminishing teacher-student interaction if we don't implement virtual learning with extraordinary thoughtfulness. (For one view on virtual learning in high schools, check out this report from Education Sector. Also worth a look: the link round-ups at Virtual High School Meanderings.)

In the blogosphere

Bloggers, of course, have been weighing in on the educational plans of both Democratic and Republican campaigns.

Alyson Klein of the Education Week blog appreciates that advisers of both campaigns are talking about pre-K education. Her fellow Education Week blogger Michele McNeil also noted a particular focus on special education in both campaigns.

The National School Boards Association blog points out that McCain hasn't said much about higher education.

Dana Goldstein provides a brief overview of and response to McCain's NAACP speech, pointing out that

D.C. boasts some of the most successful public charter schools in the nation, and school choice here has generally been a good thing for parents and kids failed by the system. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: There is no evidence that low-income and minority students' academic performance is improved by sending them to urban parochial schools, which tend to be the schools that participate in private voucher programs. No evidence in Milwaukee. No evidence in D.C. Supporting school choice does not require support for this sort of privatization, especially when there has been so much innovation and growth in the public charter sector.

In a larger post on McCain's sexism against women, Kate Sheppard of AlterNet highlights McCain's policies on sex ed.

Mike Petrilli points out that despite McCain's focus on poor students in his NAACP speech, the campaigns are subtly shifting their focus toward what Petrilli terms "middle-class suburban" concerns.

For more coverage of the educational issues being raised (or not raised) in the 2008 presidential campaign, visit Ed in '08.

What are your thoughts?

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comments on the BlogHer post. Good conversation!

Monday, July 21, 2008

New hire

Hi there. I'm Obadiah, the new hire. (You can call me "Obi.")

I've just been granted a lifetime appointment--my new mistress calls it "tenure" and says it jealously (whatever)--to help out around this place.

There have been a few speed bumps--there's one kid who's been around here about three years, and he's not making my transition particularly easy, but I put up with him because hey, I'm the new guy, so who am I to say what's right or not?

That said, I do like my new position. It's kind of a couch warmer/gardener/fashion critic/interior designer/body artist mashup. I've been updating the carpets a bit--you know, chewed a hole in one of them, vomited on another, peed on a few. It's all good.

I've also shared with my mistress my distaste for her favorite pair of shoes, some spotless red mules. They were Aerosoles, and really, who shops there? She's much better than that.

I'm also helping to fertilize the lawn--I am very efficient at this, a one-dog pooping machine--and to reduce the compost pile by eating its latest additions and then--you guessed it--fertilizing the lawn and tinting the carpet with my vomit.

Finally, you should know I'm kind of edgy, fashion-wise. See, I'm big into scarring. So I take every chance I get to give my new employers scratches or even small puncture wounds. They send me to my office--more of a penalty box, really--after these incidents, or slip a muzzle on me for a few minutes if I get really out of control, but for the most part they seem to accept that this is a lifelong hobby of mine.

I also fancy myself a bit of a bouncer--in two senses. First, I work very hard to keep the dogs next door from breaking through the fence from their side. I accomplish this by trying to break through the fence from my side. Second, I literally bounce off the walls. My new employers alternately find this entertaining and worthy of more time spent in my office.

Anyway, any tips you can give me on adjusting to life at this place are welcome. I do want to get ahead--especially of that kid I mentioned earlier. He's kind of bossy, a little know-it-all.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Are any of my readers going to BlogHer in San Francisco this week? If so, I'd be delighted to meet you. Please let me know in the comments, or at trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com.


P.S. Here is some grainy footage of the new dog--a black dog in a dim room--so that you can see how, er, energetic he is:

He is also a chewer. We're calling him Obadiah, Obi for short. Once we get past the dumb chewing puppy stage, he will be an excellent dog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Are Liberal Professors Brainwashing Our Youth?

(Cross-posted from BlogHer)

There's a widespread belief in the U.S. that college and university faculty are liberal, even radical, in their political beliefs, and that these faculty use the lectern as a pulpit to preach their radical doctrines. They're corrupting our youth! They're brainwashing our best and brightest!

Me, I don't buy into this alarmism. First, I've never seen a faculty member discuss politics or culture in a way that was inappropriate for the course context--and I've been in and around higher ed for 15 years and affiliated in one way or another with seven different institutions in three states. Does that mean professors don't occasionally spout off inappropriately? No. But it's rare, and my gut tells me that professors at both extremes of the political spectrum are just as likely to rant.

Second, the best and brightest are going to recognize when they're being indoctrinated and will make a considered decision to resist, remain neutral about, or absorb a professor's philosophy.

Third, data from several studies suggests that faculty are not as liberal as they are perceived as being--and that college and university faculties as a whole are trending moderate as professors forged in the crucible of the 1960s civil rights movements move toward retirement.

There are other forces at work as well that keep the academy from veering ever leftward. The New York Times reports:

Changes in institutions of higher education themselves are reinforcing the generational shuffle. Health sciences, computer science, engineering and business — fields that have tended to attract a somewhat greater proportion of moderates and conservatives — have grown in importance and size compared with the more liberal social sciences and humanities, where many of the bitterest fights over curriculum and theory occurred.

At the same time, shrinking public resources overall and fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities have pushed younger professors in those fields to concentrate more single-mindedly on their careers. Academia, once somewhat insulated from market pressures, is today treated like a business.

Kevin Carey of The Quick and the Ed says that one of the professors profiled in the New York Times article, Michael Olneck, is just the kind of person who should be teaching today's students:

[H]e fought for civil rights when many people were trying to extend the nation's centuries-long subjugation of minorities. Then he fought for getting the country out of a war it ruinously decided to extend, followed by protesting the criminal Nixon administration. Frankly, I'm glad someone who ended up so decisively on the right side of history chose to spend his career teaching young Americans. Better professor Olneck than one of the many people, still alive today, who were wrong on all counts.

Aunt Agatha and The Bloodthirsty Liberal have different ideas. They're not so sure Olneck and his ilk are the best people to mediate civil discourse in the academy. Agatha opened the discussion in her post NY Times Notices Academic Leftist Bias, and the discussion continued--complete with a response from Olneck himself--in Knocking Opportunity and Knocking Opportunity, Part 2. An excerpt from the series of posts:

My two cents: I’m sure he’s a good guy, but perhaps the professor doesn’t truly recognize the extent that his position of power leads his students to view the world through his lens? And he may not even be fully aware of how much his own perceptions and opinions were formed over the years by his contemporaries. Through various close friends, I’ve had the opportunity to sit outside at the University of Wisconsin, overlooking the lake, sipping beers, and enjoying the students, faculty, and even faculty from other other universities that were trained in Wisconsin. I’ve known two generations of students there. The faculty bias around certain “hot topics”, Iraq, affirmative action, Republicans, etc., is loud with a few beers, casual, and smug. There is no question that they are “right”.

Robots don’t teach classes; people teach classes. A student would need to suffer a pretty serious social disability, an inability to pick up on almost all social cues, to miss this the fact that certain issues are completely settled in the minds of their professors. Students, when alone or in small groups, either buy into it completely or, if they disagree, openly discuss ways to write “to the test”, meaning to the faculty bias. (I’ve known students who have cranked out the “easy A’s” by writing paper after paper after paper about race and gender inequality, specifically to please the teacher.) It is interesting that someone who understands “privilege” as an academic concept, meaning white privilege which is embedded into the culture and which is available to us day in and day out at the expense of people of color, would be so tone deaf to the power of the professor in the classroom.

Hoo boy, do I ever know those students who are trying to pander to me and my beliefs. Their papers are usually pretty bad, their efforts transparent. I'm politically progressive, and the last thing I want is for students to parrot my opinions back at me. Instead, I want to see students' thought processes at work; I want to watch them learn to use evidence and critical thinking to construct an argument. Nothing pisses me off more, in fact, than when a student panders to me rather than take the project seriously as an opportunity to grapple with interesting issues and grow intellectually.

Of course, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some faculty members and administrators abuse their power--but I suspect this is the case, again, at either end of the political spectrum. Erin O'Connor of Critical Mass shares some observations I find frightening:

I have watched brilliant undergrads be unable to embark on graduate study--because they dared to question the politicized intellectual orthodoxy of their professors and so could not get good letters of recommendation. I have known others who were shunned by professors who found their interest in traditional topics beneath them. I have seen students and faculty blackballed for going against the grain--and I have seen faculty and students stand by and watch it happen, either because they thought the blackballing was well deserved, or because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they spoke up. I have seen hiring decisions turn on such questions as race, sex, and national origin, when those were not politically correct; I have also watched those perpetrating such fraud mask it with elaborate intellectual rationales--grounded, usually, in criticisms of the scholarship--for why the individual in question is professionally undeserving.

New Kid on the Hallway muses about the study's definition of "activist" and the place of activism in the academy today:

I would say that fewer people in American society overall are as "activist" as the Baby Boomers were (not going to try to tackle reasons why since that's a huge sticky mess), so it makes sense that faculty from later generations are not as activist. I don't know whether academia has become disproportionately less attractive to academics or not, but once one has made the choice to enter academia, I don't think the pressures of the profession today make combining professoring and activism as manageable as was the case in the 60s and 70s.

Doctor J had a similar reaction:

I'm not entirely convinced that it is accurate to describe the younger generation of faculty (according to the article, "younger" means "between 26-35") as lacking ideological "commitment," though I can appreciate the significant differences between the manner in which such commitments are manifest in the 60's generation and how they are manifest in people of my generation.

Lisa Chamberlain of Slackonomics finds just as interesting as the political shift the influx of women into academia--and the accompanying shift away from explicitly political concerns to more everyday issues (albeit ones that remain highly politicized) such as paid family leave. Read her post, especially her reflections on "post-feminism."

Want to know more? Check out the charts from the study's working paper provided by Razib at Gene Expression.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Gasping for air

We just descended from a lovely extended weekend in Yosemite to be greeted by these stats.



Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I've been tweeting* about this but haven't mentioned it here. Mr. Trillwing and I have decided--though our hearts are still heavy with grief for Woody--that it's time to welcome a new dog into the house.

Enter "Ricky." (Name change coming soon--please leave your nominations in the comments.)

I awoke from a nap on Saturday to find Mr. Trillwing sneaking in the front door. Since he was carrying some DVDs, I asked if he'd been to the video store.

"Yeah, but that's just my cover story," he said. He admitted he had gone to check out the dogs at the weekly SPCA adoption hours at the local Petco. And there he had met Ricky.

I quickly pulled up Ricky's profile online, and found this description:
Ricky is about a year old, maybe a bit younger, he acts like a goofy puppy, his coat is really silky soft, and he might have some more growing to do. He is about 50 lbs now. He was a stray found by a good samaritan, so he isn't sure what to do on leash (he doesn't pull at ALL, but he bumps me a lot, and zig zags a lot), and is a bit fearful of people, dogs, cars, etc on our walks. He is also, terrified of cats. That said, the dog is a LOVER. He is goofy and funny, loves to fetch, wants to hang out wherever I am in the house, prefers to chew his toys ON my feet, legs or lap, and picks up commands VERY quickly. I think he'd be a dream to train, and with some confidence boosting, is going to be a first-rate dog.No matter what he is, he's adorable. He has some of the biggest ears I've ever seen on a dog, and when we go on a walk, they touch he holds them so high, and swivels them around like a rabbit would, or a satellite. Hilarious. Overall, he is an absolute sweetheart of a dog.
That was enough for me to throw myself in the car and rush over to Petco, only to find that Ricky's foster parent had taken him home for the day. I put in an application for the dog and waited impatiently. . .and then we were invited to an adoption interview at the farmer's market tonight.

It was there I met Ricky. He immediately jumped into Mr. T's lap:

It caught Mr. T off guard, and he actually let a genuine smile creep onto his face. I knew at that moment that we must. take. this dog. home. with us. Plus, the dog was really good with Lucas.

Seriously, I don't know if I've ever met a sweeter dog.

We passed the adoption interview, signed the papers and the check for the adoption fee, and we'll be bringing "Ricky" home on Tuesday.

Is he not adorable?

*I just realized I have 700 updates on Twitter. If my blogging has slowed down here, blame my fellow tweetybirds.