Academia

Wacky Wednesday: Denver Comic Con

Cosplay is Life.

That may be a stretch, but I went to Denver Comic Con this summer, and it is evident that a great many people take cosplay very very seriously. I would count myself among those people, but I didn’t finish my Mass Effect costume, and I lack the funds to be as hardcore as the more serious cosplayers. I spent money on comics and graphic novels for my classroom, instead.

A quick, shameless plug: I went to DCC with my friend Dextra, an indie artist. I have a few of her pieces, as well as a fantastic T-Rex dress with her artwork on it. Her Facebook page has links to her etsy and Redbubble shops.

Anyway.

DCC is a celebration of geekdom in all its glory. I registered for a half-credit educator’s track and sat in several amazing panels on diversity and representation in comics and pop culture. Pop Culture Classroom sponsors several conventions during the year, and Denver is one of them.

Highlights from the panels:

  • College students presenting their projects through an intersectional feminist lens
  • High school (!!!) students presenting their projects analyzing the representation of an identity politic (gender, religious identity, mental illness, LGBTQ, race) throughout the eras of comics
  • The “Indigenerds” discussions of stereotype and representation of Native American characters in popular culture
  • The two Star Wars panels: one on critical reading, and one on stories of resistance

I added several titles from Native Realities to my library. I bought several of Jeremy Whitley’s titles, too (including some My Little Pony single issues, duh). He signed them for me. He happens to be one of the kindest people ever, and made sure to show me the three-panel dialogue exchange with a female Deaf pirate in one of the books I bought!

One last thing, speaking of Deaf characters: two different panels mentioned the graphic autobiography El Deafo by Cece Bell, which several of my students have read (and loved). It’s about a deaf bunny. You should read it. I also found out about Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye; issue #19 is in ASL! So: even though the comics world still needs work in regards to representation of disability (a couple panels mentioned that weakness), it’s improving, bit by bit.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

My Yearly Crisis

Sometimes when I email my graduate advisors, the email is carefully crafted, with careful attention paid to professional word choices.

The email I sent yesterday was not one of those times.

~~~~~~~~~~~

About once per year, usually in the spring, I have a crisis of conscience. It used to be a general existential crisis, but over the years I have honed it to a finer point. And since you three are now members of Team Danielle, you get to partake of this latest incarnation of “What the hell is going on in this profession?!?!” And if you bear with the initial ranting phase, I promise the part that actually involves you comes at the end and ties it all together. I also promise minimal swears. Also this has nothing to do with my 30th birthday that happens to be in less than a week.

Anyway.

Part 1: This spring, one of my students is up for his three-year special education eligibility review. My school contracts with a school psychologist who used to do the UNIT (non-verbal IQ test) and an academic achievement test on my students to determine their eligibility for special education services (in addition to their audiological and speech/language testing). Because our budget is tighter this year, I have to do the academic achievement testing, which is a “normed” and “validated’ test that will give him a grade equivalent and percentile rank. It’s eating up my instructional time, since I have to do the evaluation 1:1 and I have no paraprofessional to work with my other students. Also, the vocabulary and reading comprehension questions are exactly the opposite of how I teach contextual reading and reading-for-meaning to my students, and the look on his face is “You have got to be kidding me, right??” But this is the stuff we use to rank and sort our students, it’s research-backed, and it pisses me off; what the hell does it mean that my student can’t identify the “odd” word in a group of five isolated vocabulary words? Put those words in context and you bet your boots he could figure out the meaning. It’s so freaking reductive it makes my eyes rattle. And I still have at least three more days of this ridiculousness to finish the damn test.

Part 2: I am writing a paper  on reading interventions for Deaf ELLs and ELL parent involvement. Speaking of “research based”… According to my literature review, citing other recent (2012, 2014) literature reviews, there are ZERO studies that fit the No Child Left Behind requirements for “evidence-based research” reading interventions for deaf students. Zero. Because a huge part of NCLB is replication. And it’s almost impossible to replicate intervention studies with deaf kids. Variances in hearing-loss etiology, age of identification, communication access at home, amplification, other diagnoses, school placement, and learning style all contribute to reading achievement. And teaching a second language (English) in light of an delayed first language (sign language) presents a unique challenge to developing “best practice.” You know how many hard-of-hearing ELL kids I can do my final project with? One. The other ELLs are deaf and don’t access spoken Spanish auditorily. So in deaf education, we have prominent researchers (Mark Marschark, for one) who scold deaf educators for using opinions and gut feelings and not evidence-based research in our reading instruction… but we having really nothing else upon which to base our curriculum (including his own research). Even he has changed his presentations in the last 5 years to “What we don’t know about teaching deaf kids to read.” I’m not even joking. That was the last keynote I saw him give.

Part 3: My degree plan has me slated to take Fundamentals of Educational Research. With the aforementioned Parts 1 and 2 as my background, I think I may throat punch someone if I am in a course for a whole semester built on this paradigm that insists we can measure anything objectively. The test I’m using for my kiddo (in Part 1) was not normed on deaf kids and only shows what he can’t do, not what he can. And it doesn’t even measure what he “can’t” do very well, at that. And the best sources I’ve been using for my papers have all been the sources that say “the old framework is shit! We need a new lens!” The old framework *is* shit… that’s the whole point of my program. Insisting educational outcomes can be measured objectively is how we end up ignoring the intersections and the marginalization. I can’t work in that model.

The Big Question: I’ve been doing a lot of reading (you know, in my spare time). I still absolutely want to do a thesis. I am quite taken with educational ethnography, Moll’s Funds of Knowledge, Border pedagogy based on Anzaldúa, and Freire’s critical pedagogy.  Is there a way I can do a pedagogical thesis rather than a methodological thesis? If so, I will need approval to alter my degree plan; drop ED-CIFS 503 and take something else. Something that will challenge me and result in fewer of the aforementioned throat punches.

Thanks for sticking with me through this long email, and through one more interesting facet of being on Team Danielle. It got a little hairy there in the middle. I wasn’t sure we’d make it. I will now accept interjections and the like.

Sunday Smörgåsbord: March 8, 2015

My second class of the semester started this weekend: Multicultural Literature–Promoting Social Justice. My advisor from the Bilingual Education department is the professor, so I’ve been looking forward to it for months. I left class on Saturday with that exhilarated kind of exhaustion–the kind that makes me want to learn all the languages, read all the books, tear everything down and rebuild it. This is going to be a great course, and it’s already helping me craft a framework to start posting some book reviews (which was a big reason I started blogging in the first place).

My writing this week:

#KalerUPromised

Today I wish I still lived in Minnesota.

Yesterday, a group of student and alumni activists staged a sit-in in the University of Minnesota president’s office. Thirteen of the peaceful protesters were arrested. The student group leading the sit-in live-tweeted the whole thing and they are posting continuing support and updates:

http://twitter.com/hashtag/KalerUPromised

(I’m really frustrated-I’ve tried everything Twitter and WordPress told me to do, and the feed won’t embed. I’m sorry, mom and my other eight readers, you’ll actually have to click through)

Today, I wish I still lived in Minnesota. Not so I could join in. So I can listen. Right now I have Twitter feeds and articles and blog posts. But I want to listen with both ears and both eyes with my mouth quiet and my hands at my side.

Knots on a Counting Rope, or How Feminism Ruined My Childhood

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault Illustrated by Ted Rand

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope
by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault
Illustrated by Ted Rand

This week, a small piece of my childhood died.

My students love Reading Rainbow. I started using the old episodes when Idaho hooked every teacher up with a subscription to Discovery Education. Over 150 old episodes are available for streaming, and most of them are captioned for my deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I interpret them anyway, but the captions really help my students catch vocabulary words and sentence structure. When we read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, we watched the accompanying Reading Rainbow, which was fascinating: we got to watch some great domino-crash cause-and-effect footage. It tickles my nostalgia bone, too. I was thrilled to find the episode with the clip about making paper from recycled denim. With that many episodes, we find a lot of uses for integrating the videos into our units.

I am starting a unit on the Native American tribes of Idaho. I sought some videos and books to introduce the unit so we had some common literature experiences. Reading Rainbow offered an episode featuring Knots on a Counting Rope. I hadn’t read that book in years and only had vague (but positive) memories of the story. So I previewed the video and cracked open the book.

Intersectional Feminism ruined a piece of my childhood this week.

This book was a classic, a staple of every elementary classroom. It features Indians! And a blind kid! And he overcomes his blindness and becomes one with nature! How great is that!

I wish I could say I read this story to my kids and they loved it and the end. Or I guess I’m glad I can say I didn’t and they didn’t and NOT the end.

This book is an example of intersectional (or what I call “ampersandwiched”) literature: it portrays the intersection between two areas of marginalization. But this book is done poorly, as many attempts by authors who are not Native and who do not have disabilities are. It falls into a number of common traps.

  • The “Magical Native American” or “Mystic Shaman” trope is present in speaking to the wind and the horses speaking to the newborn, among others. Most of this book could fall under that stereotype. This cliché depends upon the idea that all Native Americans commune with nature and are imbued with special powers or insight because of that connection. The mystic shaman is considered by many to be a positive stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless. Stereotypes limit the depths of characters and limit our understanding to a flat representation.
  • The “Magical Differently Abled Person” trope is present in the character of the grandson. In overcoming his fear of racing his horse while blind (by becoming one with nature, by the way), we are meant to feel inspired by him. I wrote a paper on this for my Feminist Theory class last semester: going about life with a disability does not automatically make someone “inspirational.” Far too many books that feature a character with a disability fall into this trap of objectifying that character and using the disability as a plot device. At the end, someone learns a lesson (often it’s us, the reader, or another able-bodied person in the story) and we all go away better people. I will be digging into this phenomenon more as I work though children’s and young adult literature over the upcoming months.

I am not saying anyone is a bad person for liking this book. I am sharing my journey in reassessing what I consider “classic” children’s books. I remember this book fondly; years ago my sister brought it home from school when my aunt was visiting, and I remember them snuggling in the recliner while my aunt read it to her. It hurts to reread something so well-loved and see how it could have contributed to my own stereotypes, and how I might still cling to pieces of those stereotypes as an adult.

For more on people with disabilities as “inspiration,” take ten minutes to watch this TED talk by Stella Young.