Category Archives: academics

Deadpan administrators: Emma Sulkowicz graduates with mattress

Most of you know of the case of Emma Sulkowicz who was raped at Columbia university.  Sulkowicz committed to carry around the mattress where the crime took place until the university expelled her rapist.  Activism, performance art and a compelling articulation of the burdens that survivors of sexualized violence carry.

Sulkowicz graduated and walked across the stage in her gown carrying that mattress.  Worth a moment of reflection to look at the administrators who simply gape at her and her colleagues who help carry the mattress.  If you want to know which administrators to fire, start with the ones that won’t shake Sulkowicz’s hand as she completes her degree.   Please note the crowd volume for Sulkowicz.

Stick around for the short video on the Black Student Union’s die-in at the tree lighting ceremony.

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Filed under academics, feminism, gender, human rights, protest, representation, resistance, sexual assault

Thinking about racist fraternities who love Waka Flocka Flame

Yesterday the noxious video of Oklahoma frat guys chanting racist stuff on a bus hit the interwebs.  The chant not only bragged about preventing “niggers” from joining the fraternity, but also threatened lynching.

The fraternity was dismantled and student members told to move out of their house (and two members were kicked out of school).  I think it is worth thinking about this moment in time not only for the accountability for racist insults (which I support) but also the redemptive narratives of those-kids-weren’t-that-bad (which I think is worth examination).

One redemption thread was that the closure of the house was going to mean that the long-time chef of the fraternity house Howard Dixon would lose his job.  Fundraisers quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars for Mr. Dixon.  In addition to brightening the reputation of the fraternity members, this also points toward the nasty preference to imagine that a ‘few bad apples’ are what spoiled the bunch.

Having attended several fraternity-rich universities, my take is that the whole system is a nostalgic white supremacist dream.  To select your friends and cloister is an invitation for toxic entitlement to blossom.   (Thinkprogress has some good context for this particular fraternity.)

My initial thought about SAE was that the interwebs were enraged because this example is such old-school bigotry that its an easy critique.  The language about gamergate or sexualized violence at college campuses seldom gets this kind of swift action.  I think we doth protest too much.   It’s easy to point as SAE as racists while ignoring larger structural injustices.

Waka Flocka Flame, an unlikely political advocate, rushed in with a quick cancellation of a show.  Initially I was wondering how many of the racist chanting frat guys on the bus ALSO had tickets to go see Waka Flocka Flame?   Quite a few it turns out.

Racism doesn’t mean that you aren’t into black culture or hip hop.  The poisonous element of this racist chant was the proud exclusionary bragging of a (mostly white) frat in keeping out black people.   Checking in with the Reddit thread on this discussion, a number of people made the same observations.  That they had known white-identified people who were into rap music and also prejudiced.   As one commenter put it: “It’s sad… they can be performers, servers or the nannies. They could be their life-saving doctor, their pastor, their therapist, their mailman, and pretty much everything else in the world. Except simply a person.”

The double consciousness of racists.  To objectify and divide marking difference to ensure that white supremacy continues.   I wasn’t surprised when someone mentioned that Waka Flocka had been hired by this very fraternity to perform at a show.   Thus the video of Waka Flocka Flame shotgunning beers and performing for what seems like a mostly white Oklahoma SAE crowd last year.

It puts Waka Flocka’s cancellation of the show in a slightly less charitable light.  We might read it as solidarity against racist injustice.  We might also call it covering your public relations.

Turns out Waka Flocka has a ton of fraternity shows on youtube. Check the Baylor video where he explains that he doesn’t like a woman in the crowd grabbing his ass.  Note his justifications at 2:05.

Let’s note that the Baylor Waka Flocka show has some visibility  of the entitled audience members who are consuming Waka Flocka Flame.  When Waka is grabbed he explains that he “feels like a bitch.”  It is dumb sexist stuff, but we can also note his refusal to be grabbed and the part about “in my community.”  I think Waka Flocka Flame probably has crazy stuff happen during his live shows (including being grabbed), but something about this rebuttal suggests that this moment is ‘beyond the pale.’

The normalcy of partying to Waka Flocka and then having a racist admission policy (and chanting about it) seems like the interesting part of this SAE duality.  Challenging racism in our day and age needs to be more rigorous and intersectional than this one example, but its a good thread to get access to some key arguments.

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Filed under academics, hip hop, juxtaposition, race, representation

Mimi Thi Nguyen: punk and resistance

There are a lot of smart insights in this Bluestockings interview with Mimi Thi Nguyen.  Feministing shared the link and gave me the heads up that there was some discussion of guilt and professional expectations in the essay.  Nguyen seems persuasive to this punk professor when she writes:

The disjuncture then comes when I consider how we are encouraged to carry ourselves in the academy. I feel a lot of pressure to professionalize, and the prescriptions for professionalization often run counter to my way of being in the world. I also struggle with the directive that I am supposed to professionalize my students. I don’t hold with the idea that I should train students to be better workers, because the content of “better” — more obedient, more efficient, whatever — runs counter to what I want to teach. In my feminist theories courses, I say, “Yeah, I just gave you assignments with deadlines! But I also want to say to you, what’s so great about work? Why do we believe work is supposed to be edifying? Should we always have to be productive? Why do we imagine work as something that gives us dignity? What if it’s just wearing us down?” My history in punk totally informs these attempts to practice other ways of being in a classroom, and other ways of being a professor.

via (Un)productivity in the Digital Age — A Conversation with Mimi Thi Nguyen | Bluestockings Magazine.

Like Nguyen I was a reader of Maximum Rock and Roll since my teens.  I was deeply informed by the DIY spirit and raw love of music and counterculture that ran through MRR.  Along with that inspiring freedom were some toxic interview discussions and columns that also were a big part of MRR.  I remember a particularly racist / sexist sex column, perhaps from Mykel Board?  Nguyen as a young punk writes MRR and challenges the columnist for MRR and gets a hateful column in reply.  The scrap with MRR inspires her to create her own zine Race Riot.

The impetus for Race Riot came when a columnist at Maximum Rockandroll wrote about his Asian fetish, suggesting that Asian women’s eyelids look like vulva, and that their vulva might be also horizontal. It is an old imperial joke — there are all kinds of imperial jokes about how racial, colonial women’s bodies are so inhuman that their genitalia might reflect this alien state. I wrote a letter to Maximum, cussing and citing postcolonial feminist theory. He then wrote a lengthy column in response about how though I’m Asian, because I’m an ugly feminist, he wouldn’t want to fuck me anyway. There was a discussion at the magazine about whether or not to publish this column because the magazine had a policy — no racism, no sexism, no homophobia. But the coordinator and founder of the magazine decided that this column qualified as satire, and so it was acceptable.

It was really infuriating for me to be 19 years old, totally invested in punk and politics, to be attacked under the guise of racist cool in the punk magazine. I was like, “Fuck it, I’m quitting punk.” But I figured I should do something, to leave something behind as a practice and as a document, to reach other punks of color who might feel as isolated as I did in the aftermath.

via (Un)productivity in the Digital Age — A Conversation with Mimi Thi Nguyen | Bluestockings Magazine.

I know a lot of punks who saw the academy as a reasonable place to continue thinking about punk praxis.  Or more particularly, many of us go to an academic job and are reasonably punk in that and other parts of our lives.  Many of the punks I knew are still working with intentional collectives, creating media, hosting shows, playing music, creating alternative spaces and doing-it-themselves.  I’ll give a shout out to my friend Zack Furness and his book Punkademics.  I think you can read the whole book at Minor Compositions.

I’ll note my appreciation and agreement with Nguyen’s analysis of internet communications and the need for pauses for reflection.   She argues:

New technologies have produced expectations that we now have more democratic access to more knowledge, and that we must accommodate ourselves to an accelerated sense of time. But I am wary of this internalization of capital’s rhythms for continuous consumption and open-ended production. I hate feeling obliged to produce a post or tweet on a timetable. It makes me anxious. There is value in being about to respond quickly to an object or event, of course, but I also want to hold out for other forms of temporal consciousness, including untimeliness and contemplation of deep structures, sitting with an object over time to consider how it changes you, how the encounter with it changes the nature of your inquiry.

via (Un)productivity in the Digital Age — A Conversation with Mimi Thi Nguyen | Bluestockings Magazine.

Good interview and strong arguments.

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Online harassment in Massive online classes

Massive Open Online Classes (MOOC) were a big deal a few years ago.  Turns out that one of the most prominent MIT MOOC teachers, Walter Lewin has been  using his MOOC to harass (mostly) international students like French student Faïza Harbi.  Inside Higher Education has the details and a discussion over whether students enrolled in free classes get Title IX protection from gender-based discrimination:

Whether MIT could be held liable for not protecting Harbi and the other women is still an unanswered question. MOOC providers differ on whether learners who are not enrolled at institutions eligible for federal financial aid are covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which some researchers have warned about. But when it comes to discrimination, legal experts said, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 should apply to anyone who registers for a MOOC.

“Title IX talks in terms of ‘no person’ shall experience discrimination — not ‘no student,’ ” Buzuvis said. “That broad language creates the possibility for anyone who’s a victim of discrimination [to] potentially have a claim under Title IX.”

Buzuvis, who runs the Title IX Blog, said that, based on the severity of the Lewin case, a lawsuit against MIT could come down to if the institution knew about the harassment and didn’t act to protect learners.

via Complainant in ‘unprecedented’ Walter Lewin sexual harassment case comes forward @insidehighered.

Buzuvis mentioned is: Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies at Western New England University.

Thanks for Feministing for the link!

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Limitations of solidarity: Vanderbilt rape

A few months ago I wrote about two tactics of solidarity with a survivor of sexual assault.

I’m looking at some recent press and it turns out that neither was all that effective and may not be very survivor-centered.

Survivor-centered means that the focus of analysis and decision-making reflects the desires of the survivor.  It is an ethical lens that is valuable in fighting against rape culture.

In the case of the fraternity rape of a Vanderbilt student who reported the incident.  I had previously appreciated that the editor of the newspaper had held accountable the fraternity message board which encouraged retaliation against the survivor, calling her the “girl who ratted.”

Well that hasn’t stopped the survivor from experiencing a lot of harassment.  Here in an interview she makes evident the retaliation she has received.

S: I’ve been approached by people I’ve never met before a number of times and verbally harassed. People have threatened to testify against me and say that I am crazy. I’ve also been approached a number of times in social settings and been yelled at and even booed by multiple people. Things that people have said to me were: ‘you suck,’ ‘we had so many parties planned that we can’t have now because of you,’ ‘do you really think that’s a reason to fuck over a whole fraternity,’ ‘you’re ruining all of their senior years.’ I’ve been called ugly, a slut, and a liar by people I’ve never met. They claimed to make sure every fraternity ‘blacklisted me and all of my friends.’ I was asked to leave a different fraternity and I’ve been labeled as a risk by some others.

I’d like to immediately clarify that these are the actions of individuals and I do not believe they reflect the fraternity or Greek Life as a whole. This is just my response to those who claim that I have not been retaliated against. These individual actions together comprise a larger, unacceptable culture that needs to change.I am also incredibly impressed by the kindness of others who haven’t been afraid to stand behind me.

Also, many are trying to discredit the incident because I had consumed alcohol. But if girls can’t walk into a fraternity after drinking without the fear of being sexually assaulted, that’s an issue. Alcohol does not excuse sexual assault, which is stated in Vanderbilt’s sexual misconduct policy.

via Interview with the girl that ratted – The Vanderbilt Hustler: Safety.

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Juxtaposition: Weird Al and strategic use of the interwebs

Robinson Meyer notes some of the interesting ways Weird Al uses the interwebs to promote his work.  Writing in The Atlantic, Meyer observes:

No wonder, then, that this week Al has mimicked the tactics of the preeminent Knowles. From last Monday to this upcoming one, he released a new music video every day, eight videos in total. There are few songs on his new album that will lack a video, meaning that, in medium and marketing, he’s pulling a sort of time-extended Yoncé.

But not all eight videos are going straight to YouTube. Weird Al is spreading that goodness around.

His parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” is hosted by Nerdist, a sprawling online entertainment empire that achieved fame through its eponymous podcast but which now encompasses a news website, a network of audio and video shows, and a television program on BBC America. Al’s Lorde spoof, meanwhile, went to competing digital content factory, CollegeHumor. It did go to YouTube, but is marked “Exclusive” and a “CollegeHumor ORIGINAL.” A “Blurred Lines” send-up sits on Yancovic’s Vevo page.

via The Surprisingly Savvy Weird Al Internet Machine – Robinson Meyer – The Atlantic.

I also liked the reflection about Weird Al’s mockery driven art.  Since the idea of juxtaposition comes up so much on Life of Refinement, it seems worthwhile to think about Weird Al laying a mocking interpretation on top of something already widely marketed.  Adbusters-style mock advertisements do the same thing.  Borrowing the millions of dollars of advertising money that preceded to simultaneously undercut the original message and build a counter-brand.

The situationists would call this détournement — to turn something against itself.  A media concept articulated by Debord, but well understood by any Weird Al fan.  Here Meyer describes this process as “disruptive innovation:”

The phenomenon Weird Al describes here is actually well described by a genre of scholarly literature—by business scholarship, of all things. It’s disruptive innovation, the buzzword so buzzwordy that the New Yorker devoted a thinkpiece to it in print!. Disruptive innovation describes what happens when new products create a new market for that type of product, which winds up challenging the existing one.

via The Surprisingly Savvy Weird Al Internet Machine – Robinson Meyer – The Atlantic.

I also appreciate the documentation of the Lady Gaga incident.  Yankovic created a parody of a Gaga song and when he checked in with her to get her blessing to release the tune on an upcoming album Gaga’s people refused.  Weird Al released the song on youtube with an explanation and Gaga quickly relented.

It’s worth noting something more about the substance of Weird Al’s mockery.

Not only is “Tacky” a review of a number of bad fashion moves, it is also a conservative morality rant.  This tune marks as “tacky” oversharing on instagram, forcing others to pay, reminding people you’ve done them favors, insulting people, dropping names, leaving bad yelp reviews, and having no shame.

At points Weird Al references particular low-points of recent toxic internet culture such as: “I’m a live-tweet a funeral and take selfies with the deceased.” This could be a Fox “news” commentary.

I happen to agree with Weird Al on most of these morality points.  But given that Pharrell’s “Happy” is a sort of liberation utopian expression of pop-oneness, the grounded grumpy juxtaposed retort is interesting.  [Let’s note that the use of the Odd Future crew in “Happy” is a juxtaposition in itself.]

If you add in the English-teacher favorite “Word Crimes” you can start to map a particular perspective to Weird Al.

I get the sense that Al is frustrated with some of the changes in this new-fangled world.  His juxtaposition is intended to bring down and anchor some of the worst behaviors of the current era.

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Inspired by ‘Who gets to graduate’

Paul Tough has a very strong essay in the New York Times called “Who gets to graduate.”  It is a snapshot of the strategies used by caring teachers and administrators at the University of Texas at Austin to help students succeed.  I appreciated the emphasis on successful strategies.  Here are a few of my favorite points.   Chemistry professor David Laude gets props for his initial approach:

In 1999, at the beginning of the fall semester, Laude combed through the records of every student in his freshman chemistry class and identified about 50 who possessed at least two of the “adversity indicators” common among students who failed the course in the past: low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents. He invited them all to apply to a new program, which he would later give the august-sounding name the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP. Students in TIP were placed in their own, smaller section of Chemistry 301, taught by Laude. But rather than dumb down the curriculum for them, Laude insisted that they master exactly the same challenging material as the students in his larger section. In fact, he scheduled his two sections back to back. “I taught my 500-student chemistry class, and then I walked upstairs and I taught this 50-student chemistry class,” Laude explained. “Identical material, identical lectures, identical tests — but a 200-point difference in average SAT scores between the two sections.”

Laude was hopeful that the small classes would make a difference, but he recognized that small classes alone wouldn’t overcome that 200-point SAT gap. “We weren’t naïve enough to think they were just going to show up and start getting A’s, unless we overwhelmed them with the kind of support that would make it possible for them to be successful,” he said. So he supplemented his lectures with a variety of strategies: He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one on one, as peer mentors. And he did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the TIP students a new sense of identity: They weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

Laude’s interventions have been successful with many students.  Inspired by Laude, UT has developed a research tool which helps them discover which incoming first year students are likely to need some help.

I have a pang of concern about privacy and labeling.  There is something terrible about telling a student from a poor family who has worked really hard that they are “unlikely to succeed” because of some algorithm. This notion of a computer assessing students seems particularly soul crushing.   I appreciate that the folks at UT have something similar in mind in their communication strategy about their interventions.  Paul Tough again:

Perhaps the most striking fact about the success programs is that the selection criteria are never disclosed to students. “From a numbers perspective, the students in these programs are all in the bottom quartile,” Laude explained. “But here’s the key — none of them know that they’re in the bottom quartile.” The first rule of the Dashboard, in other words, is that you never talk about the Dashboard. Laude says he assumes that most U.L.N. students understand on some level that they were chosen in part because of their financial need, but he says it is important for the university to play down that fact when dealing directly with students. It is an extension of the basic psychological strategy that he has used ever since that first TIP program: Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

UT has turned to psychologists to help figure out how to best communicate to at-risk incoming students that they belong.  How do you best re-articulate the fears and doubts to make them manageable?  Here is Paul Tough explaining UT professor David Yeager and his insights about persuasion and argument:

Yeager began working with a professor of social psychology named Greg Walton, who had identified principles that seemed to govern which messages, and which methods of delivering those messages, were most persuasive to students. For instance, messages worked better if they appealed to social norms; when college students are informed that most students don’t take part in binge drinking, they’re less likely to binge-drink themselves. Messages were also more effective if they were delivered in a way that allowed the recipients a sense of autonomy. If you march all the high-school juniors into the auditorium and force them to watch a play about tolerance and inclusion, they’re less likely to take the message to heart than if they feel as if they are independently seeking it out. And positive messages are more effectively absorbed when they are experienced through what Walton called “self-persuasion”: if students watch a video or read an essay with a particular message and then write their own essay or make their own video to persuade future students, they internalize the message more deeply.

In one experiment after another, Yeager and Walton’s methods produced remarkable results. At an elite Northeastern college, Walton, along with another Stanford researcher named Geoffrey Cohen, conducted an experiment in which first-year students read brief essays by upperclassmen recalling their own experiences as freshmen. The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. The whole intervention took no more than an hour. It had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study: Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A. It even had an impact on the students’ health — the black students who received the belonging message had significantly fewer doctor visits three years after the intervention.

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

As a communication professor I’d like to claim some particular insight into these persuasive pathways.  Communication and Rhetoric teachers tend to think about exactly this kind of strategic approach to making messages, but it is also kind of common sense.   I bet English, Ethnic Studies Women’s Studies and Social Work professors all recognized some of our core principles in our fields in these insights.

I don’t think it is about credit.  There is certainly work to go around.  Part of the story is the structural support of administrators and the other part of the story are the good teachers primed  to implement these ideas.   You’d need administrators and informed teachers working in cooperation for a while to get results.   And you’d need all those teachers from all those fields who already know this to implement change successfully at a university.

Much of the ‘ah-ha’ arguments of the article are about a communication practice known as inoculation — that you pre-warn someone about a coming moment of persuasion in order to steer the person’s understanding of that moment when it happens.

Often used by political candidates to warn about an argument about to be spoken by an opponent in a debate, the tactic works equally well when thinking about education.   Here is Paul Tough analyzing UT’s online messaging module which helps to intellectually-inoculate first year students about belonging and doubt:

Our first instinct, when we read about these experiments, is that what the interventions must be doing is changing students’ minds — replacing one deeply held belief with another. And it is hard to imagine that reading words on a computer screen for 25 minutes could possibly do that. People just aren’t that easy to persuade. But Yeager believes that the interventions are not in fact changing students’ minds — they are simply keeping them from overinterpreting discouraging events that might happen in the future. “We don’t prevent you from experiencing those bad things,” Yeager explains. “Instead, we try to change the meaning of them, so that they don’t mean to you that things are never going to get better.”

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

Nice essay and more to think about as we do the important work of hustling to make change.

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