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Slutting around

This is a really, really quick post to point out something that struck me in my daily perusal of Slate.com the other day, in “A New Study on Slut-Shaming Finds That Rich Girls Are the Worst.” The title is deliberately provocative in the usual Slate way, of course, since the article is actually about the fact that “slut” doesn’t correlate much with actual sexual behavior. Instead, Amanda Hess says, 

the system was more about policing women’s looks, fashion, and conversational styles than criticizing the notches on their bedposts. And the vagueness and ubiquity of the term “slut” on campus allowed these women to effectively police each other without denying themselves actual sex. The higher-class women defined “respectable femininity” as a “polite, accommodating, demure style often performed by the white middle class,” what one woman described as “the preppy, classy, good girl.” These were women with “parent-funded credit cards” who wore “expensive MAC-brand purple eye shadow” instead of drugstore brands and—instead of working jobs—“had time to go tanning, get their hair done, do their nails, shop, and keep up with fashion trends.” 

What’s great about this, and what I wish Hess had pointed out, is that this is exactly what slut used to mean. I’m going to quote Wikipedia because I have a a lot of deadlines this week, and I just want to get this out of my head and onto paper (“paper”):

Although the ultimate origin of the word “slut” is unknown, it first appeared in Middle English in 1402 as slutte (AHD), with the meaning “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly woman”. Even earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer used the word sluttish (c. 1386) to describe a slovenly man; however, later uses appear almost exclusively associated with women. … Another early meaning was “kitchen maid or drudge” (c. 1450), a meaning retained as late as the 18th century, when hard knots of dough found in bread were referred to as “slut’s pennies”.

You can bet those Early Modern kitchen maids weren’t wearing purple M.A.C. eyeshadow on their trips to the tanning salon. 

 

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Currently Reading

Print Books:

Religion in Human Evolution, Robert N. Bellah

This one is not getting read. It’s a shame, since it seems brilliant or, at the least, magisterial–but it’s a gajillion pages long and Bellah is afflicted with the kind of academese that makes me mentally rewrite every sentence and really bogs down the reading process. 

My Long Trip Home, Mark Whitaker

I’m reading this for my research into memoirs, one of my least favorite genres. Biographies of ordinary folks, yes; personal memoirs, no. (Really, who has the necessary distance and introspection to write compellingly about himself?) This one, however, is enjoyable so far. Whitaker is a journalist and reports like one, and his parents’ story has that appealing extraordinary-ordinaries paradox. 

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Holinghurst

This one is for my book club and thus will be read one way or another. I tore through the first half before getting derailed; when they said it was Jamesian, they weren’t kidding. Plus, after reading James Wood’s hilariously biting and accurate review in The New Yorker, I don’t feel a pressing need to actually finish the book myself.

One is also strongly reminded of Atonement, a book I like better and better in retrospect. (When I first read it, I didn’t think much of –spoiler alert–unreliable narrators.)

Kindle Book:

Anna Karenina

Can you believe I’ve never read it? I haven’t, but I know how it ends. I have the feeling this is the kind of book that rewards extended bouts of reading rather than five minutes here and there while waiting in line at the bank, but such is full-time life. It is, unsurprisingly, brilliant, and makes me fall in love with nineteenth-century literature all over again. 

Audio Book:

Marmee & Louisa, Eve LaPlante

I just started this today and am settling in to have a great time with it. It showed up randomly when I was browsing for audiobooks at my library website, and, since I basically grew up on Little Women and have an intense dislike of Transcendentalist masculinity, I figured it would be right up my alley. So far it is, although the author–no doubt addressing a different imagined audience–argues a bit tediously for the importance of studying Louisa May Alcott’s mother. Obviously she’s an important figure in her daughter’s life; anyone who’s read Alcott’s books would know how obsessed she was with mothers and mothering. As am I! 

 

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Discipline is not Pedagogy

The worst school in Texas sounds pretty bad. In a recent Salon article, John Savage details death threats, beatings, and a continual police presence, all part of the school-as-internment-camp so distressingly common in urban areas. He also admits that he was not, after all, the Great White Hope–although one notices that, by writing this article, he still casts himself as the Great White Explainer. (None of the long-time Pearce teachers he lauds are writing this article, after all.) To defend the school against its miserable TAKS scores, Savage praises the school’s faculty and staff:
Mr. Green … was a committed and graceful algebra teacher with an infectious positive energy. Born in Panama, he had as much street cred with the Latino kids as the black kids.
Mrs. Ologban, despite her diminutive stature, displayed absolute control in her classroom. … The first time I observed her I noticed she kept two lists of students on her board — a good list and a bad list. Too simple to work, I thought. But I was amazed when even disaffected students smiled when Mrs. Ologban wrote their name on the good list.
Mr. Parish … had some street in him and knew how to use it. … When a disagreement between the Latino boys from the soccer club and the black boys from the basketball club culminated in a fight, Parish was instrumental in calming everybody down.
In spite of their efforts, Pearce was still a failure — at least according to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The TAKS is just a test, and by no means the only indicator — or even a good indicator — of the commitment of a school’s teachers and administrators.
With all due respect to these committed teachers, John Savage hasn’t made the case that this school deserves to be considered anything but a failure. Mr. Green is “upbeat” and has “street cred”; Mrs. Ologban has “absolute control” in her classroom; Mr. Parish also “had some street in him” and manages to prevent a fight. These are all admirable qualitiesand they say nothing about the kind of learning that does or doesn’t go on in a classroom. Savage’s point here seems to be that the school should be considered a success because it has some teachers who are good disciplinarians and capable of relating to the students. Both of these skills might be prerequisites for actual learning–but they don’t actually constitute learning.
Certainly there are valid criticisms against to make against standardized testing, and let me be clear: I fundamentally agree with Savage. Focusing on teacher performance rather than the underlying socioeconomic causes of bad schools is idiotic and immoral. However, let’s not sugarcoat things: strict discipline does not an effective teacher make, and schools aren’t graded on behavior. Suggesting that a teacher is good because she’s found an effective method of discipline is just as wrongheaded–and unfair to Pearce’s students–as suggesting that a teacher is bad because she can’t singlehandedly overcome generations of poverty and neglect.
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More College Failure?

Yet another complaint from “employers”–as though “employers” are some coherent group–about recent college graduates lacking job skills:

“When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving,” the report said.

Well, okay. But let’s take “college” out of the picture here and just focus on 22-year-olds. Nostalgia would insist that 22-year-olds of ye olden days were perfectly skilled in written and oral communication, managing priorities, and making decisions and problem solving–but clearer-sighted neurobiology would insist that 22-year olds’ brains simply aren’t fully developed.

In my experience tutoring middle school students, I came to believe that certain school skills–like organization, record-keeping, and neatness–are correlated with brain development. Certain children develop the ability to perform these higher level, executive skills at different times.

Bemoaning colleges’ failure to teach amorphous, unteachable skills like “making decisions” rather than accepting that recent college graduates, even smart ones, are still in the process of becoming adults–well, that’s is just another way of making our educational systems into convenient whipping boys to blame for shortcomings that college was never meant to remedy.

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Why study the humanities?

Apropos of today’s report on the state of the humanities comes this quotation from a Slate article about the kind of people who get hired as tech gurus:

Working in tech plays tricks on your mind. The quality of coding and other technical skills can be assessed far more objectively than other measures of intelligence or job performance, and it can split your worldview into the same objective, extremely meritocratic terms: People are smart or dumb … ideas are right or wrong, morals are black and white. You start thinking you know what’s best for people.

Goodness knows that the humanities aren’t perfect in the kinds of people they turn out. (Anyone who’s ever experienced the peculiar awfulness of some humanities grad students will understand.) But one of the points of a good humanities education is exactly to erase, or at least call into question, the kind of black and white thinking that this article outlines.

Of course this so-called “fuzzy” rejection of strict dichotomies engenders a lot of complaining about the humanities’ soft skills. But what’s “soft” about having the moral and ethical capacity to think in complex, subtle ways about complex, subtle issues? Isn’t that the very definition of “hard”? 

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IB or Spelling Bee?

There’s a short piece in the Wall Street Journal about public schools adopting the IB curriculum to raise performance even in inner-city schools, apparently with good success.

As with any educational reform, some people–like mother-of-two Kelly Mann, a parole officer in Waco, TX–are unhappy about it. “It’s frustrating to see that instead of doing spelling bees or history reports, they are spending about six weeks of time focusing on poverty or saving white tigers,” she says.

It seems a little unfair to attack this poor women, but let’s throw out some ideas about what one could learn by focusing on, say, white tigers:

  • Geography. Where are white tigers found?
  • History. What’s the history of Western European countries in relation to the countries where so-called exotic animals are found?
  • Science. What causes white tigers’ coloration?
  • Social Studies. What is Orientalism, and how does it relate to our fascination with white tigers?
  • Language arts. How can students use digital and analog tools to find out more about white tigers? What format would be best for recording and developing their ideas? What avenues of communication can they use to share the results of their research?
  • Math. How have the populations of white tigers changed over time? When was the greatest increase or decline in their numbers? What percentages do these changes involve?

When you put it like that, it is a shame that students aren’t doing spelling bees. Instead of engaging in interdisciplinary, question-based education, they could be rote-learning lists of words completely divorced from context. Yep, that would definitely be better. 

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Two former Condé Nast interns are suing for unpaid wages, and good for them. In the summer of 2002, I spent an unpaid ten or so weeks interning at a fancy Condé Nast magazine, supported in that–as in so many things–by the generosity of my grandfather, the child of immigrants whose Depression-Era frugality allowed him to parlay a consistently meager professor’s salary into private college educations for his four grandchildren.

I was thrilled. This was my dream job, my ticket into Manhattan’s literary elite–except that it wasn’t. In fact, the whole experience was soul-crushingly awful. Part of that summer’s utter failure was the assistant in the department I worked in; at first I thought she simply hated me, for some unaccountable reason, but in fact–as I learned from someone else who later interned at the same department–I think she just hated everyone. The bigger problem, however, was that I did almost nothing, I learned less, and by the end I was crying the stairwell most days.

At this point, I can’t even say why exactly I was crying. I think on some level I realized that I wasn’t going to make it, or that “making it” wasn’t going to take the shape that I’d anticipated. Talent, luck and hard work–a combination of which actually got me the internship in the first place, when while interning (paid) for a literary agent connected with the magazine, I spotted a typo in the proofs of an essay headed to publication–simply weren’t enough. I needed money and connections, and I had neither. Landing the internship was supposed to make up for lack of the former by offering me the latter, but instead I realized, from overhearing conversations among other well-connected interns and their departments, that, as with the money, I was supposed to come pre-equipped.

That wasn’t my last internship. When the school year started again, I used my connection from the first internship to find a paid internship for the next summer, one that taught valuable skills and offered coordinated training with interns from other departments, all far more valuable than the $8.25/ hr the internship paid–although that, of course, was most welcome. (And from the company’s end, I suspect, the stakes are higher to make a worthwhile investment in training paid interns.)

Were those ten weeks wasted? On the one hand, that line looked good on my resume–for a while. (The sheen does wear off after a few years.) On the other hand, there was no effort to make the experience useful or even interesting; there was no training, no mentorship, and no kindness. Like the interns suing, I’m more than willing to work hard and put in the time and pay my dues–but dues, of course, are supposed to buy one membership in a club. Without that, the contract–whether official or unofficial–is worthless.

Condé Nast interns sue

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Does Main Street Matter?

Benjamin Moore is running a new ad campaign slash contest based around the slogan “Main Street Matters”; the idea is that we the people get to vote for our favorite main street, which Benjamin Moore will then repaint, because main streets make us who we are, and apparently we deserve to be shiny and colorful.

This is an ad campaign and as such is certainly not bound by logic or sense. It operates through appeals to emotion, particularly nostalgia, and nostalgia can be a comforting, pleasurable emotion. (Thankfully not fatal, as previous eras have thought it.) But ad campaigns can still be deeply problematic, and this one is indeed. Benjamin Moore’s vision of main street rests primarily on a soothing voiceover of appealing vignettes of trees carved with your grandparents’ names, stores where everybody knows your name, and drug stores that still make ice cream with milk. Just offhand, however, one notices that these vignettes deliberately exclude, for example, the vital role immigrants–of all colors–have played in America’s development. Their grandparents’ names are on no Main Street trees; are they not part of themselves? Do they have no history? Do they not matter?

In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that Main Street doesn’t matter, both because the salient American myth isn’t that our origins lie in small-town communalism but rather in frontier independence, and because the driving economic and cultural engines today are located almost exclusively in cities. If it’s doubtful that Main Street made us what we were, it’s even more doubtful that it’s making us who we’ll be.

This may all be a lot of quibbling when it comes to paint, but it’s a lot more important when it comes to politics–and Benjamin Moore’s ad uses a hazy and emotional evocation of a mythic past that’s almost entirely indistinguishable from, if much less dangerous than, a certain type of political advertisement. Misguided nostalgia is exactly the wishful thinking that bases policy decisions on an imagined past rather than a really existing one, peeling paint and all. Frankly, some institutions simply don’t deserve to be refurbished.

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Arne Duncan’s “High School Redesign” Wednesday, June 12, 2013

There’s furor brewing about Arne Duncan’s “High School Redesign” competition, which will provide millions of dollars in grant money to school districts with winning proposals to overhaul and redesign their programs. On the surface, this seems like a fine idea. Fixing things takes money (even trashing things takes money), and the public high school system across the nation is demonstrably broken–although one suspects that its problems arise as much from a haphazard go at “fixing” it as much as from anything else. In the Huffington Post write-up of June 7th, though, we read that this “High School Redesign” “would have school districts partner up with other institutions, such as colleges, non-profits, businesses and government agencies.”

In the words of yet another beleaguered public institution, which of these things is not like the others?

Colleges, non-profits, and government agencies are all markedly different institutions with different goals, structures, aims, and values. Sure–but none of them are for-profit. Yes, they have budget constraints and stakeholders and sometimes-questionable founders and they exist in a market-oriented society. As varies as their purposes are, however, their founding principle is not to turn a continually increasing profit. This raises a question: what possible reason would a business have to partner with a public school district? Among many possibilities, two spring to mind:

  1. To design curriculum that relies on a product that the business purveys
  2. To churn out workers educated to serve the needs of a particular business rather than to be productive and engaged citizens

The less said about #1 the better, but plenty of voices would argue that #2 is an improvement on the public high school system’s current product of unemployable workers.

If that’s the best vision we have for public education, however, then $300 million isn’t nearly enough to fix what’s wrong.

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Anne Macdonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting

Anne L. Macdonald has certainly done her research. No Idle Hands brims with the voices of women–and men–from the past four centuries of American life. But her chatty voice and anecdote-rich chapters bely the fact that this book is, unfortunately, a bit of a slog, at heart a compendium rather than a history. She’s essentially telling a story of continual nostalgia, that knitting, in all but its earliest days, was always perceived as a return to some sort of essential femininity that modern women were in danger of losing. Even that minimal overarching narrative, however, is missing from the book, making its 350 pages an endless repetition of the same story: women like to knit, especially during war, except when they don’t.

This lack of narrative is one way in which the book seems to be a historical relic as much as a history. Although published in 1988, it’s situated in a theoretical world of several decades earlier.  Aside from some tenuous conclusions in the very last paragraph of the book–essentially, that knitter has become a creative pleasure rather than a tiresome duty–Macdonald leaves untouched a host of unexplored and uninterrogated assumptions around women, work, and domesticity. (Another reason to look forward to reading Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound.)

More troubling, perhaps, is Macdonald’s absolute silence on the black slaves whose voices are notably absent from her chapter on Confederate knitters. “Negro” women pop up occasionally in the chapter, but only in nostalgic invocation of white women about their “faithful” slaves who kept on knitting for the Confederacy; she even drops a regret that Southern knitters were unable to organize with their Northern sisters’ efficacy. This deafening silence (if not tone deafness) also places the book in an earlier historical moment. 

Devoted knitters–of which I’m one–will find a lot to like about this book, especially in its enthusiastic mention of latter-day knitting saints such as Elizabeth Zimmerman. Those looking for a “social history,” however, will have to keep reading. 

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