Scattered

Anger, frustration, curiosity, and love fuel many of my blog posts—not all at once, but usually two at a time, and sometimes in unusual combinations.  This week I feel too scattered by the national news and life’s day-to-day busyness to feel fueled by any singular or dual emotion.  Last September, I wrote a blog post, titled “Day of Reckoning,” to organize my thoughts and plan my actions.  Today’s post shares a similar impulse but will also reflect how all-over-the-place I am in this penultimate week of classes of our winter term. I am operating on a constant sad, mad, hanging chad, baghdad, ironclad, stalingrad simmer about the state of the union.

The murder of Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man, in his grandmother’s backyard has brought our nation to a new low.  Yesterday The New York Times said that the killing of Clark “reignites a furor,” which seems to me an unfortunate way to frame this most recent in a long line of race-based killings.  This phrase renders invisible (again) the consistent work done by Black Lives Matter and the significant collaboration taking place now between Chicago teens and Parkland survivors to address broad issues of gun violence across race and class.  (*See this March 5th piece from CBS Chicago and this March 14th NPR piece about Chicago students’ approach to the Natioanl Walkout.)  I am confused about and frightened by our nation’s continued refusal to address what is truly an epidemic.  How can we talk about democracy in any sincere way when we are killing citizens and suppressing voters’ rights?  Of course, our 242-year-old nation has all too comfortably settled into an EZ chair of smug self-satisfaction about being the world’s finest democratic nation, all the while ignoring a history of slavery, a past and present of colonialism, and an imperial and imperious approach to judging other nations’ governing styles.

I have become sensitive to the criticism that my blog posts and in-person political comments are “too negative.”  How can I paint the killing of unarmed people in a positive way?  How can I regard a “president” who created a paper-towel-toss television game show out of the destruction of Puerto Rico as anything but deeply narcissistic and destructive? I try to adopt critical postures that allow me to think through theory, practice, history, and current events in order to see positive, negative, and neutral points.  I don’t see us making any progress on the Black Lives Matter project because our nation’s knee-jerk reaction is to link the protection of black lives to the immediate mortgaging of police force, which is to say, a weakening of the militarized, hypermasculinized police forces who haven’t learned the lessons of Ferguson or of any other death of a black person since then.  (*See related posts: Black Lives Matter, Damn It; Charlottesville (and Lexington); Women in the Resistance; Mary Beard’s Manifesto.)

We learned this week that the 2020 United States Census is slated to include citizenship questions—a fraught proposition in fraught times.  This proposal incorporates “build the wall” rhetoric in one simple question about who belongs and who doesn’t—the very same questions we should consider when we think about institutions of colonialism, genocide, and slavery that have shaped our nation.  The very same questions we should ask ourselves when we look at the United States legacy of gun violence.  I draw some comfort from seeing 12 states challenge this most recent move of Trump’s House of Whites, and I hope that my home state of Virginia soon adds its name to the list of challengers.  Local, regional, and national bipartisan efforts to change unjust gerrymandering laws also reassure me that good people can work together to do the right thing.  That’s positive, right?

Mueller’s work and, bizarrely, Stormy Daniels’ exposure of Trump’s lying and cheating in personal and professional realms seem to indicate progress in revealing this “president” for the liar, cheater, groper, racist, misogynist {fill in the blank} that he is.  We must protect Robert Mueller’s ability to get this job done correctly and forthrightly.

In the meantime, I take great stock in massive, nationwide protests, regional efforts to collaborate on projects for the greater good, and local community groups who resist on so many fronts.  In the past two weeks alone, our local community has: announced the first general meeting of the newly chartered NAACP chapter; sponsored an immigrant rights clinic; witnessed its middle- and high-school students organize and bring to fruition their own walkouts; held women’s history and women’s rights events; protested the Atlantic Coast Pipeline; initiated conversations about farms and farmers; seen teachers draft a letter advocating for increased safety in their schools; and encouraged a broad slate of excellent candidates for regional office.  There is much to celebrate here, and we should do so.

Thanks for reading this scattered post.  Stay tuned for a possible guest blogger for next week’s post to offer a different voice after 88 consecutive weeks of mine!  (Damn.  I just realized that, if you’ve read 88 Gender Shrapnel Blog posts, I should send you a prize of some sort.)

(Yard signs in adjacent yards.  Pennsylvania, 2017. )

Cardinals Rule

A month ago, the cardinals returned to the backyard, the red males puffing out their breasts and the tan and red females flitting through the bushes.  They seemed busier than ever, flashing red, singing songs, chasing tail.  Last week, our large puppy Nimbus and I were sniffing around the backyard, further back than Nimbus had yet roamed.  Nimbus surprised herself as she discovered the back fence.  Sharp metal met curious snout, and a large cardinal flew towards the fence on the other side.  I was amused and surprised. Nimbus was afraid, and then curious, and then predatory.  The bright red cardinal looked as shocked as the overgrown puppy, and they each flew away as they could.  This little flirtation with my own backyard produced in me a much-needed belly laugh.

The next morning, I went to see one of my favorite people in the world, the person who cuts and dyes my hair and has done so for years.  This woman and my brother Matt are two of the most natural comedians I’ve ever met, and I have always loved that they crack themselves up as much as they amuse their interlocutors.  As I did the public disrobing—glasses tucked away, earrings out, sweater off–, I noticed a small, stuffed cardinal on the hairdresser’s station.  “What’s up with the cardinal?” I asked.  “Nothing, really.  They’re supposed to represent a sudden appearance of loved ones who have passed.”  Well, I had never heard that before, and I immediately thought of my friend/hairdresser’s loss of a dear nephew and how comforting the thought of a cardinal could be.

Now that I’ve googled “cardinal” and learned all the things the internet will tell me about the cardinal (for example, it is the state bird of several states, and its population is not in danger), I see that the sense of comfort for the loss of loved ones is a top hit on the search engine.  I’m always amazed at how not in the know I am.  The “All About Birds” website tells us this about the Northern Cardinal: “The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.”  I was only going to copy and paste a line of this, but the description of the sights and sounds of cardinals proved irresistible.  This idea that cardinals stay beautiful and stay put, whistling while they work, makes them close to ideal for representations of loved ones who have passed.

I’m not at all religious, don’t believe in the afterlife, and usually pooh-pooh signs and symbols that imply this kind of belief.  (I want to make clear that I admire and respect others’ engagement with these spiritual questions. I was not raised in faith and still find it an unnatural posture for myself.)  Not so last Thursday. I was all in.  I mean, how many cardinals do you come across in an 18-hour span?  The whole family, the surprise single cardinal, and then the stuffed fellow at the work station.  It was too much.  The cardinal at the back fence had to be my mother; he just had to.  He had to be telling me something, anything, so that I could make sense of three random but interconnected events.  But, nope, there was no celestial message, no pithy remark, no profound advice.  Just a fence and a laugh.  Maybe that’s all we get on some days, and it is enough.

I think my mother would find it deliciously ironic that we got a puppy, at my insistence, so that I could walk briskly for miles with a dog who wanted to walk, only to find that walking the dog ignited every arthritic wick in my shoulder.  Now I dutifully pee and poop the dog in the backyard, while the less enthusiastic amblers in the family are left to trot the energetic gal around the neighborhood.  I’m very much reminded of the one misbegotten adventure my family had with a dog when I was young.  My mother most assuredly did not want another critter to care for, especially not beyond the seven children (eight born in eight years) she was already bathing, feeding, chauffeuring, teaching, scolding, and shepherding.  The energetic puppy we adopted back then ended up, by our mother’s mandate, on seven daily walks—one with each child around our big block—to tire him out.  I imagine the first three or four spins around the block were fun and the last three or four were forced marches, but I don’t remember too well.  The canine experiment lasted under four months.  Back at my house now, I just imagine my mother shaking her cardinal head, thinking, “Well, kid, you wanted a dog.  Put your arthritic shoulder to the wheel.”  And then I pick up more poop, toss it in a can, and move on.

But what of this need to understand the cardinal as something?  The need to create the equation, cardinal = loved one. Of course, our reckoning with mortality inspires terror, sadness, nostalgia, tenderness—many of the emotions on the wintry side of life.  Last week, my Intro to Spanish literature students grappled with Miguel de Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” trying to understand a village priest who busily keeps his parishioners believing while he himself does not trust in the notion of the afterlife.  This week, we read many poems by Antonio Machado, digging into the sights, sounds, and textures of rural landscapes and their invocations of memory, longing, and death.  This poem in particular struck the students as stark:  Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos / Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita / son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos / para aguardar… Mas Ella no faltará a la cita.  Loosely translated: We sat one day at the edge of the forest path / Our life is only time, and our only preoccupation / is the desperate position we occupy / to await… But She will not miss the date.  For my students, this frank confrontation with death at our door appears premature and unnecessary.  For me, there is something comforting about it, something that reminds us of the universality of passing, of the need to read into (maybe even over-read) the cardinal’s sudden appearance or constant presence.  Surely, with others’ recent losses heaped on top of my own, I feel more keenly aware of the collective fragility and beauty of it all, and of the eternal need for poetry.

On some days, you just let the cardinals rule.

Zero Tolerance

First and foremost, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the many school children across the nation who walked out from their schools this morning in protest of lax gun control laws that place the students in what my husband calls “perpetual code yellow” (perpetual potential lockdown).  Deep, heartfelt thanks go to this big, brave group and to the teachers, staff, and administrators who joined them.  (*If you have access, check out Rockbridge County High School Latin Teacher Patrick Bradley’s account of the walkout at his school.)  *Here is the Gender Shrapnel post on guns from a few weeks ago.

Next, I’d like to address the use of the term “zero tolerance,” especially in the college/university environment, as it pertains to hazing and other forms of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.  This issue comes up in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace book, but I have not written much about it here in the blog.

When institutions cite “zero tolerance policies,” they are referring to the requirement that they investigate reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with sexual violence.  They are not saying that they do not tolerate hazing and other forms of harassment.  In fact, such high-profile and troubled institutions as Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University and dozens of others  tout zero-tolerance policies, while news reports show them to have tolerated for decades lethal hazing and other forms of sexual abuse and assault.  They also are not saying that, when they investigate these cases, they often find for the complainant. (*Here are some examples of zero-tolerance policies at: George Mason; Penn State (specifically addressing bullying); University of California-Riverside; University of Oregon; University of Southern Maine; news report on zero-tolerance policy at the University of Virginia.)

The National Education Association has published this interesting 2011 article on alternatives to zero tolerance policies.  The focus in the article is more on all-or-nothing punishments than on misleading rhetoric, but the content can help to guide conversations on the whole concept of zero tolerance.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitely considers zero-tolerance policies when it is presented with reports of employment violations.  Just insert “zero tolerance” as the search item on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

The rhetoric is incredibly misleading, for it implies that school officials have eradicated violence based in structural hierarchies, when exactly the opposite is true.  I would argue that using the “zero tolerance” term in an environment where hazing runs deep and dangerous (e.g. fraternities, athletics teams, military organizations) contributes profoundly to the “blind-eye phenomenon” I write about in the Gender Shrapnel book.  It covers up an all-too-often whispered reality of lords demanding servitude through violence—something clearly allowed, if not directly fomented, by our university cultures.

I hear it in this way: Hazing will simply not be tolerated in our midst—except for when we tolerate it every day—and I mean it!  Those who created the zero-tolerance policy meant well, didn’t they?  They must have been people who believed that you could say, “Fiat lux!” and there would be light.  Oh, how easy it is to zip out the “zero tolerance” lingo.  If you just declare “zero tolerance” of an odious practice, then clearly that odious practice has ceased to exist. We have zero tolerance, and therefore nowhere on our campus do we tolerate hazing or discrimination based on gender or race.  Just like that!  That’s faster than you get a milkshake in the Cook Out line.

I remember that a long, long time ago, in my first year at the university where I teach, I saw an older faculty member sit in the back, mumble epithets, and occasionally punch the carpeted walls of the meeting room.  He was really frustrated, and also vaguely amused by younger faculty members’ naïve belief that discussion could be had and change could be wrought.  I appreciated his frank demonstrations of frustration and futility, but also thought that of course we could create change, even as I listened to the story of a fraternity whose members were suspended for using electric cattle prods on their newest “brothers.” I remember being horrified at this news, naively believing that kind of practice could never be a part of a brotherhood ritual, and stating openly that our honor system should be under question if we knowingly allowed these activities to take place for at least eight straight weeks, every year.  As we left that spring faculty meeting, at least five older faculty members gently warned me that I’d better be careful if I wanted to earn tenure.  I risked it and kept talking.  As you can see, I still risk it and keep talking.  My position at the university is less precarious than back then, but my big mouth, combined with crumbling faculty governance, still introduces an element of vulnerability.

About five years after I arrived at the university, I sat as an elected member on my university’s board of appeals, which hears cases of student discipline that have been decided upon by the student governing bodies and have been appealed.  I listened to one particular hazing case for many hours, more than I would have spent on even the lengthiest of stints of local jury duty.  As I recall, the fraternity in question had sophomores and juniors who were alleged to have tied new members’ hands behind their backs, forced copious amounts of alcohol down their throats, and left them to lie in each other’s vomit.  I believe that other cases of corporal abuse accompanied these accounts, although I do not recall that element as clearly now.  I watched as well-known lawyers and alumni of the particular fraternity arrived to testify, to indulge the “boys’” actions, and to seek the lowest possible penalty for something that surely we all understand as just a tradition.  I watched as the fraternity was suspended, not expelled, from campus.  I watched that fraternity return to campus and resume its rituals.  In fact, it is the very same fraternity that was just suspended, not expelled, from our campus for reports of the very same kind of hazing.

About a year ago, I wrote this “Loving People” post in response to the report that a Penn State University student had died, had been left to die, as his “brothers” covered up their felonious actions and the university again had to confront its indulgence of violent, supposedly underground practices, even as they continued to invoke zero-tolerance policies.

At our faculty meeting this week, I foolishly jumped back into the belly of the beast I’ve avoided for several years.  The beast is the fraternity system, whose hazing practices range from mild to lethal and whose academic focus for new pledges ranges from zero on the Fahrenheit scale to zero on the Kelvin scale.  Two years ago, I taught intermediate-level courses in the semester in which fraternities conducted “new member education.”  Approximately 72% of the students in these classes, already dominated by male students, were men receiving fraternity “new member education.”  Their performance in the class went from mediocre to piss-poor to mostly nil.  Their sense of privilege went from high to higher-than-a-kite to sky-high.  I’m too old to think this is cute, or good, or simply a rite of passage.  Mostly it seems like a huge waste of time, money, and the opportunity to learn to live at times outside of oneself.  I am definitely old enough to understand that these so-called “boys will be boys,” “brotherly” behaviors can be deadly.

How are we doing as we continue to say that no hazing is tolerated?  Have we sent the message that boys won’t be boys, that hazing is not tolerated, that our young men aren’t learning to be lords of the manor?  Recent and past events certainly tell us otherwise.

Process

(Basílica Santa María del Mar, Barcelona.  Photo: E. Mayock)

“Process.” This word rarely motivates and often stultifies, but we know that the steps we take in big decisions matter in both the short and long term.  How we make decisions matters as much as the decisions themselves.  When we make decisions, we are showing that we have gathered as much information as possible, have included as many people as possible, have followed guidelines, and have attempted to effect the best outcome for the most people.  We should also be showing that we respect people’s work and ideas, that these form a part of how we operate together in the workplace, that no final decision supersedes our respect for each other’s work.

An on-campus adjudication process determines that an alum who sexually harasses undergraduate work-study employees still gets to move freely around campus, just not in the one building where he has harassed.  This leaves the undergraduate students wary of where they can be on campus, feeling less than safe because the harasser can be anywhere.  The alumnus has more freedom to move where he wishes than the currently enrolled students.

A high-school student brings a loaded gun onto campus—before Parkland but after every other school shooting since Columbine.  The administration takes care of the incident and informs the staff and faculty that they have done so.  They neglect to tell parents, who receive four different kinds of alerts when a little snow falls, when the wind blows, when there’s a Longaberger bingo session scheduled for a Friday night at school, and when armed bank robbers are in the area.  When they realize that parents are dismayed that they were not informed, the administrators write a letter to the parents, which they post on the website but whose presence on the website they neglect to announce.

An administrator calls people into his office and repeatedly raises his voice with and at them in the hour-long discussion.  The meeting room door is wide open.  Twelve yards down the hall sits a work-study student, by herself, possibly wondering if she will soon have to be alone with the violent-voiced person.  Hours later, the people called to the meeting receive odd, half-insistent, half-regretful e-mails from the violent-voiced person.

A lengthy strategic planning process involves hundreds of faculty members, whose well-intentioned ideas and carefully crafted proposals are to be voted upon by a committee who will implement the one, best shining idea.  After hundreds of labor hours executed by numerous workers, the idea the committee voted fifth-best becomes the darling of the administration and the other proposals are returned to the dust heap of institutional great ideas.  The fifth-best is a great idea, too; it is just not the one elected through the established process.

A university fails to meet accreditation standards and does major acrobatics to get back in line.  Most of the new policies restore the university to curricular policies held several years before.  The new policies are now the old policies, which had been criticized as antiquated and “meat and potatoes.”

A university requires its faculty members to attend monthly meetings, where quorum is rarely reached.  Faculty members choose not to go to the required meetings.  Faculty governance seems almost an ironic, romantic notion, as faculty members vote “yea” when the administration wants them to and “nay” when the administration wants them to, and then hurry home to complete all the tasks not completed in the busy day capped by a futile faculty meeting.  Nevertheless, these faculty members do appear in droves at an optional meeting whose ostensible purpose is to question process.  Thoughtful administrators show up at this meeting, too, but remain silent on the issues because corporate administrations require “team players” who will toe tacit and spoken party lines, who will hesitate to reveal in public enlightened debate and dialectical differences of opinion.  I understand the silence, for those who do beg to differ are shown the door in a variety of creative ways.

A department’s temporary faculty, who together have contributed multiple decades-worth of work, are excised from the department.  They are all women.  Other department members find out about the decision months after the temporary members.  The department is told to make do.

Faculty governance used to tell us that elected committees matter, that national searches for big posts are the norm, that tenure is not supposed to be an automatic gift, that curricular decisions should be in the students’ best interest.  Faculty governance used to communicate that conversations and processes surrounding diversity matter, that they are rich, varied, textured, difficult, and that they lead to hard-won decisions that satisfy the greatest number of thinking people.

We can think of process as a column that requires a strong base, or plinth, upon which will rise the vertical piece (the process in motion), to be topped by the capital (the end result).  If the base is lacking core elements (e.g. goals/objectives; timeline; people involved; task list) and clear communication, then the vertical piece will not develop well.  People will be afraid to stand near or under the column.  The final touch of the capital will seem improbable, and maybe even dangerous.  Building upon the faulty base and justifying such construction lend themselves to absurd conversations based on absurd processes.

I recommend this decalogue on process:

BASE:

  1. Develop a set of questions. Share them broadly with all individuals and groups who might be impacted by the final outcome of the process. Revise questions appropriately according to good feedback given in this step.
  2. Develop goals and objectives from the questions posed in Step 1. Share them broadly with all individuals and groups who might be impacted by the final outcome of the process. Revise goals and objectives appropriately according to good feedback given in this step.
  3. Determine who will be involved in the process and justify the selection. Share this information, including the justification, broadly.
  4. Write rules to guide the process.
  5. Create a reasonable timeline and task list.
  6. Communicate clearly and broadly everything you have done so far.

VERTICAL CONSTRUCTION:

  1. Follow your rules. If something occurs that impedes clean adhesion to the rules, share this fact broadly, and then reset the course transparently. Do not break the rules of the process without making clear why you have done so.
  2. Follow your timeline and task list.
  3. Communicate clearly and broadly everything you have done so far.

CAPITAL:

  1. Announce the results. Evaluate the process. Celebrate hard work, good communication, and transparency.

As you can see from the decalogue, much of the work for a good process takes place at the base.  Solid construction in the base establishes clarity and trust and motivates more good work.