“Welcome to My House”: Flo Rida’s Magic Circle and the Politics of Possibility

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, sure, Flo Rida’s party anthem “Welcome to My House” can absolutely be read as the invitation to a pretty cool party and night of sexual exploits that it is. There’s champagne and music and clothes on the floor.

But come on into my house. We can enjoy that reading of “Welcome to My House” while also acknowledging another level of meaning to which Flo Rida’s lyrics also invite us.

“My house” is the setting of an experience initially described by the speaker, a magic circle where the speaker defines what will happen there. The first line of the song is “Open up the champagne, pop!” with that pop at the end not a sound effect, but an onomatopoeia voiced by the speaker. This is an invitation into a world where the experience is built, not a previously existing reality. Later the speaker suggests that you “Close the blinds, let’s pretend that the time has changed” because this is a world where play and pretend are welcome and possible. Furthermore, the speaker suggests that these rules can run contrary to rules in the dominant culture. “Play that music too loud,” they repeat.

That magic circle is not entirely inscribed by the speaker, however. They invite “you,” the invited “baby” to make the rules as well. “Baby take control now,” the speaker suggests, as well as “mi casa es tu casa.” The house of the speaker is a place of play and shared control.

Speaking of play and shared control, Flo Rida’s ideological cousin Michel de Certeau suggests in The Practice of Everyday Life that there are ways for people use tactics that act against the oppression the dominant culture. Tactics are not revolutionary, and people are not acting overtly against the larger systems of oppression when they enact tactics; instead, they find ways of carving out their own meaning within those systems.

The consensual play-space of “my house” in “Welcome to My House” is an example of such a tactic. In “my house,” the speaker could easily act in dominance and dictate a set of rules. They don’t. Instead, they create a space that invites other voices to participate in the experience and creation of the shared world. “You” are not expected to follow the speaker’s rules; “you” are invited to come in and “take control” or to “yes and” the speaker’s world.

There is possibility and opportunity for us here. In the spaces where we have power, we often have monarchical tendencies, to make our own space. Our workplaces, our homes, our social structures are all spaces where we might exercise some level of influence and power. It’s a tactic, a way of acting against oppressive institutions, however, to turn those spaces into spaces where we share power and make-believe with those we welcome into our spaces. As a teacher, I invite students to “my house,” and though it would be much easier just to make the rules and enforce them, when I do so I am only reinscribing the dominant culture on my students. As a mom, it would be easier for me to demand obedience, instead of inviting my children into our own shared creative space. As a partner, it’s easier for me to perpetuate heteronormative, gendered discourse in my familial and romantic spaces, but it’s more liberatory to invite my partners to invent new modes of communication and behavior with me.

We all have different levels of freedom from which we operate within institutions; my femininity, my queerness, my cisgendered identity, and my whiteness all offer me a nuanced range of constraints and allowances within any given system. De Certeau’s idea of tactics, though, offers us the possibility of being able to act against institutions, even when we are still operating within them. Because “sometimes you gotta stay in.”

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Posted by on September 24, 2019 in Uncategorized


You Don’t Have to Say I Love You Back: The Really Radical Message of Into the Spiderverse

The surface reading of Into the Spiderverse’s empowering theme is the movie’s tagline: “anyone can wear the mask.” It’s an important message: after a series of very-smart-but-still-underdog-white-male Peter Parkers, Into the Spiderverse finally introduces multiracial Miles Morales, in addition to the oft-fridged Gwen Stacy as Spider Gwen, Asian school girl Penni Parker, and even a cartoon pig, all of whom “wear the mask.” Here in 2019, we nerds are a much more diverse crowd, and we are hungry for the representation that Into the Spiderverse provides.

We are hungry for it, but the message itself is not really radical. For one thing, “anyone can wear the mask” is not true. All of the spider people are special. They were each bitten by a special spider (or pig, in one case). Their spidey senses tingle, and they recognize the specialness in each other. They do all have powers, though there are variations. It’s cool that white maleness is not a prerequisite for spideyness, but Into the Spiderverse does not actually give us a populist version of superheroes.

The radical message of Into the Spiderverse is about love. In one of the funniest moments that worked both in the trailers and in the film itself, Miles’s dad stops him as he heads into school by turning on the loudspeaker on his police car and demanding that Miles say “I love you back” before the two part ways. It’s a cute scene and sets up the relationship between Miles and his dad, which is close and caring. Seeing a positive representation of black male fatherhood works with the film’s overall attention to the issue of representation. These initial scenes between Miles and his dad set up the traditional parenting relationship, one where the parent is powerful, and the child is subject to parental power. In this case, that parental power is in the name of caring for the child, and Miles’s dad demand that Miles say, “I love you back” suggests a relationship of care but not one of consent.

I’m reminded by this moment the ways in which most traditional love relationships are about power instead of romantic or familial love. This is particularly true of parenting relationships where good children are often construed as obedient children. In these types of relationships, the expression of love is also an expression of obligation, and the reply is an acknowledgement of that obligation, as it is for Miles as he stands, shamed in front of classmates, by the required expression of love for his father.

In many coming-of-age stories, there is antipathy between a child and a mentor or parent. The child goes their own way but ultimately comes around to the understanding that the parent or mentor was right all along. The status quo is unchallenged. Into the Spiderverse offers an alternative version of the story. Miles “grows up” and comes into his powers in the course of the story, but it is Miles’s dad who experiences change. After the death of his brother (Miles’s uncle), Miles’s dad come to Miles’s dorm room, where Miles is gagged and incapacitated; we are aware that he can’t speak, but Miles’s dad is not. This scene offers a radical revision of love. Miles’s dad realizes that he needs a connection to his son but that their relationship should not be mandated by his fiat. In this exchange he ends by telling Miles that he loves him, “but you don’t have to say it back.” And here is the expression of radical love, love that is expressed and given, and reciprocity is not required. In fact, Miles’s dad, a police officer, doesn’t like vigilantes (which is fair!), and, though he comes to accept the help of Spiderman/Miles by the end, he is conflicted about that kind of work. Miles’s dad can’t require anything from Miles or Spiderman, but he can freely give his love and support, despite intellectual disagreement.

Into the Spiderverse explores this theme through Peter B. Parker’s story as well. Peter B. Parker and his MJ broke up because MJ wanted children, and Peter B. Parker did not. (This is not a terrible reason for a break-up.) In the course of interacting with Miles and helping him learn to be Spiderman, Peter B. Parker comes to the realization that he might be interested in parenthood. This is important because he doesn’t reach this place by protecting Miles or ordering him around; in fact, the “order” he makes that Miles not come along to the final battle with Kingpin is explicitly ignored by Miles. Peter’s recognition of the value of parenting comes from seeing Miles be successful in making his own decisions, not by following orders. In their final interaction, Miles is in control, holding Peter by the onesie, and it is Miles who releases Peter and decides to battle Kingpin on his own. Peter, we see later, still chooses to pursue a relationship with MJ again. The moral he has learned about love and parenthood is not one of control or power but one of release.

And that’s the radical message of Into the Spiderverse. We can’t all be Spiderman. But we are all free to love with no expectation of anything in return.

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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Movies, Uncategorized


Requiem for Black Widow

This post contains such spoilers for Avengers: Endgame! Only keep reading if you are down.

Poor Natasha. An original Avenger, the only woman for a stretch of years, and now, her story is abruptly concluded. She didn’t make it to the final fateful Assembly of Avengement. She traded herself for the Soul Stone, so Hawkeye (everyone’s favorite Avenger, amirite?) could bring back the goods for the team. There’s a lot to unpack in one bit of a very lengthy film. That’s why you’ve got me, kid.

So the death scene. Natasha and Clint struggle on the edge of a Vormirian cliff in a scene that mirrors Thanos and Gamora’s struggle there in Infinity War. That earlier scene was problematic on a multitude of levels, but Mikey covers it beautifully, so watch his video on the topic. One problem Thanos’s “sacrifice” of Gamora left us with is the question of love. Were we to think that Thanos’s murder of his daughter, an act that capstoned a lifetime of abusive behavior, was love because Thanos got all teared up? Infinity War left us hanging on this matter, and that’s not to the prior film’s credit.

Natasha and Clint, faced with the same circumstance as Thanos also struggle on that cliff, but they fight over which of them will die to procure the Soul Stone. The good thing about this scene is that we see how heroes do love, not by sacrificing whomever is nearby, but by accepting the cost personally. We are reminded in the moment that Thanos is not a tragic good guy with Very Harsh But Not Necessarily Entirely Bad ideas; he’s a villain with selfish, grandiose ideas, and those ideas are Real Bad. I appreciated this contrast as I watched Endgame for the first time. Then Widow “won” the fight and plunged to her death.

And it turned out that these two scenes ended in the same way, with a dead woman at the bottom of a cliff. This was actually the only scene in Endgame that took me entirely out of the film, forcing me to confront the utter misogyny of this character arc on a variety of levels.

Natasha has never been a character understood by the male writers and directors who have tried to situate her. I remember seeing the original Avengers movie posters and pondering Black Widow’s entirely underrated superpower of displaying both her ass and her boobs simultaneously in two dimensional space. What character development did Natasha get over the course of six (I’m just taking a stab at this number- feel free not to quote me) movies? She was a maybe love interest for Hawkeye, Captain America, and Bruce Banner. That’s fun! We discover in Age of Ultron that she can’t have children, which is Terribly Sad. Except- couldn’t someone be a woman without interests in kids or romance? Natasha, as these character beats (that’s generous of me, I know) suggest, the writers couldn’t really imagine Natasha. Who is she? What drives her? In Endgame she says: “All I have is this job.” This is in many ways pretty accurate, since we never see anything of her beyond her work. Even Hawkeye, who like Black Widow has not had an individual movie, has a family that figures into his characterization. In Natasha’s case there seems to have been a dearth of imagination when it came to giving her a life. What would a woman without a family do or be? When she was hanging out with Captain America, she was absorbed in his drama. With Ironman, the same. And now in Endgame we are expected to believe that these moments were all there was. She didn’t have an off-screen life either.

So she decides to sacrifice herself for the team because this is all she is. Sacrifice is a recurrent theme in super hero movies. Heroes are often construed as heroic because they do sacrifice themselves. It happened in Infinity War; Dr. Strange sacrificed the Time Stone and consequently himself (and consequently a lot of other people) to save Tony and ultimately the world. Captain America faces off against Thanos and his entire army, aware that this fight will end in his death (except for portals!). Tony’s final heroic sacrifice too is a significant moment in the film.

There is no way of extricating sacrifice and gender though. Natasha’s death, not the climax of the movie, leads directly into a scene with five men thinking about how sad they are because she’s dead. Tony’s death, in contrast, is not rising action but the climactic conclusion, not just of this movie but of (I’ll say) twenty movies.

Natasha’s death reminded me of Shel Silverstein’s classic misogynist text “The Giving Tree.” in this poem, a tree that is a favorite of a little boy gives him shade while she’s alive and then hacks herself to pieces, finally dying so he can sit on her corpse-stump. This was Natasha too. She provided the feminine foil or romantic interest for male characters when these things were called for. Then she dies to give these same male characters one last emotional push before the final battle.

As a side note, lots of people were upset about Steve Trevor’s heroic self-sacrifice at the end of Wonder Woman. The sacrifice of a masculine love interest to further the development of a femme hero was a not-so-terribly coy nod to all of the femme love interests who have tragically perished.

Then there is even further context. Jeremy Renner, the actor who plays Hawkeye, made a sexist comment about Black Widow’s sluttiness in an on-camera conversation with Chris Evan’s years ago. They both apologized, one more successfully than the other. But the attitude of these actors toward this character is revealing. And let’s not forget that this year people were complaining that Brie Larsen should “smile more” as Captain Marvel, a request she- ah- turned down.

How many women have worked on Marvel movies as writers and directors? That question isn’t rhetorical. Go look it up. Therein lies the answer to why Black Widow couldn’t survive Endgame. It wasn’t because her story was over. Her story never even got told at all. She died as she lived: voluptuous character foil for the men who surrounded her.

When I saw the original Avengers, I was so glad for Natasha. If we hadn’t had her, we’d have had no one. But I was the one living on scraps.

So I mourn her, not because of Endgame, but because she never got to be anything at all. Hire more women, Marvel. Oh, and if you give us the femme power movie you teased for about twenty seconds in a movie containing over 10,000 seconds, please hire femme writers and directors for that project as well.

Good night, sweet Widow. I hope that super hero heaven is Thermyscira, at least for you.

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Posted by on May 3, 2019 in Movies



Is New Media Liberatory? Part I: Frontier Expertise

wordpress-265132_1920In a recent episode of the 538 podcast, Nate Silver, responding to a listener question about how voter turnout figures into his political forecasting model, points out that voter turnout is a concern for the pollsters and that they have methods for figuring how likely voter turnout should be represented in polling data. His work, he points out, is the aggregation of polling data. Silver argues that it is not a particularly useful conversation for him to critique the relationship between voter turnout and polling because that’s sophisticated work, and it’s not his area of expertise.

His comments remind me of another recent incident in the gaming industry. Jessica Price, a game developer for Guild Wars 2, was fired after a Twitter exchange with a fan. The fan suggested some “easy” fixes for a particular game design problem Price analyzed in a series of tweets, and Price called him out for mansplaining her own field to her.

Each of these moments spotlights the relationship between expertise and new media. The interactive, democratized world of new media encourages more conversation between “experts” in various fields and gives people a platform to both respond and be responded to publically in ways that really weren’t possible previously, unless you were the proud owner of a printing press and some number of avenues for distribution. Plenty of people write about the democratizing benefits of new media, and plenty of people excoriate this brave new world for its annihilation of civility.

New media allows information to operate like a wildfire, propagating and spreading without any authorities capable to containing that information, outside of a few firetrucks from traditional media outlets. There are pros and cons to information wildfires; on the one hand, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson would not have been widespread news without Twitter. On the other hand, conspiracy theories peddled by all kinds of bad faith actors are also possible because of new media outlets.

What is the role of expertise in the world of new media then? Silver is a rare mitigating voice, an expert himself unwilling to comment on a technical detail that he hasn’t fully studied. Price’s story is more common; her expertise was questioned by a person who had no sense of his own ignorance on the topic. In the public discourse, it was not the fan’s ignorance that was punished but Price’s lack of civility. This story highlights not only the way expertise is understood in new media but also the ways in which expertise is gendered or otherwise privileged.

This tendency toward interactivity flattens, in many ways, the voices of experts. We all have Twitter accounts, so all of our voices are equally valid. Or at least people who have similar numbers of followers should be similarly valued. And this drowning out of expert voices is completely understandable. What role have experts traditionally played? Sources that grant authority to some voices have always privileged the already-powerful. Universities have long been the province of white men, white men still comprise the overwhelming majority of faculty at US universities, and the voices of people of color and women remain silenced. Education, though one way of establishing expertise, also requires membership in the dominant discourse.

With new media, there is a new class of public intellectual. Podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers, most of whom are under-credentialed by the academy, are fully credentialed in terms of the number of followers they toll on various new media platforms. Upon my baptism in the waters of LeftTube, my initial observation was the way in which many LeftTubers engage with the writings and rhetoric of the alt-right. In traditional media, the ideas of the alt-right are rarely engaged, except as side notes after Charlottesville or a self-professed incel murderer. LeftTubers, however, are experts by the same method of popularity as the alt-right figures with whom they engage. The stakes of that discourse are important because, if expertise is not a factor, how then shall we value ideas?

In the 2004 film The Incredibles, the villain enacts a scheme to provide technology to all people in order to negate the need for superheroes. “Because when everyone is super,” he argues, “no one will be.” He’s wrong, though, and not just villainously so. His definition of superpowers does not actually differ from that the heroes against whom he rails. In fact, equally wrong are the Incredibles themselves and other proponents of superheroes, who long for the “good old days” when superheroes could just do whatever they wanted. It’s clear why the traditionally powerful might long for days of unchecked authority, but the benefits for the rest of us, born without the superpowers of cishet white maleness and/or inherited wealth, are murkier.

Democratization of ideas and information doesn’t have to look like widespread flattening. We don’t have to value all ideas in the same way or not at all. The opportunity afforded us by new media is the ability to bypass traditional barriers to knowledge, barriers that excluded marginalized and oppressed voices of all varieties. This new system doesn’t require the erection of new barriers; instead, we have the opportunity to imagine a new ideology that values the expertises each person has by disconnecting knowledge from capital.

Coming soon: Is New Media Liberatory? Part II: Disconnecting Knowledge from Capital

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Posted by on September 13, 2018 in Nonfiction



Star Wars Episode VIII: Sister, Don’t Believe the Lies Men Tell You

*The spoileryest of spoilers are here. Be warned.

space-2638126_960_720There is no movie, really, that captures the zeitgeist of 2017 like Star Wars Episode VIII. Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land brought us hope, sure, but The Last Jedi has nailed the moment. An oppressive, Nazi-like First Order taking over the entire galaxy: check. Tiny flames of hope mostly found in the acts of women and people of color: check. Awesome battles on salt planets: it’s only a matter of time.

In my analysis, I’m going to discuss gender and class specifically. Neither of these characteristics is anything other than a cultural narrative that we engage in as a group. I’m not going to be discussing any essential characteristics of women, men, rich people, or poor people primarily because there are no essential characteristics of these groups. I am interested in the ways this movie construes gender and class and the way the movie deconstructs the narratives we tend to tell about gender and class.

So Wonder Woman was really cool. But the women leading the Resistance in Episode VIII… thoroughly badass. General Princess Leia is both the heart and brain of the rebellion, and she is quick to demote Flyboy Oscar Isaac when he disobeys orders. When she is put out of commission early in the film (and Admiral Ackbar is killed as well! Fare thee well, Admiral! It WAS a trap!), we discover that the chain of command falls to purple-haired Laura Dern (and perhaps the third in command is femme as well?). Purple-haired Laura Dern at once hatches and implements a clever plan to escape the First Order, but she makes a “mistake” that many women in leadership have made before her: she did not inform all of the male people in the chain of command, including those who had no need to know. Naturally, this caused Flyboy Oscar Isaac to assume that purple-haired Laura Dern did not know what she was doing and could not possibly understand the situation thoroughly. He was then forced to hatch his own completely unnecessary plan that endangered the entire Resistance.

This story is the most apt of allegories. It is entirely possible for many men or white people or hetero people to accept the leadership, the exceptionality, of one superior example of a marginalized group. President Obama- he’s so well-spoken! Neil Patrick Harris- So funny! Princess Leia- she is much beloved and once kissed Han Solo! What happens to that inclusive spirit when another woman or person of color enters the frame? The doubt begins all over again. (There is absolutely no need for a discussion of what Flyboy Oscar Isaac might have done had purple-haired Laura Dern been a man. This was the choice that the film made, and there is a reason. Fin.)

Once Leia was awake again, we were treated to some moving moments between two brave people who had everything to do with heroism and hope. Between the two of them, they save Flyboy Oscar Isaac by knocking him unconscious. They also discuss, privately, how much they like him (did we need to be reminded that they aren’t “man-haters”?).

Beyond Poe Dameron, there are two other stories of truth/untruth to consider in this film: Kylo Ren and the Master Codebreaker. We will start with the erstwhile Ben Solo, whose connection to Rey is facilitated by Snoke. Kylo Ren and Rey are connected to each other psychically in some really excellent scenes. Kylo Ren wants Rey to come with him and join him in the Dark Side. Rey wants just the opposite, for Kylo Ren to turn to the Light Side. Snoke is the out-and-out deceiver in this scenario, manipulating them both for his own ends. But Kylo Ren does a different kind of lying, absolutely negging Rey (“you are nobody in this story”) so that he can paint himself as her benefactor (“but not to me”). Rey, having felt connected to Kylo Ren, is betrayed by this version of her that he narrates, but she isn’t deceived. She takes the first opportunity she has to escape from him, and the next shot of their (apparently sustained!) connection is her closing the door of the Millenium Falcon on him.

The trend here is that the lies being told are not traditional full-frontal lies. They are insidious, narrative lies, the kinds of lies that trap even well-meaning #notallmen and white women who don’t believe in feminism but do believe in reverse racism. Men tell stories that work in their own interests and valorize them as the heroes in their own minds (both Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren are guilty of this), and other people must work to revise those stories. They are big stories, easy to tell and easy to believe.

So is the story told by the Master Codebreaker. The story told by the Master Codebreaker is that neither side is right. They are both about the same, and what matters is the material benefit accorded to him as an individual. The Master Codebreaker is the happily amoral capitalist who gives Rose her necklace back but betrays them all for a big pile of whatever counts for money with the New Order. It’s hard not to recall the Han Solo of Episodes IV and V, and not only because characters in the movie brought him up a trillion times. He was, you’ll recall, a happily amoral mercenary who shot Greedo in cold blood. Not all mercenaries turn out like Han, though; in fact, this film seems to intimate, most of them do not.

Wondering what Episode VIII really has to say about class? The story of the Master Codebreaker does not stand alone.

And Revolutionary Sentiments

Class has been a motif of Star Wars throughout all eight episodes so far, but Episode VIII goes the furthest toward delivering a real ideology. There is obvious class angst in Rose and Finn’s destructive jaunt through the One Percenter Casino. Their new hobby is certainly Marx-approved, and this sequence is as silly as it is revolutionary, depriving it of some of its bite. Fortunately, this sub-plot is not where The Last Jedi really finds its ideological footing.

When Rey asks Luke to explain the Force, I found myself sending up a traditional Jedi prayer: Please do not pull a Qui Gon and start spouting off about mitichlorians. Please. My prayers were answered! In fact, this moment gave us one of the really revolutionary truths of this Episode: the Force isn’t just for Jedi and Sith. The Force is in all of us. Luke rejects the elitism of the Jedi order and speaks back against a philosophy that would restrict the Force to certain worthy folks. The film itself substantiates this message for us in the world as well. One example is the early sequence with Rose’s sister, the doomed bomber pilot who reaches up toward the button that will release the bombs onto the First Order’s Dreadnaught. She cannot physically touch the button, but her need for it is great and her motivation for needing it is good (in the world of the movie). It falls, she barely catches it, and the bombs destroy the Dreadnaught. That is the Force being wielded by this pilot. The little boy at the end of the film, too, calls his broom with the Force. Then there is General Leia’s glorious space self-rescue. She regains consciousness in space and propels herself back to the ship using the Force; Leia, of course, is strong in the Force, but she is not a Jedi either. This movie is all about rejecting elitism and speaking back to power, though it does not deny the risk undertaken by the people who do so.

Even with those risks, often undertaken by already marginalized people, this film finds power in identity. Though Finn engaged in some heroism in order to save Rey in Episode VII, this Episode finds him ready to run again. It’s only when he finally battles his former colleagues and boss that he realizes what he is:

Phasma: You have always been scum.

Finn: Rebel scum.

In the battle sequence when the tiny group of Rebels must defend their tiny group with some kind of ships on sticks (???), Finn is even ready to sacrifice himself for the cause, finally reaching the understanding that the cause of the Resistance is bigger than he is.

Overall, I can why there are fans trashing this movie on Rotten Tomatoes or wherever True Fans go to Explain How Someone Destroyed the Franchise. People who identify strongly with the status quo, whether or not that system works in their interests, often feel challenged by these kinds of stories that valorize the revolutionary and condemn the patriarchy. This movie didn’t say to us the things we thought it would say, though, really, having watched Star Wars all along, you’d think we’d have learned that lesson. If The Force Awakens was J.J. Abrams saying, “I love you” to us, then with The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson is certainly replying, “I know.”

Bits and Pieces

  • I see you: directed at my man in the First Order Infantry who comes from the Fox Mulder school of What is This Unusual Substance? on the salt planet. Glad it didn’t turn out to be any of the millions of possible substances that would have been fatal to you!
  • Look, I am a teacher, and I am here to tell you that if you have mastered side eye the way Kylo Ren has done, you do not need to Force choke anyone.
  • The porg controversy: calm down. They aren’t Gungans.
  • On the topic of Gungans, I was super hopeful that Snoke would shake his head, and ears would come rolling out, and all would be revealed! Check out this old fan theory if you want Episode I to be well and truly redeemed. (Or not! You do you.)
  • On the topic of Snoke, he spent the whole movie in a sort of gold lame smoking jacket, and, while that aesthetic did fit in with the film’s excoriation of everything related to the one percent, I did not find the jacket or Snoke to be sufficiently dangerous. Neither, for the record, did Kylo Ren.
  • As a teacher, I kinda loved everything about Luke in this episode. “Every word you just said is wrong” is first class teaching. Plus, that moment, retold three times in the film, when Luke recognizes the destructive potential of Ben Solo is a powerful moment for a teacher. Paulo Freire, a great teacher and liberation fighter, felt that, if you really believe in freedom, you must accept it when your students don’t choose your way. That doesn’t mean that the teaching wasn’t worthwhile. It means that liberatory teaching has an emotional and sometimes a material cost. Anyway, I identified with Luke throughout the film. “See you around, kid.” Yeah. I’m putting that on my office door.
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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in Uncategorized


Dear HRC: An Open Letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton

hillaryDear Madam Secretary,

Lots of my friends and public figures I admire are processing their feelings about the recent presidential election through Facebook posts, Tweets, blogs, etc. After reading and watching them all, I find that I also have something to say, but you are the person I want to address. I’ll post this to the interwebs, in the hope that it wends its way to you.

This is a little complicated, so I’m going to go back aways.

I wrote a paper about you in college. It was about the ways in which you, the First Lady at that time, were being portrayed in the media. I looked up articles about your attempts to overhaul the healthcare system through actual policy and legislation. Why, so many of the articles wondered, isn’t she focusing on the social issues toward which First Ladies traditionally gravitate? I also read about the cookie recipe you were pressured to generate. Your years as First Lady were formative for me. You were married to the president, but that didn’t stop you from being serious and tough and smart. You were reviled, of course, for all of those things. I loved you.

In those years, I had my first in a series of male bosses. Dudes who were sometimes creepy, often patronizing, and generally dismissive. One boss who insisted that I send his faxes because I “was good at it.” One boss who prayed for me on the regular. Another who nodded at my suggestions but only took my male co-workers seriously. Nobody was writing magazine articles denigrating my attempts to write or teach (thankfully), but I felt a kinship with your public performance of female competence in the face of male doubt.

In 2008 when you ran for president the first time, I was excited to hear it, though I worried, like many Democrats, about the public’s perception of you. I didn’t put much pressure on my own misogyny and the self-hatred I had accrued through years of living as a woman. I supported Barack Obama’s campaign from the primaries to the crescendo, and I’m happy I did. He has been a truly great president, and I’ve slept better every night he’s been in the White House. What I regret is that I didn’t consider more deeply the ways in which my misogyny influenced my feelings about you and your campaign. I would have supported President Obama anyway, because I am a socialist-leaning liberal, and you are rather hawkish and capitalist. But I am certain that my choice in 2008 was at least as tied to my own misogyny as it was to policy, and that was an injustice I did to you.

Eight years later in 2016, I was ready to support you. The truth is that Bernie Sanders was my primary pick (please see my political leanings above). But this time I understood that the political compromises and choices that made you seem too moderate for my tastes were the very choices and compromises that allowed you to come to this point in the first place. Hell, they weren’t that different from the compromises I have made myself in my own career and academic life. I barreled into the 2016 election season ready to do my best for you.

I found the public misogyny of this year’s discourse jarring. I’m saying that as a woman who is on Twitter, as a woman married to a black man, as a woman who identifies as queer, so I have seen some fucking misogyny and hatred. This year was awful. I’ve had a pit in my stomach for months now. The tide of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and general hatred has been overwhelming at times.

The thing is, I don’t really agree with your political positions any more (and perhaps less) than I did in 2008. But this year you were running against someone who threatens the safety and livelihood of nearly every single person I love in this world. You were the person willing to stand against that, to face that, to have insults, threats, and hatred thrown against you every single day. And I do mean you personally, because they didn’t particularly rail against your policies or positions. They railed against your email servers (WTF?) with solid regularity. But mainly they railed against your very womanhood. They wore tee-shirts that said “Trump that Bitch” and “Hillary for Prison.” To many of us, it was perfectly clear that your crime was rising above your station, for being a woman challenging men for a seat at the tables of power. They called you The Devil. As to that one, I assume that they took to heart the saying that the devil is in the details because you are so very detail-oriented. Your website makes that evident. Many of us women in the world can relate to that. We are detail-oriented in our workplaces, where our attention to detail is often pejoratively described as “organizational skills.” We have attention to detail at home where our husbands insist that they contribute their half of the household work and childcare, as they chase the giggling children around the house while we wash pajamas, make doctor appointments, and determine precisely how many bites of broccoli we are willing to fight for each evening. If that’s not the Devil, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, all of this is to say that you were not actually the hero I wanted. It’s true. You are, however, the hero that we needed. You are the woman who was able to focus on your goals and policies through an absolute quagmire of ignorance and falsehood. You are the woman who stood on a debate stage with an opponent who was sexist and hateful toward you (when you deserved to debate someone capable of conversing with you on an intellectual level). You are the woman who, when faced with defeat against someone who said he wasn’t sure he would honor the democratic process if he lost, honored the democratic process and gave us all hope in a moment of utter devastation.

On the NPR Politics Podcast (Hi, Sam!), they talked about the fact that your calendar is empty for the foreseeable future. Hillary Rodham Clinton, I am writing to say to you that I hope that is the case. I hope you are having a lovely vacation and that you haven’t so much as brushed your hair for the last three days. I hope that you take Bill (or, let’s be real, whoever the hell floats your boat these days) to the beach or the mountains or a library or wherever. If anyone deserves a break, it’s definitely you.

I want you to know that you did not fail. You did everything you could do. The things they threw against you, they would have thrown against any woman. Your ambition is no cloying, wheedling, nagging Lady Macbeth-style ambition. Your ambition is the stuff of Henry V or Macbeth (depending on one’s perspective), and they’ve painted that as a bad thing because you are a woman. If 2016 has one tiny bright spot, it has been the rise and buzz of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which reminds us that you don’t have to be president to be a powerful American hero and a person who history will remember for fighting, sometimes on the right side and sometimes on the wrong side, because you, like Alexander Hamilton, are complicated. Complicated and brilliant and brave and smart.

We are lucky we had you this year. It’s your picture that I will show to my sons and my brilliant niece for these next four years when I say to them, “you CAN do anything.” Just because you didn’t win today doesn’t make that any less true.

In the end, we were the ones who failed you. If Democrats had turned out to vote, if some liberals could have engaged in real introspection about why, exactly, they could not vote for you, if we had recognized the odds and the ignorance we were up against… you understand. You did your best. We fucked up.

Thank you, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for everything. You’re a boss.




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Posted by on November 11, 2016 in Nonfiction, Open letters


The Violence of School

When we are not accepted, bodies are open to violence. Violence is thereby a symptom of anxiety for those threatened by their inadequacies of not reading others’.

-sj Miller in “A Queer Literacy Framework Promoting (A)Gender and (A)Sexuality Self-Determination and Justice”rtjrby9gc

For those of us working in K-12 education, the risk for violence to the bodies of the children in our classroom should constantly be at the forefront. K-12 education is mandatory, so whatever violence to which children are susceptible is entirely our concern and domain. Bullying is not simply a fact of life to which children should acclimate; it is a power dynamic, often physically imposed, that endangers the bodies of particular children. Bullying does not occur in a vacuum, however. In schools, we set up the social parameters. These behaviors are okay or not okay. These languages are okay or not okay. These identities or ways of being are okay or not okay. Once we have done that, established a hierarchy of social identities, bullying and other schoolyard violence will enforce those hierarchies.

If we encounter violence in our schools and classrooms, our first question should be: what have we done to create the social conditions for this violence? To clarify, in what ways have our behaviors, mindsets, curricula, teaching strategies, and language indicated that we do not value (and thereby condone violence toward) a particular kind of student?

If we can ask these questions without self-defensiveness and with real inquiry into the social conditions of our schools, we will be able to identify the institutional structures that mandated the violence.

Regarding “the real world”

Sometimes adults defend violence toward children by arguing that violence in the real world will be commonplace and that we must teach them to cope with it. By making such arguments, we are perpetrating the violent structures in spaces beyond schools. We are encouraging our students not to rage against or speak against violence but to accept and condone it.

Schools are not preparatory spaces. We are not getting children ready for “the next thing.” School is a real place where children are real people. The violence and behaviors we advocate in school do not “prepare” children to cope with the world outside of school. Instead, we actively create the hierarchies, privileges, biases, and power dynamics that exist in spaces outside of schools. If we want some other way of being to happen in “the real world,” we should put our energy toward making that way of being happen in schools.

Not just bullying

Of course, the violence that occurs in school, the violence that we require, condone, and participate in, is not just bullying. It is also apparent in the stereotypes that get perpetrated, the labeling and gatekeeping that we do, and in the teaching practices we use. When we decide what kind of reading, learning, and educational experiences students deserve based on test scores or formative assessment or other forms of tracking, we are committing violence against the children who are oppressed by these practices. When we fail to use texts that represent our children and their communities, when we don’t imagine that our children can attend college or succeed in school, when we value certain types of responses as “authentic,” we commit violence against these children. This intellectual and emotional violence sometimes results in physical violence and almost always in continued oppression.

Empathy and consent

I am not arguing that we should have no mandates or requirements in school. But perhaps we should undergo a radical reconsideration of what we do mandate. What we require is what we are likely to get, after all. I would put forth that that two domains we barely teach or learn at all in schools would constitute a starting point for such a radical course change.

Empathy, for teachers, would mean considering the feelings, positions, and needs of each student, their families, and even the community in which the school is situated. For students, this would mean consideration of the feelings, positions, and needs of their classmates, teachers, and communities. What would conflict resolution look like if we mandated empathy? What would collaborative learning and classroom interactions look like if empathy was the norm? In our current system, oppressed people must constantly practice empathy already. In a world where black people are murdered by police officers on the regular, constant vigilance about the emotional status of white authority figures is necessary. Similarly, women are often hyper-aware of the moods of men, partially because they are socialized for conflict minimalism, but also because the risk women face for physical danger from men is much higher than the reverse. Queer people, too, are so often the targets of physical, verbal, and emotional violence that they must maintain an awareness of dominant straight mindsets at all times. The quote I used at the opening of this post is taken from a Queer theorist, in fact. By all this, I am saying that empathy must not only be the less powerful empathizing with the powerful. Teachers must begin this revolution by empathizing with their students.

Consent is really antithetical to the compulsive attendance of K-12 schools. What would consent look like in school? What would grading look like? What would social interactions be like between students and between students and teachers if interactions were not requirements but invitations?

We no longer have the luxury to sit around sighing about violence in the world. It is time for us think about how we are mandating systems of violence in schools and take action to make schools different.

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Posted by on July 11, 2016 in Teaching


The Juno Metaphor

This morning I was asked to explore some science articles and videos on the interwebs. Yay, science! I glanced through a few of the suggested resources, then moved on to Googling Juno. I’ve been hearing about Juno all week but really didn’t know much about it and what NASA hopes to learn about Jupiter. It turns out that NASA is investigating Jupiter’s magnetosphere and whether the planet has a solid core. There is more to it… the NASA site is really cool.

So in order to construct Juno, NASA scientists had to study the environment Juno would have to endure, in this case tremendous amounts of radiation. Juno is the product of research and preparation.

It’s a lovely metaphor for inquiry. There were some questions scientists wanted to answer, so they studied as much as they could and prepared their study, June itself, to go to Jupiter. There are certainly environmental factors that the scientists didn’t/couldn’t plan for, but they made the best decisions they could based on the information at hand.

So that’s the result of my inquiry this morning: a nice metaphor.

For the NASA scientists, the results of their inquiry into Jupiter will be an understanding of how Jupiter was formed and more information about the history of our solar system. For me, I’ve reached a neat understanding of inquiry and meta-cognition.

I am not convinced that the outcome for either of us (me or NASA) will be an argument. In many school-oriented inquiry projects, the final destination is argument, a position, a case. Is that how all inquiries turn out?


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Posted by on July 7, 2016 in Uncategorized


The Empathy Project

This week I have been thinking about the ways in which education encourages argument, competition, and antipathy; we do this in both curricular content and in the structures of school. I wonder what content and structures would look like if the goals shifted.

When it comes to empathy, I am a work in progress myself. There are many people with whom I absolutely don’t empathize. In fact, I’m sure I’ve uttered those exact words: I just don’t understand how… I just can’t understand why… 

Before I try teaching empathy, I think I’ll try practicing it. My goal is to seek out some of the kinds of people with whom I find it challenging to empathize.

It sounds easy. face-985965_960_720



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Posted by on July 6, 2016 in Uncategorized


Counter-argument or Empathy?

Those of us who teach argument know all about teaching counter-argument. Imagine, we tell our students, someone who might disagree with you. Now, what arguments might they make in response to your argument? And how will you annihilate that response?

Jonathan Swift taught us how to do this, and we learned his lesson. Eat the babies! Yaaaassss! How would modern argument look if Swift had never taught us that suggesting infant cannibalism was a perfectly reasonable persuasive strategy?

Teaching counter-argument has that sort of military strategy feel to it. It feels like teaching counter-insurgency or something.

Here is an alternate assignment:

  • Have each student go and find an actual person who disagrees with their position.
  • The student should listen carefully to that person’s perspective.
  • Then the student should write about and describe that person’s perspective. They should also return to the person they interviewed and ask for feedback on how well they have represented that perspective.

What would “argumentative writing” look like if we asked our students to empathize deeply first? 2000px-hicolor_apps_scalable_empathy-svg


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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Teaching