Artifact: Awesome Button

As part of my ongoing intellectual history project, I’ve set up a new Tumblr in which I post brief accounts and archive artifacts. Yesterday, I archived a button that I received as a gift, years ago:


“Fuck this Fifties Housewife Bullshit” was a gift from two students in the first women’s studies course I ever taught: Introduction to Women’s Studies at Emory University, Fall 2002. I can’t quite remember who they were or why they gave me this awesome pin. I can think of a couple of reasons: 1. They liked my class, 2. They were inspired by our discussions, earlier in the semester, about Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, or 3. They knew I was just about to become a Mom (I had revealed to all of them earlier in the semester that I was pregnant) and they wanted to encourage/support my feminist resistance to traditional gender roles.

I loved teaching that class. I was a Ph.D student in Women’s Studies. While I was in residence at Emory, from 2000-2003, I was only required to teach 2 classes as part of my fellowship and degree. Unlike at other schools, where graduate students are required to teach a lot, usually while taking their own classes, I taught these classes after my coursework and while I was studying for my doctoral exams. I was also required to be a teaching assistant for two courses, but that job was designed to serve as a mentoring opportunity, in which I worked closely with the professor and received a lot of useful feedback on my own teaching.

Emory’s program was unusual (and unusually awesome) because of the low teaching load for graduate students and the amazing amount of funding they provided for all graduate students: 4 years of full tuition + a generous stipend. Also, they put a lot of emphasis on mentoring and training students to be teachers. While I was a graduate student, I had a teaching mentor and took a class (feminist pedagogy) that was specifically designed to prepare for me teaching the Intro class. And, as I mentioned above, my role as a teaching assistant was primarily designed to give me teaching experience and mentoring; it wasn’t just used to exploit me as cheap labor.

I was lucky. I didn’t realize that until I began teaching at a research university and witnessed how much graduate students taught (as assistants who graded papers and ran discussion sections, or as instructors, who taught huge classes) and how little mentoring seemed to be formally built into their teaching.

In thinking about graduate students and how they are frequently exploited at universities, I did a little bit of online research and came across this post: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go. I also found this one: The Brutal Lives of Others: Exploitation in the Academy. I want to read them as I reflect on my experiences in and beyond graduate school.

Interventions into Academics-as-Usual

Over at my Undisicplined site, I’m working on my intellectual history, from 1996-present. For the past week, I’ve been mulling over a question that has haunted me ever since I came across my Senior Thesis evaluation (1996) and my advisor’s opening lines: “This was, without a doubt, a very strong thesis. Indeed, we could not remember one in our experience that was stronger.” The question is: Am I living up to the promise that I showed in my undergraduate senior thesis?

The process of thinking through this question and detailing my experiences as an academic since writing this thesis, have been tremendously helpful in enabling me to keep pushing at my questions, conflicts and uncertainties over my current (liminal?) state as beside/outside of the Academy. Just a few minutes ago, I posted the entire essay (almost 3000 words!) on Undisciplined. I thought I’d post an excerpt describing four critical/creative projects that I completed in order to resist/disrupt/intervene in the damaging effects of my training and practice as an academic.

Intervention One

To counter the effects of this academic training, I decided to create a project that would enable me to take many of the theories about storytelling, women’s agency, identity, selfhood, memory and home and experiment with them in a different medium. Instead of writing an esoteric academic paper, I, along with my husband Scott Anderson, created a digital video about my family’s most treasured homespace, the Puotinen family farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The themes that I had been studying for years (like the tension between wanting to belong and needing to critique simplistic notions of belonging) served as the foundation for our project.

After completing and screening the first video, The Farm: An Autobiography, in 2001, we created another one the next summer, The Puotinen Women. This video, which was a continuation of themes and questions raised in the first one, also focused on the contradictory roles that women played in Finnish immigrant households and was heavily shaped by the miscarriage I suffered just before we started filming.

These two digital videos enabled me to experiment with communicating my ever-increasing feminist theoretical knowledge to audiences outside of academic spaces. And, they allowed me to use these theories to make sense of my relationship to the farm and generations of Puotinens. These videos reminded me that theories weren’t just abstract ideas and academic knowledge wasn’t just academic! They could help me understand and connect with my family and heritage.

Due to the success of those digital videos, I briefly considered shifting the focus of my dissertation so as to include them. But I didn’t. I can’t remember the thought process that went into that decision, but I imagine that I was reluctant to subject my highly personal work to the rigid (and often stultifying) demands of academic scholarship.

Intervention Two

When I was nearly finished with my dissertation, over two years after I started writing it, my mom got sick. Really, really sick. She was dying from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I was working on my fourth chapter, “Working to Become Allies, Working for Alliances,” and reflecting on Judith Butler’s difficult questions, What is the livable life?, and Who gets to achieve it? I wrote a big chunk of that final section in the hospital on the day of my mom’s whipple surgery. If the surgery was successful, she might have six months to a year to live. If not, she would most likely be dead in a few weeks. The surgery was a success and, with the help (?) of chemo, she beat the odds and lived for almost 4 years.

When I look back at this chapter, and reread my section on livable life, I don’t see any evidence of the pain and fear that I was experiencing on that day. No footnote referencing my own powerful connection to the concept, serving as an intervention into the “academics as usual” prose. But, I know that Butler’s theories about the livable life, and my critical engagements with it on that day, and the days to come, was crucial in enabling me to survive that horrific month when my world shattered.

Intervention Three

I can’t remember when the idea first hit me, but in the spring of 2009, I decided to create and write in my own blog. I had been using blogs in my classes since 2007, but I had yet to experiment on one with my own theories and research. I decided to use my blog as a space for documenting and archiving all of my ideas and theories about the value of troublemaking and troublestaying. These ideas had been fermenting for over 10 years, almost since the beginning of graduate school, but I had never had time to write about them. And I didn’t make the time because these ideas—about The Brady Bunch and Jurgen Habermas; Michel Foucault and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who; Eminem, Borat and Socrates; or Judith Butler and Hannah Montana, didn’t seem as “serious” or “important” as my work in feminist theory and ethics.

From the minute I started writing on the blog, I loved it. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I probably wrote more in that first month on the blog than I had written in the three years prior to starting it. And I was having fun. Finally, I was taking all of these theories that I had been learning since 1995 and not only applying them, but infusing them with my own perspectives and ideas! I was playfully experimenting with my own writerly voice and working to connect various parts of my life with my academic work. My passion for researching and writing was back!

Intervention Four

Months after my mom died, in 2009, I began writing about grief and loss on my blog. The blog gave me a space for processing my grief and for thinking through how my experiences of being in a sustained period of not-quite-grieving as my mom was unable or refused to die fit or failed to fit with Judith Butler’s theories on the value of grief. When I came across a call for papers on grief, bereavement and motherhood in an academic journal, I decided to submit a critical/creative essay for it about my own experiences with being a mother who recently lost her mother. I used my blog to document and share the process of reflecting and writing on grief and motherhood. My finished essay, Living and Grieving Beside Judith, which was published in the Journal for the Motherhood Initiative allowed me, through the process of writing it, to understand and live with my grief.

I vividly remember how powerful and profound the process of writing that article was. On one day in particular, I recall sitting at the table in my backyard and writing about Judith Butler’s chapter, “Beside Oneself” in relation to a memory of how my sisters and I sat and comforted my mom on her bed the night before her surgery. After writing out this memory, I realized that that moment on the bed had haunted me for some time. I had always remembered (whether it was true or not, I’m not sure) sitting off to the side as my sisters lay next to her. My not sitting beside her symbolized my failure to be there for my mom when she needed me most. In writing myself back onto that bed, next to her, I was forgiving myself.

And, here’s part of my conclusion:
“Living and Grieving Beside Judith,” along with my other academic interventions are, without a doubt, the most important projects related to my academic research that I have completed since starting graduate school. Some days I cannot even remember the title of my dissertation, but I will always remember what I learned and what I was able to communicate through my digital videos about my family’s farm (which has since been sold). I will always reflect gratefully on how I used the final chapter of my dissertation to cope with the uncertainty, fear and sheer devastation that I felt as my mom suddenly became someone with stage 4 cancer. I will always read through my blog with delight, remembering the various theories I’ve encountered over the years and how they connected to my life at the moment in which they were written. And, I will forever cherish the experience, on a hot summer day, of working on my journal article and being able to imagine, through writing, a way to forgive myself for what I believed I should have but didn’t do for my mom as she was dying.

Disciplinary Expertise?

According to Harold Gardner in The Disciplined Mind, written in 1999:

In contrast to the naive student or the information-crammed but still ignorant adult, an expert is a person who really does think differently about his or her speciality. The expert has successfully achieved the desire set of engravings. Expertise generally arises as a result of several years of sustained work within a domain, discipline or craft, often courtesy of a traditional apprenticeship. Part of that training involves the elimination of habits and concepts that, however attractive to the native person, are actually inimical to the skilled practice of a discipline or craft. And the remaining part of that training involves the construction of habits and concepts that reflect the best contemporary thinking and practices of the domain (123).

In an updated version of his theories on discipline, truth, beauty and goodness, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, published in 2012, he writes:

In the search for truth, our greatest allies are the scholarly disciplines and the professional crafts—in short, areas of expertise that have developed and deepened over the centuries. Each discipline each craft explores a different sphere of reality and each attempts to establish truths—the truths of knowledge, the truths of practice (23).

I haven’t been able to read through Gardner’s work that carefully yet, but in starting to ponder the value of disciplines and being disciplined, I’m troubled. While I appreciate the need for sustained attention to a topic and for cultivating a certain set of skills, I’m less convinced that this sort of education is best achieved by mastering an academic discipline or by working solely within academic disciplinary frameworks. Additionally, I’m skeptical of the appeal to a set of “experts” as the masters of a particular set of truths, especially when who can claim or be counted as an expert is so limited (and is so frequently biased against certain forms of knowledge).


Aaron Swartz
As I reflect on these ideas about disciplines and being disciplined today, on January 13, 2013, Gardner’s books aren’t the only things I’m thinking about. This morning, I also read Aaron Swartz’s speech, How to Get a Job Like Mine. Tweets about his tragic suicide on Friday have taken over my twitter feed. In the midst of tweets honoring his contributions and tweets raging against what (and who) caused his death, I found a link to a 2007 talk that he gave at a computer conference. I want to put this talk and his advice, as a mentor, but not an expert, on how to have a energizing, yet stressful job like his, beside Gardner’s theories. Here’s his pithy advice:

  1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
  2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
  3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

I want to think some more about Swartz’s advice, and his activist efforts to challenge JSTOR so as to ensure that more people had access to information and ideas produced within the academy. When Gardner argues for the need to master a discipline and learn from experts, who has access to that knowledge (and who doesn’t)?

Digital Media Learning: Everyone
Also today, I watched a Digital Media Learning Connected Learning Video:

opening / ‘the march of the formal educational curriculum is at a very different pace from how kids interests develop.’
closing / ‘a sense of fulfillment, belonging and purpose are possibly more important than the knowledge being cultivated.‘

Chrome: Expanding Access and Who Counts as an Expert
And, while I was watching the very exciting Atlanta Falcons vs. Seattle Seahawks football game, I saw this commercial for Chrome:

Where do experts come from?
What sort of knowledge do they offer?
How does the internet complicate how and where we learn and/or gain expertise?

As I work through my own troubled reactions to the need for discipline (which include my questioning of my continued embracing of being undisciplined and whether or not you need to first be disciplined in order to be undisciplined), I want to put all of these ideas beside each other.

On Chewy Writing

Yesterday, I wrote about my pithy writing as a graduate student. Today, I’m discussing my shift from pithiness to chewiness.

But, slowly and gradually, as I studied more critical theories that challenged claims for clarity, common sense and singular narratives/reading and as I became more immersed in feminist challenges to theorizing in the academy as a Ph.D student at Emory University, my writing style began to shift. Or, at least my understanding of it did. My purpose in writing was no longer simply to clearly explain (or report/summarize) an author’s ideas, raise a few critical questions to those ideas and then tentatively provide my own proposals for future work. Instead, it was about crafting sentences that packed a punch, that pushed the reader to think and question and that required me (as the writer) to devote a lot of attention to processing and reflecting on the ideas and theories that I was writing about. My writing, although still direct and efficient, was becoming increasingly dense and packed with ideas, questions and provocations. It wasn’t just pithy, it was chewy too.


In 2001, I presented at the National Women’s Studies Conference in Minneapolis. Before attending the conference, my dad agreed to read it. My dad was always awesomely supportive of my academic work. Other than my committee, he might the only person that read my dissertation. When he returned it to me, he added the following post-it note: Winner of the 2001 Chewy Bagel Award


I loved that he posted that on my presentation! I can’t remember exactly what he said as an explanation for his award, but his idea that my work was “chewy” stuck with me. After earning my Ph.D and starting to teach and research at the University of Minnesota in 2006, I embraced my chewiness. I often told my students the story about my dad and talked about the importance of writing chewy papers. And, when we encountered a particularly challenging text (like one by Judith Butler or Jasbir Puar), I often opened our class discussion with, “Wow, that was a chewy bagel!”

Chewy writing is dense and requires that both the writer and the reader devote substantial time to thinking through the ideas, theories or experiences that are being written about.Unlike some pithy writing, which is aimed at getting to the point quickly and efficiently so that the reader can easily digest the ideas, chewy writing is aimed at encouraging (or forcing) the reader to stop and engage in slow and careful rumination (chewing) on ideas, words, and claims. Here is what Butler says in “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” about the need for chewiness and how it enables us to patiently and persistently think and reflect:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

A dense, chewy bagel cannot easily be consumed. It requires effort to be eaten. A chewy bagel text is the same way. It is not meant to be easily understood or digested. It demands that we devote some serious time and effort to engaging and processing the ideas that it presents.

For now, I’m a little stumped on how to connect this chewy conversation back to my continued love of pith. And I want to incorporate a discussion of the limits of dense, chewy writing (too time consuming, can turn us into annoying and exhausting over-thinkers, inaccessible) with J Butler’s discussions of difficult writing. I just posted notes from one of my class discussions about it on Undisciplined. I also am debating whether or not to bring in a discussion of the negative connotations of being “pithy”—too easily consumed, flattens complexity, is a buzzword for Bill O’Reilly and in the title of his upcoming book (ugh). 

UPDATE (January 11, 2013): Last night my sister texted me to let me know that it was not my dad who created the post-it note and put it on my presentation; it was my brother-in-law. After exchanging a few texts, we determined that my dad had declared the presentation “a chewy bagel,” and then, as a goof, my brother-in-law created the post-it note. I really appreciate that my sister regularly reads this blog and alerted me to my memory fail. Part of the reason that I’m doing my “giving an account” project is so other people who read my accounts can challenge, correct or contribute to my memories of past experiences and events. While the exact details (facts/Truth) of stories/memories aren’t as important to me as what they’ve come to mean, I still appreciate having a more accurate account of what really happened. It can help me to rethink my understanding of an event or to clarify my perspective.

For example, my sister’s correction is enabling me to reflect some more on my thoughts on being a chewy writer and receiving the chewy bagel award. I can’t remember what I was exactly feeling when my dad told me my presentation was a “chewy bagel.” I probably was a little annoyed. Was that all he said about it? It seems that calling it a chewy bagel could have been a way to dismiss discussing it. I might have also been a little frustrated and filled with resignation. Describing my work as chewy might have been his subtle way of admitting he didn’t understand it and so he was unable to engage with it. I was used to that.

Over the years, many people have been unable to understand my perspective and how I articulate it in my writing. Why? For a long time, I struggled with believing that it was all my fault. I just need to explain it better, I thought. But, as I discuss in my post on pithiness, being clear and direct has never been a problem for me. My teachers consistently praised me for my clarity, economy of words, and ability to zero in on the most important points of an argument. Now, I still accept responsibility when others don’t understand me, but I also recognize that their failure to understand could also be a resistance to my work and ideas. Maybe they don’t want to try to understand it because of the trouble it might cause to their ideas/ways of being or because the perspective that I have is so radically different from theirs? Maybe they don’t have time to understand what I’m writing because it’s too dense and demands that they stop and think (ruminate) for longer than they’d like?

But, since my memory seems to fail me so much, I can’t remember what my reaction to my dad was or the various reasons why he labeled my presentation “a chewy bagel.” I do believe that his feedback was intended to be useful and not dismissive. On a certain level, it doesn’t matter. I like writing chewy bagels. And I like embracing labels (like chewy) that others might interpret as negative or dismissive. My blog is about making trouble and my online identity is Undisciplined, after all.

On Pithiness

In the margins of a blue book exam on social theory and ethics, one of four qualifying exams I completed way back in 1998 for my masters in theological studies, my professor remarked favorably on my pithiness. I must admit, I had to look that word up. It was the first time I recall encountering it. When I found the definition, probably located in my trusty, beat-up Webster’s dictionary that I had used a lot in college, I was pleased.


Terse and concise? Yep, that’s how I write.

Up to that point, I had seen my economy of words and my ability to densely pack my prose with the key ideas as a liability; it often made it incredibly difficult to meet the minimum page requirements for final papers in my graduate classes. Other grad students bemoaned the maximum page requirement by complaining, “how am I supposed to fit my endless number of brilliant ideas into a mere 25 pages?!” But I feared the dreaded page minimum as I wondered, “how will I possibly manage to fill up 15 pages?!” (note: my doctoral dissertation was only about 165 pages).

My papers were successful and given positive feedback from professors, but I kept feeling as if I was failing as a grad student and an academic in training. How could everyone else write so much and me so little?

As I read these lines, my cynicism begins to surface: Perhaps my pithiness was a sign of failing as an academic? Brief and concise  (and clear) writing is often misread in the academy as a lack of intellectual rigor, where a longer paper = deeper thinking. Is there room to be a different sort of academic or intellectual?

So, when I read my professor’s positive description of my work as pithy, I was relieved. Being concise and brief was not necessarily a bad thing! This might seem like an obvious point, but if you’ve read much academic writing you know that brevity is unusual. 

Logical. Efficient. Precise.

As an academic-in-training, my writing style was very logical and highly analytical, perhaps boringly so. I remember a favorite professor at my college (Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN) frequently praised my analytical ability.


[Sara — Excellent work. I repeat, you take to this sort of analysis with such apparent ease that the work seems natural for you. Your writing is simple, succinct, properly unornamented and to the point.]

I also recall him remarking on one occasion, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when I read your writing, I don’t feel like I’m reading a paper written by a woman.” Am I remembering that right? And what does it exactly mean? I’m not quite sure. What I do remember was that, in spite of his blind spots, he was a great teacher who introduced me to a lot of wonderful scholarship on religion, Cornel West and how to be a public intellectual. 

When I wrote a paper, I spent a lot of time figuring out the logic of my argument. I didn’t just write; I mapped out ideas and created endless index cards with my three (always three!) main points. I ruthlessly cut out extraneous information that did not fit with my thesis and goals for my paper. Logical. Efficient. Precise. Pithy.

My love of pith (and the magic number 3), which was cultivated as an undergrad in philosophy and religion courses, was furthered fostered in the many masters’ classes that I took with Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. Borrowing from one of his professors at Harvard University, he required that we write our papers (2 twenty pagers + 1 twenty-five page final) using a three (!) part structure: 1. appreciation, 2. critique and 3. construction.


Of course, with my love of clear, logical writing and things-in-threes, I eagerly embraced his method. I continued to apply it to my writing for years, and when I started teaching, I used it for developing my courses. The logical progression from understanding to critiquing to applying seemed to work well as a model for learning over the course of a semester.

But, even as I continued to be pithy, I was being introduced to theories that challenged and questioned the value of clear and concise writing. In the first class that I took with GK Baker-Fletcher in the fall of 1996, Critical Theory and Deconstruction, I read Jacques Derrida for the first time. A semester later, in my Contemporary Feminist Theory course, I read Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler.

I became intrigued with writing styles that challenged readers and playfully unsettled ideas and theories. I wrote papers on disrupting readers, challenging common sense and safeguarding critical thinking. I argued that difficult writers were not merely aiming to piss off their readers. Instead, they were attempting to involve readers in the process of reading and interpreting. And, because their work was focused on making visible and disrupting the limits of language, they were attempting to demonstrate those limits through their own writing practices.

mybookDerridaI have to admit, though, I’m fairly convinced that pissing off the reader was an added benefit for the author. Just take a glance at Derrida’s smug look on the cover of this book that I read in the fall of 1996. He seems to be saying, “Ha! Ha! You will never understand what I write!” When discussing difficult writing styles in my queering theory, I would frequently reference this image. I don’t read Derrida’s pose/gaze as entirely or exclusively arrogant. It’s also seems playful in its excessive performance of the all-knowing professor/intellectual. 

There seemed to be a contradiction between my own pithy style and the confusing and disruptive style of Irigaray, who quoted key Western thinkers like Freud or Descartes and playfully inserted her own critical interjections directly into the quotations, and Butler, who peppered her prose with tons of questions and wrote epic, page-long paragraphs, loaded with complexity and implicit references to countless philosophers/thinkers. Even as I loved writing about these thinkers (especially Butler and Irigaray), I didn’t love writing like them. My style remained pithy and clear.

In my next installment (which is part of my intellectual history project over at Undisciplined), I will reflect on/process the shift in my writing from pithy to chewy. I think this shift is partly the result of the increasing influence of Butler and her difficult writing style.