oh bother, part 3

-1While skimming through a magazine this morning, I found this *wonderful* image. Quick, when you look at it, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? And how does it fit with the text? What exactly are they trying to sell here? Oh bother! Since I haven’t done one of these “oh bother!” entries for a couple of weeks, check here for a reminder on how they work.

Feminist Pedagogy and Blogging, Part 1

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I am in the process of prepping for the two courses that I will be teaching this fall at the U of M: Feminist Pedagogies and Queering Theory. In both classes, I plan to use blogs. In addition to making blog writing part of the students’ assignments, I also want to devote (at least) one or two class sessions to reading and discussing blogs as tools for critical thinking, community building and activism. In preparation for these class sessions, I will devote some entries in this blog to reflecting on sources that I might use.

Part of The Scholar and Feminist Online (S&F) out of Barnard College (a very cool resource for feminist scholarship, edited by one of my favorite queer/feminist ethicists Janet Jakobsen), this special issue from spring 2007 is dedicated to feminist blogs. While all of the articles are great, I think Shira Tarrant’s The Little FemBlog that Wasn’t is especially helpful for thinking about how to use blogs in a feminist classroom.

Here are some insights that I have gleaned from Tarrant’s “The Little FemBlog that Wasn’t” (many of which resonate with my own experiences in the classroom):

In order to get students to use the blog, you must make it worth their while. You must build blog assignments into your course syllabus and make the entries worth points. According to Tarrant, while students might be excited about the prospect of sharing their thoughts with each other on the blog, when the pressure of other course work + readings hits, blog writing-that-is-voluntary is the first thing to go. Students will more often than not prioritize work that is graded and/or that affects their final grade.

I agree. Just compare two of my blogs, here and here. Can you guess which one had blog assignments built into the syllabus? One additional note: Making blog entries as an option for earning points (but not making it the required way in which to earn those points) doesn’t work that well either. When given the choice, students–even the ones who excitedly proclaim on the first day that they LOVE blogs, especially feminist ones!–will pick the other (non-blog) option.

Blog posts can be done at any time of the day or night. This advantage enables students to process/express/share their thoughts about an issue or the reading immediately, and at 2 AM if they want, instead of having to wait until a more reasonable time (like during class or office hours). Tarrant writes:

As I see it, this is a true advantage of blogging with students: The hours after midnight are often ripe for deep thoughts but awful for calling professors or classmates to talk them over. How else but by blogging can students continue a classroom debate about compelling issues when the ideas feel so fresh and urgent and yet it is so late at night?

I do see a downside to this, however. The immediacy of the blog also enables students to post (potentially) heated entries that are highly charged with anger, confusion, or frustration and are written before students have processed (and thought through) the ideas that they are writing about. While emotion and passion can be good things for your writing, if they are expressed without any amount of reflection, they can produce entries that lack substance, are irresponsible, and don’t contribute to a critical engagement with the idea or reading. (And, as I suggest in an earlier entry on blog writing, they end up serving as brain dumps.) The trick, I think, is to find a way to balance the benefits of immediate access (to expressing ideas, to connecting with others) with the necessity of posting thoughtful, responsible and accountable entries.

Hmmm….As I was writing this last little bit, I started to wonder: What role should emotion have in blog entries? How much processing should be requried when writing a blog entry? Could somebody’s rant be turned into a teaching moment? If so, how?

Blog entries are risky and can generate a lot of anxiety for students. This bit of insight is especially important for me to remember. Because I see so much value in blogging and because I have a higher level of confidence and authority as the professor, it is easy to forget that putting your ideas out there for others to read can be very intimidating and uncomfortable. As Tarrant argues, blog writing is not safe. It demands that you leave your comfort zone and engage in risky behavior: You risk being wrong. You risk saying something thoughtless or offensive. You put yourself at risk by exposing your lack of knowledge and your uncertainty. Here is what Tarrant writes about it:

That said, the greater the risk, the greater the possibility for new ideas. The best new thoughts never come by playing it safe. Blogging means that students will weigh in freely and creatively, which is perhaps riskier than processing information through the safety and privacy of more traditional forms of academic research (which, for the record, I also use quite rigorously). Academic research may be more deliberately thought-out, but it leaves less room for the impulsiveness, spontaneity, and immediacy that the Internet offers.

Again, I agree. But I am still left with a troubling question: How do you simultaneously encourage creativity/more freedom to express yourself and thoughtful, serious, critical attention to ideas, readings, others’ entries? I think this is possible, but it does require some thinking–in terms of course/assignment planning–about how to create and maintain a balance between creativity and structure.

Here are two other issues that blogging and the idea of risk (in terms of the problems it creates and the possibilities it generates) raises for me in the classroom:

  • Because blogs are supposed to be creative and less structured, they can be very risky for students who want all of the answers and who strongly desire structure. In one of my classes this past year, several students grumbled about the lack of structure/guidance in the blog assignment. Just what do you want us to say? Translation: Please give me the exact formula for how to get all of the points for this assignment. Or, please tell me exactly how to write this entry so I don’t look stupid. As I have tried to tell these students, too much structure can stifle creativity. I want my students to think for themselves. And I want to extend them the freedom to work out how to translate that thinking into an effective (interesting, engaging, productive) blog entry. (But, maybe I should be clearer about all of this.  I could write a little blurb about the lack of structure and include it in the syllabus/blog assignment handout).
  • The lack of structure and the desire to have students express themselves in creative ways, can be a little troubling for me as I work out how to evaluate students’ posts. Like Tarrant advised, students need blog entries to be graded or to be worth points. But what is the best way to evaluate blog entries, especially ones that include bits of personal experience? One popular understanding of the blog (as a medium) is that it is an online diary/journal. If there is some truth to this idea, grading students’ personal reflections is tricky. I try to emphasize the importance of demonstrating a *serious* engagement with the text and the necessity of using specific examples and/or evidence from the text to support your entry.

Blogs work better in the classroom when we (teachers and students) read and think more about what kind of teaching/learning practice blogging is (and/or could be). At the end of her essay, Tarrant discusses the value of blogs in feminist classroom for “open[ing] possibilities for a democratic learning process” and “help[ing]to achieve feminist goals in the virtual world.” She argues that we need to discuss how feminist pedagogy and internet technology can work together. And we need to think about how engaging with blogs (through writing entries and reading/posting comments on others’ entries and blogs) could help to encourage feminist critical practices, develop a feminst classroom, and foster feminist communtities.

This is an especially important point. Students and teachers need to explore (and think critically) about how and why to use blogs. Blogs aren’t just online journals that are used to record the “excruciating minutia” of our lives or our thinking about an idea or text. They aren’t just cool and trendy ways to demonstrate to students that we, as teachers, are hip and relevant. And, they aren’t just distractions (and a lot of extra effort) from the real (as in serious, academic, important) work that goes on inside/outside the classroom. I see tremendous potential in using blogs in my teaching, both in the classroom, and as a way to encourage students to think critically. To develop that potential, feminist teachers need to spend some time creating blogging strategies, theories, and assignments. And they need to share their ideas with others. That’s what I am trying to do here. That’s what Tarrant is doing in her essay. And, that’s what these authors are doing here and here.

A final thought: A couple of weeks ago I asked STA, who has written a blog since 2002 (or maybe even earlier?), to reflect on why he thinks blogs are important. Here it is:

Blogs are valuable in much the same way that the Internet as a whole is valuable — they have opened up new channels for self-expression and communication.  I suspect many of us have long harbored the inclination to write in the fashion of a blog, but there have been few outlets.  The closest I came to writing a blog, before blogs, was my weekly column in the college newspaper, and writing the blog fills the same need for me.  It’s a way to gather my thoughts — not simply to collect them, but to stimulate them to fuller realization — and to put them out there for the larger world to experience and respond to.  Personal blogs are perhaps more often likened to diaries than to newspaper columns, but in fact I think they are closer to the latter.  A diary is typically written solely for oneself, with the intention that it will not be read by anyone else, at least while we’re alive.  And although the joke is that most blogs have an “audience of one,” blogs still are public, and can be viewed by anyone, at any time.  They’re a public performance, of sorts, and force us, if we’re honest with ourselves, to critically examine our words for consistency and “truth” — whatever form that may take — because we’re opening ourselves up to criticism from others.  So, even if your blog really does have an audience of one, it’s not necessarily the same you who would be reading your secret diary entries.

Is Marcia Brady guilty of acting badly* or badly acting or both?

*Thanks to STA for pointing out this witty reversal. Originally I had titled this post, “Is Marcia Brady guilty of hubris or bad acting or both?”

293.mccormick.maureen.lc.101308Do you remember the episode of The Brady Bunch where Marcia is cast, against her will, as Juliet in her school’s production of Romeo and Juliet? She auditions for the role of the nurse but does such a “good” job that the drama teacher wants her to be Juliet. When she tells her family that she just doesn’t think that she is “the Juliet type” they hatch a scheme to convince her that she is worthy of the part. They repeatedly tell her she is pretty and smart and talented. Creepy moment alert: Greg even tells her that she is “a real groovy chick…for a sister, that is.” The plan works, but too well. Marcia becomes full of herself and begins to think that she is better than everyone else. When she argues with her parents about changing Shakespeare’s words, Mike remarks: “First the part’s a little too big for her. Now I think maybe she’s a little bit too big for the part.” Woah….Mr. Brady is deep. After she causes more trouble (yes, this is the word that is used to describe her actions)–like ridiculing her Romeo and talking back to the drama teacher–Carol decides that drastic measures must be taken. Without consulting Marcia (or even having any serious or lengthy conversation with her about why she was causing/being trouble), Carol and the drama teacher kick Marcia out of the play. Bad acting alert: Although it would be very easy to argue that Maureen McCormick’s acting is terrible throughout this episode, the piece de resistance comes at 22 minutes and 24 seconds when Carol reveals to Marcia that her name isn’t in the final program. Wow!

51KKRXXJW2L._SS500_There is much that I could write about this episode (such as: Alice revealing that she went to an all girls school and performed–in drag!–as Julius Caesar). Well, I might just have to write about that later. But, in this post, I want to think about Marcia’s behavior, the Brady family’s scheme to build up her self-esteem and the troubling consequences of that scheme. And, I want to think about of this in relation to virtue ethics, moral education and Mike’s and Carol’s continued efforts to earn “the worst parents in the history of the world” award.

Nice. So, Marcia doesn’t want to be Juliet. Instead, she is happy to be cast as the nurse. Or, is she? According to Mike and Carol, she really wants to be the star, the beautiful and noble Juliet; she just doesn’t have enough self-esteem. She can’t see herself the way others do: as a “real groovy chick.”

Mike: You look beautiful and noble to me.
Carol: The trouble is, you don’t think you are.
Mike: That’s right. It’s your belief in yourself that counts, you know. You are what you think you are.
Marcia: You mean, if I think I’m beautiful and noble than I will be beautiful and noble.
Mike: That’s right. If you believe it, everybody will believe it too!

Ah ha! The trouble is that Marcia has a low opinion of herself (of course it couldn’t be that she actually wanted the role of the nurse–a pivotal and interesting, yet less glamorous role). What she needs, according to Mike and Carol is “the power of positive thinking!” That will get rid of her troubles! But when she starts thinking positively, more–and perhaps more serious–trouble is the result. She begins not only to believe in herself but to believe that she is the best; she is noble with an elevated status that makes her better than everyone else. She demonstrates this through shameful acts of hubris (and yes,  she acts badly…and badly acts).

But, what really has caused this hubris? Here is a series of related questions that trouble me:

  • Is her hubris the result of an excessive display of pride/a deficient display of humility?
  • Or, is it the necessary (and logical) result of the Brady family’s approach to building up her self-esteem?
  • If there are some bad actions (and bad acting too!) in this episode, who is doing them? Is it really Marcia, who is following the advice of her parents to truly believe that she is noble and beautiful?
  • Or is it Mike who encourages her to be beautiful and noble but equates that with being a star and thinking (too) highly of herself and fails to give her any substantial definitions of beauty that are counter to societal standards? (Standards that are often driven by capitalism and our role as consumers. And that discourage girls from ever thinking that they are beautiful enough. After all, if you think you are beautiful, you wouldn’t ever need to buy any products right?)
  • Or Carol who promotes a decidedly superficial vision of “the power of positive thinking” that is not connected to any underlying ethic or understanding of how our positive (and negative) thinking has real just and/or unjust effects on others.

I suppose you know where I am going with this. Yes, Marcia does act badly. And yes, she does badly act. But, it is Mike and Carol who really act badly in this episode. The moral education that they offer to Marcia (and by extension, to us) is just plain bad. Marcia is encouraged to think positively about herself, but she is never given any guidance about how exactly to do that. Mike and Carol want her to build up her character, to make it (and her) more beautiful and noble. They don’t, however, give her any guidance on how to make her character virtuous. That is, they give her no strategies/skills/advice for what kinds of actions she should engage in.  And they fail to support their advice with any underlying moral vision or ethical system that could guide (or temper or foster) that positive thinking.

When Carol Brady praises Marcia’s new found belief in herself (at the beginning of Marcia’s diva period) as “the power of positive thinking,” she is referencing a very watered-down, overly simplified, faithless, pop psychology version of Norman Vincent Peale’s wildly popular self-help book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Carol’s advice seems to fit this equation: Power of Positive Thinking – ethical vision or virtue ethics = Marcia-as-major-diva.

While I was searching for an image of Marcia to use for this post, I came across an entry entitled, “The Hubris of Marcia Brady” on The Brady Bunch Blog. For a different take on Marcia, check it out.

Thank you Mr. Mailman!


Today I received two really cool books in the mail: Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler (and here is her giving a lecture based on it) and Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility by Annika Thiem. While I have been wanting to get Butler’s book for a couple of months now, I had not heard of Thiem’s book until the other day when I was looking on amazon for something else. Excellent. Yet another book that explores the ethical (and moral) implications of Butler’s work.

I must admit, I was a little disheartened after reading Thiem’s dis(mis)sing of virtue ethics in the beginning of the introduction (that’s how far I am right now). She writes:

Moral conduct cannot be reduced to what we owe others, to duties and obligations, and also not to VIRTUES, which can have equally restraining effects (1).

Oh well, I am still excited to read it and curious to find out how she links Butler’s ethical, political, and moral vision with critique and responsibility.

Oh, and as an aside: My wonderful neighborhood mailman retired today after 30 years. He really did give me a great parting gift!

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