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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Ordinarily, I have a “don’t read the comments” policy. People are, generally speaking, impressively hateful and cruel online because the relative anonymity means that there are few repercussions—I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of this.

But with the controversy around Chaz Bono being cast in Dancing with the Stars, I’m finding myself unable to help looking at the comments—much like one can’t look away from a horrific car crash. And, even if I had not been reading the comments, when there’s this much controversy the same sort of extreme viewpoints tend to end up in the articles themselves as “telling both sides of the story.”

Predictably, it’s awful up one side and down the other. People are going around refusing to respect Bono’s self-definition and using his birth name “Chastity” and the pronoun “her” and insisting that “His/Her chromosomes haven’t changes [sic] since birth and never will” (which, as my Fausto-Sterling-savvy Gender in the Media students can now tell you, doesn’t actually mean as much as people think). And, of course, they’re hysterically screeching about the Bible. The thread at the ABC blog has all of these strategies in play.

And in relation to those people I take Bono’s side. I think it’s ludicrous to argue that casting him somehow makes DWTS not safe for children because it’ll make them turn out trans or gay or serial killers or whatever it is they’re arguing. I absolutely think they’re wrong to treat being trans as some sort of mental illness—comparing it to being an elective amputee, really?

I have to fight my knee-jerk response to think that these are bad people—or, as Chaz’s mother Cher put it, “stupid bigots”—and instead think of them as just lacking knowledge. But I still feel superior to them and their bible-thumping, same-sex-sexuality-hating ways. (That’s not me collapsing gender identity and sexual object choice; they’re the ones saying “it is CLEARLY stated in the Bible,,, [sic] men are not to lay down with other men, same for women.”)

But beyond that moment of support, things get tricky. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that being inclined toward certain behavior or having certain feelings means your body needs to look a certain way. I think that ultimately this rigid correlation between body and behavior is something we have to resist rather than try to shape our bodies to fit into.

But of course, that behavior = body sentiment is exactly what we all hear all the time, though usually as body = behavior. “You’re a girl (body) so you should act like it (behavior).” The idea that your body is your destiny is so completely ingrained in us that we can’t think anything else. My students argued this about athletics even after reading and hearing that bodies are socially constructed.

So the arguments that Bono is going to destroy gender, or whatever, are totally off base. Transitioning, when done as a complete “I really am this other category on the inside and I need to fully move into that category” process, is actually very much about obeying and supporting gender rules. Changing the shape of one’s body requires a pretty serious commitment to playing along.

This isn’t to paint transfolk as dupes, by any means. The ways in which bodies get shaped in these processes are the product of medical institutions deciding what counted as transitioning. This matters because being able to count as transitioned is what makes you able to be able to change your state identity documents. In order to work in a mainstream, above-board kind of job, one has to have those documents, and unless you happen to have a particularly progressive employer they have to match the way you look when you walk in the door (and with the USA PATRIOT Act’s insistence that terrorists might have fake documents that don’t “match” their gender it may not matter what your boss thinks). I get that this is all very real and at times a matter of survival.

I also get that it can be a site of resistance, since transpeople routinely bend or break the rules. When the law says that in order to transition one has to have to have surgery to reassign their sex, that statute is intended to refer to genital surgery that will more or less render them both sterile and unable to experience sexual pleasure. But with a sympathetic doctor, someone can get a letter certifying that surgery to change sex has occurred without saying exactly what—that it was top surgery and not bottom surgery, say. There are ways to work the system, and people do.

Experiencing a high degree of mismatch between oneself and the social norm is a bad situation, and people like Chaz Bono are making the best of it.

But here again, like with 9/11 or with gay marriage, I see it on two levels simultaneously, and considering individual people as opposed to large-scale structures produces a dramatically different response. I almost wish I had less appreciation for subtlety and could be more dogmatic. It’d be easier.

That is, though I completely appreciate why people find it necessary to comply with the medico-legal framework to get access to the resources they need, I ultimately don’t think it’s a good idea to go appealing to the state for validation for one’s body image any more than for one’s sex life.

We all have a set of really narrow options of what bodies are supposed to look like and what it’s appropriate to do with them, options that don’t conform to the configurations people actually come in (however it is that you think we come to have a gender and a sexuality and a body that’s a particular shape).

And we all have to work and struggle and cram ourselves into boxes—some more than others, of course—to find a place that’s comfortable within that. Chaz Bono got a bad deal out of the boxes of the gender system. Or, we all get a bad deal out of the gender system, but Bono and other transfolk more than most.

These are real pressures with real consequences, but I simply cannot feel that the solution is to accept the boxes.

We have to expose the boxes as artificial, as constraining, as sometimes deadly. We have to work to dismantle the ways that the boxes hold the power they do over who gets jobs and how people get medical care and all kinds of other services and resources and opportunities.

We have to work toward some different way to configure people, such that you can feel however you want on the inside and look however you want on the outside, with no demand that those fall into a set of patterns, much less a rigid equation.

But, in the meantime, Bono’s decision to get his body surgically altered to move him into a different category than the one into which he was born doesn’t make him crazy, no matter what the fever pitch of think-of-the-children might say. Instead, the system is crazy. And even though I wouldn’t choose the same way of coping with it, trying to make it work for you is a perfectly sane thing.

I wasn’t going to blog the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but then it came and the news coverage was sort of unavoidable, so I got to thinking about it. I thought it’d be pretty easy to make sense of, but it turns out I have a lot of mixed feelings.

In 2001, 9/11 was pretty abstract. I woke up that morning to my roommate watching it on his computer. His mom had either already called him and freaked out and encouraged him to stay away from target-like buildings or she was about to. I don’t think I talked to my mom at all that day, which should not be taken as an indictment of either of our care for each other.

And then, like any other Tuesday that semester, I went to work. The only thing different was that my boss grumbled about our corporate overlords being soulless (which was usual enough) because they didn’t close the store (that part was different). Then I went to class, and I think maybe my professor said something before lecturing on some facet of 20th century American literature, but maybe she didn’t.

All of this is to say that 9/11, the first time around, didn’t impact me personally all that much. I was on the West Coast, far from the site of the attacks, and I didn’t even know anybody on the East Coast. Maybe I’m giving the 18-year-old me too much credit, but I don’t remember being scared and I feel like my first thought was “Oh God, what is that cowboy in the White House going to be able to justify doing?” That part is fairly likely a false memory, but the rest I think is right.

Maybe I’ve gotten soft in my old age, but with the 10th anniversary coverage I teared up a little. I was thinking about the human toll, about people who went to work or got on a plane one day and just. never. came. home. I was pondering what it must have been like to flee that horror, for those who were able to. I shied away from considering what it was like for those who couldn’t escape. Children lost parents that day. Parents lost children. When I think of it that way, it’s real and it’s weighty.

Reading the news stories about each of those lives that either ended or was dramatically changed that day leaves me with a feeling of sadness I wasn’t anticipating in revisiting this event.

Then there were those people who ran against the tide of fleeing people to help, some of whom died trying. There were people, I’ll swear, giving away water to survivors and rescue personnel out of their stores, though the Internet has no record of it now. There were forty people aboard Flight 93 who knew they were probably going to die either way, who fought back against the hijackers on their plane and kept it from being crashed into another building. People all across the country donated blood.

And there’s something incredibly moving about that. That moment, that response of standing together and giving to one another and caring for one another was one of the few times in my adult life so far that I have been really proud to be an American.

When I think about the individual people like this, I feel like my general response to September 11th is in or near the mainstream. I get the grief and the memorials and the ceremonial quality of it all on that level.

The trouble is, I can’t see only on that level for very long.

I start to think about the fact that we don’t have the same response to the 3,000 people who die every day from car accidents. Aren’t they as “innocent”? What about the 3,000 Nigerians dying daily of hunger? Or the 3,000 African children dying each day of Malaria? And those are just the daily deaths that ballpark the number in the World Trade Center attacks—there are lots of other things that kill fewer people, or more. I think we need to look a lot harder at whose lives we do or don’t grieve.

I also can’t help thinking about the fact that U.S. neoimperial policy had everything to do with 9/11. The U.S. has, as a matter of foreign policy, gone around stomping all over other countries ever since it became a superpower. Ward Churchill‘s characterization of 9/11 as exemplifying Malcolm X’s statement about “chickens coming home to roost” is relatively accurate in that sense.

Here is where things get tricky: the U.S. had it coming, but the U.S. is amorphous and indeterminate and ultimately comprised of individual people. And those individual people did not have it coming.

That is, I don’t agree with Churchill’s assertion that the 9/11 dead were “little Eichmanns.” In fact, for someone who has such a good grasp of the extenuating effects of U.S. intervention in Iraq and the role of those effects in causing September 11th, he seems to not understand systems all that well.

There’s a difference between:

a) bombing the bejeezus out of Iraq to try to damage Sadaam Hussein’s rule and resources with (admittedly wanton) disregard for the way this will entail suffering for people who didn’t necessarily even support him and

b) genocide, which is a deliberate and systematic effort to kill a group of people just for being members of that group. Genocide requires intent.

This is a difference Churchill’s polemic doesn’t recognize, and it should. There is much the same difference between:

a) the fact that yes, the people who died in the 9/11 attacks benefited from and supported the U.S. neoimperialist activity even, in the vast majority of cases, without meaning to, and

b) the fact that they themselves didn’t actively engage in imperialist activity. They didn’t kill any Iraqi children.

There is, of course, no such thing as complete innocence, but there are matters of degree, and most of those people were on the mid- to high-innocence side.

And that’s where I end up, vacillating between the big picture of U.S. imperialist crime and callous disregard for human life and the individuals who had no idea why they died, had no chance to try to rectify the situation for which they were (unfairly) held responsible. And then I don’t know what to think about 9/11.

Apparently, I’m turning into an education blogger. If it’s not your cup of tea, bear with me. I’m sure something else will catch my attention soon.

When I read the headline “Public high school grads struggle at college,” I was concerned. It’s always possible—and indeed likely—that there could be a public school vs. private school divide in terms of quality, because private schools have so many more resources and so do the students who attend them.

But as I read the article, it turned out that it discussed the ways public high school graduates struggle in college only to the extent that the Tribune was reporting on its own analysis of “data available to Illinois citizens,” produced in accordance with a mandate from the state legislature, that measured college vs. high school grades.

Less interested already, I nevertheless pressed on through the article. And, lo and behold, what did they discover? Student grades go down in college: “The average freshman GPA was 2.52 across all state universities and community colleges, roughly C+ work, based on the state’s tracking of more than 90,000 public high school students who graduated between 2006 and 2008. In high school, those same kids exceeded a B average — 3.08.”

The article suggested that this “for the first time raises fundamental questions about how well the state’s public high schools are preparing their students for college.”

They even tried to find an explanation: “College and K-12 officials blame the performance declines on myriad factors, from inadequate high school preparation to high school grade inflation, newfound independence and increased partying away from home.”

They argued that “there is a real lack of alignment (between high school and college)” and “kids aren’t necessarily ready for freshman-level classes.”


Let me get this straight. Getting B and C grades in college means that high schools aren’t doing their job? I don’t dispute that probably many high schools aren’t doing a great job, but is this really the measure of a problem? Or alternately, B’s and C’s result from independence and partying and high school grade inflation?

All of that is ridiculous. Of course there’s a “lack of alignment between high school and college.” College is harder. Your grades should go down. Or, if they don’t, you should have to work a lot harder to keep them at the same level as previously.

Farther down in the article, there was a comment from “Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education,” who “said that a C+ average as a freshman ‘is not a horrible thing,’ pointing out that college-level work is more complicated than high school courses, and college instructors have a tougher grading system.”

And I was like, “Great, a voice of reason!” But then, he went on to say that “as students adjust to college, they can improve their GPAs.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

Okay, I get that with the job market being as tight as it is, the GPAs that college grads have earned are coming to matter to employers increasingly much. So, students want to do as well as possible. I understand this. But I have to ask: What the hell happened to C as average?

And here I thought it was just my students—unfortunately many of whom fit the “overprivileged kid from the Chicago-suburbs” stereotype—who thought they should all get A’s just for trying.

And, interestingly, my campus is, in fact, singled out: “Among the four-year state universities, only at the state’s flagship campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did these freshmen average at least a B, with a 3.14 GPA for freshmen coming out of Illinois public high schools. Those U. of I. students had an average high school GPA of 3.7.”

This is not so shocking, when you consider that the flagship is going to have the highest admissions standards.Those students are already exceptionally good at school, so they cope better when school gets harder.

Though, of course, this better result could also be because the kids who are in a position to get in to this institution are more likely to be pushy about their grades (the Overprivileged Kid Theory). Or, it could be that there’s grade inflation at UIUC because we all (me included) assume that we’re teaching high-quality students, whether that’s true or not (the Flagship Fallacy).

But here’s the thing that worries me the most about this whole conversation about grades. A provost at Northern Illinois University, one of the state schools, said “It costs a lot to go to college now, and people want to know …’What am I getting for my dollar?'”

I’ll tell you what you sure as hell don’t “get for your dollar”: you don’t get to buy your grades. Maybe at for-profit institutions, but honest-to-deity colleges are not fee-for-service places. What you get for your dollar isn’t your GPA but the content in the classes, the stretching of your brain to think critically that will serve you for the rest of your life.

The idea that we somehow owe students a certain grade for their (parent’s or lender’s) dollar is worse even than the professionalization of undergraduate degrees that I complained about a couple of weeks ago.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some actual causes for concern in the article. The Tribune points out that “BolingbrookHigh School graduates had an average 2.44 at theUniversity of Illinois, while those from Glenbrook South High School earned a 3.43 — even though college-bound students from both schools had similar average high school GPAs.” That’s worth commenting on, because it points to disparities in the preparation at those two institutions.

Similarly, when the chancellor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale says that “more and more students seem to be less prepared for college; particularly math and English skills are not where we would like them to be when they come to college,” then we can get worried. It’s if they come in and can’t do the work, rather than if they come in and find it harder than they did before, that determines “struggling” in college, not what grades they get but “Can they hack it?”

Not some misguided sense that one’s GPA should stay the same even as the difficulty increases.