“Use Your Voice” by H2O

H2O Use Your VoiceIf you enjoy H2O’s Nothing to Prove (2008) as much as I do, then Use Your Voice (2015) will be a solid companion album worthy of adding to your music collection.  It has plenty of catchy guitar riffs and intense, rapid fire drumming across the eleven tracks for those of us who dig melodic hardcore.  To me, Toby Morse has the right voice because he can both scream and sing.  As for the lyrical content on this release, well, the topics are familiar: individuality, skateboarding, the importance of family, and maintaining your convictions in the face of adversity.  There’s even a song addressing the racial unrest we’ve seen over the last year and a half.  Now, you’re not going to find sophisticated political commentary on this effort (for that, check out labelmates Strike Anywhere), but you will find an infectious brand of optimism and a rarely matched level of authenticity.  Choruses like “Through thick and thin; with you until the end.  I’ll always find the best in people.  Everyone is my equal…” will brighten your morning commute to work.  Yes, the track “Thick and Thin” makes you to think about how you treat the people in your life and how all of us should aspire to be more compassionate toward others.  The hardcore scene needs this.  Confession: For whatever reason, H2O didn’t interest me in the 1990s.  That said, I’m making up for lost time.

Your claim needs factual support

MLK on the phoneConspiracy theories.  Where do they come from?  The C.I.A. killed President John F. Kennedy.  The Apollo 11 astronauts never landed on the moon.  A scientist created AIDS in a laboratory so it could be used as a biological weapon.  The federal government blew up the levies in New Orleans.  Last spring, a student expressed concern in class about Jade Helm, the U.S. military training exercise that irked many people here in Texas because they feared the Obama Administration would suspend their civil liberties as part of a power grab.  Once I checked some credible news sources, I reassured everyone that they didn’t have anything to worry about.  I don’t think this satisfied the individual who raised the issue in the first place, but I know that I handled the situation in a professional manner.

After thinking about the challenge that conspiracy theories present when mentioned in the classroom, I’ve decided that they’re a great opportunity for me to explain how academics conduct research and the need for all people to develop their information literacy skills to uplift the public discourse.  Here I explain to students that we can only make claims after analyzing the factual evidence available to us.  For example, in history we can only offer interpretations of primary source materials that exist and we cannot offer interpretations if such materials do not exist.  In political science we often test hypotheses by using rigorous quantitative methods to generate data.  Next, we analyze the data compiled.  No support for our hypotheses means that there isn’t an association between two or more variables being studied.  Furthermore, our research needs to be critiqued by others in the discipline when we submit it for publication to guarantee that the work is sound.  This process is sometimes frustrating, but it is necessary.  Beyond formal academic research, I also talk to my students about the credibility and intentions of the sources that produce the content they’re reading, listening to, and/or watching.  Technology has democratized access to information, but this diffusion of power has created a new responsibility: thinking about who produces the content we consume and why.

In addition to teaching students about the importance of making claims supported by evidence, I share a concrete historical example where law enforcement officials intentionally violated people’s rights in an attempt to undercut popular social movements that challenged unjust conditions: the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter Intelligence Program (often referred to as COINTELPRO).  As a case study, this controversial government program is edifying for multiple reasons.  First, we need to examine how power has been misused in our democratic republic to target even the most non-violent of reformers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (click here for a New York Times article and here for an NPR podcast).   Secondly, the documents have been declassified and anyone may access them through the FBI’s website.  Unlike the wild conspiracy theories listed above, actual primary source materials, i.e. solid evidence (of COINTELPRO), exists for us to interpret.  Lastly, notable works on COINTELPRO such as Spying on America by James Kirkpatrick Davis have been published by reputable, “scholarly nonfiction” presses like Praeger.

The classroom is a physical space where students explore ideas, concepts, theories, and events through a guided discussion that is predicated upon substance.  As they build their knowledge, it’s imperative to consider the topics that are introduced and the types of sources that they learn from.  In my professional opinion, conspiracy theories harm us on both an intellectual and a social level.  While no one should be silenced in any conversation, the classroom should never be used to disseminate unsupported claims because this undermines a major goal of education and diverts us from analyzing established fact.  That’s why I now choose to respond the way I do whenever students volunteer them.

Click here for image source.

Survey courses should inspire

CollegeWhen I returned to graduate school nearly a decade ago, I knew that teaching would be my career focus once I finished the program because it is my passion, and I believe that students deserve an instructor who makes them a priority.  So, I couldn’t help but feel insulted the evening that I heard a respected classmate denigrate community colleges or when some of my professors discouraged me from considering this career path.  After all, I graduated from one myself.  Moreover, I encountered some of the best teachers of my entire college experience during those years of my life.

Yes, community colleges primarily offer survey classes at the 100 and 200 level.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that an introductory course provides many opportunities to explore content and innovate with one’s methodology if you push yourself.  Therefore, I reject the notion that a survey class has to be boring for either the students or the instructor.  During a sixteen week semester, there are usually more than a dozen major topics to address and any one of them can be expanded or contracted depending on the supplementary materials that a person can find.

For example, civil liberties is a topic that we examine in my Federal Government class using the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) because I want students to understand where our right to privacy originates.  We spend an entire class meeting assessing Justice Douglas and Justice Black’s arguments.  While I never share my own views on the issue, I teach them how to deconstruct the respective opinions in an effort to discern who they think is more convincing and why.  In addition, when we discuss political participation, I use an activity I created this year that requires the class to generate a lengthy list of the different means that people employ to influence government policy and operation.  Next, I ask small groups of five students each to read three scenarios (i.e. community problems) and decide how they would respond to (i.e. resolve) each of them.  Both of these lessons go over really well.  That said, I always have the option to shift the focus elsewhere as I continue to sculpt my curriculum because no two semesters are exactly the same.

At this point, I’m really excited about the spring semester because I’m teaching Honors Texas Government with the theme “human interaction and experience” that I developed to deepen our understanding of people and institutions across the state.  Some of the secondary excerpts that I have chosen to incorporate into the reading seminar component of the course explore the complexity of human relationships.  We’re going to explore such topics as the social organization of different native people like the Coahuiltecans, the extralegal reaction of whites toward blacks accused of criminal acts, how segregation impacted Hispanic farmers and ranchers, how the fear of communism affected the public school system’s curriculum and elections in Houston, and the political implications of the Texas Model.  We’re even going to look at the legal battle between Texas and New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande River; a battle that has found its way to the Supreme Court.  Through a combination of historical and contemporary examples, my hope is to inform students about so much more than how institutions like our state legislature function.  We’ll see how they respond and I’ll make the necessary curriculum changes this coming summer.

As a practitioner, I think classroom dynamics are influenced by multiple factors, and one of those factors is the effort an instructor makes to build a course that generates interest and encourages students to engage one another on the content.  Since a survey class is often the only opportunity we’ll have to directly expose them to our discipline, we really need to make it count.  How many professions offer a person the latitude to experiment on a daily basis in an effort to figure out which approach works best?  Not many.  That’s why we need to push ourselves, especially if we truly believe that learning never ends.

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Moments lost…

smartphoneLast weekend my friend and I went to an independent coffee shop we like that’s located near the University of St. Thomas campus in Houston’s active Montrose neighborhood.  While talking, I glanced over and noticed a young couple seated at an adjacent couch.  Both of them were so engrossed in their respective smartphones that they didn’t speak to each other.  The whole time they kept typing away as if the world around them didn’t exist.  Subsequently, their behavior got me thinking about how technology has the potential to obstruct human interaction and communication.  Now, I’m not a Luddite; I own a smartphone myself.  That said, most of the time it can be found in my messenger bag or on the kitchen counter at home (note: I haven’t looked at it in over three hours).  Why do people focus on the glow of a tiny screen and disconnect from others in their immediate presence?  In high school and college, my friends and I spent countless nights hanging out in dive restaurants discussing music, school, politics, and relationships over a cheap cup of coffee.  Those deep, in-person conversations will always be an important part of my intellectual and emotional development.  Today, some folks are constantly on their phones, often ignoring their company.  From what I’ve seen, this technological advancement is distracting people from special moments that merit their full attention.

Click here for image source.

graph-crashFacilitators use it in workshops.  Job candidates say it during interviews.  Administrators use it in meetings.  Students even mention it in their course evaluations.  When I heard the words “critical thinking” (click here for a definition) again this week during a workshop, some important questions echoed in my mind: What does it really mean in this context?  Why don’t people share concrete examples to illustrate the concept?  Practitioners should be able to do that.  As I reflect upon my career, I can’t recall the last time someone explained what they meant when they said it.  This is as ironic as it is troubling to me.

So, I propose that we avoid using the term because it has become empty shorthand.  While that might sound a bit drastic, we need to change direction.  Our focus should be on sharing specific lessons or components of lessons with our colleagues as part of a best practices discussion.  Examples matter.  How did we lose sight of this?  Conversations about our craft should generate new ideas that contribute to professional growth.  The more ideas that you’re exposed to, the more opportunities you have to innovate as your methods continue to evolve.

In the courses I teach, I ask my students to do the following:

  • Interpret primary source materials such as documents, speeches, interviews, and political cartoons;
  • Assess the arguments and evidence in secondary materials such as articles and books;
  • Offer potential explanations for specific survey data figures in tables and graphs;
  • Differentiate between work that seeks to advance knowledge and work that seeks to advance an ideological position;
  • Distinguish between facts and opinions;
  • Detect an author’s tone and bias;
  • Examine footnotes (or endnotes) and references.

I’m trying to help them develop specific skills that have applications outside of the classroom.  For example, when a candidate for public office makes a claim on the campaign trail or in a debate, our students should be prepared to deconstruct it to determine its validity (e.g. conduct a simple ‘fact check’ using credible sources such as a trusted newspaper of record or watchdog site).  They should also be aware of how their own internal biases (e.g. personal likes and dislikes, ideology) influence their perceptions and behavior.  We hope that individuals make informed decisions in the voting booth, but when people lack certain skills they’re operating without meaningful tools to navigate the political process.  Now, I teach government courses, but my point applies to every discipline in the social sciences.

Consequently, I challenge educators to forget the aforementioned term and move right to examples that demonstrate what they’re asking their students to do and why.  This helps us build our curriculum and helps students learn better.  Perhaps consulting the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy might be useful. That’s where I start whenever I’m developing assignments.  It all begins with an idea that could be totally original or slightly adapted from somewhere else.  Which level of the taxonomy do you want to focus on (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), and where do you want to go from there?  You see, the more you do that, the more you grow because you’re exploring the depths of teaching as you sort through content and fine tune your approach.

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Are surveys relatively meaningless?

customer-surveyFeedback. I find it to be invaluable in multiple contexts.

Each semester I encourage my students to complete the course evaluation because I want to know what they think about my class.  I instruct them to share whatever is on their minds as long as they’re thoughtful and respectful.  I’m not afraid of being critiqued.  As a reflective practitioner, I’m always looking to improve my instruction (e.g. revise assignments, create new activities).

Today, I feel like everyone is asking us for feedback: car dealerships; property managers; cable providers; insurance companies; and even different offices at the college where I teach.  I’ve filled out multiple surveys in recent months.  My approach: be honest and direct.  My goal: reinforce the positive aspects about what I experienced and challenge people to rethink what’s negative (not just offer some general complaints).

However, I have to admit that I sometimes wonder about what changes will result from the suggestions anyone makes.  Since not all feedback is meaningful, how does the leadership sort through the dearth of comments?  In addition, it’s possible that some organizations (e.g. businesses, institutions) administer surveys to give people (e.g. customers, employees) the false impression that their input can influence daily operations.

Then again, if that were true, why did the cable technician who visited my apartment coach me on how to rate his work performance before he walked out the door?  Yes, he steered me toward a favorable evaluation.  This raises another important issue: people intentionally manipulating responses, thereby undermining the integrity of surveys as a measurement tool.  So, where does that leave us?

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Texas Plate Confederate FlagLast Thursday, our nation’s highest court made the right decision when it ruled against the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ request to put the Confederate flag on license plates here in Texas (news story with audio; text of the court’s opinion). While I’m an ardent supporter of free speech rights, this case is problematic. As someone who has taught history and worked in a public records archive, I question this group’s motivations. Yes, the flag has historical value, but it is also inflammatory.

Any remaining Confederate flags from the nineteenth century are worthy of preservation in an accredited museum alongside the other artifacts on exhibit for the public to view. All of the items maintained in these facilities help us better understand the complex social, economic, and political developments that occurred in our nation’s past. Each of them is like a small piece in a very large puzzle. As we arrange the pieces, we create a more complete picture.

According to the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ website, they claim to be a “non-political organization dedicated to insuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.” Why would this group engage in a protracted legal battle if they didn’t have a political agenda? Contrary to popular belief, the judiciary is a political institution composed of actors who each have their own ideology. Also, any organization whose members purport to know the “true history” of a “period” are being intellectually dishonest. Our understanding of the past is predicated upon individual analyses of the various primary source materials available. As a result, no one may offer a definitive account of any event that has transpired. It appears this group is misguided because their “true history” is a matter of perspective.

Furthermore, most flags are political symbols used to distinguish between different groups of people in different places at a specific moment in time. Often they are tied to identity and invoke a sense of pride. Without question, the Confederate flag is a political symbol that represents an injudicious attempt to partition this country and build a separate nation. So, I’m curious, which part of history do those who openly display it appreciate more: Is it the morally deplorable slave labor that blatantly contradicted our bedrock constitutional principles or the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who needlessly died in a military conflict?

Click here for image source.

A different version of this piece appeared in the Houston Chronicle on June 24, 2015.

Another first…

Downtown HoustonThis past spring I taught Texas Government for the first time. Per my usual routine, I spent numerous evenings and weekends preparing the course content. After writing my presentation outlines, I search for supplemental materials such as maps, pictures, diagrams, graphs, political cartoons, video clips, and podcasts that I ask my students to interpret. In addition, I create a number of assignments. For example, I asked students to interview either a local public official or a full time employee of a nonprofit organization in the area. There’s a real learning curve that accompanies building a course like this because I haven’t lived here very long.

Just when you feel comfortable with the level of knowledge that you’ve attained, you’re quickly reminded that there’s always so much more information to digest on everything from institutions to policies. Nevertheless, this is to be expected in an expansive state that is home to powerful industries (click here for a list of companies), four major cities, and tens of millions of residents. Not only do we have a distinctive past that shaped popular attitudes and the current political system, but we’re also undergoing a demographic shift that will have multiple implications. Thankfully, I’ve found some invaluable resources (e.g. Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection, Texas Beyond History, The Texas Tribune, Houston Matters, Texas Standard) to enrich the experience students have in my class.

Now, one of the institutional characteristics that has me wondering is how our legislature meets every other year for only 140 days. Yes, serving in the Texas House of Representatives and Senate is a part time job with a very low salary. Operating within these constraints is bound to affect who’s able to serve in the office along with the types of laws that are enacted and which interests are advanced or ignored. Furthermore, our state constitution is longer than most others around the country, in part, because it has 484 amendments. Here voters get to play a direct role in that process.

Then, there’s a facet of our political culture that intrigues me: many Texans are skeptical of the federal government (especially when a liberal Democrat occupies the White House), i.e. they view outside intervention with disdain. This manifests itself in how state officials responded to the expansion of Medicaid, the creation of a state insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s executive action on immigration, and the refusal to adopt Common Core standards in education. Local control is a bedrock principle that many embrace and espouse. However, our lawmakers in the capital quickly abandoned this principle when Denton, Texas banned hydraulic fracturing last fall. In response, the legislature passed, and Governor Abbott signed, a bill that invalidated the ordinance in May. So, we don’t like it if federal officials impose their will upon us, but it’s totally acceptable for state officials to impose their will upon local governments, i.e. override how ‘the people’ voted? This inconsistency has me confused.

On a lighter note, my students really impressed me with what they learned from the interviews they conducted. Both class discussions yielded a great deal of insight into what motivates people to serve in public office or choose a career working on a social issue. The variety of individuals they spoke to included: a school board member, school district superintendent, fire chief, county sheriff, and a state representative as well as employees from the United Way and Habitat for Humanity to mention just a handful. Most of the essays that I read exceeded my expectations. Some offered solid analysis that explored the personal stories shared. I found this assignment to be an incredibly positive way to end the regular school year.

Goodbye Lucy

Lucy January 2015 Houston New ApartmentAnimal protection has been an important issue to me since college, but for years I predominantly focused on being an activist out on the streets. Sometime into my career as a high school teacher, I considered adopting a cat because I felt that I could provide one with a good home. Furthermore, I needed to explore another form of advocacy beyond attending demonstrations, meetings, and fundraisers. After discussing the matter with my close friends, I committed to the idea despite one reservation: my allergies. So, in 2005, a woman I know with connections to people who foster domesticated companions made the arrangements, and, shortly thereafter, a man dropped off a five year old orange tabby named Lucy at my apartment.

Now, I wish I could say that we experienced a seamless transition with our living situation, but that’s simply not the case. Lucy hid in a variety of places for a year or more, including on the top of kitchen cabinets, behind the refrigerator, and under the couch. Honestly, I didn’t see her most of the time. She ate and played before the sun rose and after I left for work. I’d like to believe she enjoyed the view from our ninth floor windows high above a bridge with plenty of traffic. Also, on warm summer days she could watch a number of boats pass by on the river.

Eventually, Lucy adjusted and we could hang out in the same room. If I watched the news or a movie, then she would usually lay at the end of the couch. Like clockwork, when I talked to someone on the phone, she would always be right there meowing. She could be really pushy and a bit rambunctious at times, but I loved that part of her personality because those qualities made her unique.

For almost a decade, Lucy was the most consistent part of my life. We experienced a handful of major changes together as we ventured outside of our respective comfort zones. Leaving a steady teaching position for what turned out to be a six year doctorate program pushed me to my limits. Interviewing at colleges in different parts of the country and wondering where we would end up caused me a few sleepless nights. Packing up what little we owned and relocating to Arizona brought a combination of fear and excitement. Through all of this, Lucy remained my best friend. Many people have told me how much cats dislike traveling. Well, she could be a road warrior. She sat quietly in her carrier on the passenger seat as we drove across the country three years ago this July. Blaring hardcore music. Political talk radio. Intense desert sun and heat. Ground shaking thunder and pouring rain. Excessive speeds on winding mountain roads. None of it bothered her. Surprisingly, multiple hotel rooms didn’t cause her too much stress either. Unfortunately, our time in the Southwest didn’t last and we had to move again. I didn’t hear any complaints from her during the long 700 mile drive from El Paso to Houston on the second leg of the trip. Moreover, she didn’t get upset when we stayed in another hotel for a week as I searched for an apartment here in town.

Earlier this year, I reflected on the time we’ve shared and I wondered how much longer we’d be roommates. Then, last month she stopped drinking and eating and spent a couple of days under my bed asleep. One morning before work, I gently pulled her out to see why. She purred, but looked somewhat lethargic, so I put her in her bed in the living room. When I arrived home that evening, it appeared as if she hadn’t moved since I left. I tried to feed her, but she started howling and violently thrashing around before biting her back leg and collapsing on the floor. I immediately drove her to the emergency animal hospital. They treated her for pancreatitis and dehydration and kept her for the weekend. After I brought her home, she still wouldn’t eat and stopped using her litter box. Here I thought that consulting someone at my regular veterinary clinic for a second opinion would be helpful. Needless to say, they said she looked healthy. I never returned to that office.

My concern grew as Lucy refused to eat and continued to lose weight. Desperate, I consulted a third veterinarian who ran tests and prescribed some medication, but her condition didn’t change. When I arrived home from work, I found her crying and shaking in her urine soaked bed, largely unable to move. A wave of helplessness paralyzed me for a moment. Once I regained my composure, I gave her a bath in the kitchen sink. She didn’t like it very much, but lacked the strength to fight me as I covered her frail body with soap and rinsed her clean. Another visit to the same clinic the next morning yielded that she had multiple health problems: heart disease, a thickening of her stomach wall, and cancer in her intestine. In addition, she had developed neurological issues at some point that kept her from bending her left front leg when she walked. As the doctor and I discussed Lucy’s condition over the phone, I decided that her suffering could not continue. So, I returned to the veterinarian’s office to see Lucy one last time that afternoon. We shared several minutes together in the exam room and I told her how much I loved her. While I had the option to leave, I chose to stay until the very end because I didn’t want her to pass away without me there.

Lucy taught me so much about trust, patience, vulnerability, and acceptance – important lessons that I never imagined would accompany adopting a domesticated companion. Our relationship changed me as a human being. As we form bonds with these little creatures and share life experiences with them, they compel us to reexamine ourselves and the choices we make on a daily basis. Caring for her made me a more emotionally aware person.

It really hurts now that she’s gone, in part, because my apartment feels so empty. That said, I feel so fortunate that she needed a home at the same time that I needed a new friend in my life. I love you Lucy. Rest in peace.

Fighting Disillusionment

Ballot BoxLast month I attended The Texas Tribune Festival at the University of Texas to learn more about public policy from a wide variety of knowledgeable people, including elected officials, journalists, attorneys, and members of advocacy groups. This is an incredible opportunity that I think all residents should take advantage of at some point to increase their awareness of state and national issues that affect their everyday lives.

After listening to Senator Cornyn speak, I thought about how people often criticize the Congress for being unproductive. According to a Gallup poll from October 17, 2014, the institution’s approval rating stands at 14% (note: it reached a low of 9% last year in the wake of the government shutdown). This is very troubling. However, what’s more problematic is that data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicates that for decades members of the Senate and House of Representatives have enjoyed reelection rates around 80% or better. How can we reconcile these numbers?

Here the analysis of political scientists like John R. Hibbing and Christopher W. Larimer (2008) offers some illumination: people don’t like congressional debate and compromise because they associate the former with squabbling and the latter with giving in to the opposition. In addition, Richard Fenno (1977) finds that the connection House members maintain with constituents back in their respective districts helps return them to Washington D.C. Yes, it appears that while many take issue with the institution, they often feel good about their member’s performance. Perhaps citizens need to pay closer attention to how their members behave at work because the issue can’t always be someone else.

As we approach another midterm election, I anticipate that the turnout will again be much lower than a presidential election year. If you examine the data published in a table by The Center for Voting and Democracy, then you will notice that this has been the case since the middle of the twentieth century. Understandably, the midterms don’t generate the same kind of excitement, but this isn’t a good reason for people to shirk their responsibility to participate in the democratic process. When I think about the political culture here in Texas, I immediately think about how patriotic duty runs deep. To me, the expression of this sentiment is incongruent with the fact that our voter turnout is lower than most other states across the country. Many people give reasons like “too busy” or “conflicting work” (27.4%) and “not interested” or “felt my vote didn’t matter” (16.9%) according to data in the Texas Civic Health Index produced by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

Ignoring our role in the political system has serious implications. As explored in his insightful research (notably Making Democracy Work from 1993 and Bowling Alone from 2000), Robert Putnam found that corruption thrives in places where there is a low level of social capital. If people disengage the process, then the functioning of governing institutions suffers. We can make a conscious choice to participate to ensure that leaders are held accountable with regards to the policies they enact (or refuse to take action on). Casting your ballot is only the beginning. The challenge is to think beyond the election to find ways that you can influence lawmaking so that our society reflects your values.

I refuse to be cynical, i.e. resign myself to the notion that officials and institutions are so far adrift that nothing can be salvaged. I also refuse to believe that ‘more of the same’ will satisfy anyone. If you are disillusioned by the direction we are headed in, then November 4, 2014 needs to be the first step toward reinvigorating the political system in our republic.

*Click here for image source.

Review: The Punk Singer

The Punk SingerPunk rock has encompassed leftist political elements dating back to its inception.  Unfortunately, the subculture can be just as sexist as the broader society that it emanated from.  In the late 1980s, a new group of young firebrands infused their radical feminist ideology into the music scene with the intention of illuminating problems that many overlooked or ignored.  One of those firebrands is Kathleen Hanna.  Not only did she serve as the strident vocalist for the band Bikini Kill, but she also co-founded the Riot Grrrl movement as part of the third wave of feminism in this country.  Her life is the focus of the rousing documentary, The Punk Singer (click here to watch the trailer).

Early in the film, Hanna’s feminist consciousness and the emergence of Riot Grrrl are explored at length.  Sincerity, frustration, passion, and emotion radiate as you watch the footage from punk shows along with recent interviews.  Among other activities, these women published zines to spread their ideas and organized meetings to discuss a variety of issues such as the sexual abuse that some experienced.  A handful formed bands.  They successfully applied the do-it-yourself ethic to empower themselves.  Create.  Exhibit.  Write.  Play.  Don’t rely on existing institutions and structures to legitimize your concerns or address your needs.  Challenge norms.  Be assertive and unrelenting.

Eventually the movement piqued the interest of the mainstream media (e.g. USA Today).  Regrettably, the stories written about Riot Grrrl failed to convey its significance, and, consequently, some of the women refused to speak to any journalists out of fear that the cause would be further misrepresented.  It’s fairly common for reporters to mischaracterize what they’re writing about because they’re group outsiders.  Nevertheless, were there any positive effects from the increased exposure? Did these women miss any opportunities to disseminate information to the public?  None of the media could be trusted?  As one might expect, the message is rather clear: punk is an insular subculture that doesn’t tolerate self-interested interlopers.

Oddly, all of the people interviewed have a positive opinion of Hanna.  This is puzzling because we know she’s a controversial figure.  Surely not everyone thinks that a woman can be a feminist while she’s working in a strip club.  Also, listen to Bikini Kill’s lyrics.  Watch her stage antics. Did other feminist punks ever challenge her views in their own zines or at these meetings? Were there any other musicians in the scene who didn’t support her confrontational approach?  The film doesn’t ask these questions.  Interviewing someone with a thoughtful critique would strengthen this narrative.  After all, social movements aren’t monolithic.  High profile individuals like Hanna argued that Riot Grrrl could be whatever women thought it should be, but I suspect that fissures emerged over time.  No one who is truly committed to her or his beliefs welcomes every idea that other people suggest, and therefore, interpersonal conflict is inevitable.  Have any academics studied the rise and decline of the movement?  If so, their analyses should have been included.  Lastly, when did the Riot Grrrl wave crash into the shore?  The year Bikini Kill disbanded?

Later, the documentary captures Hanna’s disillusionment toward the end of the 90s well.  Her exhaustion is apparent.  You can feel the emotional gravity of her celebrity status in the subculture that provided her with a platform.  Once a person ascends to that distinct position, she (or he) can’t return to a normal life of relative anonymity because her (or his) status is cemented; it’s inescapable.  This has the potential to drain a person.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, The Punk Singer effectively tells the story of an uncompromising artist who profoundly affected the lives of countless women.  Unequivocally, Kathleen Hanna is a force that won’t be controlled.  Furthermore, she’s a complex human being who demonstrates a high level of self-awareness.  Regardless of how you might feel about her views, her level of courage should inspire people to act on issues that matter to them.

For more information, please visit: Kathleen Hanna; Bikini Kill; and read Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus

Review: The Road to Hell

The Road to Hell book coverAfter watching the documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, I felt compelled to learn more about George Jackson and his August 21, 1971 failed escape attempt from San Quinten State Prison in California. Paul Liberatore’s thoroughly researched, yet very accessible, The Road to Hell, explains far more than what happened that tragic day when six people died incredibly violent deaths.

A considerable segment of the book describes the intriguing lives of George Jackson and Stephen Bingham. The former struggled as a defiant, young man who engaged in street crime and then developed into a political revolutionary during his prolonged incarceration. In contrast, the latter enjoyed a very comfortable middle class upbringing that afforded him the ability to pursue a law degree and work on social justice issues such as civil rights. Despite these very different experiences, both individuals evolved into committed activists who were steadfast in their beliefs. Their lives are forever intertwined because Bingham served on Jackson’s legal team and authorities accused him of smuggling a gun into the prison to assist Jackson’s escape from the facility.

In addition to the range of interviews conducted by the author, a major strength of this narrative is how it provides historical context for those who might not be too familiar with the more radical politics and activism characteristic of that time period. Liberatore strikes the proper balance with the level of detail so as to not overwhelm you with tangential information that would distract from the central focus. His explanation of other related, major events (e.g. George’s brother Jonathan Jackson’s failed attempt to free James McClain from jail) along with connections to notable civil rights figures (e.g. Huey Newton) and groups (e.g. Black Panthers) illustrates the movement’s internal conflicts. Some of the information revealed is rather disturbing.

While it’s impossible for any story to be exhaustive, I feel a number of important questions emerge that really need to be investigated much further. What did Jonathan Jackson and Angela Davis argue about prior to the incident at the Marin County Hall of Justice on August 7, 1970 that left Jonathan and three other people dead? Why did Vanita Anderson abruptly leave the Black Panthers and Bay Area after George Jackson’s death when she had accompanied Bingham to San Quinten on August 21? Also, why didn’t she face charges? How did the FBI miss Bingham’s return visits to the United States (note: he fled to Europe following the massacre)? Did someone associated with George Jackson, the Black Guerilla Family, or the Black Panthers order the vicious attack on the prosecutor’s wife in Bingham’s trial? Perhaps the people who know the answers aren’t willing to come forward.

None of us can imagine George Jackson’s mindset the day his life ended.  Did he really believe that he could escape confinement or did he consciously choose to make this his last act of rebellion against a system riddled with injustice?  We will never know his final thoughts.  That said, Liberatore’s work helps us better understand an intense protest era where some activists resorted to desperate measures in an effort to combat perceived wrongs in our society.

IMG_3016Recently I heard a dog barking and howling outside of my bedroom window. A number of people in my complex have them, so I figured another tenant must have brought home a puppy that needed to be housebroken. Then, while leaving for work one morning, a very noisy Chihuahua appeared and followed me down the sidewalk. She clearly wanted attention and tried to climb inside of my car when I opened the door. As I drove away, she just stood there in the middle of the parking lot looking confused.

After discussing the situation with my neighbors, we agreed that the dog had to be a stray because nobody claimed to be her owner or had any idea where she came from. Who knows how long she had been roaming the property. We all had been feeding her, but that couldn’t continue.

I decided to do some research on local shelters and started making phone calls. The goal: find a no kill facility in the Houston area that had space available. A woman with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) told me it would be two weeks before I could drop her off with them. Since I couldn’t wait that long, I called Citizens for Animal Protection. Someone there said that I could come down the morning of July 5th and wait in line to see if they had an open kennel. Shortly after my arrival, an employee emerged from the building and informed a handful of us who had all brought stray dogs over that they were only accepting puppies four months of age or younger. She handed each of us a list of other facilities to contact. I didn’t want to go to the city or county shelters because they’re overwhelmed (click here for a local news story with video).

Once I returned home, I checked another list of contacts put together by Friends for Life. While making a few more calls, I had a brief conversation with a helpful volunteer at the Abandoned Animals Rescue in Tomball. The lady told me to come over and have the dog scanned for a microchip to see if we could locate the owner. Once we reached their facility, they welcomed us and quickly determined that the dog didn’t have a microchip. Next, a staff member in the office said that they would accept her only if she tested negative for heartworm. So, I immediately headed over to a nearby animal clinic that performed the test and quickly returned to the shelter with the results to complete the paperwork to surrender the dog before they closed.

I have worked on a number of issues over the years, including animal protection, foreign aid to Colombia, civil liberties, the war in Iraq, and clean government. Furthermore, I have been fortunate enough to organize and/or participate in local campaigns that produced results. To me, getting this helpless dog into a no kill shelter has to be one of the most gratifying experiences of my activist life. A week or two from now she will be in a loving home.  Put a hash mark in the win column.

Processing disappointment

Valley of Fire State Park slot canyon“Regroup, recalculate…rethink, recalibrate…” –Iron Chic

Sometimes I think about the last two years of my life and I feel bewildered and disheartened about the events that have unfolded. This is unsettling to me because I can’t reconcile these feelings with the anticipation that I experienced during my drive from the farmland of northern Illinois to the low desert of western Arizona. My interest in relocating there originated with my first visit to the state in 1997. So, when a job opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t wait to set off on what I hoped would be the adventure that I needed in my life – an adventure that would allow me to begin anew in a city where I didn’t know anyone. A lot of people consider moving away from what they’re familiar with, but I didn’t just want to consider the possibility. I wanted to live it firsthand.

Shortly after I arrived at work, I decided that I wouldn’t stay at the college long because it had enrollment and organizational issues that undercut my potential to grow as a professional. The most important responsibility of an educator is to focus on teaching methods and curriculum development to improve the quality of one’s instruction, but the focus is lost when you’re mired in countless other menial tasks that distract you from your efforts in the classroom. In addition, imagine your supervisor telling you during your performance evaluation that he didn’t support creating your position in the first place.  He and my department chair didn’t get along.  At times, I felt caught in the middle.  That makes you question why you’re even there. I quickly learned who didn’t like or respect whom as I navigated the institutional milieu. Moving 1800 miles for a really disappointing work situation that you can’t simply extricate yourself from is unnerving. This realization weighed heavily upon me as my frustration level rose. There are many lessons in this experience that I have spent a lot of time reflecting upon. Here I must say that the friendships I cultivated with some great colleagues who expressed similar concerns helped mitigate the stress.

Two months into my adventure, I encountered a woman whom I fell in love with the moment I met her on a warm Friday evening in late September. Part of what made our relationship so special, and the most significant in my life to date, is that we spent numerous days exploring parts of Arizona, Nevada, and California together – many places that neither of us had ever seen before. We learned a lot about the region while learning more about each other. She intrigued me because she grew up in another country. More importantly, we shared some core values, including an ethical commitment to veganism and an appreciation of nature. We hiked through forests on mountainsides and wandered through desert floor slot canyons (see the thumbnail above) as we took countless pictures and shared anecdotes about our lives.

Ironically, Las Vegas became my home away from Lake Havasu City. This might sound really strange, but it feels more like home to me than the Chicago suburbs. Now, anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not interested in casinos and bars. What draws me to Las Vegas is the incredible landscape away from the traffic, malls, and noise. When I drove into Valley of Fire State Park for the first time and saw the extraordinary rock formations and their vibrant colors – images forever burned into my mind – I thought I had ventured to a different planet because it felt a world away from Midwestern cornfields.

As the fall and winter months passed, my relationship became more serious despite the physical distance. My girlfriend had accepted a new job working for a company outside of San Francisco, so we talked about me relocating there. Initially, I thought that I’d be able to find a teaching position in that area, but I quickly learned that it’s an incredibly competitive market with plenty of highly qualified applicants. When I didn’t receive a call from anyone that spring except a college that’s an hour north of Sacramento, I began to worry about my options. After all, I had ignored other postings around the country because I thought I’d be moving to California. At that point, it looked like I’d be staying in the desert another year. While I considered the Southwest home, I really needed to make a professional move. I felt really conflicted. My partner grew increasingly uneasy with the situation. Eventually, the strain of the distance and some other personal issues (that I still don’t fully understand) led to the end of the relationship in June.

Crushed by the loss and stuck inside my apartment due to the intense summer heat, I decided to work on preparing for the fall semester in an attempt to keep myself distracted. So, I invested time in building my courses because I wanted to add new materials (e.g. primary and secondary sources) to my curriculum. As I kept searching for a new job, I started playing music with a local punk rock bassist who responded to an ad that I placed online. At first I didn’t see any colleges with openings that interested me, but I remained optimistic. During the first weeks of the school year, I immersed myself in teaching to cope with the stress that accompanied the uncertainty.  I applied for open positions when I found them.  Meanwhile, the bassist and I practiced in his garage several times. As musicians, we clicked, and we pieced together songs that I enjoyed playing even if I sounded a bit rusty.

Then, my phone started ringing. I had applied for seven teaching positions and received three calls for interviews. All of the jobs excited me and were in places that I would consider living: Texas (just outside of Houston), California (across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco), and Florida (near Orlando). Realistically speaking, I sensed that one of these opportunities would turn into an offer. You never know what people are looking for (or if there are internal candidates), so I prepared as much as possible.  Here I just hoped the members of the search committees were truly interested and respectful because that’s sometimes not the case. During that interview process, I spent hours in airport terminals and put hundreds of miles on my car (I returned to campus one morning to teach in the middle of all of this) over a frantic four day period. Much to my surprise, an offer came through from the college in Texas as I waited in line to board my flight.  My only concern at that moment: after landing in Las Vegas, could I keep my eyes open the entire 155 mile drive back to Lake Havasu City? Due to a problem with the plane, I wouldn’t pull into my driveway until about 3 am.  Honestly, I wanted to collapse.

After I returned home, I had to finish the semester, officially resign from the position I held, pack and ship my belongings, drive 1300 miles to Houston, and find a new apartment before my orientation just a few weeks away. At times, I felt overwhelmed by an acute sadness that I still can’t quite describe to anyone. Months later, I continue to struggle with it.  The word disappointment is an understatement. Waking up alone in a cold hotel room in El Paso on Christmas morning and then hearing a guy tell someone a profanity laden story about a grisly execution-style murder as I waited to check out felt surreal. It’s a long drive across the entire state of Texas. I kept thinking about how I didn’t have enough time to get acclimated to Arizona. I wondered if I would ever make it back to the Southwest someday. Losing the woman I loved like no one else I’ve ever dated and leaving somewhere I wanted to build a life for myself hurt so much. This is not what I hoped my life would be at forty years old. As I continued eastward on the interstate, the desert and mountains disappeared from the rearview mirror.  My body felt numb.

Yes, the source matters

A newspaper story is not a think tank white paper is not a personal blog post is not a academic journal article is not a advocacy group fact sheet.

There’s a major difference between writing about an issue to generate knowledge, i.e. to increase human understanding, and writing about it to advance a specific, often political, viewpoint.  One of our responsibilities as teachers is to help students explore the difference so they understand what they’re reading.  Being able to identify a source’s intention(s) and detect an author’s bias(es) are important skills worth developing.  From what I have seen in the classroom, “information literacy” is lacking in a democratic society where we have access to a dearth of materials. Unfortunately, many people don’t know how to distinguish between them.