Women's and Gender Studies: the worst of the worst

When David Horowitz thinks you're the worst, you must be doing something right.

In a recent column (don't click on it--it just gives him more traffic!), he bemoans the sad state of the academy because disciplines like Women's and Gender Studies are now part of the picture. Now everybody's believing that women aren't naturally inferior, and we're trying to teach people that oppression is bad, and all kinds of messed up stuff like that. Back in the good old days, women weren't on the syllabus at all--and in fact, there weren't that many of them in the classroom, either. And then those damn feminists came along and messed everything up!

But the thing I really wanted to say is that his article reminds me of a conversation I had not too long ago with a law school student who is writing a book about Women's and Gender Studies. Very early on in the conversation, something she asked clued me in to the fact that she was writing a book about how awful Women's and Gender Studies is. I got a little anxious, not wanting to be quoted out of context or to say things that could be misconstrued. It quickly became apparent, though, that she had very little idea of what happens in Women's and Gender Studies classes or of how a university operates.

"So," she said, "you're director of the program, so you decide the entire curriculum, right?"

"Not at all," I told her, explaining the long--and fairly boring--process by which individual courses and entire curricula are assessed and decided on by faculty committees at various levels. She seemed startled.

"Well," she tried again, "I'll bet you wouldn't teach a course about how abortion causes breast cancer."

"No, I wouldn't teach that, because no medical evidence supports that claim." That, too, startled her.

She wanted to know if I saw it as my job to convert students to feminism, and I assured her that my job is to encourage students to be critical observers of the world around them and to hone their thinking skills. I told her, as I tell every class, that I don't want my students to leave my classes thinking like me--I just want them to leave the class thinking. My students are never being graded on their politics but on their ability to engage with a range of ideas. I'm teaching them to assess arguments, to weigh evidence, and to consider the consequences of various approaches. By the end of our conversation, she actually seemed to be questioning her aversion to Women's and Gender Studies.

The point here is that she, like David Horowitz, had some impression of the Women's and Gender Studies classroom that doesn't match the discipline as I know it. My classes aren't indoctrination camps--they're spaces of lively conversation, where I value every voice. I encourage my students to address hot-button issues respectfully and thoughtfully. Indeed, the classroom is one of the few spaces where we get to practice having slow, meaningful conversations about issues that get polarized and distorted in mainstream venues.

But if you miss the good old days when the white guy at the front of the class told you what the truth was and all you had to do was write it down and spit it back out on a test, then I suppose Women's and Gender Studies probably wouldn't be your thing.


My annual homage to Sarah Josepha Hale

It's Thanksgiving once again, which means it's time for my annual homage to Sarah Josepha Hale.

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) is one of the very cool forgotten 19th c. women I studied back in the day, when I studied 19th c. women. Hale is responsible for Thanksgiving being a national holiday. As editor of Godey's Lady's Book, hands down the most popular magazine of its time, she was incredibly influential nationally, and she used her influence to argue for things like equal education for women, high-quality American literature, and Thanksgiving.

The United States only had one national holiday at that time: July 4. A lot of people celebrated Thanksgiving, but there wasn't a set day for it, and it wasn't nationally recognized. She lobbied the Presidents for 25 years about this issue, and finally Lincoln complied in 1863. She'd been saying for years that an additional holiday would help bring the country together, and during the Civil War Lincoln saw the symbolic significance of this.

So as you enjoy your day off, eat your turkey or tofurkey, and think about the native people whose land the Puritans stole, raise a glass in honor of Sarah Josepha Hale, who should be a national celebrity on Thanksgiving.


News from Tennessee

Shirley Biffle, to Benya, who was trying to sniff the Thanksgiving turkey: "That's a nay, nay."

On watching Barney Fife drink moonshine: "Oh, he'll be drunker than a coot owl."


Two books about dreaming

Recently I finished two books: Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America and Stephen Duncombe's Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. It didn't occur to me until I'd finished that both were books that had "dream" in the name and dealt with dreaming--not sleep dreams, but dreams as a metaphor for the symbolic order that I've talked about here and elsewhere, the realm of cultural meaning-making where we create and perpetuate the narratives that buttress our societal hierarchies.

In The Terror Dream, Faludi examines the narrative of the heroic male warrior and terrified female victim that emerged almost immediately after 9/11, that in fact functioned as one of the main ways our society made sense of 9/11. She brings in example after example from the mainstream media to show how this narrative got perpetuated even when it was counter-factual. Even if you start off skeptical, it's hard to dispute her point by the end. She also shows how viciously people responded when this narrative was challenged, either by women who were left out of it (when a documentary was made to highlight the women who participated in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center, responses included calling the film "a disgraceful display" and NOW, the organization that made the film, "a bunch of partial-birth sadomaso lesbos") or by the NYC firefighters themselves. The second part of the book takes a bit of a surprising turn, when she examines the historical roots of this particular American story in the captivity narratives of the colonial period. My scholarly sensibility enjoyed this twist, but I'm not sure that the general reading public is going to find this interesting or relevant. But in general, this is an important book that exposes how regressive gender politics were invoked in the aftermath of a national crisis and what the consequences have been. (As a totally unrelated point, I want to say how famous-by-proxy I felt when she mentioned my friend Jenn Pozner by name!)

Dream is a book about how progressive politicos in this country have been too fully wedded to rationality. Duncombe argues that those of us who are committed to progressive ideals seem to believe that if we just make our case reasonably, with lots of facts to back us up, we'll sway public opinion, but he explains that people don't just need rationality--they need stories, ideals, dreams. They need spectacle. The right has done a great job of marshaling the spectacle of fear to back up their points of view, but the left hasn't countered with an equally valid spectacular appeal. He says, "We need to rethink progressive politics in terms of the quality of our gameplay. Perhaps one of the reasons progressives are not winning much these days is that lately our game isn’t much fun to play." He offers examples of folks who are creating the kinds of "ethical spectacles" he believes are called for these days, folks like Reverend Billy and Billionaires for Bush who are doing creative, energizing, activist interventions that appeal to people's need for community, or entertainment, or just play, rather than appealing simply to the rational brain. (And what Duncombe doesn't point out is that all these kinds of activism are also known as interventionist art, which is what Biffle studied/did in graduate school, and there are loads more examples than he points out in his book.)

Both books highlight the importance of how arguments get made and supported. They examine how ideas become compelling--how the repetition of certain sets of images, like that of the courageous male firefighter, can create not only expectations but our sense of what's true in the world around us, even if the facts don't back us up. On a personal level, I appreciated them because sometimes I become concerned that the research I do isn't real enough, that perhaps it's foolish to study representations and created works in a world that's full of weighty material problems. What both books reminded me is that the weighty material problems are perpetuated, complicated, and enabled by the stories we tell as a culture, so studying those stories is indeed meaningful work.


Return to Pacifism

I have 7 books on my bedside table right now. The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman, The Essential Gandhi, by Gandhi, The Complete Wood Finishing Book by Jeff Hewitt, Altars of Unhewn Stone by Wes Jackson, Electoral Guerrilla Theatre by L.M. Bogad, , A Testament of Hope, the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, and Pacifism as Pathology by (discredited professor) Ward Churchill.

All of these books are in various states of read.

As you can tell, quite a few of them are about pacifism. Obviously, i'm interested in the subject. Only problem is, although i've got all these half read books around, i'm still not any more prepared to sum up my post from the other day than...well, than i was the other day. Maybe i'll be able to get there today, but first, lemme tell you a couple more stories:

Story # 1: (reader beware! both of the following stories are violently graphic) Back when i was living at the craft center--where there wasn't much to do and the isolation made us all weird and stuff--I remember Steve B. once telling me that he'd seen, on the internet, a picture of a guy takin' a poop off the side of a cliff. (keep in mind this was 7 years ago and we all still thought what you could find on the internet was pretty cool). He explained that the man evidently had the squirts and the poop was coming out in a spiral pattern. Well, this was just too much for me. A spiral pattern? Really? Off a cliff? Do humans poop in a spiral pattern? I had to go look for myself.

And that's how i found rotten.com. For a few weeks i was entranced at pictures of gunshot wounds, roadkill, splattered intestines, and on and on. There in my cabin, alone at night, I would look, and then look away in horror at this parade of gore. One fateful night, though--and i've talked to other people that have seen this picture--i saw a guy on a hospital gurney, conscious and propping himself up on his own elbows, with the entire bottom half of his face gone. One eye had gone kind of askew. His tongue hung down like a necktie because he had no bottom jaw to hold it up. As if that weren't enough, someone had obviously photoshopped the color a little bit to make all the blood just a little redder and a little stickier and shinier than it already was.

And that was it. I never looked at the website again. I learned later that this guy was probably a soldier involved in explosives in some way. Evidently, those guys will be working quickly and will place the small detonator charges in their teeth. If they happen to bite down too hard--through accident or concentration--the thing explodes and off comes the lower half of their face. I decided over those two weeks i had seen all i wanted to of gore and i never really needed to see anymore.

Story # 2: One day, when Alison and i were leaving our house there on Lischey, we saw a couple of kids--maybe 15 years old--get into a fistfight over at that same crackhouse from Pacifism post #1. They were punching and hitting and had kindof ended up out in the street. As we waited for this to end we heard several little *pop* sounds. And the two kids seperated. One started walking away quickly and the other slowly. The second slow guy started to slump over and eventually fell into the street (not having put the "pops" together at the time, i remember thinking gleefully that one of the guys had totally cold-cocked the other one.) When slow guy finally collapsed on the pavement, guy number one came back, pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger. As he did it, i remember he kinda did the movie thing and held the gun sideways. After he'd pulled the trigger, he held the gun real loosely at about eye level, casually letting the gun remain trained on his victim and backed away. It looked just like Hollywood--exactly the place where this little boy had learn to kill things.

Anyway, i was almost too startled to move. I got out of the car as shooter kid and his miniature henchmen disappeared off up the street. I ran to check on the guy on the ground. Of course, what was i gonna be able to do, you know? Neighbors and their children stood in doorways looking at me. They'd seen it all before. I called 911 and stood over the kid who wasn't moving much at all. As i tried to tell the operator what was going on, the kid, lying there on his face, started blowing frothy, bloody bubbles out of a hole in his neck. A pool of blood spread from where his head lay on the pavement and a pool of pee spread from between his legs. The woman on the phone told me to place a towel under his head. I remember telling her i was afraid to touch him--and i know now that what i meant by this was that i was sickened by him. He was pulsing blood and bubbles, breathing jackhammer breaths, and if i had touched him...well, i don't really know. I just knew, as i stood over him, what it would feel like to touch his dry, boyish head, and the warm life oozing out of him. And i didn't want to feel that...


I'm still thinking about it, y'all.


Oh, gibbous, gabbous day!

So, lo and behold, i've gotten the guitar of my dreams!

Way back in January of 2006 i wrote about a particular guitar here on the blog. If you so care (and really--you probably shouldn't) you can read what i wrote here. The long and short of it, though, was that a friend of mine--named Horizontal Harry--owned my favorite guitar in the world...and wouldn't sell it to me. My only recourse to have such a fine guitar was to try and buy an instrument from the same maker and hope that the one i got was as good.

For 3 years or so now--about once a month--i've been looking at this notice on Mario Proulx's website. I mean, if the guy wouldn't take any new orders, then how was i ever going to get a guitar from him? Additionally, it was dawning on me that when the demand outstrips the supply like it obviously was over Mario's guitars i wouldn't be able to afford one even if he would deign to take my order.

Well, right when i was about to give up hope what do you know but I get a phone call from Harry saying "Hey! Waltah!" (I knew Harry up in Massachusetts) "Do you still wanna buy this guitah?" I told him--after i got my heart back in my chest, to ship it down, and if it was everything i remembered it being, then i'd send him back a check. I figured no way that guitar could really be as good as i made it out to be in my head. Amazingly, it was even better.

And so now i am the proud owner of a Proulx DA/1, serial number 000221 (i don't know what the first "2" is for, but this guitar is the 21st he made--and evidently even now he's only up to like 120.
It is made of rosewood and red spruce and is very, very plain looking. Other than its celestial sound, one of the things i like a lot about this guitar is how it kind of wears its history real obviously. Not only have I picked with its only two other owners (Earl and Harry), and spoken to its maker on the telephone, but, as number 21, it also shows signs that it was being made by someone just learning their art (sorry, Mario). If you look here
at the inlay of Mario's name you can see where there is a lot of black filler around it. I think that is just so charming! ...of course, i would think it sucked it the guitar weren't one of the most beautiful sounding things i've ever picked up.

Anyway, as you can see, i'm just out of my mind with joy.

(Thank you, Harry. I'm so grateful you thought of me when you went to sell it.)


A New Experience

Yesterday i was greatly honored to have a brand new experience: i was the officiant of a wedding. Although i requested a formal script, i was also invited, by both the bride and groom, to add my own thoughts. Here is what i said:

E. and M. have invited me to share my own thoughts about marriage—ostensibly because the two of them—or at least E.—have flattered me by saying that my wife Alison and I have a fantastic relationship. They’ve also suggested that I would be good for keeping things lighthearted.

Well, as far as the lighthearted part, i’ve got my concerns. Some people have suggested the most serious event I be allowed to MC is the farting contest at a Tractor pull. For the first idea, however—that Alison and I have a healthy relationship—I’ve got to say, you’re right: We do.

I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I can lay any super heavy wisdom on you. I don’t think it would make any sense. Most of the super heavy wisdom in the universe people have to figure out for themselves. It’s a personal thing, and it’s usually the result of getting good at improvising. What I do want to lay on you however, is very pragmatic and brief and I’m going to divide it into three lighthearted parts: 1) the corporeal 2) the political and finally 3) the metaphysical. (Don’t worry it only sounds heavy)

For the corporeal: Alison and I discussed it at length and we decided that one of the most important, and basic aspects of what we’ve got going for us, is the simple ideas of stubbornness, of immovability. We both believe that—as romantic as it may sound— love is not a feeling. It’s a decision. There’s times when you’re just simply going to feel like you don’t love the other person, and in those moments nothing but pure stubbornness is going to help you though it. A core-o-llary is immovability. In other words, combine those record collections! Put all your books on the same shelf. Your pots and pans should hang together. That way, after that giant fight to end all fights, you’ll realize it’s probably more trouble to separate all that stuff than to actually stick together.

The political: This part is simple: Alison and I are trying to create an egalitarian relationship. I think both of us have figured out there is no benefit in us trying to conform to silly notions of what the world thinks we ought to be. This is not a well-charted course, and, counter-intuitively, works to our advantage. It means we can’t fall back on standard roles, but have to search our way through things together, as equals. It means we limit the deadly “expectations” we might place on the other—and rather than being each other’s critics we must act as partners-in-crime. It means we can always try to play to our strengths—no matter what the situation.

Finally, and most importantly, is the metaphysical. Sometimes, when all else fails, when the sorrow is too great, when your demise seems imminent, you need to remember one very important word:


I want to ask Alison up here now to help explain just what this means…

At this point i went and got the banjo and Alison and i sang the song Skinnamarinky.
Quite a few members of the "congregation" sang along, too. It was beautiful.
I'm proud to say that, to all appearances, the whole thing came off as a great success.


Out of the blue, an excerpt from a zine interview

Alison: In the latest zine you talk so beautifully about that, about cynicism and hope, and hope in the face of cynicism. You give practical suggestions, "here are some things that you might want to do," but also there’s the part where you say, "yes we can make a difference and in fact I think we can make more than a difference, I think we can change everything." It kind of blew my mind when I read it; you’re really speaking to exactly the sort of dilemma that I think we’re in right now, the people of good will in the cultural moment that we’re in.

Cindy Crabb: I feel like we can change everything. I mean, I definitely feel doomed a lot of times, but when I look at my grandma’s life, and my mom’s life, and my life, I feel like so much changed in the feminist movement as a woman in America. I feel like my options have changed so much. And despite all the terrible things that are happening, there’s really exciting things that are happening, and if we could just overthrow capitalism and have a good society based on mutual respect, then you know, we’d be halfway there. I guess just the history of people struggling when there’s absolutely no hope has given me a lot of hope.



My first story is this:

Back years ago i had a older friend whose son was dying of cancer. One day, just out of the blue, she volunteered, "Walter, when my son dies i'm going to commit suicide." Well, i was just beside myself at this pronouncement. I told her she just couldn't do that and proceeded to make all the arguments that any person would muster when they heard something surprising like this. She patiently answered all of my questions and rebuttals. I'm not going to go into any of the lengthy particulars here, but suffice it to say that it was a thorough and challenging conversation for both of us. In the end i finally conceded that yes, while her decision was a selfish one, due to certain circumstances in her own life her plan was, overall, a reasoned and rational thing to do.

My next story:

Back when Alison and i lived on Lischey Ave. (for the uninitiated, Lischey is the violent, drugged addled inner city avenue where Alison and i lived for ten years) i finally had all i wanted of the crack house across the street. Business was particularly brisk--and since i'd seen this pattern set itself up several times already--i knew that some serious shit was fixin to go down.

So i called the cops. I called the cops and named the kids selling the crack, i told them where they were keeping the larger stash hidden, what time of day was the busiest. The cops asked for my name and wanted to know if they could stop by and ask me a few questions. I said sure, but hey, make sure you pull up to our house from the alley so they won't connect me with the bust, okay? "Sure," they said.

The next day they busted some of the kids and as i watched from the front porch a police officer more or less parked directly in front of our house and hollered "hey, thanks for the information." I was agast.

Anyway, that night, about midnight when alison and i were turning out the lights and getting ready for bed, i looked out the front door as i usually did and noticed...oh, 15 men sitting on the front steps of that crack house across the street. These were not the kids that had been selling there earlier that day, but were instead some fairly full grown and scary looking guys. They were all there on the darkened porch, not talking, looking directly at our house.

I went and got alison and pointed out the guys across the street and i said " darling, i think it's time to make a big decision. I want to know whether you want me to load all the guns" (at this point, when i tell this story to people they usually say You have guns? and i say yes, i inherited them). Anyway, i said "do you want me to load all the guns or should we just trust that nothing is going to happen?"

Like in my friend's suicide story above, we talked about this extensively--Alison on the rabidly anti-gun side the whole time, me straddling the gun/not gun fence--and we finally arrived at the non-hollywood opinion that we should just go to bed believing that all would be okay.

Now, sadly i've set both these stories up but recognize that i need to get ready to go to work here shortly. I don't have the time i'd like to think out the moral or shape the sentences of my conclusion the way i'd like to....plus, i think i need to think about what i want to say for a little while longer. So, sorry, but i think i'll wrap all this up in a later post.


McGraws in Charleston

Just a quick report from the weekend: Adam, Eliza, Simon, and Macie McGraw were in town for a visit. I was going to have Eliza do some guest-blogging, as she's done in the past when she's visited, but we didn't get around to it because we had such action-packed days.
Here are Adam and Biffle as my-two-dads with the kids at the Farmer's Market.

And here's a fairly representative moment from the weekend: Eliza taking a picture of the kids at the Audubon Swamp Garden. Lately she's become a semi-professional photographer, so she took pictures throughout the weekend--I hope to post some here later. Sadly, we didn't see any alligators, but Eliza got some great photos.


More thoughts on the name change question

In my visit to Auburn, I got to be a guest lecturer in an Intro to Women’s Studies class. I told the class that we could talk about any controversial issue they wanted, and we wrote a few on the board: abortion, name change at marriage, beauty standards, women in business. Because of the number of questions and comments they had, we ended up spending the entire class period talking about the name change question. You won’t be surprised to find that their first question for me was, in fact, The Most Common Name Change Question: what happens to the kids’ last names? I filled them in, quoting my comments on this blog.

One thing that really interested me about the conversation, though, was how concerned they seemed about utterly mundane things.

“How will you sign your Christmas cards?” one student asked, all big-eyed earnestness, and others nodded. “Will it be ‘the Piepmeiers and the Biffles’? Wouldn’t that be weird?”

I told them if we ever sent a Christmas card we’d probably end up signing it Alison, Walter, and Random Baby—that it wouldn’t be that big a problem.

“But what if people see that you and your husband have different last names and they think that you aren’t really that close?”

“Well,” I said, “Anybody who’s spent more than three minutes with us could tell that we’re close, and if someone is going to make a decision about my marriage without even spending three minutes with me, then I don’t really care what they think about us.”

“But what if people don’t understand why you did it? What if people ask you why?”

“I hope that people do ask me why,” I said. “Anytime you do something that’s different than the norm, people might be confused, and if they ask you why, then you get to have a conversation. You get to educate somebody—I think that’s great.”

“It just seems so complicated,” one student said. Although they seemed to get what I was saying, and many of the women explained that they thought they wouldn’t change their names, they also seemed oddly concerned with complications that don’t even strike me as complicated. The Christmas card? We should all have the same last name because it makes it easier to sign the Christmas card? Ease in signing Christmas cards—in fact, ease in general—is not my highest value in life, so I’m willing to negotiate some complications in working toward what is a high value for me, fairness.


Feminism out in public

Blogging from the road again, this time from Auburn, Alabama, where I've given a talk about feminism and met with wonderful Women's Studies students and faculty members. It's disappointing to Biffle (and to me) that I didn't get to go to Rural Studio, the incredible art/architecture/social justice fusion project started by Samuel Mockbee. But I did get to talk to several groups about making social change happen, and I'm going to be getting a copy of the Auburn Feminist Union's next zine when it comes out.

Now, as I'm lounging in the luxurious Auburn Hotel and Conference Center, I thought readers of Baxter Sez might be interested in knowing that my essay, the one that used to be called "Abortion: A Love Story," that I've talked about here and here before, is finally out in the world. Incidentally, Margaret Pilarski of Under My Skirt and In My Head and Debbie Siegel of Girl with Pen both have essays in this issue of skirt!, too.

Also, do you people know I have a website now?