Hope and the Politics of Belief: Some Thoughts on a Trip to Prison

Through a series of interesting circumstances, I recently had the occasion to visit Lansing Correctional Facility, the oldest and largest prison in the state of Kansas. The purpose of my visit was multifaceted, but my part in the process was to bring a group of my own university students to participate in a college-level philosophy class taken by inmate students. The explicit goal was to provide both groups the chance to see how their different experiences might provide more nuanced perspectives on some introductory-level philosophical issues.

Although we did not intend to talk about the criminal justice system as one of our topics, the fact that that was the setting of our engagement was an undeniable part of our time together. Like several others in the group, I was aware of the literature on mass incarceration and the “school to pipeline” process that currently feeds the American prison system. While these models of incarceration are complex, what the evidence demonstrates is that factors largely outside of one’s control play a significant role in whether and how one experiences the corrections system. For instance, things such as race, gender, educational quality, and poverty are all determinants in the likelihood of arrest, the quality of one’s legal representation, whether one will be convicted, the length of one’s sentence, and recidivism rates. Continue reading “Hope and the Politics of Belief: Some Thoughts on a Trip to Prison”

Dinner Dates: Mike Pence, Family Values, and Washington Masculinity

Mike Pence is pictured. | Getty

When word broke this past week that Vice President Mike Pence has a longstanding practice of refusing to dine alone with any woman not his wife in order to ensure that he is not tempted by an illicit relationship, the reactions from all sides of the aisle were intriguing but pretty predictable.  On the left, the claim was that this behavior was not only sexist and completely diminishing of women, but that such a move would prevent many women politicos from (literally) getting a seat at the table in an atmosphere where never-ending work schedules make working meals a prerequisite for employment.  On the right, a general rejection of the sexism thesis was followed by praise for Pence and his commitment to his marriage. Continue reading “Dinner Dates: Mike Pence, Family Values, and Washington Masculinity”

What Is A President?

As those of us who have been witnessing the roller-coaster politics of the United States these past few months can attest, there’s a lot riding on the idea of the president.  This may seem truistic, for we all know that presidents are very powerful in great part because they are the megaphone through which a series of legislative platforms is broadcast.

But even more than this, presidents are, for many, the image of the nation-state distilled into a single person. When certain Americans thus claim that Donald Trump is “not my president,” what they are indicating in a very straightforward sense is their rejection of this representative identity even as they wish to retain national ties, for presumably they find inconsistencies between the ways they align their own identities with the nation-state and the president as the national symbol. Of course, we’ve seen that before, most recently in this image:

Continue reading “What Is A President?”

When We Want Alternative Facts

Among the most sensational elements of this week’s political news was the debate over the number of people who appeared across an approximately 24 hour window on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the site of both the Trump presidential inauguration and the Women’s March in protest the next day.  The controversy started over this particular series of photos, which featured the population attending the inauguration:

and those attending the Women’s March:

Continue reading “When We Want Alternative Facts”

What Is Democracy?

Democracy – the worst form of government…

With Tuesday’s colossally surprising upset now behind us, I am musing about how to conceptualize democracy. I began to write this post on Monday the 7th, when the political landscape appeared much different from where many of us sat, perched at the edge of our screens. Indeed, with Trump’s camp appearing more on the defensive at that point, I was intrigued by the interesting and varied elements of anti-democratic speech that emanated from him and his supporters.

We are all familiar with the most public example of this, wherein Donald Trump pledged weeks ago to disavow the election results as non-democratic if they did not turn out as he wished. Yet consider how this same move has also happened among various religious groups that reassured their followers that god/Jesus/deity is in control of everything (including the election), and thus no matter what happens, the will of the people is not theirs, but the extension of the will of some god. Continue reading “What Is Democracy?”

Picture Day

Image result for elementary yearbook

There has lately been a flurry of talk at my house about picture-taking. First, there were the beginning of school pictures for the yearbook. Next, there were the soccer pictures to accompany the end of the season (which is just now occurring). Finally, one of my kids had a special school project that involved taking pictures of him in various stages of engagement with a special stuffed animal; this animal was our houseguest this weekend in honor of my son’s turn as “Student of the Week” in his class.

What struck me about all of these picture was not just the flurry of activity that we devoted to their creation, but my response to the picture-taking process (and, ultimately, the pictures themselves). For my almost-teenage daughter, school pictures are essentially a litmus test of her self worth, and thus she spent considerable time planning hairstyles, clothes, and different sorts of smiles to pull off the look she wanted. When she got her pictures home a few weeks ago, they were just as she had practiced. Everyone was pleased. Continue reading “Picture Day”

The Politics of Footnotes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the earliest literacy skills we learn after formal reading is reading for context. It’s something we all do — it simply means that when we come across a word or phrase with which we’re unfamiliar, we pick up context clues from the text that help us work out what the unknown part likely means.

Recently, I was considering the interesting ways in which the presentation of such contexts operate while I was working through various parts of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction for a class I’m teaching. If you’ve seen it, you know that the Norton features many footnotes, presumably designed to accomplish its stated aim, which is to “help college level teaching of the short story.” We are often taught that the purpose of a footnote is to share additional important information or thoughts in a separate space in the text so that it doesn’t otherwise thwart the presentation of the main text’s primary point or readability. In the case of the Norton, most of the footnotes are devoted to defining phrases or terms, presumably to make the process of reading flow more smoothly. The editors of the Norton don’t offer a discussion about the logic behind what terms they selected for footnoting in the volume,  but common sense might indicate that the editors believe that the footnoted terms are less contextually legible for a college-level population today. Continue reading “The Politics of Footnotes”

Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)

chipotle

Several years ago, at Chipotle, I realized that one of the workers behind the counter was a student of mine, one to whom I’d spoken the week before about his poor performance and a particularly compulsive (and, for me, wildly distracting) propensity to text during class. As we were suspended in an awkward moment where he was asking me what kind of salsa I wanted, another question came out of his mouth as well: Did he still have to call me “Dr. Smith” when he was at work?

My answer, as I remember it, was stumbling and incoherent, comprised of “uh” and the general surprise of not knowing what to say. On the one hand I didn’t really care what he called me, for plenty of my students call me by my first name. On the other hand, though, Dr. Smith was not mentally in the building, so to speak; I was not expecting anyone to call me by my professional title, so I was caught off guard when it came up in a weekend conversation about tacos and corn salsa.   But before I could think much more about the significance of what he had asked and how I had responded, the chatter devolved into guacamole and credit cards, and the exchange was over just as fast as it happened. Continue reading “Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)”

Shoots, Stabs, or Farts: Some Thoughts on Child’s Play

toy gun

My three school aged children recently stayed with grandma for the week, and while there, she took them to the dollar store. Going to the dollar store is one of my kids’ favorite rituals (so popular that they practice it with both sets of grandparents); among other things, it is a pilgrimage that feeds their unending appetites for cheap plastic stuff. Although we actively discourage violent play with our children, have never purchased them violent toys, and talk consistently in our house about the danger of weapons, my sons’ favorite dollar store items are almost always plastic guns, grenades, and knives.

So it was little surprise when grandma texted me to tell me how, upon entering the store, my eight year old son had declared that he was interested in “anything that shoots, stabs, or farts.” After I recovered from that proud parenting moment, I began to consider Michael Kimmel’s observation that male violent play is not a matter of genetic destiny. As much as we may love to utter the following words to one another, this is not an inherently “boys will be boys” situation, for, as Kimmel and other gender scholars have amply shown, violent play is a phenomenon caused by specific cultural patterns and power arrangements rather than an inbred trait of boys. Continue reading “Shoots, Stabs, or Farts: Some Thoughts on Child’s Play”

No Words

charles-kinsey-shooting-x750 (1)

If you have read Susan Sontag’s arresting book, Regarding the Pain of Others, you’ll know that Sontag believes there is something unique about the way that a photograph — particularly a photograph that reveals suffering — is received by its viewers. This uniqueness is partially tied to the content of the image itself, but is also a function of how we, the public, think about images.

On the one hand, she notes, we judge images as something uniquely truthful in a way that we do not with words. Photographs seem like they’re portraying ‘just the facts,’ while we can more easily acknowledge that words are crafted, edited, tweaked. For this reason, the public is often disillusioned by the actual work that is involved in photojournalism, she remarks; that is, we do not want to be aware of the processes of thought, selection, and framing that goes on because we want our images to be ‘the truth.’ In this sense, “Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs” (47). And yet, she notes, we are terribly contradictory in this conviction, for we deny the power of photographs every day when they do not suit our particular purposes. Continue reading “No Words”