Sociological Confessions

April 30, 2016

Religious Observance Policy Limitations

Filed under: race and ethnicity,religion,Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 12:07 pm

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attention to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first three weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? One I’ve recognized for quite a while is the matter of the Lunar New Year. For Chinese and many other Asian ethnic groups, the Lunar New Year is the equivalent of Christmas for Christians. It is the major holiday period of the year. Everything shuts down, people go home to visit relatives. It is a time for feasting and, in many families, a time for spiritual reflection and rituals honoring ancestors. If a Chinese student says that their religion is being Chinese and they want to miss class for a Lunar New Year celebration, the policy clearly requires that they be accommodated, but very few Chinese students make this request. (When I remember, I explicitly tell my classes that I will treat the Lunar New Year the same way I treat Passover or Yom Kippur, as an excused absence.) In fact, sociologically, religion and culture are inextricably intertwined, but much of the US understanding is too narrowly linked to First Amendment concepts of freedom of religion and too little is linked to what it means to accommodate cultural minorities. I’ve suggested to students this term that someone start a social movement to get explicit recognition for the Lunar New Year as a religious holiday.

Second, and a Hmong student just brought this to my attention, there are religious observances that are not necessarily tied to dates that can be known in advance. For example, Hmong healing rituals are scheduled when someone needs it, not on specific dates. The student asked whether that could get religious accommodation. Such religious rituals are akin to close family rituals like weddings and funerals for which we lack clear standards for judging whether a student should have a right to accommodation. We all know about the “grandparent death syndrome” associated with exams, but too much cynicism leads us to be heartless or culturally insensitive to the genuinely important events in student’s lives.

Genuinely accommodating the real needs of our students involves both humanity and a sociological reflection upon the meanings of religion and culture and social obligations.

April 20, 2016

open letter to students of color

Filed under: Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 8:54 pm

NOTE: I did not write this letter. I am posting it here as a model for what support looks like and because some people will find it helpful to have it in a place they can link to. For those of you not at Wisconsin, the context is that campus police entered an Afro-American Studies class and removed a student charged with putting up anti-racist spray-painted graffiti around campus, then took him downtown and filed criminal charges against him, thereby publicizing his name. This was in the context of a wave of hate and bias incidents on the campus; students in these cases faced campus misconduct charges, not criminal charges. Tony Robinson was a young biracial man shot last year by a police officer in a Madison neighborhood near campus.

18 April 2016

An Open Letter to the Students of Color of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

            From The Faculty and Staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies

The faculty and staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies is thinking about you and keeping you in our hearts at this time of extreme stress and tension.  Your anger is justified, your fear understandable.  The disruption of Professor Almiron’s class, and the arrest of your fellow student, King Shabazz, while important in itself, is only the most recent in a series of events that has been steadily escalating in recent months and weeks.  What so many of you are experiencing isn’t a sign of individual weakness.  It’s a version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a mental health crisis as serious as those following campus shootings or natural disasters. We admire the way many of you are holding up but we understand what a strain this represents.

In recognition of that fact, we call on faculty across the campus to respond to the crisis in a spirit of care and generosity as we near the end of the semester.  Further, we ask the administration to affirm that call, as well as to offer public assurances that these events will not interfere with King’s plans to graduate at the end of the semester.  Further, we ask that emergency mental health support be made available to all students affected by recent events.

The most important part of our message to you is simple: do your best to keep your eyes on the prize, and know that we’re there to support you as you walk a difficult path.  We know you’re feeling torn between the demands of your studies and your desire to take an active role in responding to what’s happening.  Let some of the burden be shifted to our shoulders. (more…)

November 25, 2015

Clashing norms of deference

Filed under: professional,students,teaching — olderwoman @ 10:13 pm

I posted this on FB. “How to be deferential but not excessively deferential: If you have a scheduled appointment with your professor and you can tell she is talking to someone else, knock or stick your head in so you are sure she knows you are there, then back up apologetically and say “I’ll be happy to wait.” Quietly waiting without letting her know you are there is a problem because she may prefer to get rid of the person in her office and stick to her schedule rather than run late with you, and she should be the one who gets to decide this.”

In my office configuration I cannot see the hall from my desk and I have OFTEN been chatting aimlessly with someone, telling them “I’m expecting a student soon” and then even “I wonder where my 3pm appointment is, did he forget?” while, unbeknownst to me, the student is sitting or standing quietly and patiently outside the door, never announcing their presence. This drives me crazy, as it seems going way overboard in the deference direction when you have an actual scheduled appointment with someone not to announce that you have arrived for it. Thus, when given the opportunity, I instruct students (as above) about how one can simultaneously exhibit politeness and deference while also honoring schedules. However,  former students (who are now professors themselves) confirm that their own sense of deference would lead them NEVER to interrupt a conversation a professor was involved with.

Is there any hope for this culture clash? I obviously need to return to the sign on my door that says “please tell me if you are waiting for me.” But even when I used to have that sign on the door, I’d have students who either would not notice the sign or not think it applied to them.

April 14, 2015

Cities you did not build, wells you did not dig

Filed under: Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 6:38 pm

Sunday’s sermon text was

Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6: 10-12 New English Bible)

These lines echo today. They are typically interpreted by feel-good Christians spiritually, as reminding us that we are provided with good things not of our own making. And maybe as reminding us that we are dependent on others, not just ourselves. But these passages are explicitly and unambiguously about conquest and the displacement of the previous occupants of a territory. This can be readily seen in the parallel passage in Joshua:

You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The leaders of Jericho, as well as the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites, fought with you, but I handed them over to you. I sent terror ahead of you to drive out before you the two Amorite kings. I gave you the victory; it was not by your swords or bows. I gave you a land in which you had not worked hard; you took up residence in cities you did not build and you are eating the produce of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. (Joshua 24:11-13 New English Bible)

The Biblical writers know this history and make no apology for it. They believe that a one-sided war god backed them against their enemies and gave them the land over the dead bodies of their enemies. They remember their own victimization and their time of slavery and rejoice that it has ended, but they simply have no compunction about killing other groups and taking their land, and they are sure that is what their god wants them to do. (See more references below if you have any doubt that this is a persistent theme.)

The launching point of the sermon was a tour the pastor and other church members took to be educated about immigration issues in Arizona. This stressed the overlain history of the area: indigenous inhabitants partially conquered and partially assimilated by Spanish; the Mexican people who are the amalgamation of indigenous and Spanish who moved around in Mexico; the Anglo-Americans who conquered Northern Mexico and finished conquering the indigenous and now have the audacity to complain about “foreigners” in the area. Our pastor also spoke of touring old Jaffa in Israel-Palestine today with Palestinians who can point to the exact houses that were occupied by their parents and are now occupied by Jews who forcibly removed them. There are plenty of other examples. White South Africans still occupy areas from which they forcibly removed Black South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s. European settlers on the Atlantic coast of North American were able to gain a foothold because they occupied villages that had been built and farmlands that had been cleared by indigenous Americans who had recently died of a plague. All European Americans live on land that was taken from indigenous Americans in a multi-hundred year war of conquest.

Some White American Christians believe in the war god who favored [White] America in its genocide and conquest just as the war god of the Old Testament favored Israel. In fact, the sense of American exceptionalism and American divine right to rule cannot be understood outside this religious context, this understanding of America as the new Israel and Americans as the new chosen people.

Biblically literate atheists point to these passages and these interpretations as a reason to reject Christianity and the Biblical tradition wholesale, and it is hard to blame them.

What is a progressive White American Christian to make of this? How can we reject the one-sided war god and make sense of our position if we believe in a god that is God for everyone? We must sit with the understanding that we are living in houses we have not built and drawing water from wells we did not dig. We are living atop the graves of others, and we are only here because our ancestors brutally displaced other people from their homes. This is plain historical fact. Either we believe only in the one-sided war god, or we believe that somehow there must be some just accounting for the sins of our ancestors. To continue to benefit from the consequences of past injustice is to perpetuate the injustice. And yet, we are not volunteering (I am not volunteering) to relocate myself to my ancestral homeland in Europe, and moreover (and perhaps ironically), Europe considers me to be a foreigner. It seems to me the only way forward is to sit humbly with the burden of history, to try to make justice or at least to get out of the way when others try to make justice.


* Passages which are explicit about killing and displacing others: Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, 7:2, 13:15, 20:13-14; Numbers 21:3, 31:17-18; Joshua 6:21-27, 8:22-25, 10:10-40, 11:8-15, 21-23; Judges 1:4, 1:17, 3:29, 7:19-25, 8:15-21, 9:45, 20:43-48, 21:10-12; 1 Samuel 4:10, 7:7-11, 11:11, 14:31, 14:48, 15:3, 7-8, 27:8-11; 2 Samuel 8:5, 8:13, 18:6-7; 1 Kings 20:29-30; 2 Kings 14:5-7.

December 7, 2014

peace and justice

Filed under: Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 5:51 pm

The second candle of advent is the candle of peace. My radical daughter sitting next to me bristled and, to tell the truth, I did, too. To pray for peace without simultaneously thinking about justice is implicitly to pray for oppression to continue. Facts are facts, and conflict and turmoil are pretty much the only way to battle hierarchy, oppression, and injustice. Anger is politically important.

The Biblical texts are considerably more full of conflict than the sanitized middle class Midwestern Christmas narrative.

Matthew 10 (commissioning the disciples) (34-39): “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (With a similar sentiment found in Luke 12:51-53).

And Mary’s song in the Magnificat (Luke 1: 51-53): He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

As individuals, we need to be as centered as we can be. Peace at the center, knowing that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And we need to remember the humanity of others, even when they are inhumane. But there is no religious warrant for asking for, much less demanding, that people choose peace over justice. It is the other way around. Justice is the commandment.

December 6, 2014

Hope in the Darkness, Fatalism is not an Option

Filed under: Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 12:36 pm

This is the first week of advent, the week we light the candle of hope. Hope is not cheerfulness and optimism. Hope is not the property of the wealthy and self-satisfied. Hope stares into the dark, looks despair in the face, and dares to believe in another future. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us looks bleak. Despair demobilizes, despair paralyzes. Despair makes us fatalistic and inactive. Despair tells us that we may as well go about the individualistic business of scrambling to get what we can for ourselves and ignore the signs of need and injustice around us. Hoping is believing and working for what is right and just when there is no easy path.

My hope in the darkness of injustice was renewed this week by these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820, if you were black and looked back to your ancestors and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves. There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn’t really an option. Even if you think you’re not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight. It’s kind of selfish to say that you’re only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see. As an African-American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime or even in their children’s lifetime or even in their grandchildren’s lifetime. So fatalism isn’t really an option.” Interview on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” 12/4/14, posted on the Huffington Post by Ed Mazzra Link

November 18, 2014

Name Ghost

Filed under: Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 9:26 am

One way or another it is looking like it will cost me several hundred dollars and significant aggravation to deal with the fallout of US patriarchy. Back when I was married in 1970, the women’s movement was just kicking in and a summer employer insisted that they could not (would not) pay me unless I signed a form changing to my married name on my social security record. I never got a new card, however, and since that time, the only name I’ve used is my birth name.To do this, in the 1970s I had several times to verbally lie to self-appointed local government monitors of women’s names (marital status was never a question on the written document one was signing) who were insisting that married women must use their husband’s surnames on things like drivers licenses and employment records. Sometimes the courts upheld the patriarchists, sometimes the women. All this dust gradually settled around 1980 and since then married women have been left alone and allowed to use birth names in peace.(All you young-’uns who are going about changing names willy-nilly for trivial reasons like marriage just make us older women sigh, given all the grief we incurred to avoid it.)

Because many people do change names at marriage, it is very easy to do so. You just drop by your local identity office with marriage papers and poof your name changes. This does not apply, however, if you are caught in the warp of the 1970s. If the SSA persuades itself that the name they have for you is your “legal name,” you must prove that there has been a legal name change. If you are a married women using your birth name you do not, of course, have such a court order, because you never changed your name. You are just dealing with the fallout of strong arm patriarchal bullying from the 1970s that gives many married women from that era an inconsistent set of names.

SSA knows who I am. I have a comprehensive identity record. They know my birth name, they can see my lifetime payroll records, they have my marriage certificate. They know what happened. There is no dispute about the facts. But they claim to be incapable of correcting their records to match reality without a court order. They say this is part of the heightened scrutiny on identity with e-verify. There are activists pointing out that this system disproportionately affects women. My lawyer says I should not have to pay her to do this for me, and I’m going to try one  more time on my own before handing it over to her.

I’m pretty mad but if I have to I can pay the money to get this straightened out. If I have to, I’ll get the court order. But as my friends say, “what are poor women supposed to do?”

August 6, 2014


This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it. (more…)

July 24, 2014

you think applying for academic jobs is hard?

Filed under: Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 7:57 am

Since retiring, my spouse has been volunteering at the “job club,” helping low income people apply for jobs. Applicants for low-wage jobs need to apply on line, and many low-wage workers neither own computers nor have much experience using them. Plus they are often unfamiliar with the various verbal hoops applicants have to go through. One of the big ones are banks of attitude questions. Yesterday he spent a couple of hours with a woman applying to work as a baker in a donut franchise, not the chef who thinks up recipes, someone who just does the work of cooking and frosting. She had to respond to 300 Likert items, 25 a page for 12 pages (!) with items like these

It is important to know what my coworkers think.
It is important to know what my coworkers feel.
I can easily imagine what my coworkers feel.
It is important to my life that the company do well.
Sometimes you have to take a risk to solve a problem for the company.
You have to know all possible solutions before picking one.
My coworkers say I’m cooperative.
My coworkers say I’m obedient.

Other items, he says, are convoluted sentence structures that even he finds difficult to parse to figure out what the positive/negative ends of the scale are. After two hours, they had to quit because the room needed to be used by someone else, and they had only gotten through five pages of the questions. The 300 is the worst so far, but this kind of thing is common in the low wage world. Another time he was working with a mentally disabled man trying to get a job as a dishwasher who had to work through 150 such questions. This is not what you do after you’ve passed the screening and are being interviewed. This is what you have to do just to enter the screening process. My daughter the labor activist says they are trying to screen out not only thieves but activists. I’m sure she’s right, and also pretty confident that these question banks are produced by consultants who don’t necessarily think through what it means to have to spend five hours applying for a $9/hour job on a computer in a public place. Or maybe they do, and that’s part of the test?

I don’t mean with my title to belittle the stresses of being on the academic job market. It is a scary world out there, and the application process is time-consuming and stressful for everyone. But I think we have not stooped this low. Yet, anyway.

June 30, 2014

Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring

Filed under: professional,students — olderwoman @ 12:03 pm

My goal is to improve the culture of publication and coauthoring in my department. Although some of our students do great on this, others languish, and many of our students complain that they do not get enough mentoring about publishing. I have identified as one problem that many faculty consider it “exploitative” to involve students in their research if they are not being paid. Another problem is wide variation in opinions about the level of involvement that merits a coauthorship. What I want to do is to develop a set of normative guidelines for apprentice-like experiences that do not involve payment, as well as guidelines for those that do. I am working up a draft of this and would appreciate comments and reports on good and bad experiences and practices in other programs. So here is my draft. Comments, please. NOTE: This is explicitly a model for the hierarchical situation in which a professor takes the lead in defining a project and the graduate student is an apprentice. It is NOT a model for the more egalitarian relations that develop organically. (more…)

May 21, 2014

gradebook rant

Filed under: teaching — olderwoman @ 6:40 pm

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic grading papers with (gasp!) grades. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades?

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why is my university still assuming that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?

July 23, 2013

Too Many Reviewers

Filed under: sociology & ASA — olderwoman @ 11:26 pm
Tags: ,

(reposting here to archive. Discussion is like to be on

I freaked out recently when, after reviewing an article, I received a packet of FIVE (5!!!)  reviews on the same article. I chewed out the editors for wasting my time and told them I would never review for their journal again. After an exchange (in which I got a little less testy), I told them I’d post my concerns to scatterplot and open a discussion on the topic. Although five was over the top and freaked me out, it has become pretty common now for me as a reviewer to get a packet with four reviews. No wonder we regular reviewers are feeling under the gun. The old calculation of two or even three reviews per article has gone by the wayside. The pressure for fast turnaround and the high turn-down or non-response rate among potential reviewers has led editors to send out articles to extra reviewers in the hopes of ending up with at least the minimum two or three.

But this is a death spiral. As a frequently-sought reviewer I get at least four requests a month, sometimes as many as eight, and I used to get more before I got so crabby.  When I was young and eager, I was reviewing an article a week [and thus, by the way, having a huge influence on my specialty area], and I know some people who are keeping that pace. But at some point you burn out and say “no more.” I, like all other frequently-sought reviewers I know, turn down outright the requests from journals I don’t know for articles that sound boring, and then save up the other requests and once a month pick which articles I want to review. So the interesting-sounding articles from good journals get too many reviewers, while the boring-sounding articles from no-name journals get none. If journal editors respond to the non-response by reviewers to boring-sounding articles by sending out even more reviewer requests per article, our mailboxes will be flooded even more and the non-response rate and delayed-response rate by reviewers will go up even more. Senior scholars are asked to review six to eight (or more?) articles per month. You have to say no to most of the requests.

And then we have the totally out of hand R&R problem. I think it is completely immoral to send an R&R to ANY new reviewers. I know a young scholar with a perfectly good paper who is now on the 4th (!!!!) iteration of an R&R from ASR. Not because she has not satisfied the original reviewers, but because the editors keep sending each revision to a new set of reviewers in addition to the original reviewers and, of course, the new reviewers have a different perspective and a new set of suggestions for the paper, some of which cover ground that was gone over in one or more of the previous revisions. Not to mention the problem that R&R memos are now longer than the original articles!!  We are no longer a discipline of article publishing, we are turning into a discipline of R&R memo-writing.

Something has to change.  Senior scholars burn out and get reputations for being difficult, possibly because editors don’t know how many other people are asking them to do things. Junior scholars would want to review and wonder why nobody is asking them, and other junior scholars think they are being tapped a lot because they are getting four requests a year. Article-submitters (disproportionately junior scholars) whine and complain about slow turn-arounds, and imagine — what?  I guess I don’t know what they imagine? Do they even understand what is happening on the reviewer side of the equation? I think some of the more clueless imagine that reviewers are just queuing up to write negative reviews about them and it is all the editors’ fault for not organizing things better.

My purpose in posting is to open the discussion. I think what is needed are some ground rules that would help the senior scholar problem. (1) Reviewer time is a scarce resource. Treat it as such. Do not waste people’s time. (2) No article is ever sent to more than three reviewers. Better is to send to two and ask for a third if there is a split vote.  (3) If a reviewer fails to respond in a timely fashion, they get an email: please respond or we will send the article to someone else. (4) If an editor has three reviews, they immediately send a notice to anyone else they asked for a review saying “we have enough now” or, if you insist, “we have three reviews but they are mixed, and your opinion would help.” (5) If you get two reviews and the situation is obvious, tell anyone else you asked for a review “never mind.”  (6) An R&R is sent back to the original reviewers and to NOBODY ELSE unless there is some very specific issue and the paper author is told at the time what the issue is and the category of additional reviewer who will be solicited. (7) Author angst about turn-around time is dealt with not by sending articles out to eight possible reviewers (!!!!) but by keeping authors informed of their status. Telling an author that they are having a hard time getting reviewers lets them know what is going on. (8) Tell reviewers you want a response to the “will you review?” email within two weeks and cancel the invitation if they do not respond within one week to the follow up to the initial request. Leaving the requests open just encourages the kind of gaming I described and increases the risk of wasting reviewers’ time with too many reviews.

To expand the pool of reviewers among junior scholars, it seems to me that there needs to be a database set up of potential reviewers. This would have to have cvs and samples of the person’s own publications/writing. Does anyone have an idea about how to get such a thing going?

Scatterplotters: Your thoughts?

February 5, 2013

Letting Go

Filed under: professional — olderwoman @ 10:34 am

The publisher emailed me last week to ask whether it isn’t time to just give up and admit the book is never going to get written. It’s not that I have done no work. I’ve done tons of work multiple times for nearly 10 years. I’ve generated hundreds of pages of text, hundreds of regression analyses, and more than 10,000 graphs. Four years ago I dug down, worked hard, and sent off a partial MS saying “I don’t know if this is a book. If it isn’t, just tell me so and I’ll let it go.” I was encouraged to go on but asked a question that led me to another round of analysis and a whole new set of findings and a totally different understanding of the main story. Two years ago there was another crisis: the publisher said  it has to be finished by September or we’ll pull the plug. I dug down, did another revision of another partial MS and sent it off, again saying, I don’t know if this is a book. Maybe we should just give up. Nearly a year ago we had a “book meeting.” The basic response was: This isn’t a book. There is too much information, we don’t want all those details.  It was pretty frustrating to hear that four years after I’d said that. I said I’d think about whether I could reshape things to pull the main narrative out. There is a narrative in there, but it is  hard to see how it hangs together into a single simple story. And I’ve done this so many times, I just don’t think I can do it again. I’m tired of it.

I think it’s time to pull the plug, to salvage the fragments of what I’ve done and put them out in other ways. But it is hard to do. It is hard to decide that I’ve wasted so much of my time for the past 10 years working on a project that will never see the light of day. I can’t make myself send the email. I have to sit with this for a while.

Lessons learned.

For the publisher: don’t give a contract for a book to someone who has never written a book unless there is already a set of articles to build on or a good draft manuscript and outline.  I’ve got (or used to have) a good track record as an article writer, but I have no track record as a book writer. My one book is a collection of articles and that was delivered five years late. Books and articles are different kinds of products and being good at writing one of them does not make you good at writing the other.

For the writer: don’t accept a contract for a book unless you know you can deliver it. It’s been clear for at least 8 years that I had no clear conception of what “the book” would be, and trying to write a book without a clear conception of the product is a recipe for disaster.

And another lesson. Academic work has to be shared and communicated to be meaningful.


May 31, 2012

Grading Feedback

Filed under: teaching,Uncategorized — olderwoman @ 3:08 pm
Tags: ,

I’m finally done with grading. Well almost done. I’m still dealing with grade appeals. So what’s on my mind is some suggestions about grading, and I may write several posts on this theme.

It is important to give students feedback along the way about what your records show for them, especially if the grade depends heavily on lots of small things like daily attendance or homework. Even for test scores and such it is good to let the students see what your records show. The fact is, we sometimes make mistakes in recording grades. A system that assumes you never make a mistake is a bad system. If a student is going to challenge the accuracy of your records, you’d like that to happen in a timely fashion, not after grades have been submitted. And you shouldn’t be happy about students getting the wrong grade just because they didn’t challenge you.One way to give students feedback is your school’s on-line grading system. I don’t use ours because the interface is slow, clunky, inflexible and cannot handle the way I grade. Instead, I find it easy to use Word and Excel for this.

If you are part of the Microsoft/Windows world, you can easily generate grade reports for your students using Excel (or Access), Word, and Outlook. This is easy to learn to do and produces very high student satisfaction. Here are the basics. The trick is to initiate the merge in Word and from a Word document link to the data source. Let’s assume you have your grade data in a spreadsheet. The column headings are identifiers like names and the grade components like tests, attendance, homework. The rows are the students.  In Word, go to the “mailings” menu and the “select recipients” menu to link to the spreadsheet page with the data. The column headings will show up as merge fields in the merge field menu. You write your feedback form any way you wish, inserting merge fields as appropriate. You can lay it out as a table, or just free form text. Just don’t forget the field for the student’s name.  Adding a student email field is very useful, too. In large classes, I have found it helpful also to have a field for section number and TA name. Dating the output is a good idea, too. Then push the button to merge to a new document and, presto, you have feedback sheets, one per student. This lets you show students what you have for them in the computer and gives them a chance to correct clerical errors in a timely fashion. You can use the preview buttons to see what the pages will look like before you merge, and it is a good idea to merge to a file instead of a printer so you can double-check the results before sacrificing trees. Also you’ll want to keep an electronic copy of what you sent to the students.

Once you see how to do it, you’ll realize how easy it is to give a tailored report that fits your own teaching style. You can include explanatory text telling people how to interpret their grades or whatever. You’ll also want to include instructions for what to do if there’s an error, and a deadline for correcting errors. When you send/give out the reports, tell students (preferably in the report) what to do if they think there is an error in the records. It will be easier for you if the procedure requires them to use the feedback form you gave them, either annotating a paper form or replying to an emailed form.

The next step can be a bit harder to get set up but saves paper and instructor hassle and once it works it will keep working. If you also have Outlook and get its options set correctly, you can mail merge to email directly from inside Word. If it works at all, it works very easily. You have to make sure that the student’s email address is one of the fields in your spreadsheet/database. At my office, the default configuration did not have this capability turned on in Outlook, but it was an easy tech support fix to get it turned on. You can test this feature now, while it is summer.  Just set up a spreadsheet with name and email fields, and enter your own name and email and perhaps a couple of friends. I just used all three of my own email addresses. Then open Word and create a dummy document. Mine said: testing name <namefield> email <emailfield>. Then merge to email. If it worked, you’ll get the email, that easy. If you don’t get an email, it didn’t work. Tip: when it is for real, put yourself and your email address as the last line in your grade records so you can tell whether the email merge worked when you send to students. For some reason I do not understand, this only works for me if I choose the html option in mailing, and not in the text-only option.

A couple of tech notes: (1) This works the same way if you happen to have your grades in Access instead of a spreadsheet. You might be tempted to use the Access report function. Trust me, it is MUCH easier to initiate the report in Word. (2) If your grades are in a multi-page spreadsheet, you’ll need to create an export page that reads from the different data pages. As far as I can tell, Word cannot run a mail merge from more than one spreadsheet page (or Access table) at a time. Or do a separate report for each spreadsheet page. (3) Computed values will come through with 10 decimal places unless you overtly format them to fewer decimal places back in the spreadsheet. EDIT (4) Learned the hard way. Word reads ONLY the FIRST record in deciding how to format a field. If a field may have text or numbers, you need to make sure it has text as long as any longest record  will have in the FIRST record. This probably means you’ll want to create a dummy first record for this purpose.

Please feel free to use comments to explain how keep records and give feedback in other software packages, for example by using the report functions in a statistical package. I was very sadly and slowly dragged into using MS Word because I really prefer WordPerfect for most tasks, but MS Word’s mail merge function is one of its strengths. I could never get a WP mail merge to work without several trails, while a Word mail merge always works on the first try. My university supplies me with the MS products and Windows machines, so I have not used Open Office or Linux or Mac products, although I assume you can do the same thing more or less easily with them as with the Microsoft products. I actually use Thunderbird rather than Outlook for ordinary email, but Word won’t merge to Thunderbird, and the Thunderbird mail merge isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up data from other programs.

November 7, 2011


Wherein I wonder about a sentence, learn a lot, and end up with more questions.

Today’s first hymn was titled “Great Spirit God” (one of two translations of Wakantanka Taku Nitawa in our hymnal). The music note said the tune is Lacquiparle, “Native American melody (Dakota) Adapt. Joseph R. Renville, 1842.” This hymnal has a short background note for each hymn. This one said: “Recollecting the accounts told by his grandfather and others, Sidney Byrd stated:

‘This hymn was sung by thirty-eight Dakota Indian prisoners of war as they went to the gallows at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, in the largest mass execution in American history.”

That caught my attention! The minister’s introduction mentioned the Native American provenance but not the scene of people singing it while they were being hanged.

When I got home, I looked it up. The note is a pointer to the 1862 Sioux uprising, one of the hundreds of battles in the three-hundred year war of the conquest of North America by Europeans.  From the point of view of many native people, especially Dakotas, those executed were martyred freedom fighters, while from the point of view of European and Euro-American settlers at the time they were murderers who brutalized innocent and peaceful settlers. From what I read, it seems likely that the men really were singing as they were marched to their hanging with linen bags over their heads, but just what they were singing and what it meant is less clear. Tracking down the story behind the note is a reminder of our brutal and complex multi-voiced history. I’m not sure what it means for us English-speaking Euro-American Christians to sing the hymn. Are we singing a native tune just because it is beautiful and haunting? To broaden our awareness of the multi-cultural scope of the Christian community? To express solidarity with native people? To honor those executed as martyrs to the faith? To apologize in singing for destroying their communities and taking their land? Is it an act of cultural appropriation for us to sing this tune? Or an act of cultural appreciation?

The hymn’s composer, Joseph Renville, was the son of a French father and a Dakota mother who was educated by Catholic priests and initiated the founding of a town at Lac qui Parle [French for “lake that speaks” which sounds significant but seems to have nothing to do with the story] in Minnesota in the 1820 and invited missionaries into it in the 1830s. He died in 1849. Renville is generally credited with turning three traditional Dakota tunes into Christian hymns in the Dakota language, including this one.  Whether the tune was considered sacred by the Dakota before it was made into a Christian hymn is unclear. Some sources seem to imply it was a traditional death or funeral song. The first English paraphrase of the Christian hymn was made at the request of the national YWCA in 1929 by R. Philip Frazier, a Congregational minister who was the grandson of Artemas Ehnamani, a Santee Dakota who was converted to Christianity while in prison after the 1862 conflict; Philip’s father Frances was also a minister. Philip Frazier and his wife Susie (who edited a collection of hymns) spread the English version so that it is now a popular inclusion in many American hymnals and songbooks. It is perhaps worth noting that the words in English include generic references to God (or Great Spirit) and a Creator with no mention of Jesus or specifically Christian theology.

The occasion for the mass execution was the aftermath of the Sioux uprising of 1862 in Minnesota.  The short version is that some Sioux started the war because their annuities were delayed and they were hungry and there was growing pressure on the tribe from European settlers. The uprising started with a small attack but grew and spread; several hundred European settlers were killed. There were Sioux who opposed the war and cooperated with bringing the rebels to trial after they were defeated. There was a formal trial with witnesses. There was also an intervention of President Lincoln, who transmuted the sentences of most of the 200+ fighters but not the last 38, who were supposedly guilty of killing or raping women or children. There are disputes about whether those executed were guilty of attacks on women and children, but there is no dispute that quite a few European settlers were killed one way or another. After this event, the Dakota (Sioux) were all exiled from their homeland and sent west. Some have returned to the area as individuals. Below I linked to a number of detailed accounts of the uprising and subsequent trial and execution.

According to the accounts, the executed men were singing what some observers called a “death song” for several days before their execution. Catholic priests and perhaps other missionaries were apparently in the prisons seeking converts. On the day of the execution, the condemned sang as linen bags were placed over their heads and they were marched to the gallows. What they were singing is less clear. Was it Wakantanka Taku Nitawa, the Dakota-language hymn written by Renville in 1842? If so, did they understand this as a Christian hymn, or as a traditional Dakota sacred death song, or both? If they were singing that tune, were they singing Renville’s words, or older words? Were they like the early Christian martyrs who shocked the Romans by cheerfully facing death?  Were they extolling Christianity or the Dakota culture? Were they mourning their own demise and that of their people? Were they singing in submission to God or in defiance of their executioners? One detailed contemporary account from an anti-Dakota writer in a St. Paul newspaper describes the men’s cheerfulness and singing in the days before their execution as evidence of the fraudulence of their supposed conversions to Christianity. In describing their song as they marched to the gallows, he calls it a “hideous Hi-yi-yi, Hi-yi-yi’” and describes one singer making one last vulgar expression of defiance as he gestures that his private parts will be found near someone’s severed head. The hymn is now sung often on December 26 by native people in Minnesota and the Dakotas in memory and honor of the men who were executed and went bravely? joyously? faithfully? defiantly? to their death.


An audio on hymntime of the haunting melody accompanied by the Frazier English paraphrase of the Renville words

History of the hymn that seems to be an orphan document with no external links on the Chippewa County (location of Lac qui Parle)  Historical Society web site; my source for information about Frazier.

Lengthy accounts of the 1862 uprising and the trial and execution in

The fact of singing seems to be widely attested. An eye-witness account published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press of the execution by an anti-Native writer (who also includes extensive descriptions of the condemned men saying good bye to their loved ones) .

Many other accounts mention the men singing on their way to the gallows, although not what they were singing. E.g. this standard history from the Mankato boosters

As an example of how this event has become an important symbol, my Internet searches turned up the December 2008 newsletter of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, a 28-page newsletter which is otherwise primarily devoted to pictures of Christmas parties, public service announcements and other upbeat community news. Page 5 is half an “in rememberance” section that mentions this an other December events in American Indian history in short paragraphs and half a picture of men aiming rifles announcing that the Indian Veterans Post will have a 21 Gun Salute on December 26th at 10am in remembrance of the 38 Dakotas at the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Page 6 is devoted to listing the names of all 38 men who were executed.  Page 26 reprints a letter to a newspaper advocating that Minnesota admit that in creating the state the Dakota nation was destroyed and giving an extended critique of the fairness of the 1862 trials, in the process rebutting someone who had claimed otherwise.  It is especially of sociological interest to see how historical memory and current social news are comfortably intertwined in this home grown internal document for a local community.

A report from a 1987 reconciliation project in Minnesota mentions that many Dakota believe Lac qui Parle was sung by Dakota at the hanging and also discusses the feelings of different people who have ties to the events, including Dakota who rebelled and those who cooperated with convicting the rebels. Singing the hymn together is mentioned as one part of meetings of reconciliation.

I encountered a variety of other mentions of the singing of this hymn at community gatherings among the Dakota in December that referenced the memory of the executions.

The additional note on the other version of Wakantanka Taku NItawa in my hymnal says “Probably the best-known Native American Hymn, “Many and Great” is sung with great reverence by the Dakota people in worship, at communion, and for births, funerals, and burials. Renville helped establish the Lac qui Parle mission in Minnesota. Frazier, a Native American, was a Congregational minister.”

April 27, 2011

Conflicts of interest

Filed under: politics — olderwoman @ 1:38 pm

There’s still a lot of protest and politics going on in Wisconsin, although the national attention has turned elsewhere. At least 8 state senators (5 Republican 3 Democrat) will face recall elections. The “collective bargaining bill” and our 6-8% effective pay cuts (by way of deductions for retirement and health insurance) are delayed by a court case.

One of the ugly elements of this struggle that has not been national news is the part relating to the University. Part of Gov. Walker’s infamous budget bill bomb was a restructuring of the University of Wisconsin to separate out UW Madison as a public authority. He had met privately with Chancellor Martin* to get her proposal, and included it in his budget bill along with a huge funding cut. UW System cried foul, as they’d agreed to bargain in a block and accused Chancellor Martin of bad faith — a claim she disputed, saying that the Governor had asked her not to talk to others and telling her that he would talk to the System people, and that the System president had also had private meetings with the Governor that he did not disclose to others. The Chancellor’s story sounds plausible to me — there is other evidence that Gov. Walker’s plan was to take all opponents by surprise with a blitzkrieg.

Politically, Walker’s agenda is pretty clearly to sow dissent among those who would otherwise be united in opposing him. I don’t think even Republicans are arguing that the inclusion of the proposal in the budget bill was a good-hearted effort to do what is best for the University. They way it was done was obviously calculated to embarrass Chancellor Martin.  However, Chancellor Martin and a lot of faculty do think that the public authority is something they have wanted and worked for for a long time, and support the bill.** Other faculty are lining up against the bill. Some argue that the whole public authority idea is a bad one, and basically argue in favor of continued populist control of the university. (It is my impression that most of these are fairly young, as I personally have a hard time imagining how anybody can say with a straight face that the rules we’ve been living under could possibly be good for us, but there are some older people who say this who seem to be guided primarily by ideological principle.) Others who basically agree about the need for a different structure argue that the proposal isn’t the right one to go to, that a major restructuring at this moment in history would put too much power into Governor-appointed regents who cannot be trusted to defend academic freedom and other moral virtues. Former chancellors and provosts are coming out on different sides of this issue.

All of these discussions among faculty are occurring in an extremely dangerous and conflictual political context in which the one thing that is certain is that there are few in state government who have the university’s well-being as much of a priority.

Some background. In the 1970s, the University of Wisconsin – Madison was merged with other state colleges and universities into the University of Wisconsin system. The system includes a half dozen universities and another half dozen two year schools. There are a scattering of vocational master’s programs around other campuses, but only Milwaukee and Madison have PhD programs. There are longstanding grievances among UW-Madison faculty about our status in UW System and our treatment in state government, with many older faculty feeling that state resources have been unfairly diverted from Madison to other campuses and that the state government has materially hurt UW-Madison with politically-motivated meddling from the state legislature. Among the things that have particularly galled me are having our raise pool explicitly voted on in the state legislature, having the legislature successfully mandate the creation of new programs and so-far unsuccessfully threaten to abolish others, and having the legislature on three different occasions that I know of (and possibly more than I do not know of)  seize money from a  university account that had been set up as a no-state-tax-dollars-involved profit center and put it in the state’s general revenue fund. University budgeting has become defensive and obscurantist as a consequence — money cannot be accumulated into any kind of reserve for fear of seizure, and bookkeeping becomes an exercise in money laundering and money hiding to prevent the state legislature from finding it. Also we get to be a political football. In previous years, when the legislature was of a different party from the governor, it was common practice for one side to try to “get” the other by throwing a political bomb at the university.

As I have debated this issue with grad students (who are mostly lined up in opposition to the plan), I have been trying to unravel the threads of interest involved. The students tend to emphasize concerns about tuition. Issues of access and affordability are real ones. They are issues now, as state funding continues to decline. All predictions about how this issue would play out under different structures are entirely hypothetical. One group argues that to change from being a public university is to give up forever on the idea of more tax dollar subsidies for tuition. Another group argues that the only way to increase affordability is to raise tuition simultaneously with raising financial aid — effectively to charge a sliding scale that depends on family income; people who advocate this disagree about which structure is most likely to do this. As that is all hypothetical, that particular debate is solely one of opinions.

But the whole tuition debate — one I am sympathetic to as a progressive — cuts entirely differently from the issue of what is good for an elite research university. If my goal is access to high quality education for youth of modest means, wouldn’t I just stop funding an elite research university entirely? Wouldn’t that access goal be better met with an institution staffed by lower-paid faculty teaching three or four courses a semester than by an institution staffed by higher-paid faculty whose major interest and time commitment is to their research/scholarship? The trend at elite schools is toward inequality: higher and higher salaries for the high-performing research faculty, and more and more teaching done by lower paid adjunct faculty.

One core value question is whether you support the idea of an elite research institution or not. Should there be major public research institutions at all?  And if so, what does it take to maintain them? Can an elite research university survive with an egalitarian ethos in the face of competition from the unapologetic elitist private institutions? The “public” schools that are thriving  that I know of have gotten some kind of independence from their state government oversights. Are there any models out there of thriving public elite universities that have not half-privatized? Chancellor Martin thinks this change is needed for UW as a research university. Political critics here argue that this allows for growing corporate control of research. The trouble is that that train has already left the station. There is essentially zero state funding for research. Research funding is federal, or corporate. As public money — both state and federal — have declined, the university has been increasingly reliant on private donor fundraising. Read corporate influence. That is happening now, has been happening for the past twenty years. Public money dries up, corporate money fills the void. This is a real issue, but debates about the current bill (in my view) are irrelevant to it.

To the graduate students reading this, I ask you: are you advocating the end of research institutions and the idea of graduate training that is associated with them? Just where do you think graduate school is going to come from, if not the elite research institutions? What exactly is your model?

Another interest group — one whose interests have been glaringly absent from all the public discussions — are the staff of the university. They are currently part of the state civil service system and are mostly unionized, except for managers and some professionals. The bill calls for “flexibility” in staffing, and is utterly silent on what that would mean for staff. In the short run, I think they are supposed to be guaranteed to stay in the state retirement and health care systems, but I know nothing about what would happen to the rules about bidding on jobs, job security, etc. It is not clear what would be good for them. Private universities do not have a good track record for treatment of their staff. If I were staff, it would look to me like a possible choice between the frying pan and the fire.

I find myself getting angry at students who are organizing anti-chancellor rallies around simple-minded slogans about tuition or privatization/corporate influence that seem to me to be more oriented to building up their sense of themselves as radical activists than to any real interest in what is actually happening at the university. This is doubtless unfair, as I think many students are scrambling to get themselves up to speed on this tangle of issues. And, I remind myself, we don’t all have the same interests. For that matter, my own interests are conflicted around these issues, and I suspect many students are in the same boat. In a very complex, volatile and dangerous political environment with a lot of different interests and interest groups, it can be very difficult to chart the best course of action.

*I am pointedly calling her Chancellor Martin and not Biddy because I see some sexism in the way her first name is used where just the surname would typically be used for a man in her position.

** It seems pretty clear that the faculty or regents who wanted this change were the ones who gave Chancellor Martin her “marching orders” three years ago, and that she did not have enough background to be able to plug into the diversity of opinion on the campus. She ran into a buzz saw a couple years ago around reorganizing how campus research is administered, where it was evident there were similar problems.

April 2, 2011

Republican cop tells his story

Filed under: politics — olderwoman @ 3:30 pm

This is a pretty interesting read on a lot of levels. The Republican police officer tells his story about how he watched his plumber friend get rich while he just got by on his much lower public police salary, then watched his plumber friend go broke in the housing bust, and how his plumber friend is now blaming HIM (the cop) for his (the plumber’s) financial woes. Here’s a short quote from the much longer piece, which lays out a lifetime of financial ups and downs for both of them.

Then February 11th came. Governor Walker, the man I voted for. The man who was going to put Doyle to bed and turn the ship around, spoke. His budget repair bill was announced and it was the shot heard around the country. He was now calling ME the haves, for being a public employee! I was the problem that the state is broke from my huge amounts of income and my retirement account. ME?? I thought. All of a sudden, I am the bad guy because I work for “the big bad government”. For 25 years, I was the “have not” while Kevin was the “have”. In a matter of days, I was now the reason that Kevin lost his house. We talked about the situation and he became upset that I still had my little house while he did not! He cried “foul” that “his tax dollars” padded my pockets while he had to work for all his money. “I didn’t work for my money?”, I thought.

The plumber is now even more right-wing, the cop now sees himself as moderate and feels betrayed by Walker. In the middle is the gripe about the “welfare leeches” who don’t want to work for anything, which justify the Republican politics. Race isn’t named, but it sure is a subtext. “I didn’t think you’d come after ME, just those lazy poor people.”

March 11, 2011

gentle repression

Filed under: politics — olderwoman @ 12:01 am

The sociology grad students who occupied the Capitol have been writing some great analytic reflective pieces on police-protester interactions. Capitol Police Chief Tubbs formed personal relationships with the protesters and followed the principles of negotiated management of the protest. The police were generally on the same side as the protesters, but never refused to follow orders while on duty. The protesters (correctly) saw themselves as having cooperative and friendly relations with the police. This made a huge and at times rowdy protest a very safe event for everyone involved. But as the orders came down to shut down the protest, the habits of cooperation and compliance let repression do its work. Here are a couple of the reflective pieces I’ve seen today:

Zach Baumgart: the-elephant-in-the-room-for-our-peaceful-protests Documents the steps that repression took.

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field lessons-of-the-capitol-struggle Critically reflects on protesters’ unwillingness to even test the boundaries of police “rules.” (The picture of Elizabeth being carried out of the Assembly foyer made national news.)

These pieces are important reflections for social movements studies.

And here is some gripping footage of the entry to the assembly chambers being cleared. It totals over 30 minutes but is well worth the time:

People who spent the night and are blocking the door to the assembly chamber are being removed. Protesters and police are playing by the same script. Both know they have the option of walking out under their own power, being escorted out while walking, or being dragged out. Protesters are varying in their level of resistance. There are  dozens of observers present with cameras. Chief Tubbs is telling protesters he cannot open the doors to the Capitol under they leave — the reason for this is clear. The protesters correctly understand that if they agree to leave, the police will put up a huge guard around the Assembly doors to prevent their return to the area. The police also do not want to deal with any more people until they get the protesters out of the Assembly area. Even legislators are not being allowed in through the doors. Some protesters are trying to persuade the police to refuse orders to clear the area. Notice that the police have overwhelming force. Even if a protester individually resists arrest, they do not have the numbers to hold the area. One thing I notice in the footage of clearing the area by Fitzgerald’s office: one trooper pats another and says, “Slow down. Take it easy. Do you need a break?” I heard from others that Elizabeth said that the trooper who carried her out was crying.

There is also the footage of the Democrat assembly people being locked out of the chamber, and the Republicans magically appearing from a secret entrance.

If you understand both what the protesters are trying to do and have been trained to do, and what the police are trying to do and have been trained to do, you can see repression in action, even as the police themselves are trying to be as gentle as possible about it. If everyone follows orders, the outcome is determined.

I also wandered around later in the day and noticed all the doors tied shut from the inside. Fire hazard.

March 9, 2011


Filed under: politics — olderwoman @ 10:26 pm

After insisting for three weeks that smashing public worker unions is a necessary “budget repair” measure, the Wisconsin Republicans went into Executive Session this evening to delete the fiscal parts of the “budget repair bill” (which lack a Constitutional quorum without the absent Democratic Senators) and voted to pass the non-fiscal parts, including most collective bargaining rights for public workers. Reports are that a thousand people converged on the Capitol and that protesters inside the Capitol opened the doors to let in other protesters and the police could not stop them. The Capitol is now re-occupied and Facebook is full of calls to people to head to the Capitol, although the twitter stream seems to say that Madison teachers are being advised to go to work tomorrow. The Assembly is scheduled to vote at 8am tomorrow. Twitter feed seems to say that the Assembly hall has been occupied by protesters. Part of the rush appears to be that the legislature plans to recess for a month beginning tomorrow.

March 6, 2011

form and content, protest and repression

Warning: this essay is partly a personal religious reflection although it also contains significant sociological content. In it I reflect on a sermon calling protest a spiritual exercise and a meeting about training Black young people to avoid challenging or talking to police and the significance of the juxtaposition of these two events.

The Madison protests reconvened this weekend without me. A friend estimates 20,000 at Saturday’s rally featuring Michael Moore – a large crowd by any normal standard, although a decline from last weekend’s high of somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 (depending on whose estimate you believe). Today the pro-Walker and anti-Walker protests were said to be a few hundred each. The real action is out state, with recall efforts and other attempts to “flip” Republican Senators, as well as the escalating pressures on the Democrats in Illinois – their pay is frozen and they are being fined $100 a day, among other attempts to force their return without any concessions. Walker’s refusal to negotiate on any point is both alienating the state’s moderates and raising his cachet in national right-wing circles.

There was a guest sermon at church today – the pastor’s brother, a Mennonite activist from Pennsylvania who spoke on engagement as a spiritual practice, the idea that instead of separating the spiritual from the world, you should be spiritual in the world. The scripture was Isaiah 58:3-7 :

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

You find God when you are working for justice and helping the poor and oppressed. His own current political agenda is the movement against gun violence, which is trying to target merchants whose businesses are major sources of the guns that end up being used in urban crimes. The sermon was full of positive comments about the Wisconsin protest and how God is on our side as we challenge authority and work for the poor and oppressed. He wore a “We are Wisconsin . . . And we are winning” t-shirt. During joys and concerns, one congregant stood up to give thanks for her son, who’d been one of the protesters sleeping inside the capitol and then outside in the snow and rain – everyone clapped. If you think Walker’s budget cuts are good or that public employee unions are bad, you’d feel very uncomfortable in that congregation right now. We have a taken for granted assumption that we are all on the same side in this. I couldn’t help but remind myself that activists whose foundation is religious are often on the “other” side, supporting issues I really oppose, and the ways in which their communities surround them with people who don’t challenge their assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m right and the people around me are right. I truly and sincerely believe what I believe. And I truly do believe that we are doing the work of God when we work for justice. But so do the people on the “other side” of issues I care about think that God is on their side. I can’t help but note that God mostly tells people to do the things that a whole system of socialization and experience has taught us are the right things to do. It really isn’t enough just to engage, it matters what you are engaged about, what “side” you are on, and how you go about your engagement. Content matters, not just form. I’m struck every Sunday about how the hymns we sing, the messages we hear, the content of our joys and concerns all reinforce one set of understandings about what Christianity is “really about,” while other people’s churches emphasize other messages from the same core texts.

Or, backing away from religion to the broader context of protest and rebellion – it isn’t enough just that people protest. It matters what they are protesting about, what their goals are. The same vessel of protest carries both the tea party protests and this current mobilization. If you oppose the mobilization, you’d stress that the energy of the effort is union members organizing to defend unions – and you’d be right. It is primarily a mobilization of people through their well-organized channels for the purpose of maintaining the right to have those channels. It’s a defensive mobilization. Can we, should we bring the same concepts to bear on protests we like and those we don’t like?

The way protest and activism are being lifted up, and the comfort we all have with protest, brought me back into reflection about my other weekend activity. I spent Saturday morning at a training session for religious people to work on issues of racial disparity in criminal justice, part of an effort to found a local Gamaliel Foundation group. (I’m an attendee, not an organizer.) There were two choices. One group went off to learn about how to observe court sessions, to be a witness holding the system accountable.

I stayed for the presentation on how young people are being taught to avoid escalating encounters with police. The speaker is the former gang member and drug dealer I mentioned in a previous post. One component of the plan is small cards (the size of business cards) advising young people how to behave when stopped by police. The card contains a (small) color graphic of a tall white person in a police uniform facing a shorter black person. It says (in rather small print, obviously):

“Along the continuum of decision points in the juvenile justice system from initial law enforcement contact through disposition and beyond, the decision to arrest is the first and arguably the most powerful indicator of future impact on minority youth, their families and affected communities. Upon initial contact with law enforcement respectfully provide your name, name and phone number of your parent/guardian and clearly state that you wish to remain silent until your parent/guardian is present.”

The young people are urged to give their true name (to give a false name is obstruction of justice, a felony) and then to shut up. In trying to explain or defend themselves, young people often provide police with the basis for criminal charges. The idea is for the young people to carry the cards on them so they can hand them to the police if they are stopped – the hope is that the police will recognize that the young people have been told to do this and thus, hopefully defuse police anger at the young people for refusing to talk. I’m wondering if youth are also taught breathing exercises or other techniques to calm their anger and frustration when stopped unfairly. Survival here means NOT protesting, not rebelling, not standing up to power. The “protest” is to resist becoming a crime statistic. The adult trainer is very clear that sometimes the young people have done something wrong, but they will make the situation worse if they talk to the police and confess. It is also important for young people to understand who police are and that talking back to police is very different from talking back to other adults. Another card tells them that Educational Resource Officers in schools are real police officers and they must not talk to them without their parents present.

So young Black people need to be taught not to challenge authority as a survival strategy, just as they were taught in the South before 1960. It is a necessary lesson if these kids are going to make it out of adolescence with their hopes intact, but I reflect again (as I have so often before at these kinds of meetings) just how much self-control African Americans need to be able to get through the day in a racially-stratified society. How bad White kids are allowed to be and to get away with it, and how little tolerance Black kids are offered for misbehavior. And I cannot help but reflect that all this energy devoted to avoiding confrontation with police and avoiding arrest limits the capacity for Black protest mobilization.

And it is not just children. As I mentioned before and confirmed in further conversations, one of the Black parolees who was supposed to be speaking at these events has been picked up on a parole hold each time he asks his agent for permission to go to an event addressing issues of racial disparity in criminal justice And “driving while Black” stops – endemic in this community, as elsewhere, constantly force Black adults to endure disruptions to their plans and the self-control to remain calm in the face of unwarranted surveillance: Where are you going? Where are you coming from?  Why are you here on this street at this time? Account for yourself. Do you have any drugs or weapons?

I need not to over-do this, I need to put it in context. Black people are agents, and there are lots of Black folks challenging political structures as well as trying to protect young people and provide help to those damaged by our system. As I have mentioned before, there is constant attempt by Black adults to create a sense of personal and political efficacy among young Black people. In fact, the speaker in our group came with his wife (who is also his business manager) and his small children. He said he makes a point of bringing his small children to meetings because he wants them to see him doing his work. Another Black attendee also brought a small child. People are working hard to train up their children for active, engaged citizenship.

But still, the contrast is looming. Tea partier or unionist – the carriers of protest in the past few years in this country have been overwhelmingly White. Look around at who feels entitled to protest. Look at who feels safe enough to turn out into the streets in large numbers. And then look around to see whose voices are missing from the public assembly. Look around for who teaches their children they are entitled to speak up, and who has to teach their children how to survive repression by keeping quiet when confronted with police.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? “

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