Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me" by Rebecca Solnit [Review]: This Book Really is Applicable to Teaching English

Rebecca Solnit's 2014 essay collection Men Explain Things to Me appeared on a best books list, which is how I discovered it, although I don't recall which list included the title. I ordered the book because I've been disillusioned by the backlash against feminism that seems to have gained momentum this year. 

Additionally, songs such as Taylor Swift's "Blank Space," Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass," and Hurray for the Riff Raff's "The Body Electric" shine a light on various ways females are silenced in our culture. Thus, Solnit's collection fit into my current thinking. 

The title essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," responds to an incident in which Solnit found herself the captive audience of a party host who schooled her on the subject of Edweard Muybridge, about whom Solnit had written a book, River of Shadows: Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, a book her host knew about but had not read. He described the book as "very important." Additionally, the host did not realize his guest was the author of the "very important" book and seemed not to care even after learning the fact. 

Solnit penned "Men Explain Things to Me" to make the point that even when confronted with female expertise, "Men explain things to me , and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men" (4).

My brother-in-law is like that. My husband is not. Perhaps that's why I've been a bit shielded from the slow pace of change. 

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation, just as it emphasizes men's unsupported over-confidence. (4-5)

Throughout the book, Solnit takes care to avoid hasty generalizations, but her larger thesis is that despite much progress, women still face objectification and silencing and exclusion in both western as well as eastern cultures. 

Among the essays, "The Longest War" (2013) stands as the most important and the most poignant. Solnit packs the essay with statistical evidence about the violence against women and the ways in which our social structures put both the blame for such violence and the responsibility for ending it on women. "Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender" (21).

Solnit tells readers that there's much that we don't talk about when we don't talk about gender, and one thing we should talk about is violence against women as a civil and human rights issue. Solnit peppers the statistics with stories, such as the rape of a 73-year old in Central Park in 2012 to the stories of high school and college athletes gang raping young women. 

She extends her criticism of cultural response to those who suggest women on college campuses stay locked-in rather than exercise their right to freedom of movement if they want to stay safe. 

And it isn't just the violence strangers perpetrate against women that Solnit documents: 

Never mind workplace violence , let's go home. So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year--meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11's casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror. (24)

Violence against women worldwide trumps cancer, traffic fatalities, and malaria as a leading cause of death, yet we don't have a Susan B. Koman for the cure campaign replete with pink ribbons to show our support for funding this egregious social justice crisis. 

It's this epidemic of violence against women on college campuses that prompted Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff to compose "The Body Electric." Writing for NPR, Ann Powers explains:
Horrified by the rapes that have made tragic news from India to America's college campuses, the singer-songwriter noticed that her own people--music makers and music lovers--would regularly sing along with choruses about killing women, comfortably accepting gender-based violence as part of the ballad tradition. No more, she said. 'The Body Electric" was her intervention.

There's much more in "The Longest War," including an indictment of politicians who seek to exert control over women's autonomy, and those states, 31, that give rapists who father children with their victims parental rights. 

"In Praise of the Threat" (2013) offers a perspective on marriage equality I had not considered by suggesting that its opposition is really about maintaining patriarchal power structures more than about protecting traditional marriage. 

A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian--one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it's a relationship between people who have equal standing and so are free to define their roles themselves. (63)

This goes against the grain of many marriages, which historically have placed women in weaker power positions. Indeed, this idea of women having no property rights and no legal standing is a theme Jane Austin explores in such novels as Sense and Sensibility.

Solnit argues that as marriage equality becomes normalized, women in traditional marriages will experience unions that are inherently more egalitarian. 

In the title to this post, I claim that Men Explain Things to Me is applicable to teaching English. To that end, I've pondered how the essay "The Longest War" will work with "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Prologue in The Canterbury Tales.

Additionally, I've considered how I might use one or more of the essays with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In "Woolf's Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable" (2009) Solnit discusses her relationship to Susan Sontag and Virginia Wolfe, for whom gender played a defining role in Orlando. 

Woolf once wrote, "The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think." It's an idea worth pondering both for its implication that the present state of women in society is challenging and in its hopefulness that we don't know the future but can work to make it a more open and peaceful place for all. 

In the final essay, "Pandora's Box and the Volunteer Police Force," Solnit takes readers back to Susan Faludi's 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which I read when it was first publishedto remind readers that, as Faludi argues, "And yet, for all the forces the backlash mustered. . . women never really surrendered." As much as some want to push women back through the door Nora threw open at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House, there really is no disappearing back into the attic, the kitchen, the closet, the genie bottle, invisibility, silence. 

Finally, as a teacher, Solnit makes me think about criticism, specifically literary criticism. She does this in the essay "Woolf's Darkness":

We often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. . . . Literary criticism, like criticism of art, embodies a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks o expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meaning, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. (100-101)

Having grown up and attended college at a time when professors bludgeoned my writing with notes about all I did wrong in an essay, this binary approach to critiquing student writing is what I took into the classroom and what I have worked to move beyond in my reflections on student work, especially during the past dozen years. 

Isn't my job as a teacher to help liberate student writing so that the student can develop ideas fully? To engage in conversations about both reading and writing with my students? To begin never-ending conversations with students, dialogues that empower and feed their imaginations? To free their spirits to read, write, discuss, and in turn learn more? Isn't this what makes teaching art and craft? 

These are things I'd like to explain to so many if only those who explain to me would listen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

'Tis the Season to "Pay It Forward" with a Book

Just before I left for the NCTE Annual Convention, I shared with seniors my excitement about getting to meet many fabulous authors whose books I admire and whose generosity touches me.

Among those authors I mentioned, one student expressed excitement about David Levithan. Elizabeth, my student, asked me to take her copy of Two Boys Kissing and get it signed. I said, "No. I'm not taking books with me. I'm bringing new books home."

At the ALAN breakfast, I met David Levithan and told him about my student's request, and he generously offered to sign the book. Alas, I did not have it, so I did the next best thing: I took a selfie with David.

Fast forward to the exhibit hall later that afternoon.

As I stood in line awaiting a signature from Chris Crutcher, I chatted with a teacher from Louisville, Kentucky. I told her about my student's request. Much to my delight and surprise, she retrieved a signed copy of Two Boys Kissing from her bag and handed it to me to give to my student. How exciting!

Back at school the following Monday:

When my class entered the room, I had the selfie with David Levithan on the screen and the signed copy of Two Boys Kissing in my hand. I book talked the book and told the class about meeting the author and sharing Elizabeth's request with him.

For dramatic effect, I elaborated a bit about standing in line with the teacher from Louisville. Then I opened the book and revealed David Levithan's signature. "Elizabeth," I said, "this is for you." The class broke out in applause as we celebrated the gift of reading and of sharing books.

I captured the moment in a selfie, of course, so that Elizabeth, too, could sort of have her picture w/ David Levithan.


A couple of months ago my colleague Kyle Jenkins asked to borrow my copy of Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Too.  While at NCTE I acquired a free copy of the book for Kyle.


In her lovely homage to reading, How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen writes, "Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion. 'Book love,' Trollope called it. 'It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.' Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort...reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung..."

So instead of browsing the book aisle for a gift of words, too often we look to trends and choose shiny baubles that soon break and tarnish, whose new lasts a moment, whose luster fades until the next trend takes its place. 

This season we can wrap ourselves in worlds real and imagined and "read forward" by giving books. 

Happy Holidays and Happy Reading! May all your reading dreams come true and may you be blessed with the bounty of books in 2015. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

NCTE 2014 Annual Convention: Experiencing the Conference and Making Memories My Way


Last week I traveled to Washington D.C. for the 2004 NCTE Annual Convention at the Gaylord Resort. I have now attended the NCTE Annual Convention six times and participated as a program participant five times. My first opportunity to present was with the Folger Shakespeare Library in a session titled "Teaching Teachers to Teach Shakespeare." Since my first convention experience and first time presenting, I've learned much about making the convention valuable to my professional growth and nurturing. 

Last year my time in Boston felt out of sync with my needs. I worried about networking and spending time with people  whom, in retrospect, I'm not sure had the same goals. I left Boston sad and a little depressed. Things just had not gone as I'd envisioned. My experience and expectations took different paths.

Nevertheless, I forged ahead and wrote a proposal for the 2014 convention, an overview of which I wrote about here. 

This year I traveled to Washington D.C. determined not to worry about whether or not I networked, determined not to feel hurt if I wasn't included on others' lists of people to hang out with, determined not to worry about whether or not those whose sessions I have attended in the past reciprocated by attending mine, intent on not allowing the cliques inherent in most organizational structures to define my experience. 

In short, I decided to experience the convention my way with only my professional and social expectations in mind. That meant I didn't worry about whether or not I had arranged to sit with people I know at the ALAN breakfast and the Secondary Section Luncheon. I had not. I didn't worry about being alone or having someone to hang out w/ during sessions and events. Consequently, I had a very organic and gratifying convention experience, and I was rarely alone. I was never lonely. 

I captured many of my favorite convention experiences in photos. 

Attending NCTE is about meeting and hearing authors. I kicked off the convention in a session featuring Jacqueline Woodson speaking about and reading from Brown Girl Dreaming, and I scored a free copy of the book! 
Jacqueline Woodson, NBA Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

Two of my professional heroes dropped by our session. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst push us to think about the ways we teach fiction and nonfiction. Kylene is quite the selfie-taker and inspired me to embrace the selfie throughout the convention.
Bob, me, Cherylanne, Kylene, Debbie.

I met David Levithan at the ALAN breakfast and shared the story of my student who asked me to take her copy of Two Boys Kissing to NCTE and get it signed. I did not. But I did get a selfie!
Selfie w/ David Levithan at the ALAN breakfast.


Later in the exhibit hall, I was awaiting a signature from Chris Crutcher and shared the story about my student with a teacher in line with me. She had a copy of Two Boys Kissing and gave it to me to give to my student. 
Rebecca from Louisville, Kentucky
I also snagged a photo with Andrew Smith. I would love to be in his class! 
Andrew Smith indulging my giddiness resulting from meeting fabulous authors.
Chris Crutcher signed a copy of Period 8 to my students. I asked him to sign it to teens in Pocatello, Idaho, where he gets all his best ideas, which references a comment he made on Facebook a while back. 
Chris Crutcher signing Period 8.
I am a huge fan of Cory Doctorow and had a chance to chat with him twice. He makes me rethink my use of social networking and other issues relating to privacy.
Cory Doctorow during his signing of Little Brother.
English teachers know how to have fun, regardless of what others may say, and the exhibit hall is a fabulous place to meet people one does not expect to meet!

Shakespeare and me!
A highlight of the convention was attending a TSI reunion at the Folger Shakespeare Library and seeing a production of Julius Caesar. We had a follow-up Q & A with the cast; they made me love Julius Caesar, and that's saying something as the play has never been my favorite. 
A selfie w/ Dana Huff in the Folger Shakespeare Library Reading Room!
Reunited in the Reading Room w/ Mari O'Meara, my friend from TSI 2008!
My friend Michael Klein, also a TSI 2008 alum.
The cast of Julius Caesar during the Q &A
I attended some fabulous and inspiring sessions that stretch my imagination about collaboration, about technology, about student choice in reading, and about teaching as art and the relationship of artifacts to reading and writing and speaking. 

Additionally, I met some wonderful people in my session, at events, and in others' sessions. 

Of course, the NCTE Annual Convention wouldn't be complete without the books. I purchased some from many genres, including professional, picture, MG, and YA. I also snagged some ARCs to share with students, and acquired a pile of books for my granddaughter. I managed to arrive home needing to purchase two new suitcases that finally went to that big baggage claim in the great beyond. 
Books for my students.
Books for my granddaughter, Kayla
In the mayhem and excitement of the convention, I still managed to greet and briefly chat with fabulous virtual colleagues from around the country and meet some whom I'd previously only met online. Their warmth and kindnesses embrace me, and I look forward to keeping up with them throughout the next year until we converge in Minneapolis and do it all again! 

I encourage others to join me for NCTE 2015 in Minneapolis and to consider writing a proposal for the convention program, which I'm planning to blog about later.  I was more than 20 years into my career before attending the NCTE annual convention. I wish I had known what I was missing years ago.  



Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks and Telling Stories

This Thanksgiving my heart is full. I returned from NCTE 2014 brimming with stories, but I'll be sharing about that experience in a separate post in a few days. 

For now, I'm thinking about my grandmother, Phoebe Cowen, and giving thanks for the stories I inherited from her, one of which I shared over on Facebook Wednesday, along with this photo of a Cranberry Orange Mold I've been making since 1982. I always put the salad in the green bowl, which belonged to my grandmother and which my grandfather gave to me when grandma died during my freshman year of college.
My grandmother and I often had a rocky relationship. She wanted me to quit school when I was in seventh grade and take care of my father, who had lost his sight the previous year from complications from juvenile diabetes. 

I kept grandma's request from my father for a year. 

Having just read Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming empowers me to see the poetry in the stories from my own childhood. They, too, are best expressed as free verse. Such is the rhythm of life; it has no set meter, no constant form. 

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting grandma was dusting the furniture. As I sprayed Pledge onto the coffee table or buffet, I pledged to myself that I would one day own matching furniture, that I would have a comfy couch to sit on. I dusted away my childhood poverty as I polished grandma's furniture and dreamed of a more prosperous future for myself. 

After I learned to drive, I hauled grandma around town. She never acquired a driver's license but freely dispensed advice about driving. Her nagging made me nervous, and one time I pulled to the side of the road and scolded her: "Grandma, you have to stop nagging me about my driving. You make me nervous, and if you don't stop, I'm taking you home." She crossed her arms, scowled, and closed her mouth. 

When my niece saw the Facebook post featuring grandma's bowl, she, too, began reminiscing. "Loved grandma Cowen and her purple bathroom." I shared that I hadn't thought about that bathroom in a long time. It had a purple tub, a purple, toilet with a padded purple seat, and a purple sink. I reminded my niece that the wallpaper was actually contact paper grandma had stuck on the wall. I didn't remind her that grandma died in that bathroom. 

This Thanksgiving we'll tell stories and create new memories with family. We may not realize the significance of these stories to ourselves and to our relationships with others for many years. Jacqueline Woodson wrote Brown Girl Dreaming after turning 50, even though it's the story of her early life. 

I turned 56 last week and am only now beginning to understand the complicated relationship I had with my paternal grandmother. Only now am I beginning to understand her role in a poor white girl's dreaming and in the symbolism of a green bowl filled with those dreams.