Category Archives: Feminisms

What are We Supposed to Do With Student Evals Anyway?

This post is not to exalt evaluations as the pinnacle of student assessment. First, the hunt for great evaluations sped on by grade inflation and student pressure for good grades can negotiate a tacit contract between instructors and students-a kind of quid pro quo agreement. Second, response rates are notoriously low on student evaluations and often the two types of students who complete evaluations are those most & least satisfied with our ourses. This leads to a Janus-faced discourse that is unhelpful to instructors. Third, student evaluations are always already burdened by systems of patriarchy and racism and exist to support systems of white, male, heterosexual privilege. For example, see this excellent annotated bibliography on Gender and Student Evaluations. The race, gender, and age of the instructor prejudices student perceptions of instructors before they ever begin to teach.

Moreover, even beyond these factors, subject expertise does not always translate to expert teaching. Meaning that the most qualified person to deliver content to students is not always the best at that task–so we should not assume that poor evaluations automatically assumes that learning is not occurring. Also, to some degree, evaluations are a test of the affective response lingering by students towards the instructor, instructors who may come off as misanthropes at times, may be great in the classroom and are not perceived that way by students.

Feel free to skip the breakdown below and jump to the tips on reading evals at the very end.

Watching my inbox, twitter, & Facebook feeds it seems it is student evaluations time now that the semester has come to a close. Student evaluations make for tricky reading for instructors because they are documents that can have some weight on current and/or future promotion, retention, or job prospects. Also, no matter how much we urge and desire student feedback during our classes, many students use evaluations, for a variety of reasons, rather than talking to instructors directly about their experiences in a class.

I know many of my peers and myself, especially those of us early in our careers, are eager to see student feedback for a number of reasons. Because of that urge, I want to explore the usefulness of qualitative student feedback on course evaluations.

First, we want to know about major flaws in our course design. This is a genuine desire: was a unit particularly unhelpful? Was a unit too easy? Was an assignment particularly unclear? Grade data can help provide this information, but the evidence is particularly damming when it corresponds to student feedback.

Second, teaching is a deeply performative art. Students often provide feedback on our personality. This can be painful to read. We learn the good and the bad. It was in course evals that I learned I like to make a fist and pound on the white board when I get fired up about a topic. It is also here, that we can learn that we are communicating things to our students we never intended. For example, from time to time students will report on my course evaluations that I am intimidating, arrogant, or difficult to approach. I struggle with this description, not because I lack the capacity to be arrogant, intimidating, and difficult to approach, but because I work hard in the classroom to craft a persona the is open and approachable–even begging students to visit me during office hours if they have questions, or by lingering after class to speak with students and arriving early to chat informally with students. Moreover, I know this is a performative issue because the students I develop deeper relationships with describe me in much different terms.

Third, evaluations are these bizarre blind exercises. There is this deep temptation to try and figure out who said what about you. Sometimes you have a sense about which student said what by their tone and writing style, particularly if the semester demanded you attend to their writing in detail. This may be the most consumptive and least useful part of reading student evaluations. When I was a young boy I heard a story about my grandfather; who was a minister in a Presbyterian church in Florida. Each year the congregation would take an anonymous vote to retain or dismiss him. Each year the vote would be something like 68-2. For the rest of the year my grandfather would relentlessly obsess over who the two people were that sought to cast him away. I wonder with some irony, if we engage in those same exercises. It is as if we tell ourselves: If I can correlate the negative comments with students who performed poorly, perhaps I can excuse their force. Even though that means we may be dismissing a very important correlation, a student’s poor experience and their poor outcome may be crucially related.

How, then, do we use qualitative feedback on student evaluations?

First, the feedback will be personal, but don’t take it that way. One semester is a snapshot in your career and teaching is an act of becoming. It is a work in progress, not a reflection on who you will always be.

Second, no comment in isolation merits significant change, but every comment can, and perhaps should, generate reflection. If one student says assignment expectations were unclear, then perhaps they were to them. If four or five evaluations say that, it may be time to revisit that assignment’s description. Especially if those comments correlates with the class’ average score on that assignment.

Third, even when statements correlate, that does not mean that that you need to take action. I have four years of student evaluations that suggest that the reading material in my classes at the University of Utah is too difficult (not every eval says this, but about six students per class will say this). I recognize that many of the readings I assign push at my students. However, I have yet to find a case where the difficulty of the readings was the cause of a lack of student success. Does that make my class hard? Yes. Demanding? Yes. Will I ease up on my syllabi? No. In this case I recognize the triangulation on evaluations, but see the educational merit in reading difficult, but applicable, material for the educational opportunities it offers. Moreover, I have not chosen the material just to be difficult, it simply happens that when you deal with complex and abstract ideas you need complex and abstract readings. In essence, even when students routinely object, if you have taken a principled stand, don’t let evaluations pressure you into backing down. I have recently started sharing some of the thoughts on difficult readings & reading difficult theory collected by Robert W. Gehl with my classes and I saw less of those comments this last semester, you can find his thoughts here.

Please share your thoughts on course evals, as a student, instructor, or interested/apathetic party below or with me via twitter @acaguy



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Rape Culture, Rape Prevention, & Masculinity

This was an invited talk at Your Community Center in Ogden, UT on April 14, 2012 to address the connection between masculinity, rape, & culture during a Take Back the Night event. They titled the presentation “How Not To Be a Rapist,” which I was not entirely comfortable with but working off that theme I addressed the need for to intervene in boys male teens, and men’s lives as part of rape prevention strategies. [Apologies for the poor sound quality]

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Breitbart, Olbermann, and the Claims of Rape at Occupy Protests


Rape likely occurs-based on Breitbart’s own statistics-at a far higher rate in the society as a whole than it ever did in occupy. Rape occurs on country roads and urban corridors. It happens in the suburbs and at schools. It occurs in our neighbors houses and even in the beds of married couples. Consent is coerced using drugs and alcohol, force and power, and this is the part of rape that is neglected in this discussion.

Do we need to explore the sexual politics and material reality of rape in occupy-yes! However, if Olbermann and Breitbart are suddenly so concerned about issues of rape I would invite them to take a shot the much larger issue of rape in our culture. That is a problem that can not be blamed on liberals as animals and demands more than a partisan ideology.

In what would seem like a superfluous contest of irrelevancy if it did not entail the serious issue of rape, Andrew Breitbart and Keith Olbermann got into a heated battle over the role of the Occupy movement in the rape of what Breitbart claims is at least a “dozen” people across the movement. In retweeting and replying to Olbermann (and being retweeted from there) I received a number of nasty replies from acolytes of Breitbart. Nonetheless, the issue of rape in occupy is important because it poses a number of issues of agency, response, and responsibility for a leaderless movement.

The incident that sparked the flareup was Breitbart confronting a group of Occupy protestors outside this year’s CPAC conference:

Breitbart can be heard clearly yelling

Stop raping people, stop raping the people…you freaks, you filthy freaks, you filthy filthy filthy raping murdering freaks.

His animus towards occupy makes it impossible to deal with him seriously as an advocate for those who were victims of assault in occupy encampments (especially those who were or are still members of the occupy movement). I wonder if he would blame them for being members of the movement.

Breitbart claims, “I said stop raping people, I am saying to the occupy movement, writ large…” He also claims that his bellicose yelling at Occupy protestors outside of CPAC was a stunt. The problem with his claim is that he makes Occupy into a a single unified agent that that is committing the rapes. Occupy is not an institution, as I have written on this blog before they are best understood using the Deleuzian concept of haecceity. They are a multiplicity and that lack of clear hierarchy likely is what drives Breitbart crazy and makes it impossible to substantiate the claim that occupy was raping people. Moreover, he has no evidence that the protestors he was yelling at in the video are rapists.

As for Olbermann, he often deflects attention away from the issue by hedging that members of occupy were victims and that it may have been outsiders that committed the assaults. This could be true, or not. However, occupy’s initial response to sexual assault undermines the sympathetic case Olbermann builds. As Jezebel (of all places) reports, the sexual politics of Occupy are incredibly complex. The initial response was to attempt to handle issues of crime and sexual assault internally, directing victims “to immediately report the incident to the Security Committee” as opposed to authorities. However, after widespread criticism many encampments became more open to letting authorities in and to providing areas with services specifically for sexual assault or rape. Showing their interest in stopping rape, as opposed to scoring ideological points, critics of occupy dubbed the areas providing these services rape free zones.

The core issue here is that rape is a serious crime and should be reported to authorities immediately. What is worse is that only about 25% of rapes are reported. Meaning that Occupy’s impulse to deter reporting says as much about the politics of occupy as it does about American society-we rather not talk about rape or deal with it. Breitbart’s core message “stop raping people” is a great message but is less efficacious and is wasted when his political motivations are revealed. The central message to every American, given that we live in a culture permissive of rape, ought to be stop raping people. Consider that The New York Time reported that government officials were shocked to find that 1 in five women in the U.S. had been raped. The occupy encampments are the perfect phantasmagoria of conservative fears of liberal occupation as rape scene-unwashed masses defying social order in a soup of social disobedience. This, like the mysterious dark alley, seems the proper place for rape. Of course there is never a proper place for rape. Moreover, rape likely occurs-based on Breitbart’s own statistics-at a far higher rate in the society as a whole than it ever did in occupy. Rape occurs on country roads and urban corridors. It happens in the suburbs and at schools. It occurs in our neighbors houses and even in the beds of married couples. Consent is coerced using drugs and alcohol, force and power, and this is the part of rape that is neglected in this discussion.

Do we need to explore the sexual politics and material reality of rape in occupy-yes! However, if Olbermann and Breitbart are suddenly so concerned about issues of rape I would invite them to take a shot the much larger issue of rape in our culture that persists long after the violent and peaceful evictions of a number of the occupy encampments. It is at a cultural permissibility of rape that sees 1 in 5 women experience rape and only 1 in 4 report it that Breitbart’s ire should be directed. That is a problem that can not be blamed on liberals as animals and demands more than a partisan ideology.

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Rick Perry’s Strong #Rhetoric and the Politics of Censoring Hate Speech

[Warning this post contains references to Judith Butler that some may find always objectionable and already incomprehensible. Fair enough.]

This week Rick Perry pulled up his boots and stepped in it once again delivering a divisive new ad that among other things appears at its face to be homophobic and launches a direct attack agains Barack Obama for operating a “war on religion.” The ad reads:

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.

As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.

Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.
I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.
(Transcription Here)

Several issues persist with the internal logic of the video itself. First, the overturning of a discriminatory practice in the military is not a defacto attack on any religious set of practices. Moreover, no direct link has been made that argues Obama has, himself, forced any school anywhere to stop openly celebrating Christmas. The ridiculousness of such a claim was laid bare when Perry tries to defend it. When asked by Wolf Blitzer about Obama’s War on Christmas Perry responds with “I’m just giving you some examples of what we’re seeing from the left, of which, I would suggest to you, President Obama is a member of the left and, uh, substantial left of center beliefs.” In essence, he has no substance and is only able to launch a vague attack on the left. See a portion of the interview and Think Progress’ take on the interview here.

Perry’s ad and message smacks of desperation, playing on the social issues of God and Gays to rally support as his presidential campaign fizzles. Yet, it is these very issues that Timothy Egan argues are losing traction among the right. Regarding, Perry’s ad Egan writes, “This is Perry’s last gasp; in desperation, he shows how this particular balloon has run out of hot air. Poll after poll has found that Americans now overwhelmingly favor letting gays serve openly in the military — a sentiment backed even by a sizable majority of Republicans.” As Perry’s presidential ambitions dwindle his campaign and his ads enter a kind of farcical phase. Even his choice in wardrobe becomes subject to satire. To wit: BrokeBack Perry This image, being shared on Facebook and other popular social networking sites point out the similarities in Perry’s wardrobe and the critically acclaimed cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain. The irony derived from both the film’s and Perry’s use of a rugged cowboy ethos for radically different ends suggests the fractures in the culture wars are beyond repair. Moreover, parodies of the advertisement are appearing all over the internet. Some even take on Perry’s logic directly and reverse his claims blaming people of faith for every problem this country faces. Take this parody from The Partisans for example:

All of this suggests to me that we may have seen the moment where Rick Perry’s campaign has jumped the shark. In its desperation to get back into the GOP primary race Perry went all in on social issues (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the War on Christmas/Obama’s War on Religion) that lack the permanence and vivacity to revive his ailing campaign. In a sentence, the ad is ridiculous. That does not, however, let Perry off the hook and we should remember that given the materiality of discourse we should consider how to respond to a rhetoric that attempts wedge a policy of hate and division for the purpose of political advantage.

It is here that I noticed, and was disappointed by, some of my friends and colleagues who desired to censor the ad instead of responding to it. Another image that I saw circulating with great popularity on Facebook asked users to go to and (1) flag the ad as inappropriate, (2) for reasoning indicate that it contains hateful or abusive content, (3) indicate the ad promotes hatred or violence, (4) indicate the ad contains hate speech about “sexual orientation,” (5) then share these steps with others.
FB flag youtube

While I find Perry’s advertisement intellectually dishonest, desperate, disgusting, and one of the lowest forms of politics following the impetus to censor the ad is dangerous response to hate speech. First, we know that censorship stifles discussion, dialogue, and intervention in the dissemination of hateful ideologies. Stoping homophobic discourse from being expressed by political leaders will not make homophobia disappear because no act of censorship is a total act of discursive invisibility. As Butler argues in Excitable Speech

This view maintains that a text always escapes the acts by which it is censored, and that censorship is always and only an attempted or partial action. here, it seems, something about the text under censorship exceeds the reach of the censor, suggesting that some account is required of this “excessive” dimension of speech.(129)

Removing the ad from youtube will likely to shift the conversation away from the homophobic nature of the advertisement and poor quality of argumentation and instead agitate sympathetic media to report on the censorship of the ad and not the content of the ad itself. Not to mention that youtube is one of many places the ad has been released make the act, though symbolic, materially ineffective at removing the speech from the discursive field of contemporary American politics. It is of course ironic that the case Butler made in her analysis of censorship was the original institution of DADT and yet her I mobilize it to oppose those who wish to shout down a politician who wants to reinstate such a perilous social experiment. For Butler, however statements are performantive in that they have force in the material world. Given that framework, we ought not censor Perry and not allow his performative homophobia rest under the surface but instead be laid bare. The more we welcome his subjectivity into the realm of speakability the more transparent his politics become and the more efficacious our rhetorical responses can be.

In essence our impulse in the face of excitable speech must never be censorship, especially when words wound. Instead, it must be engagement with the material reality of living in a world where the flows of power operate to subject and oppress the majority of Americans to serve the interests of those who exercise the flows of power to their advantage.

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Hate Speech Rarely Stays Just Speech [Updated]

The mantra of social order.

[Update x3] SLCPD Chief Burbank will be speaking tonight (Sept 9) at 8pm at a fireside vigil at Liberty Park. The vigil is part of ongoing work to draw attention to the attack and violence in this area of Salt Lake. I cannot attend, I am out of state. Please go and show support.

I apologize for the grizzly post, but events here in Salt Lake turned ugly last Friday night when Dane Hall was beaten just after leaving Club Sound. The assailants did not seem all that interested in hiding their motives, adding insult to injury they hurled homophobic and hateful epithets at the man as they beat him. QSaltLake relays Hall’s account of the events:

Hall said he left Club Sound, which is gay-themed on Friday nights, and crossed the street to the corner of 600 West and 200 South in Salt Lake City, when four men approached him and began yelling gay slurs. He was then punched in the back of the head and knocked to the ground. One of the assailants grabbed his shirt and began punching him in the face, he said. After Hall fell to the ground again, the attacker grabbed him, placed his open mouth over the street curb and stomped on the back of head, knocking out six teeth in a move commonly referred to as ‘curb checking,’ which can result in death in many cases. Two other assailants kicked him repeatedly in the stomach, Hall said. The attackers called him a ‘fag’ and took his identification and $40, he said.

Police are investigating the matter. The incident only began to gain public attention after QSaltLake’s account (among others) trickled out. From there, the finger pointing begins. Several commenters on QSaltLake are incensed over the lack of coverage from large media organizations in the state. However, a former colleague who works in the Salt Lake press scene drew my attention to the SLC police watch logs that omit any mention of the incident.

I asked SLCPD, via twitter, if they broke protocol in not reporting the incident. They said that is not the case and they are investigating. I have asked for more details on the incident’s omission from the watch log and if they will make a formal statement. I will update you if they respond.

[Update] SLCPD reports that the incident was not reported for 19 hours after the incident. As a result it did not show up in watch logs.

Sadly, a formal announcement from SLCPD or faster coverage by local media would not have changed the circumstances of the crime. Ignoring LGBTQ issues is a serious issue in the state of Utah. As a rhetorician what is most distressing about this case is Hall’s account of the connection between the motives, the actions, and the words of the assailants. While details are still missing, this case should remind those of us who teach about rhetoric and power that the words have a way of compelling the body to action. Rhetoric’s materiality is brutally clear here–it was only a matter of time before a society flustered by public discussion of sexuality and inundated with discourses of homophobia and hate acted out with rage. What is worse, is Hall’s case it not unique to Salt Lake or to this country.

In my Communication and Gender course I always assign Brian Ott and Eric Aoki’s “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing and the Matthew Shepard Murder.” Students seem genuinely horrified by Ott and Aoki’s account of Shepard’s murder. What they miss, however, is their core argument that the media ignored the larger role social formations played in Shepard’s death. More over, Ott and Aoki make the point that the case’s media attention was out of the ordinary, given the several similar hate crimes occurred around the same time period but failed to garner national media attention.

When we speak discourses of hate, when we dehumanize and vilify humans we help build a chain of articulations that far too often lead to terrifying material consequences.


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Feminisms and the Catch-22 of Political Life

My colleague and mentor Karrin Vasby Anderson recently wrote and outstanding piece for BagNews on the redundant visual trope of the crazy eyed woman politician. A trope most recently mustered to depict Michele Bachmann as crazy. Anderson argues that there is:

a troubling trend in which political women are critiqued as crackpots and lambasted as lunatics. This approach relies on a specific set of visual cues that are applied to women of various ages and ethnicities across political parties.

In essence, crazy eyes (as a political tool) drips with an air of condescension and is used to delegitimize female candidates by playing off long dispelled (yet even longer held) suspicions that women are less rational than men. Such attitudes were mainstays of arguments against women’s suffrage,  underpin the modernist notion of the public sphere, and even persist today as a means of discounting the intellectual tenacity of female public figures.

This all sadly points to a continued social bias that prevents women, in the eyes of many, from appearing presidential enough to warrant them as rational candidates. While this is not true of all female politicians, women as candidates face a specific set of challenges their male challengers do not. Often, because of our stereotyped and bifurcated political system liberal candidates and conservative candidates face the inverse outcome of similar political conundrums.

Sarah Palin’s has an ongoing tenuous relationship with feminisms, one that makes visible the  trouble of pop cultured versions of third-wave feminism. The LA Times explains

She’s talking not about your mom’s or Gloria Steinem’s feminism but, as she put it, an ’emerging, conservative, feminist identity.’ [Palin’s] talking not about your mom’s or Gloria Steinem’s feminism but, as she put it, an ’emerging, conservative, feminist identity.

Third-wave feminism is often described as a fragmented movement that has yet to recover/is in the process of recovering/has recovered from the splintering of the second-wave feminist movements. Karrin Vasby Anderson & Jessie Stewart argue third wave feminism makes for extremely difficult intellectual terrain and when it gets lost in the milieu of pop culture, it loses its intellectual integrity. They claim,

This emphasis on self, on personal rather than political empowerment, and on dominance through sexual and/or economic channels is what prompts many critics, feminist and otherwise, to be skeptical about the political utility of third- wave feminist theories—particularly those popularized by the media. (Abstract available here)

The dispute of feminisms in the third-wave struggles over the issue of whether or not feminist goals can be attained by a rugged capitalist individualism that often is entrenched in logics of patriarchy and sexism.

If conservative women stay mored to family and pursue political ambitions later or as secondary to family ambitions (as traditional gender roles dictate) then their political life is always at a temporal disadvantage to their male counterparts. On the other hand, when liberal female candidates pursue political careers with primacy over other choices, they often face criticism and skepticism for not cherishing traditional values. While I contend that these two positions often line up along these political lines, it may be a kind of false dichotomy as these are some of the challenges women pursuing any career face, but the public spotlight simply casts a more visible shadow. In essence, to be feminist or not to be feminist, may no longer be the question. Instead, it is a question of deploying a politically effecacious iteration of feminism, one that may or may not contain the intellectual heritage and sacrifices of the intellectual project of feminism.

Further, I have been perplexed, angered, and intrigued (both as someone who is religious and teaches Gender & Communication) by‘s article “Hail to the Housewife” by Libby Copeland. The crux of Copeland’s argument is that an often invoked conservative evangelical edict in the covanant of marriage demands women “Be submissive wives; you are to be submissive to your husbands.'” Though this verse has been translated a multiplicity of ways, the language of submission is popular in many conservative evangelical circles. This leads Slate to wonder if Michele Bachmann, as elected leader, would need to submit to her husbands political will even if such submission causes her to violate her oath of office. Copeland argues,

This apparent contradiction—how you can be leader of the free world and yet subordinate to some guy —has proved no less confusing to the nation’s conservative evangelicals.

The emphasis on male political spouses, from the first dude Todd Palin to scrutiny over Marcus Bachmann’s pray away the gay clinics, suggests the question of male political spouses has a different sort of traction then the awful scrutiny directed at Michele Obama and in the past at Hillary Clinton

What makes the Slate article so frustrating is that is forces either a position of equivalence that argues that the submission doctrine delegitimizes any candidate who takes such a vow and thus forces them to subvert any other oath, including an oath of office, to the will and whim of their husband. Such questions tread very closely to the anti-catholic campaigns that argued that a catholic’s fist duty was with the Pope and as such they were unfit for office and shares a contemporary logic in the anti-muslim views of many candidates, including Herman Cain’s controversial comments about his unease with appointing a muslim to his cabinet.

On the other hand, is it unfair to ask Bachmann a hypothetical question that if her husband’s wishes contradicted her oath of office, what her response would be? This is a disturbing road to go down, because while the question may be fair it is, at one and the same time, sexists and politically charged. What then to we make of political lives, wives & husbands, and vows, submission, and oaths of office? These are the difficult questions that may continue to gain traction as Bachmann enjoys her time charging to the front of the 2012 GOP primary.

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