Category Archives: Grad School

Space and Time Separate Opt Out Film Week, but Anti-TSA Activists Protest On

Today marks the start of Opt Out & Film Film Week, a weeklong protest aimed at convincing passengers to refuse the use of the TSA’s advanced imaging technology in our nation’s airports (opting out) and when they receive an enhanced pat-down to film the procedure. Aside from potentially overwhelming TSA checkpoints with a mass of individuals opting out across the nation, the project is aimed at raising awareness about the TSA by creating a video archive of the TSA’s hands on contact with our bodies. The hope seems to be that with  a mass of videos there will be evidence of misconduct by the TSA and increased public awareness of what these activists view as a dangerous power grab by the state.

The organizers of Opt Out & Film Week have also created fliers that can be handed out at airports for those who are unable to fly this week. The hope is that if you cannot travel you can still engage in a PR campaign in hopes of convincing people to joining the protest on their way into the airport.

In my own research I have distinguished between resistance-performances and the resistance-performative. Resistance-performances, I contend, are the automatic reactive postures taken to the State  that do little to advance resistive politics. State’s anticipate the expression of resistance and even rely on the extremes of such logics to help moderate State positions. In essence, resistance-performances can legitimate the TSA by making anti-TSA critics appear as enclaves of people branding the TSA and Nazis. In such a discursive environment building resistive politics with mainstream appeal can be difficult.

The resistance-performative, however, is based on the notion of kinesis–that certain rituals have the potential to dramatically alter current social relations. Our performatives materially engage in a breaking and remaking of society leaving customs  and practices wholly changed from what they were before. Clearly, Opt Out & Film week is engaged in a week long campaign to alter the flows of power in airport security checkpoints. The last Opt Out Week, in November 2010, was a  failure. Evidence of this failure is little change in TSA practices two years later. Assuming that Opt Out & FIlm Week will necessarily be successful would be a mistake but that does not mean the protest cannot be a success. There are a few factors, however, working against the this protest.

1) Space- Most successful protests rely on mass mobilization. Even online mobilization recognizes the power of crowds. However, the business of airports and the function of security is about metering entrance to spaces and creating senses of inclusion and exclusion. Airports are almost impossible to mass in, and the design of Opt Out & Film mobilizes the power of the crowd in their digital archives after the fact. I am curious if a sense of solidarity and momentum will be achieved by assembling often isolated acts of opting out (that may be filmed)  after the fact. After all, even if the thousands who indicate they are joining the protests do engage, their flights are divided by time and space across the nations airports and border crossings.

2- Time- The sense of isolation that occurs with space also occurs because of time. Even if activists are located in the same city, they may fly at different times on the same day or different days this week. While a week long protest is needed with the enormity of the air national infrastructure it could threaten the efficacy of the protest.

3-Class-While there are an array of reasons to be concerned about the increased surveillance of bodies by the State, and resistance to normalized acts of watching is even healthy, the embedded issues of classism in anti-TSA communities persists. I wrote about class and Opt Out & Film Week in a previous post and got a very fast response from Ashley Jessica who is the main organizer behind this protest. Her argument was that class is not a relevant factor because anyone can participate by showing up to airports and handing out fliers.

As I responded at that time, class would only be irrelevant if you live near an airport, have leisure time away from work to protest, transportation to and from the airport, and freedom from a host of other social obligations that would allow you to go and protest. One of the things I am aware of as a critical scholar is that factors like class ( race and gender as well) are never irrelevant, especially when it comes to conversations about State surveillance. A leaked recording of a stop made under New York’s “Stop and Frisk” program underscores that under racist regimes, for example, there may be more pressing issues than TSA surveillance.

While all of these would qualify as critiques of Opt Out & Film Week, my hope is that Ashley Jessica and other supports do not take them negatively. Critique is integral to social discourse. Also, none of them are meant to suggest that the protest is unable to be effective. Over the next few days it is certainly an exciting time for anti-TSA activists as they engage in the resistance-performative in airports across the nation’s air infrastructure.

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Filed under Grad School, news and Culture, Research, TSA

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

Abstract:

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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Dissertation Prospectus Defenses as a Scholarly Conversation

In reflecting on my own experience in my dissertation prospectus meeting I realized how little is known by graduate students about what these documents look like and what happens in these meetings. Here are a few thoughts on getting from post-comps to post-prospectus.

A few months ago I found my efforts to write my dissertation prospectus grounded by a frustrating set of attempts to gain site access for my dissertation research and a kind of lingering insecurity over what this document was supposed to be about anyways. While coping with site access ultimately shifted my dissertation content, my anxiety over the actual document was something I had to get over and do so quickly. Thankfully, my committee is incredibly attentive and one of my committee members happened to drop The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Demystifying the Dissertation Proposal,” in my mailbox. Leonard Cassuto’s advice is succinct and was helpful. Cassuto lays out a series of descriptive points that establish what a proposal is not:

  • A dissertation proposal is not an essay.
  • A dissertation proposal is not a mini-dissertation.

He also offers suggestions on what a dissertation proposal is:

  • A proposal puts forth your argument.
  • A proposal describes how your argument will fit together.
  • A proposal outlines methodology.
  • You need to show the place of your dissertation in the critical field.

I found his advice to be enormously helpful, but there is a glaring caveat that Cassuto recognizes in the form of a commandment, “Consult your adviser as you develop your proposal. The myth of the writer as solitary genius striving away in the garret has surprising persistence.” The fact is that a dissertation prospectus can be many things, including the mini-dissertation or essay Cassuto urges you not to write.

For example, as I wrote my prospectus I consulted with a number of my colleagues who had recently written or were writing a prospectus. I discovered that their chairs had advised them to write everything from a fifteen page overview to a two-hundred page proposal with one or two sample chapters. Even more harrowing was that in many cases the chairs demanding these documents happened to be on my committee. Meaning, that even writing my prospectus under careful guidance from my chair, I knew walking into my defense that at least two-fifths of my committee advise their doctoral students to write their documents in radically different ways from what I had written (A 34 page overview of my research orientations, justification for the study, theoretical insights, and chapter overviews).

In the end my document served me well because it accomplished what Cassuto describes as the main purpose of the dissertation prospectus:

The purpose of the dissertation is for it to be approved. Only then can you start writing. A lot of misunderstanding swirls around dissertation proposals. One foundational fact cuts through it: A dissertation proposal has no independent existence. It’s a provisional document, a way station to an eventual goal.

My document accomplished just that. From here, my dissertation is able to get moving. However, it is worth noting that in the actual defense meeting many of the questions that were asked of me called me to answer for what some committee members would have asked their advisees to write in the first place. For example, my theoretical insights, though provisional, were heavily featured in the document. Two committee members needled me with questions about how those insights specifically connect with the actual analytical work with texts I would be doing. These questions could have been nullified had I written a mini-dissertation or provided a sample chapter of some kind. I do not regret writing the proposal I wrote, however, I do find that the document I wrote did as much to determine the tone, pace, and content of the defense meeting as the documents I chose not to write.

Here, as my last point, I want to emphasize that the prospectus document is meant to get you to the meeting so you can talk about your project in front of a panel of experts. The meeting is meant to help clarify issues that may have occluded your view and to engage in a conversation with your committee about the work you plan on doing. Defense, may in fact be the wrong posture for these meetings. I found that my committee members asked tough and important questions, listened carefully to my responses, and pushed me–all of this was not to make me defensive about my project but to aid in widening my field of vision so that I could see important issues I was missing. What emerged is a set of lingering questions that I must attend to in my dissertation, but the tone of the meeting was never defensive. Instead, I found my meeting to be a rigorous and challenging conversation with experts in the field. This conversation model is important because as we progress beyond comps and through the dissertation process we emerge as colleagues instead of students. These meetings, as conversations, help facilitate that movement.

In the end, learn to trust your chair’s intuition about the process but remember that they cannot anticipate everything that can happen in the meeting. As such, prepare by talking with your colleagues and gauging their perceptions of the styles and postures faculty have taken in their meetings. This can provide enormous insight that helps you get past the last hurdle before you write your dissertation (Which is, of course, an entirely different set of anxieties).

For another look at defense meetings see Daren Brabham’s recent post on these meetings.

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