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2019-07-13 What is Justice?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about justice: what is it? Who gets it? What does that look like? Inspired by Gloria Ladson-Billings’ acceptance address for the AERA Social Justice Award (2015), I picked up Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Both texts have me thinking about how we define justice, what it looks like in theory, and what it could look like in practice.

Ladson-Billings argues in her speech that we should use the term ‘justice’ rather than its confusing and buzzword baggage-laden ‘social justice.’ She moves from this explanation to define justice. I realized as I was listening to her outline of western notions of justice that seemed merely transactional (Mills, Nozick, Rawls) that I hadn’t grown up with these notions of justice. Rather, in my household—which may have existed in the western world but whose beliefs inside it hardly resembled western thought—and in my (particularly Catholic, particularly Jesuit) schooling I was taught more relational notions of justice. Justice was actualized in our interactions with others. Ladson-Billings explains these non-western notions of justice: justice is related to how people’s lives go (Sen) rather than just the institutions that are a part of their lives, and it includes defining harm and restoring safety, security, rights, dignity to all stakeholders involved (Elechi, 2004).

In Stevenson’s book, he first took me through how he became a lawyer and how he ended up in Atlanta and Alabama, defending prisoners on death row. He weaves the story of Walter McMillian, To Kill a Mockingbird, the stories of other prisoners, and the history of various laws, norms, and statues that converged and contributed to the prisoners’ stories. Throughout the reading I kept wondering how he was defining justice and why Ladson-Billings would consider him such a strong influence on her own thinking of justice.

It finally occurred to me that Ladson-Billings and Stevenson are defining justice in a way that is relational. This includes people’s relationships with each other and to the institutions that exist in (and often give shape to) their lives.

I am coming to see justice as a recognition of the full humanity of human beings and the restoration of our common humanity that has been marred and broken by injustice.

I like the idea of describing justice as the wholeness created when we recognize “our reciprocal humanity” (Stevenson, 2015, p. 290). Working towards justice means recovering our own humanity and participating in recovering the humanity of others—this humanity has been broken by acts of injustice enacted by individuals and those individuals who participate in our institutions.

2018-06-29 Teaching: Asking why and how

*this post contains a four-letter word some readers may find distasteful

As a teacher, I ask a lot of why questions—of myself and of my colleagues—because I want to understand my own and others’ rationale behind our teaching decisions. I ask about big-picture items like unit objectives and summative assessments, to detail-oriented items like lesson activities and the selection of texts to teach. Why teach The Bell Jar rather than The Catcher in the Rye, for example? Why have the students write a literary analysis rather than a letter to the author or another student? Why is it important to study the period in American literature from which these two texts are drawn?

When I attempt to answer these questions and ask them of my teacher colleagues, it strikes me time and again just how complex an activity teaching is.

For the skilled pedagogue, teaching becomes a series of questions whose responses have the potential to determine how well our students learn and what is valued and given voice in the classroom.

Let’s take the question of why to teach The Bell Jar or The Catcher in the Rye as an example.

The following are reasons why a teacher could choose to teach Salinger:

  • traditional—one could argue “classic”—text taught in high school
  • “safe” choice: since it’s considered “traditional,” you don’t have to necessarily explain to students, parents, colleagues, admin why you’re teaching this one
  • you have copies of the book in the book room (and that’s all there is left)
  • if you’ve ever taught high school English you have likely taught this text before, and so probably have lesson plans, activities, assessment ideas already mapped out and handouts created (and if not, your colleagues likely do)
  • students may know that this text is usually taught in high school so may be looking forward to reading it
  • many students love Holden and relate to his angst about being a teenager who is misunderstood by the adults (and sometimes peers) around him
  • you get to have the “fuck you” conversation with your students who likely have never heard a teacher lead a class discussion around such language

The following are reasons why a teacher could choose to teach Plath:

  • it’s not the one students expect: students may already have impressions and knowledge about Catcher because it is the book that’s usually picked
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal does a beautiful reading of the audiobook, which would be a great classroom resource and help your students hear the text and Plath’s tone
  • it’s written by a woman
  • Esther Greenwood, the main character, is a woman
  • it allows students to learn about some of the tension women experience as they face pressures from themselves, their families, and society to work or to stay home
  • the book is semi-autobiographical, which allows students to also explore the tensions Plath faced as a writer in her time
  • many students love Esther; her remarkable voice and story of struggle with her mental illness surfaces empathy and important conversation in class

Asking why reveals ideas about the texts themselves and their value as classroom material. Look to see what each text could be communicating to students who are reading and discussing it: whose voice is presented and thus valued? Whose perspective is privileged? Are students reading authors or characters who look like them? Who experience life as they do? Who are different from other characters or authors they’ve read?

Another teacher’s reasons to teach one text over the other might differ from my own. And as a teacher who didn’t always see a lot of literature in her book room that was written by or about people who looked like me, I use that experience to help make my teaching decisions and respond to why—we all bring our own life experiences to make our classroom decisions.

Let’s take The Bell Jar. You decide to teach it because it’s told from a woman’s point of view and everything else you’ve read this year hasn’t been: Lord of the FliesOf Mice and MenThe OdysseyAnimal Farm. As a woman, you worry that students are starting to see that only men can both write and be the stars in the lit you read. If they see it often enough over enough time (it doesn’t take very long because it’s reinforced in society), they’ll start to think it strange and “unnatural” when a woman writes and when a woman tells the story. Because I am a woman and grew up reading books written about others who were not like me, I’m sensitive to the absence.

I ask a lot of why questions, but now I’m wondering how: how do students make this connection between what we read and what we value? How do our positionalities influence what we bring into the classroom? If I’m blind to perspectives that are not my own, how can I attempt to bring them into my classroom? How are teachers taught to see texts in this way?

2018-06-05 Perpetuating Racism

When I was 10 years old I watched on the news Rodney King get pulled over and beaten by Los Angeles police officers. I recalled two things about this event: 1) this was so violent: so many officers and one defenseless man, and 2) this beating took place in my town, by police officers whose patrol cars were emblazoned with the LAPD motto, “to protect and to serve.”

I heard about the trial, which took place in the town where my dentist was—which I didn’t even think was part of LA County it was so far away—then watched the verdict on breaking news. My eyes were glued to the television as parts of a city I visited every weekend with my parents to see our family were burned and looted. My cousins had to be escorted home from school by the police. There were images of armed people standing on the roofs of their stores to guard against looters. Newscasters spoke of the escalation of existing tensions between the Korean and Black communities in Los Angeles. We stayed away from downtown for a few months.

Three years later I again watched on tv the the most boring car chase ever: what was the big deal about this white Bronco? And wasn’t OJ Simpson a football player? What was going on with his girlfriend and why were we still watching this car chase? Then OJ Simpson went to trial, and I’m not sure how, but it became part of my 7th grade social studies education. Then, again, on breaking news, I watched the verdict.

I did a lot of watching in those days, watching these events unfold, watching trials come and go, watching riots and celebrations. Throughout it all I had such an incomplete  understanding of the events, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to me, a little Asian kid in the Valley.

As an adult, when I asked my brother what he remembered about Rodney King, he said, “can’t we all just get along?” Thrust into the national spotlight to make a statement about “race relations” in Los Angeles, King asked the simple question. In a similarly naive way, I have continued, since I was a kid and watching how people of different races interacted in Los Angeles, to ask myself,

how in the world does racism continue to persist in our society?

How is it that our schools are still separate and unequal, segregated more today than before Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas? How is it that violence continues disproportionately against Black bodies? How is it that difference in infant mortality rates between Black babies and White babies is larger now than in 1850? 1850, folks.

I have a variety of answers and responses to how racism continues, but they don’t often get me anywhere. So instead I have started to ask myself

how am I perpetuating racism?

My parents and I were visiting the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice when I came across a 1963 newspaper ad asking readers what they had done “personally” to “maintain segregation.” I was a little bit horrified, but then curious. This ad was trying to convince its readers that they should be maintaining segregation, but if they hadn’t done anything to keep the status quo, like, you know, making sure Black people were staying on their side of the bus and using their own drinking fountains, they could donate to an organization that would help them to do so. Nothing more you had to do! Just give us some money! We’ll make sure the races never mix!

Photo of a page from the June 9, 1963 Selma Times Journal, taken at The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The question at the top of the page reads, "Ask Yourself This Important Question: What have I personally done to maintain segregation?" The caption of the newspaper says, "White Citizens Councils formed to maintain white supremacy and oppose integration, voting rights and equality.
Photo of a page from the June 9, 1963 Selma Times Journal, taken at The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

As I thought about that question I turned it on myself: what had I done to maintain segregation, to perpetuate racism? What choices had I made about where I live, or where I would send my children to school? What would be the downstream consequences of these choices, particularly as they reinforced existing systemic problems? What considerations should I be taking into account as I made decisions? What had I personally done to maintain segregation? What was I continuing to do? And then a new question came to mind:

what is involved in stopping my perpetuation of racism and could I teach others to do the same?

What do I need to know to stop perpetuating racism? How do I need to think in order to stop perpetuating racism, especially when I don’t realize I’m doing it?

Racism pisses me off. It annoys me. It frustrates the hell out of me. How in the world can we be a society that claims to value equality and justice when we don’t offer that protection and safety for everyone? It has become really important for me to figure out some answers to these questions.

2018-04-19 Why doesn’t my bitmoji look Asian?

I. The Set Up

In my Digital Rhetorics class a few weeks ago we were given the opportunity to create avatars, whether in bitmoji or cartoonify. I was so excited because about a year ago I saw a friend’s bitmoji and was like, I totally want that for myself. Why don’t I have one yet. Serious fomo. In visual form:

what my bitmoji would have looked like had I had bitmoji when my friend showed me hers.
what my bitmoji would have looked like had I had bitmoji when my friend showed me hers.

So I set to making my bitmoji and, even though we were supposed to be silently making them, I began to consult my classmate-neighbor for her opinions. I would often question her suggestions (that’s what my skin color looks like to you?) and I became conflicted in making “simple” choices about my eyebrow shape, ear placement, permanent make-up.

I knew I wanted to highlight my eyes because they are pretty large in offline life, and after I decided that the choices I was being offered (what’s with the the passive voice? I have no idea who was offering me said choices. Programmers?) were limiting (despite having probably 20-something choices for skin color), I started thinking about what I wanted myself to look like, or rather, what I hope other people are seeing when they see me. So I added glasses because even though I don’t always wear glasses in offline life I thought they look cute and kind of cool. And I’m into scarves so I added one of those as well.

When I was done my classmate-neighbor expressed her affirmations even when I wondered, is this what I look like? Is this what other people think I look like? Then she leaned over and said, “so your bitmoji kind of looks like Sarah Palin.”

I would say, "yo" and that "I have a great idea." But would I said it like this?
I would say, “yo” and that “I have a great idea.” But would I said it like this?

When we were debriefing as a whole-class I was discussing another image I had pulled and saying I didn’t think I would actually say those words in that way in offline life and a classmate said, “yes you would!” I started to think

do I even know myself?!

Later that night I sent a group text to my college roommates with my new bitmoji and my best friend responded, “your bitmoji is totally cute, but it looks nothing like you!”

Okay, sensing a pattern here: what it is about my bitmoji that makes it not look like me even though I tried to get each separate piece to look like me? Do the parts just not add up to the whole? And then I think I hit it: my bitmoji doesn’t look Asian. Why doesn’t my bitmoji look Asian? What is it about my offline face that looks Asian? And why couldn’t I get this “look” online?

II. Some Background

At the same time we were making bitmoji and discussing “authenticity and identity” in class and what those terms mean in online and offline spaces (again with the defining of terms) I was reading (by coincidence) an article in The Atlantic about Second Life.

The article has pictures of Second Lifers and their avatars and I was struck by the choices individuals made in selecting their online bodies. The narrative we most hear about our online bodies compared to our offline ones is that our offline ones are our idealized versions:

“While Bridgette is middle-aged, her avatar is a lithe 20-something whom she describes as ‘perfect me—if I’d never eaten sugar or had children.'”

I mean, this isn’t a new concept. If we have an imaginative space where we can create a new us, why not create idealized versions of ourselves, that don’t get old, or fat, or, wait, what other adjectives can I put in here that help reinforce our ever-evolving standards of female beauty? There are limits about this self based on social ideas of the “ideal”—I’m not sure if we’re talking Platonic forms here—but also real advantages: the article details a woman with limited mobility as a result of multiple sclerosis who gains full use of her legs in online life, a man with Down Syndrome in offline life has the option about when to reveal his diagnosis to other avatars, an option he doesn’t have in offline life. So we can exist in a space where we can hide the features of our identity that others judge.

So that judgment doesn’t go away because we’re online, as the horrifically troubling parts of avatar creation show us. One woman, who is Black in offline life, made herself a “California blonde” in Second Life and expressed the “freedom” she felt at not having “to come off nice and articulate, right away…” Our online identities don’t eliminate the prejudices we have in offline life. Why did we ever think they would? In fact, this woman has created an online identity where she can pass, completely eliminating the parts of her identity influenced by her race and ethnicity. As the article’s author Leslie Jamison writes, the

“preponderance of slender white bodies, most of them outfitted with the props of the leisure class, simply re-inscribe the same skewed ideals—and the same sense of ‘whiteness’ as invisible default—that sustain the unequal playing field in the first place.”

Interestingly, while I couldn’t get my bitmoji to look Asian, one of my White male classmates shared that his bitmoji looked just like him—and we all agreed. Why could he look like him and why couldn’t I look like me? What choices were presented to him that I didn’t have? How does our digital world dictate and inscribe the identities we present there?

III. The Interviews

You’ve read a lot of what I have to say. Please follow the link to the prezi to see and hear how my interviewees responded.

2018-04-16 Is this digital?

This chapter is presented in a video essay. Video below. Transcript below that.

Image/screenshot of looking up terms in google dictionary and OED: epistemology, theoretical framework, research, culture, pedagogy while VOICEOVER:

One thing I consistently do in graduate school is define terms. Which is good, because another consistent part of graduate school is that I think I know what terms mean, and then realize I don’t actually. I appreciate this exercise of defining terms because I often use terms to which I don’t know precise meanings and clarifying them helps me sharpen those meanings and therefore my thinking.

Images of our definition of “digital” while VOICEOVER:

At the beginning of my Digital Rhetorics course, our professor asked us to define rhetorics and digital. According to my memory, this was a challenging activity. I think perhaps because we were having a hard time, we started mentioning terms we associated with the digital, and that helped, but offering examples and offering definitions are different things.

Images of B-roll* while VOICEOVER:

After our activity I continued to think about this term: what is “digital”? I kept asking in my head, “is this digital” when I encountered different experiences as part of my everyday comings and goings: email is digital, isn’t it? But why? Is non-email mail digital? Why? When our study group started thinking about ideas for our final projects, I offered that I would probably do something to respond in an extended way to lingering questions from the class, among which was the question of digital-ness. As the group helped me brainstorm ideas for how to present my project, we started joking around that I could do some sort of Ken Burns spoof, asking in an “artsy” way, “is this digital?” We started listing all the things the “this” could refer to. It was hilarious. It still is. I guess you had to be there.

But really, what is digital? What makes something digital? Are you participating in a digital activity right now? Why or why not?

To help me figure out how to define “digital,” I started asking my family and friends

What does it mean for something to be digital?

Here are the responses they gave me: Images of people’s responses on screen.

compression, something electronic, something that isn’t physically tangible. Some people defined it by what it wasn’t: something analog, something mechanical. Others defined it as how information was accessed: through an electronic means like via a smartphone, or a television, or online. Most people were confused by my question.

And I don’t blame them. Think about it for yourself: what does it mean for something to be digital?

The only two people who had definitive answers for what it means for something to be digital were engineers: Andy, a friend and mechanical engineer, Image of response on screen. defined digital as a binary, a 0 or a 1. My brother, a software engineer, said that Image of response on is discrete values (usually 0 or 1) based on signal strength like voltage.” When he uses his job-specific terms he often says words I understand separately, but not together.

And then he dropped this on me: Image of response on screen. A thing being electronic has nothing to do with the distinction between digital and analog. Excuse me? Again: A thing being electronic has nothing to do with the distinction between digital and analog.

Is this a definitive definition of “digital” or can “digital” also mean something that’s electronic?

To illustrate what I mean, a comparison: a few years ago my same brother and I got into one of the biggest arguments we’ve ever had about the term bar-be-que. Having lived in Atlanta for eleven years I have redefined my definition of bbq to refer to how a meat is cooked: insert pic of smoker smoked. In a smoker.

If you have prepared smoked meat, you have bbq. But people outside the south don’t define it that way. For them, when you cook on a grill, insert pic of grill that’s bbq.

My brother claimed that you can use the term both ways and people know what you mean. I maintained that you couldn’t use the term “bbq” unless you’re referring to a noun (like, a plate of smoked meat image of plate of smoked meat) and not the verb (like someone grilling image of person grilling meat) Photo by ALP STUDIO on Unsplash.

We argued for days until my husband said it was the stupidest argument ever and we should just shut up and stop talking about it.

Is this similar as the definition of digital? Specialists have one definition and laypersons have another? Besides your profession, what other identity features could influence our conceptualization and definition of digital: age, ablebodiness, gender?

When do our definitions of digital matter? What can our definitions of digital tell us about how we see the world? Would a better understanding of what is digital help us understand our digital identities? Image of my bitmoji

Final image: “Check out ‘Why Doesn’t My Bitmoji Look Asian’ for more!”

*B-roll clips

  • Filming a crowd
  • Using an atm
  • Woman crossing street and cellphone
  • Paying for my coffee via Square Space
  • People on their computers
  • Paying for parking (in coins) at an automated machine
  • Guy texting on phone
  • Woman on computer keyboard and mouse
  • Card trick with audience participation
  • Man on an acoustic guitar
  • Google map on phone in car
  • Microwave clock
  • Screenshot looking up definitions of “digital” in google dictionary and OED
  • Screenshot going on to Netflix

2018-04-14 What’s a Computer?

So what’s a computer? The girl in the Apple commercial uses it to produce information and consume information, while Nathan, Gavin, and Morgan talk about computers as places where they consume information.

Nathan and Gavin both seem to conceptualize computers as something almost magical and transactional: we provide the input in the form of pressing buttons and something we can consume pops up/out based on the information we’ve put in.

For Nathan, a computer “has buttons.” When I ask what those buttons do, he says, “they control.” After listening to the interview to make the movie I realized that when I was interviewing Nathan an off-screen voice of one of his older brothers says, “control” and Nathan repeats it. And then he says, “they control nothing!” So he knows the computer has buttons, but what the buttons do he’s not quite sure.

I cut off Gavin twice when interviewing him about computers and what he uses them for, so I don’t think I get as much information from him as I could have. But he too sees computers as devices onto which we type and then information comes out of it: we don’t produce on machines, but rather punch buttons that respond to our commands so that we can then consume what appears. Case in point: Gavin plays games on computers. He also uses them at school, but I didn’t ask for what! Later I learn from his parents that he and his older brother have Google accounts at school on which they have email and have made google slide presentations for school, but this doesn’t come to mind right away for Gavin.

Morgan starts by describing the physical characteristics of contemporary computers: a screen with a keyboard, which isn’t always how computers have looked nor how many look now—is my phone a computer? Is my smartwatch a computer? While his younger brother uses them to play games, Morgan uses them to find answers. Different types of consumption, but consumption all the same. Morgan even says that a computer can “give you an answer, on like, anything.” He goes on to explain that you can’t always trust the answers the computer gives you, though, and you have to check it against other sources of information.

All three brothers remark that a computer has the ability to show you things that you request. Like the computer does it as a function of its essence, and not that someone else—a human—has programmed a computer to follow your commands.

But the girl in the Apple commercial does so much more than consume on her “computer”: only a couple times in the ad do we see her consume: she reads a graphic novel on the bus on the way home, for example. She spends most of the day producing and the “computer” helps her do that: she writes, she takes photographs, she draws, she designs a newsletter.

This makes me continue to think about computers and what they are. Something to aid us in consumption? Production? My entire web portfolio was produced on a computer.

And where does the agency lie in these production- and consumption-machines? All the things we can produce or consume are programmed by humans to respond to the specific set of commands we communicate to it through a series of buttons we press. But the machine has a degree of learning it can do as well. So what kind of agency do computers have and do we assign? I used to have a colleague who said, “computers hate me.” This confused me: a computer doesn’t have emotions. I would snark back, “right. Because computers function like that.” So what’s a computer and who has the agency when we interact with computers? And why do we think that? Does this influence our conception of the digital?

2018-04-13 Introduction to the Digital Series

In the Winter 2018 (Jan-Apr) term I took Melanie Yergeau’s digital rhetorics class. I was unsure what to expect, but excited because a) my program mates rave about her and b) I figured I should have thought about digital rhetoric before I finish my doctoral coursework.

Within the first two weeks we attempted to define the words that make up the name of our class: “digital” and “rhetorics” and I have continually thought about these terms throughout the course. Other questions have materialized as well, mostly around power, access, and identity. I present here my thinking about these lingering questions.

Although the content of this work is not directly tied to my ongoing research regarding teacher thinking, it does intersect in considerations of how we think: how do we think about the digital and how do we think about our identities in the digital. This is a personal project where most of my interviewees are family, friends, friends of friends, and former students. I’m trying out storytelling here as well in an attempt to offer a story about a research topic of interest.

Within this project you’ll find a series of chapters in the form of short videos and video essays. You need not watch in any particular order or all of them at once: you can choose to experience the fragmentation of our sometimes-online and offline lives and the rhizomatic networks of them as well.

Thanks for visiting. Happy reading.

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