Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rite of OBOS

Last night one of the co-founders of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective visited campus and I went to hear her presentation. On my way in, I bought the most recent copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves (I already own three other editions, including two from the 1970s). Judy Norsigian's talk romped through a host of women's health issues -- troubling practices that persist despite ample research to the contrary, the power of drug companies, global issues, cultural issues... It was a powerful testament to the continuing need for advocacy work around women's health -- the impetus for the creation of the Boston Women's Health Collective in the first place.

After the talk, I asked Norsigian to sign the book for E. When E found the book on her bed tonight, she was initially deeply skeptical based on its pink cover (as was I, I must admit). Then I told her the story of how this book came to be and how it has been updated, translated, and disseminated around the world. She got much more interested. I told her that this book was political, that it represented important advocacy work that had drastically changed women's relationship to the health system in this country and was continuing to do that even today. She thanked me for the book -- and really seemed to mean it. I told her that her grandmother had given me an earlier copy of the book many years ago, but this one was hers...and I showed her the inscription. "She signed this for me?" she said excitedly. She loved it.

Then I told her that some of the book would probably not be of much interest to her right now -- like the section on menopause. At the mention of menopause, she told me to leave but I kept going and told her there were other sections that would be much more relevant... just then I leafed past the "teens and birth control" section, which I mentioned might be of more interest. She did not tell me to leave then, but I left anyway. I had said what I wanted to say. And when I peeked in later, she was contentedly curled up on her bed with her dog, reading away.

Really? But... but... but...

A casual conversation with a senior colleague in the hall a week and a half ago has got me turned inside out. He is a relatively new full professor (which means he has not yet gone into hibernation like our older fulls) and he asked when I would be coming up for promotion. I told him that I was thinking about asking to go forward next year (which would mean, after the year+ process, I might be promoted in Sept. 2013). He asked about my current projects and suggested a somewhat different strategy than I have been pursuing -- including starting the process to come up for full in a few weeks, when the senior members of the department will meet to vote on such things.

I was very resistant, feeling that it would all be a bit safer in another year, once I had a book contract firmly in hand -- especially since there is no time pressure for this promotion, unlike coming up for tenure. He made the argument that I could do it now and be making full professor money with full professor privileges for doing the same work I'm doing now. Hmmm...

So, on top of other angst in my life, I threw "what to do with my career" into the mix. I actually pulled out my c.v. on Thursday and spent a long time tweaking the white space and thinking about the work represented there. Then I annotated it, printed it off, and stuck it in the box of my colleague. I challenged him to give me an honest assessment of what I look like on paper. After all, if people like him aren't eager to push my case forward, there is no case. I cannot be my own advocate.

Well, he thought it/I looked solid as is and would be "outstanding" if the "revise and resubmit" I already have from American Quarterly turned into an acceptance, something that could theoretically happen between now and the middle of summer when my materials would be sent out to external reviewers. So now he is taking my c.v. to my other senior colleagues in the discipline. But he is a persuasive guy with five times as much energy as any of the others. I can't really kid myself, if he tells them he wants to put me forward, the others will most likely say yes.

It is just now sinking in for me that the email I sent tonight, giving him the okay to put my c.v. in front of the others, is pretty much equivalent to me doing the formal ask to go forward... In other words, I think I just asked to be promoted -- after having not really thought much about it (or a particular time frame for it) until just this past fall. I've just been plugging away at this and that (which somehow added up to 16 conference presentations since 2004!), publishing things when the right venue appeared, and continuing to work in a very unsystematic way on a sprawling second book. Could that really lead to a promotion? Considering the agony of tenure/assistant professor promotion it is really hard to believe...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why aren't there alternatives to skipping?

So... maybe the girl could skip ANOTHER grade. I'm stewing about this today. In her typical, unflappable way, her response is "cool, when do I take their tests?" My response is much more complicated (witness my last post). Today, however, I'm finding myself pissed -- pissed at a system that is so inflexible, that fetishizes grade levels, that is so lacking in creativity. (I am not alone in this, just read this post/comment thread from Edutopia.)

When I contacted a teacher about curriculum in her classes and where my daughter and kids like her (those who are highly motivated in this subject), she accused me of advocating tracking. I'm having a hard time not seeing that as a direct attempt to shut me down. The challenge is, and this is what I've been asking for all along, is how to provide just some -- one or two -- opportunities for my kids to work with a motivated peer group and have the full attention of a teacher, while staying in the 'regular' school. E likes band and art. She has a pretty diverse group of friends. She is at ease in this school. I do value these things but there is no getting around the fact that she is bored and stuck in classrooms that just lump kids together without any regard to ability, motivation, or experience. In these situations, my kid gets A's because she manages to turn in all her work and is quiet. And she knows this. She wants those A's to mean more.

When I was in 5-7th grades, we lived in Virginia in a huge school district that had a much wider range of students than the sheltered world of Midland public schools from which I had come. I was identified as "Gifted and Talented" somehow and experienced three different programs during my time there. One year, there were a handful of days where we were taken out of regular classes to attend a district-wide day of activities. This was lame because I knew no one (I was in elementary school and didn't even know the other kids from my school) and it wasn't a sustained program, just a series of one-offs. The next year, there was a short time in the afternoon once every other week where we were pulled out of class to go work on projects with other kids from around the (large) school. I learned about flow-charts and rudimentary computer programming, we built electrical circuits, and stuff that was cool, but again, there was not rapport with the other students or the revolving adults who lead the projects.

The third model, however, had a significant impact on me. In 7th grade at a gigantic, overflowing school, I spent 4th period in a "special" class with less than 20 other kids. I can still recite poetry I learned in that class. I designed and adminstered my first survey. I learned the mathmatical explanation for "magic" tricks... Projects aside, it was neat, it was special, and I got to know a diverse range of students who made me a better student because they were better students -- and that compensated for the shortcomings of my other classes. There were four teachers for the class, so each quarter we had someone new who was excited to be there because they got to try out kooky projects or teach about their passions to a small, motivated group. I certainly hope it was as rewarding for them as it was for me.

Okay, that was many years, er, decades, ago, but surely there must be some models out there for creating that kind of experience for kids -- even if it is just for 50 minutes a day. And I don't just mean the kids who test well. Why can't we borrow a page from the "free schooling" movement and get kids to pick something that interests them and then get them a peer group and teacher that will encourage them in this?

I tried some of these ideas out on the principal of the middle school and got nowhere (E calls her "weak-minded") so now I'm laying this challenge in front of the school board and the district adminstration today. We'll see. In the meantime, I still need to figure out if I should cut my losses with this school and jump through the hoops to move E straight to 9th grade (at the ripe old age of 12 1/2)...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Educational Ranting

I'm feeling pretty stewy these days when it comes to K-12 education. Our local school district is a mess and I'm close enough to it -- knowing a couple of board members, being on a school committee, attending as many PTO meetings as I can stomach, and watching my kids go through it -- that there is something every week that sends me into a fit. On the state level the funding system that was supposed to equalizes districts (but has not) and more threatened cuts makes the picture for the majority of school districts in the state pretty bleak.

I'm a pretty firm believer in public education and I put my kids where my mouth is. The problem is, as I said, the current crunch that can only get worse before it gets better is going to fuck things up for my kids. While the system is dissolving into crisis (where something like 60% of the districts in the state are in serious debt), my kids are in 3rd and 7th grade. Even if we fix the funding system and rework districts, pedagogies, and institutions within 5 years, we've screwed the kids who are currently in the system. Consequently, I think it is totally acceptable to run up huge amounts of debt to improve things in the short term while we work on those longer term solutions. The governor does not agree. He (a multi-millionaire) is taking a $1 annual salary from the state, which he seems to think justifies a budget that reduces K-12 funding approximately $800/student. That's his idea of sharing the burdens of our poor economy. I have my anger as a 'community member' pretty well sorted out, even if I have not yet found the right channel into which I can direct that anger.

My other role, however, is as 'parent' and that has me rolling around with much less direction. Our school system needs to do more to hang on to the bright kids. I am deeply concerned about what happens to the culture of the school when the motivated kids with motivated parents pull out because the short term prognosis is so grim. But, having just received more reports about E's stunningly good scores on the big standardized tests and looked at the unimaginative curriculum and overstuffed classrooms of her school, I have to wonder if I'm sacrificing her opportunities in the interest of my larger political beliefs. This is somewhat more pressing with this kid because she is rather Lisa Simpson-like. She likes to excel within the structure of school. She figures out exactly what she needs to do (no more) and does it and then basks in the good grades. Getting her to do extra "just to learn" or "for her own good" doesn't hold much appeal for her. She'd rather read fantasy novels.

So...tomorrow I'm meeting with her principal and the academic counselor at her middle school to hear what they have to say about all this. I'm going to ask them to give us -- and the others like us -- a reason to stay. Frankly, I'm not expecting much. The elementary schools are pretty good, but once kids hit puberty, the schools become obsessed with behavior (which is often times what is being graded) and all energy seems to shift to those who are academically or behaviorally at the bottom. When it comes to kids 12 and over, the district has been in a race to the bottom.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Digital Me

Logging on to the social networks has been rather strange of late. For the last two weeks, I've been following the news of national and state politics through FB links provided by friends. I appreciate seeing the depressing reports of attacks on women and unions framed by the wise words of my lefty friends. It has made it a bit easier to take by reminding me that while the world "out there" is scary, I am not alone in my disgust and outrage. The odd bit about having spent so much time on FB recently is that interspersed with posts on the violence in Libya, attempts to slash funding for Planned Parenthood, and drastic cuts to the state's already pitiful education budget are updates on the inane bits my and my friends' lives. The absurdity of this has actually been comforting and I've appreciated FB more in these weeks than perhaps ever before.

The 'magic moment' is probably coming to an end, however. I've had a good run with FB, but now more and more of my extended family are finding me there. I've also had close encounters will students who know people I know. I'd prefer to keep FB confined to people with whom I have to censor little in my life, but unless I go more deeply underground (a la Dickish McBastard), this can't last and the idea of managing everyone with lists and settings that seem to get changed periodically by the powers that be at FB holds no interest for me. Ah well, for now cousins will just have to languish unacknowledged in my "friend request" folder while I milk this for a bit longer. I'm just not ready to give it up.