Thursday, May 10, 2007

Remote Blogging

I am blogging while proctoring a final exam. This just happens to strike me as amusing.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Hopeful Post

I am embarrassed to report that I am watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition as I am eating dinner tonight. (I live alone, okay, and I like a little background noise while I'm downing my carrot salad.)

Anyway, on tonight's show, there were twin four-year-old boys. The designer people asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The first said, definitively, "fire fighter." Yup, "fire fighter," not "fireman." That was pretty cool. Then they asked his brother. He said he wanted to be a "police woman."

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Bumfest '07

I live very near to that venerable bastion of Old Berkeley known as People's Park. This afternoon marks the start of the summer "concert" series, which I have insensitively dubbed, "Bumfest '07". Why, oh why, must I be subjected to hours and hours of bad rap every Saturday afternoon? Whom does this acoustic abomination benefit?

Do these sentiments make me a fascist pig?

After several years living in the People's Park neighborhood, I can tell you this about the homeless: Except for the disaffected punk-à-bestia kids and their pitbull puppies, the homeless are either mentally ill, drug-addled or both--and perhaps there is very little difference between the two states. They are sick. Allowing people to live outdoors in a park full of human feces and used needles does not constitute support for "freedom", "free speech", or "the pursuit of happiness." It is a particular abomination when the people in question are sick. Berkeley's homeless need real help, not a big outdoor flophouse.

And bad amateur concerts audible for blocks are also an abomination.

More Anna

Friday morning I meet with Anna to talk about the disaster otherwise known as my dissertation. Anna immediately sets me straight on a number of things I have to do (most of which involve the creation of a giant map... don't ask). Then EDC interrupts. She has some question about dialect in some piece of the Attic scholia (again, don't ask). Anna is the dialect expert. Anna answers EDC's question without batting an eyelash. Then she adds a couple of her own observations.

It is sort of like watching fireworks. I am also filled with a strong sense that this is a club I would really like to belong to. I like to think that I could hack it in Anna's world, as a pioneer without female role models, but who am I kidding? Every so often, it is just really nice to witness every misconception about women's intellectual and professional capacity so elegantly and effortlessly disproven.

It is also kind of awesome to watch EDC defer to someone. I am not sure why - I think it's because she projects a little bit of the Better Than God image. I wonder whether I would feel the same way about a male professor. I think I would. My Infinitely-Better-Than-God thesis advisor (that dude is no dummy--and no shrinking violet in the ego department; he also never sleeps) messed up a date in an email he sent me last week. It was sort of gratifying.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Role Models?

Tuesday afternoon, around 4 pm, I am wandering the halls of my department trying to decide whether I should do some work or throw the towel in and go home already. I pass the open office door of a certain Elder Female Professor whom I am hoping to pin down for some dissertation advice. She is visiting, not permanent, so I only have a week or two left to meet with her. Said EFP is two generations older than I am, a real trailblazer for women in the academy, and the most reknowned, if not the only truly reknowned, female Indo-Europeanist. (Which will indicate to anyone familiar with this sick, arcane little corner of scholarship exactly whom I mean, so it is okay that I reveal that her first name is Anna.) As much as I want her input on this dissertation chapter, I simply want to spend time in her general presence because I admire her so deeply. And because she is extremely kind and fun to talk to.

So we schedule a meeting and then, somehow, end up talking about feminism. (Gee, I wonder how I could have steered the conversation in that direction - I have only wanted to get Anna on the topic for five years or something sick like that... ever since she explained in a paper she was giving that relatively unknown Alice Kober did the real work on decipering Linear B.)

Anna asks me what I think of the role-model school of feminism. That is, the notion that having women faculty around is important for female students. She offers this anecdote: Her college at Oxford was originally an all-women's college, which meant that both students and faculty were all female. At some point in the not-too-distant past, an American woman colleague visited. Said colleague apparently could not get over how much more friendly the place was, in comparison to her experience as a female philosopher in the US. Apparently, a professor had told this woman that women, generally, could not become good philosophers.

Here is Anna's take: What was wrong with this woman that she believed this awful professor? In her own career, Anna's only choice was to ignore any comments or intimations of that nature and simply do her work. While she could agree that there are certain practical matters it is difficult to discuss with a male adviser, she left to the woman student a lot of personal responsibility for her own self-image and the run of her career.

Then Anna told me about the 5pm meetings her department used to have. All the women faculty used to get babysitters, make special arrangements, etc. so that they could make it to the meetings. They never dared beg off a meeting or leave early for family reasons. Now that men are taking increasingly active roles in childcare, however, the situation has changed. The men constantly absent themselves to pick baby up from daycare or something, no apologies, no questions asked.

Here, confronting a deeply practical and tangible manifestation of gender inequity, Anna held the typical feminist view: Damn those entitled-ass men! (Except she didn't say "ass".)

I was raised to believe that there is some intrinsic value in seeing authority figures who look and sound like oneself--and to believe that intangible manifestations of sexism (or racism) are still pernicious and "can be blamed", so to speak, for discrepancies in performance, etc. Talking with Anna has given me pause.

But maybe that's also a reason to keep believing in the power and importance of women role models.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My Big Fat Wedding Rant

My sister is getting married in May. We're all very excited - she's got a good fellow, and the family takes the following general view of the situation: If you love someone and you know you're going to stick with the relationship, why spend years in boyfriend-girlfriend limbo? (In the late 1970s, similar sentiments led my parents to marry at 23... and have four kids by 30.) But here, unfortunately, the sanity of the situation ends: They want A Big White Wedding.

Apparently, this is what all the kids these days are doing--the kids between about 20 and 25 years old, that is. (My sister and her fiancé are 24 and 25, respectively.) At the grand old age of 26, I am actually part of a different generation.

To be honest, the do my sister and her fiancé are having will actually fall at the modest end of the spectrum. They have invited fewer than 200 guests, and only about 125 will probably show up. The dress cost less than $1000 (albeit not much less), and my mother limited them to four attendants each. Of course, to me all this still sounds extravagant and traditionalist. And, of course, though I generally support the scheme and really only want my sister to be happy, I could not help ranting about it to my mother once or twice.

I was surprised to find that she felt the same way. (Including about wanting my sister to be happy.) When she got married in 1977, she explained, she felt somewhat disingenuous standing up there in her little white dress--she had already taken her groom for a test drive. So she finds it a little strange that today's young couples seem to have none of these Puritanical preoccupations, though they not only want but even expect a big, white wedding with all the trimmings.

This revelation (which was, in a disturbing way, sort of honorable and sweet) got me thinking. My mother associated traditional marriage ceremonies with virgin brides and went through with it largely for her family's sake. My sister has no qualms whatsoever about "sealing the deal" before marriage, nor does she feel that this stance is out of keeping with having a traditional wedding celebration. I share my sister's views inasmuch as I agree that marriage should be no prerequisite for a sex or cohabitation, but I also agree with my mother that the truly traditional wedding is inconsistent with the standard modern premarital relationship.

In the pre-industrial society I study, the marriage ceremony represented and accomplished the transfer of a young woman from her father's household (and his potestas) to that of her husband (and his, or his father's potestas--which word should give you some idea of the pre-industrial society I study, and given this society's law was an important precursor to our own American legal system, invoking its customs is not, I think, invalid). In the American wedding, many of the standard acts underline the ceremony's basic understanding of women as chattel: the father walking the bride down the aisle to "give her away", the whole "obey" thing in the vows, the tendency (resurgent, I'm afraid) for the woman to take her husband's name, etc. Somewhere along the way, the American wedding also became a kind of launch of a young woman into her adult life. Here I am thinking of bridal showers, wedding gifts, and the like, all of which are centered around outfitting a new home. (All of this is really pretty obvious!)

Most of us secular Americans should recognize without much trouble that these marriage customs are entirely outmoded in both symbolic and practical application. Legally speaking, women are no longer chattel. We leave our fathers' potestas when we turn 18, just like our brothers. Likewise, while we still do more than our fair share of the housework, most of us work outside the home--and, more tellingly, we were raised with aspirations to have both families and careers. We women even hold the majority among college and university students. In practical terms, too, marriage is no longer the launch point of our adult lives. Most of us have lived away from our parents before getting married, if not already outfitted our own apartments. In many cases, couples have cohabited before marriage and, in some cases, accumulated so much household stuff that they have to keep some of it in storage lockers (or their parents' garages). The virginity issue needs no comment.

I have a few friends who might contend that I am speaking for only a small community of liberal intellectuals living in "blue states" on the coasts. I would challenge them to watch an episode of The Bachelor and get back to me. (Actually this season's bachelor has already dispatched with most of the really nasty, calculating, marriage-obsessed ditzes--which is why I find it weirdly heartening to watch--but still.) The women who appear on that show have jobs, most of which require a college education or some kind of certification. They include teachers, non-profit business women, and even a medical student. There was one committed virgin, but the others made it pretty clear that she was the weird one. Also, I think she got sent home without a rose two weeks ago. While the women are excited to get married, the discourse of the show is more about finding the love of one's life than the glories of becoming a wife. (In fact, the only person this season to utter the word 'wife' was the bachelor.) I'm not sure how many of the bachelorettes expect to keep their full-time jobs after marriage and babies, but I doubt many of them see the course of their lives as a simple transfer from daddy to hubby either.

In short, most American brides are hardly thinking of themselves as chattel when their fathers walk them down the aisle. Nor do they associate that big, white dress with virginity. Likewise, I'm pretty sure that my sister and her friends see their bridal showers as a convenient excuse to get a few extra presents, hardly a reaffirmation that a woman's place is in the home or that marriage is the defining moment of a woman's adult life. Nevertheless, they have chosen to perpetuate and, in some cases, reawaken or even invent a set of rituals with that very symbolism.

The wedding industry has certainly played a huge role in convincing my sister and her peers that The Big White Wedding is normal. Bridal boutiques, bridal chains, sites like, and a frighteningly large number of wedding-themed TV shows have developed a rhetoric of wedding as Your Big, Fat Special Day. If this Big Day rhetoric is traditional, it has skipped a generation. It is as foreign to the sensibilities of our parents and their friends as it is to me. It even seems a little out of character for my sister. I suspect, however, that it has its roots in the bottom line. Commercially speaking, it's a brilliant way to update the symbolism of the wedding without losing money: Of course lavish parties and lots of presents are appropriate for Your Big, Fat Special Day.

For example: At my sister's wedding, the groomsmen will wear black three-button suits. As said groomsmen, who include my three brothers, are not undertakers, they did not already own black three-button suits. We tried to get the happy couple to agree to charcoal two-button suits (infinitely useful for job interviews, court appearances, and other suit-friendly occasions), but they really liked black and really wanted it for their wedding. Accordingly, Brooks Brothers has made a bundle. Now my sister is on a quest for solid blue ties that match the bridesmaid dress--another $150-$200. Said dress, thank god and my own good taste, is not ruffled, pink, or otherwise hideous (makes me look sort of like one of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel sybils!) and I'm sure I'll be able to wear it again at various friends' weddings. So I don't really mind. Still, the decision to have matching bridesmaids represents $188 x 4 to Ann Taylor. (Plus $78 x 4 to for the shoes, though to be honest the shoes were only a recommended purchase--and, full disclosure, I picked them out, so they are totally my style.)

Then there are the registries with the $30/ea plates and $20/ea wine glasses. "We looked at Fiestaware," my sister reports, "but decided to go a little higher-end." She isn't actually a greedy person; she and her peer group have rather been socialized to see their weddings as something of a Big White Opportunity to Get Stuff They Couldn't Otherwise Afford. In fact, my sister is not particularly caught up in this Special Day rhetoric, but I think she actually feels social pressure to have a such a wedding--it's "what's done" and she wants to do the right thing. Again, I point fingers at (Give me my sister back, you body-snatching, Bridezilla bitches!)

What really worries me, however, is not the greed and the expenditure but that so many young women don't see this inconsistencies of their position. Do they really want their weddings to be the Big Day of their lives? What about college graduation? Or getting your dream job? Finding lasting love is certainly worth some celebration, but not as an accomplishment or even as the point of arrival at adulthood. Folding domesticity and household establishment into the celebration furthers old, sexist notions about a woman's role and her proper sphere of activity, not to mention exclusive and judgmental ideas of what constitutes a household, a family, and even an adult. (And as for the bridal shower, which I can't believe I am going to have to attend, until I hear that young men, too, get showered in dishtowels and frying pans before their weddings, I cannot help but find the practice revolting.)

Traditions are not innocent. The resurgence of The Big Wedding has coincided somewhat with an increase in the number of young, hyper-educated women who nonetheless plan to stay home with their children, not to mention the rise of anti-feminist backlash and the religious right. The rights American women have won over the past hundred years are not yet so secure that we can buy into this neo-traditional Big White Wedding culture without eroding them.

For myself, I'm planning to abduct my groom Spartan-style. My Big Day will come when I get tenure. (You'll find my registry at the University Bookstore.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Real Brooke Miller

That is, the one not appearing on America's Next Top Model.

From USA Cycling:

Miller leads U.S. Women's National Team in Europe

Colorado Springs, Colo. (April 16, 2007) – The USA Cycling Women’s National Team continued its European tour last week as first-time international competitor Brooke Miller led the team with several solid performances in three Dutch one-day races that included a visit to the podium. The U.S. team gained valuable international racing experience at the Drentse 8 van Dwingeloo on April 12, the Ronde van Drenthe World Cup on April 14 and the Novilion Internationale Damesronde van Drenthe on April 15.

In the UCI 1.1-ranked Drentse 8 van Dwingeloo on Thursday, Miller led the way for Americans with an eighth-place effort in the 125-kilometer race, just two seconds off the pace of winner Regina Schleicher of Germany.

On Saturday, Miller once again led the way for the National Team in the third round of the UCI Women's Road World Cup with a 14th-place finish in the Ronde van Drenthe, finishing a mere 14 seconds off the pace of winner and hometown favorite Adrie Visser of Holland.

The National Team remained in the Netherlands on Sunday to compete in the 139-kilometer Novilion Damesronde van Drenthe, another UCI 1.1-ranked single day race. Miller placed 58th, but scored one of her biggest career accomplishments in winning the sprinters jersey after spending 30 kilometers off the front of the peloton in a breakaway. Facing its third-straight race on European cobblestones and narrow Dutch roads, the team, which also included Kristin Armstrong (Boise, Idaho/Team Lipton), Alison Powers (Boulder, Colo./Colavita-Sutter Home-Cooking Light), Katheryn Curi (Mountain View, Calif./Webcor), and Rebecca Larson (Gainesville, Fla./Aarons), put forth a solid team effort to ensure Miller’s career highlight. Lauren Franges (Ashville, N.C./Team Lipton) also competed for the squad in the first two Dutch events.

The Women's National Team next competes at the Ronde van Gelderland in Holland on April 21, followed by the fourth round of the UCI World Cup, La Fleche Wallone in Belgium on April 25, the Giro di San Marino in Italy, May 4-6 and the Magi Pache Time Trial in Switzerland on May 6.

What USA Cycling hasn't told you: Miller, like the vast majority of women pro cyclists, has achieved all this without dropping her day job. She is a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. For more, check out her website. By contrast, a male pro rider on even a lowly development team can expect significant financial support; some of them skip college altogether.

I guess it's only at women's races that you can hear top riders introduced as "Dr."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

In the Name

cf. Ovid, Amores 2.1.2

IDX: Not a Drug, but Still Banned

Thank you for this post, Bitch Ph.D. And this one. You are my blogospheric role model, you know.

Amazing Girls

I was thrilled to see the New York Times takes an interest in the trials and tribulations of America's smart young women. It's too bad Sara Rimer's recent article misses so much. Rimer focuses on issues conditioned more by generation than gender. In doing so, she has written one of the most slyly anti-feminist pieces I have read recently.

Initial praeteritio: I will not criticize Rimer's article for focusing on educationally and socio-economically privileged kids in a progressive Massachusetts suburb. I will not register at length my frustration at education news' tendency to address either this extreme or the other (inner-city poverty), rarely acknowledging the experience of the millions of American teens whose high school experience falls somewhere between the two. No, I will stick to gender.

Rimer's article focuses on the experience of Esther Mobley, who sounds, by all accounts, like a sweet and deserving young thing. A nice, well-rounded kid, if you will. Mobley refuses to participate in the sicker elements of the college admissions feeding-frenzy. She follows her interests, not the demands of her resumé, when she signs up for AP classes and extra-curriculars. She fogoes SAT tutoring, though her scores are slightly less than stellar. She reasons that it would be unfair to get in on the basis of what her parents can afford.

The college admissions process does not honor Mobley's integrity and intellectual honesty. Williams College, her first choice, rejects her, as do several other small liberal arts schools--schools that pride themselves on the very values and virtues Mobley so clearly embodies. (Smith had the good sense to snap Mobley up. I hope she enjoys her college years there; she deserves all the best.)

It's a compelling story, but Mobley's experience hinges not so much on her gender as the values with which she was raised. She is one of the so-called echo-boomers, children of college-educated, middle-class baby boomers desperate for their children to succeed. The challenges and pressures she faced affect all of today's college applicants regardless of their gender. I can imagine the same story written of a sweet, smart seventeen-year-old boy, and I suspect that Mobley's younger brother will approach college admissions much as she did.

(Full disclosure: Mobley reminds me quite a bit of one of my own younger brothers. Harvard passed on his application; in May he will graduate from Bowdoin where he has been a campus leader and top student. A Harvard grad myself, I am still disappointed by my alma mater's poor taste.)

In practice, the same basic pressure to achieve probably affects boys and girls differently. I suspect this was Rimer's initial object. On page one, for example, she records one interviewee's comments about an extra pressure faced by "amazing girls":

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

Rimer never follows up this observation, however. When she returns to boy-girl relations, it is only to tell us how little interest Mobley and her friends have in boyfriends and how supportive and wonderful their (Platonic) male friends are.

(Full disclosure number two: Both statements run wholly counter to my own experience as a proto-amazing girl of the mid 1990s. My male peers were hostile, threatened by a smart girl, and I spent plenty of time agonizing over my poor dating transcript.)

Instead, Rimer writes about the pressure to take tons of AP classes, do every extracurricular activity available and, ultimately, follow a schedule that leaves little time for sleep. She also discusses a kind of double standard the girls encounter: The same adults who expect the world from them also encourage them to take time out, relax, and enjoy childhood. I suspect that both boys and girls at Newton North face these challenges and double standards. Rimer's article, however, all but leaves out the boys. She never defines what makes an amazing girl's experience different from an amazing boy's.

Toward the end of the article, Rimer records the college acceptances of Mobley and her classmates, including the following list:

By Dec. 15, Newton North was in a frenzy over early admissions answers. Esther’s friend Phoebe Gardener had been accepted to Dartmouth. Her friend Dan Lurie was in at Brown. Harvard wanted Dan Catomeris.

Let's be honest for a moment here. While we all certainly respect a degree from Smith, Williams, Middlebury, Dartmouth and the like, there are four or five schools that have a particular cachet: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and perhaps also Columbia. These are not necessarily better or more selective schools than Williams, Swarthmore, or Dartmouth, but by virtue of being top research universities as well as colleges, they have a certain something extra. Rimer neither acknowledges this subtle distinction among top schools, nor does she acknowledge that the two Newton North students who get into these institutions are both male.

The Harvard-bound Dan Catomeris offers a revealing counterpoint to the amazing girls Rimer describes. His schedule must be as crazy as theirs: he is a "theater star" as well as a top student. And certainly he faces high expectations from his Harvard Business School prof. mom. Because Rimer has not discussed male experience, however, we hear no one suggesting that he is overworked or overstressed. While teachers say they wish their amazing girls would slow down and chill out, no one seems to worry about little Dan's lost childhood.

Meanwhile, Rimer records the story of Catomeris's female equivalent, another smartypants theater start. This young woman breaks down and quits AP Physics because she cannot balance its demands with her starring role in the school play. Heart rending stuff, indeed. It is too bad Rimer overlooks the way in which this particular story fits all our stereotypes about women's intelligence and emotional composition: Girl finds science hard, drama fun. She quits science, and is "incandescant" on stage.

Here, ultimately, lies the deep flaw of Rimer's article. I suspect she correctly identifies a particular, pernicious pressure the amazing girls face, but she does not adequately differentiate it from the pressures boys face. The piece accordingly suggests we do something particularly unnatural in expecting high achievement from our girls, while our boys simply rise to the occasion. It is not so different, ultimately, from suggesting that possession of a uterus makes us too physically and emotionally feeble to get an education at all.

Old Girls' Club

The other day I am in the bathroom at school. I notice the shoes in the next stall over. 95% chance of Esteemed Department Chair. 85% chance of awkwardness at the sinks. Better not dry my hands on the seat of my pants... EDC is just a little fastidious like that.

Magically we land in the awkward-free 15%. EDC is in rant mode. She explains that several of my less-advanced graduate student colleagues have been bitching about a lack of department community in their Ph.D. reviews. She is put out because she has been working her ass off to create community. I don't disagree. EDC is no angel (frankly I like her all the more for this), but in this regard she deserves major credit. And she is a badass.

EDC is our department's first ever female chair. She is one of the first ever tenured female professors in the department. When she first arrived, male students used to joke that she was the secretary because she had to pick up her printouts in the main office. EDC is in her 40s; she first arrived in 1991.

(Incidentally: We are not engineers, physicists, chemists or cellular biologists. We do not work in labs; we barely use computers. We are members of a small, humanities department where this kind of misogyny is supposed to have been dead for almost a generation.)

So EDC has reasons to take offense when accused of chairing a department where someone feels like a second-class-citizen.

Back to the ladies' restroom: I assure EDC that she has been doing a fine job, and I explain that some of my younger colleagues have a tendency to confuse community with communal binge drinking. We agree that the faculty who engage in the latter tend to do it alone.

Later on, I discussed this event with a few graduate student colleagues. While we agreed that we have all had desperate, dysphoric feelings of isolation and neglect during our graduate careers, there was an interesting divide: A Fellow Brilliant Female and I blamed ourselves. We weren't good enough to win the attention of our advisors; we weren't demanding enough support. The prime offenders on the blame-the-department side, on the other hand, were male. They externalized what we "took personally".

In fact, the initial bathroom incident fits this same pattern: Even our Esteemed Department Chair internalized the criticisms students made in the Ph.D. reviews. The comments were not necessarily directed at her or her behavior; she could have assumed that the students who made them were simply whiners. (This, in fact, is what I believe to be the case.) Or she could have set them aside as "not her problem". Instead, however, her thoughts went to her own efforts to build community. She took the comments personally and seriously. She was not the only faculty member at the Ph.D. reviews (in fact, she attended only in her capacity as department chair--and is the first department chair I know of who has done so). I doubt, however, that these comments led her male colleagues to vent insecurity and personal frustration over the urinals.

In venting, furthermore, EDC looked outside herself for confirmation that the critical comments were, in fact, misplaced. Though a giant in our field, she sought reassurance from a far-junior colleague (me). And when I agreed that she had, in fact, done plenty to build community, we nevertheless discussed re-starting the old department Women's Group. End result: EDC is going to hit up some junior grad students to re-start Women's Group. In other words, she is personally going to undertake yet another act to build community.

The embedded irony: This was not the first time I have had a meaningful conversation with EDC or other woman faculty members over the paper towel dispenser. Nor is it the first time EDC has revealed to me her ongoing struggles with insecurity, either through her behavior or explicitly in conversation. These revelations not only validate my own experience of insecurity but also make available to me exactly the kind of faculty-student community and person-status my colleagues complained our department lacks. And the women's bathroom is a venue entirely closed to my male colleagues. I have one word for them: Ha!