Friday, April 17, 2015

What Honor Diaries Did to My Amazon

About a month ago, my algorithm for recommendations took a sharp turn. I was suddenly ordering books with titles like Gender and Violence in the Middle East,  Gender and Islam, and Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I found myself digging around in boxes in the basement for my college copy of Fatima Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil. I found myself confronting the question of how I, as a scholar of American women’s history moving into a position as coordinator of our Women and Gender Studies Program, should handle the problematics of staging a conversation here at USD about gender and violence in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in the context of a screening of the film Honor Diaries.

When the film was proposed as a feature for our biennial Women and Gender Studies conference, members of our university community responded by raising questions about whether this was an appropriate vehicle for inaugurating a discussion of the topic of “honor violence” against women and girls in the nonwestern world. After I learned of concerns about the film, I logged onto Netflix to watch it, and began to investigate some of the media responses to the film, including the critique from CAIR that the film was Islamophobic. CAIR and others called attention to the major funding source for the film, the CLARION project, which had produced films criticized for inflammatory and misleading portrayals of Islam.

I approached the film with the wariness I frequently bring to the blockbuster style of documentary filmmaking that has become popular, the kind honed by Michael Moore, with sensationalistic claims, alarming (but often misleading) statistics, fast switches between different human-interest stories, and of course the scary music we all know so well.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this style of documentary filmmaking. Now, does that mean we shouldn’t screen these types of films in a university setting? Of course not. But it does mean that we need to think carefully about the way we present documentary films, which, often by virtue of the emotional and narrative power of cinema, are taken as authoritative text.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Feminist Politics of Work

Last night at the Oscars in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette delivered a rousing call for women’s rights. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  

The crowd (and social media) goes wild. 

AND then in her follow-up press interviews, Arquette continued on in this vein: “It's time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now.”  

It was, to say the least, a disappointing moment, an embarrassing moment, and I think a teachable moment in the challenges of thinking intersectionally. The fight for gay rights and black civil rights is not mutually exclusive from the struggles of gender equality but rather these struggles are connected. Likewise, not all women experience their gender the same way, nor do they experience structures of inequality in the same way. Ever since Kimberle Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on the legal barriers black women workers faced bringing suit over both race and gender discrimination, scholars and activists have called attention to intersectional oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and social status.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Back Into The Woods

Yesterday after I posted this Chronicle piece on writing, a friend joked on my Facebook wall that the next thing he expected to see was my own post about writing. Well, this is my hour for doing my own writing. I have 15 minutes left, so rather than be productive, I'm going to be reflective and share one valuable insight to add to Rob Jenkins' list.

His advice is pretty standard but important. Commit, prioritize, schedule, and be patient. My favorite tidbit here? Repurpose. USE what you have written! It is so true. Writing is rewriting. The fantasy of starting from scratch and doing it better is just that, a fantasy. Think about a piece of writing that you are really proud of. Presumably you didn't shoot that out in one inspired composing session. (Or if you did, I don't want to hear about it and we're not friends. I jest.)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Listening and Learning After the Ferguson Moment

This past fall, I watched from afar as friends and colleagues around the country joined in protests, chanting and displaying now familiar slogans -- Black Lives Matter! Hands Up Don't Shoot! -- and after the failure of Staten Island grand jury to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner -- I Can't Breathe. In Ann Arbor, my graduate school stomping ground, protests over the Mike Brown case also picked up outrage over an event shockingly close to home, the shooting death of Ann Arbor-resident Aura Rosser.

I read tweets and facebook posts, newspaper coverage and blog posts. Like so many other Americans, I set to work on the #Fergusonsyllabus. The events of the past fall have produced an overwhelming amount of writing from experts and observers, activists and pundits, all analyzing and reassessing what we think we know about race and justice in America in 2014.

Then I was invited to participate in a panel organized by the USD Law School on The Ferguson Moment (on which part of this post is based). Where to begin? What stories to tell, what framework to provide to begin to chip away at the complexity that produced Ferguson October?

Like so many Americans, I was surprised by what the Mike Brown shooting, the months of protests, and ongoing and contentious media coverage revealed about our racially divided America. I thought I understood. I thought my training as a historian had provided me with the context and the frameworks I needed to understand race in 2014. But there is always more that we don't understand. 

These cases and the mounting examples of black deaths at the hands of police officers seemed to suggest that there was something about our moment that many of us were missing. What structural context could help me explain these events and the outpouring of grief and anger in response? What could help me explain Why Mike Brown? Why did this case become our national reckoning? What could I learn now so that this coming semester, when I stand in front of my US history survey to tell the story of the so-called American century, I will have stronger, clearer narratives to help make the politics of our moment more comprehensible?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taking the Historiann Book Challenge

Last week, the New York Times interviewed Civil War historian James McPherson about -- books! McPherson is a prolific scholar and a wonderful writer--Battle Cry of Freedom is a classic--and he is also coming out with a new biography of Jefferson Davis. But as historian and blogger Historiann pointed out, the interview presents a very narrow view of what historical scholarship looks like in 2014. Historiann followed this up with an interview of her own and challenged other historians to do the same. And they did!  I can never resist a book meme, though I come a little late to the party (or rather, I have been meaning to post this since last Friday!) so without further ado, here is my response to the #historiannchallenge.  

What books are currently on your night stand [i.e. your personal on-deck]?
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (which looks amazing -- and the NPR review only got me more excited) and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. 

What was the last truly great book you read?
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is masterful. If you are going to read one book of American history this year, read this. I have been saying that since 2012 and I mean it. From a writing perspective, I also think Warmth is a fantastic model of a different way to structure a work of history. I talked with Wilkerson at the OAH this past spring about how she came up with the structure. Wilkerson stretches the histories of her main characters out over the length of the book, then breaks them up with interstitial chapters that reiterate and carry forward her larger argument and the overarching historical narrative into which the stories of her core characters fit. She explained that in her struggle to invent her own structure, she looked to a range of models, particularly fiction. In fact, the interstitial chapter idea was inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I think this is such great advice, to look for writing models across literary genres, which is especially important for historians who want to speak to a broader, nonacademic audience.

Side note: I also was extremely taken by Leslie Chang, Factory Girls, which I read this summer. I love really smart, well-researched contemporary nonfiction. Chang weaves her own family history into this exploration of the young women who are the majority of Chinese migrant laborers and who are transforming modern China. Without flinching from the abuses and excesses of global capitalism, she pushes back against a tendency to paint these women as passive victims, instead exploring their motivations, struggles, and strategies for "making it" in the new China. 

Who are the best historians writing today? 
I hate “best” questions, but that is what this meme is all about, right? And so without further ado: Jill Lepore. Collect them all. I love scholars who can do really creative but compelling things with unusual or limited sources.

Friday, September 5, 2014

That whole "Well-behaved women" thing...

You've all seen the bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs.  "Well-behaved women rarely make history." And sometimes the quote is actually (correctly) printed as, "Well-behaved women seldom make history. -- Laurel Ulrich"

Confession: every time I see this, I cringe.

When I ask my students to reflect on whether this popular phrase is a useful way of thinking about women's history, their response is usually some variation on, "Kind of. But..." They point out that this can be read as a statement encouraging women, in the context of popular feminism today, that they don't have to conform to rigid gender codes -- defying the restrictive standards femininity is Good! So the mugs and tee-shirts become about empowerment. But when we actually start to think about the phrase as a notion or theory of history, some wrinkles appear. As one of my students put it, this seems to set up a troubling binary: you are either a "well-behaved" woman who will be of zero interest to "history" or you are a rebel, the kind of woman who breaks barriers and gets noticed. What about everyone who falls between? Those women and their lives and struggles aren't captured in that phrase.


My students also pointed out that the phrase skips over the more interesting question: What does it mean to be "well-behaved" and how has that changed? The premise of most academic scholarship today is that gender roles, like other social roles, are historically and culturally constructed. They change. But neither are they rigidly fixed within any historical moment. That's what makes history so complicated: everyday folk are always in the the process of negotiating and challenging the rules and boundaries and expectations of their world. Sometimes this happens in little ways that don't exactly "make" history but do make historical change, something as small and seemingly insignificant as fertility control. (As the historian Susan Klepp has argued, the biggest untold story of America in the age of Revolutions is that at some point in the late 1700s, women begun to restrict their family size, setting a host of other social and cultural and economic changes in motion. Her book, Revolutionary Conceptions is an extended exploration of how and why that came about.)

What bugs me the most about "Well-behaved women..." is the "make history" part. As it stands, that phrase just doesn't make sense in the context of the politics of women's history. The politics of women's history IS the politics of "making history."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Advice from Around the Web

Fellow writers of all stripes and varietals! Come get your free interwebs writing advice!

As the summer slams to a close many of us are either firing on all cylinders or (more likely) wishing we could find the energy for that final sprint...and probably got a little behind in the race. Remember guys, it's not the speed that counts, but the distance traveled (and also the speed...and the distance...and I'm so done with this dumb metaphor).

I recently stumbled across How I Wrote 4000 Words in A Year from Daily Beast writer Jaime Todd Rubin. He has some great ideas. In particular,

"Focus on content, not word count. What matters to me most is that I write every day, not how much I write. There have been a few days where I’ve written only one or two paragraphs. Quantity will take care of itself as the streak builds.

"Be flexible. Learn to write anywhere and in small scraps of time. If you don’t think it is possible, give it a try—you may surprise yourself. Don’t worry so much about when to write each day. Eventually, you’ll find a comfort zone."