In which I get to speak about my research to students! (Or, this is one of the best parts of my job.)Posted: May 11, 2018
The Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) Student fellows invited Dr. Jola Ajibade and I to speak to them at their monthly event.
What a wonderful and smart group of students! I say this without exaggeration — they were so engaged and thoughtful. Here are some photos of the event (credit: Maria Sipin).
The Gotham Center for New York City history published a bloggy version of some of my favorite research: a story about the conflict over whether or not it was ok to swim in New York City’s rivers, which went on for over six decades! Take a look here. Thanks, Gotham Blog!
I was quoted in Oregon Business, in an article on luxury apartments.
I wrote this piece on the proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts (and the NEH, and the CPB) for the online journal Arts and International Affairs. It talks about where the idea to defund came from, how its supporters spin it, and what the NEA was meant to be about at its outset.
You can read it here!
I published this short personal essay in the academic journal, Gender, Place and Culture in response to a call for papers about the Women’s March. It’s about the 2016 presidential race, being groped on airplanes, and how particular kinds of spaces are used to keep women quiet.
This was a tricky one for me to publish, exposing moments of personal vulnerability in an academic setting. That said, I believe that a great part of our responsibility as scholars – especially in the social sciences – is to expose injustice; in this case, that means sharing my own story in the present political moment.
Thanks for reading. If this piece moves you to comment, I ask that you send along an email rather than posting below.
Thanks very much for reading.
Fifty people can download the article for free, here:
After that, if you have a hard time getting to it (paywall, etc.) let me know.
Here’s a pre-publication copy (for those of you who don’t need to cite.)
You deserve to be here
At Portland State University, I teach a year-long course called ‘Portland’ in our general education program. Different instructors teach this course on the history, geography, culture and politics of Portland in many ways; this fall, my class focused on local elections: city, county, metro (our regional government) and state level politics.
When planning the course over the summer, I made the conscious decision not to take on federal elections, both because there was already a lot to cover, and also because – if students paid attention to the press at all – they were saturated with the national stories. Furthermore, the presidential race was taking a turn for the worse. The primary debates had been ugly; Trump was already on the radio saying terrible things about Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and a host of other groups; the tone had become childish and rude. When classes began, my decision was reaffirmed: I was not at all interested in making room for the racist voices of the Trump line, nor letting any student be abused by that rhetoric in a setting that I would facilitate.
So: local politics. A lot of our time was spent on basic civics – different levels of government, who is responsible for what, how resources get allocated – a topic in which many of my students were sorely uninformed, whether they had attended Oregon (or other American) public schools or been educated abroad. We had visits from the two candidates for a hotly contested Portland City Council seat. We visited the local elections commission to see where and how ballots get counted. We examined state house races. It was great.
Or, mostly great. At times, I became frustrated with what I took as students’ indifference to the political process. I wanted them to become passionate about the potential of local politics to enact real change; instead, many asked questions about “if spelling counts” on their papers. Why weren’t they invested in the races in their state legislative districts? Why didn’t they come to class fired up about Portland’s weak homeless policy? Why didn’t they read the news? And then, of course, I had to face the fact that most had never been rewarded for self-motivation or analyses of power in their education – why would they start now, with me, in their first-ever term of college, while a chemistry midterm loomed?
And in the face of all that, we did learn. On good days, we even talked about democracy.
On Tuesday, November 8, I brought in a cake! “Happy Election Day!” it declared, in orange icing on chocolate, with a chocolate donkey and an elephant standing atop. I wanted my students to regard this as a joyous day for celebrating democracy, and the right to vote. My TA took a photo of me in a professorial blazer, smiling proudly.
We all ate cake together, as we watched the videos students had made in small groups in order to teach one another about local ballot initiatives. I encouraged them to watch the returns that night, and happily dismissed them.
We all know now how the evening went.
And now Trump. And now the rise in hate crimes. And now it is Wednesday, November 9 and I am in my office, fuzzy headed, counting my students from the roll call: at least 2/3 of them foreign or immigrant or Latino or Muslim or Jewish or Queer or People of Color or women or with a disability.
And suddenly, I wondered: what had I done? Had I been so blind to the possible outcomes, so grumpy about the terms of the political debate that I had ignored the fact that many of these students were being derided and threatened all term? Had I been complicit as the media covered the candidates as if this were normal? Had I acted ethically as I set aside national politics while this was unfolding?
I felt sheepish about only covering local elections. I felt anxious. I felt scared of backlash. And I felt confused, knowing I had no idea what my students’ opinions actually were on politics, having made very little space for them to hash it out publicly in order to protect me from them, them from me, and them from one another.
But there was going to be a Thursday, and there was going to be another class. And I was going to have to say something.
So we had class, and there was plenty to keep us busy. We had to watch the rest of the ballot initiative videos, and talk about how videos work as political communication, and answer questions about the upcoming assignment (letters to our elected officials!) We also went through results of the local ballot, and they understood it! Many even knew the results!! And suddenly I didn’t feel sheepish anymore – in fact, I felt proud of what we had covered and learned in the local races.
But then, with only five minutes of class left, I knew I had to say something before I sent out these young people – many of whom had just voted in their first-ever elections – into a world that was, for many of them, far more dangerous than it had been the day before.
I said this:
We just got back the results of a presidential election that was surprising to many of us, and in which many of us are disappointed. I have not talked about the national elections in this class, partially because we have been busy with other things, and partially because I wanted everyone to have their own political opinions without being forced to express or defend them, and without imposing my views.
But now that Trump has been elected, I will say something because this campaign has been extremely divisive. The Trump campaign, especially, has said a lot of things that were insulting to people in this room. So first: if you are feeling sad or scared, you can come to me or email me, or go to any of the resource centers on campus. But even more than that, I want you all to know that you deserve to be here:
If you are foreign, you deserve to be here.
If you are an immigrant, you deserve to be here.
If you are Latino, or Mexican, you deserve to be here.
If you are Muslim or Jewish, you deserve to be here.
If you are Queer, you deserve to be here.
If you are disabled, you deserve to be here.
If you are Black or Brown, you deserve to be here.
If you are a woman, you deserve to be here.
We all deserve to be here.
That is what it is to live in the United States.
That’s all I got. Class dismissed.
In the past few weeks, one of my courses has embarked on a wee experiment in democratic education. What I call “Guided Group Learning” is a structure for students to pursue their own interests on a topic in a group setting
Some important notes:
This exercise is at the end of a year-long course called Portland! It is part of a group of year-long courses at Portland State University (called Freshman Inquiry, or FRINQ) that students choose from. In our course, we did a quarter of Portland History, another quarter of geography (physical, political, cultural), and this quarter was divided between economic geography, the elections that we just had (so, basically a short course in civics) and this section: Guided Group Learning.
In order to get to these two weeks of student-led education, students had to write a proposal (see below for the outline.) This was hands down the worst part of the whole process. Students found the assignment confusing, I often found their efforts to be thin, and we were all pretty frustrated for a while.
I also think it is in these moments of frustration when we actually learn the most: they had to learn to consider what the instructions mean beyond what is on the page, and to express their ideas more clearly. And I have to learn – as a teacher – to be more compassionate, more patient, more specific, and to admit to my own shortcomings in writing the assignment. I also have to express to them how to improve on their work without anger or turning them off to the main point of the project, which is to learn on their own terms.
So the groups chose, based on some loose parameters: they chose to study local sports teams, food carts, transportation, local markets. It has been really exciting to see them dive into the work.
And although there is a lot of planning at the top, and presenting at the end, I think the best part is the time in the classroom during these weeks of ‘go.’ Here are a few reasons why.
First – not everyone is here all the time. Some students are off on field trips or doing interviews with scholars and community members each day, so there are only four or five groups in the classroom on any given day. This makes it possible for me to give attention to anyone who wants it in a meaningful way.
Second – students sit and they work together. They work in the ways that are comfortable for them, ways that I would not necessarily choose or approve of, but ways that work, whatever that may mean. Headphones in ears, perhaps, which I would never allow. Or reading an article in class together instead of reading it before, and coming in ready to discuss. Might some of those ways just be bad habits? Sure. But this gives me the chance – for a short while, and in a controlled setting – to watch them work as they do on their own, and to learn a bit about their process.
Third – and this may seem both obvious and a bit pat – the learning is theirs. They have a list of tasks they must complete, and I am there to follow their lead, to answer questions and to get out of the way.
This, I find, is also the hardest part in all dimensions: the getting out of the way. Letting students do things their way, letting them come up with answers and ideas that are less sophisticated than what I might impart, but which I know from experience have more staying power. Letting go in this way is incredibly hard. Looking forward to the end result.
Guided Group Learning proposal assignment
- Choose a site or topic. This should include a particular place or places. “Portland Parks” is not a meaningful topic, but a particular park or comparison between two parks is meaningful. Why did you choose it? (150 words, individual).Choose at least two news articles your group will analyze, and explain why it is important. How do you know the source is credible? Is it current or historical? Why is the time frame useful? (100 words, individual).
- Choose at least one scholarly article your group will read together, and explain why it is important. (If you’re stuck, begin with Google scholar or talk to a librarian.) (150 words, individual).
- Choose a scholar or community member to interview; make a plan for getting in touch with that person and draft an email. (300 words, group).
- Choose at least one site for a field assignment, and write up the field assignment in the style of the assignments we have been doing all year. How should I assess (grade) its quality? (100 – 500 words, group)
- Length and parameters for your final assignment (paper, video, podcast) and presentation. How should I assess (grade) its quality? (400 – 500 words, group).
- How will all of the pieces of this assignment go together? (300 – 500 words, individual).