on (not) leaning in but breaking out

Tonight I read bell hook’s critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. A frolleague (friend + colleague) posted the article on facebook, and I was eager to learn what accomplished visionary feminist hooks had to say about Sandberg’s “feminist manifesto.” hooks labels the book “faux feminist,” and thoughtfully delineates how Sandberg’s book perpetuates gender, race, and class privilege.

I read Sandberg’s book back in April, and mused about some of the same issues, far less eloquently than hooks. I wrote the following review on goodreads (I awarded the book two stars). I’m grateful for books that make me think, that seemingly challenge but ultimately strengthen my ideology…and I’m grateful for smart writers who expand my own critique.

“It is not a feminist manifesto—okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto, but one that I hope inspires men as much as it inspires women” (Sandberg 9).

I was rooting for Sandberg and hoping that Lean In would, indeed, be a feminist manifesto. But this early sentence suggested that while the book would explore issues of gender and power, it would not be exactly feminist. For feminism does include men, and Sandberg’s statement, like much of the book that follows, convinced me that she didn’t have a deep understanding of contemporary feminism. And that is disappointing, because Sandberg has power and status, a compelling story, and the ability to reach many readers.

Even if I set my radical feminist preferences aside, I still quibble with Sandberg’s suggestions, which urge women to explore their internal blocks to leadership and success in a male world. Lean In places the onus on women alone to modify their behavior and make changes, and while some of these lessons on self-promotion, equal partnership, and peer advocacy are vital, they are not the whole story. And, the models of leadership Sandberg presents still adhere closely to male models.

My larger issue with Sandberg’s book, however, is Sandberg’s own privilege, and failure to fully acknowledge the interlocking oppressions that often hinder women in the workplace. The book would’ve been richer if it had included discussions of how gender, along with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, education, and other identity categories intersect to hinder and/or aid women leaders. A discussion of the women supporting Sandberg’s own work would’ve also made the book a more complex and compelling read. I was disappointed that Nell Scovell, co-writer, was relegated to the title page inside the book, and the acknowledgments in the back. While this may be standard publishing practice, I felt this was a missed opportunity. Acknowledging a supporting writer on the cover would send the message of collaboration and recognition that Sandberg seems to promote.

I also found Sandberg’s defense of Marissa Mayer’s decision to work through maternity leave problematic. Leaders need to both make decisions that benefit themselves, but that also take into account the collective experience of others. In a climate that still begrudges parental leave, celebrating women and men of power who eschew such leave does not help secure this choice for women and men in other, less powerful, positions. Critiquing Mayer’s choice does not diminish our appreciation for achievements, and a blind “we’re in this together, I have your back, sister,” mentality that Sandberg suggests does not promote real change, in my opinion.


both sides now: tenure edition

Today I visited a tenure-track colleague to observe his class.

I sat in the back corner, taking notes.

I sat on the other side of the desk in his office.

I gave advice on navigating our quirky institution, and answered his questions about the tenure process.

We talked about the academic system and how so much of the process through grad school and during the tenure track years involves oversight and repeated demonstrations of one’s knowledge, whether disciplinary research or teaching, through defenses, oral and written exams, and teaching observations.

This semester, I feel lighter. I have fewer students, but I’m still teaching three different courses, four sections total. I’m still serving the campus and two departments in both minor and major ways. I’m still presenting at conferences, writing proposals, and generally connecting to my personal passion for my disciplines of English and Women’s Studies.

I know how fortunate I am to have had a tenure-track job and to earn tenure in a system that increasingly hires folks on a semester-by-semester and class-by-class basis. 

Today I’m grateful that I’m on this side. I feel a responsibility to help my colleagues, to be a resource, a guide. And, to advocate for all the talented instructors, and to not be one of those professors who gives tenure a bad name.

sexual objectification and degradation in campus greek organizations: memories, current events, and social change

Earlier this week, a college friend posted Soraya Chemaly’s article “Why Naked Pictures Aren’t Harmless,”  in our sorority alumnae Facebook page. Chemaly responds to the bids that one fraternity at Swarthmore has used to welcome new members. These bids (invitations to become members) featured a collage of naked women. Chemaly contextualizes the Swarthmore example among other recent new stories about fraternities around the world and their problematic treatment of women. Examples include emails asking members “who would you rape,” posters that list tips for how to get away with rape, and public slut-shaming.

My sorority sisters and I had an interesting conversation on Facebook about these issues, and I’ve been mulling the subject over for the rest of the week, thinking about my own experience as a student in a Greek organization, and my experience as a professor on campuses with and without a Greek system.

The first thing I want to say, though, is that we cannot draw broad brush strokes and label all fraternities as sexist, objectifying organizations that encourage bad boy behavior. That’s simply not true. Nor are sororities filled with conformist, silly, man-chasing women. As I moved throughout higher education, I realized the degree to which some professors and administrators simply disregarded students in Greek organizations, and that’s a real problem. Greek organizations can provide positive reinforcement of academic achievement and significant leadership opportunities and community building.

For instance, at my campus, Alma College, about 25% of students participate in Greek organizations now. I’m not sure what the percentage was in the 1990s when I was a student, but my guess is that it was similar. This is high compared to Michigan State (~7.5%) and close to Auburn (~25%), both campuses where I spent time as a graduate student and instructor.

My sorority was consistently number one academically of all Greek organizations on campus, and perhaps even of all student organizations. We were smart. We were nerds. While our sorority was incredibly white, we reflected a diversity of women of all shapes and sizes. Our campus stereotype: Alpha-Grabba-Donut. I’m proud that my group welcomed women for who they were and not what they looked like.

I served as the ritual chair, planning our initiation ceremonies and weekly meetings, and, later, as the VP of Fraternity Education: Pledge Mom. As such, I was involved throughout the process from invitation to pledge to completion of pledging and entering membership. Without divulging any secrets, I can say that our pledge process did not include any kind of obligatory sexual objectification or sexualized rituals, and I’m proud of that. If the process has involved some of the practices I heard about from other sororities, I would have de-pledged. Rumor had it that one sorority required new pledges to kiss all of the frat brothers who attended the bids morning event. I also heard that new pledges of another group always had to wear matching bras and panties, and members could check to make sure they were properly attired underneath their clothes. At the time I heard about these pledging rites of passage,  I was simply thankful that my group didn’t engage in such practices. Now, I critique these practices of sexual control, body policing,  and monitoring of women by women.

As I reflect on sorority songs and group dances, I realize the messages about alcohol consumption and sexual behavior are problematic. These bonding activities, though not part of the official membership process, still revolved around some patriarchal obsessions with male sexuality and pleasure, and a raucous and uncritical celebration of drinking. I’d love to rewrite the songs from a woman-centered perspective and to challenge the heteronormativity of said songs.

Returning to Chemaly’s article, I recall that we all knew that one fraternity house was more dangerous than others, and that members should not venture downstairs without other women present, if at all. We accepted this as a fact, avoided the house, and didn’t challenge the rape culture.

The combination of college aged students, dorm life, small town limitations on entertainment, the allure of alcohol, and a hormonal rush combined with powerful group dynamics, emphasis on tradition, and reinforcement of group social norms can be incredibly powerful and dangerous.

My experience was positive. I sang the songs and enjoyed a full social life with my friends inside and outside of the sorority. The leadership positions in the group helped me overcome my shyness, and the mass acceptance of the group allowed me to come out of my shell, so to speak, and to be confident in my individuality. As risk-averse, overly responsible, and anxious as I’ve always been, I avoided dangerous situations and resisted turning myself or others into objects.

Greek life can be positive and rewarding, or can create a culture of risk, degradation, and inequality. I hope that Chemaly’s article prompts further conversation within Greek organizations, in campus chapters, alumnae groups, and at the organization level. Can we preserve the social, philanthropic, and leadership values and transform some of the problematic objectification and degradation? Can we explore how such organizations promote inequality and transform them into inclusive organizations that work for social change, starting with building diversity and ending such sexist traditions as Pimps and Hoes parties?

(I’ve only just touched on other issues of inclusion, including some long-standing racist practices of membership at some chapters, and the culture of heteronormativity…these topics deserve much more attention here and elsewhere).

(un)happy pinktober: or, how i hate cancer, pink-washing, and sexual objectification

I love pink.


My kitchen is pink (and green). I wore hot pink heels at my wedding. My office floor rug: pink. Notebooks: pink.


You might think, then, that I love October, and the constant reminders to think, wear, and consume pink. Companies peddle limited edition pink goods, and even the first-down line is pink on TV during NFL games.

Instead of feeling awash in the power of pink, I feel queasy. I dodge pink. I don’t participate in campaigns to turn the campus pink. I resist the special pink products.

I hate cancer.

I’ve watched a best friend grapple with her father’s decline as cancer ravaged his body. I’ve sat with a relative as she received chemotherapy. Friends, family, and colleagues are survivors. I’ve waited for results from ultrasounds for myself, family, and friends. I know that cancer is a devastating scourge that can happen to anyone. I fear it.

But I hate pinktober.

I hate one-dimensional awareness. I want action. I want more cancer research, and I want high-quality affordable healthcare for all.

I hate how pink-washing covers over more serious concerns, like toxic chemicals in our environment that might contribute to breast cancer. (Check out the Breast Cancer Action website “Think Before You Pink” for information on cause-marketing, and critical questions to ask about all of the pink products offered for sale this month.)

I hate cute sayings about saving the boobies, boobs, ta-tas, racks. I cringe when I see t-shirts emblazoned with “Big or Small, save them all!” Such slogans smack of sexual objectification and the overall sexualization of an un-sexy disease. (Check out The Scar Project Blog: Breast Cancer is not a Pink Ribbon).

I hate the uncritical gendering of breast cancer as female and feminine. Men have breasts. They get cancer.

I don’t want to diminish anyone’s experience with breast cancer, and I speak only for myself. But I want us to be more critical of such campaigns. Who is benefiting from Pinktober? If we’re focusing on women’s health, why are we more concerned with breast cancer awareness than including concern about breast cancer with other diseases and social ills that affect women? (Did you know that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month? Ann Friedman writes more on this topic here.)

As a women’s studies professor, I ask that my students critique the world around them through the prism of gender. What are the underlying assumptions? Who has power? How does this situation reinforce gender inequality? How does this situation affect women of color, women of low-income? Who is benefitting from the pinking of American culture? If we’ve poured so much additional money into breast cancer awareness, where is that money going? What research is being funded? What developments have been made?

Want to learn more? You can read a range of opinions on pinktober at the Huffington Post. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich has been a vocal critic of the “breast cancer cult.” And Peggy Orenstein captures some of the evolving debate over both detection and treatment. All of these writers raise interesting questions and critiques, deepening the issue beyond what I’ve explored here by, for example, discussing how significant public awareness campaigns of breast cancer originally were, and also exploring the motives and mixed messages behind major breast cancer charities.

manic mondays: or, what happens after not-so-blue sundays

The downside of the weekend relaxedness I waxed poetic over yesterday is the increased chaos of Mondays. Cue the Bangles, please:

I try to extend weekend chill into Monday. I wake up at a reasonable hour. I practice 15 minutes of gentle yoga. I eat oatmeal and drink cafe au lait, and orange juice. I check email. I work for about an hour and a half, grading, reading, class prepping.

I walk, and take in such soul-restoring vistas:

As I walk, I listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” and laugh out loud at the limerick challenge and the far-fetched tales, one of which is always true.

I then get ready for work, eat lunch, and head to campus, where I make copies, review prep notes, chat with colleagues, and arrive in class.

My class is high energy. It’s large for a discussion-based, writing-intensive class (36 students). We learn interesting concepts (feminism, patriarchy, intersectionality, heteronormativity) via engaging content (Miley Cyrus, music videos, popular romance fiction, vintage ads).

I love this class, but it’s a marked difference from my low-key, mostly introverted, quiet weekend. It jars me back to faux-extrovertedness. Once again, I’m slammed with the frenetic rhythm of the work week and the competing external demands on my time (answer my question! can you tell me what we’re doing two weeks from now? here’s a new task you need to complete on a project you thought you’d already finished! can you lead this seminar that’s not really related to your field? this form is due. can I have an extension? can you travel across the state for a short meeting?) and more internal demands (read, grade, prepare, write, search for engaging content, adapt old assignments, create new ones, keep professionally connected).

On Mondays, these demands seem like an unstoppable flood, and I feel ill-prepared to even throw a few sandbags at the encroaching waters.

By Monday night, after teaching my evening class (smaller, more skills-based, less rambunctious), and after cooking dinner, I start to feel that once again I may find a way to accomplish the important tasks during the week. I may only miss a few emails (sorry!) and may need to lower my expectations for myself, but there’s a path. I will not be defeated by and on Monday.

So, readers, I’m curious. How do you ease the transition into Monday? Do you accept that it will be manic and blue? Do you trick yourself into Monday awesomeness? Having made progress shifting my weekend emotions, I’m eager to learn how to improve Monday.

I know how to best end the day: hot tea, soothing music, fluffy pillows, and a delectable novel.

weekend revisions: or, how to minimize the sunday blues


During my teaching year, I typically fall into Sunday blues, often long before Sunday. Come Thursday, my last day of teaching for the week, I survey what my friends and I have come to call “The Giant Stack of Grading,” and plot out my grading for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I review my syllabi for the upcoming week, and figure out pages to read, assignments and/or rubrics to create, and lessons to prepare for.

Now’s probably the time to admit that I plan most of my classes in the day or days before a class session. I outline the broader topic when I complete my syllabi, but the magical tidbits (videos, photos, handouts, discussion questions) happen just-in-time.

In the past, I would then chart out my chores: doing laundry, changing the bed sheets, and grocery shopping as the the primary tasks I relegated to the weekend.

Then, Gregg and I would review our social plans, whether a low-key writing session at a coffee shop, or a party with friends.

There was never enough time, and I would feel anxious already on Thursday before I even started working, choring, and playing.

There’s still not enough time, but I’ve made some minor tweaks that are helping me avoid the worst of the blues and to enjoy some time off.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve shifted the chores to non-weekend days. I thank my sister-in-law K for this idea. I now do laundry on Wednesdays, change the bed sheets on Fridays, and Gregg and I grocery shop throughout the week. While we visit the farmers’ market every Saturday morning during the season and occasionally run to the store on the weekend, I don’t feel pressured to shop for the whole week.

I try to grade as much as possible of Fridays, unless I have a meeting or another engagement. I accept the fact that I will very rarely have all the grading done, but know that I will make progress as I can. For sets of major papers, I chart a schedule for myself and try my best to meet it. When I don’t, I take solace in this idea: “So the work is to recognize on Friday (and on Saturday and Sunday) that what we are hoping to achieve this weekend is most likely not what we are actually going to get done. It’s a game plan, an outline, but not a definitive fact” (Barth). As Diane Barth notes, we create an image of how our weekend will evolve, but chances are that it will evolve differently than we plan.

And that’s okay.

What’s most important on Saturday and Sunday? Time to laugh with my husband. Cooking and baking. Reading at least one whole section of the Sunday New York Times. Waking up to the Sunday Puzzle on WPR. Walking along Lake Michigan. Talking, visiting, or otherwise communicating with family and friends. Feeding my soul, tending my relationships, and restoring myself so I’m a better teacher during the week to come.

*check out Diane Barth’s article, “What Makes Sunday Nights So Hard?” at PsychologyToday.com. 

to pack or unpack: teaching literature


Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, supposedly written in 7 weeks while Hurston was researching in Haiti, turns 75 this year.

I love this novel. I love it so much that Gregg and I featured an adaptation of one of the final quotes on our wedding programs. Hurston’s original text: “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (191). We married on the shores of Lake Michigan, and featured a water ceremony. This quote seemed particularly apt given the setting and our respective ages (first time bride and groom, just under and over 40 years old).

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve taught Their Eyes Were Watching God; I own multiple versions of the text, copiously underlined and dog eared to suggest that the text has a regular spot in nearly any literature class.

My Multicultural American Literature class finished the novel on Tuesday. We’re a small group of 10 students, with a mixed range of vocal and silent participation, so I’ve worked hard to find ways to engage the class. I also try not to practice what Nancy Chick calls “professorial packing.” This process, Chick argues,

“[Inverts] the common metaphor for the essential disciplinary act of ‘unpacking’ a literary text and its meanings. Unpacking a text connotes opening up something, sifting out what’s inside, and exploring the contents. There’s a sense of anticipation, delight, and wonder in the process. In contrast, professorial packing occurs when a professor presents his or her fully formed interpretations to students—in essence packing the text (and the students) with the professor’s own interpretations, rather than teaching the students themselves to unpack texts” (Chick 42-43).

I’ve committed plenty of professorial packing in the past, but since reading Chick’s article and discussing teaching literature with fellow scholars of teaching and learning, I’ve moved toward the unpacking model that Chick articulates.

My pedagogical approach on Tuesday worked particularly well. Knowing that students would be eager to discuss the climactic ending of the novel, I started class with a freewrite, asking them to write their interpretations of the ending. Each student then summarized his/her freewrite for the class, and we tracked key similarities and differences in interpretation. I then shared a series of interpretations I had either read (a quick survey of several scholarly articles the night before provided material) or heard from previous students. What happened next was awesome: students argued with these readings by referencing specific passages in the text…all without my prompting to refer to the text (which is often a challenge). A vigorous and passionate discussion ensued, and we grappled with the ambiguity of the ending and the multiple readings of the ending, and, not once did I offer my own interpretation (and you know I have one or three or five:))

I’m fortunate that my small class engages with our readings whether verbally or through writing. The small class size allows me to involve each student in discussion in a way that minimizes discomfort. And stumbling on an outlandish reading of the novel certainly gave me an excellent opportunity to stir controversy. And, admittedly, Hurston’s stellar, compelling, deceptively simple text opens itself up to these multiple readings. And yet, this sequence of activities seems applicable to many more class sessions, even in classes with more students.

I’d much rather facilitate unpacking than forcefully pack, any day.

Works Cited

Chick, Nancy. “Unpacking a Signature Pedagogy in Literary Studies.”Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Eds. Regan A. R. Gurung, Nancy L. Chick, and Aeron Haynie. Sterling, Va: Stylus, 2009. 36-55. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Harper Perennial, 2006. Originally published 1937.