Zen and the art of knitting

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Six months and countless hours spent grading, writing, meeting, and deadline-making ago, I took some beautiful yarn and bamboo needles to my office. What I did not take was a pattern. Instead, I knitted randomly, relaxing to the rhythm of yarn wrapping around needle. I cast on and off randomly, creating small pieces that seemed unplanned and reflected my moods, though as I look at the results I see repeated sizes and textures. I envisioned the swatches I made fitting together at some point, filling in with new pieces as needed, eventually forming a sort of “crazy quilt” afghan.

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Several colleagues and students asked me what I was making as they passed through my office. I told them it was zen knitting and so it was. Little stolen moments of handwork to steady me during a semester of intense uncertainty. But, gather those moments, add a few more to fill the holes, stitch those pieces together, and it will become a soothing, peaceful whole. I’ll remember the process of release when I wrap myself and my family up in this layer of calm for years to come.

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It’s not much, but it doesn’t have to be. I quite like the idea of perhaps stitching these pieces together into a center block, with larger solid blocks surrounding it and a striped border around the outside. Or not. I think I’ll just keep making it up as I go along.

Observations from the fray

We are now, in addition to everything else we do, supposed to give up “busyness.” Well, then. I won’t claim to have been busy this summer. Let’s call it whirling.

As in, my husband and I whirl past each other has we trade paid work hours and childcare hours.

I whirl into my yoga classes just after the session begins because squeezing this zen time into our lives is necessary but challenging. I seem to wait until baby-weaning time to focus on losing baby weight. It works for me. I’m currently shedding pounds and feeling better with the above-mentioned yoga classes helping to loosen all of my nursing-related aches and pains.

My sister came for a whirlwind visit in which we managed some time in the hammock, some blueberry picking, and plenty of fun with kids.

We are in a flurry of appointments and tasks in preparation for two major moves – doctor’s visits, exit interviews, arranging for movers, finding new homes and schools.

And did I mention that I have half a book to write, two conference presentations to prep by August, and a major multi-site research project to prep? I’m sure the whirling will reach epic proportions as the deadlines fly towards me. This is what academic labor looks like, even in our summers off, but at least I am attempting to set some boundaries.

As we make major life changes and I attempt a few personal ones, I can’t help wondering on a daily basis just why (why?!) do we take on some of these challenges? All I can determine is that we have a vision of a life that we want, with a richness and vibrancy to it, that we are struggling towards. And, as we navigate our path, we are taking advantage of opportunities that come along – they complicate, but they also enrich our days.

So, we’ll try to manage the busyness and let some things slide (that floor doesn’t have to be mopped) to make space for evening walks in the park and morning impromptu soccer matches in the front yard. And if we feel like butter scraped over too much bread, we’ll try to plump ourselves back up with home cooked food, good books, and lots of snuggles.

It keeps us busy.

Facing the realities of Facebook

Note: Below is a piece I wrote over a year ago about Facebook, that evil, addictive entity. Since the company’s emotional manipulation of users is causing an uproar this week, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the social media I love to hate. I offer an updated conclusion in italics below.

I began 2013 by taking a hiatus from Facebook. To say that I quit or broke-up with Facebook would be a bit disingenuous; I did not delete my account and I found myself logging on from time to time out of necessity. But I ceased posting the steady stream of information and status updates that had been my normal, fairly heavy Facebook habit for the last several years – and that had reached a crescendo during last fall’s election frenzy. For six weeks, FB receded out of my daily life as quickly as it entered. The simultaneous distance from Facebook and the inability to quit completely (that family reunion planning thread was not going to follow me offline!) gave me some much-needed perspective on the social media corporate behemoth, my personal media habits, and my relationships.

I should admit that I began loathing Facebook as soon as it became clear that users’ private information would become the commodity upon which the company built a fortune. I, like so many others, took steps to monitor and manage my privacy settings, but soon realized that all the efforts to protect information from the prying eyes of strangers would not keep Facebook itself from amassing and profiting from my data.

It was at around the high point of my annoyance and disillusion with FB that Google+ launched. Hurray! An alternative! Not so fast. Cue the two major obstacles to switching social media outlets. One, Google is no more innocent than FB when it comes to exploiting users. As a corporation, its dealings are every bit as shady and invasive as FB, if not more so. Two, I could jump over to G+ but without a mass migration by my friends and family, I would be all alone in a new land. This dynamic of needing your entire social network to move into new territory in order for the alternative to be effective contributes to G+ failing to dethrone FB. A few futile attempts to get others to move to G+ and some largely ignored G+ posts later, I was back to regularly posting and connecting with friends via FB, where the action remained.

So, as last year wore on, I began to feel trapped – using the services of a company I resented, forfeiting my personal privacy and ideals in order to socialize online with friends in the space we had all collectively chosen years before we realized how FB would evolve. There were times when I loved it – seeing those first pictures of my friends’ new babies, sharing pictures of my own new little girl, reveling in the group of dear friends and family who post genuinely witty things, celebrate each other’s successes, and offer comfort when needed. This, no surprise, is what I missed during my hiatus. As my friend Jennifer Rauch found, during her study of unplugging, when you unplug from social media, you may just succeed in isolating yourself from some friends and family. And while I resent FB for harvesting my data, there is a tiny bit of me that feels disappointed in myself and my friends for letting FB dominate our relationships. Are our connections so weak that we will not email each other to share news or photos? Do we causally care so little for each other that we cannot pick up a phone to call and vent about our stresses? Are our relationships in fact so superficial that we cannot be bothered to make time for each other outside of the convenience of broadcasting via FB? A part of me fears these awful possibilities to be true.

And yet, if we gave up the ease of FB, perhaps all we would lose is a crutch that keeps us plugged in but not meaningfully connected. Well, friends, here we are nearing the winter break again and I am feeling that urge to unplug and focus on home. My annual News Media Fast is a topic for another post, but it goes hand-in-hand with another much-needed Facebook haitus. In the coming weeks, as I focus on family, festivities, and handmade gifts, a bit of research writing and a lot of sewing, I will be turning off the news, turning away from Facebook, and (ironically?) trying to post more substantive content here on this blog. I would like to begin the process of blogging my research, as the Ambulant Scholar, Amy Rubens does so well. And, I would like to also post more advocacy related to that research, my mothering, and my handwork. I am ambitious when a semester draws to a close and have many dreams for the winter break — none of them include Facebook.

So, it is satisfying to look back over this post and know that I have made a concerted effort to blog in this space. At the same time, I still (as so many of you will know) continue to use Facebook daily. Why? Because you all do, too! Social media is where we form our connections, for better or worse. Until we collectively find a new path, I’ll visit you on Facebook. But I will not, for a second, consider the company anything other than exploitative. I can’t yawn hard enough at the confirmation that they are manipulative – I think we all already knew that and the best we can do is use the service they provide as critically as possible.

Smells like teen spirit

According to none other than The Pew Research Institute, not only am I a millennial (WTF), but I am in the same generation as my freshmen students. HAHAHAHA. No.

There is something downright bizarre and wildly misleading about grouping together, for the purposes of research and deeper understanding, a married mother of two who is four years down the tenure track into a cohort with her freshmen students. I can’t fathom the grouping being meaningful in any way, even though journalists are trying , bless them.

In all seriousness, I remember a time pre-Internet and was at university on 9/11, but my students don’t remember a time pre-smartphone and were in kindergarten on 9/11.

Sorry, Pew (and anyone else using this weird 18-34 grouping), try again. This is not about any generation being “the best,” but I propose that we recognize the overwhelming influence of certain major culture shifts and acknowledge that there is an unmistakeable split in what has been dubbed the millennial generation. If Gen X ends in 1981 as some claim (I go with that year because then I can – and do – claim its my own), then let Gen Y be that vague group of people born from the early 80s to the early 90s who don’t fit the prototypical Gen X identity, but who were old enough to be aware of the digital revolution and a pre-9/11 world view. If you are too young to recall a world before texting and wars on terror, you can be a millennial. I’ll be sitting over here being a cynical Gen Xer, grading your papers.

Tonight In My Kitchen :: Blog Hop

I resigned myself to not picking strawberries this year. I wanted to, I planned to, I scouted out new farms near and far. But, too much happened in the last few weeks – travel, recital, work, grading, exciting and life-changing news that sent us reeling – and getting us all in the car and into the field seemed daunting. Nevermind what to do with all those berries! No time for jamming, my inner monologue chanted, no time, no time.

Then, my sister posted pictures of her kids picking strawberries and that was it – the excuses seemed so trivial and all that mattered was getting my hands on some ripe, warm berries. Off I drove with my oldest girl, leaving the baby with my husband, to a farm not too far away. We picked two gallons in the peace of each other’s company, processed them to the sound of Doo-Wop music, and by bedtime the lovely little darlings went from sun-warmed to chilling in the freezer, dreaming of smoothies.

Next week, my girl’s school holds its annual Strawberry Festival – I think grabbing some flats for a good cause and remembering that there is always time for jam is in order.

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Playing along in spirit with Heather’s “This Week In My Kitchen :: Blog Hop”

Handmade Holidays: Easter

Something about the hands-on craftiness of dying eggs always seems to set the tone of Easter for my family. Here’s a glimpse into our handmade holiday fun, starting with passing on an Easter basket style from my childhood.

My childhood Easter basket

My childhood Easter basket

My grandmother gifted wooden Easter baskets to me and my siblings sometime in the late 80s, after my baby sister was born. Each one was unique, hand painted at a local gift shop in south Mississippi, with a color scheme for each of us and our names painted on the side. Each year, we woke on Easter to find them filled with goodies and then used them for hunting eggs. They became part of our Easter traditions – as meaningful as our childhood Christmas stockings. I’ve noticed that it is not always the case that people keep baskets and stockings from year to year, but instead use disposable ones. However, because mine meant so much to me and I enjoy not only the tradition of the durable basket, but the lack of consumerism and waste associated with flimsy temporary ones, I set out a few years ago to make similar ones for my husband and first daughter.

My oldest daughter's basket.

My oldest daughter’s basket.

I am no artist, but I tried to copy the image on my basket, adjusting to make hers unique.

My husband's basket.

My husband’s basket.

For my husband, I copied the image on my brother’s basket, again making adjustments in color and other details to make it unique.

Yes, I have another daughter now – she used mine this year, but by next year I will have to drag out the paint brush again!

For the rest of our Easter decorating, we turned to a bit of paper and drawing. My five year old contributed eggs to hang around the house and I drew a little sign to tape on our dining room window.

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Egg art

Then, I made my own version of TinkerLab’s Origami Rabbits, using plain white paper and crayons to put in their baskets, one for my blue-eyed girl and one for my brown-eyed girl!

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How do you make simple, meaningful holiday traditions?

Banishing student emails – yes we can!

Original post published April 19, 2014 

Last semester, I tried something new: prohibiting my upper-level media studies students from emailing me for any other reason than to set up a time to meet in person. For years, student emails have been an assault on professors, sometimes with inappropriate informality, sometimes just simply not understanding that professors should not have to respond immediately. Most often, student emails are a waste of everyone’s time because the questions are so basic that the answers are truly ON THE SYLLABUS.

In my effort to teach students appropriate use of emails, my syllabus policies ballooned to cover every conceivable scenario – when to email, when not to, how to write the subject line – and still I spent class time discussing the email policies and logged hours upon hours answering emails that defied the policies.

In a fit of self-preservation, I decided: no more. This is where I make my stand! In my senior-level gender and media course, I instituted a no-email policy and (here’s the hard part) stuck to it religiously. I explained to my students that there were a few very solid reasons for this policy:

1. They needed to read and know the syllabus and pay attention in class, rather than use email as a crutch to ask superficial questions. Taking these small yet seemingly impossible steps would make them more aware and engaged in the class.

2. Reading assignment instructions carefully and asking questions about the assignments in class or in office hours would force them to begin working on papers early, thus eliminating last-minute emails about instructions.

3. More of our conversations would take place in person – whether in my office or in class – rather than via email, thus allowing us to get to know each other better and fostering a more collegial atmosphere.

I am happy to report it was an unqualified success. It’s difficult to convey just how wonderful it was for students to stop by office hours more often, to ask questions about assignments in the class periods leading up to due dates, and to have students rise to the expectation that they know the syllabus. Their papers were better, they were more prepared for class time than I’ve ever experienced.

It is also difficult to tally the time I saved by not answering hundreds of brief, inconsequential emails throughout the semester. I can say that the difference in my inbox traffic was noticeable and welcome.

I plan to expand and adapt my email-free zone in the coming semesters and I’m curious to know what (if anything) students will write about the policy on their student evaluations. They were surprised at first by the policy, but over the course of the semester, the only remarks they made were to say (in person!) “I know you don’t want emails, so …” before launching into their questions.

This was the experience I hoped for and as I told my students: I am not opposed to email in general and I am one of the most plugged-in people I know. But, as a media scholar, I believe it is paramount that we make conscience decisions about our media use. In the context of being a media professor, my effort to teach them email etiquette by using complex and all-encompassing policies was failing them and me – eliminating email from the teacher/student relationship was the most powerful act I could take and led to productive conversations with them as we explored media habits.

Post updated August 21, 2014

As I wrote above, I truly did want to see whether students would use their course evaluations to react to the policy of seriously limiting emails. The relevant evaluations finally arrived this week and I am delighted to report a few positive outcomes. First, the overall scores on this class were higher than my average and the comments about the course were overwhelmingly positive.  In particular, the statements “The professor was accessible for help outside of class,” “The professor’s apparent concern for the students’ progress in the course was,” and “Overall the teaching of this course was” were all three rated “Excellent.” Out of 48 students across two sections of the course, only one written comment mentioned the email policy. The comment, verbatim: “I wish I had been able to email her more, rather than just arrange appointments. Oftentimes, I just had a quick yes/no question and it was difficult to arrange a meeting time for something so small in between my class/work schedule and her schedule. I do like that she preferred to meet in person though, but for some quick questions, it seemed tedious.” Frankly, I completely sympathize with this student’s point, but it is not enough to sway me from feeling that the policy was a net positive for myself and my students.

I am beginning a new semester at a new institution, where I will try once more to severely limit student emails. I take two key points from my own experience and my course evaluations. First, students can adapt to a policy that is clearly explained, pedagogically sound, and consistently implemented. Second, if the teacher is available outside of class and genuinely cares about students’ success, the students will value face-to-face interactions. I am also curious to learn about your email policies, so please leave a comment!

Good luck to us all as we start a new semester!

What about you? What are your email policies and would you ever establish an email-free class?

This week in my kitchen :: Blog hop

Playing along with Heather, capturing moments in my kitchen this week.

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Banana bread made from the same New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook recipe my mom used when I was growing up. So insanely simple and good.

Granola made using Alton Brown's recipe from Food Network.

Granola made using Alton Brown’s recipe from Food Network.

Starting on chicken noodle soup in the crock pot. The house smelled beautiful by day's end.

Starting on chicken noodle soup in the crock pot. The house smelled beautiful by day’s end.

Potato salad in the making - super simple, just chop up what's in the bowl, stir in a little mayo and sprinkle on paprika.

Potato salad in the making – super simple, just chop up what’s in the bowl, stir in a little mayo and sprinkle on paprika.

It is nice to look over this post and think about the week in my kitchen, but I have learned something: This kind of post is not for me. I always forget to stop and take a picture while I’m cooking, plus my kitchen is tiny and dark, so to take photos I had to set things on the dining table. This will probably be my only attempt at this blog hop, but I’m glad I gave it a try!

This class was so punk rock

Today rocked so hard. It was grey and rainy, I’m still mopping up student advisement woes, deadlines are crowding my brain. But, seriously, any day where you play The Ramones in class and point out that the Trench Coat Mafia was a media fabrication is a win in my book.

To complete the semester in my senior level Gender, Communication & Culture class* I wanted a short text and film that would bring together the wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches we’ve encountered this semester but also be interesting enough to keep stressed out, burned out student engaged. Enter punk rock and youth subcultures.

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For the next two weeks, we’re reading Goths, Gamers & Grrrls: Deviance and Youth Subcultures by Ross Haenfler, an associate professor of Sociology at The University of Mississippi. This is a small book, targeted towards an undergraduate population, that does an excellent job of laying a foundation of subculture theory before embarking on chapters devoted to everything from heavy metal to virgin pledgers. The introduction was a nice recap of cultural studies theory we have been working with all semester, but put in conversation with sociological approaches that are new for my students. Today we focused on understanding social ecology and spent some time unpacking Dick Hebdige’s work on subculture and commodification of style. I wanted a bit more on this important topic than Haenfler covers in the introduction, so we lingered over the process of a subculture moving from obscuring to deviance to mainstream to being commodified by corporations for profit. Then, we skipped ahead to discuss Chapter 3: Punk Rock, Hardcore, and Straight Edge – Status and Hierarchy in Subcultures. The chapter is quite brief, so we had plenty of time to start watching The Other F Word, a documentary that follows veteran punk rockers as they navigate the world of fatherhood.

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This film is an excellent punctuation to the end of our semester, giving us a chance to discuss:

- How does the violence of the punk rock scene in LA compare to our discussions of White masculinity and masculine violence in ads, film, and sports?

- What are the class dynamics at play in the punk subculture?

- How do punk rockers define their masculinity and their identities as fathers in relation to traditional notions of fatherhood?

The conversation continues in a few days and I am stoked.

* As I tell my students, this may be the official title of the course, but I teach it as “Gender, race, class, sexuality, mass communication, and popular culture.” No one ever said being interdisciplinary and caring about intersectionality was easy, but it is oh, so very necessary and rewarding.

Someone please take this carseat!

My toddler’s infant carseat has been the bane of my parenting existence for almost two years now. First, shopping for it became the kind of stressful fixation that only an eight month pregnant woman with a small child and a full-time job can appreciate. My small town had limited shopping options, so we drove to a nearby city to find one that was just what I thought it needed to be: fully safe, not obnoxiously gendered, not the price of a small car, not so heavy that our arms would break pulling it in and out of the car a thousand times, but not so flimsy that it lacked sturdiness, able to last as long as possible and transition from backward to forward facing. You know how it is – I had an image in my mind of the perfect seat and was frustrated beyond reason that I couldn’t find it – and I can admit now that I was slightly irrational.

Of course we did find a seat that made me happy and worked perfectly for our girl for that first year, before her enormous girth (oh, the glory of those chubby toddler thighs!) meant it was time for a new one. And so, that infant seat has been languishing in a box in my kitchen, taking up valuable floor space and frustrating me now even more: it is turning out to be more difficult to dispose of than it was to buy! Why? You might be as naive as me or you may have seen this coming, but car seats are apparently absolute pariahs once they are purchased and labelled “used.” I found that I could not rid myself or my kitchen of this thing I had worked so hard to find. In the world of used car seats, here are some things I’ve learned:

> If you have a friend or family member who is expecting, congratulations! It is so easy to pass on a gently used seat that has not been in a wreck or recalled. Done and done.

> Or, if you plan more future littles, store it somewhere relatively climate controlled so the plastic does not lose its integrity. Keep an eye on the expiration date – yes, they expire! – and check to see whether your seat gets recalled before you use it again.

> Don’t bother taking it to most kid resale or consignment shops – they won’t touch the things for fear of buying and reselling a defective or dangerous seat.

> Also don’t waste your time donating the seat to most charities or thrift shops. They also will not resell the seats for the same reasons, so it could end up being thrown away.

> On that note: many, many resources exist to tell you how to destroy and toss or recycle the seat, encouraging you to do your civic duty by making sure that it cannot be used again. These options all annoy me because it encourages putting a perfectly good, safe product into a landfill rather than into the vehicle of new parents who would welcome a gently used, safe seat.

So, in my area, I found that I could not donate or sell the seat and had no friends or family within hundreds of miles who needed an infant carseat – I finally offered to pay to ship it to an expectant friend many states away, but she already had one. For the last six months, I’ve tried off and on to find a way to shift this thing because I refuse to consign it to a landfill. As I cooked or cleaned or tried to keep my girl from climbing on the box, I pondered and fretted until genius finally struck this week: the seat is going to my local women’s shelter. So simple, so wonderful. One call to a grateful shelter director and the carseat will be put to very good use by an extraordinary organization that helps women and children trying to escape from dangerous situations. It may have taken me too long to figure this all out, but I am so glad I did.

I’ve done a bit of work with domestic violence shelters over the years and they are always in need of the kinds of the necessities that women and children may leave behind as they flee from danger and try to rebuild their lives: clothes, toiletries, blow driers, diapers, food, feminine hygiene products, and (I have learned) car seats, strollers, and other baby gear. If you have items that need a good home, please consider reaching out to your own local shelter – a call or check of their website will give you guidance on what items they need. When I drop off the carseat tomorrow, I plan to ask whether they want my little girl’s playpen and stroller in a short while when she outgrows them – I have a feeling I will not be puzzling over them, but just packing them up and passing them on.

And you? How do you find new homes for used baby gear?