Feminist Geography Tour with Prof Altha Cravey

April 13, 2017

This afternoon my students in WMST 202: Feminist Thought and I had the great fortune to take a feminist geography tour of UNC's campus with Prof Altha Cravey, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography. To prepare for the tour, I asked students to read Cravey and Michael Petit's 2012 article, "A Critical Pedagogy of Place: Learning through the Body." This article, published in Feminist Formations, discusses how to use feminist geographic approaches to space and place to help students understand and develop feminist understandings of space. The authors use the built environment of UNC-Chapel Hill as a case study and speak about their own use of a field trip as a pedagogical method in the undergraduate classroom. 

Cravey and Petit's article introduces students to the embededness of gendered power in UNC's campus, focusing on the ways in which female-gendered bodies were regulated through dormitories when the campus first became available to female students. The article introduces two area of campus: 3 dorms - Alderman, Kenan and McIver and the Spencer area which includes Spencer dorm and the president's house. Cornelia Philips Spencer Hall was built in 1925 as the first UNC dormitory for women; Alderman, Kenan and McIver, which sit in a U-shape around a grassy area, were built in 1937 and 1938. 

We began our tour at Alderman, Kenan and McIver Halls, where students were able to appreciate the spatial use of a Panopticon, whereby women in the dormitories, and their visitors, could be viewed by anyone else in the area. This surveillance was aided by the large verandas that adorned the front of the dormitories and the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that offered direct views into the ground floor parlors. During our tour, we discussed the use of Panopticons in institutions including schools and prisons and students struggled to understand the logic of the early 1930s when female students were both figured as worthy/needing of protection and yet placed in dangerous environments. For example, the 3 dormitories are rather isolated from campus, meaning that female students had to walk considerable distance to attend classes, movement that was hindered by the dress codes of the day. While noting that the logic concerning dress codes that deemed female figures as "distracting" were absurd, students nevertheless connected these ideas about the need to surveil and police female bodies to contemporary rape culture. Issues of gender and sexuality are implicated with race and ethnicity and Cravey and Petit stress that the small group of women who were admitted to UNC in 1897 "were a select group privileged by class status, wealth, and, most important in the Jim Crow South, whiteness" (108).

 

We then moved to Spencer Hall, the first woman's dormitory, built in 1925, which now abuts the busy thoroughfare of Franklin Street. As Cravey and Petit's article noted, Spencer was built literally in the shadow of the president's house and the president would have been able to look down on the inhabitants of the hall. Students noted that today Spencer sits between two patriarchal structures - the president's house and the Chapel of the Cross. Again, students recalled the physical marginalization that female students endured - they lived at the edge of campus and, prior to the construction of dormitories, had to rent rooms in houses off campus. In the absence of places to socialize and congregate, female students spent considerable time commuting to and from campus - going home to eat lunch and returning for afternoon classes, etc. If a female student left the university she had 24 hours not only to leave the campus, but the entire town of Chapel Hill (109).

 

This tour was a great way to embody feminist theory and pedagogy and to apply feminist analytics to environments that we may be intimately familiar with, but that escape scrutiny on a daily basis. Thanks to Prof Cravey and her work, we were all able to "consider the embodied experience of place" and connect UNC's campus and downtown Chapel Hill to "a constellation of processes and social relations that link locally, regionally, and globally in complex and unpredictable ways" (114).

 

Militarization and Latina/o Literature

January 22, 2015

After a brief hiatus from teaching my militarization course, I'm back at it and absolutely loving it! When I moved to UNC about 4 years ago I developed a course based closely on my own area of research, U.S. Latina/o cultural responses to U.S. military intervention in the 20th and 21st centuries. I adopted this course from one that existed, entitled "Gender and Global Change" and added a more specific subtitle so it now has the slightly cumbersome name of "WMST 281: Gender and Global Change: Militarization and Transnational Latina/o Literature." I just call it "my militarization course." 

In the course, we read a variety of U.S.Latina/o (mostly, Latina) texts that engage with U.S.-backed war and military intervention, primarily in Central America and the middle East. I actually haven't taught many of the texts that I study in my book, opting for more recent texts and fictional works that take up the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (War Echoes looks at the 1991 and 2003 Iraq invasions through soldiers's memoirs). 

We began the semester a few weeks ago by reading two short pieces by Cynthia Enloe that talk about the gendered implications of intervention and militarization and encourage us to learn how to ask "feminist questions" about things such as international relations, national security, and national defense. We had a really robust discussion about the norms of masculinity and unrecognized (and encouraged) male privilege that so often accompany policies and directives considered necessary for "national security." We talked about, for example, what it means to be "tough" on a particular issue and how such posturing is encouraged of politicians regardless of their gender.

My students turned in their first round of response papers, which asked them to comment on Enloe's pieces and apply them to Demetria Martínez's poem "Birthday."  I was blown away by their responses - the students were very tuned in to militarization and military pressures around them - from video games, to campus ROTC programs, to the ties between the food service industry and military bases abroad. One student pointed out that the military's investment in a certain type of gendered politics is revealed in its insurance plans that refuse to cover abortion for female members. Another introduced me to a new word - extractivst. (http://ecuadornoticias.org/index.php/nacionales/destacados/473-entre-el-yasuni-y-el-extractivismo-del-siglo-21)

I am so excited to have such an engaged, diverse, thoughtful group of students who have a sound basis in and commitment to feminist inquiry and transnational politics and social movements. I look forward to teaching and learning with them in the coming semester as we continue to discuss pertinent issues through Latina/o cultural production. 

Next week we''ll begin a text that has been a staple in the course, Graciela Limón's Erased Faces. Published in 2001, this book is about a young Afro-Chicana from L.A. who travels to Chiapas in the early 90s and joins the Zapatista uprising.  She also falls in love with a fellow guerrillera. Students respond very well to the novel, which weaves in several layered stories about resistance to colonialism, exploitation and racism by the indigenous inhabitants of the Américas as well as intra-ethnic racism and abuse. They also appreciate the queer love story and learning about the Zapatistas. Since the course emphasizes U.S. intervention and militarism, we learn about U.S. support for the Mexican military's harassment and occupation of Zapatista-controlled communities as well as the effects of NAFTA, primarily through the Big Noise Films documentary Zapatista. While I have taught this novel frequently, I tend to find a new aspect to appreciate every time I read it and I look forward to having and sharing that experience with my students in the coming weeks. 

Review of Erased Faces: http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/26/news/cl-8399

Demetria Martínez: http://www.demetriamartinez.com/

Fall 2014 Classes

November 26, 2014

Students in WMST 233 posing for a picture with Maya Chinchilla's debut collection.

This semester I'm teaching two classes, WMST 101: Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies and WMST 233: Introduction to Latina Feminist Literature.

The latter course is a seminar of 24 students and is a course I've taught several times. In this class, I seek to expose my students to a diversity of contemporary Latina feminist literature. I strive for diversity in terms of both genre and ethno-national origin so we read novels, short stories, plays, poetry, essays and memoir by Chicana, Puerto Rican, Dominican-American, Cuban-American and Guatemalan-American authors. I strive for a mix of canonical works such as Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies and Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek alongside newer works such as Daisy Hernández's memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed and Maya Chinchilla's collection of poetry The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poetica.(http://mayachapina.com/ ). This semester students had the chance to meet Daisy Hernández, who is currently a visiting professor at UNC (http://www.daisyhernandez.com/). They also had the chance to hear Sandra Cisneros give a public reading as part of the Thomas Wolfe lecture series. 

WMST 101 is a course that I have taught several times but I have never taught it in this format - as a lecture to ~300 students! I admit I was intimidated and worried about the course - I wasn't really sure what to expect. But I have found the entire experience affirming and invigorating. Mostly I am excited about the fact that I can share concepts, topics, and movements in gender, feminism, and sexuality to such a large audience. The idea that I have the opportunity to talk about cis-gender privilege, campus sexual assault, white privilege, waves of feminist activism, and problems with the prison industrial complex with 300 undergraduates makes me grateful. Of course, in the lecture format with Teaching Assistants who run discussion sections once per week, I don't receive much feedback and so I largely lose out on the opportunity to learn from my students or be challenged by their responses to and interpretations of the material. 

Daisy Hernández speaking to students in WMST 233.

The Academic Boycott of Israel

January 30, 2014

In the past few months, the movement to enact an academic boycott of Israeli institutions has garnered increasing support, and, as a result greater attention by mainstream and right-wing politicians and organizations. Within the United States, the movement is led by USACBI - the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. As their website explains, the movement supports the call by Palestinian Civil Society to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. http://www.usacbi.org/

I have been an active supporter and participant in BDS for the past several years. My decision to support BDS was a natural extension of my acknowledgement of the injustice of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and my growing knowledge and politicization regarding the history of Israel and Zionism. This was not a quick process for me - like most U.S. Jews, I grew up in a liberal but decidedly Zionist home and community. Zionism was so pervasive that we didn't even have to name it as such - we assumed that Israel was the answer to anti-Semitism and never questioned its right to exist or how its existence was formed through ethnic cleansing and an ongoing process of settler-colonialism. As I continued to develop a political consciousness, Zionism remained a blind-spot; I was, what a friend recently referred to - PEP, Progressive except for Palestine. I will save my story of how and why my views on Israel/Zionism changed for another entry.

When I learned of BDS, it seemed a natural and logical way to enact my feelings about the injustice of the ongoing occupation. Plus, honestly, it wasn't hard. There are a few major Israeli-owned products and companies that can be easily avoided for most U.S. consumers. And everytime I explained why I would never own a Sodastream or did not buy Sabra hummus, it was a great opportunity to spread the word about the movement. I'll admit that I was also always free to avoid the conversation if I wanted - I've certainly never had anyone ask me why I don't own a Sodastream or Teva sandals.

I have welcomed the ongoing debates within academic organizations like the American Studies Association because I support the visibility that they are bringing to USACBI and BDS and the conversations they are engendering. I attended several of the conversations held at the ASA Conference in Washington D.C. in November 2013 and appreciated being able to witness how scholars from a variety of personal and academic backgrounds related the boycott to their own ideas, research, and experiences. Scholars of history, Latina/o studies, Asian American studies and culture, Native American studies, middle eastern studies, disability studies, gender and sexuality studies, and trans studies expressed how they understood the current movement. This broad and diverse base of support reflects one of my own strongest reasons for supporting the boycott - the movement is fundamentally about one of solidarity with an occupied peoples.

Those who oppose the boycott - who make claims to the abuse of free speech, the denial of educational access and opportunity - also embolden my support of the boycott. The truth is that there is no equal access to education or free speech in Israel or the occupied territories today. In one of my courses, I often screen the film The Panama Deception about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to oust Manuel Noriega. At one point, a commentator explains: "You can't restore democracy to a place that never had democracy." Those who oppose the boycott under the guise of upholding these things that do not exist only support the status quo - and the status quo is apartheid.

Below I am posting several articles and links relevant to this discussion.

The ASA resolution: http://www.theasa.net/american_studies_association_resolution_on_academic_boycott_of_israel

The AAAS (Association of Asian American Studies) resolution:

http://www.aaastudies.org/content/images/files/aaas%204_20_13%20-%20conference%20resolution%20to%20support%20the%20boycott%20of%20israeli%20academic%20institutions.pdf

The NAISA (Native American and Indigenous Studies Association) resolution:

http://naisa.org/node/719

Angela Davis on why she supports boycotting Israel:

http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/nora-barrows-friedman/angela-davis-support-bds-and-palestine-will-be-free

Joan Scott on why she changed her mind regarding the boycott:

http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/JAF/2013%20JAF/Scott.pdf

Zionism and the Olympics

August 3, 2012

The Munich Massacre

I have been following, admittedly not very closely, some of the critiques of the failure of the current Olympic Games to include a commemoration of the murder of 11 Olympic athletes at the Munich games 40 years ago, in 1972.  I am no expert on the events of 1972. The most I know about it I learned from watching Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich.  I remember watching the film during the year I lived in Mexico, when splurging on theatre tickets was a rare luxury and I was always hyper self-aware about the fact that I was consuming U.S. culture from such a different place. I remember really liking the film, largely because I interpreted it as a portrayal of the inhumanity involved in any kind of “revenge” mission and a sharp critique of the idea of agents of the Israeli state being either “victims” or righteous heroes. The ways in which the movie was criticized by pro-Israeli voices confirms my disgust for the ways in which Zionism silences any nuanced discussion of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It is this fundamental disagreement with how Zionists and Zionism distort and corrupt discussions of Jewish suffering that led me to view with initial skepticism the current controversy. Part of this corruption involves equating anti-Israeli politics or sentiments with anti-Semitism and linking all anti-Israeli actions to the Holocaust.[1] So it didn’t take me too long to figure out what irked me about this article. The author of the article claims that Gilot’s tattoo, which Gilot notes is a tribute to a family member who survived Aushwitz, is an act of “commemoration” of the Munich massacre. To be fair, Gilot doesn’t make this claim and several other articles on the tattoo simply identify it as a moving tribute to an influential figure in the swimmer’s life, akin to other tattoos devoted to his three siblings. The lack of Gilot’s own commentary on the Munich massacre or the current debate makes this article all the more illustrative of what I find so utterly cynical and duplicitous about Zionist interpretations of the relationship between the Holocaust and Israel. When the author of this article – Norman Lebrecht – chooses to conflate a personal remembrance of a family member killed in the Holocaust with the death of Israeli citizens, he participates in this conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli politics and actions. Here let me be clear: the murder of 11 Israeli athletes was horrific and asking for a moment of silence to recognize the tragedy doesn’t seem unreasonable – I’d like more moments of silence and more commemorations of all kinds of victims of violence. But to claim that a tattoo reading “I am nothing with out them” is a commemoration of the Munich massacre is ludicrous. The Israelis killed in 1972 are not one and the same as those who survived World War II. While some of the athletes killed were born in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and therefore did appear to be survivors of the Nazi regime, they were not killed in 1972 by the Nazis nor is anti-Israeli Palestinian violence the same thing as anti-Jewish European violence. Black September, the organization to which the Palestinian perpetrators belonged, had its roots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which in turn had its roots in the Israeli expulsion of native peoples from their land the ensuing attempted ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.[2] The deaths of the Israeli athletes can be better attributed to the racist violence of Zionist policies and practices than it can to the simple hatred of Jewish people that is anti-Semitism. The failure to accurately distinguish between Israeli victims of violence and the Nazi-perpetuated Holocaust is one of the continual lies of omission of contemporary Zionism.

 

 

 

[1] I also have problems with this very terminology – the Holocaust – as it places the attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews in the mid-twentieth century in a primary position in relation to all other acts of ethnic cleansing; there can only be one “the” Holocaust - as though the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas or the Armenians did not also suffer “a” Holocaust

[2] Don’t take my word on it – take an Israeli historian’s.

My Vegan Anniversary

December 16, 2011

To celebrate my 11-year vegan anniversary, I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives this afternoon. As someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about vegan food and nutrition, there was little totally new information that I learned from the film but I always enjoy even more reasons to continue to lead the lifestyle I’ve chosen.

In comparison with other kinds of documentaries like Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives is very people-centric. The support for a vegan diet comes mostly in the form of evidence showing that such a diet leads to longer and healthier lives and reduced rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. There are several profiles of people who were able to reverse serious health conditions by adopting a vegan lifestyle.

 On the other hand, the documentary spends almost no time discussing the suffering of animals raised for human consumption and only a few minutes on the environmental effects of the typical Western diet and the corporate interests behind the USDA and government food policies and recommendations. These discussions come during the last 30 minutes of the film and despite the nice shout out to Farm Sanctuary (http://www.farmsanctuary.org/), which I happily visited when I lived in upstate New York, the sections seem to have been developed with far less care than the other parts of the movie.

 If you are interested in the indisputable health benefits of a vegan diet, you will find this movie convincing and possibly life-altering. You’ll also want to read T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study. If you are a vegetarian who is convinced that eating dairy is part of a healthy lifestyle, you will be disappointed. Both The China Study and Forks Over Knives cite studies showing that a diet of 20% casein (a milk protein) fed to rats drastically increased tumor growth. A diet of 20% protein from plant sources had no such effects.

 Neither Forks Over Knives nor The China Study gives specific information about what to eat. The writers use the phrase a “whole foods plant based diet” to describe their recommendations. They do explicitly suggest that people eat less processed sugars and oils. I agree whole-heartedly with the recommendation to eat less processed foods and this is something I’ve slowly changed in my diet over the past few years.

 I found myself wishing that the film said a bit more about oil. I know from familiarity with Dr. Esselstyn’s work that he recommends a very low-fat diet and suggests only very scarce amounts of what I’ve long considered good fats – nuts, olive oil, etc. The film didn’t cite any specific studies or information about how a very low fat vegan diet compares to a vegan diet with a moderate amount of fat. Like most people, I’m a big fan of fatty foods and tend to allow myself one fatty indulgence – like a plate of French fries, an order of tempura, or some falafel - per week. I also seldom use fat-free salad dressing because I want to make sure that my body can absorb both the water soluble and fat soluble vitamins that I am consuming in the salad. However, I’m curious about the benefits of a very low-fat diet and I’m willing to try to cut down on some of the fat I consume. At a birthday party a few days ago I was speaking with some friends who have found that fatty foods make them feel quite sick and have switched to sautéing in vegetable broth. I often have more vegetable broth than I know what to do with (see recipe under Food) so since that party I’ve decided to sauté in vegetable broth. So far I’ve used vegetable broth to sauté garlic, onions, and a jalapeno pepper to mix into a lentil dish and also to make refried black beans. If anything, the vegetable broth adds more flavor to the dishes so I’ll try to continue to use it.

 One thing that came up in the film was the question of whether a vegan diet is “extreme.” Dr. Esselstyn has a great quote in which he refers to the fact that thousands of people a year undergo open heart surgery – a very extreme operation. Several of the individuals profiled also note that their switching to a plant-based diet was not difficult (to be fair, one woman does talk about difficulties she had). My own experience with veganism has always been similarly very easy. I have and still do occasionally eat non-vegan foods – mostly dairy when I’m travelling or some kind of non-vegan sweet at a party or social event. I certainly enjoy those indulgences but there’s no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t be difficult to go without them. Surely I’m not actually hungry when I eat a pastry! What’s more significant to me is that I have almost zero cravings. I hear friends talk about craving meat, or chocolate, or some other kind of food and I realize that this is something I almost never experience. I occasionally am in the mood for a particular kind of food but I never feel the same urgency as the word “crave” implies. And often I’m in the mood for something ridiculously nutritious – like kale.

 Aside from factors that the film doesn’t address (environmentalism, agribusiness, animal cruelty) I must also warn potential viewers that the film borders on being a long commercial for Whole Foods. Individuals are frequently seen carrying Whole Foods grocery bags and several scenes are shot very obviously in Whole Foods stores. I know that there is a relationship between the makers of the film and the grocery chain so I wasn’t completely surprised by this, but those who are very annoyed by obvious corporate sponsorship will likely find themselves irked.

 I do recommend the film as well as the book The China Study. If you’re interested in learning more about the heavy hand corporations play in U.S. food policy, I highly recommend Joan Nestle’s Food Politics as another supplement.

 

Other links you may want to explore:

Dr. Esselstyn: http://www.heartattackproof.com/

Dr. T. Colin Campbell: http://www.tcolincampbell.org/

Film: http://www.forksoverknives.com/

The China Study: http://thechinastudy.com/

Student Movement in Colombia

December 9, 2011

On my last day in Bogotá my friends and I visited the Nacional – the National University of Colombia. As a college professor I was eager to see how the university was organized and I had spent enough time at the UNAM in Mexico City to know that the campus was going to be lively, colorful, and interesting.

Students and professors in Colombia have been busy organizing against reforms to Law 30. From what I understand, under the guise of making education more accessible and affordable for the government, the proposed reforms would entail changes to make education funding follow a more U.S.- like path in which students would go into debt to finance their university studies. I had seen graffiti around Bogotá opposing the reforms and was interested to see how this and other issues were represented at the Nacional.

After taking the obligatory picture in Plaza Che, we wandered through some of the buildings on campus. I was impressed with the ownership that students displayed over the facilities – walls were painted with elaborate murals and political art. The work was well-done and it didn’t seem like an infringement on the integrity of the space, but rather a way of students sincerely interacting with their education, in a way I often wish my students would do more forcefully. At one point we briefly found ourselves in a small march but we left the walkway for a lunch break.

 

 

After about an hour at the university we took a taxi back to downtown Bogotá and got off on La Septima – a busy and main thoroughfare that ends in the town’s Plaza Bolivar. We wandered through some shops and then caught a large student march – perhaps the one that had originated at the Nacional. We sat down for a snack and watched the march go by – it seemed endless, people were literally walking past us for hours. We ended up following the march route to Plaza Bolivar where a huge stage was set up and a band already performing. The plaza was filled with young people, most holding up black umbrellas to stay dry from the near-omnipresent Bogotá rain.

 

I walked around a bit to get a sense of the crowd. I felt energized by the music and the large group of people. I thought a bit about this energy in comparison to the marches and protests with which I had been involved in the States. The energy that I felt that afternoon in Bogotá was one of unity – not in the sense of everyone agreeing of even having things in common, but in the sense of being a part of something larger than themselves. The students in Bogotá were protesting because they recognized that an approach to education that recognized education as a right was under attack – they had not instituted this approach to education but they were in danger of not inheriting it. What united the protestors in the plaza were not similar career goals, or fields of study, or even political affiliations, what united them was the understanding of a particular position that they occupied within Colombian society – as students and teachers – and the recognition that this position was being summarily attacked. That sense of being a part of a larger structure – not in an alienating, nameless way but in a way that places you in solidarity and strength with thousands of other individuals – is what I felt reverberating through my body like the music coming from the stage.