Thursday, April 26, 2012

Not Just Anne Frank

Alexandra Zapruder has provided an important resource for understanding the Holocaust in her book,  Salvaged Pages.  By collecting the diaries of children and teenagers, she gives us the tools to learn not only about what that period was like for young people but also to get a sense of how the constrictions, deprivations, and struggle for survival felt in different places.  As she notes in our interview, Anne Frank's story tells just one version, and for many people, that together, perhaps, with some film images of life in labor and death camps, has become the story.  But that challenge of the Holocaust is not just its scale or even its horror but the difficulty of keeping this iconic historical event meaningful.  Almost 70 years after World War II ended, we have gotten into the habit of talking about how terrible the Holocaust was and reciting the mantra about not forgetting and never again (though,of course, sadly, genocide keeps on happening).  But it seems to me that we need fresh perspectives in order to keep learning and stay interested.  Otherwise, remembering becomes rote, and that makes it meaningless.

My interview with Zapruder is my last for Lincoln Avenue, at least for now.  Thanks for listening for the past few years.    And a special thanks to all those who have commented on the show and the blog.  Doing this program has been a real treat for me; discovering that people are actually listening makes it even better.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Writer at Work

Preparing to interview George Packer requires tough choices.  Do we talk about Iraq or about American liberalism?  About journalism or fiction?  About the past or about the future?  Packer has written two novels, a play, a couple of book-length non-fiction works, and a whole lot of articles for a variety of magazines.  His main gig these days is as a staff writer for The New Yorker, a job that he says allows him the luxury of working on a story for several months at a time -- something that's unusual for journalists today. 

One of the qualities of the best writers I know is curiosity, something Packer displays in his habit of deflecting questions about himself and asking lots of questions of the people around him.  After our interview, he sat down with a dozen or so YSU journalism students, and after talking a little about his own work, he started asking them questions.  He did the same thing over dinner later, asking those around the table about our work. Some of that is professional necessity.  He is, after all, doing a bit of writing about Youngstown.  But some of it, I think, is a habit of mind.  And that's at least half of what makes a good writer. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

YSU's Union History

As a YSU faculty member and YSU-OEA officer, I am, of course, not an objective bystander when it comes to the union.  But my interest in its history is not just about my investment in its work.  When John Russo and I wrote Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, we included the story of the founding of the faculty union, because it reflected the strong connection many people in this community made between work and unions.  We believed that it wasn't at all accidental that Tom Shipka, the son of local labor leader Al Shipka, was the lead organizer of the faculty union.  As Tom explains in our interview, his father didn't push him to become a labor organizer.  He didn't need to.  Tom understood not only how a union could benefit workers -- even professors -- but also how to organize.  He knew that organizing is about conversations with people about their experiences and concerns.  And he knew that in order to succeed, a faculty union would need community support.  The leaders of the YSU-OEA today know that we have to keep doing both kinds of work: talking with members and working with the community. 

What I appreciate most about Tom's work, and about his perspective on the union, is his explanation of how the faculty union helped make YSU a better university.  Improving the quality of the faculty, providing support to allow the faculty to conduct the research that keeps them engaged with their fields and able to bring the latest ideas into the classroom, practices like teaching evaluations and well-defined processes for evaluation by department chairs -- all of these are elements of the union contract that help YSU maintain a high-quality, highly-productive faculty.  If you read the local paper, all you hear about is what faculty get paid, but the union is about so much more. 

Talking with Tom also reminded me of how important administrative support is.  Tom built an incredibly productive department -- not just in terms of scholarship but also in terms of great teaching and significant contributions to the university and local community.  He understood that the most important thing an academic administrator can do is try to create conditions that encourage faculty to do their best work. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Talking with the Goddess of Young Adult Literature

It's clear that Teri Lesense is passionate about young adult literature -- and about young adults.  You can hear her excitement and commitment in her voice.  You can also see it in the way she writes about books for younger readers.  Her blog is full of information about new books, about ways of engaging adolescent readers, and last week, about her experiences as a guest speaker at this year's YSU English Festival.  So rather than offering my own comments, I think you should go visit Teri's blog, and see what she has to say for yourself.

Ok, I'll add just one thing:  my favorite idea from Teri is the reading ladder.  I've been frustrated to hear so many of my English Ed students arguing that we shouldn't ever ask high school students to read  anything in which they don't have an intrinsic interest.  They insist that young adult lit is all kids need, telling me that "classic novels have nothing to offer."  It bothers me that future English teachers believe that literature is largely worthless, or that it's only valuable if readers identify with the characters. Yes, I want to engage young adults in reading, and I see the value of YA lit for accomplishing that.  But I'm troubled by the notion that no one should ever be pushed to read something that isn't about someone just like them.  And isn't education about getting us to expand our perspectives, to understand the world far beyond ourselves?  And what about developing stronger reading skills, not just a love for reading?  Lesense's model of the reading ladder offers a smart way of addressing that gap. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why Teach Kids About Sex?

I'm not sure why I always assumed that sex education was about the basics of conception and how to avoid it, but talking with Alexandra Lord made clear how wrong I was.  Nor is sex ed only about preventing venereal diseases, though that has mattered more than I'd recognized.  At heart, whether, what, and how we teach young people about sex is really all about how we think about society and each other.  Do we think that sexuality is ok for some people but not for others?  Do we see sex as a source of disease and problems, or as a source of pleasure?  Embedded in these overtly sexual questions are ideas about how we think about each other's intelligence, morality, opportunities, and interactions.  We have tried to control or limit the sexual activity -- or at least the procreation -- of people we think are intellectually inferior.  We have ignored the educational needs of those we deem too "naturally" immoral to be trusted to have their sexual desires controlled at all, or we have focused only on educating them, assuming that "people like us" will behave "well" with no guidance at all.  We base our ideas about about what to teach on how functional we think other people's families are.  And we educate people to avoid catching disease because we're afraid they might infect us.  We simply can't separate out sex ed from social power, human relations, and culture. 

Of course, we've been seeing a lot of evidence of that lately, with public debates about insurance coverage for contraception and requiring invasive procedures that mimic rape before a woman can have an abortion.  Those debates reflect different perspectives not just on sex, and not just on morality, but on larger questions of who will have the power to control other people's bodies and choices. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Chief Organizer at Work

Wade Rathke is pretty darned inspiring.  He started one of the most successful organizing groups in U.S. history, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), when he was just out of college, and over its 40-year history, the organization led drives for fair housing, fair wages, voter registration, and more.  And despite having to shut ACORN down under political and financial pressure (in part because of defunding by the government) in 2010, Rathke still believes in the power of organizing and continues his work, much of it now international.

He's also still involved with social issues in the U.S., and his book Citizen Wealth lays out a clear analysis of what people need to achieve income stability, the obstacles they face, and strategies for addressing those challenges.  Along with the ideas, what comes through in the book is Wade's ongoing belief that people working together can make a difference.  In the face of decades of being involved in the ups and downs of public and business policies that seem to be incredibly able to perpetuate and expand inequality, he writes forcefully and optimistically about the possibility of social, economic, and political change.

Wade spoke as part of YSU's Center for Working-Class Studies lecture series. I had to break the talk into several sections, but here are links:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Audience Questions

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dying with Dignity

As Carole Ann Drick explains in our interview, the way we die has changed over time, from the fairly quick at-home death from critical disease to the extended, often very slow process of dying in a hospital or nursing home.  All those machines and that long, drawn-out decline takes away our dignity.  She advocates more use of hospice and other approaches to allow us to die more calmly, surrounded by friends and family or, at least, by caring and appropriately-trained nurses. 

Her vision seems like an attractive alternative, something that should be common sense.  It sometimes seems that we want to extend each person's life as long as possible, regardless of its quality.  While Drick isn't arguing for euthanasia, her approach does suggest that we might die more comfortably, in both spiritual and physical sense, if we were able to accept rather that fight death. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Defending Women's Choices

I can’t pretend to be neutral about Planned Parenthood, or women’s health, for that matter, and my conversation with Gary Dougherty, Legislative Director for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio, probably shows that.  I believe that women should have access to good health care – well, everyone should – regardless of their income, and that includes access to contraception.  I wish that no woman was ever raped, ever had her contraception fail, or ever made a mistake and didn’t use it when she should have.  But I’m realistic, and I want women to have the option of having an abortion if necessary.  Those are my views, not those of any of the organizations that support my work, and I stand by them.  So I was encouraged to hear Gary talk about the work he and his colleagues are doing to protect women’s access to affordable health care, contraception, and yes, abortion.

And as Gary suggested, the most troubling part of recent debates about providing health insurance that includes contraceptives is that just beneath the surface seems to be the desire by a few to reduce or even eliminate contraceptives for everyone.  Not just for those who think it’s morally wrong, but for everyone else, too.  As I explain to students in my women’s studies courses, reliable contraception made a huge difference in women’s ability to make choices about their own lives.  Many choose to have children.  Some, like me, choose not to.  But we only get to make these choices because we have access to care and the right to make choices about our health.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Job Preparation and the Liberal Arts: Journalism as a Model

It's always fun talking with Tim Francisco about education, especially the, the project he runs with Alyssa Lenhoff.  Yes, he's enthusiastic, but he's also very thoughtful about the goals and approach they're using. For me, the most impressive part of this project is its vision for what undergraduate education can accomplish by engaging students in challenging hands-on learning that is at once practical and intellectually-significant.  I worry that our emphasis on higher education as workforce preparation leads us to make undergraduate programs focus more on skills than on critical thinking and that we encourage students to view anything that isn't part of their future job as irrelevant.  We know that most undergraduates will not spend their entire working lives doing the jobs they trained for in college, so they need broader knowledge and skills, especially in gathering information, analyzing problems, and effective communication.  Journalism can provide these skills, but a strong general education program and an emphasis on inquiry and problem solving within the major can do that for students in any field.  So while I'm excited about how the approach taken by YSU's Journalism program works for their majors, I hope that other departments will embrace this model of combining job prep with a liberal arts approach.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Fight Against Human Trafficking

Like many of you, until I sat down to talk with Jean Waris and Brian Hudzik, the main thing I'd heard about human trafficking in our area was the story of new regulations for massage parlors in Warren.  But as Jean and Brian made clear, "human trafficking" isn't something that happens far away, nor is it happening only in massage parlors.  The term refers to anytime someone is forced through violence or coercion to do things they wouldn't normally do, so it applies to most forms of prostitution and also occurs in other types of labor.

After our interview, Jean sent me the story of Theresa Flores:

Theresa lived in an upscale suburb of Detroit. Her father was a mid-level manager in some type of business who was transferred every two years. Theresa attended a good high school where she met an upper level classmate who raped her. Unbeknown to her, pictures were taken during the rape. Several days later the classmate approached her with the pictures threatening to post them all over her school and church and to send them to her parents and her father's boss. BUT...if she would do a favor for him, he would give her the pictures. 

After midnight she received a call on the phone in her bedroom telling her to be on the corner in front of her house in 10 minutes and a car would pick her up. She was taken to a location where she was raped by a number of men. This continued for TWO YEARS! She would be called several times a week, she never knew when. It was always a different location and different men. She was terrified. They follow her younger brother home from school in a big, black, slow moving car. He was scared. She was terrified. Their small dog turned up dead in the yard. She told no one. And no one noticed. After two years her father was transferred. She told no one. She just didn't turn up in school. She had escaped!

I heard Theresa speak last summer and she told of being somewhere and hearing about HUMAN TRAFFICKING. Suddenly she realized that there was a NAME  for what had happened to her and that it was a CRIME. Theresa has shared this story in her book The Slave Across the Street. 

 Jean and Brian are involved in the local portion of a growing national movement to fight human trafficking.  You can learn more about the broad effort from the Polaris Project.  Just this week, Governor Kasich announced a "statewide war on human trafficking" as part of his State of the State Address.  Locally, the Anti-Human Trafficking Core Group of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative is working on both policy issues and strategies to help victims.  If you want to get involved, call the MVOC office at 330-743-1196.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cheating and Character

The most interesting thing about talking with Sam Antar isn't his story of committing fraud, or the way he evaded jail by helping catch other criminals, or the fact that he now spends his time teaching others about white-collar crime.  No, the most interesting thing is his belief that we can't stop people from committing these crimes by promoting better business ethics or even by a lot more regulation.  According to Antar, people like him will always find a way to cheat, and they do it because they can and in a way, almost because they have to.  He compares cheating in business to alcoholism and gambling addictions.  Business people don't cheat because they didn't have sufficient training in professional ethics.  They cheat because they're the kind of people who want to get away with something.

The key, Antar suggests, is training the rest of us to be more cautious in dealing with those who manage our money and in helping law enforcement agencies develop a better understanding of how people commit fraud so that they can get better at catching white-collar criminals.  I find that kind of discouraging.  And it's even more discouraging to hear Sam Antar suggest that the desire many of us feel to always expect the best out of other people and to prefer to assume that others mean well not harm is exactly what could make us good targets for the next cheater. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Value of a Good Argument

What I appreciate most about Deborah Mower's perspective on civility in politics and education is her emphasis on the idea that being civil does not mean suppressing disagreements.  Instead, it's all about pursuing them in thoughtful, serious ways.  As we discussed in the interview, people too often think that challenging someone else's ideas is inherently rude, and so we shy away from argument. The key is, rather, to learn how to argue well, to construct an argument and defend a position on the basis of evidence and ideas, rather than on personal attacks, insinuations, and gut responses.

The difficulty, I think, is navigating between the ideal of a society in which people disagree in thoughtful, productive ways, and the reality of a culture that has come to rely heavily on exaggeration, character assassination, and digging in our heels.  The book she edited with Wade L. Robison, Civility in Politics and Education, presents a number of philosophical views on this, though as Mower acknowledges, philosophers often examine ideals of how people should think and behave.  In a culture of political attack ads and clearly divided news media, we often don't live up to those ideals.  Too many of us don't take our own responsibilities -- not only participants in arguments but also as audiences for political and civic debates -- seriously.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Actually, as Tom Finnerty explains in this week's Lincoln Avenue, the truth about all those statistical reports on Youngstown's economy is not as bad as that famous old Mark Twain line.  It's not that they're lying.  It's that when an organization like the Brookings Institution reports a finding, the details about the statistics get buried.  The Vindicator had a story about this on their front page this week, about how the unemployment rate is down but that the size of the local labor force has shrunk.  To make sense of that, you have to understand how the unemployment rate is calculated.  And as Finnerty points out, you have to pay attention to what is being measures, and where.  does poverty mean the total number of poor people, or the level of concentration of poverty in poor neighborhoods (that was an issue with the Brookings report from this past fall).  Does "Youngstown" mean the city, or the Youngstown metro area?  As citizens and readers, we have to pay attention, or we can be easily misled.

Finnerty is Associate Director of YSU's Center for Urban and Regional Studies, and it's a great resource for information on the local and regional economy.  The CURS website has links to dozens of reports and maps, on everything from crime rates to the needs of the elderly, dating back to the 1980s and up to 2011.  You could learn a lot by digging into their archives -- just remember to pay attention to the basis for the data.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On the Agenda

Given all the battles in the 2011 Ohio legislature, and the way fights like the one over SB 5 spilled over to engage citizens almost all year, it's hard to understand how Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro can be so calm and even upbeat about her job.  But she is.  She speaks with conviction about the value of politics and the possibility of collaboration between Democrats and Republicans, which these days seems rare.

Cafaro should have some interesting opportunities to represent our area's interests this term.  The legislature will almost certainly have to address the oil and gas industry, as she notes in our interview, but earthquakes and ongoing hearings make that complex territory.  Education funding, abortion, and other issues will also surface.  You can keep an eye on what's going on by following the Senate calendar, and you can use the Senate website to stay in touch with your Senator.  As we learned last year, our voices matter. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Imagining Community Downtown

If you're looking for something to do next Saturday night, I have a suggestion: begin the evening at the McDonough Museum of Art on the YSU campus and help preserve, and maybe even help make, some Youngstown history.  On January 21, from 6-8 pm, the McDonough will host a public reception for the Paramount Project.  Anita Lin explains the project in this week's Lincoln Avenue, including the development of the exhibit that opened this week at the museum, featuring photos, artifacts, and interviews reflecting the history of the Paramount theater and ideas about how the renovated facade and open air multi-use space behind it that Lin and her colleagues are imagining will change downtown.

Much of that is about community.  Over the past five years, downtown Youngstown has attracted a number of large festivals and smaller-scale public programs, like the farmer's market and Friday concerts.  Restaurants and bars have become meeting places, too.  Lin argues that a covered open-air, non-commercial space could serve many functions, most importantly expanding the opportunities for people to gather downtown.  It's an intriguing model for how to preserve and repurpose a significant structure, but turning that imagined community space into reality will take time and money.  If you're interested in helping make that happen, next Saturday's reception is a good place to begin.