notice: blog renovations underway

For the next few weeks or so I'm going to be fussing around with a blog re-design. So apologies in advance for anything super garish that appears (and then hopefully disappears) in the meantime. I'm testing stuff out, trying to decide what I want the look and feel of the site to be like for the next iteration. Rest assured all the content will remain the same! 


new favorite thing: vegan peanut butter chocolate pillows

Vegan Peanut Butter Chocolate Pillows
image pulled from Diary of a Vegan
About a year ago, Hanna and I bought the amazing Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. I do not exaggerate when I say we have loved every single cookie recipe we've made out of Vegan Cookies. Since neither of us are vegan, we occasionally substitute dairy products (butter, milk) for the nondairy ingredients, but we've had equally good luck with nondairy alternatives such as soy milk.

Over the Christmas weekend we made a new recipe from the book, the Peanut Butter Chocolate Pillows. Neither Hanna nor I are big into peanut butter cookies, so we hadn't tried them before. But for some reason they sounded good on Sunday so I made them.

This quite possibly was a mistake.

Because they were AWESOME.

Here's the recipe.


Makes 2 dozen (24) cookies

For the Chocolate Dough:

1/2 cup canola oil

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup pure maple syrup

3 tablespoons nondairy milk

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons black unsweetened cocoa powder or more regular unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Filling:

3/4 cup natural salted peanut butter, crunchy or creamy style [or any other nut butter that strikes your fancy]

2/3 cup powdered sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons soy creamer or nondairy milk

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, sugar, maple syrup, nondairy milk, and vanilla and mix until smooth. Sift in flour, cocoa powder, black cocoa powder if using, baking soda, and salt. Mix to form a moist dough.

2. Make the peanut butter filling: In another mixing bowl, use a hand mixer to beat together peanut butter, powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons of the soy creamer, and vanilla to form a moist but firm dough. If peanut butter dough is dry and crumbly (natural peanut butters have varying moisture contents), stir in the remaining tablespoon of nondairy milk. If dough is too wet knead in a little extra powdered sugar.

3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper [or tinfoil].

Shape the Cookies:

1. Create the centers of the cookies by rolling the peanut butter dough into twenty-four balls (try dividing dough in half, then each part in half again and roll each portion into six balls). Scoop a generous tablespoon of chocolate dough, flat¬ten into a thin disc, and place a peanut butter ball in the center. Fold the sides of the chocolate dough up and around the peanut butter center and roll into a smooth ball between your palms. Place on a sheet of waxed paper and repeat with remaining dough. If desired, gently flatten cookies slightly, but this is not necessary.

2. Place the dough balls on lined baking sheets about 2 inches apart and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the sheet from the oven and let the cookies stand for 5 minutes before moving them to wire racks to complete cooling. Store cookies in tightly covered container.


call to participate: a year of feminist classics

two young women (unfinished)
by kobanashikaoru @ Flickr.com
As I posted earlier in December on tumblr, a group of women have established a blog / reading group called A Year of Feminist Classics, where they plan to read and blog for twelve months (beginning January 2011) about a series of feminist texts.

You can sign up as part of the reading group here, but drop-ins are welcome. Check out their final reading list here if you think you might be interested in dropping by for one or two specific months out of the twelve.

They'll be kicking things off in January with Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  If you're like me, you may well want an actual physical copy of the text in which to take notes in the margins and dog-ear (much to my girlfriend's horror).  But for any of you who don't have the money to purchase a copy, who can't locate one through your local library, etc., here are a few places you can access the full text online:

Internet Archive (various formats to read online and download)

LibraVox (MP3 audio download)

Project Gutenberg (various formats to read online and download)

I've signed up and plan to participate in at least a handful of months -- depending on my other obligations and the book scheduled. I look forward to chatting with at least some of you there!


movienotes: holiday inn

On Christmas Eve, Hanna and I watched Holiday Inn, a 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astair/Irving Berlin vehicle that I've heard was a precursor to the enduring classic White Christmas (also starring Crosby, though the 1954 film replaced Astair with Danny Kaye). I thought, vaguely, that I had seen Holiday Inn before.

I was wrong. So wrong.

To give you a taste, here's the original trailer.

For those of you familiar with White Christmas, this earlier film shares relatively little with its "remake" aside from Bing Crosby, the song "White Christmas," and the concept of rescuing a failing tourist hotel through the musical revue. There is much to cirtique in White Christmas if you're in the mood -- from the postwar nostalgia for the heroism of the war to the portrayal of gender dynamics and relationship expectations. I went into Holiday Inn expecting more or less the same, perhaps even a bit less based on my previous experience of late 1930s/early 1940s films -- often, they are slightly less gender essentialist than after the end of the war.

In this case ... not so much.  And in addition, Holiday Inn suffers from the additional problem of having been visited by the racist fairy and the weak plot fairy (yes, you really can have a film with less of a plot than White Christmas).

First, the gender issues. As in White Christmas, there are two women and two men. But instead of sisters, are introduced sequentially to two female entertainers, both of whom are expected to decide which of the two male leads (Crosby or Astair, the crooner or the dance man) she wishes to marry. The first woman, Lila (Virginia Dale) is the third member of Crosby and Astair's act when the show opens, performing on stage the role she has clearly slid into in real life as well: a "who will she pick?" flirt. She is engaged to Crosby, who has plans to marry her and retire to the countryside and run a farm; on the side, she and Astair have made plans to marry instead -- eloping at the last minute and heading off to a life of penthouses and entertainment glory.  The second woman, Linda (Marjorie Reynolds) is the ingénue who, in effect, takes Lila's place when Lila runs off to marry a Texas tycoon ... though Lila returns at the end so that both men have someone to marry and make the story a "happily ever after" tale.

There are some brief proto-feminist moments, such as when Linda tells Crosby off for trying to manipulate her into marrying him instead of just asking for gods' sake.  But on the whole, the women come across as accessories to the friendship of Crosby/Astair, rather than individuals in their own right -- something Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen are able to combat much more successfully in the later film, despite a similar trajectory of plot (i.e. that all healthy men of a certain age must be in want of a wife and that all "good" women are desperate to marry well).

After Crosby's venture at the simple life fails, he decides to turn his faltering farm into an inn ... an inn only open on holidays (thus giving him over three hundred days per year to rest and relax).  The two extremely unfortunate bits of the film are located at the Holiday Inn.

One is the 4th of July musical number, which devolves into mainlining propaganda for the war effort. We're talking documentary footage of air raids and everything. Ouch.

The second, much more winceingly present problem is the racism.  First noticeable in the fact that the only black people in the cast is Crosby's cook, Mamie, and her two unnamed children whom she continually orders to stay in the kitchen.

Louise Beavers as Mamie in Holiday Inn
Since watching Holiday Inn, Hanna and I re-watched White Christmas and realized anew how entirely white the cast is. And I mean no one with even a deep suntan. So on the one hand, I suppose you could argue that having an African-American woman in the cast -- even as the housekeeper (a role played by a white woman in White Christmas) -- is better than nothing?

But then there's the blackface. Which was the bit where we just kinda lost it. Why blackface, you say? Well, mostly because they needed a plot device to keep Astair from finding Marjorie Reynolds too early in the film ('cause then the plot would be totally shot) so Crosby puts her in blackface as a disguise.  And then dresses himself up in blackface too, just for good measure.

To sing about Abraham Lincoln's birthday.


It's just ... not. okay. Not even a little bit okay. And after that, the whole film starts to take on this patina of wrong that it just cannot shake. 'Cause everything trails around it this after-image of Crosby and Reynolds in blackface. And how wrong it all was.

So that's kinda the upshot of my review folks: looking for a Christmas movie? Avoid Holiday Inn. And if you really want to hear White Christmas as sung by Crosby, rent the redux version. Really. You'll thank me.


joyeux noel

Virtual Christmas 2010: Opening presents with extended family in Michigan via Skype
2010-12-25 Photograph by Hanna

Geraldine is unimpressed by the presents, except those that were mailed in the same package as her catnip!
2010-12-25 Photograph by Hanna


'twas the night before the night before Christmas

Fenway Victory Gardens (Boston, Mass.)
December 2007
It's the eve before Christmas Eve as I write this and Hanna and I are hunkered down with Geraldine for the Christmas holidays. I'm breaking my self-imposed blogging hiatus to wish you all a happy holiday season and to share with you the gracious welcome post the gals over at The Pursuit of Harpyness put up today, announcing the new members of the blogging team. In addition to the founding members Miss BeckySharper, Michelle Dean, PhDork, PIlgrimSoul, SarahMC and sarah.of.a.lesser.god, I will also be in the company of Marie Anelle and foureleven. Hooray for more bloggers to get to know and learn from in the new year!

We're looking forward to a quiet day tomorrow listening to the carols from Kings' and eating Joy the Baker's incredible sugar and spice cinnamon buns. And I'm going to head back off the internets now to read more of Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American Memory (2010) which Hanna bought for me today as a pre-Christmas present.

A warm and restful weekend for you all.


changes afoot in blogland: adventures in group blogging

Geraldine assists with wrapping gifts
photo by Hanna (2010-12-14). See ...fly over me, evil angel... for more!
As we head into the Christmas break I plan to take a couple of weeks away from blogging so that Hanna and I can have some time together sans internets. We need to focus on enjoying the vacation time we both get (many thanks for libraries that are closed between Christmas and New Years!). It's been an unexpectedly exhausting autumn for our household, due to some personal health and work/life balance issues -- issues we're working hard to address moving forward! -- and we just need some time to recoup and reconnect. Without outside distractions.

When I come back in the new year, there will be some changes here at the Future Feminist Librarian-Activist, although I'm not yet entirely sure what those changes will look like.

This is my 679th post on the Future Feminist Librarian-Activist. I've been blogging here, more or less steadily, for about three and a half years: roughly the time I've been preparing for and actually attending graduate school (my very first post, back in March of 2007, talked about my financial aid and housing decisions).  It seems somewhat appropriate, therefore, that as I transition out of being in graduate school and into professional librarianship, I pause to consider what sort of webspace I want this blog to be, and become.

 In addition, I've been offered the chance to join the team of bloggers who write over at The Pursuit of Harpyness, a feminist-oriented group blog I've been enjoying since they first started publishing back in January 2009. You'll be able to find me (and all the other marvelous bloggers!) there roughly three times a week starting after the New Year. If you don't already follow them (er ... us), I highly recommend stopping by and adding Harpyness to your blog reader of choice.

I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you, dear readers, what you'd like to see more of / less of / something entirely new in both this space and over at the group blog.  I'll be blogging at Harpyness on issues of human sexuality, sexual identities, gender identities, education, politics, economics, and life on the cultural margins. More or less the stuff I do here. But if you have any specific requests, do feel free to drop me a line at feministlibrarian [at] gmail [dot] com or leave your thoughts in comments. As they say over at tumblr, "the Ask box is open and taking questions!"

In addition to group blogging of the feminist persuasion, I may also be more actively involved in the Massachusetts Historical Society's blog, The Beehive, moving forward, as I take some of the reigns from Jeremy when leaves to begin his position at LibraryThing. We're still hammering out the details.

In other words, I'll have my cyber-hands full in the new year when it comes to creating online content. Hopefully, it'll help me curb my knack for writing impossibly long sentences!

I plan to keep you all updated, here at the FFLA, about my plans for this blog, the feminist librarian reads, and other web-based media as time goes on and life becomes a bit less (fingers crossed!) in-transition.  In the meantime, I have a personal goal of writing 1-2 original-content posts per week for the FFLA (as opposed to cross-posting from Harpyness).  And I do plan to keep up with tumblr since it's how I share those short-and-sweet internet links that are organic matter that eventually become -- or support -- all those blogs posts. Or just exist to make us smile (everyone knows, afterall, the internet is made of cats).

A very, very joyous and restful holiday season to you and yours. I won't promise them, but it's entirely possible more Christmas-themed cat pictures will make their way to this blog before the New Year.


the tattooed lady: or, more than you ever wanted to know about my first tattoo

Maggie (age 4), Anna (age 11), Brian (age 7)
Holland, Michigan, Summer 1992
I promise this is about my new tattoo (!). So bear with me here.

In 1943 prolific journalist and novelist Arthur Ransome wrote to a young friend, Pamela Whitlock in an attempt to encourage her in her own endeavors as a writer -- even as she was pulled into work for the war effort. "The training for your own private job is going on all the time," he counseled her (Signaling from Mars, 301).
Stick to it, filling your notebooks. Nothing is odder than the way in which a big slice of life, vivid at the time, fades utterly away when you escape from it into something different. It’s like coming back from a year abroad. But notes, no matter how scrappy, are like stones dropped into a pool of still water. They stir up the whole picture and bring to life all sort of other things, including things you don’t happen to have written down at the time (Signaling from Mars, 307).

Coniston Water, Cumbria (30 March 2004)
Ransome knew of what he spoke, having started his own writing career as a young university drop-out, scraping by on the salary of an office boy while trying his hand at memoir and other miscellaneous bits of writing. His Bohemia in London (1907) is something of a classic in the genre of starving artist memoirs, recounting days spent shivering in unheated flats and surviving on apples for weeks at a time so that he had enough money to buy books.  From London -- and his first, deeply unhappy, marriage -- Ransome escaped to St. Petersburg where he witnessed first-hand the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, sending back dispatches to both newspapers and family members (his mother received regular reports on his digestive health, including harrowing tales of surgery in wartime medical facilities; his small daughter received letters adorned with illustrations of papa in great fur coats) and editing a collection of Russian folktales in translation.

Eventually, he abandoned Russia -- taking with him one of Trotsky's secretaries, Evgenia Shvelpina, whom he had to smuggle out of the country through the Mediterranean. The two later married and eventually retired to Ransome's beloved Lake District in Cumbria where between 1931 and 1947 Ransome authored a series of adventure stories with child protagonists (Ransome himself always protested that he had not set out to write children's stories, but rather wrote the stories that he himself most enjoyed). Set primarily in the Lake District -- though later volumes take the cast of characters into Scotland, south to the Broads, and into the realm of half-fantasy -- each book follows the adventures of several families of children who spend their school holidays sailing, camping, and spinning out all sorts of adventure stories that weave seamlessly between fiction and reality. As Ransome observed after completing Swallows and Amazons, the introductory tale,
I was enjoying the writing of this book more than I have ever enjoyed writing any other book in my life. And I think I can put my finger on the thing in it which gave me so much pleasure. It was just this, the way in which the children in it have no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality, but slip in and out of one and the other again and again (quoted in In Search of Swallows and Amazons, Roger Wardale, 32).

Above Coniston Water on my 23rd Birthday
(30 March 2004)

While Ransome's novels have become enduring classics in Britain and, oddly enough, have a devoted following in Japan, they are known only rarely here in the United States. When my family stumbled upon them in the early 1990s, they were unknown treasures. Treasures which we readily devoured, my parents reading them to us every night before bed. Treasures that turned into extended fantasy play of our own. Lacking an island or annual holidays in the Lake District, we turned our own urban landscape into a wilderness, camping in the backyard and repurposing the (profoundly unseaworthy) hull of an abandoned rowboat in which to play captain, first mate, and "ship's girl" for hours on end. 

Suffice to say, the series, its author, and its landscape (both fictional and actual) continue to signify, for me, profound ties to my childhood and my family of origin, as well as my particular affection for the landscape (both literary and actual) of Britain.

Ransome illustrated all of his own stories with whimsical pen and ink drawings ... which is where this post finally makes its way back around to tattoos. Because when I began thinking about what sort of tattoo I was looking to acquire in celebration of my completion of library school, I knew I wanted something that was able to weave together in a particular image the part of myself that is at the fore when I am living that part of myself that sought out librarianship as a vocation. And that is the part of myself that is grounded in my childhood steeped in literature -- the part of myself that does not distinguish between reading and living, between gaining knowledge and doing. As well as the part of myself that seeks both the comfort of the familiar and domestic ... and the sharp edge of political analysis and social critique. And knowing what I know about Ransome as a person, while also relating to the novels he created very much as an ingenuous child, Swallows and Amazons offers just such a mix of the political and personal.

Amazon sails (photo by Hanna)
Work done by Ellen @ Chameleon Tattoo (Cambridge, Mass.)

It was my mother who suggested I look to AR's illustrations -- and she who finally located the illustration that became the basis for my finished tattoo. The sailboat is the Amazon, the boat belonging to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Beckfoot Farm.

We are introduced to the Amazon sisters in the first novel of the series, Swallows and Amazons, and they remain central throughout. One of the strengths of Ransome's series -- which is indubitably visited by the British imperialist fairy on occasion, not to mention the overtly racist fairy -- is his range of both male and female characters. He goes much further than his contemporary, C.S. Lewis (for example) in portraying girls who openly eschew gendered expectations -- and who are celebrated for their agency. Nancy Blackett (who has changed her name from "Ruth" to a name she feels more aptly reflects her position as pirate captain of the Amazon) abhors wearing dresses is often de facto leader of the expeditionary forces. Neither does Ransome punish boys whose idea of a good time is less conquering and more conservation: The plot of Great Northern celebrates the ethic of preserving a rare species of bird in the wild, rather than harvesting its eggs for scientific study and prowess.

I close this post with the text of a telegram that, in Swallows and Amazons begins the whole adventure. The Walker children, on holiday in the Lake District with their mother, have been anxiously awaiting word from their father (serving in the Navy) who is to weigh in on the proposition that they be allowed to camp sans adult chaperon on an island in the middle of the (unnamed) lake.  In the opening pages of the book, young Roger is racing from the house across the headland to his siblings to deliver the final word:


On the one hand you can (and I often do) read this in a fairly harsh, survival-of-the-fittist, fashion (see? I said the British-imperialist fairy came to visit!). Yet on balance I prefer to imagine that the absent Walker parent is expressing trust in his children's judgement and abilities -- something I often find is uniquely in the power of a very small set of English literary parents (see E. Nesbit's fictional parents for another example). These adults are always present -- yet rarely intrusive. They engage with their children when called upon to do so, taking their children's concerns seriously and often deferring to them as the experts of the moment.

It is this act of trust in their own children's abilities to act independent of them in the world, and not only to survive but in fact thrive while doing so, that makes the wonderful adventures of the following thirteen novels possible.

Which (coming full circle) is precisely the same trust my parents placed in us as children -- and made possible, for me, so many things that have led up to this moment.

So for all of those reasons let me say: I am very pleased with my first tattoo. And am already well on my way to envisioning a second!


changes afoot in jobland (part two): on being employed

Massachusetts Historical Society
(December 2008)
This is the promised part two of my post on being hired as the Assistant Reference Librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Being hired for a modestly-renumerated full-time professional position straight out of graduate school during a recession (one in which there has been a much-reported-on "jobless" recovery no less), and being hired for that job while surrounded by many other fellow graduates and friends who are struggling on the hellish job market was a sobering experience.

Because that's the sort of person I am. It's incredibly, incredibly painful for me to accept opportunities that come my way when those opportunities are being offered conditionally. When those opportunities are offered supposedly on merit, due to some particular alchemy of my personal character or skills; when what I am being given -- in short -- is not being given to others.

I read somewhere recently that folks on the liberal end of the spectrum tend to have personalities that are "intolerant" of inequality. I laughed when I read that, 'cause I practically break out in hives when I feel like good things are being offered to folks based on some external (and, to my mind, inherently flawed) set of expectations concerning who is deserving and who is not.

We all deserve work that is challenging and rewarding. That exercises our abilities and builds new skills. And that provides materially for us and our families.

The fact that I, currently, have at least an approximation of that -- and others, including others close to me -- do not makes it really hard to meet the future with joyful expectation.I may have mentioned in my last post Brian Hawkins' observation about being liberal in America: "Ring a bell and I'll feel guilty for weeks!"

But guilt is unproductive (thank you Tim Wise), so I've been trying to focus instead on what it means to take responsibility for being employed in this particular time and place. And here is an (unfinished, ad hoc) compilation of initial observations.
  • Wage-work is not a privilege to be grateful for, but labor we offer in exchange for material gain. While being employable in today's economy comes in part through social privilege (for more, see below), I think it's dangerous to start acting as if wage-work ipso facto is a state for which we should be grateful.  Wage-work is something we do, not something that is given to us. Yet in a recession, it's really easy to start saying to ourselves that we should be grateful to have a job -- any job -- and that those who employ us deserve our gratitude for hiring us. When we start to believe we should be grateful, we hurt not only ourselves, but also every person who feels pressured to accept and/or remain in wage-work in which they are exploited.
  • The process of being hired is not (solely) about personal qualifications. Most of us know that, despite idealistic talk about meritocracies, we live in a society in which structural inequalities exist and work (often invisibly) to position some of us to greater material advantage than others regardless of our individual abilities. Do I believe I'm qualified for the position I was hired into? Yes. Yet I am far from the only qualified person out there, and the fact I was hired hinged on a complex set of circumstances. I've had a lot of folks congratulate me on my new position with language that suggested I had "earned" the offer, that somehow through my efforts I have been rewarded with this position. I call bullshit on that because people who have valuable skills to offer the world remain un- or underemployed. Once we start talking about employment in the language of who deserves and does not deserve wage-work, whose efforts should or should not be rewarded, we're supporting a way of understanding employment and economic security in terms of those who are "deserving" and those who are "undeserving." I will not allow my personal circumstances to be employed in narratives that support that understanding.
  • All of my jobs have been "real" jobs. At least one person has suggested that now I have a "real" job ... as opposed to the "fake" wage-work I've done since I was about nine and started working as a bagger at the college bookstore? As opposed to the "fantasy" wage-work of delivering newspapers? Working retail? Providing assistance to undergraduates as a teaching assistant? To faculty as a research assistant? As opposed to the reference and processing work I've done for the past three years as a library and archival assistant? I think the words were thoughtless rather than intentionally demeaning, but the net result was to imply that all of my colleagues who continue to work part-time, non-salaried, sans benefits, under-compensated positions are somehow not "real" workers. Whose labor does not count. In a capitalist economy that relies on such marginalized sources of labor, implying such work isn't "real" is beyond insulting. And once again: not okay to be insulting to folks while invoking my name.
So my responsibilities (as I see them) as someone who has a reasonably well-respected and well-renumerated position:
  • To understand that I am granted social privilege by virtue of my position rather than through any personal awesomeness ... and do what I can to identify and name that privilege, so that it is not invisible.
  • To respect, not look down upon, those folks who are un- or underemployed; to recognize that no individuals should be reduced to their employment status, and not assume that their employment status is a result of their own personal actions/worth (or lack thereof).
  • To advocate for decent working conditions for all, including myself. To remember that critically assessing my own position as a worker and advocating for change when I believe it is warranted can be part of pushing back against inhumane working conditions more generally.
This probably isn't anything new for those who cut their political teeth in labor activism, or for those who have spent much more time than I have thinking in terms of class and economic disparity, but labor activism should not stop at the simplistic goal of employment. Rather, it needs to continue critically analyzing the place of wage-work in the economy, and the need for economic endeavors to (ultimately) cycle back to support the well-being of us all.

Put like that it sounds hopelessly idealistic. But I really, I only have this to say in response: Intellect and Romance Over Brute Force and Cynicism.


quick hit: my dad featured by the Hand Drawn Map Association

A few months ago, a colleague of mine at the Massachusetts Historical Society -- our Art Curator, Anne Bentley -- shared a story about this online database curated by the Hand Drawn Map Association. Since my dad has been drawing maps, for pleasure and profit, as long as I can remember, I forwarded the story on to him and he submitted a series of maps. It's been a while now, but the group has finally gotten around to posting some of his submissions! You can view the first one online here.

The map describes a bicycle ride he took during a visit this past fall to Stratford, Ontario.

Be sure to check out the other maps in the database, as each one of them has its own unique style and story. And I'll be sure to add links to Dad's other contributions as they go live. Long-live hand-crafted cartography!


from the archive: "queen everett"

One of the things I love about working in an archive is the serendipity: the way a search for something else entirely can lead you into a gem of a story that takes you in a whole new direction. This certainly isn't unique to the archival world -- but it's something that historians and archivists tend to start talking about together when they're in the same room long enough!

Earlier this week, while hunting down the location of a photograph we had scanned several years ago at Northeastern but failed to properly identify, I was going through a folder of images from Northeastern's annual Winter Carnival from the 1960s and 70s. Many of the photographs were of the individuals nominated for the position of Winter Carnival Queen -- sort of the spring term equivalent of a Homecoming Queen. Lots of 8 x 10 glossies of young women posed alone and in groups, in winter coats throwing snowballs, in ball gowns and (in the case of the girls who won) a sparkling tiara.

Then I came to a small yellowed clipping that featured a photograph of the five young women nominated in 1971 ... and the young man, Everett Nau, who had been crowned the Winter Carnival Queen of 1970. The brief caption to the photograph read (in part)
NAU GOOD LUCK GIRLS ... Everett Nau, last year's Winter Carnival Queen, bestows his best wishes upon this year's recently selected finalists (all girls if you'll notice). ... In this year's campaign, the judges ruled it mandatory that the contestants be of the female gender.
Well, how could I possibly leave it at that?

So I did a little digging, and here (gentle readers) is what I found out about Everett Nau (class of '71) and his reign as Winter Carnival Queen of 1970.

Nominees for Winter Queen, 1971
Linda Clare, Kathy McCarthy, Marie Petralia,
Delio Pio, and Everett Nau
(image in Northeastern's Historical Photographs digital collection)
Nau was an Education major, member of the campus ROTC, columnist for the student newspaper, self-identified as "moderate-right" in political leanings ... and also self-identified as male-gendered person.

It appears that Everett's original nomination barely caused a stir on Northeastern's campus -- most likely because the nominee himself seemed to view the event as something of a lark. The campus newspaper, Northeastern News, offered a full-page spread of photographs showcasing the five nominees on 23 January 1970 (page 5); Everett -- like all the other candidates -- is shown in a formal head-and-shoulders portrait and more informal poses.  It is in these informal shots that Everett's gender is highlighted -- whereas the women's photographs bear a resemblance to fashion photographs, Everett is pictured dressed in his ROTC uniform, rifle in hand: we are clearly meant to read him as masculine.  Yet at that moment, this masculinity did not seem to be a barrier to nomination.

And a few weeks later, it was not a barrier to being crowned Winter Carnival Queen.

Once he'd actually been crowned, "Queen Everett" became a bit of an overnight sensation, the Northeastern News reported (13 February 1970).  He was interviewed by newspapers and radio shows nationwide and appearing in news stories as far away as Paris. The 6' 5" newlywed (as the newspaper described him) was invited to appear on a game show called To Tell the Truth in which a panel of four celebrities were challenged to identify the true "Queen Everett" among a group of three men (the real Everett and two imposters).

While Nau's gender was seen as something of an oddity in the context of the Winter Carnival Queen competition, what is striking to a modern-day reader of the newspaper coverage is that his nomination and crowning were not portrayed at the time as any sort of deliberate attempt to disrupt conventional gender roles. Nau's gender or sexuality is not questioned, and it is only in the aftermath that male candidates are ruled ineligible.

I've been unable thus far to find any record of why the post-facto changes in the competition rules were made; I'd be really interested to know who felt Nau's presence was a threat and why. In the midst of a turbulent year of student protests, women's liberation, antiwar activism and other upheavals, Nau was hardly positioning himself as a radical -- his column for the student paper regularly admonished his fellow students for their disruptive activities (and, as I said, self-identified as "moderate-right" in his politics).  This was not some gender-bending longhair out to mock the system.  Which makes makes me that much more inclined to believe that the subsequent rule changes had much more to do with peoples' underlying discomfort with cross-gender categorization than Nau as some sort of radical.

Amazing what lengths we will go to preserve the binary gender system.


booknotes: beyond (straight and gay) marriage

This booknote is part two of Saturday's booknote, which discussed a book called Red Families v. Blue Families. Click through to the first one if you want a bit of context for what I write below.

Red Families, by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone discussed the changing demographic landscape in America through the context of changes in family formation and related those changes to the legal and political landscape. They then laid out what they believed to be a way forward: a path which combines (or attempts to strike a balance between) the values of "red families" and "blue families." See my review of that book to learn what I found unsatisfactory about their solutions.

Nancy Polikoff's Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008) similarly tackles the question of the changing socioeconomic and cultural landscape of family formation in the United States and details the way in which our network of legal and social policy has failed to re-form in response, leaving us with laws and policies that fail to address the needs of all of the nation's families.

The keyword here is "all." The key phrase is "valuing all families." Polikoff argues that by continuing to privilege married couples and their blood (and adopted) dependents/kin, the law discriminates against all family forms (straight as well as queer) which do not revolve around marriage. While she acknowledges the importances of marriage equality as a civil rights issue (all consenting adults should, by right, have access to marriage as a social institution), she points out that even if marriage were equally available to straight and same-sex couples, many types of families would continue to be excluded from accessing the economic and legal benefits currently provided to citizens exclusively or primarily through the apparatus of marriage. Polikoff argues for replacing the marriage-as-gateway model with a system that would
  1. Separate marriage from the myriad economic and legal benefits and rights to which it now controls access. Marriage would continue to be an option, one which -- if chosen -- would trigger a cascade of economic and legal benefits for the family members which the marriage recognizes (much like it does today). However it would cease to be the sole method for obtaining those economic and legal benefits. "Marriage is not a choice," she writes, "if it's the only way to achieve economic well-being and peace of mind" (133).
  2. Provide robust legal alternatives to marriage for all family forms, not just those organized around sexually-intimate couples. These alternatives would allow families to establish legally-recognized interdependent relationships that would give them access to the important resources and rights which our society currently only provides to married couples and their dependents.
Polikoff describes in detail the types of rights and benefits now associated exclusively with marriage. By my reading, these rights and benefits fall roughly into two categories.
  • Recognition of economic interdependency through tax benefits, social security benefits and access to health insurance and other work-related compensation benefits currently extended (with few exceptions) only to married couples and their dependents
  • Recognition of the unpaid care that families provide one another through nurturing dependents and intimate partners, providing material support when family members are ill or otherwise temporarily (or permanently) disabled, and the need to protect family members' ability to provide that care when necessary -- for example through family leave at a place of employment, or the ability to make healthcare decisions for an incapacitated family member.
When taken together, these two clusters of legal rights and benefits work to support family structures in the valuable work they do to counterbalance the vulnerability of individuals as they move through their lives: families act materially and emotively to protect members from potential suffering due to job loss, physical or mental ill-health, emotional loss, and ease the stress of major and minor life transitions.

To the extent that families provide these forms of care, it is in the interest of the state to support their activities because if families were not there to care for individuals, the economic and social burden would fall to the community as a whole (taxpayers) as represented by the state and social service agencies. Thus, it is not only a matter of social values, but also in the state's economic and political interest to support (value) all family forms that fulfill these functions for their members, regardless of what shape these familie units take.

Which brings me back to the way in which Polikoff's "valuing all families" approach ultimately serves us so much better than the policy solutions put forward by Cahn and Carbone in Red Families v. Blue Families.  Polikoff steps outside of the constraints imposed by assuming that families will form around a sexually-intimate dyad, including those pairings in her vision but not excluding all of those who do not fit within its bounds. She doesn't enumerate the specific kinds of families that would count within this vision -- leaving it up to us to imagine the myriad possibilities.

Which is precisely the point: when we stop playing gatekeeper -- when we stop judging certain types of family formation over others -- we can begin to truly value the work that family members do. We can begin to value (through law) the roles and actions rather than the naming who can and cannot fulfill those roles. Rather than seeking families with a "mother," a "father" and "children," for example, we can start thinking in terms of "adult interdependent relationships," (with two or more individuals involved) in terms of "caregivers" (those caring for dependents) and "dependents" (children, those made temporarily dependent through illness or disability). And we can begin to formulate family policies that support the work that these relationships do in promoting health and wellness for all beings.

I'll end this (somewhat rambling) review with a quotation from early in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. It is a definition of "family" written in 1973 by the American Home Economics Association.


By the American Home Economics Association.

I want you to think about these two things while you read the definition.
[A family is] two or more people who share resources, share responsibility for decisions, share values and goals, and have commitments to one another over time. The family is that climate that one "comes home to" and it is this network of sharing and commitments that most accurately describes the family unit, regardless of blood, legal ties, adoption or marriage (33).
I hope that this is the understanding of family that as a society we will eventually realize serves all of us best.


booknotes: nonviolence

Mark Kurlansky's book, Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (New York: Modern Library, 2006) does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the idea and/or practice of nonviolence.  Instead, it should be approached as an invitation to consider the myriad ways nonviolence, in theory and praxis, has manifested itself in different times and places around the globe.  Kurlanksy's emphasis here, in terms of examples, is on U.S. history, though he includes a healthy smattering of other continents represented (for example nonviolent resistence to European colonialism in Oceania, medieval European monastics, and Ghandi's well-known campaign in India). For those interested in a more in-depth analysis of any one of the particular cases he cites, a fairly healthy eight-page bibliography of sources is included that can be a departure point for further reading.

What Nonviolence really is, more than an scholarly historical analysis, is a well-written, historically-supported argument for the effectiveness of nonviolence as a political strategy -- one that has a better track record than violence as a way of improving the human condition. And taken as such, I think it is worthy of note.

I should acknowledge up-front here that Kurlanksy is preaching to the converted here: while I am not a wholehearted pacifist in practice ("pacifism" being distinct from the strategy of nonviolence, as discussed below), I am already convinced of the necessity of pursuing nonviolent pathways to social and political change. In my mind, there are no "just" wars. And I believe violence always begats more violence. So I'm an easy sell, as it were.

That being said, I think Kurlansky brings up a number of interesting points about nonviolence that should provoke us to thoughtfulness, regardless of personal stance concerning the practicality of nonviolent action in a world saturated with violence.

Kurlanksy's first point is that there is no word for the concept of nonviolence -- we can only speak of it by referrring to what it is not: it is not violenceHe suggests that the explanation for this absence might be found in the fact that established political, cultural and intellectual communities "have viewed nonviolence as a marginal point of view, a fanciful rejection of one of society's key componants, a repudiation of something important but not a serious force in itself" (5).  This linguistic marginalization, he argues, signifies a cognitive marginalization, a resistence to accepting the concept and practice of nonviolence because it requires a profound reorientation toward the world. It is a "truly revolutionary" idea, a "threat to the established order," and thus treated as "profoundly dangerous."

Why is it a threat to the established order? Because nonviolence is effective as a political strategy and offers an alternative to violence. In contrast to pacifism, which is a personal orientation toward life -- an individual "state of mind" that does not necessarily translate into political or social action, nonviolence is an explicitly political orientation.
The central belief [of nonviolence] is that forms of persusasion that do not use physical force, do not cause suffering, are more effective, and while there is often a moral argument for nonviolence, the core of the belief is political: that nonviolence is more effective than violence, that violence does not work (7).
The rest of the book offers examples -- from the American Revolution to the Jewish Holocaust -- in which nonviolent action was more successful than violent action in resolving the situation that as a culture we assert war was necessary to resolve.  For example,
The Nazis are often cited as an example of an enemy against whom nonviolence would be futile. This is said despite the success of several nonviolent campaigns. Amid some of the greatest violence the world has ever seen, it was little noted that more Jews were saved by nonviolence than violence (133).
He gives the example of Denmark, a government and citizenry which -- through comprehensive, cooperative nonviolent action -- that succeeded in saving all but fifty-one of its Jewish citizens (who died of sickness while being held by the Germans while Denmark negotiated for their release). In contrast, France lost 26% of their Jews, the Netherlands three-quarters and in Poland 90% -- despite the fact that all three nations had a very active (and armed) resistence movement.

This example can obviously be interrogated, as can all of the others Kurlansky uses. But the point remains that nonviolent tactics have, historically, proved to be effectual -- and we could perhaps learn from past success as well as failure.

Why, then, do we so often ignore, dismiss, scoff at, and otherwise marginalize the potential of nonviolence? Kurlanksy argues that much of the blame lies with the state (and those who represent the state), and with the fact that war -- once begun -- develops a momentum of its own that, popular or not, is extremely difficult to reverse.  We have also learned to accept the (perhaps false) assertion that there are times when violence is our only recourse, when violence is the only path to lasting peace, and the seldom-challenged notion that without violence we would be less safe, less free, less alive, somehow indefinably less than we are when violence is present. (For another sustained psycho-cultural exploration of violence and war as a way human beings make meaning for themselves, see Chris Hedges' War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning )

Kurlanksy asserts that it is war and violence, not an unwillingness to resort to war and violence, which make us less free, less safe, less alive than we would otherwise be.  It is lack of imagination, lack of a willingness to imagine a world without violence -- an unwillingness to imagine the wars we have endured were unnecessary and may even have made the situation worse than it otherwise would have been that are roadblocks to seeking alternative, nonviolent solutions.

For anyone who's familiar with theories of personal trauma and recovery, this cycle of violence is going to sound familiar: you suffer the trauma of X and it is very, very difficult not to rationalize X as an experience that made you stronger, made you a better person. It can be horrifying, crippling, to even imagine that if not for experience X you would be more whole as a human being.  Kurlansky's theory of the marginalization of nonviolence is, more or less, this personal rationalization of trauma writ large: we experience war (trauma) and seek to rationalize it because to acknowledge war serves no constructive purpose is so horrifying to concieve of that it is literally beyond language, beyond our collective imagining. Instead, we justify it as fundamental to human existence, and therefore inevitable and necessary, and therefore a part of the human condition in which we must find value.

Which, I think, is part of the reason I'm so fascinated by it. By the practice of nonviolence. Precisely because so many of us, so often, imagine it is beyond the realm of possibility. I spend much of my time studying (historically, culturally) the lives of people who live and work and think in ways that -- to the majority -- are literally outside of the possible. That are understood to be incompatible with a meaningful (or in some cases literal!) existence.  And yet, somehow, these folks persist in existing.

Reading a book like this is like having someone throw down a gauntlet: You think war is the only solution? Prove to me you've exhausted every other possibility. No, more than that: prove to me that violence will facilitate better outcomes than taking any other action or no action at all. Unless you can prove that to me, I'm not interested in hearing how nonviolence is fanciful, impractical, idealistic. Because war kills people. Violence harms people. And perhaps the most compelling (and revolutionary) idea of them all: violence doesn't work. 

You disagree? Prove it. Until then? I'm not interested.

multimedia monday: "doesn't this mean we join the league of ordinary nations?"

Yesterday, as post-semester reading, I picked up Mark Kurlansky's brief little monograph Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (yes, I know, I'm a political nerd ... what can I say?). I've had the book lying around since 2008 but what with one thing and another never got around to reading much passed the introduction, which was written by the His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

A booknote is forthcoming tomorrow on Nonviolence itself, but for now -- as a sort of audio-visual introduction to the topic -- I wanted to share two clips from my Favorite Television Show of All Time, The West Wing, episode 3.23, "Posse Comitatus." Because as I was reading Nonviolence -- particularly the portions describing the way in which violence consolidates and corrupts nation-states -- this episode was what I kept thinking of as a pitch-perfect illustration of that corruption in action.

For those of you who don't know the series, "Posse Comitatus" is the final episode in Season 3, and one in which the President Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) makes a decision to use his power as the U.S. President to do something illegal on an international scale: assassinate (and cover up the assassination) a defense minister/war criminal from a fictional Middle Eastern nation called Qumar. In the scene below, Bartlet has waited until the final possible moment to make the decision. His hawkish Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer), wants him to authorize the assassination, arguing that the defense minister will never come to trial and if he is not killed now, he will only cause more suffering. Bartlet is reluctant, arguing that if they resort to covert violence, "doesn't this mean we join the league of ordinary nations?"

Note: This clip is actually much longer than that conversation, which begins about 4:15 in. If you want to relive the trauma of watching Mark Harmon be gunned down and C. J. get pulled out of the theater in order to be given the news, then by all means watch from the beginning. It's a beautiful piece of television.

And then, comes the final scene, in which the actual assassination is shown interleaved with shots of the President watching a play called "The Wars of the Roses." The lyrics of the chorus are, in part, "and victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace." Which is, of course, the central lie of all military campaigns.

So let that set the stage for tomorrow's review of Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea.


booknotes: red families v. blue families

I read two books this past week on the intersection of family law, the conservative/liberal political divide, and quality of life in this country. One was the recently-released Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, co-authored by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).  The other was a slightly older, but no less relevent, book by Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008). Reading them in quick succession, I naturally saw connections between the two arguments as well as the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. I initially thought I'd do a joint review, but found I had too much to say (cough cough) ... so here is part one, with a follow-up scheduled for next Wednesday.

For part two (Politkoff) click here.

Politkoff, Cahn and Carbone all begin with the same basic premise. That is the demographic fact that, over the past fifty years or so, the way Americans interdependent relationships has changed dramatically. The reasons for this can be attributed to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors, but no matter the reasons why it is happening, the end result is that the system of laws and public policies that in the past served to support those relationships are no longer effectively doing the job they were meant to do. 

Both books also come to an essentially liberal-moderate conclusion, with Polikoff trending in a slightly more liberal-radical direction and Cahn/Carbone attempting some sort of "middle" ground. Possibly because I am at heart a radical in my thinking (read: I'm most satisfied with solutions that get at the root of inequality, rather than attempt cosmetic changes to a broken system; I'm skeptical of compromise with folks who refuse to recognize a common humanity), I found Polikoff's proposals much more compelling than those made by Cahn/Carbone, although I do think both books are worth reading -- or at least skimming! -- if you are involved on any level with activism or scholarship around the place of family and human relationships under the law.

I'll begin with Red Families v. Blue Families. Authors Cahn and Carbone, both legal scholars, attempt to describe the reoganization of families structures in terms of the "red state" and "blue state" divide. That is, they connect conservative (red) political values with one set of beliefs and practices related to family formation and liberal (blue) political values with another set of beliefs and practices.  Using demographic statistics (such as number of births to teenage and unwed mothers, divorce rates, contraceptive use and abortion rates), they attempt to make connections between the types of family practices in conservative areas vs. liberal areas and the beliefs held in those areas concerning public policy and family law (i.e. divorce and custody law, access to birth control and abortion, marriage incentives and marriage equality).

The strength of this book is in the way Cahn and Carbone describe the socioeconomic pressures that have effected the rapid change in family-formation patterns. To oversimplify dramatically, the shift from an industrial economy to a social services and knowledge economy has increased the need for human capital (higher education, training, etc.) which the "blue" families have adapted to by delaying marriage and, in particular, child-bearing and rearing until after advanced education and establishing their careers. They "combine public tolerance with private discipline" when it comes to sexual activities, pushing (for example) to destigmatize sexually-active teenagers while ensuring access to contraception and counseling their own children to delay sexual activity. Meanwhile,  "red" families are materially challenged by the changing economy just as their blue counterparts. However, they have responded in moral rather than practical terms, redoubling their efforts to tie sexuality to marriage. This, the authors argue, often leaves them at an educational economic disadvantage (unless the wage-worker husband is in a high enough income bracket to support his family, a situation which is possible for fewer and fewer families nation-wide).

Red Families is at its strongest when showing the disconnect between conservative policy positions concerning issues like marriage, contraception and abortion and the damaging real-life effect of such policies when put into practice. In the chapters on abortion and contraception, for example, the authors show how conservative family policies usually work to disadvantage the economically marginal (teenagers, the poor, non-white families) by making the tools to manage their sexual health and childbearing unaffordable or otherwise inaccessible.  This is nothing new to those of us who follow the work of reproductive justice activists and feminist activists, but nevertheless I'm heartened to see it articulated in the context of a book on public policy. Likewise, the final chapter on "retooling the foundation" of our post-industrial economy to recognize the fact that workers are also family members is a useful starting point for thinking about how we might implement new (public and private) policies to support both types of families as they seek to integrate work and relationship obligations.

Yet ultimately, I found Cahn and Carbone's argument about the geographic breakdown of family patterns overly simplistic and their solutions problematic.  Here are a few reasons:

1) As someone who grew up in a "red" area of the country (Michigan as a state swings Democrat in national elections, but the West Michigan county where I lived, and many of those around it, swing consistently Republican) I am troubled by the assertion that Americans are organizing themselves geographically along political lines, and that because of this a federated, localized approach to family policy is acceptable. Family law issues often intersect with human and civil rights issues, for example women's access to reproductive health care and the right of queer couples to the same marriage rights as straight couples. These are basic citizenship rights not rights that should be determined by local norms. Beyond that basic philosophical issue, there are three practical issues with a localized approach:
  • When the approach is local, the most vulnerable will continue to suffer. Why? Because the economically and socially marginal are the least mobile citizens: the poor, the young, those without supportive family and friendship networks. In short, the folks who are already unable to access the resources available under the current system to establish economically secure families. They are the ones who won't be able to relocate to a more queer-friendly region, won't be able to cross state lines to secure an abortion or contraception, and will be the least likely to challenge discriminatory practices through the courts or political system.
  • Cahn and Cohen overemphasize regional homogeneity. If basic rights around family formation and support are determined locally, what happens to those who are in the political and social minority in any given region? To be sure, there are "blue" families in even the most crimson areas in this country. Not all of them can, want (or should have to) relocate to more colbolt areas in order to live the family lives of their choosing. This is the de facto situation for many of us now and it is not satisfactory.
  • This is an increasingly mobile population. Our economy increasingly depends on mobility, not to mention that our culture encourages travel and relocation over the course of our lives. If the rules governing family life become more regionalized over time, then the issues already faced by same-sex couples will extend to more and more families: what happens when certain relationships are recognized in one region and then a family moves (say due to a professional or educational opportunity) to a region where their family is no longer recognized or supported?
2) Cahn and Carbone fail to question the assumption that marriage between two adults as the basis for family formation is an ideal that should be encouraged. They see this as a point of common ground between "red" and "blue" families, an premise that I believe to be unhelpful in terms of constructing useful solutions that better the lives of all people, regardless of their desire to enter into marriage relationships as a gateway to family formation. (For more on this idea, see part two of this review.)

3) Following from this preference for marriage, Cahn and Carbone decidedly do not believe that all avenues toward family formation, or types of families formed, are equal. While willing to extend the practice of marriage to adult pairs, regardless of sex or gender, they ignore the needs of many families that do not fit this slightly-tweaked version of the old two-parents-plus-children family ideal. For example
  • Young parents. Following from their preference for "blue family" strategies, Cahn and Carbone are critical of those who choose to marry and have children at young ages. They see nothing wrong with discouraging teenagers and young adults from marrying and forming families. In support of this argument, they cite the statistical likelihood that such "young" marriages will fail and that children born within those families (or to young mothers) are more likely to be economically and educationally disadvantaged.  Alternatively, they could argue for greater social and cultural support for young people who choose to form families and bear children. The fact that they disparage those who do so is ageism and really set my teeth on edge.
  • Non-dyadic family units. Um, where are the poly relationships? The family groups not formed around sexual relationships and/or childrearing? I was really frustrated by the way Cahn and Carbone failed to address the needs of families that don't fit into this model. I realize that these families are a political hot potato when it comes to seeking compromise across the political divide -- poly relationships are routinely marginalized in arguments for gay marriage (how often have you heard "two consenting adults" as a catchphrase?) because, I assume, the left wants to dissassociate from discussions of polygamy. But this is not a valid excuse when we're talking about the need to recognize the social value of all committed, consensual, mutually-sustaining relationships.
  • Following on from this last point, family formation =/= childrearing.  Belonging, as I do, to a family that will likely not include children, I was particularly aware of the way in which Cahn and Carbone repeatedly used phrases like "family formation" and "starting a family" to mean "having a baby" (either through adoption or birth).  This is an erasure of any family of two or more people that does not include, either by accident or design, providing for children. It's terminology that's simple to fix and the fact that the authors chose not to, or didn't realize the implications of their wording, bothered me.
So what's the work-around for these problems? Stay tuned for the next installment, where I'll discuss the far more satisfactory Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, in which author Nancy Polikoff descibes how our legal system could retool family law to accommodate the full range of interdependent relationships we form, decoupling marriage (which would remain a religious and cultural marker of commitment) from legal and economic rights.


... 28 days later

As this post goes live, I will be executing my final presentation for my final class in fulfillment of the requirements for the Master's in Library Science degree offered by Simmons Graduate School of Information and Library Science (GSLIS). It's been an ... interesting ride.

by dalekhugger
You can check out all the stuff I've written about Simmons over the years on this blog by checking out all the posts tagged simmons (imaginative, I know). Don't think I have a lot more to say at the moment.

Over the next few weeks, look for updates concerning my history thesis, my new job, and (most important!) my celebratory tattoo, chosen as a way to commemorate my entrance into the community of professional librarians (whom I hear are all about tattoos these days; I look on it as a professional investment).

Meanwhile, Hanna and I plan to meet up with fellow class member Gabrielle tomorrow night at M. J. O'Connor's for some delicious boxty wedges, fish & chips, and a couple of drinks to toast what, I hope, will be the end-for-a-long-while of my tenure as a formal student.*

*I realise my thesis revision technically counts as part of my academic requirements, but frankly it's on a whole different plane from coursework. The busywork is over and that's what matter.


changes afoot in jobland (part one): ms. assistant reference librarian

Anna on her first day as a volunteer
circa Fall 1993
Long ago, when I was twelve -- almost eighteen years to be exact! -- I became the youngest volunteer docent (tour guide) at my hometown's Cappon House Museum.

Yes, braces, bangs and all.

The Cappon House is the historic home of Holland, Michigan's first mayor, Isaac Cappon, his first and second wives, and their sixteen children (when I was twelve I loved the bit about the children; today I still do, though for slightly different reasons -- lessons in birth control anyone??).  Over the next few years I gave countless tours to senior citizens groups, schoolchildren, and tourists, eventually expanding my responsibilities to include duties at the Holland Museum as well.  By my mid teens I was torn between the childhood desire to become a bookshop owner and novelist or my newfound passion for the field of museum studies and history.

Luckily, I've found a way to combine these vocational yearnings of mine: reference librarianship in the world of rare books and manuscript collections.  Most of you are aware that since shortly after moving to Boston in August of 2007 I have worked as part of the Library Reader Services Staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society, an independent research library and (our docents like to inform our visitors) the oldest historical society in the Western Hemisphere, founded in 1791.

For the past three years I've worked part-time as a Library Assistant, though my pre-professional status has hardly kept my colleagues from embracing me as part of the team.They've been a wonderful group of folks to work with and have contributed to my education as a library student and historian as much as, if not more than, my formal studies.

As of January 1st, the departure of one of those colleagues for a new position at LibraryThing.com is leaving a full-time Assistant Reference Librarian position open which I have been invited to fill. I'm excited to be taking on new responsibilities as well as (hopefully) finding a bit of time to continue developing my knowledge of the collections through the lens of my own particular scholarly interests -- watch for a new "object of the month" post in February on the intersection of antifeminism, the red scare, and religion during the 1920s.

Anna and sister Maggie
circa Spring 1995
Running the risk of sounding like Brian Hawkins in Tales of the City ("Ring a bell and I'll feel guilty for weeks!"), unexpectedly finding myself offered full-time employment in this economy -- when I'd been steeling myself for a long, grueling job search this coming year -- leaves me with complicated feelings.  I'm relieved about the financial security, obviously, and excited about the work I'll be doing. At the same time, I'm acutely aware that many folks with similar resumes and educational background are not in such a privileged position, including many of my fellow graduates from the History/Archives program at Simmons. And I'm not comfortable assuming or accepting that the opportunity I've been offered is somehow a one-to-one correlation with my personal accomplishments and abilities. Not that I believe I'm unqualified for the job -- I just know many people who are qualified for useful and interesting work are struggling to find it. So look for a "part two" to this blog post in the near future, with some musings about what it means (to me) to be hired during a recession.

In the meantime, long live librarians: the recognized and the unrecognized, the well-rewarded and the under- or unemployed. I am proud to count myself among your number.

a word about words, unschooling edition

After a discussion with Hanna last night about unschooling vs. homeschooling vs. home-based education (as vocabulary choices and as philosophies), I wanted to clarify a couple of things re: word choice in my blog posts about nontraditional learning.

We were talking about the language I used in my recently-published interview as a "grown unschooler."

In my life, I tend to use all three of these terms (and variations thereof) to talk about myself and my life experience. As a child, I used "homeschooling" because that was predominantly what my parents used. As a teenager I discovered "unschooling" as a term to differentiate more child-directed forms of homeschooling from those which sought to replicate school-at-home (this usage dates back to the 1970s), and found it more usefully described my particular experience of homeschooling -- particularly as a way to distinguish myself from the majority of homeschooled teenagers in my area who were politically, socially, and pedagogically conservative.

More recently, since I've been doing scholarly reading and writing on the subject of education, learning, schooling, and pedagogy, I've become more varied and more deliberate in my choice of words to describe learning and teaching experiences. In my academic writing, I tend to use the word "school" to mean formal, institution-based educational experiences specifically -- while "education" means learning and teaching experiences in a broader sense. Learning, of course, can take place even when deliberately-planned educative environments and/or experiences are absent. But home-based education is, usually, planned. Even if to the extent that parents have chosen to allow their children to grow outside of the default option which, in our culture, is formal schooling (public or private).

"Unschooling." It's an unsatisfactory word to me for a couple of reasons. One is the prefix "un" which right away gets us into negative territory. Instead of being for something (home-based education; learner-directed education) we're defining ourselves against something (institutional school). The second, related, issue is that it still frames learning as something to do with school -- even if set up as school's opposite.

In fact, I think -- and I imagine most self-identified unschoolers would agree -- that learning and education are much, much bigger than mere school or its opposite. Learning can take place in, but is not bound by, formal schooling or deliberate educational activities. So these days, I try to move away from "school" terms as much as possible when I describe my own learning background pre-college.

At the same time, I continue to use all of these words, depending on the audience, the context, and the topic. I'm happy to accept the label "unschooler" when it allows me to talk about my experience outside of school; I'll use "homeschool" or "home-based education" when that seems like the most useful choice. At the end of the day, I believe words are what we make of them -- words are tools -- and the more and the more varied the words we have at our disposal to describe our experience (and, most importantly, the more willing we are to be flexible in our language use) the better-equipped I think we are to articulate our being-in-the-world in all its myriad permutations.


"negotiation and compromise": reflections on my childhood outside of school

It seems fitting, in this last week of formal coursework in pursuit of my Master's in Library Science, that I take some time out to reflect on a very different experience: that of growing up for the first seventeen years of my life outside of formal institutions of schooling. Those of you who follow my blog probably know that cultures of schooling, education, and learning are a topic of scholarly and personal concern to me. As I wrote on Saturday, Idzie @ I'm Unschooled. Yes I Can Write is running a series of interviews with grown unschoolers about their experience learning outside of school. I took some time out from wrapping up my coursework last week (read: spent time procrastinating like it was going out of style!) to respond to her questions. And yesterday Idzie published my responses.

Glen Nevis, West Highlands, Scotland (May 2004)
Since I thought many of my readers would be interested in my responses, I'm cross-posting what I wrote here. But if you enjoy what you read, do check out Idzie's blog since she publishes lots of awesome stuff -- and promises an ongoing series of similar interviews.

The Basics

When did you become an unschooler?
birth (1981) and/or first year I was school age (1987)

How long have you/did you unschool?
Difficult question! I still think of myself as practicing the values of unschooling, even though I have had interactions with formal education and its institutions. I did not attend grade or secondary school at all (though my siblings did to varying degrees). I began taking courses at the college where my father worked when I was seventeen and continued there part time through 2005; until 2002 I was not a degree-seeking student, though I did take the courses for credit. During the seven years I pursued undergraduate coursework, I did lots of other things too, like work and travel. Since completing my B.A. I've moved on to graduate school (more below). However, I still feel very much an unschooler at heart.

How old are you now?
29, nearly 30.

The Decision to Unschool

If your parents chose unschooling, do you know how/why they made that decision?
My mother was, I think, the initiator of home-based education, since she was the primary at-home parent and also very interested in child development and early childhood education. She always preferred non-interventionist approaches, and when it came time to think about schooling for us kids she felt we were doing really well in our current environment -- and that the schooling opportunities in our area were too conventional for our family's needs. My father was completely on board with it, even though he usually took a back seat with the home-life arranging, given he was the parent with a full-time job.

My parents are not categorically opposed to working with formal institutions of learning. My father works at Hope College (where I eventually attended classes) and my siblings both expressed a desire to do some measure of formal schooling during their teen years. My brother attended some courses at the local public school, although he never enrolled as a degree-seeking student, and my sister went full-time to public high school. But the focus throughout was what worked best for our family as a whole and for each of us kids individually.

The Best and Worst

What do you think the best thing about unschooling is?
Speaking from the point of view of a unschooled child (rather than an unschooling parent), I would say that the experience of unschooling helped me to remain confident in myself: confident that I had the ability to learn new ideas and skills when I need them, confident I could find meaningful ways to occupy myself without a strict schedule, confident that I could navigate the world and find help when I needed it from people with particular expertise, or whom I had caring relationships with.

The worldview of unschoolers draws (in my opinion) on a specific understanding of human nature that is at odds with the beliefs of the dominant culture. In order to really practice unschooling, you have to trust in the human being to be interested in the world, to seek situations (physical, social, intellectual) in which that being will thrive in community with other beings. You have to trust that the being themselves -- not external authorities -- are the best source of information about what the being needs to thrive. Not to say that external feedback and expertise isn't helpful -- it's often crucial. But at the end of the day, the individual themselves is the best authority on, well, themselves. And on what they need to feel nourished.

In society as a whole, children aren't trusted to have that kind of knowledge about themselves. In part because children do often think and communicate in different ways than adults, given their stage of development, so children's self-knowledge is often difficult for adults to access. But it's there if we know how and where to look! And unschooling teaches us to cultivate that awareness in ourselves and others.

What do you think the worst (or most difficult) thing about unschooling is?
The most stressful thing about practicing unschooling in our culture is that it really is fundamentally counter-cultural. It challenges many of the hidden assumptions of our society about human nature, the nature of children, the purpose of education, the meaning of the "good life," and so forth. I, personally, think people who unschool are on a much healthier track (by and large) than people who do not, because of their values and their orientation toward the world and the rest of humanity. But there's definitely a cultural dissonance between the life we wish to lead as unschoolers, and the world in which we have to carve a space for ourselves beyond our families. It requires constant negotiation and compromise.

Beyond High School

Did you decide to go/are you going to college or university? If so, could you talk a bit about that experience?
I did go to college, both undergraduate and (currently) a graduate program. It's always difficult to talk "a bit" about the experience, since my interest as an historian in counter-cultural education means I spent a lot of my waking moments thinking about the culture of institutional schooling, of teaching and learning, and about how "education" is framed in our contemporary cultural debates.

Casting my mind back to age seventeen, when I enrolled in my first college course -- a first-year writing course -- I remember how thrilling it was to be engaged in writing and thinking about ideas. At that point I wanted to be a creative writer and developed an enormous crush on my professor, a poet and photographer who had that rare ability to read one's writing and discern what you meant to say, even if your early drafts were hopelessly muddled. At the same time, I felt like a foreign exchange student, struggling to assimilate to the academic culture that was invisible to most of my classmates. I cold be exhausting and isolating. The fact I was a politically and culturally progressive-radical student on a campus dominated by politically and culturally conservative students didn't help to bridge the gap between me and conventionally-schooled peers. Nor did the fact I was a part-time, commuter student on a campus dominated by full-time, resident students.

I did not struggle with the coursework much at all. In the early years, I took courses that interested me without a thought toward graduation. Later on, when I was fulfilling requirements, I did take classes that were in subjects not of my instinctive interest (I wept through a one-month class in statistics, for example) ... but by conventional measures (i.e., grades) I succeeded in conventional education despite my lack of formal training up to that point. And undergraduate college unquestionably opened doors for me -- intellectually, socially, geographically -- that might have been more difficult to open otherwise. I had access to off-campus programs and study abroad opportunities; I had faculty-student research opportunities and professors who I connected with and library resources, etc. The same can be said, to some extent, for my graduate work. The classes themselves have often been frustrating, inefficient, etc. But given the organization of our culture's learning resources at institutions of education, it's difficult to piece together a similar experience without being an enrolled student.

Difficult, but not impossible.

I never completely made peace with the structured nature of academic semesters, graded projects, competitive learning, being judged by external rather than internal expectations. It stressed me out on a pretty deep level; makes me feel like I'm complicit in a system that rewards some at the expense of the rest. which is something I have problems with, even if (especially if??) I'm one of those who gets rewarded. It's complicated. I'm definitely looking forward to being done with formal academics for a while after I complete my current program (a dual-degree in library science and history).

Money Earning and Work

Are you currently earning money in any way?

What jobs/ways of earning money do you, and have you, had?
Oh, gosh. I've been earning money since I was about nine. I started working seasonally for my father at the college bookstore he manages for pocket money and stayed there on and off throughout college. I also worked at a local children's bookstore and a branch of Barnes & Noble. I did childcare as a teenager and worked one year as a nanny. I've served as teaching and research assistants for a number of college faculty. I spent a semester working as an office assistant for a study abroad program. I've also done a number of work-for-food-and-lodging type situations, sometimes in combination with other paid work and sometimes for short stints alone ... like the month I spent at a women's land trust in Missouri the summer after graduating from college.

When I moved to Boston, I was hired as a library assistant at the Massachusetts Historical Society, an independent research library in Boston that holds rare books and manuscript materials. It's a wonderful way of being connected to a scholarly community without being tied to a college or university setting. For the past three years, I've worked there part time along with other part-time employment (in the field) and internships. I was just recently offered a promotion to full-time with enough wages and benefits to support remaining in Boston for the next few years, as my partner and I would like to do. It pays modestly well, and is definitely the type of work I was hoping to find when I began graduate school in library science.

Have you found work that's fulfilling and enjoyable?
I won't pretend that my partner and I don't struggle with the question of balancing the need to earn wages to support ourselves in the short and long term. My partner, who also learned outside of school for much of her life (until going to public high school) resists, as do I, a culture that equates paid employment with identity and fulfillment. On the one hand, I do believe in seeking out ways to earn a living doing what you love ... but I also resist creating a situation in which my life is defined by the work I do, or dictated by it. So that's an ongoing balancing act. Even without children to care for, I find myself more and more appalled at how little flexibility our modern workplaces have for the rhythms of personal and family life.

Have you found that unschooling has had an impact on how hard or easy it is to get jobs or earn money?
This is a tricky question. I was very privileged in that I had a chance to work in the "family business" as a child and teenager prior to getting other jobs. Not being in school meant, too, that I could work in positions that school schedules could not accommodate easily, and gain really good work experience even before I started college. I had extensive volunteer experience, too, that filled out my resume. Another privilege was the fact that my father's job at the college meant I got tuition benefits and could take classes without applying for a degree. By the time I petitioned to be a degree-seeking student I had a strong enough academic record they waived the requirements of national test scores or a high school diploma (a stumbling block for some unschoolers seeking to enter higher education). I have not felt limited by my lack of formal schooling pre-college. I do wish, sometimes, I had been braver about seeking alternatives to college and post-graduate schooling. I was tired of the effort it takes to forge the nonconventional path. And there are days when I'm not proud of that.

Do you feel that unschooling has had an impact on what methods of earning money or jobs you're drawn to?
In a word: yes. In a few more words, I would argue that the worldview lying behind (my understanding of) unschooling supports de-emphasizing wage-work as either the primary mode of self-identification or as a measure of self-worth. Since unschooling encourages self-reliance and independence, being able to support myself -- or, now, to contribute to the financial security of my newly-formed family -- is a part of how I measure my success. However, it is one small part of my self-evaluation, all of which comes down to challenging myself to live in accordance with my values. Which would take a lot more than this questionnaire to explicate in depth! But in short, they can be summed up with the belief that all that 1) all life is of value, and 2) all that is required of humanity is "to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly." (The original quote comes from the Christian Old Testament, Micah 6:8, and reads "walk humbly with God," but I prefer leaving the question of whom or what one walks with up to the listener!)


What impact do you feel unschooling has had on your life?
The experience of growing up outside of the mainstream educational system colors virtually everything I do and the way I understand the world. I think it particularly shapes how I understand myself in relation to the mainstream culture and ways of thinking and being in the world. My family didn't opt out of the mainstream to the extent that some unschooling families do: we had a television, we lived in an urban environment, we had friends who were schooled and so forth. We weren't insulated from the mainstream and from the outside -- except for the fact that we didn't attend school -- our family didn't look that radical. But we were pretty damn radical anyway! So what I learned, growing up, was that individuals and families have choices. We can stand apart from some of the mainstream "common sense" beliefs about how people should grow and learn, what it means to be a functioning adult, what it means to be a family -- but we don't have to seek "purity" in pursuit of that. We can pick and choose, appropriate, make our own meanings of things, piecing together a life out of what we find to be beautiful and useful. It's sort of a steampunk ethos, I guess.

If you could go back in time, is there anything about your learning/educational journey that you'd change?
I really wish I had been able to find practical alternatives to graduate school that gave me the same opportunities in the library/scholarly fields I'm interested in. Unfortunately library and archives training in the US takes place in the context of higher education, and most living-wage positions with opportunities for professional growth require an MLS.

If you were to have children, would you choose to unschool them?
I just recently read a blog post by Molly @ first the egg called parenting as holding the space in which she talks about how she and her husband don't practice according to any particular parenting philosophy but that she's come to realize that the way they parent is akin to the way in which doulas are trained to "hold the space" for women in labor. She writes, "the basic idea is that a calm, focused, loving person can protect a space in which the laboring/birthing person can do what she needs to do." I think this is a really nice one-line description of what parents can and should provide their children -- regardless of whether the decide they want (or are practically able) to unschool their children.

My partner and I are pretty sure we are not going to be parents, for a complex constellation of reasons. I won't speak for her in this instance, but in my case I don't want to have children unless I am able to unschool them -- in spirit if not by actually keeping them out of institutional education altogether. I don't want to take on a responsibility that I don't have the resources -- emotional, logistical, financial -- to really follow through on according to my values. And my values would demand giving that small person in my care as much calm, focused loving as I could -- and trying to surround them with adults and other young people who could support me, my partner, and our child(ren) in that endeavor. And right now we aren't in a place to do that.


What advice would you give to teens looking to leave high school? What advice would you give to someone looking to skip, or to drop out of, college or university?
Since I didn't ever leave high school and eventually ended up completing university and going on to do post-graduate work, I'm not sure how much I can speak to this. However, I would say this: in my experience, it pays to reject either/or thinking and be creative about how you use your available resources.

What advice would you give to unschooling parents (or parents looking into unschooling)?
In addition to what I wrote above about "holding the space," I think it's important -- with all childcare, but particularly with unschooling -- to emphasize that the choices you make about family life effect outcomes. That may sound elementary, but I've seen a lot of nominally "unschooling" or homeschooling families where the parents really, really want their kids to look and act like, and hold the same values, as their conventionally-schooled peers. Or even worse, they expect them to be conventional-PLUS: they think that unschooling their kids are going to make them even more successful than their peers by all the mainstream cultural standards.

It's not an impossible goal ... and it's not that I think having goals and accomplishing them is a bad thing. But the "conventional-plus" approach to unschooling is, to my mind, a really impoverished approach ... because it leaves behind the really radical aspect of unschooling, which is to question the foundational values of American culture concerning human nature, what it means to be a successful human being, what you need to thrive in the world, and how human relationships facilitate that process. If I had to offer advice in a nutshell to unschooling parents, it would be: Expect different outcomes -- and try not to be afraid of them. Be clear about what your own values for "the good life" are and share them with your children, and then let your kids develop their own values from that foundation.

Also, don't encourage your kids to see mainstream culture or conventional schooling as evil. There are good people who teach in schools, there are good people who send their children there, and there are children who thrive despite the many problems of institutional schooling. I've seen too many unschooling families turn their personal and familial choices into an "us vs. them" negativity that doesn't encourage building alliances, accessing resources, and remembering to seek out support and learning in even the most unexpected places. Encourage your kids to remain open-minded about the mainstream, even as you challenge them to engage with it critically.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about or add?
I think I've already said way more than is reasonable in terms of a blog post, so I'll leave it there. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts on being a grown unschooler and I look forward to reading what others have to say in response to these questions!