Monday, March 17, 2014

"Paginas en Blanco": Whitewashed History

Douglas Hale, Secrets (2014)
Recently we've been reading the Junot Diaz novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel that is profoundly concerned with storytelling and history. In describing the absences in both family and national history, Diaz uses the phrase "paginas en blanco" which he describes as a "blank be filled in with the truth" (90).

This year we, too, have been thinking about the relationship between national history and family history. So, we borrowed the model from the Post Secret project and invited the students in our class to each offer up a single pagina en blanco from their own families. We wanted to explore the secrets that remained hidden or the truths that were never talked about openly within family history in a project we call "Paginas en Blanco de Mi Familia". The rules were simple: a single sentence of text and evidence of thought in the graphic presentation of the "secret." Please check out the finished compilation below.

Páginas en Blanco de Mi Familia from Spiro Bolos on Vimeo.

Now it's your turn! We'd like to invite readers of to contribute their own "pagina en blanco" -- a story from your family history that has been whitewashed or silenced, or one that may simply lurk unexpressed. Do NOT include your name or other identifying information. Instead, just upload the annotated image by using the dropbox in the right-hand column of this blog. When we get enough submissions, we will publish the results here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports

Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport, who was just signed to a contract with the New Jersey Nets.  Or the announcement of Missouri football star who announced he was gay just before the NFL draft.

(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 30 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports").  Many have greeted Jason Collins and Michael Sam with applause and high fives.  But, to what extent do the cases of Collins and Sam's brave articulation of their identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.

Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.

You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).

So, do you see Jason Collins and Michael Sam's announcements as a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate  have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement.  Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.

How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? What are the "paginas en blanco" in the world of sports? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cut the Cord

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the White House to attend the State Visit of the French President. Actually, it was a kind of contest the White House Instagram feed offered to all of its 260,000 followers. And I LOST. But you might ask, what business does a high school social studies teacher have with meeting President François Hollande, anyhow?

Good point. But instead, please answer this question: what business does the chief lobbyist of Comcast, David Cohen, have with meeting the French President? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Comcast is about to buy Time-Warner cable? If this merger is approved, it would give Comcast, among many other advantages, "enormous power in negotiations with networks over licensing fees and in determining what shows reach consumers on mobile devices, laptops and television sets" as well as "flexibility to set the market rates" since it would be absorbing Time-Warner, its biggest cable competitor.

I wonder if the FCC and Department of Justice will approve the deal? Is there an emoticon for sarcasm?

L-R: Brian Roberts, President Obama, and Jim Kim
Consider the following:
Hmmm. A kind of "Media-Industrial Complex", no? I thought the USA was all about capitalism and competition: higher quality products/services and lower prices? Furthermore, this merger of Comcast and Time-Warner would literally shrink the number of voices in the media landscape and allow Comcast to control almost 40% of broadband internet market. Thoughts? How do we (or should we) "cut the cord" of influence between government and industry?

UPDATE: Here's a more eloquent critique featuring an interview with Harvard Professor Susan P. Crawford.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Against Docility

Last week in class we talked briefly about what gets valued in school. Or, at least, that's what I hoped to introduce. Remember: the way docility (which means passive) is rooted in the Latin word for "teachable"?

I was reminded of that topic again when I came across this Onion piece: The headline makes the point right away: "English Professor Suddenly Realizes Students Will Believe Literally Anything She Says."  (They really do. Trust me).

While the piece is funny, I think it also reveals a deeper truth. William Deresciewicz, a Yale writing professor, explores this topic in his compelling essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." Here's a brief excerpt of his condemnation of "elite educations":
"Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. 
Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities." (bold, mine).
It is out of our hope that you become intellectuals that Mr. B and I urge you to create your own philosophies on the issue of civil liberties and why it is paramount that you stake out your own positions on your blogs!

How does our school promote individual thinking, the questioning of authority? Where does it fall short? How might we do better?

Monday, February 10, 2014

History's Missing Pages

Watching the impossibly expensive Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on Friday, I was intrigued to see how the organizers of the event would present the entire span of Russian history (starting as far back as the 10th century, CE). After all, with a limited amount of time and space, the designers, much like textbook authors, would have to make choices about what to highlight, as well as what to include, and what to omit.

Opening Ceremony, Sochi Olympics
While the tsarist imperial period, starting with the accomplishments of Peter the Great, was impressively beautiful (see above), I was most interested in how the Russians would deal with the period after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As USA Today put it in their recent headline,"5 things you will, and won't see in opening ceremony", I, too, wondered how the Russians would deal with the long and rather recent Soviet period (ending in 1991), which is widely viewed as a failure. For example, how would we "see" Josef Stalin, the towering figure who not only presided over the rushed industrialization and agricultural collectivization of the USSR during the 1930s (killing at least 20 million people), but also over the undeniable victory against Nazi Germany in the 1940s?

Soviet Cosmonaut Team, 1970s
We wouldn't "see" him at all, apparently. He would be erased from the historical record, of course. Now, this is not the first time the Russians or the Soviets "photoshopped" their own history: numerous examples abound. And a "De-Stalinization" started as early as the 1950s. But to eliminate someone so influential so completely seems an insurmountable task, as opposed to what was done to these relatively smaller historical figures featured in this doctored photo.

But I would argue that Russia is an easy target for Americans: we've been in a kind of war with them ever since the US government refused to recognize the Soviet Union in 1917. A more interesting challenge might be to identify people and periods in American history that have seemingly been whitewashed away from our collective memory. What would you choose to write in the blank pages of American history?