Friday, October 15, 2010


Today in class we read Robert Pinsky's poem Shirt. (Wait for the play button to appear): Listen to Pinsky himself read the poem. Feel free to read the poem again several times on your own. It's surprisingly dense and makes some stunning imaginative leaps.

Remember:  your extra credit assignment is to:
  1. choose an article of clothing you were wearing today;
  2. determine the country of origin where the clothing was manufactured;
  3. investigate the working conditions in that area (feel free to use the web here, but also consult our expert librarians.  you might also consider interviewing people from the region or people who are familiar with the civil or labor situations in that country) — yes, even if the U.S.!
  4. determine U.S. trade agreements/restrictions with that country;
  5. relate your findings to the poem and to Frederick Douglass;
  6. write your investigative and imaginative findings in an original poem of your own, a dialogue, a short or an online multimedia creation — 2 page max — essay (on, say, the question of whether one can be free without being economically free), or by choosing some other genre to convey what you've learned.  You might take a tip from Pinsky and invent a character in order to relate part or all of what you have to say.

Of course it's complicated.  That's why it's called Extra Credit.  Remember this outside project is due Monday (though we will give you extra time if you have a plan for an idea you'd like to pursue by then). NOTE: Pinsky's poem appears below.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bumper Stickers Don't Adhere to Free Speech?

According to the New York Times, The Supreme Court today let stand the decision of an appeals court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two plaintiffs who claimed their 1st Amendment rights were denied in 2005.  The duo was evicted from a public speech President Bush gave on the subject of Social Security at a Denver art museum because they drove to the speech in a car adorned with a bumper sticker that read "No More Blood for Oil."  The pair did not make any attempt to disrupt the president's speech or to protest his talk.

The court did not give a reason for its refusal to hear the case, but two justices (Ginsburg and Sotomayor) dissented saying that "no reasonable person" could see a bumper sticker as a reason for ejection to a public event.   The lower court's decision was settled 2-1 by a three member panel.  The dissenting judge, William Holloway said, “It is simply astounding that any member of the executive branch could have believed that our Constitution justified this egregious violation of plaintiffs’ rights.”  Clearly his colleagues disagreed.

How do you view the ejection of these two people?   Were they denied their right to free speech?  Or do you agree with the Appeals court in upholding the ejection, perhaps on the grounds that the president was fighting two wars at the time, and that some people clearly found the language of the bumper sticker offensive?   Where should this line be drawn?  Who should decide? 

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Cleaning House

We've been talking about denotation and connotation in class -- what words mean literally and what they imply.  Some words, like "killer" might immediately carry obvious connotations (namely, a violent, immoral person).  But words are often context-specific, and if a jazz critic said that Louis Armstrong was a killer trumpet player, she would certainly not be questioning the musician's morals, but rather would be talking about the skill and passion evinced by his playing.  In thinking about the evolution of words, I suggested we might consult a dictionary.  A good dictionary.

Here is the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word "killer."  Note how the first definition -- the primary meaning of the word -- is that of a violent person, a "butcher and a slayer."  But a later definition, 7B, relates to skill, particularly musical skill.  Note that this connotation of the word was first used in 1979.   

Yesterday in class some people seemed to feel that the the phrases "neighborhood women" and housewives" were pejorative, demeaning to the people they defined.  The first phrase is just plain hard to read as anything other than a group of women from a certain location.  Instead, the authors instead seem to be highlighting the extra-ordinariness of these women who are earlier -- in the same sentence -- described as a part of a grassroots movement, a term used to describe "rank and file members of the electorate."  In this case average citizens are taking on the mayor.  The word "housewife," however, might possibly seen as a more connotatively charged word -- but certainly not at the time of the events being described in American Pharaoh.

To think of "housewife" (note how the OED definition now says "usually married"; the primary meaning of the word has changed with the time) as carrying negative connotations seems rash to me even today.  Many people see the term as value-neutral.  If I were writing on the contemporary use of the word without other contextual cues,  the most I'd risk is to say that the term might be seen as dismissive to some people.  But, in 1959, the year Florence Scala's movement emerged, the word did not carry general disapproval.

In fact, four years later, Betty Friedan, an important feminist and social commentator wrote a landmark book called The Feminine Mystique that helped usher in a new way of thinking about gender roles and social relationships. (Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen said Friedan's book "changed the world so comprehensively that it's hard to remember how much change was called for").

Friedan says, speaking of "the educated housewife" that "many young women -- certainly not all... feel stifled in their homes...find[ing] their routine lives out of joint with their training" (22).  She quotes a male journalist in a widely read magazine (Harper's Bazaar) in 1960 who "joked"  that the problem could be solved by taking away women's right to vote!  Further "a number of educators suggested seriously that women no longer be admitted to the four-year colleges and universities". 

Friedan finds the problem exacerbated in the suburbs.  How much so?  Check out this quote:  "The suburban house is not a German concentration camp, nor are American women on their way to the gas chamber, but they are in a trap "(309).  She suggests that "if education has made more and more American women feel trapped, frustrated, guilty as houewives, surely this should be seen as a clear signal that women have outgrown the housewife role" (308). (Italics, hers). 

But, this landmark analysis of the "ghetto-ization of women" did not exist at the time of Scala's struggle.  As historians, Cohen and Taylor could not have used a phrase like "stay-at-home-mom" as was suggested yesterday because the term did not yet exist.  It would have been anachronistic -- out of its time period.

Florence Scala, the Italian-American housewife, would have been applauded by Friedan.  Rather that accept the backseat role her society offered her as a housewife, she used her education and her intelligence to take on the most powerful political machine in the country.  She didn't win the immediate battle blocking UIC, but she helped inspire a new generation of women who could define themselves rather than accept the narrow definitions of their society.