Wednesday, February 22, 2006

As heard in class, redux

Many of you enjoyed the "Black people were bred to be better athletes" story, so now I've got a follow-up story, featuring the same student.

A few weeks ago we were studying European immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century. As part of their assignment, the students looked at some Jacob Riis photographs. (Riis was a famous photographer and reformer who went into the tenements to document immigrants' living conditions.) Not surprisingly, many of the photos showed dirty and crowded apartments, some of which were used by family members who operated sweatshops out of the apartments.

During class discussion students shared their impressions of the photos, which usually included surprise about the "bad" living conditions and being somewhat impressed with immigrants' fortitude. Then the student in question raised his hand and asked why these families continued to have so many kids if they were already poor and crowded into these small apartments. Fair enough question. And one that I'm actually fairly well-prepared to answer. So I launched in what seemed like an endless answer, including the following points:

*Many immigrants arrived with large families, something that might have been necessary back in the farming areas of Europe
*Some people considered children to be economic assets, i.e. to either work on the farm or work in factories to provide additional income, as well as to provide care for their parents in their old age
*Higher rates of infant mortality encouraged higher birth rates

I also went into the issue of birth control and why it was not available and/or utilized:
*Most poor women did not have access to knowledge about birth control, and would not have been able to afford it, even if they had known about it
*Birth control was illegal at the time, and in fact, it was even illegal to mail information about birth control

Then I told the class a bit about Margaret Sanger, who agitated for birth control during this period, and when she opened a clinic in a working-class neighborhood, it was deluged with women who were desperate for some information. Sanger's personal "epiphany," in fact, was when a young woman died from repeated pregnancies that she could not avoid. When this young woman asked how to avoid pregnancy, an insensitive doctor told her to tell her husband to "sleep on the roof." So I also pointed out to students:
*It's likely that most people back then had little to no understanding of the female reproductive cycle and would not have known about the timing of "safer" periods
*And even if they did, traditional gender roles did not usually empower women to refuse sex with their husbands. Which is why Sanger wanted to find some sort of female-controlled contraception.

So... that seemed like a pretty complete explanation, but he refused to buy it. He kept asking things like, "So, you're saying they're too stupid to know that sex results in children?" and: "Can't they read?"

So I reiterated most of what I had already said about the lack of knowledge, power, and access that these families experienced, and how most immigrant families either chose to have larger families or were simply unable to avoid pregnancy. It didn't take. So finally, I asked him simply, "So what you're saying is that poor people shouldn't have sex."

He looked a bit perplexed, and then denied that's what he was saying. I believe, however, that that is exactly what he was saying. The "punishment" for being poor and unable to access birth control should be denying yourself sex. And this is not the first time the question has come up -- it is more likely to be raised when we discuss Anne Moody's book about being part of the Civil Rights Movements. Anne's mother (an impoverished sharecropper in Mississippi) continues to have children throughout the book, which puts an economic strain on the family. Most students are quite critical of the mother for this, and don't understand why she doesn't just "stop having kids."

Any thoughts??

As heard during Faculty Development Days

Okay, still 'fessing up to being a slacker, so I'm trying to clear out a back-log of little gems to share. This one is a few weeks old, certainly, but still worth a grimace. During our Faculty Development Days at the beginning of the semester, our college President was previewing some of the upcoming events -- i.e. Chinese New Year celebrations, African-American History Month, and "Women's Appreciation Month" in March.

Of course, March is Women's History Month, and those crazy gals who pioneered the whole idea of Women's History would probably not be happy to learn that it is being "celebrated" with (get this) a table where you can buy flowers to show your appreciation for the women in your life (?) and a table to build awareness of breast cancer.

Surely, both worthy ideas in the abstract, but I'm not sure breasts and flowers are really what the founding mothers of women's history had in mind....

[In reality, our Director of Diversity will certainly work to beef up the offerings for Women's History Month, and I'll try to help out. This is one of those On-the-back-burner-until-I-finish-my-dissertation kind of things. Next Spring should be much better!]

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Things that make a teacher cry

Okay, okay, I know I've been a total slacker in terms of blogging. More on that soon. But I just couldn't resist sharing this one. My evening class uses an on-line discussion board so we can continue to discuss the material during the week following class. Last week we watched Birth of a Nation. (For those of you who don't know, this 1915 film was horrendously racist and basically tried to convince the nation that the KKK "saved" the South from the "anarchy" of black rule during Reconstruction.) We watched a 30 minute clip that included the young white "heroine" choosing to leap over a cliff to her death rather than "marry" the "renegade Negro." I introduced, we watched, we discussed. I pointed out that even though many protested the film at the time, it did very well at the box-office and even President Wilson called it "true." Most students who posted comments wrote things that were right on target. I figured that everyone was clear on the concept. Until this post:

"After this movie I came to thinking and even though predjustice was so bad back then...there are going to be bad people in every race and there is never really much said about the terrible things blacks did. It always showed them as vicitims(which most of the time they were) but it was interesting to view it from a white mans stand point. I liked to here that the president at the time thought it was an accurate portrayl, then you know that it is what is really going on."

Must. Go. Bang. Head. On. Wall.