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Conversation is a building block for change. Here we talk, debate, examine. Join the conversation.

Sunday
Mar252012

A Pickaninny Podcast, Episode 2

The Pickaninnies are talking bias this week, including the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin and the murder of Shaima Alawadi. All that talk of evil in the world also got them talking about self-care, health care and community care. The Pickaninnies know well that the best way to deal with what's wrong in the world is to take action. The ladies discussed the We Are Women March and the upcoming Sex::Tech 2012 Conference in San Francisco, CA.

LHTC: A Pickaninny Podcast, Episode 2

Thursday
Mar082012

A Pickaninny Podcast, Episode 1

In this first episode of "Let's Have That Conversation: A Pickaninny Podcast," meet the editorial collective and hear what inspired them to start The Pickaninny Papers. Listen in as they talk about Rush Limbaugh and birth control, The Lorax and parenting.

LHTC: A Pickaninny Podcast, Episode 1

Sunday
Jul312011

People Who Think Like That Should Not Be Allowed to Speak on Our Air?

Sheryl: I received an email action to sign a petition calling on MSNBC to fire Pat Buchanan for his recent article in The American Conservative regarding the Norway massacre. I had heard several snippets about Buchanan’s comments, but I hadn't really paid close attention to the particulars. The petition made me think of Nichole’s article about free speech and the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Westboro Baptist Church case.  After reading the articleand yes, it is a classic case of Buchanan xenophobiaI am not sure if I am going to sign the petition. What is the point of having him fired? What will it accomplish (aside from him being fired)? Buchanan is often a featured voice on a number of the MSNBC shows that I watch, and I have heard him make despicable comments on a number of different occasions. In a 2009 appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show regarding the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, he stated that she was an “affirmative action appointment”  and  the U.S. was “a country built basically by white folks,” and those are just two of the many offensive statements that he made in that one appearance (the offenses start at 5:55).

I remember having similar questions when Don Imus made his infamous remarks about the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team back in 2007. I was extremely angry about his comments, which were supposedly made in jest. I can’t recall if I signed any of the petitions circulated at the time which called for his firing. Even with my doubts, I probably did.

Lydia: I haven't read the petition. Is there a statement as to why he should be fired over this article specifically, in the petition? I can understand wanting MSNBC to take a stand against certain kinds of speech, especially if it's said on an MSNBC show. However, that doesn't encourage dialogue. Buchanan isn't known for constructively engaging in dialogue, but his statements could encourage dialogue among others and let's be honest, there are plenty of people that think along the same line as Buchanan. By shutting him down I think that turns off his audience instead of including them in the conversation and perhaps helping them see some issues in a different light.

Sheryl: In the petition, the argument seems to be that because MSNBC is positioning itself as a progressive alternative to Fox, it should not provide Buchanan with a platform to air his views. As you point out Lydia, he didn't make these statements on an MSNBC show; but even if he did, is calling for his firing the way to go? Perhaps I am getting lost in my own thinking, but what makes spewing crap on MSNBC different from spewing crap at the funerals of fallen soldiers?

Lydia: But isn't a cemetery considered a public place? The executives at MSNBC can decide who they have on their shows, and if they think the way their commentators behave or what they say is damaging to their (MSNBC's) image, then they have the right to fire those people. Whether or not they should.... I'm obviously no legal eagle, but this seems like a public/private issue. You can be at a funeral or in another public space spewing hate and have the right to do so but, if you do the same in an individual's home, they have every right to kick your ignorant behind out of their house.

Nichole: I see where you both are going. The essential question is how do we nurture political dialogue regarding serious issues without giving credence to left or right extremism? Paul Krugman argues that our public conversation has become so warped because the "liberal" or "mainstream" media refuses to call out the dysfunction caused by Republican extremists. Instead, they focus on "balanced" reporting, instead of nuanced analysis. The problem, as Lydia suggests, is that media is profit-driven and MSNBC wants to, in fact needs to, figure out ways to generate income. Those ways might include bringing in a lightning rod like Buchanan. And this is why I think Sheryl concludes that it doesn't make much sense to fire Buchanan. We can't keep ourselves in a bubble and not hear competing positions, even if it is sometimes physically impossible to listen because the venom is so visceral. Ultimately it may be that there is no difference between spewing crap on cable tv and spewing crap at the funerals of fallen soldiers because both are taking place in the marketplace of ideas. How much will it cost MSNBC to keep Buchanan? Probably not a lot if keeping him means that new viewers tune in. 

Sheryl: Yes, as much as I want to change the channel when Buchanan starts to spout some of his right-wing conservative nonsense, I try to sit it out because I think it is important for me to engage "in the marketplace of ideas" that you refer to Nichole and not wall myself off from those views that conflict with mine. Watching Morning Joe, which is a more right leaning MSNBC show, is usually a mostly aggravating experience, but I don't think the network should remove the show from the lineup to try to make itself into the Fox News of the left. I may not support having Buchanan completely removed from the network, but I also don't think he should be given a bigger platform on MSNBC. Right-wing extremists have hijacked the political dialogue via Fox News and the largely impotent mainstream media that Paul Krugman describes in his op-ed, so I understand why some on the left would want to have Buchanan removed and try to make MSNBC into the liberal stronghold.

Perhaps devoting a significant block of time to a show like Morning Joe and featuring Buchanan and other conservatives as MSNBC pundits while continuing to focus on highlighting left-wing perspectives on the issues is the most effective way to move toward a political discourse that is capable of addressing serious issues. If MSNBC is providing a way forward for the political discourse in this country, albeit inadvertently, then we clearly have a long way to go. 

Thursday
Jun232011

What Good Is a Liberal Arts Education If You Can’t Find a Job?

Sheryl: In Kim Brooks' Salon piece, she asks about the usefulness of a liberal arts education particularly as we continue to slog through this economic downturn. The keynote speaker at a conference that I recently attended echoed the sentiments behind her question when he disparaged that aspect of American higher education which is focused on the liberal arts. The speaker indicated that China and India were way ahead of the U.S. in the number of engineers produced as a result of liberal arts majors' misguided educational focus.

The New York Times “Room for Debate” series recently included a discussion about the differing education philosophies held by Bill Gates (higher education should aim to prepare students for the job market) and Steve Jobs (higher education should aim to bring liberal arts together with technology) and what courses and majors are likely to give college students an edge in their careers in the long-term

Back in the late eighties, I was often asked what I would be able to do with a bachelor’s degree in sociology when I graduated. I remember being a little annoyed by the question—which is now being asked by people like Bill Gates. His money and outspokenness are having a major influence within the current education reform movement—I wonder how far we are going to go in discouraging liberal arts education.

Lydia: My initial response to this question: I too was asked what I expected to do with a liberal arts degree (in history) and was also annoyed. Learning how to think critically is an actual life skill people! If you don’t know how to think independently and critically you’re more susceptible to believing anything someone or something in a position of authority tells you. And yes, by that I mean you could well find yourself at a rally screaming that Obama is a socialist Nazi and not know what a socialist or a Nazi actually is or voting for a candidate that promises not to raise your taxes (or the taxes of big corporations and millionaires) as opposed to a candidate that may raise your taxes but will also try their damnedest to make sure your tax dollars go into education and work to make sure corporations and millionaires put in their fair share. Am I making a sweeping generalization? Yes! And is saying a liberal arts education is useless also a sweeping generalization? Yes!

Yes, we need scientists and engineers! But we don’t only need scientists and engineers. What we need is balance. I don’t think devaluing a liberal arts education is the way to get more students interested in science and technology. Both are valuable educations. At the moment, a sci/tech degree may seem more practical than a liberal arts degree but I must reiterate that that does not mean it is of more value or importance.

After reading Kim Brooks’ piece: From what I remember of my college days, back in the 90s, we had a career center that worked pretty hard to drive home the idea that we would not be in college forever. In conjunction with library/information services they offered tutorials in using different kinds of software. They also had binders (this was the 90s, I’m sure everything is digital now) filled with internships and jobs and contact info of alums working in various fields that were willing to talk to and or mentor current students. Maybe this is a rarity in liberal arts schools.

My parents did ask what I wanted to “do” but never in a “you must know what you're going to do with your life right now!” kind of way. They did teach me some practical things like how to balance a check book and some computer basics. I guess my point is that the kind of education that is going to prepare you for the workforce and life doesn’t only come from those four or more years spent in college. Come to think of it, I learned how to type, use a computer, and answer a phone, before I graduated from high school and those are pretty much the only skills you need for an entry level position.

Only living can teach you how to live and make your way in the world. A high-powered career is not the essential element of a successful life and in most cases, success is relative. I’ve rambled on long enough and I’m not sure if I’m getting my point across but I find the questioning of learning and broadening of horizons abhorrent.

Lucinda: There is something terribly ironic about Kim Brooks’ “Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?” and she knows it. She wouldn’t have the skill to think and write effectively about this issue had she not gotten that liberal arts degree back in 2000. And she sure wouldn’t have been paid by Salon to tell us about it had it not been for her liberal arts education. Perhaps I’m overstating things a bit, but not much. Kim Brooks clearly loved getting a liberal arts education, which is why she ends her piece by waxing nostalgic about college:

“Right now, they’re in those four extraordinary, exceptional years where ideas matter; and there’s not a thing I’d do to change that.”

Balancing the idealism of a liberal arts education and the pragmatism of finding a viable career path can be challenging, but it’s especially challenging during a recession when there are too few jobs for those dewy-eyed students with their liberal arts degrees. Should liberal arts majors be pushed to think a bit more about careers? Yes. But, like Kim Brooks, I wouldn’t trade the experience of fumbling around, jumping from job to job, and figuring out what to do with myself for anything. That was my professional education, and that’s OK by me.

Nichole: Well, having gone the furthest down the garden path of a liberal arts education into the weeds of a Ph.D. in American Studies, the most liberal perhaps of all graduate programs, and then teaching, I can say that more students would benefit from a liberal arts education than not. I say this even having decided after teaching for a bit to go to law school and try my hand at working in the “real world,” a dismissive and parochial term if ever there was one.

I’m pretty convinced that people are who they are without needing to find themselves in college. Rather, the value of college, at least for me, was strengthening my confidence in my abilities as a thinker, someone capable of puzzling out problems, organizing projects, and seeing them through to completion. Part of what a liberal arts education provides is the permission to be who you imagine yourself to be in your most secret dreams. The problem is that other people, even sometimes the student herself, are unable to be as imaginative. 

And this is why career counselors are always telling students they can do anything they want, especially if they are “entrepreneurial.” The problem is not with the liberal arts education, it’s with a society that, even though it claims to provide opportunities to achieve the “American Dream,” the dream is limited to a very few who fit into a particular model of success. We define success by what has resulted in success, and only measure someone as a success if they fit into a narrow box of achievement.

Students, whether in the liberal arts, the sciences, law, or business, need to write more. They need to practice revising and editing their work, to understand how to communicate in a written form. I’ve taught students who are phenomenal wordsmiths and others who should be in remedial classes. I’ve read the work of lawyers whose job it is to fashion winning arguments through the persuasiveness of their writing and been both exhilarated by it and flabbergasted that they’ve continued to get clients. 

I like to learn about things. My degrees give me some authority to say, “I know things and can do things,” my education taught me that every day is an opportunity to learn something new, to build on my experiences, and to nurture the person I am.

Sheryl: If a student selects a career-oriented major, that is great. If a student chooses a liberal arts major, that is equally as great. I thought the undergraduate years were supposed to be a time to explore your interests—a time when students can explore, learn, and grow.

I see the effort to tie higher education to filling jobs as part of a trend which says that in order for a program or policy to be deemed worthwhile it must have a measurable result. For higher education reformers like Bill Gates, the measurable result is closely linked to graduates' ability to fill the available jobs. As you mentioned Lydia, there is also evidence of another trend—a focus on the short-term to the detriment of possible long-term interests. As Edwin W. Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, points out in the article I cited earlier:

…The advantage possessed by career-oriented majors may be short-lived. Once in a career path, the more general skills of communication, organization and judgment become highly valued. As a result, liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.”

In the end, this is a debate about the value of learning for learning’s sake. Lucinda, I agree that there needs to be some additional attention given to preparing liberal arts graduates for the challenges they may face in finding a career in a job market which may not rush to open its doors to them. I think a focus on the  “entrepreneurial” aspect that Nichole mentioned would be very useful. I am certain that it would have been helpful to me as an undergraduate. 

As someone who went back to graduate school after many years because I simply wanted to be able to study something that I was interested in, I have a graduate degree that I knew would be unlikely to lead to a dream career. But as Nichole said, I have further developed my ability to communicate effectively through writing, plan and complete long-term projects, think critically, and problem-solve—skills that serve me well in all aspects of my life. 

Thursday
May122011

Roundtable: FCC Commissioner Turned Lobbyist for Comcast

Lydia: It has just been announced that Meredith Attwell Baker is leaving the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to become a lobbyist for Comcast. Now, that statement alone makes me go, hmmm. But then add to it that this is just four months after she voted to approve the Comcast-NBC merger and my hmmm turns into, what the fudge?! Is this not blatant corruption? Am I missing something? How can this happen? On the face of it, I suppose there is no proof that Comcast offered her a job in exchange for approving its merger with NBC, but the whole situation leaves a rancid taste in my mouth. Rep. Darrell Issa (R - CA), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has raised concerns that there may be possible ethics violations. Possible?! I'm flabbergasted. There should be a full scale investigation. Is it possible to reverse FCC approvals? How can Comcast and other large corporations be held accountable for such reprehensible behavior? With our own regulators snuggled up in the pockets of big business it is no wonder most Americans have lost faith in our democracy.

Lucinda: In Meredith Attwell Baker’s role as “public servant,” she votes for a merger that gives Comcast control of broadcast networks, local networks, movie studios, AND the Internet and cable networks that distribute all of that content. That’s an obscene amount of media control and power that Comcast-NBC is wielding, which means they can hike up prices and squeeze smaller media outlets out of business.

Meredith Attwell Baker hasn’t done anything that others haven’t done before, but I think it’s the speed (four months!) with which she jumped from voting to approve the Comcast-NBC merger to being paid by them to lobby in Washington that shocked folks. Meredith has got some ovaries on her. We need people on the FCC who have worked in and know media, but being able to go from regulating these companies to getting paid by them in a matter of months just smacks of corruption. Can we get some regulation on the regulators?

Sheryl: Meredith Attwell Baker’s actions provide a perfect example of one of the things that I find most disturbing and disheartening about the state of our government. Being politically active starts to seem like a no-win situation because corporations have become so intertwined in our government and in the making of public policy; it will be extremely difficult to untangle this web of corruption.

As you mention Lucinda, Mrs. Attwell Baker, who is a Republican, is not doing anything that others haven’t done many, many times. In fact, she worked as a lobbyist before she started working for the federal government in 2004. Unfortunately, the revolving door, on behalf of corporate and monied interests, keeps spinning on both sides of the aisle. The influence of lobbyists is also evident in their  political contributions which seem to flow based on which party is seen as rising in power. That is why the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision is so appalling. The corporate and monied-interest lobbys already had undue influence within our government and our Supreme Court handed them even more.

Some regulation on the regulators would be good, but many are pointing to overturning the Citizens United case and campaign finance reform as necessary first steps in the effort to restore our democracy. But when we have a government/lobbyist revolving door and people being bought off as candidates and then once they are elected, how are we ever going to get to any of those things? I have tried to avoiding thinking about it; it just seems to be so much more daunting than other issues. Atwell Baker's actions are really just another reminder that things have to change and any change will have to come from the people.