Recommended daily reading – 2 March (yes, I still do this edition)

I finally compiled enough links to post a new round-up.

In the area of teaching and learning:

  • At Inside Higher Ed, Robert Eisinger writes about the importance of “teaching ambiguity”. This is one of my great challenges. Cultural geographers deal with subjects that are ambiguous in their meaning and significance, and one thing I try to do is to help students develop tools and perspectives that enable them to effectively address topics where answers can be open-ended and much depends on the questions asked and in what context.
  • Curiosity Counts provides this quick hit about teens and geo-location services.

Turning to geography-related matters:

  • Jake Tobin Garrett has a defense of “messiness” in Toronto, and in cities in general. While one way to look at telephone polls plastered with fliers is as eyesores, Garrett points to them as indicators of a city’s creativity and energy.
  • SightLine has an interesting look at traffic volume in the Pacific Northwest, and how it has fallen short of expectations, suggesting that transportation planning need not be as car-oriented as it has been.

Renee French posted this image of a woman with a closed eye that I can’t quite shake. I think there is something compelling in the contract between the enclosed eye and the open one.

This, via ComicsAlliance, is awesome news, even if it is speculative.

Finally, I found The Mary Sue, a new blog devoted to girl geek culture, via GeekGirlCon on Twitter. And at The Mary Sue, Susana Polo has an interesting post arguing for women, and sexual minorities, to strategically gender or “out” themselves online as a way to break down the idea that the internet is a male/masculine space. The discussion in comments is well worth reading, too. While you are there, read Polo’s introduction/mission statement for the site.

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Maybe “manhood” is the problem

This past Monday the second hour of NPR’s Talk of the Nation began with a discussion of men and “preadulthood”. The featured guest was Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (Basic Books, 2011). Later, host Mary Louise Kelly brought on Michael Kimmel, a SUNY-Stony Brook sociologist and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Harper, 2008).

Given the subtitle of Hymowitz’s book, I prepared myself for a segment of blaming women for men’s identity issues or lack of “manning up”, but the conversation did not end up on that track (whether the book does or doesn’t, I don’t know. The excerpt at NPR does not really suggest this either. So maybe that title is just meant as a provocation). Still, I could not help thinking that the discussion missed some essential point, and later I think I hit on what that point is.

But, first, as I heard it, the argument being made by both commentators is that young men today are extending youth, essentially acting like teenagers, but with their own money and outside their parents homes (or sometimes not), for longer than they used to. According to Hymowitz, what is driving this is the greater access that women have to roles that men formerly fulfilled, with virtual exclusivity, as husbands, fathers, and breadwinners, which, I suppose, explains the full title of her book.

I’m not sure of the extent to which Kimmel agrees with Hymowitz’s analysis – on the show he emphasized the role that longer life-spans play in how young people see their life trajectories more than he did changing gender norms – but, parallel to Hymowitz, he did make the case that young men today are looking at two models for their lives. One is an extended “boyhood”, all play and parties, and the other is “manhood”, all responsibility, but without the same privileges that men used to enjoy as “true” patriarchs. So, naturally, men are choosing boyhood.

For Hymowitz, this extended preadulthood is a potential crisis mostly for reasons related to biological reproduction. In other words, if young men all over America choose video games and beer over getting married and having children, then society will stop working. Kimmel seemed more concerned with the personal implications of these life choices on men, but the discussion was being driven by Hymowitz.

The insight I had later is this: the unspoken, and unexamined, assumption in this line of inquiry, from both sides, is that it is socially necessary for having man parts to be seen as something special. The corollary, and equally unspoken and unexamined, assumption is that the something special about having female parts is obvious: you can bear children. So, whereas women are secure in their specialness, men are insecure because there is no obvious male equivalent to pregnancy and childbirth, and the social roles that used to be associated with having a male body can now also be occupied by women.

One interesting illustration of this distinction was provided by Kimmel, who said that his research suggests that (hetero?) men and women have the same “plan A” for their lives, which is to find a partner and have a family. He finds that “plan B” differs. For men, the most common alternative is to reclaim the traditional roles of husband, father, and breadwinner, but for women it is to become single parents.

However they play out, I think that both assumptions, that socially it is necessary for men to have some special role associated with their primary and secondary sex characteristics, and that women are already special due to their biological sex characteristics, are problematic. The former assumption is a maneuver for privilege on the basis of sex and gender, while the latter reduces women to the capacities of their bodies. Historically, these two assumptions have worked together to sustain and reproduce patriarchal social relations by asserting claims as to what roles are allegedly “natural” for males and what roles are allegedly “natural” for females, the general result being that women are valued as birthing vessels, while men are valued for “work”.

Both assumptions beg the question of why bio-physical sex traits need to be assigned any particular cultural significance in the first place. I think an argument can be made that it isn’t a new ideal of manhood, and by extension womanhood, that is needed, but a letting go of the need to organize ourselves around those kinds of ideals at all.

In 2005, when Lawrence Summers popped his mouth off about women not being as good as men at math and science, the smartest and most empowering thing I heard from anyone, I think on Talk of The Nation, maybe here, was that individual variation, that is the differences in aptitudes and abilities between actual, individual men, and actual individual, women, both in reference to each other and to other men and other women, is far more pronounced and significant than whatever statistical differences can be found between men and women in aggregate.

Of course a world where people are valued for their individual abilities, curiosities, and passions is a world where you could no longer claim certain prerogatives, or deny those prerogatives to others, on the basis of sex.

In that regard, the retreat into boyhood on the part of young men can be, I think, explained as a way to hold onto male privilege. As described by Kimmel and Hymowitz this preadulthood period is one where men can still live by the adage “boys will be boys”, a cultural sentiment that is essentially about license, or being enabled to indulge oneself because it is in one’s nature to be rowdy, to seek multiple sexual partners, and to see women as play objects. This interpretation is supported by Kimmel’s findings about what many men see as “plan B” for themselves, which is all about traditional male privilege.

Not coincidentally, the plan B for women is all about not giving into the traditional patriarchal family. In both cases, these alternatives can clearly be understood in terms of the different social realities and cultural norms that are applied to men and women more than they are related to any innate differences in male and female natures.

If you can detach yourself from the idea that there is something “essential” to being a boy or man, or a girl or woman, then, effectively, you tell men and boys that they, and not some intrinsic “boyhood” or “manhood”, define and are responsible for the lives they lead.

Instead of trying to manufacture some new version of manhood for boys to aspire to, it makes more sense to me to look at maturity as a matter of boys and men becoming decent, responsible human beings, quite apart from any sense of what life they might think they are “owed” as a result of their sex. That’s a broad mandate, but fundamentally it’s about the quality of the relationships you make with others. A good place to start would be for men and boys to learn to accept women, not as objects, but as full people in their own rights. What Kimmel calls “plan A” for most young people in America right now, which envisions some kind of relationship between equals, seems to hold out hope that people can, in fact, get along without essentialist notions of what men and women can do.

Recommended daily reading – 1 February (nice quotes edition)

I have a series of pointers to pieces with individual quotations that I find to be particularly perceptive, or that articulate views I have in a perfect way. Emphasis is mine.

At CBR’s “She has no Head”, Kelly Thompson presents the Ladies Comics Project, and one of her readers, Nora, has this wonderful comment on women’s bodies in comics:

Not going to lie, I’m always a little disappointed in the insane bust-to-waist-to-hip ratio of comic book ladies (or at least the ones I have seen).  I recognize it as a style, I know it’s fantasy, but, you know, not mine.

Originally linked from Thompson’s 1979 Semi-Finalist.

At the Spacing Toronto blog, economist Hugh McKenzie has this pitch perfect discussion of government revenues and spending. What he says in the interview seems so simple and rational, you would think that we could proceed from this premise in all discussions of public budgets. Sadly, not true.

A city’s means aren’t fixed. A government’s means are determined politically, just as government expenses are determined politically. To say that the City should “live within its means” is to say nothing whatsoever. It only masks an argument for less services. When people make that suggestion, it’s undisclosed code for, “We know the cost of what we’re currently doing is going up and we’re not prepared to see taxes go up every year to pay for it. Therefore, every year we’re going to have to reduce the amount of services being provided.”

Finally, on Crooked Timber, John Quiggin has this insightful comment at the close of a piece on “U.S. decline”:

The main implication of all this, for me, is that Americans should stop worrying about relative “decline”, “competitiveness” and so on, and start focusing on making the US a better place to live.

In other political items, Carla Wise has a piece at High Country News on the lack of USDA approved slaughterhouses and the implications of that lack for small and local farmers, including one of our favorites, Afton Field Farm. And on Mother Jones, Kevin Drum reblogs three questions about events in Egypt and how American neocons are likely to respond to those events.

In comics and art:

  • On Techland, Douglas Wolk has some good advice to owners, or would-be owners of comics shops. I particularly am in favor of promoting points 2 and 3, and would second his statement about the quality of the stores in Portland.
  • At Written World, Ragnell has an interesting take on DC’s announcement of a Wonder Woman-themed cosmetic line.
  • Haven’t linked to Renee French in awhile, but the other day she posted this wonderfully goofy dog. And back on the Spacing Toronto blog is the latest of their lovely “Street Scenes” from Jerry Waese.

Recommended daily reading – 26 January (been longer than I thought edition)

Items that I have been compiling.

From the world of academia:

  • Last week, Michelle Obama gave a little noted talk encouraging study abroad for American college students. Her focus on China is predictable, but I do appreciate that she seems to have grounded that in a broader appeal. It isn’t easy getting Western students to leave the comforts of home, but maybe as the university attracts more international students itself, that will change.
  • On her Cocktail Party Physics blog, Jennifer Ouellette has a great post on Veronica Mars as a model for girls in science.
  • rabble.ca has an interesting post about the University of Toronto General Assembly, which is an attempt on the part of students, faculty, staff, and community to build an alternate governing model for the university.

Turning to comics:

  • Via Ragnell on Written World, is a link to this Metrokitty comic on the “paper mirror” which succinctly explains why diversity in comics matters.
  • On the other side of that debate, Gail Simone on her tumblr blog, tangles with an aspiring comics writer regarding his desire not to be compelled to write a comics with a gay hero.
  • Project:Rooftop recently featured this cool Victorian Batman by Matthew Humphreys.
  • Finally, it isn’t really news anymore, but I learned of the new Batman film casting via Comics Alliance. Right now, I am mostly interested to know what it means that Anne Hathaway has been cast as “Selina Kyle” rather than as Catwoman.

And in urban geography, via Inhabitat, Washington DC unveiled a bike station adjacent to Union Station. On the Spacing Magazine blog, Alex Bozikovic, looks at an interesting contest to design wildlife pathways for major roads and highways. Some very cool ideas. And in my feed at least, via ProgGrrl on Twitter, I found this interesting map showing where in the U.S. it make more sense to rent and where it makes more sense to buy. Culturally, of course, in the U.S. ownership is always assumed to be better.

Recommended daily reading – 10 January (first of the new year late edition)

With the start of the term, I have not had much time to make new posts. Here are some items I have cataloged:

From the world of comics:

  • On Okazu, Erica Friedman has the results of an informal poll concerning “what women want” from the comics they read. The short version: it isn’t that complicated, not matter how mysterious and alien many of the folks at DC and Marvel like to imagine women and girl readers to be.
  • On Techland, Douglas Wolk does some quick analysis of Diamond’s numbers related to the bestselling comics of 2010. It’s interesting to note the extent to which the trade paperback and long form book sales were dominated by independently published titles.
  • On Comics Alliance today, Laura Hudson looks at comments made by the owner of the Heavy Ink comics store regarding last Saturday’s shootings in Arizona and the response by creators such as Gail Simone and Nick Spencer. Anyone who takes this moment to advocate more shooting of public officials clearly has both political and personal problems beyond the scope of comics, but I also think that this episode is an illustration why it is never possible to compartmentalize these kinds of questions as if “comics” and “politics” are separate matters.
  • Via girlsreadcomics on Twitter, is some really cool Amanda Connor art.

In academia:

  • Via Dean Blumberg on Twitter, is a link to this article on the growth in certificate programs at institutions of higher education in the U.S. The article notes that much of this growth is at for-profit schools, but that public institutions are also offering more of these credentials. As someone in the liberal arts, I have my doubts about the value of these programs in the long run, and am concerned that they represent a further degrading of higher education to a kind of narrow vocational training. My institution confirms the trend identified in the piece. Thankfully, the article leads with questions about the value of these certificates to students.
  • At ProHacker, Amy Cavender relates some of her experience trying to teaching an intro level class without resort to a traditional textbook. Her efforts, and conclusions, mirror some of my own.

Finally, Dwell has started a project to map “The World’s Best Public Spaces”. Check it out and contribute if you have a favorite.

Recommended daily reading – 1 December (a new month edition)

A few items I have collected:

At Inside Higher Education is a debate about the value of the humanities that begins with Gregory Petsko’s open letter to SUNY-Albany’s president, George Phillip, regarding his announcement of cuts to various language and arts departments. Petsko makes the case for the humanities as valuable to a variety of life paths, and not just in reference to a specific job or career track, and also argues for the university’s role in ‘preserving knowledge’ as well as training for the present. The comments, of course, are interesting, too, Petsko seems to have his own private troll, and then there is this puzzling follow-up from University of Illinois English lecturer, Kristin Wilcox. I write ‘puzzling’ because, as a few commenters point out, Wilcox, while appreciating Petsko’s defense of the humanities, also sees his perspective as naive, but she does not directly suggest how the humanities should be valued if not in the way that Petsko argues.

On Written World is a pointed comment on a recent discussion of Jessica Alba’s performance in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, where Alba was directed to “be prettier” when she cried. Alba expressed some anguish at being told to be less ‘real’ in her performance, and more like the object of beauty the director and producers had in mind then they cast her. This story is interesting for how keenly aware of her objectification Alba is, I think many would assume that she would not be, and also because the critique at Written World of the response to her is clear and incisive.

Two items of cool: (via Robot 6) a This American life poster reproducing a panel from the Nation X comics, and this ‘cinematic’ wallpaper at BLDGBLOG.

Recommended daily reading – 17 November (been a week edition)

Here are a few items from the last few days:

On “She Has No Head!”, Kelly Thompson lists her twenty favorite female comics characters (link via Thompson’s blog). I think she makes good cases for all of the selections, but notable exclusions for me are: Kate Spencer/Manhunter, Helena Bertenelli/Huntress, Liz Sherman (B.P.R.D. and Hellboy), Tamsin from Skeleton Key, and Esther de Groot from Scary Go Round and Giant Days. If I were to really do this exercise, I would seriously consider Patsy Walker/Hellcat, Elsa Bloodstone (NEXT Wave), and Bethany Black (Strange Girl). I’m not sure if or how autobiographical characters fit into these kinds of discussions, but Marjane Satrapi would certainly make me want to think about it. As always, the tough question is who to take off of the original list.

Addendum: one of the fun and frustrating things about these lists is that once your brain starts working on them, it’s hard to let go. So, on further thought, Melaka Fray (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) would likely be on my still hypothetical alternate selection, and it would be hard to leave off Hopey and Isabel from Love & Rockets, but not specifically as replacements for Maggie.

Torontoist has a feature on artist Sean Martindale’s urban art project that uses condo ads to make pup tents, a clever comment on housing and inequality and property rights and public space.

Finally, a cute, but kind of mournful looking, little treat from Renee French.