Category Archives: Education

Pornography For—and As—Education?

by Ann Millett-Gallant

"Belle Knox."

“Belle Knox.”

As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles)* who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.

I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.

She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.

The issues raised by this case relate directly to two of my BLS classes, Photography: Contexts and Illusions (BLS 345) and Representing Women (BLS 348).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.

Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

(Follow this link to see more of Sherman’s work at MOMA).

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.

(See more of Renee Cox’s work at her website here).

Renee Cox, Olympia's Boyz, 2001.

Renee Cox, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?

I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.

In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.

My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.

On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.

Belle Knox on The View.

Belle Knox on The View.

The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.

———

* Editor’s note: “Belle Knox” is the name under which she performs, and “Lauren” was a pseudonym assigned by a journalist before she went public with her performing name. Neither is her actual name, which is known, but will not be used here because it is not clear that she has given consent for that name to be circulated.

The One State

by Carrie Levesque

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

It was that time of year again, when my Russian Novel of Conscience class was discussing possible areas of overlap between the futuristic society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We and contemporary American culture. In Zamyatin’s highly regulated One State, citizens (known as “numbers”) live in ecstatic conformity and “mathematically infallible happiness,” having abandoned the “savage freedom” that we know today to happily accept the “beneficent yoke of reason” and blissful “unfreedom.” Their lives, lived in glass houses, are watched over by an omnipotent Benefactor and ordered by a Table of Hours that keeps everyone moving in “million-headed unison” all day, every day. When a group of rebels seeks to bring down the totalitarian state with dangerous reminders of the numbers’ humanity (emotion! individuality!), the state takes drastic steps to inoculate its citizens against the most dreaded contagion: Imagination.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in another dystopia that looks much like I imagine Zamyatin's to look.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in a dystopia styled after Zamyatin’s We.

While this novel easily calls to mind our current concerns about the modern American surveillance state or our uncritical conformity to various media’s ideas of perfection, this time around it also made me think about experiences I’ve had here in Norway (once called “the last Soviet state” by a Swedish finance minister who thought he was off-mic). You see, my child has recently been diagnosed with the disease of “imagination.”

A few months after starting kindergarten here, my older daughter was having some trouble adjusting. From time to time, she would act out in disruptive and silly ways, and she was making up stories about our family that raised the staff’s concern. Through a parent-teacher strategizing session, we discussed how to help her feel less overwhelmed socially and linguistically, and my husband and I clarified that we did not really share our home with her “brothers” James, Logan, Kendall, and the prone-to-biting Baby Carlos. As many parents of tweens may recognize, my daughter was not being abused by a voracious, unsupervised baby; she was just obsessed with the television boy-band Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

While they were mostly satisfied with this explanation, at the end of our meeting, there were lingering concerns. “But aren’t you worried that she has imagination?” they asked delicately, cringing slightly, as if asking about an embarrassing disorder she had. Though we explained that in the US, it was normal for children her age to make up stories during play like our daughter did, they seemed unconvinced. “We think you should keep on eye on it,” they concluded soberly.

Nearly a year later, I would interpret this strange encounter through the pervasive Janteloven lens of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is, as defined pretty succinctly by this blogger, “a principle which places importance on equality and egalitarianism while discouraging individuality and personal success or in other words, standing out.”

Being like everyone else—in one’s appearance, in one’s behavior—is prized above all else in Norway because it makes everyone comfortable, or so the thinking goes. When people behave in unexpected or “imaginative” ways (say, singing to yourself, doing a little happy dance when you receive some good news, basically any “excessive” show of positive emotion), it makes people uncomfortable because you are standing out. You are out of step with the five-million-headed unison of Norwegian life. It is believed that people who act differently and do not conform to the norm do so because they think they are “better” in some way, even if there’s nothing arrogant about the “aberrant” behavior.

The crowd. Don't stand out.

The crowd. Don’t stand out.

In few places is this law more strongly enforced and engrained than in Norwegian schools. Here there is strong pressure from both peers and teachers to meet—but not exceed!—expectations. Excelling academically only makes others feel bad and makes you look like a jerk. There is no tracking, no grades, no gifted classes, and things move along rather slowly at the elementary level to keep everyone on the same page. It’s March of my daughter’s first-grade year and they just wrapped up discussion of the letter B (though I should explain that the letters are taught out of order, in what appears to be a manifestation of Alphabet Janteloven: why should Z always come at the end? A, B and C must learn that they cannot always come first!).

The Norwegian One State may not have a Table of Hours, but they do have a rather amusing Table of Days. Should we take the reckless step of making tacos on a day other than Taco Friday, we keep the windows closed, so as not to arouse the disapproving curiosity of our neighbors. If we are caught allowing our children to enjoy a dessert or some candy on a day that is not Saturday, when Norwegian children get to indulge in a bag of candy after a week of self-denial, we are sure to invite stares, comments and questions.

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

My (American) mother-in-law tells a great story from when she was living with her Norwegian mother-in-law and decided one fine day that she felt like baking a cake. “On a Wednesday?!” her horrified mother-in-law asked. Tense debate ended in compromise: My mother-in-law could bake the cake on Wednesday, but her mother-in-law insisted it be placed in the freezer until Saturday, a more acceptable day for such indulgences.

For decades, anthropologists have classified societies according to how strictly they hold members to certain norms. “Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm. Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior” (Psychology Today). When an international team of social scientists recently surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries to rank the world’s tightest and loosest societies, Norway ranked 6th tightest, behind countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore (and ahead of Turkey, Japan and China). “A shocking surprise!” said no expat living in Norway, ever.

Tomoko Sawada's face 41 times in a shot from her book School Days; a commentary on conformity in Japan.

From Tomoko Sawada’s School Days, a commentary on conformity in Japan
(look closely; the teacher and each of the forty students is Sawada herself).

There is no marching to your own drummer here. There is no letting your freak flag fly. Oh, how we miss our American brethren and their freak flags! People who burst into song in public, who don’t hesitate to engage a stranger who looks like they’re feeling down and in need of a mood lightener. There is a street performer here who’s often out in the city center playing peppy Russian folk songs on his accordion, and my girls and I always give him money simply because he’s “the guy who brings the joy,” something few Norwegians would dream of doing in a public space. Joy is to be kept under wraps!

I hope this musician keeps bringing the joy. I hope it spreads, wildly.

Studying in Ghana

by Nargiza Kiger, BLS student, Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza in Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza Kiger in Tamale, Ghana.

I am in the middle of my online midterm test, and rather confident that I know the material, but becoming anxious because the test has a limited time and my internet connection is being torturously slow. I click to submit my answer, and watch the precious seconds go past, becoming more anxious as I wait for the next question to finally appear. I answer it…click…and wait again.

That’s when the power goes out.

Cussing and feeling defeated I storm outside to calm myself. The last time the power went out (the day before the test), it lasted for over twelve hours. In my head I am already drafting yet another email to my professor trying to explain my situation. “Just don’t make it sound like one of those excuses professors get from students all the time,” I tell myself as the security guard approaches me.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

I have been living in the West African region since 2011—the same year I became a student at UNCG—and since then I have been taking my classes from Nigeria and Ghana. Living in West Africa is exciting and rewarding both on a personal and a professional level, and the new phenomenon of “distance learning” creates huge opportunities for a student like me, who can live in Ghana and take online classes from an American University. However, living in and taking online classes from Tamale has its own set of challenges. Sudden power losses and slow, at times non-functioning internet are common situations. Reliable internet access and reliable electricity are rare. As a distance learner I face these challenges on daily basis. It can be maddening.

As Ibrahim the security guard approached me, I wanted to vent my frustration and complain to someone about how challenging it is to be a distance learner when you have such poor infrastructure around you. In the course of our conversation something special happened that made me reflect back on the bigger picture and why am I a student in the first place. He brought me back to reality, and now any time I am frustrated about my tests, quizzes and mid term exams, I remember the story of Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim

Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim is a 22-year-old young man who wants to be a medical nurse. He was the oldest son of a farmer who relied on him greatly in managing the farm. When Ibrahim was 14 an educational project “Literacy and Development through Partnership” came to his community. This project focused on adult education and taught them how to write and read in English, the formal language of Ghana. Ibrahim joined the project and started going to night school after long, labor-intensive days in his family farm. Only at the age of 14 did he have access to basic education that I had had access to at the age of 7 growing up in Uzbekistan.

In rural parts of Ghana basic education can easily become a burden for parents. In rural Ghana a person on average lives on $2 USD a day. Although the education itself free from 1st grade to 9th grade, if you want to go to high school you have to pay on average 100 Ghana Cedi ($50 USD) per academic year. Private schools are 4-5 times higher. Because Ibrahim wanted to further acquire his higher education, it was crucial to graduate from high school.

Ibrahim committed to his night school education so much that his uncle noticed his abilities and convinced Ibrahim’s farther to let Ibrahim go to high school. In the following farming seasons, his father encouraged Ibrahim to hire some assistance in the field, so he could spend less time on the field and more at school. Ibrahim joined the junior high school at the age of 17 and graduated from High School in 2013 at the age of 22. He paid for his school from the small profits he made from growing rice. He told me that one year he had such a bad yield (6 sacks of rise) that he did not have any money or rice left when he paid his school expenses.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim told me that he was surrounded with classmates who were much younger than him and always felt a bit ashamed, but he said that adult students like him tend to have clearer goals and have less time to “play around.” Now he is studying for his standardized entrance exam for the Nursing School. He tells me that it is very competitive and mostly not based on merits. Since he has no connections to the influential people at nursing school, he says that he has to only rely on his abilities and knowledge. At the same time the educational system favors those with financial capabilities. Ibrahim says that if a person pays about $5,000 in bribes to “the right person,” the person’s place at the Nursing school can be secured without any exams. He knows that it is impossible for him to save up that much money working as a security guard and making about $150 a month. So, he is determined to challenge himself and take the test. He told me that most of his salary and harvested rice is spent on his siblings’ education. He wants them to be educated at much earlier age than he was.

The day Ibrahim and I shared our educational journeys was the day I told myself that I will not feel frustrated over small challenges and will do my best to focus on the bigger picture. Ibrahim’s story made me reflect on educational journeys that many young people go through in different parts of the world, facing their own challenges. Most of us in the United States are lucky to have the opportunities in front of us. We only have to recognize them and take advantage of them. Immense resources and technology make education even more accessible. Online education has become a widely used approach in non-traditional education. It definitely allows me to achieve my educational progress from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Ibrahim’s reading spot under the mango tree.

Ibrahim and I became good buddies since our bond over our educational goals. We both encourage each other in our so different world, and remind each other of our ultimate goals in this journey. Recognizing poor availability and access of the resources for Ibrahim, I now share my books with him, as he is very nervous about passing English on his big test.

—–

Nargiza Kiger (rhymes with “tiger”), a senior in the BLS Social Sciences concentration, currently lives in Tamale, Ghana with her husband. A resident of North Carolina, she finished her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Technical Community College before coming to UNCG. Prior to that, she grew up and started her education in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and she speaks enough languages that the College foreign language requirement probably won’t be an issue for her.

Santa, Jesus, and Race

by Matt McKinnon

So, as I’m sure most of you have heard, Santa Claus and Jesus are both White.  They just are.  And these are historical facts.

1

Megyn Kelly.

Or so proclaimed Fox television personality Megyn Kelly on her show The Kelly File, while discussing an article by Slate contributor Aisha Harris proposing that the beloved American icon be “made over” in a more culturally neutral manner. (Harris’s suggestion is a cartoon gift-bearing penguin complete with red suit and obviously fake beard.)

What ensued was a predictable lampooning by late-night comedians and news commentators, followed by Fox News’ just as predicable recalcitrant dismissal of a “liberal media’s” obsession with race and race-baiting.  For her part, Ms. Kelly refused to apologize for her position, calling the entire episode “tongue-in-cheek,” though she did acknowledge that the issue of Jesus’ ethnicity is “unsettled.”

2

Harris’ Santa (illustration by Mark Stamaty).

There are many issues here that deserve commentary and discussion, not the least of which is Ms. Harris’ initial suggestion that an ethnically-neutral Santa Claus is much better suited for a multi-ethnic culture like that of the contemporary United States than the image of fat white man landing on rooftops and essentially performing what would be interpreted as “breaking and entering” in most legal jurisdictions.  (And at least one comedian has suggested the ramifications for a black counterpart, given the Stand Your Ground laws in places like Florida.)

But I, like most in the entertainment and media industries, am more interested in what Kelly said, and how she said it, than in what precipitated it.

Kelly, of course, was simply pointing out what most Americans probably assume: Santa Claus as a fictionalized character is based on the historical fourth century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra.  Santa has always been portrayed as a white man because, duh, his likeness is based on a real white man.  The notion that he can be portrayed any other way than that of mainstream American culture and its hegemonic ethnicity (white) is practically unthinkable—at least by white folks in the mainstream.

In fact, when watching the video from the show, it is more Kelly’s insistence of the brute factuality of Santa’s (and Jesus’s) ethnicity that is so problematic—and not necessarily her position.

And on this subject, a few ideas deserve discussion.

First and most obvious is that what the historical Saint Nicholas and Jesus both share is, if not a common ethnicity, then at least a common geography and culture—that of the Hellenistic Near East.  And while Nicholas was most probably a Greek from “Asia Minor,” and Jesus a Palestinian Jew, neither of them would have considered himself “white”—and would probably not be considered so by today’s use of the term.  So if Santa Claus is simply a reinterpretation of the Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, then Ms. Kelly is mistaken: neither he (nor Jesus) is white.

They just aren’t.

A forensic reconstruction of St. Nicholas' face, surrounded by his image in traditional icons.

St. Nicholas’ face, in a forensic reconstruction and traditional icons.

But, without getting into the specifics, our Santa Claus’s development most probably owes more to Pagan characters, practices, and legends than he does to the Christian bishop of Myra.  And so, arguably, on this point, Kelly is correct: Santa Claus, inasmuch as he evolves from Germanic mythology, is “white” or Northern European (though the same cannot be said for Jesus).

3

A Medieval European “Wild Man.”

Of course, the real issue in all of this is the assumption that Santa is white—must be white, can only be white—whether rooted in history or mythology.  And that is the assumption of hegemony: Where whiteness is the presumed sole and legitimate norm.  Where the way things are is the way they have been and should be.

And pointing this out to someone who is oblivious to the ubiquity of whiteness in our culture can be awkward, unsettling, and even shocking.

Hence the insistence that Santa, like Jesus, is white—without any thought or consideration that such a proclamation may be controversial or that it could possibly be historically and culturally conditioned—tells us more about the speaker, her audience, and our culture than it does about either Santa or Jesus.

But this is not to belittle Ms. Kelly or chasten her about her firmly-held beliefs and ethnic identity.  For the real “White Man’s (sic) Burden” is not to rule over and “civilize” the non-White world, but rather to recognize and confront examples of “White Privilege” in our pluralistic and multi-ethnic culture.  And while there are much more important aspects of white privilege in present day America (like being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to jail far less often than non-whites for similar crimes), the ubiquity of whiteness as the aesthetical norm is not to be dismissed.

But this is easier said than done, since, while the ubiquity of whiteness is quite obvious to most non-white folks, it tends to be invisible to most whites.

And the same thing that happened to Ms. Kelly happened to me, though I was seven years old and in the second grade at the time.

I had the same reaction to the “Black Santa” that my African-American teacher Mrs. Watson had put up on her classroom wall: “Santa Claus is not black.  He’s white,” I thought to myself, aghast at the suggestion.  Luckily, I didn’t have a television show to proclaim this, and didn’t actually articulate it to any of my classmates either.

But the memory has stayed with me—as one where, for the first time, I was confronted with the hegemony of my own culture: me, a little white boy bused from my mostly white neighborhood to school in the projects: a minority among minorities, but whose whiteness was still the norm.

Or should be, as I mistakenly assumed then.

4

Still from the Good Times episode “Black Jesus” (1974).

And around the same time (1974) and in much the same way, I was confronted by the “Black Jesus” episode on Good Times, where JJ had used Ned the Wino as the model for his painting of the Christ, since—being passed out in the gutter—he was the only one who could hold the pose long enough for JJ to paint.

Much later, of course, I was confronted by a long history of Jesus being portrayed in the varying ethnicity of the portrayers—across the centuries, from Asia to Africa to Europe and the Americas.

An Ethiopian Jesus and a Chinese Jesus

Jesus in Ethiopian and Chinese depictions.

And then by the African-American Liberation Theologian James Cone’s insistence that “Jesus is a black man,” in that, according to Christian theology, God comes to his people in the guise of the most repressed and outcast among us.  And in the United States, the reasoning goes, who has been more marginalized than the African slave?

But, arguably, I may not have been as sympathetic and understanding of art history or liberation theology had I not first been confronted in the privileged place of my whiteness in American culture by folks like Mrs. Watson, and the producers, writers, and cast of Good Times.

So what is troubling in Ms. Kelly’s remarks is not her assumption that both Santa and Jesus are white—but her insistence that they are, an insistence that suggests that she has probably never been confronted by the hegemony of her whiteness or the problems that such an unyielding hegemony can produce, at least in a multi-ethnic culture like ours where the power to portray is the power to influence.

It is the catering to the very understandable perspective of a certain portion of the American public that times are changing, have changed, and that “their America,” for better or worse, is gone and not coming back.  And while such a perspective is frightening and should be met with sympathy and sensitivity in order to soothe and diffuse it, it is usually met with a demagoguery of entrenchment from the one side and outright scorn from the other.

Where are Mrs. Watson and JJ when we need them?

(Of course, I must admit, I don’t particularly care for the Penguin Santa myself, whatever ethnicity it is.)

Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

by Carey Terhune, BLS Humanities student
introduced by Ann Millett-Gallant

The students in my BLS 346: “The Art of Life” class had an assignment to write a review of an art exhibition or a work of public art.  One of my students, Carey Terhune, wrote this strong review of the Willie Cole exhibition, which is on view at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum through December 15.  Carey is originally from Orange County, California and now lives in High Point, NC with her husband and 3 children.  She is currently a student in the BLS program and aspires to be a book or film critic and to write her own book one day.  When she is not doing school work or taking care of her kids, she enjoys writing, blogging, entertaining and cooking with her great friends, and traveling with her family.

Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, Mask

Man, Spirit, Mask (1999)

 Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

The artist Willie Cole is known for transforming ordinary objects into symbolic representations, with themes ranging from the African slave trade and West African tribal traditions to American urban life and personal identity. In his exhibition entitled “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works,” Cole presents a collection of forty pieces from across his professional career, covering a range of artistic mediums, including three dimensional sculptures, drawings, embossing, and prints.  This collection in particular features found objects, such as old hairdryers, discarded high heeled shoes, and most prevalently, the steam iron, which pervades the majority of his work.  Cole exemplifies what Michael Kimmelman describes in his book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, as the kind of artist who celebrates the beauty in ordinary things. Kimmelman reminds us that, “it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it…” (214). Cole revitalizes and transforms the ordinary, and it is with these uniquely simple elements that he invites us to mine our way through this exhibition and experience the complexity of his work.

Having spent the majority of his life in Newark, New Jersey, as the eldest son in a primarily matriarchal family, Willie Cole’s work is anchored in his love of urban life, and respect for feminine power. He identifies himself as an “urban archaeologist,” (Joyner) creating his work from a global perspective, and representing the human experience.  It is obvious that Cole has a very personal connection with all of the pieces in this collection, which is apparent from the moment one enters the gallery at Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The very first piece we encounter, Self Portrait, ca. 1979, is a simple pastel drawing on a brown paper bag just inside the main entrance to the gallery. Cole uses vibrant pastel colors to highlight his face as if reflecting the glow of inner-city lights at night. This image seems to be welcoming visitors to the exhibit, and introducing Cole as the artist.

Willie Cole, Shoe Bouquet

Shoe Bouquet (2009)

As we continue through the spacious gallery, painted white from floor to ceiling, we encounter one of Cole’s featured pieces, Shoe Bouquet, 2009, constructed out of wood, screws, metal, staples, and hundreds of worn-out, women’s, high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. The leather and varying fabrics of the shoes are bent and curled into giant flowers seeming to create a four-foot-high bouquet. It is positioned in the center of the first segment of the gallery because it is truly meant to be experienced from all sides. Each flower reveals layers of dimension and texture, calling attention to the bottoms of most of the shoes, as if to salute the miles walked in them by hundreds of women. It’s as if he’s returning the shoes to their original beauty by transforming them into this symbolic gift to women.

Moving forward through the gallery we pass by some of his beautiful prints, drawings and photographs featuring images of West African tribal traditions infused with countless steam iron impressions.  To the left we encounter, Double Headed Gas Snake, 1997, a sculpture constructed of articulating sheet metal hoses with metal nozzles and rebar. It resembles a giant snake with two heads, which seem to be fighting one another. This is another reference to Cole’s urban upbringing, in that it addresses the issues of urban violence, and acknowledges its presence as an intricate part of the beauty of inner-city life.

Willie Cole, Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Progressing further we encounter Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4, 2007, a pale pink pigmented, cotton liner paper with embossing, cut by water stream. This piece at first seems somewhat dull and monochromatic compared with some of his more vibrant works, but as we move closer it becomes clearer that these large, snowflake-like paper cutouts are more symbolic of Cole’s artistic style. They are delicate, as if to appeal to women, featuring layered impressions of steam irons. And yet, they have a slightly dirty and torn appearance, fitting right in with the urban themes of the exhibition. An even closer look reveals details that connect it to Cole’s tribal themes as well, including dozens of tiny spears and overlapping steam iron cutouts that resemble tribal masks at the corners of each of the four pieces.

Cole continues this collaboration of themes in several other pieces throughout the exhibition. Examples include a tribal mask constructed out of dismantled antique hairdryers; an oversized antique ironing board that resembles a tribal shield, embellished with steam-iron-scorched markings; and a sculpture assembled using parts of an old bicycle that resembles an African mask dance figure.

Willie Cole, Wind Mask

Wind Mask (1991)

Nearing the end of the exhibition, on a large white wall shared with just one other piece, hangs Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999, a three-part image in which Cole utilizes photo etching, a silkscreen, and wood to artfully draw the viewer into his private world. In this piece we are able to see how Cole’s identity is interwoven with the elements and themes of his work.  This piece arranges a photo etching of the artist, a steam iron scorched impression, and a tribal mask print. They are displayed side by side, representing the man, the spirit, and the mask. All resemble one another in scale, size, shape, and color, and all seem to express the same stalwart gaze, but are different parts of the whole person, as an artist. With so many varying mediums represented in this collection, Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999 seems to merge these components into one powerful representation of the artist himself. We begin our exploration of this collection with the simple yet captivating greeting of his Self Portrait, ca.1979, and by the end we understand Willie Cole, and his bold and soulful exhibition, on a more personal level. This melding of artistic inspirations using commonplace items defines Cole’s work in this collection and throughout his career, reminding us that beauty and meaning can be found in the most ordinary objects, which are “accessible to us all, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them” (Kimmelman, 214).

Works Cited

Joyner, Amy. “Found Object Sparks Theme in Artist Willie Cole’s Work.News and Record. Web. 5 October 2013.

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Jumping the Shark

By Marc Williams

The Fonz

In 1977, the television sit-com Happy Days began its fifth season with an audacious episode that was different in tone from its first four years of episodes, it took the viewers by surprise. Happy Days’ appeal had always been its nostalgic attitude toward the 1950’s and the likable, down-to-earth characters around whom each episode focused. The motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing heartthrob, Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli–played by Henry Winkler–was the epitome of cool and remains an icon of coolness today.

Unexpectedly, in the fifth season’s premiere episode, the Fonz decided to prove his bravery by jumping over a shark while water skiing. It was a baffling moment in television history. The first four years of the show had nothing to do with water skiing and the Fonz had never been the kind of character who needed to “prove himself” to anyone. More superficially, viewers weren’t accustomed to seeing the Fonz in swimming trunks. It was an odd episode after which the series could never be the same–a point of no return. This moment gave birth to the phrase “jumping the shark,” a term coined by John Hein to describe the moment when a television show betrays its origins–perhaps suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas. Often, shows are thought to have jumped the shark when a key character leaves the show, or if an important new character is introduced. Hein started a website dedicated to the phenomenon, where readers can debate the moment in which their favorite television shows jumped the shark. Hein sold the website in 2006 but the site is still active.

Here’s a clip (via YouTube) of Fonzie’s famous shark jump:

The website argues that virtually any creative endeavor can jump the shark: musical groups, movies, advertising and political campaigns, and so on. But can an educational television program jump the shark? Some have argued that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has done so.

For years, Shark Week has provided viewers fascinating documentaries about recent shark research and has captured some truly eye-popping footage. For example, the images captured in a 2001 Shark Week episode entitled “Air Jaws” captured some of the most stunning nature film I’ve ever seen–images of enormous great white sharks leaping completely out of the water, attacking seals and seal decoys. Like nearly everything one expects to see on The Discovery Channel, Shark Week is usually both entertaining and educational.

Clip from Air Jaws

Click to view a clip from “Air Jaws”

When watching that spectacular 2001 episode, I wondered to myself–”how will Discovery Channel ever top this?” What shark footage could possibly compete with these amazing images? How will they possibly attract viewers next year? Not surprisingly, Discovery Channel dedicated many of its subsequent Shark Week shows over the past twelve years to more footage of jumping great whites–and not much else. Perhaps the producers acknowledged that indeed, they simply couldn’t surpass the spectacle of “Air Jaws.” Until the 2013 installment of Shark Week, that is.

“Megalodon” was the centerpiece of Shark Week 2013, a documentary about the prehistoric shark that paleontologists believe grew to lengths of 60 feet or more. I’ve always been fascinated by megalodon; my older brother was a shark enthusiast when we were young and I vividly recall him showing me a photo of fossilized megalodon jaws he found in a book–I couldn’t believe that such an enormous creature ever lived. I was awed by the thought of it. Naturally, when I read that Discovery Channel was featuring Megalodon in its 2013 Shark Week series, I set my DVR.

The episode begins with some amateur video footage from a fishing party aboard a boat off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The amateur footage ends with some fearsome crashes and the viewer then learns that the footage was recovered from the boat’s wreckage–and that none of the young passengers survived. When my wife and I watched the episode, we both thought the footage looked a little too polished to be amateur footage. My wife said she didn’t remember hearing anything on the news of a horrible boating accident and I didn’t remember such a story either.

Viewers were then introduced to a self-proclaimed expert in mysterious oceanic events: a dubious specialty, held by a man who was perhaps a bit too comfortable in front of the documentarian’s camera.

As the program continues, viewers learn that megalodon may not be extinct after all! And of course, in true Shark Week fashion, there was some stunning footage that offered tantalizing glances of what might be a live megalodon in the ocean. The ocean is a huge place, we’re reminded, and new species are discovered every year. The coelacanth, for instance, was thought to be extinct for over 60 million years until a live specimen was discovered in 1938. Even very large animals like giant squid and megamouth sharks have only been recently captured on film, so the evidence supporting a modern-day megalodon simply can’t be dismissed.

Clip from Megalodon

Click to view a clip from “Megalodon”

The program was extremely entertaining and was easily the most exciting Shark Week show I’ve seen since “Air Jaws.” And not surprisingly, “Megalodon” received the highest ratings in the history of Shark Week. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, it was all a hoax. Like Animal Planet’s 2012 documentary on mermaids, all of the nature footage and expert testimonies were fabrications. My wife and I hadn’t heard about the vanished boating party on the news because, of course, there never was a boating party. There was virtually nothing true about Discovery Channel’s “Megalodon.” But many viewers were fooled, and subsequently criticized the network for misleading and humiliating the audience.

What do you think? By airing a work of fiction–and presenting it as truth–did Shark Week jump the shark? Have the producers run out of ideas? Have they abandoned Shark Week’s reputation? Or were Shark Week viewers naive all along for seeking education through commercial television?

The First Day of School

by Matt McKinnon

Well, it ain’t what it used to be.  The first day of school, I mean.

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And I don’t just mean the back-to-school shopping, though that has changed a lot, to be sure.

We did most of ours online this year, since navigating Walmart.com is a LOT more appealing than navigating an actual Walmart.

And since many public schools have gone to uniforms, there’s not really much fun in back-to-school clothing shopping with the kids:

“How about the khaki pants and red polo shirt?”

“No, I won’t be caught dead in those.”

“Okay, then there’s always the red polo shirt and khaki pants.”

McKinnon Boys on First Day of School

Gone are the days, at least for those of us in uniform schools, where back-to-school shopping was a creative endeavor to get the coolest outfits possible, actually enjoying the prospect of new clothes.

Toughskins jeans.  Converse Chuck Taylor hightops (later surpassed by real leather offerings from Addidas and Nike).  Cool football jerseys.  A new jean jacket.

Toughskins

Man, those were the days.

And it didn’t cost $250.00 to fully outfit two kids for the entire school year.  (Or at least until they get stains all over their shirts and wear holes in the knees of their pants.  Do kids not wear patches on pants anymore?)

And picking out your clothes for the first day of school was just as exciting, and became even more important the older you got.  After all, I had to make a nice impression on those 10-year old girls I was not going to talk to.  Or even look at.

But now the shopping carts are virtual and the clothing is all the same: red polo shirts and khaki pants.  Maybe shorts.  If you’re feeling crazy…navy blue.

Of course, school supply shopping is still best done at an actual store, especially since the local Walmart and OfficeMax and Staples all have lists sent to them by the school district and even the local schools.  And then there’s the additional list that the teacher sends out.

Back to School SuppliesThe cumulative effect of all this is that there are three lists for each of our two elementary-age kids that my wife and I have to carry around with a real shopping cart (the one with the wheel that won’t swivel right), juggling from one list to the other, trying to mark off what we have while we search for what we still need, all the while trying unsuccessfully to keep items not on the list out of the basket.  (How we ended up with a “Duck Dynasty” pillow in the cart I will never know.)

Not to mention that our high school junior is too cool even to shop with everybody else, so we had to make a special late-night black-ops trip, just he and I, outfitted in dark clothing and sunglasses, so no one he knows will see him…with his dad…shopping at Walmart of all places.

And not to mention that the entire school supply deal set us back about $150.00.  A hundred and fifty dollars?!  For notebooks and paper and pencils?

Yes.  And pens, and erasers, and binders in every size and color imaginable.  And glue and glue sticks.  And highlighters, and rulers, and note cards, and composition books.  And more binders.  And pencil boxes, no wait, they have to be bags with three holes to fit in the binder.  And lunch boxes.  And Clorox Wipes and Kleenex (are those really our responsibility?  Whatever happened to that green stuff the janitor would just spread around on the floor when some kid threw up?)  And we still can’t find any graph paper.  Does Walmart have something against graph paper?  Are American kids just not expected to plot graphs anymore?  No wonder we’re falling behind the rest of the developed world.  I bet they have graph paper in Sweden.

But I digress.

I’m not talking about any of that.

No, what I mean when I say that the first day of school ain’t what it used to be is that, as someone who taught mainly face-to-face classes for years but who now teaches entirely online, the first day of school just isn’t quite the same.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am NOT complaining.

Just observing.  (I tell my wife this all the time.)

First Day of Class

There used to be a nervous energy about the first day of class—when that meant standing in front of a theatre-size room of 100 students or so.  There was electricity in seeing the fresh faces of students experiencing their very first day of college, or even in the nonchalant smoothness of seniors who had waited until the very last moment to complete their GEC credit.

There was magic in the anticipation of how hard the course might be, or how boring the professor was, or how anything I was saying would have any bearing on anyone’s intended career.

I used to enjoy coming up with new ways to start the first day: by proclaiming to the class, for example, that the only thing I hated more than the first day of class was…the next day of class.  Or by moving everybody outside to enjoy the weather.  Or even sitting at a desk like everybody else: just sitting, waiting, and watching as the time for class to start came and went, and still no teacher.  And then getting up abruptly, as if annoyed, audibly mumbling something to the effect that if nobody else is going to teach the damn course, then I might as well.

Yes, those were the days.

But those days are gone.

And again, don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining.  Only observing.

I love teaching online, and have come to see what we do in the BLS program as not just a service to the University, but more importantly, as a service to students—some of whom may not be able to take classes or finish their degree any other way.

And my students, overall, tend to be older, more mature, more driven, and actually interested in what is being taught.

And there is certainly energy and magic in the first day, though clicking on a link to make the course available doesn’t quite compare to bounding around a lecture hall like Phil Donahue in his prime.

No; it’s just not quite the same.

Even though this year I tried.

Fresh Shave and a Haircut

I got a haircut.  I took a shower.  Heck, I even shaved, and thought about adding some color to my graying beard before deciding against it.

And then I sat down, clicked on “Make Course Available,” and…

Well, nothing happened.  At least nothing spectacular.

For that, I’ll have to wait for the next 48 days—or however many are in this first session.

But of course, it’s not that bad…

After all, other than strippers, “escorts,” and the occasional politician, who else do you know can go to work not wearing pants?

Comforts of Home

Yes, there’s something to be said for the comforts of home.

“So, You Pastor a Church?”

by Matt McKinnon

I'm no pastor and I don't play one on TV.

I’m no pastor, and I don’t play one on TV.

It’s a question I used to get all the time, mostly from me and my wife’s family members.  Good, God-fearing folks (for the most part) who simply assumed that devoting one’s professional life to the study of religion must mean being a pastor—since “religion” must be synonymous with “church.”  Why else would someone spend upwards of eight years in school (after undergrad?!) studying various religions and even languages few people on earth still use?

And while one of my three degrees in religious studies is from a non-denominational “divinity” school (Yale) and my doctorate from a Roman Catholic university (Marquette), my degrees themselves are academic, preparations for scholarship in the academy and not the pulpit.  But that still hasn’t stopped folks from asking the above question, and has also led to invitations to offer prayer at family gatherings, read scripture at special events, and even give short homilies when the situation arises.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a pastor, or priest, or imam, or rabbi.  Plenty of good folks are in these lines of work, many of whom I have studied alongside of in pursuing my education.  My wife’s cousin, in fact, is a Baptist preacher—a wonderful man who is much more qualified to pray and preach and—God forbid—counsel folks than me.  So the problem is not my disdain for this profession: the problem is that it is not my profession.

But the real issue here is not what I do but rather the underlying problem that most folks have in understanding exactly what “religious studies” does—and how it is different from “theology” and the practice of religion.

This was never as clear as in the recent Fox News interview of religious studies scholar Reza Aslan about his new book on Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

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Lauren Green

Lauren Green

Never mind that Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green gives a horrible interview, spending much more time on what critics have to say about Aslan’s book than on the book itself.  For while this may be bad, even worse is that it becomes painfully clear that she probably has not read the book—and may have not even perused even the first two pages.  But what is most troubling here is that the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network is working with the same misunderstandings and ignorance of what exactly religious studies is and what religious studies scholars do as regular folks who are not RELIGION CORRESPONDENTS.

Zealot

Aslan’s Zealot

Her assumption is that the story here, the big scoop, the underlying issue with Aslan’s book about Jesus is that…the author is a Muslim.  And not just a Muslim, but one who used to be a Christian.  Despite Aslan’s continued attempts to point out that he has a PhD in religious studies, has been studying religions for over twenty years, and has written many books dealing with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, Ms. Green cannot get past what she—and many of his critics—see as the real issue: he is a Muslim writing a “controversial” book about Jesus—the “founder” of Christianity as she calls him.

Now I put “controversial” in quotations because, as anyone even remotely aware of scholarship on Christianity knows, the most “controversial” of his claims are nothing new: scholars since the 19th century have been coming to many of the same conclusions that Aslan has come to.  And I put “founder” in quotations as well, since these same folks even tangentially aware of New Testament scholarship know that Jesus himself lived and died a Jew, and never “founded” a new religion.

Dr. Reza Aslan

Dr. Reza Aslan

Not being aware of any of this is not really the problem, but rather a symptom of the bigger issue: Ms. Green, like many folks, simply does not understand what the discipline of religious studies is, or what religious studies scholars do.  So why would she be aware of information that is common knowledge for any undergrad who has sat through a survey course on the introduction to religion at a mainstream college or university?

Except that, uh, she is the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network, and would thus benefit from knowing not just about the practice of religion, but about the way it is studied as well.

Now, my own mother has been guilty of this (though she’s no RELIGION CORRESPONDENT), one time explaining to me why she would rather have a class on Buddhism, for example, taught by a practicing Buddhist, or on Islam by a practicing Muslim.  And here we have the crux of the problem: for the role of a scholar is not simply to explain what folks believe or what a religion teaches, though that is part of it.  The role of a scholar is also to research and discover if what a religion says about something has any historical veracity or is problematic or even inconsistent.  Our role is to apply critical analysis to our subjects, the same way a scholar of English Literature or Russian History or Quantum Physics would.

Scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, have argued that there are two competing and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, that the book of Isaiah was composed by at least three authors, that the genealogical narratives in Matthew and Luke disagree, and that Paul only actually composed about half of the letters in the New Testament that bear his name.  And you will find all of these ideas routinely taught in secular state schools like UNCG as well as mainstream seminaries like Princeton and Wake Forest.

It just doesn’t matter what one’s religion is, or even if they have one.  Some of the best and most reliable books on New Testament subjects have been written by Roman Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Women, and yes, even Muslims.  One’s personal religion simply has no place in scholarship, anymore than being a Christian or Jew or Muslim would affect the way that a biologist studies cells or an astronomer studies space.

Scholarly Books about Jesus

Scholarly Books about Jesus

One’s religion, or lack thereof, may point someone in certain directions and may inform what interests him or her—and may even make what they do a vocation or calling.  It may inform their training and influence their methodologies.  Or it may not.  But it doesn’t make them qualified to study one religion or prevent them from studying another.  One’s training—including those degrees that Dr. Aslan pointed out—is what does that.

As my first religion professor Henry Levinson (a Festive-Naturalist Jew who didn’t hold the traditional concept of God adhered to by his religion) often put it: “It doesn’t take one to know one; it takes one to be one.”

Dr. Henry Levinson

Dr. Henry Levinson

Religious studies scholars are trying to “know” religions and religious people, not “be” them, for that is something tangential at best to our roles as scholars.

So this should be the official motto of all religious studies scholarship, where what one’s religion “is” has no bearing on the quality of the scholarship they do.

Anything less is not scholarship.

It’s simply propaganda.

Adventures at Camp Dad

by Matt McKinnon

Image 1Against the advice of my wife (a licensed educator), I am attempting to keep my three sons—ages four, six, and fifteen—home with me this summer.  (I use the present progressive tense along with the verb “to attempt” because, while the action is ongoing, it may not be ongoing for long, as my wife keeps threatening to close “Camp Dad” for the season.)

This really shouldn’t be a problem, or so my thinking goes.  After all, I work from home and, owing to my wife’s hectic work schedule, do much of the kid-watching during the school year, taking them to and from school and shuttling them to various soccer practices and games throughout central Illinois.

“Why should we spend the money,” I argued, “When I can take care of them here at home for free?”

Why indeed?

Why oh why?!

Image 2We are only three weeks in to the official “Camp Dad: Summer 2013” season and already I have lost two of the kids, though for only a brief period of time.  The first, my four-year-old, I feared had chased after the dog who had escaped into the woods behind our house.  Once I had corralled the mutt (the dog, not my son) with the help of a neighbor, I noticed that the littlest was missing.

As I ran through the neighborhood frantically calling his name, gathering neighbors for an impromptu search party, I heard the car alarm going off and knew immediately where he was: locked in the SUV and trying to open the door with the alarm set.

Image 3

And there he was, safe and sound, and had been—playing a stupid video game, oblivious to the cries of his father—sitting peacefully and calmly while I was screaming my head off, calling his name, and making a spectacle of myself to the neighbors.

And casting real suspicion over this whole “Camp Dad” idea.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I lost the middle son the next week.  Though again, only for a brief period of time.

Image 4

 We were all going to the local “Safety Town,” inappropriately named it would seem, where kids can ride their bikes and parents can sit in the shade and watch.  Since my two oldest are proficient at bike-riding and my youngest is not, my fifteen-year-old rode ahead along the trail with my six-year-old.  They would go on to the park while my four-year-old and I walked.

The oldest had his phone.  He is marginally reliable.  What could go wrong?

What could go wrong indeed.

They arrived at the park and my oldest son called: all was well.

Image 5My youngest and I arrived by foot some ten minutes later, and I took my place under the shade of a tree, eyes peeled for my six-year-old in his new bike helmet, conspicuous enough with a red plastic Mohawk down the center.

There were a lot of kids, so the first five minutes of not being able to locate him seemed normal.  But five became ten and so I asked my oldest where he was.

Ten became fifteen as my oldest son rode around the park looking for him and I, once again, resorted to the parenting tool I know best and use most often: screaming his name at the top of my lungs.

Image 6

But to no avail.  No relieving sounds of a car alarm to signal where he was.  Nothing.  Just a park full of kids on bikes, but none of them my now-missing six-year-old.

As my eldest continued his futile search of the park on bike, I grabbed by youngest and bolted out the back towards the trail—the Rock Island trail to be exact, a 26-mile rail-to-trail project that runs from Peoria to Only-God-Knows-Where, Illinois.  If he was on that trail, he could be half way to Rock Island for all I knew.

And then my cell phone rang.  There was a lady on the other end.  “We have Lucas” she said calmly and sweetly.

“Oh thank you!” I exclaimed, not even contemplating that she could have meant something more sinister by her words, something out of Liam Neeson’s “Taken” perhaps.  A rather sweet ransom call.

Image 7Luckily, she was no Albanian gangster, but rather a mother out for a walk with her own mother and her seven-year-old son, who was now comforting my lost child.

Evidently, not seeing his older brother, my son decided to ride back to find us, going out the back of the park as we were coming in.  Needless to say, this was not in the itinerary for Camp Dad.

We soon reunited and all was well again.

BUT THIS WAS ONLY WEEK TWO!

I shudder to think what can, or rather will happen next at Camp Dad, where our official motto has become: “Has Anyone Seen My Kids?”

And yet I am steadfast in my resolve, determined that Camp Dad will go on.

My wife, on the other hand, threatens that Camp Dad is about to close, pending legal action.

Parenthood in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

Norwegian Dads

Norwegian Dads

An American-in-Norway I know was coming back into Norway after traveling abroad and was nervous because her residency visa had expired.  She had not yet received her new visa in the mail and was traveling with only a paper from her local police station attesting to her permanent residence.  At customs, an official started questioning her about her paperwork.  He appeared distracted and it worried her that he seemed to not really be listening to her answers.   She was traveling with a small baby and feared what kind of hassle and delay might await her.

But her anxiety turned to relief when the customs official began, with more urgency, another line of questioning:

“Is that a Manduca baby carrier you’re using?”

When she replied that it was, he began to barrage her with questions about how she liked it, about the different ways of wearing it, and so on.  He had just ordered one for himself and was glad to compare notes with someone who was already using one.  With that, he welcomed a relieved, and slightly amused, mother and child back to Norway.

A Manduca Promotional Image Featuring A Babywearing Dad

Manduca Promotional Image Featuring A Baby-Wearing Dad

As anyone who’s taken BLS 385: American Motherhood knows, Scandinavian men are known for being more hands-on fathers than men are anywhere else in the world.  Not to knock the participation of American dads (see own our Jay Parr’s baby-wearing profile picture), but thanks to the world’s most generous paternity and maternity benefits, Scandinavian men have a considerable advantage when it comes to being able to take time to bond with and care for their children in those critical early months of parenthood.  According to studies discussed in Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, this bonding often means that Scandinavian fathers are more likely to be more actively involved throughout their children’s lives, even if the parents separate.

After leading discussions on the Crittenden readings every term, I was anxious to see how parenting in Scandinavia looked on the ground, firsthand.  The first thing one notices is that the number of men pushing strollers on the city streets—alone or in pairs—is far greater than what you will see anywhere in the US.  But less immediately visible is the difference greater paternal participation makes for Norwegian mothers.  Does more equality necessarily mean radically better conditions for Norwegian mothers compared to their American counterparts, as we often assume in BLS 385?

A Group of Baby-Wearing Dads

A Group of Baby-Wearing Dads

There’s no question Norway’s generous leave benefits help families with small children, particularly in the first year of parenthood.  One parent can receive either 100% of his/her salary for 47 weeks or 80% for 57 weeks after the birth of a child.  Twelve of these weeks must be used by the father, but parents cannot use their leave at the same time (see more here).  This system provides both parents the opportunity to bond with the child and develop parenting skills without the added stress of having to balance the demands of the workplace at the same time.

Yet, it’s also apparent to me that after this first year, the decision whether to become a stay-at-home parent or to put one’s child in daycare and return to work is no less controversial in Norway than it is in the US.  Perhaps the only difference is how many men involve themselves in the debate.

A Typical Barnehage.

A Typical Barnehage.

Most childcare in Norway takes place in “barnehage” (which translates to kindergarten, but they are structured more like US daycare centers).  It is not as common here, at least in the cities, for children to be cared for by family members or in a home daycare setup.  Due in part to a push from the government to get more taxpaying Norwegians working, and working more hours, more Norwegian children are spending more time in barnehage at a younger age.  60,000 new barnehage slots have been added across the country in the last 8 years.  While 44% of children under the age of two went to barnehage ten years ago, columnist Susanne Kaluza writes that now that number is 80%.

Because quality childcare is so widely available (and all parents are eligible to receive government stipends to help pay for it, regardless of income), there is considerable social pressure on mothers who would choose to stay home with their young children.  Once your baby is over a year old, he or she belongs in barnehage, one argument goes, where he or she will learn the collective values of Norwegian society.  In her most recent editorial, responding to criticism of stay-at-home mothers from the newly-elected leader of Norway’s largest labor organization, Kaluza writes that only 4% of Norwegian women between the ages of 20 and 66 stay at home.  As she exposes the absurdity of the claim that mothers leaving the workforce to ‘bake and decorate’ is a worrying ‘trend’ in the Norwegian labor force, Kaluza insists that, in Norway, “the housewife is dead.”  Compulsory working parenthood is clearly the recent dominant trend in Norway.

Children and Caregivers at a Barnehage

Children and Caregivers at a Barnehage

In the steady debate in the local newspaper since late February, editorials from both mothers and fathers argue that children start barnehage too young and are deprived of critical time at home as the state seeks to increase its income tax base, potentially at children’s expense.  The barnehage, meanwhile, defensively argue that babies enjoy barnehage and proper methods are in place to help them adjust to the change from their parents’ care to public daycare.

Often the debate is framed as a matter of barnehage quality or child-caregiver ratios, but from where I sit, it is clearly a problem of choice.  It seems the problem is the same here as it is in the American “Mommy Wars”: the need to push a ‘one solution fits all’ answer rather than giving parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their family.

Lastly, it bears asking: is Scandinavian culture really so different from our own when these debates are still framed around mothers’ participation in the workforce?  As Kaluza points out, many of these Norwegian women are rushing back to jobs where they face the same gender gap in earnings that American women struggle to overcome.  An abundance of stroller-pushing dads and a sweet maternity leave check are all well and good, but they can also distract from larger, persistent issues of gender equality and family choice.

Dr. Levesque With Her Daughters in Bergen, Norway

Dr. Levesque With Her Daughters in Bergen, Norway