Saturday, April 28, 2007

Family versus Marriage

Two and a half years ago, in November 2004, the voters of Kentucky overwhelmingly (71 percent) voted to adopt a new constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being only between one man and one woman, and provided that "a legal status identical to or similar to marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized." [Unmarried individuals including heterosexual unmarried couples as well as gays and lesbians].

So imagine my surprise during the last six terms that I have taught SOC 101 (Introductory Sociology), when my Kentucky students have overwhelmingly with no exceptions, told me that the term "family" is inclusive of any and all groups of people who love and care for each other, and live together in a supportive relationship.

The chapter on Marriage and Family [authored by me, a fact of which students are generally not aware] in their sociology textbook begins with a descriptive listing of different groups of people: married couples with children, cohabiting heterosexual couples without children, homosexual couples with children, single mothers by divorce and by out-of-wedlock pregnancy and their children.

In my on-line classes, which draw on students from all over Kentucky, we have a discussion forum, and one of the questions I ask in the unit on family is "So what is a family?" I ask them to look at the list and tell which they would consider a family.

Here is a sampling of the responses that I have gotten from students:

Family is hard to define because people have so many different views. But I think family is people that you are close to, where there is mutual love, support, and a level of caring that is somewhat beyond just friendship.

all of the circumstances would prove to be a family. As I said, it is not what others perceive to be acceptable, as a family, but more how one feels when interacting with each other. I cannot state enough how important it is for each of us to feel a part of and accepted by at least one societal circle. To me that is ultimately makes a family unit.

All of the examples in the beginning of the chapter are families. A family is the biggest part of how we function in society. Family helps us to define who we are. Just because you are not married with kids does not mean that you are not a family. Some people think that gay couples with kids are not considered a family. In my own opinion marriage is just a piece of paper. If you are gay does not mean that they can not raise their child to be up standing citizens.

I believe a family is when someone relies on you to be there for them whether it be emotionally, financially, sexually, and so forth. A family is created when there is a strong bond between two or more. This doesn't just have to be man wife and kids, it can be anyone. You always hear of people close friends saying "they are like family to me". This is because they depend on that person to be there for them thru thick and thin. I believe that when you have a strong bond with someone and you know that that person will be there for you always then they can be considered family.

Over the past six or seven terms I have seen nearly a hundred posts that are variations on these examples. Out of that hundred, only one person, ever mentioned that they personally disapproved of gay relationships, but countered that by saying that they still deserved to be considered a "family."

This was so much at odds with what I expected given the overwhelming support that voters gave the anti-gay marriage amendment, that I began asking students additional questions. What I learned was fascinating. My students view "marriage" and "family" as separate entities not necessarily dependent upon each other. The reasoning varied. Some students suggested that "marriage" was a religious institution, while "family" was natural and biological. Others suggested that "family" was based on affinity, affection, and personal choice, while "marriage" was either a religious or legal institution. I found that it was possible for my students to have an open and inclusive view about families, while having a restricted and narrow definition of marriage.

Most formal groups that support anti-gay marriage legislation, have very restricted definitions of family, and generally would like to see all children raised by two biological parents, in a legally and religiously sanctioned marriage. In other words, part of the agenda of many formal organizations that promote "pro-marriage" or "pro-family" (i.e. anti-gay) legislation is to combat the idea that families can be what ever we want them to be.

The dichotomy between my students definitions of "family" and "marriage" may help to explain how a preponderance of open inclusive views about family could exist among students in a state that overwhelmingly supported an anti-gay marriage amendment. However, one must also consider two other possible contributing factors: one is that my students, who are overwhelmingly self described as middle, working and lower class, don't vote, and were not among the 71 percent of voters who passed the amendment; the other is that my students, who are also overwhelmingly female, under the age of 40, and mothers (some married, some not), are significantly different from the over all Kentucky population.

Nonetheless, I think the split in how my students think about family and marriage is intriguing and provocative.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Improving math and science education

I am not, in principle, opposed to the idea of paying slightly higher salaries to teachers in subject areas, such as math and science, where the public schools must compete with industry and research institutions for the most talented individuals. But the Kentucky Educational Association was right to oppose the specific bills (Senate bills 1 and 2) this year, which would reward a very small number of math and science teachers.

The Senate bills focused on the wrong end of the educational process. In Kentucky, as else where in the nation, the battle to instill interest and ability in math and science in students is lost in the early years in elementary school, not in high school.

The problem is that our early elementary classrooms are filled with teachers who "love children" but hate math and science. I've been a college teacher for twenty-five years, and I see it over and over again. A person, most often but not always a woman, who does not like math and science and does poorly in those subjects, but who "loves children" (I heard that phrase over and over again when I sat of the teacher admissions committee of a 4 year college in a neighboring state) decides that elementary education is the best career path to take. [Those who hate math and science but "want to help people" usually go into social work].

College students who enjoy math and science and do well in it, have a wide range of interesting careers to choose from, and if they consider teaching at all, they most often focus on high school, or at the very least middle school.

This has not always been the case in the United States. Before the early seventies, gender discrimination meant that most college educated women went into one of three fields -- education, nursing, or office work. I look at the women in my own family. My mother was a teacher, three of my father's sisters were nurses (as were two of their daughters) and one of my father's sisters was a secretary.

In the 1950's when I was in elementary school, bright talented women who liked math and science, had few options other than education and nursing. Consequently, elementary education generally attracted the best and the brightest women, who brought their love of learning, and their interest in math and science with them into the lives of children. The women's movement changed all that.

This most certainly does not make the women's movement a bad thing. The problem is not that the women's movement created more opportunities for women, drawing them out of the classroom and into a wider world of occupations. The problem is that society did not recognize and adjust to this change.

In order to continue to have the same bright minds attracted to elementary education, we needed to increase pay, and increase professional responsibility, and provide greater autonomy for talented teachers. Instead, beginning in the 1970's we did just the opposite. We allowed the pay of teachers relative to other occupations requiring a college education to deteriorate, and we burdened teachers with increasing loads of paperwork, and hampered creativity.

Although it by no means addresses the full scope of the problem, the KEA's proposal for "in-depth summer institute for math and science teachers in grades 4 through 8" at least is focused on the correct end of the educational process -- elementary and/or middle school.

Alternative Futures?

This past weekend, I attended the Campus-Community Partnership for Sustainability's second annual Earth day conference held this year at Eastern Kentucky University. For more about the partnership check out the website:

Before returning home, I swung up to northern Kentucky, to the Gateway Community and Technical College Boone Campus in Florence, KY for a meeting of the KCTCS Educational Technology Solutions work group. We were treated to a demonstration of some really kick-ass technology that literally brings images bouncing off the screen at you.

Both the conference at EKU and the work group meeting at GCTC involved dedicated educators and other serious-minded individuals concerned about what the future holds for Kentuckians and how best to prepare for that future. But beyond that broad commonality, it was if these two events were held in different universes, not simply different towns in the same state.

In Richmond, at the Sustainability conference, sessions focused on issues such as how do we develop localized networks to grow and supply food, to supplant our reliance on international food chains which depend heavily on fossil fuels (and are vulnerable to problems such as the melamine contamination of grains that caused the recall of pet foods). In Florence at the Educational Technology Solutions (ETS) workgroup meeting, we talked about how to use high technology to integrate our students into a global job market.

At the Richmond conference there was a session (presented by EKU students) that focused on plans for bike paths and walk ways to make it easier for folks in Madison county (where Richmond is located) to leave their cars behind and walk or ride to work, school and shop. In Florence, one participant described plans to provide all the top administrators at his college with the latest generation of high definition video conferencing in their offices and predicted (in all seriousness) that not only would the administrators use this to connect with people all over the world, but that it would allow them to talk to each other without the inconvenience of getting up and walking to the other end of campus.

You see -- different universes!!

I do not believe that the concerns of these two groups are necessarily totally at odds with each other. The work of the Campus-Community Partnership for Sustainability and the work of the Educational Technology Solutions work group, could benefit each other, could inform each other. That is it could if we could break them out of their separate universes and see that they are both trying to get a handle on the same future. Right now, even if the members of the two groups were to meet, I suspect that they would talk right past each other.

The Partnership for Sustainability people are talking about "how shall we live?" While the Educational Technology folks are talking about "how shall we get a living?" Neither group really recognizing that the two questions are inseparable from each other.

The real education for a "flat world"

I submitted this to the Lexington Herald-Leader as an Op-Ed piece, but the events of the last 8 days pre-empted its printing. So rather than let it go to waste, I'm going to post it here. Particularly since I have a lot more to say on the subject of education and the future. So here it is:

The young people of Kentucky face an uncertain future. No one really knows what the jobs of the future will be, or what types of knowledge will be required to do those jobs. To be workers in the twenty-first century Kentucky youth require and deserve an extraordinary education. They deserve the kind of education I was privileged to receive. They must receive an education that goes beyond training in technical skills. We have to teach them how to think for themselves. This kind of education takes time, it takes talented, knowledgeable teachers who love their work and are well rewarded for it.

Since I began working, in 1967 at age 16, I have held nine full-time jobs and more than a dozen part-time jobs. I have been a babysitter, waitress, library assistant, a field hand, secretary, office manager, bookkeeper, and library circulation manager; in the academic world I have held five different research assistant positions, been a teaching assistant, and a college teacher at a total of four quite different institutions. During my 28 years as a teacher, I have prepared and taught twenty-six different courses in sociology, anthropology, education and statistics. During my academic career, I have also been paid for writing newspaper columns, research and consulting for community groups, writing book chapters, reviewing, and writing poetry.

During the forty years of my working career, I have seen office work go from manual to electric typewriters, to correcting electronic typewriters, to computers, to a host of digital devices. The first time I ran a computer program I handed a pile of punch cards to an operator in a huge room filled with a single computer, then waited an hour to receive my printout. Now I do far more complex analyses in minutes on my notebook computer while sitting on my front porch.

The first work telephone I answered had a dial, one line and no “hold.” Now the computerized VoIP phone on my office desk is capable of hundreds of functions. As a teacher I have gone from cranking out mimeograph and ditto handouts, to photocopies, to pin-dot printers, to full color desk jet printers that also scan and fax documents. In the classroom I’ve gone from 16 mm movies with projectors to video cassette recorders to DVD players. I’ve gone from film strips to overhead projectors, to PowerPoint, to Smart Boards. After decades of teaching in classrooms with chalkboards, I have adjusted to teaching students simultaneously at multiple sites through interactive television, to telecouses and Internet courses.

The changes I have experience in the work world are typical for many workers of my generation, but they pale in comparison to the changes that young people starting in the work place today will face.

Like most workers many of my job changes over the years were not voluntary. Businesses went bankrupt, research projects ended or lost their funding, tenure and promotion was denied, and it was necessary to find a new job. Yet in forty years, the total amount of time that I have been without any employment is three weeks, and the longest single period of unemployment I ever had was five days during the recession year of 1973. Some of it has been luck and some sheer perseverance, but primarily I ascribe my ability to adapt, change and adjust successfully to the changing work world to a superior education.

The education I received in high school, but most especially in college, did one thing extraordinarily well – it taught me how to think and how to learn – about anything. Sure, I remember some of the content of the courses I took: the novels of D.H. Lawrence; the revolutionary designs of Frank Lloyd; the beauty of the poetry of the Bhagavad-Gita; the problems of urban renewal in the 1960’s; the problems of the Greeks in the Peloponnesian wars; the differences between the programs of Trotsky and Stalin. But content wasn’t really the point of my education. The point was developing the skill of reading and comprehending extremely complex information, and learning how to summarize it, analyze it, synthesize it and use it in new ways. I learned how to take any subject and learn what needed to be learned, then to apply that knowledge to new and unique situations.

This is the kind of education that we must invest in for the next generations of Kentuckians. This is a price we must pay to ensure all our futures.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mountain Top Removal -- On top of me!

I finally got my husband John to show me how to use his digital camera, and took some photos of the strip mining operation that is removing the top of the mountains above our neighborhood.

Some of those photos are now on a web page: Mountain Top Removal. They were all taken today, April 9, 2007.

Mining began a year and a half ago. The coal company got around to sending some one for a "pre-mining" survey, several months after the mining actually began. As the surveyor walked through my house with his video camera, in December of 2005, we could hear him say (for the cameras microphone) that the video was being taken in October 2005!! By summer time 2006 things were in full swing.

Trees may block our full view of the mining operation (which is why I went down the road just a bit to get a good photo). But we can hear the sound of the machinery, including those awful "back-up" beeps. By this winter 2006-2007, the sound of heavy machinery had become a constant accompaniment -- 24 hours a day, six days a week. At least, thank goodness they rest on Sundays.

Worst of all is the blasting. This mostly happens in the afternoon. Even though it happens almost every day, you never get used to it. You never expect it; the blast, which causes the entire house and all the windows to reverberate always comes as a shock and scares us.

Sometimes, after a blast, you can hear the sound of the rock falling. You wonder, what if it falls all the way down to the neighborhood. This has happened. Children have been killed in their beds by rocks dislodged from mountain top strip mines.

I don't care what coal companies or General Electric (with their dancing lump of coal) say, there cannot be "clean" coal without major changes in the way coal is extracted. Perhaps there cannot be "clean" coal at all.