Trial By Fire, A Year Later

A year ago last Wednesday, I walked into a suburban high school social studies classroom and started my student teaching experience. Over the next couple of days, I watched a few lectures, gave two lectures, and helped students put together posters. It was a pretty easy few days of observation, and my mentor teacher and I worked out a slow transition in which I would take over the U.S. History classes completely and help out a little in Government. There was also a little bit of drama, and then…

A year ago today, my mentor teacher quit.

From the next day through the rest of the semester, I went through a stressful and wonderful experience of teaching and learning. I have always loved history and government and I have always loved teaching. I don’t think I would’ve made it through without that. But it wasn’t easy – I spent countless evenings planning lessons (much to my wife’s dismay) and dealt with multiple substitutes and administrators. I had a great group of colleagues who were able and willing to help me as the semester went by and I had a couple hundred students that (for the most part) rocked.

I also learned a lot. I learned how to revise and start over – often in the middle of lessons, and pretty much in the middle of every day. I learned how to deal with all of the stuff that students, parents, and administrators throw at you. I was also on TV announcements more in that semester than in four years of high school. These were things that I’ll be carrying with me (well, not that last thing) – I was constantly revising my work with refugees and I’m sure I’ll be working with different parties no matter what I do with my future.

Yesterday I was substituting in a world history class, watching students take notes out of textbooks, and it dawned on me that I might not end up teaching high school students ever again (unless a teacher somewhere gets really sick, really soon). But while it might suck if that’s not in the future, I know that I can go into whatever else knowing that I went through the most ridiculous student teaching ever, and came out all the better for it.


Seat Belts and Human Rights Prosecutions: A Digressive Review

Having taken several classes centered on accountability for mass atrocity crimes, I’ve run across a lot of common questions. One question is the notion that we all know that killing is bad – mass killing exponentially so – so what effect does making it illegal or prosecuting it really have?

A couple of years ago I ran across, of all things, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speaking on CSPAN (I know, right?). I have no idea what the circumstances were, but he detailed that in the past people rarely used seat belts despite knowing that they protected them. After states began to make it illegal to drive without wearing seat belts, more and more people wear them now. According to some surveys, many wear them not to be in line with the law but because they are safe and that is what you do when you are in a car. In a very weird connection and long stretch, you could say the same about atrocities – after a while the fact that one faces prosecution could change the mindset about actions one is willing to take. It’s weird, but it’s a connection. When society speaks up about what is wrong, fewer people are willing to commit that act.

Enter Kathryn Sikkink, professor at the University of Minnesota and author of The Justice Cascade. I’m currently halfway through the book and it makes a strong case for human rights prosecutions. The book gives an intricate history of human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina. Sikkink also works to debunk the notion that the specter of prosecutions is dangerous for transitional democracies, another concern I’ve heard in academia and in advocacy.

But the heart of the book is that Sikkink looks at the diffusion of justice and accountability between countries. The first change in the international justice system was to make individuals accountable instead of just states – and this has definitely grown as more perpetrators are indicted and prosecuted for their actions. She also notes the increase in international, foreign, and domestic human rights prosecutions across the board by using a database.  The database counts all “processes of prosecution” regardless of verdict and uses the State Department’s human rights reports as its source.

According to her research, Sikkink found that Latin America, which has had the most human rights prosecutions of any region, is also the leader in successful democratic transitions. Most of the allegations that trials could lead to a renewal of conflict seem rooted in an attempted coup in Argentina when prosecutions expanded to include more suspects. The coup failed and the trials continued and even spread across the region, fostering democracy. Somehow, the threat has lived on in policy circles.

She also found that more prosecutions foster better human rights practices, and that if four or more countries in one region have prosecutions, the countries nearby could benefit even without having prosecutions – accountability and deterrence cross borders. The question is if that deterrence only works in a regional context or if it can lead to a global deterrence through international prosecutions. I’m only partway through the book so far, but Sikkink makes a pretty good case for how prosecutions can impact societies for the better.

Links from the Internet Blackout

If you were near the internet yesterday, you probably noticed that things were a little different. As a part of a protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, websites like Wikipedia and reddit went completely dark while many, like Google, drew attention on their pages to the legislation. Throughout the day, several former sponsors of the legislation backed down in both the House and the Senate. If you haven’t already, here are some links to learn about the piracy/censorship laws on the table. This was supposed to be posted yesterday morning, but my computer was being slow and I was busy. Probably SOPA’s fault. If you haven’t read these already, take a look:

Wikipedia takes action, the Electronic Frontier Foundation asks you to do two things, and Mashable breaks it down. Google also had this spiffy infographic.

Angus Johnston found two quotes on SOPA, Someone on Twitter found that the author of SOPA might be stealing content. Joe Sestak says the corporate lobby’s argument doesn’t make sense. Gimodo has photos of some of the website’s blacked out cover pages. And how SOPA/PIPA will affect women and artists.

Rethinking Local

Recently, I’ve run into some interesting articles going against the “buy local” mantra, mostly via @cblatts. In particular, I read an article on the book industry and one on food – and while neither were groundbreaking, they did make me stop and think about what really helps the community – whether that community is where I live or a more abstract community like authors or farmers. This is stuff I’m not well-versed in and I definitely have some reading to do, but this is just a small part of me trying to clarify my opinion – and I’m taking you along for the ride.

The first piece I read was this Slate article explaining that Amazon was better than local bookstores. The author spends most of his time explaining why Amazon is better for the customer and for “literary culture”  because it can afford to lower prices, effectively allowing people to buy and read more books. I do a share of shopping on Amazon, but I also love book stores. I always enjoyed wandering the aisles in Borders and I got coupons for 30-50% off an item, which brought the prices down enough to be comparable. I love the stuffy, crowded atmosphere of Old Town Books in Tempe, and there’s even a cat that lives there. But I’m not delusional about the role bookstores play in the industry – or the role Amazon plays. I think the article is right in pointing to Amazon not as the killer of literary culture but its savior.

The second piece I read was a short note from Ben Casnocha about buying food locally versus globally. Buying local (and organic) is definitely become a trend for the suburban hipsters among us. I visit the ASU Farmers Market every once in a while for some good tamales, but I’ve never gone full-local for my produce. But what I never thought of was what buying local does to the global – the farm workers in poorer countries that aren’t benefiting from the trend. Casnocha later put up quotes from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between)

As people continue to buy into the whole organic lifestyle, it inevitably bleeds into more than just your neighborhood farmer’s market. But that quote is (in my opinion) an important thing to remember – rural farmers in developing countries have been selling organic and local for years because they have to. The best way for them to increase their revenue is by increasing their inventory or by expanding their customer base. When you barely make enough to cover expenses and survive, it’s difficult to invest. When not abused, things like pesticides and international barges can help tremendously. While many suburbanites with the time and money continue to choose to buy local, it’s important to remember that not everything that’s good for your community can (nor should) be extrapolated to the global level.

I’m Wary of Kristof

When I first got into this whole caring-about-human-rights thing, I was directed to the writings of Nick Kristof. He’s the ubiquitous columnist for the Times that is always writing about the tragedy of violence in the under-developed world. You know, subjects like genocide and mass rape and child slavery. He’s been lauded by many as a reporter with a drive to raise awareness about injustice in the world. I used to read some of his work to learn more about the world’s tragedies, but now I peruse it occasionally out of anger.

Over time I’ve gradually distanced myself from Kristof and his writing as it has become more and more clear that his work doesn’t really achieve all that much. Recently, I read two particularly good pieces that explain how this is so (thanks to Aaron Bady and Tom Murphy for the links). Exhibit A is a lengthy but very well-written piece at The New Inquiry, “Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics” – the whole thing is well worth a read. In it, the author analyses the living shit out of Kristof’s writing style, his subjects, and his imagery. What is revealed is a startling formula:

Kristof fabricates legible narratives out of snapshots of distant worlds. He then crafts stunningly simplistic solutions to the seemingly irrevocable problems that plague those backwards places. Kristof accomplishes this by using a standard and replicated formula: some mixture of (1) a construction of a bestial and demonic Other creating a spectacle of violence; (2) a rendering of the object of that horror—a depoliticized, abject victim, usually no more than a body; (3) a presentation of a (potential) salvific savior figure(typically the West writ large or a Western agent—some teleological process immanent in capitalism or development, the reader himself (who can act by donating money), and almost always Kristof himself as well); and (4) an introduction of potential linkages with larger systems and structures … only to immediately reterritorialize around the non-political solutions and the savior implementing them.

It’s a formula that attracts attention and a following, but doesn’t do enough to actually make a difference – at least not the type of difference it should make. Educating people about conflict is usually seen as the first step to galvanizing action, encouraging them to write a letter to their Senator or maybe inspire a business student to go into development. But for Kristof raising awareness isn’t the first step to anything – it’s the only step. He makes you aware and simultaneously makes that all that is needed. Now you know about the tragedy, but it’s been taken care of by other brave, ambitious souls and there are no more problems. Since the orphan now has a roof over his head in the refugee camp, he ostensibly will not be worried about deplorable living conditions or  the resumption of conflict or being marginalized in society. He’s safe now. But knowing about injustices only solves everything for the reader.

Merely knowing about (parts of) it rather than doing something about it signifies the critical orientation toward the phenomenon. And as a result, Kristof’s attempts to shock the conscience serve, perversely, to push out the frontier of what no longer offends or alarms.

Kristof educates you enough to say that you are aware, but stops short of you wanting to do anything. In a different way, taking a line from this Esquire piece on Jon Stewart – he “shows you how to give a shit without having to do anything about it.” But that’s just part of it. In addition to this type of writing, Kristof also engages in all some shady behavior. He includes the names and photos of rape victims, a general journalism (and humanity) no-no, citing that it’s acceptable because they probably aren’t affected by his reporting. Even if that were true it is still a shame that he doesn’t think that these people’s privacy is worth protecting. He is also proud of the fact that he has bought slaves in order to free them, which is controversial because he has effectively funded the slavery system. And on top of all that, we have this take-down at which critiques these two Kristof excerpts:

“This new research addresses an uncomfortable truth: Poverty is difficult to overcome partly because of self-destructive behaviors. Children from poor homes often shine, but others may skip school, abuse narcotics, break the law, and have trouble settling down in a marriage and a job. Then their children may replicate this pattern”.

Besides questions around the differences between correlation and causation, a theme and assertion emerging from Kristof’s writing seems to be this: that ‘poor families’ simply do not love each other as much as non-poor. Whether this is a conscious assertion or not, I do not know. But, it seems to be quite visible. In a 2010 New York Times Op-ed on global poverty, he states

“that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households”.

Besides being an extremely broad and patronising generalisation, it is dismissive and unaware of the structural, geographical and local factors that can affect a family’s income, its allocation and access to education.

Again, this writing seems to come from the same perspective as the first articles. He makes an “other” out of the impoverished by showing how they do not value their children or education as they should. It’s a terrible message to spread, and it points to how this other group of people needs our assistance instead of pointing to why things are the way they are. It encourages donating to a charity or sponsoring a child in school rather than asking the big questions like how trade policies affect global poverty.

I guess I’m realizing more and more that, when people set out to raise awareness about tragedies happening in our world today, they need to think of how they are telling that story. Telling someone about a grave injustice does not require that you can mistreat the oppressed on paper. They are still people deserving of being more than a prop in your awareness campaign. Kristof is a prime example of a platform misused – but maybe that’s our own fault since so many choose to read his work. His writing on the horrors of the world inform us that something is wrong and allow us to go back to eating dinner, when it should show us what is wrong and allow us to go help address it.

A New Year

It’s been a while since I tried to recap a year in my life, but I figure it’s worth a shot. After all, 2011 was a pretty momentous year for me and it might as well be documented. It was a pretty busy year, so here is a brief explanation of my 2011.

I got married! The wedding was awesome and it was wonderful to start the year off with friends and family – and my wife! After eight and a half years together we sealed the deal before hanging out on a rooftop together with everyone. We also went on a super cool honeymoon that involved biobays and walking under water which was a really cool way to celebrate before going back to reality.

Starting in January I did my student teaching in a suburban high school. For those who didn’t hear my tales of adventure, the teacher was fired partway through and I ended up teaching with a substitute sitting in the corner. The semester was wonderful and stressful and I was so happy to be teaching again (I hadn’t been in a high school for almost two years at that point). I had some failed lessons (mock Congress was a disaster and Kennedy’s speeches didn’t go as planned) and some real successes (still fond of my public works lesson and I refined lecturing really well). I had some amazing students and some terrible students, and I had a solid group of coworkers to help me through everything. All in all a good experience.

With some fundraising drives wrapping up early in the year and 25 in April, Schools for Schools closed its imaginary doors in 2011. I started the student organization by myself in September of 2007, forcing all of my friends to sit with me once a week and talk about rebels in central Africa. It had grown and collapsed multiple times, and we finally wound down with something like three active members and a couple inactive. It was a pretty big deal for me; the club had never really grown past its nascent state, so it was my perpetual advocacy baby. Saying goodbye to it was quite the step.

For almost the entire year I was unemployed. Throughout student teaching I was too stressed to work, but we made that call hoping I’d find a job after graduating. After losing the job I subbed for, I ended up applying for six other jobs and only got to interview for one. In the end I spent the fall substituting more, which isn’t ideal but worked.

Another highlight of 2011 has to be going to the White House. Even though the college club was over, I couldn’t not be involved in Resolve’s work. When they invited me to DC for a couple of days I gladly found a way there. A dozen new friends descended on the District to go to the White House to hear from and talk with public officials. In addition to that, I also got to see old friends in the area and actually see some sights. Also, poetry slam.

This summer I was in quite the rut, and one thing that got me out of that was my internship at a refugee agency. I spent about two days a week working with newly arrived refugees, which has been eye-opening for me and seemingly helpful to them. It included riding buses and teaching three classes on a rotation – public services, laws and rights, and apartment care. It was also my first time working with interpreters, which is a unique experience. I also had a pretty sweet supervisor who helped me a lot learning the ins and outs of the system and showed me the ropes in working with refugees.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the wife and I went on a little road trip to Vegas for an early anniversary vacation. It was nice to get out and do something, and it was nice for me to go back to Vegas (I grew up with random trips to Vegas all of the time, for whatever reason). We also did a mighty bit of walking and had a lot of fun. I’m hoping to get a few little trips like that in during 2012.

And that was my year. 2012 promises to be pretty exciting, even if the world doesn’t end. We’re probably moving and I’ll probably be going back to school, so things will be a-changing. Now that the year is moving forwards I feel that I should stop dwelling on the past. Happy (belated) New Year to you all!