I still reach for the stars…

When I was growing up, I read constantly and some of my favorite books were science fiction — Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and many other authors were my escape to new worlds.  I loved movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, was thrilled when Star Wars came out, and watched every episode of the original Star Trek so many times, I can tell you which episode it is after watching the first few seconds. However, it was NASA and our country’s efforts in space that truly captured my imagination — I was 4 years old when Neal Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.  My father was in the Air Force, and was also a “space nut” – his excitement about every Apollo mission was infectious, but the Apollo 11 moon landing is one of my first memories of man in space, albeit a hazy one.  Neal Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn were some of my first heroes.

I cheered nearly every launch of the space shuttle, and was thrilled that the first prototype was called “Enterprise.”  I cried when Atlantis launched a little over a year ago — our last space shuttle which signaled a very uncertain future for NASA and America’s dominance in space.  I am a firm believer that we should be supporting our efforts to explore space, the moon and other planets.  Not only does it provide major technical innovations that boost our economy, but it leads to the kinds of ambition and dreams that encourage more children to study science, math and just to have big dreams. I ended up as a political scientist, but I still nurture dreams of space, and those dreams give me hope for the future and for my children.  Neal Armstrong’s along with Sally Ride’s recent passing makes me sad, but it also makes me thankful that we had men and women like them who were willing to take risks, serve their country, and act as role models for the next generation who will hopefully have the resources and the desire to reach for the stars.

“When you visit countries that don’t nurture these kinds of ambitions, you can feel the absence of hope…people are reduced to worrying only about that day’s shelter or the next day’s meal. It’s a shame, even a tragedy, how many people do not get to think about the future. Technology coupled with wise leadership not only solves these problems but enables dreams of tomorrow.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Teaching in a time of division

As a professor of political science in a large public university, I have worked very hard to make sure that all of my students feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their views, regardless of their political opinions or what they may imagine my political views to be.  One of my goals is to teach students how to be open to opposing views, make arguments based on facts, and to be able to debate an issue without getting personal (something I wish many of our politicians could do). Mutual respect is key and I feel this type of approach is even more important during an election campaign that has turned very ugly at times.  My job is made a bit easier by the fact that I tend to teach European politics, although I also teach comparative immigration politics, which is about half U.S. and half Europe.  In general, I try to keep my personal politics out of the classroom, although I think it’s fine to call out policies or positions that I think are detrimental, as long as I have the facts to back it up.

As a feminist, I mainly try to set an example for students. I’m already unique in my field — a black woman who speaks French and German, studies European politics, and is successful at it.  I constantly have to break through stereotypes and prove myself to those who try to judge me by my exterior.  I have prided myself on being able to surprise people and make them rethink the way they approach someone they don’t know.  I also appreciate the fact that students aren’t always aware of my political views based on what they hear in class.  However, politics in the U.S. have become so divided, particularly when it comes to women’s rights, I think it is important when I am comparing politics in the U.S. to politics in Europe that I explain how much mainstream politics has shifted in comparison to our European allies.  Many Europeans are shocked to hear the Republicans calling Obama a socialist — in Europe, Obama would be more of a center right politician. Even my European friends on the right are amazed at the debates going on over birth control, abortions and ultrasounds.  The random shootings and our take on gun control is also incomprehensible.  That doesn’t mean that Europeans don’t have their own blind spots – banning the veil and hijab or making immigrants learn the language and take civics lessons before getting a visa would also be problematic for many Americans.

What is important for me is to find a balance, I know that there are those students who would disagree with me regardless of my views and I want students to know that feminists come in all shapes, sizes and viewpoints.  I need to share my views, and sometimes play devil’s advocate (or use the Socratic method) so that we can have an honest dialogue.  Unfortunately that can be difficult in a lecture room with anywhere from 50 to 350 students, but it is my professional duty to get out there and do the best I can. I have come to realize over my many years of teaching and watching political developments in the U.S. that it is important to hear a wide variety of viewpoints and the more we can do that, the more people will appreciate the strength and diversity of this country.  As an educator, I am privileged to teach students about other countries and cultures that have similar strengths and challenges.  My main hope is that they go out into the world equipped with the knowledge to critically evaluate issues from a global perspective and can take strong positions on issues while listening to the others’ positions respectfully.

The Power of Women

I have been an athlete most of my life, so the Olympics are always a big event in our household.  This Olympics, U.S. women dominated, winning more medals than most countries.  This year also happened to be the 40th anniversary of Title IX.  My life was deeply impacted by Title IX and is one of the many reasons I am proud to call myself a feminist.  I remember clearly when my elementary school added more sports for girls.  By the time I was in junior high school, I was able to compete in the same number of sports as my brothers, who I idolized for their prowess in football and track (although football was never an option for me).  I developed my own abilities as I led my track teams to city championships in junior high and high school.  I went on to run track during my first two years at Stanford.  Although I was more focused on school, sports gave me an outlet and a level of confidence that would have been difficult to develop in the classroom.  The benefits of team sports are well documented, but I also believe that sports and the competition they bring allow women to tap into a source of power that puts us on more of an equal standing with men. Being an athlete when I was younger also meant that sports would remain a part of my life, even now that I’m pushing 50 (ack!).  I love running — it is an outlet for stress, but its also my “me” time — being out on the trail helps me clear my mind, and truly brings me joy as I connect with the outdoors.

The Olympics were a reminder of the joy and the pain that competition can bring.  Winning is sublime, losing (or even coming in 2nd) can be more than disappointing, it can have a devastating impact.  We need to be careful to celebrate sport for what it is – a way of testing our abilities. All of our athletes, but particularly our women should be proud of their accomplishments.  What I saw in the London Olympics was women athletes truly coming into their own — powerful, strong, chiseled abs (gotta do more crunches!) and breaking records.  If it weren’t for Title IX, many of these women wouldn’t have had the same opportunity as their male colleagues to compete, but I also believe that the generations that have come since 1972 also have a stronger sense of themselves and their own power in the world.  The girls who watched this year’s Olympics will be able to aspire  to more and tap into the power that these women displayed.  With any luck, it will also have an impact on our couch potato culture…and perhaps a new move-ment!

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As summer winds down…looking forward to a momentous Fall in politics…and snuggling with cats

It’s early August, but it seems like summer is already winding down. I need to get my boys ready for the start of the school year, in two weeks for Andrew, who is entering middle school, three weeks for Brandon who will be going into 3rd grade.  My semester will begin a few days after Brandon’s.  As a political scientist, and in particular one who follows both U.S. and European politics, the next few months will will be full of critical events.  Although I have gotten a bit burned out on following developments in Europe, I don’t have much choice but to follow, given that I will be teaching my course on Europe this semester.  The drama is still there — will Greece be able to remain in the Euro?  Will unemployment continue to climb?  Will more governments fall? I’ll be updating my Europe blog with the latest news (http://givenseurope.blogspot.com). It seems like Europe is still preparing for a possible Greek exit (or “grexit), and Germany’s economy seems to be slowing, so things are still very much in flux.

U.S. politics is entering the final lap, after nearly two years of campaigning (longer for some). The campaign has turned nasty already, and the conventions should be interesting (at least for political scientists) – I expect the ratings to be low. I’m mostly looking forward to the debates, and hoping that they actually have a woman moderator — Gwen Ifill would be awesome. Overall, I expect women voters to play a big role in this election.  Turnout will be critical for both sides.

This will also be a momentous Fall for me in terms of my own work.  As my first book finally appears in paperback, I’m expecting to submit my second book for review (on antidiscrimination policy in Europe), and I’m making progress on two more projects.  I’m hoping to weigh in on the immigration debate as it plays out during the campaign and into the Spring.  This country can’t continue to avoid dealing with a variety of important issues, and Congress will have plenty to deal with, but I expect that immigration will come up in the Spring, regardless of the outcome in the presidential election (although it’s looking good for Obama at this point in time).

…and then there are cats…Dolce is waiting for me to head to bed so she can come and snuggle. My kitty Gabby is sitting here helping me write this. She reminds me to relax and breathe and enjoy the evening.  The Olympics are on, my family is settled in for the night, and life is good. My goal for the rest of the year is to remember to count my blessings every day.