Culture Clash: Down Syndrome, Disability Studies, Medicine and the Power of Research

This blog is about research and its impact on the the average person. Not the impact of my research (which is doubtful!), but how others’ research has impacted me and my family. If you know me, or have read some of my blog posts that mention it, you’ll know that I have a young daughter with Down Syndrome (DS). Even before she was born, I was interested in how the disabled and disability have been viewed in our culture, perhaps due to growing up with two first cousins who were disabled. Later as a graduate student and young professor, I was struck by how negatively disability was portrayed in the literature I was reading and teaching, where it was largely a symbol of a deteriorated and stagnant society (think Lazarillo’s cruel master the ciego, of Pacual’s abused young brother in Cela’s tremendista novel Pacual Duarte or of the tragic Blasillo in Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno Mártir). My discovery at a Modern Language Association (MLA) convention a few years back of the existence of “Disability Studies” spoke to many of my personal and professional experiences of disability, and it is a field I have followed with interest. Like me, many in the field have both scholarly and personal interests in it, such as past MLA President Michael Bérubé (who also has a son with DS).  Recently I have noticed some interesting and provocative connections between Disability Studies and an issue much in the news, blogosphere, and social media, with great resonance for me as both a parent of a child with Down Syndrome as an academic interested in disability studies–a possible cure for Down Syndrome..

The website of the Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies at Syracuse University:(CHP) defines Disability Studies:

Disability Studies refers generally to the examination of disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. In contrast to clinical, medical, or therapeutic perspectives on disability, Disability Studies focuses on how disability is defined and represented in society. It rejects the perception of disability as a functional impairment that limits a person’s activities.

The international and interdisciplinary Society for Disability Studies. sees disability as

…a key aspect of human experience, and that the study of disability has important political, social, and economic implications for society as a whole, including both disabled and nondisabled people. Through research, artistic production, teaching and activism, the Society for Disability Studies seeks to augment understanding of disability in all cultures and historical periods, to promote greater awareness of the experiences of disabled people, and to advocate for social change.

Thanks in part to the work of these researchers, artists, and activists, my child has a better life today than my cousins did.  Unlike 50 years ago, she has the access to a quality education in our local public school,  she is included in her community, and she has the possibility of developing her full potential as an individual. But she also has benefitted from medical advancements, and we owe much of  her success to their research as well. This is the tension all parents of a child like mine live with–between seeing disability as a condition to be cured, and accepting it as another expression of humanity to be embraced–and knowing when to lean towards one or the other position.  Again, from the Syracuse University CHP website:

…disability is not a characteristic that exists in the person or a problem of the person that must be “fixed” or “cured.” Instead, disability is a construct that finds its meaning within a social and cultural context.

This was precisely the surprising parent reaction to the news that researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School had discovered a way (although only in a petri dish so far) to essentially “shut down” the extra chromosone 21 responsible for Down Syndrome. NBC News is one of  many that has reported on the recent discovery and the mixed reaction to it..  In an article, parents were hopeful for a cure to some of the more frightening medical problems associated with DS such as heart defects and early onset Alzheimers. But many wondered if altering that extra chromasome would alter the essence of the person they loved. Quoting medical geneticist Dr. Brian Sotko (who has a sibling with DS) from the NBC article:

[I]t’s unclear what costs there may be to shutting down the mechanism that creates people who offer lessons in patience, kindness — and what it means to be human. (…) If Down syndrome were completely cured, the world would lose something from the absence of that culture.

It’s that last idea that I’ve highlighted that gets to the heart of the problem for many, and one that has me conflicted–as a mom of a child with DS, as a person who believes in the equal rights and acceptance of all people, and as an academic who studies how cultures represent themselves and their values through symbols.  To what extent is a person with a disability an individual, separate from her disability, and to what extent is she a cultural symbol? This is something my husband and I have come to realize about our daughter. To us, she is an individual, she is our daughter. We see ways she takes after me, or my husband, ways she is like her older sister, and the numerous ways she is her own wonderful self. But to the world, more often than not, she is a symbol.  Some call her an angel, and see in her a message of mercy and tenderness from Heaven (something her twin brother would argue with I’m sure!).  Others see their own fears in her–of imperfection, rejection, loneliness. I’m not denying the importance of these symbols in our personal lives and in our culture.  Symbols can be powerful things, and we humans can’t exist without them. But is there, should there be a DS culture, like some argue for (and against) a deaf culture? Is “curing” DS really just 21st century eugenics? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I know that my daughter is my daughter first, and DS, although a constant reality in our lives, is secondary. And yet  that extra chromosone is in every cell of her body, in every part of her,and so, for now, DS is inextricable from her.

But that extra chromosone has been the cause of suffering for my daughter, and not just from the social stygma of being outwardly identifiable as a person with DS. She has suffered with the unfairness of the difficulties, struggles, and sometimes real physical pain that DS has brought her. Certainly, her suffering has been less than many with DS. She wasn’t born with heart problems or other life-threatening medical conditions that have required surgery and extended treatment. Still, everytime I’ve comforted her in my arms while a lab tech tried to find a vein in her tiny arm to remove multiple vials of her blood, every hour she’s had to spend visiting specialists and therapists instead of playing at home with her siblings, every recess she’s had to miss or cut short for testing at school, every sentence I’ve watched her methodically plan and execute so that others would understand her meaning clearly and every time her frustration spills over when they don’t, every homework assignment that took her an hour to complete when her twin finished in ten minutes–these are all times when my daughter Eva has suffered unfairly because of DS. Things that come so easily to her siblings, Eva has struggled to achieve–from sitting up and walking as an infant, to speaking as a preschooler and learning to read in elementary school. DS sometimes seems like this physical weight on her that makes it harder to move forward, and yet it has taught all of us in our family important lessons about love, patience, and perseverance. The weight of DS may have slowed Eva down, but it hasn’t held her back, and she is happy and thriving and wonderful. We accept DS. It is our reality for now, and we’ll keep fighting for her, and encouraging her,and sometimes pushing her to be her best, whatever that may be.  We have researchers in Disability Studies to thank for helping to change attitudes in our ability-centric culture, making much of this possible for Eva. But its not an either or for me. If medical research can find a way to limit or even eliminate my daughter’s struggles with DS, and prevent that pain for other children in the future, I’m ready to embrace that too.

Eva in my office



Logo Google cervantes Don quijote

“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”
Those are probably THE most memorable words ever written in Spanish–the beginning, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. It captures all the irony and ambiguity that will characterize this long novel, written in two volumes and published 10 years apart–the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. It is a book that has fascinated readers for 4 centuries, and inspired numerous other books, plays, works of art, music, films, t-shirts, even a chain of Japanese thrift stores!

Don Quijote, Honolulu, Hawaii

I’ve recenty finished reading the novel in English, more than 20 years after I first read it in Spanish in a graduate class with the great Javier Herrero. Lately,  I’ve had the crazy, quixotic you might say, idea to teach two seminars on the Quijote this coming spring semester: a senior-level seminar in Spanish which I hope to title “Don Quijote 21” and a first-year seminar I plan to call “Digital Don Quijote”. I say quixotic because I’m not a Cervantes specialist, and I have my doubts about how I’ll be able to guide and inspire students not only to understand this extremely long and difficult novel, but to love it as so many generations have. Certainly there were times during my re-reading of the book this summer when  I distinctly did not love this book.

Over the past twenty years I’ve re-read parts of the novel, usually the best, most iconic moments: the wonderful first chapter where Don Alonso Quijano creates his persona Don Quijote and sets about inventing an entire world for the knight errant; Don Quijote’s first failed adventure; the burning of his collection of books of chivalry; his selection of Sancho Panza as his squire and companion; his infamous battle with the windmills, and the interrupted battle with the vizcaino followed by the introduction of the historian/author Sidi Hamid Benengeli; the freeing of the galley slaves; the visions Don Quijote claimed to have in the cave of Montesinos; the adventures on the wooden horse Clavileño at the Duke’s palace; Sancho’s time as “governor” of his own island; and finally Don Quijote’s tragic death. I’ve taught various of these chapters as part of our survey of Spanish literature, and usually students enjoy the selections, which give them a small taste of the genious of this text. But I’ve always felt I was cheating them by giving them so little of such a vast and hugely important book. So I wanted to face the challenge of my own adventure, and teach not one, but TWO classes on the Quijote. The first, in Spanish, would be a more traditional look at the novel as an important piece of literature and its enormous influence on Spanish culture even today. The second a related, yet somewhat different first-year seminar in English using the novel as a way to approach digital studies and digital humanities. We would read select chapters of the novel and relate them to various topics of digital study–the questions of authorship, fair use, and copyright laws; the future of the library; DQ and gaming, digital humanities projects on DQ, DQ as a MOOC, DQ in social media, etc.

However, as I waded through the first volume, with its numerous intercalated stories that often seem rather loosely connected to the main story, I started to doubt my plans. The first idea to go to the wayside was that I could inspire first-year students to read the entire book, and simultaneously include the digital topics I was interested in. But also I began to question my plans for the advanced students. Not only is the book long (some editions are well over a thousand pages), the Spanish (and the faithful English translation by Burton Raffel) can be insanely archaic in the case of Don Quijote, and ridiculously strewn with popular sayings and proverbs in the case of Sancho Panza. Fascinating philosophical questions aside about what (or who) is an author and what is his relation with his readers and his characters, or about what divides fantasy from reality, I began to question  my long-held acceptance of Don Quijote as the first modern novel, not only in Spanish but in any language…Really?? Modern?? I said as much to my husband one night as we were both reading before bed. I had just finished the episode in the cave of Montesinos and was entering into the long episode at the Duke’s palace. I remembered these episodes to be entertaining the first time I read them, but this time around they seemed to be too drawn out, too detailed, with too many digressions. Both the structure of the entire novel–especially the first volume–and Cervantes’ often purposefully difficult language, didn’t seem modern at all to me. In fact, the novel seemed distinctly Baroque. Now, before the Cervantista’s out there start trying to correct my ignorance on the art of Cervantes (which I do not deny), Miguel himself anticipated my misgivings just a few chapters later when his historian pseudo-author character Sidi Hamid Benengeli answered my complaints with a complaint of his own:

“It is said that, in the true original of this chapter, one can read how, when Sidi Hamid came to write this chapter (which his translator only partially rendered into Spanish), the Moor penned a kind of complaint against himself, for having undertaken such a dry and narrow history as Don Quijote’s…” (Volume 2, chapter 44, 586)

Benengeli knows exactly what I was thinking as I read volume one, and he anticipates–even condones–what I am sure my students will be doing next spring::

It also seemed to him, he said, that there would be a lot of people so totally absorbed in Don Quijote’s doings that, finding these other stories of little interest, they would simply skip over or just skim rapidly through them or, if they did read them, would do so only grudgingly…

Cervantes/Benengeli  then sum it all up for me–

he concludes his complaint by asking his readers not to look down on what he has here accomplished, and to praise him, not so much for what he has written, as for what he has refrained from writing. 

When I read this paragraph I was in awe of the genius of Cervantes. Here he was, anticipating MY criticism, answering ME directly, explaining ever so patiently why this book is modern, why it is like no other, why it is still relevant, and why I ought to continue my own crazy quest to bring it to another generation of readers!

Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. Ed. Diana de Armas Wilson. New York: WW Norton, 1999.

In Defense of (Academic) Language Study

I recently finished teaching a Spanish 101 course during our university’s first summer school session. My course was full, mostly with students from my institution working on the language requirement for our general education curriculum, which requires that students complete coursework or otherwise prove competency (AP scores, for example) at the intermediate level as defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, So students starting in 101 would likely have 3 more semesters of study to complete the general education language requirement. This term’s course was pretty typical for my lower-level language courses. Some students were only in the course to complete the general education requirement, while others were there because they also had either a personal or a professional interest in learning Spanish. Ofen students see Spanish as a “practical” language and cite this as a reason for taking it. Completing what is normally done over 14 weeks of classes in only 4 1/2 weeks is quite a challenge for any course, but in a language course, it was a colossal task for all of the students, and for me as their instructor, and I have to say that I left the experience with some mixed feelings. I have a student from the course to thank for the topic of this blog post, in defense of (academic) language study, as opposed to the many other ways people can learn another language, from purchasing commercial programs sold in an airport to moving to another country.  I would like to argue for the value of language study as part of a liberal university education.  Also, although academic language study might have the side benefit of proving itself “practical” some day to some students, that is not its only, and maybe not even its most important purpose.

The aforementioned student who inspired this post was one of those students who  seems to question everything at every turn. A non-traditional student returning to school after a few years of experience in the “real” world, this person was not the typical undergraduate content to just do as I said and trust that I knew what I was doing. While it can be quite frustrating and tiring to have to defend oneself in this way, I don’t believe that the student was out-of-line to question me. To the contrary, I, as a professor, should be able to explain the “why” of my pedagogical choices just as well as I explain the “what” of the content delivered in them. So when this student asked me “Why don’t you just use that commercial program XXX?”(*referring to the sort of program advertised in travel magazines, sold in big box electronics stores, and in kiosks at the airport) I was a little dumbfounded.  Why not? Now to be fair, I’ve never really used any of those programs, although I suppose they probably have helped introduce many more people to a new language than I have in my 20 years as a professor. I did a bit of researching and found several reviews of one of the most advertised programs, Rosetta Stone, including this oneon a blog post from January of this year in the Economist. Certainly the program’s special features are intriguing, but I’m still suspicious of anything or anyone who  claims language learning can be quick and easy, natural, painless and never ever boring! But, back to the student’s questions– why not? While one of the criticisms of these language learning software programs is that they are quite expensive, none of them are as expensive as the three-credit summer course I taught, even for in-state students. What is so special about the way we teach language in a university classroom setting that justifies our price?

I myself learned Spanish in a rather non-traditional way. Thirty years ago, in the summer following my high school graduation, I lived for 9 weeks in La Paz, Bolivia. I had never studied Spanish before that moment, but rather had taken 4 years of highschool French. My immediate reaction to the letter announcing that I would be living with a family in Bolivia was to tell them no way, I wouldn’t go! I couldn’t go. I didn’t even know Bolivian, I thought, and I especially didn’t even know that Bolivians spoke Spanish, along with Quechua and Aymara and a few other indigenous languages. But the people at AFS talked me into taking a big risk and go.  Those were the 9 most difficult and most rewarding weeks of my life, and the experience completely transformed me. I came back with a pretty good foundation for speaking and understanding Spanish, but more importantly I came back with a greater awareness of how other peoples around the world lived, and I returned with a hunger to learn more, to improve my skills, and to continue transforming my monolingual, monocultural worldview to something much, much richer. For me it was sort of like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the film changes from black and white to color. Going to Bolivia, and learning Spanish opened my mind, and my life to a whole new way of thinking, of understanding and of being. Until I saw my my pictures developed once I was home, I had no idea how different I looked from my Bolivian friends–what a true “gringa” I must have seemed to those around me (evidenced below!). Perhaps proof of my intellectual (not physical) transformation?

Betsy Bolivia 1983

I started my university career the next fall and began my formal study of Spanish. I learned grammar, more vocabulary, and writing, and I continued to improve my speaking and listening skills. I also continued pursuing opportunites to travel–again to Latin America (Cuba and Costa Rica) and then a summer in Spain. I sought every opportunity I could to speak with native speakers in my university.  For me it was that combination of real-world experience and academic study that helped me in my transformation. This transformation didn’t happen easily, it did not happen quickly in fact, it’s still happening 30 years later!  It was not always fun, although often it was GREAT FUN, and it’s what I hope for each and everyone of my students, and the reason I went into college teaching.

Here is an exerpt of my response to my student:

I’m not sure if you were in class the day that I spoke about language learning being like learning a musical instrument or learning a sport. It takes a lot of practice, and it can be quite frustrating at times. Some students are naturals (just as some are naturals in sports or music) and seem to improve almost effortlessly, while others work and work and feel they are not improving as quickly as they’d like. But most students, all but those with the most severe of learning disabilities, are able to improve and they are able to achieve intermediate competency at the end of two years. The problem is, I can’t do it for students. I can provide students a road map (that is, through my syllabus, through the assignments that I give, and the topics that we cover in class, along with my power point slides and explanations that I provide).  I also can provide opportunities to practice in class: in every class I try to make sure that all students have the opportunity to practice all 4 skills necessary for language learning, with lots of speaking activities, reading, writing, and listening. I can also give students feedback, through my comments on their quizzes, on their homework, and on their classwork.But in the end it is ultimately up to the student to use all of these opportunities to his or her best advantage.

Learning a language is an art and a science. It requires skill and knowledge and creativity. The 2011 proposal for a “21st Century Skills Map”, spearheaded  by ACTFL–the same professional organization that has created the proficiency guidelines mentioned earlier–calls for 21st century language teaching at the K-12 and college level to focus on five “Cs”: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The proposal goes on to state that it is “only through knowing the language of others that we can truly understand how they view the world.” (  While I question the practicality of the proposal’s call for all students to emerge from K-12 at the advanced level, and from university study at the superior level–something only the very best of our Spanish majors are able to achieve in their 4 years with us–I do think it rightly emphasizes active and engaged student learning in a variety of “modes” from the more informal “interpersonal” to a higher level functioning “interpretive” and a more formal “presentational” mode.  These last two are areas a student is unlikely to develop outside of the classroom.

I will continue to seek new ways to encourage my students to become more active learners, able to create and interpret meaning accurately and correctly through both written and spoken Spanish. But my ultimate goal for them, more than achieving a particular language proficiency level, would be that they too might go from black and white to color, to enjoy the wonder of seeing, understanding, and being differently.

Wizard of Oz cover 1900

The Culture of Service and Social Action

Before the spring semester gets too far behind me, I’d like to reflect on an experimental course that I taught last semester as a topics in culture course, and that I’d like to submit as a permanent addition to our curriculum in Spanish. I called it “Service and Social Action in Spain and Latin America.” It was a course that had its roots in my research and teaching on charity. However, I wanted the course to be more broadly focused to include various social problems and the ways different places, times and peoples have tried to solve them. The course objectives were:

  •  Become familiar with the history of various social problems in Spain and Latin America and the attempts to resolve them by different groups and historical periods
  •  Become acquainted with the cultural production associated with these social problems
  • Participate in an individual service learning project as part of the UMW “Experiential Learning” requirement
  • Reflect on the experiences of the service project and connect them to the themes of the class
  • Communicate learning gained in the class activities and the service project through speaking and writing.

Here’s a link to a longer description of the course and a copy of the syllabus (in Spanish).

There were many things about this course that from my perspective went very well, and that I’d like to keep and even expand in any future iteration of the course. First, I like the way that this course moved students beyond their simplistic notion of culture to a more nuanced consideration of what is unique about the way Spanish-speaking peoples have approached various social issues in modern times (meaning since the 16th century). In our yearly senior exit interviews, students claim to want more culture (and conversely less literature) in their coursework, but often culture for them means chimichangas, flamenco music and learning to dance the salsa. While I love all of those aspects of Latin culture (and more!), I also want students to have a much deeper understanding.  In our first class meeting we discussed the multiple definitions of culture–from the artistic and intellectual production of “high culture”, to culture as a set of ideas, beliefs and behaviors of a group, communicated through symbols. In the course we read literary and non-literary texts in Spanish; viewed contemporary and classic films from Spain, Latin America, and the United States; studied artistic works (drawings, paintings, photographs, sculpture and architecture).  Students contributed to the class their own findings about historical events, social and political movements, important political and religious figures, artists and musicians; as well as about contemporary organizations working to address social problems in the Spanish-speaking world.

Secondly I liked the way the course problemetized many of the topics of the course. For example, we talked about a culture of poverty as represented in Mexican art, film, and literature of the 1950’s. Students contrasted Juan Rulfo’s adolescent character Tacha with the adolescent protagonist Chachita of the classic Mexican film Nosotros los pobres by the Director Ismael Rodríguez, and compared these representations to the children depicted by Mexican photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo. Rulfo’s existentialism versus Rodríguez’s use of melodrama deepened our discussion of the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, as well as our own notion of the poor in the 21st century. Other attempts to get students to consider course topics in a nuanced and complex way were less successful. For example, we read two texts from Spain about women’s charitable work–one a late-Enlightenment poem “Oda a la beneficencia” by María Rosa Gálvez, the other a brief essay titled “No hay nada más bello que servir” published by the Sección Femenina de la Falange in one of their magazines for women during the early part of the Franco dictatorship. Students we able to question the notions of charity, sentimentality, goodness and beauty as inherently feminine qualitiesnot only in Latin culture of the past, but also in our own present-day US culture. However they were less able to identify the propagandistic qualities of these texts and the irony between what the texts claimed, versus what we know to be the historical reality.  Specifically, they took a fascist women’s group whose main aim was to serve the political purposes of an oppressive dictatorship, at its own word, and did not question the author or group’s motives behind the text.

All the while students developed their vocabulary in related fields such as medicine, politics, law, education, and social work, especially as it related to their individual service projects. They had to write and talk about their experiences frequently, both formally and informally. This was an area that I think was most beneficial to all of the students, despite their varying levels of linguistic competence–from non-natve speakers taking their first 300-level course, to native speakers who were advanced in their Spanish major. I would like to develop this area further for students so that all leave the course more confident in their ability to communicate well, and more able to communicate about topics that might have professional or personal significance to them.

Among the areas of the course that students complimented most, was a visit by a Mary Washington alum Brian Straight.  Brian spent two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador after graduation, and since then has worked for the Department of Defense and for the State Department. His real life experiences of the issues we were studying really impacted the students. His life experiences also connected with what I see as a culture of service among our students at Mary Washington, something we had already highlighted in the course, especially in the work of graduates Jean Donovan and Shin Fujiyama. Many of the students were familiar with Shin’s work with Students Helping Honduras, but few noticed the small plaque outside Trinkle Hall in memory of murdered lay missionary Jean Donovan.  After watching the film Romero, learning about liberation theology, and the civil war in El Salvador, we take a field trip down campus walk to see how our own history–our culture of service and social action at Mary Washington, intersects with our object of study in the class.

Jean Donovan Plaque UMW

Students critiqued the 42 hour service requirement, something I struggled greatly with as I planned the course. In the future I might offer two options–one a service project, the other a research project, and then change the way I conduct and grade the discussion sessions. Still, service is essential in my mind to this course, even if that service is not directly related to Spanish or Spanish-speaking people. So many of the issues we discussed students saw in action in their service projects–both the good, the bad, and the frustrating.  Overall, it was a very rewarding course to teach, and, after some adjustments, I look forward to offering it again.

Diversity In My Classroom

Yesterday the University of Mary Washington held its first #diversityacademy organized by Leah Cox, Special Assistant to President for Diversity and Inclusion. It was wondeful to spend a day with my colleagues reflecting on where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we might be going (or want to go) in terms of promoting diversity in our curriculum and our culture at the University of Mary Washington. I learned quite a bit about the history of diversity issues that dated even before I came here in a tenure track position more than 15 years ago. The program included a discussion about the old Race and Gender across-the-curriculum general education requirements and about the multi-section First Year Seminar Race and Revolution, presentations from the UMW Center for International Education, CAPS, Disability Resources among others, and from the University of Maryland’s Executive Director of the Office of Diversity Education and Compliance, Gloria Bouis.  I’m sorry to have missed the final presentation about the Campus Climate survey at the end of the day, which actually leads into my own reflections on diversity in my classroom.

In my time here, I’ve noticed an important and positive change in the diversity of my classroom. While 15 years ago there might have been one or two Latino native or heritage speakers of Spanish in my upper level courses (5-10%), now that number is more like 25-30%, or more. While the overall Latino population at UMW is not nearly this high, I have found the Latino students in my classes–some majors and some not–have brought an enthusiasm and unique perspective to the courses I teach that has enhanced the learning environment for all of us–native and non-native speakers alike!. These students also have their special challenges. Many are working their way through college, they often have family responsibilities that force them to miss class at times. Their comfort with informal speaking activities is often countered by their trepidation at more formal writing assignments and oral presentations. Overall, the addition of these students has been a net positive for all of us, and I am so happy to be teaching all of my students at this time. But I also hear rumblings from some of my colleagues about the quality of student that UMW has  been accepting of late–pointing to our high acceptance rate, our large proportion of in-state and transfer students, and contrasting this to the “good old days” when more of our students were from out-of-state, of a higher academic caliber (on paper at least), and, while no one states this overtly, ,mostly upper middle class and white! While it is hard for me to tease out all the reasons for our change in student demographic (perhaps this is what I missed in yesterday’s presentation), and certainly we have a long way to go as an institution before our faculty and student body more closely mirror the population of the state of Virginia, I firmly believe that as a professor at a small public institution, it’s my job to provide the best academic experience I can for the students in my class, whoever they are. What a privilege to be able to work with these students, at this institution, at this moment, and have a small part in their education!

El siglo 18 @ el 21 ASECS Cleveland 2013

Abajo hay una versión de la intervención que he preparado para la mesa redonda “Enriching Ibero-Amercan Studies in Times of Austerty” en la reunión de la American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Cleveland, el 5 de abril de 2013.

 El Siglo 18 @ el 21: Inseguridades, desafíos y oportunidades

 Nosotros, como investigadores y profesores del siglo 21, estamos presentados con las oportunidades y los desafíos de un mundo cada vez más globalizado, más interconectado, pero con cada vez menos fondos para el avance del conocimiento, especialmente en las humanidades.  En mi breve intervención hoy, quiero demostrar algunos puntos de contacto entre nuestra edad y la de nuestros queridos hombres y mujeres ilustrados.  Luego, voy a examinar algunos cambios tecnológicos en las bibliotecas y colecciones digitales, y cómo nos han afectado (por bien y por mal) en los estudios iberoamericanos, y por último quisiera sugerir un camino hacia más cooperación y más colaboración en el futuro.

En una sesión  sobre las humanidades digitales en la reunión de ASECS en Vancouver en 2011, comparé los “avances” de nuestra época tecnológica a los del dieciocho. Por ejemplo, ¿no es fácil ver a Jovellanos, con su gran correspondencia y su frecuente publicación de artículos de prensa, como bloguista?

Jovellanos bloguista

¿Habría participado Feijoo en Wikipedia?

Feijoo wikipedia

¿O Goya, con sus enigmáticos caprichos en los que juega con la imagen y la palabra, en Twitter, donde en 140 caracteres podría inspirarnos a cuestionar nuestra sociedad moderna?

Goya Twitter

Tal vez estas asociaciones entre nuestros admirados ilustrados y las nuevas formas de “medios sociales” nos parezcan absurdas, pero mi punto es que nosotros, como los pensadores del 18, estamos ante un mundo de mucha promesa y de algunos peligros.  Los avances tecnológicos han creado un nuevo, y muchas veces emocionante, ambiente para nuestro estudio del 18, pero no sin sus problemas.  En su libro de 2011, The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry (U California Press), Siva Vaidhyanathan nos precauciona sobre los riesgos para el futuro del conocimiento humano de una fe ciega en las compañías privadas como Google. Vaidhyanathan habla del impacto del inmenso proyecto de Google Books, y de como muchos lo han aceptado porque creen en “the potential of digital culture—when properly supported by a benevolent force such as Google—to transform, extend, and democratize knowledge” (152). Vaidhyanathan apunta todas las implicaciones, buenas y malas, del proyecto de Google Books, que no puedo desarrollar aquí.

Tengo que confesar que Google Books ha sido revolucionario en mi propio trabajo—textos que antes solo pude acceder con un viaje a España, ahora puedo ver desde mi despacho en Virginia.  Google ha participado con dos bibliotecas en España—la Complutense en Madrid (que tiene la segunda colección de libros en España, detrás de la Biblioteca Nacional), y la Biblioteca de Catalunya.  No hay ninguna biblioteca latinoamericana representada en su lista de 21 bibliotecas, que son principalmente de universidades estadounidenses, con algunas de Europa, y una en Japón. Pero Google no es la única compañía privada que ha digitalizado las colecciones de importantes bibliotecas. Gale con sus varias colecciones digitales impresionantes, ofrece suscripciones a sus colecciones de textos extraídos de la British Library,  Library of Congress,  National Archives, Harvard, Oxford y Yale.  Sin embargo, el precio de suscripción es altísimo, e imposible para una institución pequeña, o para un individuo, y aunque las colecciones tienen algunos textos de España y Latinoamérica, principalmente tiene textos en inglés.  En España hay varias otras colecciones digitales—notablemente gratis y abiertas a todos, como la Biblioteca Digital Hispánica y la Hemeroteca Digital de la Biblioteca Nacional, y la ya mencionada Biblioteca Virtual Cervantes (creada por la Universidad de Alicante). Estas colecciones en España fueron creadas con fondos públicos que ya casi no existen, y el futuro de ellas es inseguro, por lo menos.

Si al nivel institucional el futuro del avance de las humanidades está en duda, ¿hay algo que podemos, que debemos hacer nosotros como académicos para avanzar, para “enriquecer” los estudios del dieciocho en este mundo inestable, de presupuestos cada vez más pequeños, de recortes y aun eliminación de programas que antes apoyaban nuestro trabajo?  Para los especialistas en Gran Bretaña y Estados Unidos, hay grupos como Eighteenth Century Connect, que reúne varios proyectos digitales de universidades e individuos, y que está dedicado al acceso abierto y gratis.  Mi universidad, una pequeña institución pública de artes liberales, ha inaugurado una nueva iniciativa—UMW Domains. Hemos formado grupos de profesores para explorar  los desafíos y posibilidades de ser un académico “digital”, y algunos de nosotros nos hemos comprometido a cultivar nuestra participación profesional en los medios sociales.   El libro que nos ha guiado en nuestra exploración The Digital Scholar por Martin Weller (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011) describe un nuevo tipo de académico que es abierto, conectado, y colaborativo. Y son estas cualidades las que yo quiero cultivar en mi propio trabajo.  Actualmente estoy trabajando en un proyecto digital, una exhibición de textos e imágenes que traza la caridad femenina en España desde la Junta de Damas hasta la Sección femenina de la falange. Estoy compilando y organizando el material del proyecto con la ayuda de un “equipo” de alumnos subgraduados, que es una énfasis especial en mi institución. Una cosa que hemos hecho, en el contexto del 19, pero que creo que se podría repetir con textos semejantes en el siglo XVIII, es crear una base de datos catalogando los artículos publicados en la revista bisemanal La Voz de la Caridad de Concepción Arenal.  ¿No sería útil tener una base de datos del contenido del Memorial literario, por ejemplo, asequible en Google books, pero sin organización ninguna?

Los hombres y mujeres del siglo XVIII enfrentaron muchos desafíos y cambios, igual que nosotros, y aprovecharon las nuevas tecnologías con optimismo y fervor.  Es mi esperanza que hagamos lo mismo nosotros, y que seamos todos más abiertos, conectados y colaborativos para confrontar juntos los obstáculos que nos presentan hoy, para poder enriquecer nuestro trabajo colectivo en el futuro.

Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative

I wanted to write a final blog expressing how much fun, and how informative, this faculty initiative of #umwdomains was for me. I found the topics in Weller’s book to be provocative and the discussions in my cohort to be stimulating. I always left with lots to think about, and some new ideas I wanted to try out in my own teaching and research, and on my new domain. It also got me thinking about my own engagement with technology up to this point. I’m in an in-between generation as technology goes. I remember the days before cell phones, email, and the internet, and yet technology entered my life  young enough that it’s been part of my coming-of-age. Here’s a picture of me and my little brother (also a college professor now!) with our (really his) first gaming system Christmas 1979. I thought it was an Atari, but my brother tells me it was an Odyssey system, because our dad, also sort of a techno geek before his time, thought it might be more educational for us. I was a freshman in high school here, my brother in third grade.
Christmas 1979


We had a pc at home pretty early. Later in college I actully took a Basic programming course and learned to program the computer to print out my name (it was “Basic” after all). In 1992, as I was finishing my PhD, I received a book as a gift for joining the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology by George Landow (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)–a sort of ironic welcome to a very luddite organization, but its membership is managed by Johns Hopkins, so I guess there was a connection. Reading this book, with a graduate student’s knowledge of post-structuralism and no knowledge  or experience whatsoever of the internet, Landow’s analysis of this new medium blew my mind:

Hypertext, as the term is used in this work, denotes text composed of blocks of text — what Barthes terms a lexia — and the electronic links that join them. Hypermedia simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links one passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams, and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information (Landow, 4, and here’s a hyperlink to a digital copy the author has provided.)

About the same time, a friend named David Gardner decided to stop publishing a small print newletter called the Motley Fool,  to which my husband and I subscribed (out of friendship more than interest in investing, since we were newly weds hunting “real” jobs, and with student loans to repay!). He told us he was putting it on something called AOL.  So we joined AOL. Flash forward 20 years, and Landow finally makes sense to me!

The conversations we had, and the issues we debated through UMW domains, have in a way connected the dots to my own experiences with technology, and helped me see a little more clearly how I want to engage technology professionally with my students, my colleagues and my research.

A Tale of Three Books

The last chapters of Weller for this last week of our #umwdomains faculty initiative had me thinking about my own experiences with traditional research, peer-review and publishing, and my recent attempts to become an open digital scholar.

My first book was originally my dissertation, that I revised based on comments from my dissertation committee. I got it all ready, at least I so thought, and sent out a prospectus to various university presses. One expressed interest quickly, and made me sign an agreement that while reviewing it, they had exclusive rights to it. A year later I received a scathing report from the anonymous reviewer–not a kind rejection with constructive criticism, but a crushing review that made me, for a moment, question my whole career. But I picked myself up, tried to work on the manuscript a little more, and sent out more inquiries. Another university press expressed interest, made me sign over the rights, and a year later sent me back a letter that their Board of Directors didn’t think it was appropriate for their press–no review, just “no thanks” A YEAR LATER! I was completely at a loss of what to do. But then, Rebecca Haidt, a wonderful colleague at Ohio State University whose work I admired, offered to read my manuscript and give me some comments. She suggested that I re-focus the book and gave me some very helpful insight about how I might go about this. So I did, and I also sought help from my colleague here at Mary Washington, Allyson Poska, who also gave me some great advice and suggested I submit the book to a private scholarly press. Eventually the book was re-written and published with Ashgate. Before publication, it was anonymously peer-reviewed–this time with very constructive comments–and re-worked again. I paid a nominal fee to have the book professionally indexed, which they would take out of my royalties. The press did not provide professional editing, so I hired Jane Gatewood of our Writing Center to edit the book for me. The press marketed the book in their print and on-line catalogues, and at booths in important national and international conferences. In the end I was quite happy with the results and judged by reviews and contacts I’ve had since then, I think my book has made a small contribution to my field. Each year for about 4 years after publication, I received a small royalty check from Ashgate–enough to go out to a nice dinner with my husband and feel good about the whole thing.

My second book was a co-edited collection of essays that I did with my colleague Cathy Jaffe from Texas State University. We put out a call for papers, received contributions, chose the articles, and prepared a manuscript to send out to presses. We received interest from a university press (LSU), signed over our rights and a year later received a positive review, but with suggestions for revisions. We (and our authors) did the revisions and resubmitted. A year later a different reviewer suggested a whole different set of revisions (some of them contradicting the original reviewer). Luckily we were able to negotiate with the press about what revisions we were willing to do, and the ones we weren’t. The press used a professional editor, who was brutal but very good. It also marketed the book in all the usual ways, and this book too has made a positive impact in our field of eighteenth-century Ibero-American studies. Each year since it came out in 2009, I get an invoice, showing how despite selling books, I won’t get any royalties. I just received one of these yesterday. No dinner out, but that’s not why we did the book anyway.

The third book has never happened, at least not in they way I orginally conceived it. For the past 5 or 6 years I have become increasingly interested in digital pedagogy and scholarship. This coincided with a new avenue of research on the evolution of women’s charity in Spain. I researched, I blogged, I made new contacts in Spain, I published a few articles in traditional print journals and collections, I began to involve my students and undergraduate research in my work, and I applied for a NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant with the idea of creating a hybrid digital book-exhibition with my students. I didn’t get the grant, which actually I don’t think I deserved. The reviews of my grant application were generally positive and constructive, but found the “humanities” part of the proposal stronger than the “digital innovation” part. Since then I’ve attended workshops on DH, sought advice from colleagues I trust and admire, continued work with my students, given up the idea of the hybrid model, and have focused on creating the digital exhibition of our work. It’s almost ready for prime-time but there are several more steps I need to take–I need permissions to publicly display some of the images from the Biblioteca Nacional, I need to do some heavy editing, and I need some sort of peer review of the project.

What do these three tales have in common? They all had their share of obstacles, delays, re-workings and frustrations. In all I have benefitted from constructive criticism, both from anonymous reviewers and from colleagues. I found the private press to be a more pleasant publishing experience than the university press, and the dissemination of the books to be about the same. Still, going it on my own in an open digital format is not any easier. There are no built-in mechanisms for peer-review, for editing, or for dissemination–that would be all up to me. So I’m still feeling my way through this, but as with the other two projects–I don’t give up easily!

It’s personal (and professional)

The idea that has inspired me for this week’s #umwdomains topic actually came up in our cohort discussion last time, but it is a theme Weller continues in Chapter 9–the idea of openness, and of mixing the personal with the professional. I’ve struggled with this personal/professional mix. When I first started Facebook, I joined for purely professional reasons–that’s where my students were, and I wanted to connect to them. But then later former students, highschool friends, my parents, my in-laws, my Aunt Bert, my husband’s cousins, my colleagues, my neighbors…everyone joined… and although at first it was fun reconnecting those relationships, I now feel that Facebook is no longer the place for the professional. Its a place where I post cute pictures of my kids and pets, and of my vacations, and maybe links to articles or videos about some issues of importance to me (although I try not to be too contraversial or overbearing, because that friends list is so diverse I’m sure to offend someone, probably a family member). So I thought Twitter and Linkedin might be where I should be professional. But Linked-in is sort of boring, and Twitter is still overwhelming, but I’m trying.

This week I posted on both Facebook and Twitter links to some things that are of great importance to me personally, but also related to my professional interests. Many of you may know that I have an 8 year old daughter with Down Syndrome. My FB friends see many posts of her accomplishments and the cute things she says and does (along with her twin brother, who does not have DS). Disabilities, and the rights of persons with disabilities has taken on new meaning for our family–it’s personal! So two stories really touched on those interests that I’ll share here too. The first is about the Ideal School, in NYC where inclusion is not just a nice term that doesn’t mean much, but a way of learning for both the students with disabilities and the students without:

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This story really spoke to me, because it really seems to be the “ideal” I have of a school, for my children, but also for my students here at UMW. In this place, individual learning and accomplishment is valued. Diversity and difference is valued. Life skills and social skills are taught along with academic subjects.

The second story was the opposite. Not my dream, but my nightmare:“Man with Down Syndrome who died in police custody loved law enforcement”

This is the fear of every parent of a child with a disability–how will they interact with the world when you’re not there to protect them, and how will the world treat them back? I can’t help but think that if there were more “ideal” schools, more “ideal” education at every level and in the workforce, there would be less tragedies like this one.

And so I’m on to the professional–my ideal education. I want student learning to be deeply engaged, to have personal meaning, to be experiential, to happen in a community of fellow learners, and to be fun. So I did an experiment in class last Wednesday.

The students in my Spanish 320G (a topics course on the culture of service and social action in Spain and Latin America) had read a wonderful short story by Emilia Pardo Bazán, a nineteenth-century realist writer. The story depicts the riders of a Madrid street car traveling from the city center through one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods on a happy Sunday afternoon. The idyllic scene is interrupted by a poor woman and her baby, who are short of cash for their ticket. The wealthy travelers take up a collection to cover her fare, and then shower the extra funds on the woman, who seems not to appreciate their generosity, but instead interrupts their lighthearted scene with too much information about her cad of a husband who had abandoned her for another woman. When the narrator tries to console the woman with encouraging words about how she should look on the bright side, that at least she has her son to care for her in the future, the poor woman reveals her baby’s face and the blank stare of the blind child.

Instead of a typical class discussion on various aspects of the story–themes, characters, imagery–I divided the class into 7 groups and assigned each part of the story to depict in images, each choosing a quote from the story as the image’s caption. I gave them only about 20 minutes to do it, and set up a site on google docs where each group was to create its slide. We immediately had problems–web browsers that weren’t supported by Google, difficulty transferring images saved on Macs–, enough that we had to end class without presenting the show. But when I went back to it in preparation for Friday’s class, I was so pleased by their work, and of how each group really was able to select both text and image that got at the essence of the greatness of Pardo Bazán’s story. I loved it so much that I posted it on Slideshare, even though I’m not quite sure where the images were taken from, and perhaps I’ll need to pull it down if someone questions me on it. But still, as an in-class activity, I loved how this got students to approach literature in some different ways, and then to work together to create something that communicated their understanding. Take a look!

The “pedagogy of abundance” Newt style??

Newt Gingrich is thinking about some of the same things we are, and he’s optimistic about the same sort of “abundance” model Weller metions in Chapter 8–that is in the style of Google’s Sebastian Thrun!

 (pardon the crass commercialism with the ad at the beginning–the price I must pay to embed and MSNBC video!)

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So what does it mean when politicians see this free, open-to-all-model as the future? Of course Gingrich is somewhat of an academic himself, so he believes he speaks with authority, not just as the typical politician. But the worlds of politics and academics are coming into conflict more than ever, regardless the party–President Obama’s SOTU is further evidence of this,(Chronicle of Higher Education “Obama’s Accreditation Proposals Surprise Higher- Education Leaders“) . I agree with Weller that the scarcity model of education might be coming to an end, but what do we need to consider as we academics (hopefully) help shape the abundance model? And where do the liberal arts fit? Where does a small institution like Mary Washington fit?