Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reviewing Doctoral Symposium submissions

I just reviewed a whole pile of submissions to a doctoral symposium. These are 4-page summaries of the research the students propose to undertake for their dissertations. Students could be at any stage of their Ph.D.

I have some general advice for students who are writing similar papers.

* The literature review should be at most 25% of the paper, including the reference list at the end. The purpose of the literature review is to stake out the positions that you are in conversation with. It should not be the bulk of your paper. I'd much rather find out what you are thinking. If you can't come up with at least two pages (or 50% of the document) about your own research, it might be a bit premature to get feedback from outside your lab.

* Don't use bullet points to fill space or otherwise make up for your lack of content. Please write in proper paragraphs and well-formed prose. Your research statement should have a flow and an argument. It should be more than just a pile of points, which is what a series of bullets is.

Hopefully these observations will be helpful for other students who are writing for Doctoral Symposiums or PhD Forums elsewhere.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Response to "A Conservative on Food Stamps: I Felt Like I Was Two Inches Tall" | BlogHer

I read a post on BlogHer written by Gianna Rae. In it, Gianna writes about a run-in she had at the grocery store with a cashier who implied that food stamps were wasteful and that she was a beggar for using them.

I am completely sympathetic to Gianna. She should have been made to feel like a lesser person for using a social service that is available to all who qualify. Services like welfare, WIC, and food stamps are part of a social safety net intended to prevent the worst things from happening to individuals and families. I'm in favor of these programs. In fact, we could be doing a lot more and I'm willing to pay higher taxes to have them, even if I never use them. I despise living in a society where it's possible for people to be homeless and where too many children go to bed hungry.

That said, the aspect of the the post that raised my eyebrow were the opening paragraphs where Gianna explained that she was politically conservative.

I believe it's OKAY to make a profit (for some people to be rich and others to be poorer), and I believe the government should NOT say it's okay to kill babies or trivialize people's right to life be it young OR old.


This is my opinion: I've paid my taxes and I AM paying my taxes. If there is a program out there that can help me and I've paid for it already, I am going to use it. Whether I use it or not, the government is going to take my money, and this way at least, for once, I get to reuse the money I've already paid in.

I would be the first to admit that I just don't understand conservatives, or to be correct, Republicans. Individual rights are good, except when it comes to abortion. Deficit spending is bad, except when it comes to the military. Big government is bad, except when it comes to legislating morality. But I digress...

It seems to me that a key difference between conservatives and liberals is how they decide who deserves what. Liberals believe that food, shelter, and health are things that everyone should have. Conservatives believe that only people who have earned them should have food, shelter, and health. The conflict in Gianna's experience occurred because she drew the line on deserving and worthy in one place and the cashier drew the line in another place. My solution is to not draw the line at all and say that we are all equally worthy.

In "The Wealthy Banker's Wife," Linda McQuaig wrote about how every family in the Netherlands received a family allowance. Every family, including the Royal Family. This approach signals that every child, from the poorest to the richest family, is deserving of support from society. Furthermore, it increases commitment to the program from all tax brackets. The wealthy are less likely to suggest cutting a program, because they don't benefit from it or don't know about it.

Family allowance is similar in Canada. There were (are?) no food stamps. They just gave people money and let them spend it on what they needed. When someone uses a family allowance cheque (not check) to pay for groceries, it's just not worthy of comment. In this system, Gianna's run-in would never have occurred.

I'm not saying that 100% of the money in either system goes to where it needs to go. But it is interesting to look at the rhetoric around "waste," because when we demonize, we are really expressing something that we hope never to be. In the Canadian/Dutch system, it is the wealthy banker's wife in the title of McQuaig's book who uses the family allowance to buy a new pair of silk gloves. The demonized figure in the American system are the leeches, as illustrated by one of the comments on the post.

My fiancé's brother and his family were on food stamps for a while, as he was getting paid triple what he used to. They never checked on how much he was making, or if it changed. Not to mention they also lied about how many people were in the house, so they were getting $500 a month in food stamps when they only had two people using them. They were out buying Red Bull's by the case, those big bags of candy, and all sorts of junk.

Not surprisingly, the socialist system demonizes the rich, while capitalist/individualist system demonizes "loafers." Also, not surprisingly, I'm more comfortable demonizing people who can defend themselves.

One final point... Don't you think it's odd that food stamps are organized by the Department of Agriculture and not the Department of Health and Human Services? It makes me wonder who food stamps are supposed to be helping, farmers or low income households.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bible Stories that Bug Me

We had a great sermon last Sunday (July 11, 2010) by Rev. Dr. Paul Tellström on the Mary and Martha story from Luke 10:38-42. In the story, Martha is working hard looking after the guests while Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus while he teaches. Martha comes out of the kitchen and says, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" Jesus' response is "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

The sermon did a wonderful job of picking apart the sibling rivalry, the use of indirect communication by the participants, gender issues, and interpreting Jesus' presence in the home of two women in a historical context. But best of all was the progressive Christian interpretation of the story: Some of us like to study and some of us like to do. But don't be distracted, because only one thing is needed. Choose the better. Don't let it be taken away from you. It was a beautiful re-casting because of the way it made room for everyone and they way that they serve. It struck a chord and I heard many people talking about it on the patio after church.

Although Pastor Paul helped me to like this story more than I did before, it's still one of the Bible stories that bug me. In the Mary and Martha story, I always identified with Martha. I had to be the responsible one, when I would have rather sat and listened.

I have a similar feeling about the Prodigal Son. I was the dutiful child who stayed home and got screwed out of a good time, the opportunity to spend my part of the fortune, and my parents never threw a party for me.

These stories only make sense when interpreted from a particular point of view. The prodigal son story on makes sense from the father's point of view. The story is a parable for God's relationship with us. The Mary and Martha story is a parable about how to serve. In makes sense from Mary's point of view or, as Pastor Paul points out, as a metaphor from an external point of view.

My reaction and the persistence of these stories illustrates two points about narratives. One, stories are a highly compelling way to pass on knowledge and routines. They work especially well when used orally. That's why we still hear them in church. Two, fluidity in interpretation is a relatively modern concept. When these stories were originally authored, the point of view or vantage point for interpretation was given or prescribed. There was only one way to tell and understand the stories and the characters existed only to make the telling possible. In other words, the plot was privileged and the characters were marginalized.

So maybe this is just my post-modern sensibility coming through, but I have a hard time with these stories. (Don't get me started on the one with Solomon and the two mothers.) So, what do you think? Are there any Bible stories that bug you?

Friday, July 16, 2010

If a revolution were organized by women...

New York Times Magazine had an amazing article this week,
The New Abortion Providers, by Emily Bazelon. It talks about efforts over the last thirty years to make abortions a part of mainstream medical practice.

This approach reminded me of a discussion that I had with a couple of ladies at church. Despite their age (or because of it), they were die-hard feminists and progressive Christians. They talked about how their grandmothers were also feminists, but in a quiet way, behind the scenes. They opined that behind any social movement that was successful had women doing the cooking and organizing while the men were doing the blustering. But at the same time, they didn't embrace the dominant narrative of feminism. Jo Cranson mentioned Ashley Montague interviewing a grandmother who ask why she should settle for equality when it's less than what I had before. Robinmarie McClement cited Susan B. Anthony being very concerned about women losing their quiet power behind the throne, if they pursued feminism as a public battle.

Protests and gauntlets in front of free-standing clinics are effective because abortions are a marginalized medical practice. If more doctors performed abortions in their offices or in a hospital, it would make it much more difficult for protesters to single out patients. This change would involve making abortion a standard procedure in the practice of family doctors, internists, and OB/GYN.

In 1995, Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education made abortion training a requirement for all OB/GYN residency programs, meaning that medical students would be receiving mandated hours of lecture on how to perform abortion. This motivation behind this move was to make abortion part of the professional qualifications of a doctor. Even if the student never performs an abortion, they needed to be educated about it.

The next step was to make in-roads into academic medicine by establishing fellowships to provide advanced training and to support research.

"A physician at the U.C.S.F. medical school set up the Family Planning Fellowship, a two-year stint following residency that pays doctors to sharpen their skills in abortion and contraception, to venture into research and to do international work. In recent years, the fellowship has expanded to 21 universities, including the usual liberal-turf suspects — Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, U.C.L.A. — but also schools in more conservative states, like the University of Utah, the University of Colorado and Emory University in Georgia."

International work was an important component because it exposed the fellows to countries where back alley abortions were still common. Another side effect of the residencies is that the physicians need to perform enough abortions to "train to competency." In other words, they need to do enough procedures to be able to handle complications. This process often involves performing many, many abortions in a hospital setting, because the complication rates for first-trimester abortions are so low (about 1%). This training usually occurs in hospitals, which means greater, safe access for women. Coming out of these fellowships, residents are equipped to make decisions about the place of abortion in their own practice. The decision whether or not to offer thee treatment is not necessarily a simple yes or no, but possibly choosing a cut-off, such as 7, 9, or 13 weeks.

These small changes are brilliant, because they don't involve direct confrontation with the protesters on the front lines. They make abortion more available by changing the context. If physicians could bring the simple procedure into the medical fold, it would reduce the need for free-standing clinics and the vulnerability of their patients. (An abortion at 9 weeks gestation produces no recognizes fetal parts and takes less than five minutes by a skilled provider, using device that is "about 10 inches long, costs only $30 and looks like the kind of appliance you might find in a kitchen drawer.")

There are still other obstacles in the way, such as hospitals being squeamish about associated with abortion and the cost of extra medical insurance, but change is afoot. Moreover, this is a change brought about largely by women for women, with the support of male colleagues, away from the glare of publicity and politics.

Many of the protégées Grimes is talking about are women. In the first generation after Roe, abortion providers were mostly men because doctors were mostly men. Since then, women have streamed into the ranks of OB-GYN and family medicine. They are now the main force behind providing abortion.

Let's hear it for social revolutions organized by women.