Laura Tropp's blog

Parenting and the New Television Season


The new television season is bringing to light parental anxiety.

First, I saw This is Us (Spoiler Alert for those not finished watching the first episode). What makes the show interesting is its storytelling: the show intercuts scenes of three siblings living in the present with past moments from their childhood.

While this structure may be simply a clever plot device, the consequence is that the show implies the actions of the characters in the past scenes influence what’s happening in the present. This has become a parenting nightmare for me.

In the second episode, the siblings’ mother attempts to help her seven year-old daughter deal with being overweight. She gives her daughter a serving of cottage cheese while giving her sons bowls of cereal. In the present scenes, the adult daughter is now obese and struggles with her weight. We are left to wonder whether the mother is, in part, the cause for her daughter’s unhappiness with her weight and life circumstances. If her mother had accepted her daughter for who she was, would she be happier now? Would her life be different? In my previous blog posts, I’ve referred to some new studies about how parents can influence the self-esteem of their children, and, in particular, of their daughters. This show taps right into parental anxiety and blame.

This is Us is not the only show to do so. I watched the program Frequency, where (second Spoiler Alert: stop here if you have not seen the first episode), the daughter, living in the present, communicates with her dead father living in 1996. She saves him from his early demise, only to realize that she accidentally changed the thread of time, which results in the murder of her mother instead. Throughout the show, the power of parents to impact your life seems to resonate. Her life is different growing up with a father in place of a mother, and viewers see the different possible outcomes. Implied is the idea that the choices you make have a strong influence on your future happiness.

Speechless is a comedy about a family with a child who has a disability. The mother’s strong advocacy for her son often results in the mother being thought of as crazy, the other children sometimes feeling neglected, and the family having to sacrifice ideals of normality. While I think the show has a really interesting perspective on living with disability which alone warrants watching it, the show also raises questions about many mothers’ struggles of deciding when to intercede on behalf of her children, and when to hold back.

During a period of parenting when the label of helicopter mom is still natural for some but abhorred by others, when movements within minority populations show moms who lament that they can’t protect their children from violence, when new studies often demonstrate how often genetics or epigenetics influence people’s futures, it seems that the television season is finally reflecting the challenges, fears, and anxieties of this new age of parenting.


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The Period Years


I’ve always been interested in how we divide topics into private and public categories, particularly in regards to sex and gender. This is why I have been following so closely the shift of menstruation from private to public. Some media outlets have declared 2015 as the Year of the Period.

The public period is becoming more and more popular. During the Olympics, Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke publicly about what it was like having her period while she competed. Presidential candidate Donald Trump seemed to allude to it when he complained about the treatment he received from Republican primary debate moderator Megyn Kelly.

The period also received attention as the company Thinx moved into the marketplace to offer a new version of period underwear. It wasn’t so much the new item they sold (period underwear is actually not new), but the way that they publicly chose to come out of the (bathroom) closet about their product. For example, the company took out ads in the New York City subway system, though they faced some challenges). Thinx broke down more barriers by featuring a transgender model in its ads.

In a new form of “period activism,” runner Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon while “free-flowing” during her period. While some critics reacted by calling her action disgusting, many others supported her effort to push back against social pressure to hide menstruation. Period activism has found its way to social media: a popular Twitter hashtag is #Livetweetyourperiod. BuzzFeed has featured a story about a teen boy who carries tampons for his friends who are girls. He started his own hashtag, #realmensupportwomen

Some parents now throw their daughters period parties (aka first moon parties) to make their first menstruation a mark of pride and excited anticipation rather than one of worry and dread. A colleague of mine criticized this as fetishizing the period. It did make me pause for a moment to question the line between celebration and fetish.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled by these developments. I believe that normalizing menstruation is important toward eradicating the shame and objectification of the female body. However, I also wrestle with the loss of privacy as every aspect of life becomes a public spectacle. Just recently, I read a Facebook post from a mother who was searching for some information about a period app and consequently announced the arrival of her daughter’s period. Another mom commented that she might want to delete her post because her daughter might become angry for outing her first period in a semi-public forum. The first mother countered that her daughter was proud of her period, so why should it remain private?

I still can’t decide if, as a young girl with my first period, I would want to plan for its arrival with a period party, or if, as a high school teen, I would want to have my male friends carry tampons for me. If I say no, am I ashamed of my body and its natural processes? When can moments be private but not shameful? If you don’t join the period party, are you helping to stop the progress against body shaming? What are your thoughts regarding the questions of private vs. public and the female body?

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When an Academic Goes Shopping


Recently, I was shopping with my daughters for clothing. One is squarely within the “tween” market, and the other is on the cusp of it. I find shopping for them to be frustrating at times because of the lack of clothing choices. At times, the clothes seem too sexualized, or perhaps it’s the gender/media scholar in me reading too much into the messages. Does a shirt with a fox on it (which seems to be a popular theme across brands) imply foxy (sexy), or have I taught too many semiotics classes?

It seems that, if you are a lover of animals (they must assume that most young girls are), they have a whole selection which I have labeled the “animal option.” You can find most common animals, and some more rare ones, on a shirt these days. My daughter today is wearing a shirt with a bunny on it, and she has a llama shirt ready for later in the week. These seem fine, although she sometimes rule a shirt out when it has a message like “be as awesome as your dog thinks you are” because it seems inauthentic to wear that when we don’t have a dog.

Some shirts I categorize as the “Trend Setter.” They have messages like “My Future is Bright” or “Top of the Class.” These shirts seem to combat against the stereotype that women are taught to be modest and men are taught to brag, as studies have shown. Am I discouraging my daughters from future success if I tell them that wearing a shirt like that seems to much like bragging?

Other shirts fall into the category of “positive message” (yes, some of them actually have that label). At the tween clothing store Justice, girls can choose to “Be Amazing,” “Love Your Selfie,” “Let Your Imagination Run Wild,” or “Be Creative.”  At Old Navy, girls can “Be Bold” or “Stay Fierce.”  Some shirts even seem to be a warning of some sort, such as “Try and Stop Me.” Others encourage some sort of moral lesson, like “Good Vibes Make Great Karma.” One shirt has the word “Follower” crossed out and “Leader” written over it. Some seem to fight the patriarchy: “Girls Make the Rules” and “I Run This Show.” A few seem to be confidence boosters, like “Shine So Bright” and “I’m Kind of a Big Deal.”

I already have discouraged (not all that successfully) my daughters from buying clothing festooned with brand names by explaining how they are just paying to wear advertising.

They ask me what’s wrong with these “nice,” positive-message shirts, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I find them troubling. After all, the brands seem to be responding to earlier criticism of promoting over-sexualized clothing. At first look, I feel that I should be giving a shout-out to the clothing lines for emphasizing positive messages. Yet, I’m wondering if now maybe they are trying too hard to be empowering, when I do not find the style of clothing itself to be so. I don’t want my daughters walking around wearing shirts that say “Leader;” I’d rather them just lead.

I don’t see “Girls Make the Rules” as promoting feminist empowerment. First of all, it’s just wrong: they don’t. We still live within a patriarchal society, where women and men are not treated equally. Messages that say “I Run This Show” and “I’m Kind of a Big Deal” take away from the real work needed to empower girls and women. Buying a shirt won’t solve these problems. Teaching girls to lead and demand equality will.

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Respect the Syllabus


A student of my hybrid online class sent an email to me, complaining that the online notes for my class were designed poorly (she did not like the background colors) and that she was paying too much money for my sloppiness. Another student requested in an email that he would like me to “simplify” the paper assignments. Yet another student wrote an email to me that, being that I am a mother myself, she finds me shockingly intolerant of personal problems. One student sent me 12 messages in a single day.

In part, I blame the consumer model of education (whenever I’m given a chance to blame consumerism, I will always take it), where students treat their education as another service and feel they have the same right to complain as they would at a fast food restaurant counter that forgot to include their fries with their order. The student-as- consumer model already has its critics. As more consumer experiences move to an online environment, habits developed from interacting with companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix bleed over to online courses. I have never had a student complain about the comfort level of a classroom chair, but the design of a course web page must be as sleek as those of multi-billion- dollar companies or else it is perceived as an inferior product.

I also blame the ease of sending off email messages, where one can just keep firing off emails to people as if there were engaged in an ongoing conversation, without ever having to face the negative body language that would provide valuable feedback during an in-person encounter. I couldn’t imagine someone walking into my office 12 times in one day to ask me similar questions.

It makes me wonder about how these students will act when they become employees or have their own businesses and work for clients. I just picture these future workers at their job, telling their boss that they want the project they were just assigned to be simplified, and the boss just looking at them puzzled. Or I imagine workers expecting everyone at the office to care about their personal problems all the time. This article about Millennials in the workforce suggests that they prefer a coach over a boss and “don’t want to waste time on little things.”

I wonder what our obligation as faculty is to teach students that, yes, sometimes you have a supervisor that demands things of you, or that little things (even things that may seem like busy work) are necessary before moving on to grander solutions? Do we also have an obligation to teach civility, respect, and compassion? Are they not a basic part of education?

I’m not even sure how we do that well in today’s environment. Technology has made it more difficult. A student over-visiting my office could be dealt with by a stern look or an exasperated sigh or just looking busy, but there is no equivalent of that in an email. Even if you try to set limits in an email, the permanence of the electronic word is scary to many because, at the end of the day, we are fooling ourselves if we think that universities have completely resisted the consumer model. Treating your “customer” rudely will come back to haunt you in your customer evaluation survey, otherwise known as teaching evaluations.

Is there a way to engineer mutual respect onto your syllabus? It doesn’t seem to fall under participation or any content assignments. It’s difficult to create a rubric for it.

Yet, it may be more necessary today than ever before. How do you create a respectful environment, particularly within the student-teacher dynamic? When has that environment gone awry?


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An Olympic Class


I have been watching too much Olympic coverage. As I listened to the commentary during gymnastics competition, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if teaching were judged in the same way as the Olympics. It might go something like this:

Announcer 1: Laura is stepping into the room with 15 years of teaching experience. She’s mid-career now. In some ways this gives her an advantage. She has a lot of experience that she can fall back on. She’s likely, though, to lag behind in the technology of her peers. We also sometimes don’t see the same enthusiasm levels.

Announcer 2: I agree with you about the technology. We certainly do not see the same level of technology use in teachers at this level in the career. They don’t often use the clicker as a polling device. We do not typically see a social media site set up. Yet, I don’t know if I agree with you about enthusiasm levels. I have seen high energy across all ages and career stages. So, we’ll just see what she brings to this game (err, class). Let’s watch as she begins.

Announcer 1: Ooh, interesting. She just opened up with an in-class writing assignment for five minutes. This is a great way to engage students and move them off their devices.

Announcer 2: But, she’s going to lose points because she forgot to clearly state her learning objectives.

Announcer 1: Yes, that is an automatic half-point deduction. Okay, she’s moving into discussion. She’s dividing the students into groups. Looks like she’s attempting to flip the classroom.

Announcer 2: Yes, she clearly is attempting The Flip. This brings her potential difficulty score higher than others she is competing against, so she has the potential to earn many points. Yet, we all know the perils of this. There is a danger that she might never actually impart any new information to the students.

Announcer 1: Yes, we saw that in the Intro class in 2012. The flip can have a big payoff if the right balance is set.

Announcer 2: Okay, she’s bringing up some Powerpoint slides. They have clear pictures, links, and will serve as the core of her lecture. This is a great move.

Announcer 1: This makes me wonder, though, why her coaches would let her stick with Powerpoint and not consider PowToon or Prezi. It would have allowed her a more competitive interface.

Announcer 2: I can’t disagree here, but look, she’s about to apply gamification to the classroom. This is impressive, as it poses great risks because the student application cannot be planned. She will have to respond on her feet.

Announcer 1: Look at this: student just made borderline sexist remark. She quickly acknowledged it, responded to it, and has the class back on track. Amazing. See what years of experience can bring to the game. Let’s watch a slow-motion instant replay of that one.

Announcer 2: I like what she did with the sleepers in the back of the room. See how she physically moved around the classroom to wake them up? But she does seem to be ignoring some students on their phones. Perhaps she’s just too intently focused?

Announcer 1: At this level of competition, instructors rarely get rattled. Did you see the eye roller in the fourth seat? She clearly noticed her but didn’t let it bother her.  She also didn’t get flustered with the front-row student challenging her entire thesis.

Announcer 2: That’s where it is fun to watch her. It’s like she deals with these problems every single day. Just an aside, the students’ social media accounts are buzzing. They are absolutely loving the challenge to the sexist remark. There’s even some texting to their moms about how they like the class. Oh wait, she is, however, getting negative remarks on her wardrobe. They think her shoes do not match her skirt and believe that she wore the same blouse in last week’s class. Of course, that has no bearing on the competition, but it certainly can affect fan appreciation.

Announcer 1: Yes, she might want to consider a branding specialist here. Meanwhile, it looks like she summing up now. Though she missed her learning goals in her initial set-up, she does appear to be offering a summary now.

Announcer 2: Yes, all in all, she seems to have a decent shot at a medal. Up next, though, a newcomer to the field poses some serious competition. She describes new technologies like mind mapping and the compiling of big data as the key component to her teaching. We’ll be back after a word from our sponsors.


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The Crying Baby in the Room


By now, many people have seen the video of Trump yelling at a baby and its mother at one his campaign stops. At first he seems to welcome the baby and acknowledges the mother’s efforts to stop the baby from crying, but later he asks the mother to take the baby out and indicates that he was joking about welcoming a crying baby who is disrupting his talk.

As a mother who also has faced rooms where she was not sure whether her crying (or even just happily noisy) baby was welcome or at other times specifically told to remove her baby, I’d like to call attention to a larger issue beyond whether Trump doesn’t like babies. Do we want to be a society that not only values parenting, but also one that embraces the act of parenting?

To simply value parenting, all we need to do is what politicians regularly do already: talk about the importance of family. We can have television shows that feature all kinds of families and have lots of consumer products at the ready to make parenting easier. Yet, the act of parenting is different because that is when moms (and dads) are seen visibly interacting with, engaging, or disciplining their children.

This is not to say that the news media never cover act of parenting moments. Jet Blue produced a commercial, for Mother’s Day of course, about an airline crew encouraging passengers to smile at a baby because everyone would get a percentage off their next flight every time a baby cries. Every once in a while, I see a warm-hearted news story about a professor holding a baby during class for a student. I find the professor story particularly funny, as it’s a male professor holding the baby for a woman. As a female professor who once brought my baby to class, I can assure you that many people did not find the experience heartwarming. In fact, after that one time, I went out of my way to make my husband take any and all future babies of ours to work during necessary times. I did this because, in my experience, people tend to perceive men taking infants to work as sweet and helpful but women taking babies to work as being completely unable to balance their work and family life.

While we can find heartwarming images of people trying to help parents integrate their children into the world, in the United States, I would say it’s something that parents have had to work hard to do. I think of the big fight in Brooklyn over bringing babies to bars. I think of how a homeless mother’s life might have changed if she could have just been allowed to bring her kids to her job interview rather than leaving them in car, and then getting arrested for it.  My own town has recently been involved in a discussion over whether in it is inappropriate for the owners of a nail salon to have their toddler in the store during the day.

Trump’s baby story and these other minor discussions over the do’s and don’ts of parenting acts distract from some larger ideas. Do we want to be a society that not only encourages people (some people, at least, but that’s another blog) to have children, but also makes it possible for them to engage in public acts of parenting? Looking at other countries shows us that it is possible to change our economic policies and our attitudes about why we feel the need to hide our acts of parenting or protect the public from seeing them. Right now the baby in the room is what everyone thinks they are talking about, but the discussion we should be having is how work, play, family, and life should intersect.

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A Plagiarism Rubric


In light of recent accusations of plagiarism within portions of speeches delivered at the Republican National Convention this week, I thought it would be helpful for me to offer a perspective from the ivory towers of academia. Of course, political speeches are different than student papers, but it’s remarkable how similar defenses can be. From outright denial to deflecting blame (this is all Hillary’s fault) to questioning the amount that was actually plagiarized (Governor Chris Christie argued that “93% of the speech is completely different"), the various responses gave me flashbacks to sitting in my office, patiently listening to students’ attempts to wriggle out of the traps they had laid for themselves. In that spirit, I present my rubric for ranking the egregiousness of plagiarized work. I imagine this scoring system will be about as useful as the defenses themselves.



  • Paper completely taken from Wikipedia, but lists Wikipedia references at the bottom.
  • Paper seems otherwise legit, but is written with British phrasing and spelling, when the student is from Texas.
  • Student outright admits that the paper was co-written with his mother.
  • Paper is completely plagiarized from other sources, but the class was not in the student’s major, and he only took it as requirement “so it won’t affect my future anyway.”


  • Paper is clearly written by someone else, because writer sounds like an expert in American political parties, and this student couldn’t name the three branches of government, but you can’t find the original sources as evidence, and you have 50 other papers to grade and three kids of your own.
  • Paper was so good that you bragged about the sophisticated nature and quality of your student’s writing to a colleague and discovered that the student turned in same paper to their class as well.
  • Paper is plagiarized, but student asserts that you did not make your assignment clear enough and you are the hardest teacher and don’t recognize that she has other classes besides yours.



  • Paper is plagiarized, but student is a Senior, and her grandmother died (again), and her scholarship is running out, and she may even be deported because she’s an International Student, so there is no way you should even consider doing anything about this because you will totally destroy her life, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience.
  • While paper is plagiarized, it’s only because the student forgot to turn in the correct version of the paper that had the quote marks and the works cited page attached.
  • The student did not knowingly plagiarize. He borrowed the paper from his roommate, who had plagiarized when he wrote this paper. So the roommate needs to be in this meeting, not the student. Don’t persecute the wrong person!
  • The paper may, on first look, seem plagiarized to the instructor, but the student insists that what’s inside the paper is just “knowledge everyone already has.”
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The Body / Self Image Dichotomy


As we complete yet another holiday involving the consumption of lots of food (in my case, BBQ and apple pie), I have to admit that I’m at a loss as to how to square this with my role as a parent who wants to help my children develop both healthy bodies and a healthy body image.

At times, the two seem completely incompatible on the surface. Michelle Obama has spent a good portion of her time as First Lady focused on the issue of childhood obesity by working on a campaign called Let’s Move. This year, the news media repeatedly have reported about the dangers of sugar. One even labeled sugar the new “snack crack.” At the same time, though, I constantly have seen messages about children and body image. The New York Times recently reported on a new study which warns that parental comments about how much a child is eating, or any other negative comment regarding food, even if well meaning, could have negative repercussions for years, particularly for daughters.

My daughters are now 10 and 7, and I’m worried that I’ve already done irreparable damage, even while actively trying to promote strong, healthy body images. I never disparage my or other people’s bodies, and I encourage my daughters to see their own bodies as natural. Yet at times, if they ask for a second helping at dinner, I do occasionally suggest that they wait and see if they are still hungry. Do they see that as my judgment on their weight? What about the times when I try to encourage them to have a piece of fruit instead of a cookie for a snack? Is that judgmental, or just responsible parenting? Is it my fault for having cookies in the house in the first place?

A new children’s book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell,  tries to fight children’s negative fears of feeling fat. This book wants children to feel comfortable even if they have body fat. Yet just this week, the New York Times reported on a study indicating several health dangers of childhood obesity, including increased incidents of cancer, stroke, and depression, as well as more of a likelihood of being obese as adults.

It seems to me that, in order to help develop healthy children in both body and mind, I need to create an almost surreptitious campaign whereby my children are not aware that I’m trying to keep fat off. Can healthy living ever fully be separated from body image implications? Realistically, some people are able to keep fat off easier than others, and some people crave more active lifestyles than others. The reality is that the above messages are often contradictory and overwhelming for parents like me. Which is more important: my child’s body or body image? Is there a way to achieve both? What solutions have you found?

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Fatherhood Privilege Walk


In thinking about Father’s Day, below is an assignment I work on with my students when thinking about families and privilege. Please add on in comments, if you would like.


Participants should stand should-to-shoulder in a room:

  • Take one step forward if you live in the same house with your children.
  • Take one step back if someone ever asked you where you got your child.
  • Take one step back if you do not live in the same country as your children.
  • Take one step back if you’ve ever been thanked for babysitting your child.
  • Take one step forward if you never had to compare the cost of diapers.
  • Take one step forward if you were able to hear your child’s first words.
  • Take one step back if you ever had to choose not eat so your child could eat.
  • Take one step forward if people have smiled at you while you were in a store with your child.
  • Take one step back if you have ever had to explain to your child why you were mistakenly accused of a crime because of your race.
  • Take one step forward if you can choose to work from home sometimes when your child is sick.
  • Take one step back that you sometimes worry in a custody battle that you would have no legal right to your child.
  • Take one step forward if you taught your child how to drive, danced at their wedding, or waved good-bye when they went to college.
  • Take one step forward if you tell your child they can be anything they want and you believe it.



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Mother Blame in a New Media Environment


Last week it was difficult to miss the story of the Gorilla kid mom. Surely, I can see why people are drawn to the story. For the media, it’s a suspenseful story. For viewers, it’s a dramatic window into the ethical decision to kill an animal. For parents, it’s their worst fear: you take your eyes off your child for a second, and you find your child at the bottom of a gorilla enclosure. Then, you receive hate messages from around the world over what people perceive as your parental failure.

This episode made me think, though, about how quickly many people blamed the mother (many don’t even realize that the child’s dad was there, too) for a child’s failure. This is especially troubling in a world where so much is blamed on and expected from parents.

In part, I blame our media environment, which is to be distinguished from specific media organizations. In an environment where there is so much access to news, studies, blogs, and advice, it’s hard to weed through opinions to find legitimate advice. Advice is often contradicting and changing. It used to be that the medical establishment would debate and vet studies before they were released to the public. Now, one can hear about new recommendations or discoveries instantly. In just the last few months alone, I learned that I actually should have eaten nuts while I was pregnant (to possibly prevent a nut allergy, which my son does indeed have). It turns out that mindfulness may be helpful to children in grades 4 and 5. Helping your child with homework turns out to be bad. Apparently, even the bottle you choose for your baby could influence their health.

At the same time, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media often feature a constant steam of fabulous moments that often inspire envy or guilt in others who are not achieving the same level of excitement in their own lives. Of course, these pictures are just the highlights of someone’s story that they have chosen to share, but you can’t really be sure. I remember my own trip to Disney World with a 4-year old, 2-year old, and an infant. Most of the trip was pretty much a disaster, with my husband and I fighting right in middle of the Main Street over whether we should just abandon the “vacation.” However, without the knowledge of our experience, a review of our vacation photos shows us having a great time. It looks like we bought my son brand-new Disney Crocs to celebrate as a branded souvenir, rather than the truth of our being desperate when he peed all over his last change of clothes and only pair of sneakers. Social media set up expectations of events and activities that seem to be perfect and immersive (like a trip to the zoo).

Instead of focusing on all the people who were blaming “Zoo Mom,” I’m going to celebrate those that chose not to.  People have shared with the public their own near misses. Others have questioned the lack of focus on the dad. The prosecutors themselves have questioned whether there was anything that could have been done to prevent the accident. I’d like to think that maybe we are at a point where mother blame will not be a default reaction to incidents like this.

Maybe I’m moving too quickly, but wouldn’t it be great if those who are so quick to blame children’s failures on mothers also praise mothers when their children experience a success?

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Smart Title: 
Mother Blame <br>in a New Media Environment


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