Laura Tropp's blog

When Daughters Judge

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Last week was Fashion Week in NYC. Other than the fashion intern students who were absent from my classes, the week did not impact me in any significant way. I did notice some people who were even more glamorously dressed than usual, a difficult feat on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This led me to think about how my daughters are growing up in a different era than I did. With awareness on the importance of good body image, the connection between weight disorders and media representations, and the focus on promoting a positive self-esteem in women, my daughters are supposedly in an environment where being yourself is in.

Because I am raising two daughters and I study media and gender, I have tried to be very careful about exposing my children to media representations of women and the body. I work to teach my daughters not to focus on looks but on inner beauty. And in case I ever forget, there are plenty of reminders across media. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty reminds me that you can be beautiful, no matter what type of body you have (though I should buy all the Dove products to be even more beautiful). The Spark Organization organizes activism against the mediated sexualization of girls, and Adios, Barbie builds awareness of and a defense against disempowering negative body image. Even the National Organization of Women (NOW) sponsors a Love Your Body Day.

A while back, I remember seeing news coverage of 14-year old Julia Bluhm, who petitioned Seventeen magazine to include more truthful portrayals of girls. So, I’m well informed here, and I’ve been careful. I do not obsess over food choices or body image, I never make unflattering body comments about anyone’s body, and I’ve discussed inner beauty with my children. I limit their media consumption. I let them pick out their own clothes while discouraging sexualized clothing. Aside from my middle daughter’s obsession with shoes, I have avoided preoccupations with fashion.

Something has gone horrible wrong, though. I think my daughters are making me self-conscious about my body.

I was getting dressed for work the other day when my eight-year old told me that she didn’t find my skirt flattering. A few days later, my six-year old said I shouldn’t really wear jean skirts; they don’t look all that good on me, she confided. Each morning as I get dressed, I feel like I’m heading down a catwalk: get rid of the stripes, that shirt is too tight, those shoes don’t go, you fit into that outfit better last month.

Of course, I’ve reiterated how looks aren’t important, how it’s what is inside that counts. However, I must admit that now when I look in the mirror (something I didn’t do often before), I’m suddenly faced with a level of discomfort (maybe these polka dots weren’t a good idea, after all).

My friend is having the same issue with her four-year old, who told her she might be getting a little chubby.  Clearly, the girls are still getting these ideas from somewhere, and our efforts to inoculate them are not going well. Does peer pressure overcome all else? Does fashionista ideology just ooze out? Are there any support groups for moms with critical daughters?

 

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Prof. Laura

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In the past I have complained when I see students (and their parents) treating college attendance as a consumer commodity. It sometimes seems that what they want out of the experience compares to ordering fast food from a restaurant drive-through window. My colleagues have put forward to students alternative models to frame their experience. One of the most interesting I’ve heard compares the collegiate professor/student relationship to a professional doctor/patient interaction. In this example, a patient can choose a doctor and expect a certain level of customer service from the office staff, but no one would presume to tell the doctor how to treat a patient. Of course, I’m not sure this analogy still holds true today, as I know of many friends who walk into their doctor’s office already self-diagnosed with the help of websites like WebMD and a proposed prescription as suggested by televised big pharma ads.

I’ve always felt that the line between faculty and students must be made clear. At the end of the day, the faculty member must assess each student’s work and assign a grade. These days, though, it seems a new age of collegiate customer service is obfuscating this line. Private liberal arts colleges increasingly struggle to stay solvent (though this concern may be misguided). Colleges seek ever more creative ways to recruit new students, and retention has become a mantra for just about every school. In other words, the implicit message is that students need to be happy in order to come to your college and stay.

Nate Kreuter has persuasively argued that the customer service model leads to confusion over whether a student’s education or the college itself is the product, yet faculty are increasingly called upon to offer students a more “customer friendly” atmosphere. We are increasing our advising load, making ourselves available for more events, answering parents’ email messages (with proper FERPA waivers in place), and listening to students tell us about their work/life challenges.

On the one hand, a more customer-friendly approach can lead to positive outcomes. I think students who are spending a significant amount of money to attend schools should have a right to not be closed out of classes, experience a smooth registration process, and have access to excellent teaching. Yet, I am not interested in catering to a millennial generation used to clicking a button to get what they want. What happens when their every request cannot be accommodated? The reality is that, while all students should have access to the classes they need, everyone cannot enroll into the most coveted time slots. While students should be able to discuss with faculty their concerns about a class, they shouldn’t feel entitled to demand that a faculty member change their teaching method or syllabus. While faculty should be in touch with students, they should not feel pressured to answer emails at all times of the day and night (as I’ve explored in my previous post).

On the first day of class, I tell my students that they may call me Dr. Tropp, Professor Tropp, or Laura. I explain that I prefer not to be referred to as Mrs., Miss, or Ms. Tropp, because if they insist on using a title within our context, they should use my academic title. Plus, I do not like the marital status question defined by the first two. Now, though, I’m wondering if the use of Laura implies a familiar relationship that we do not have. After all, I’m not their friend, but their professor or chairperson.

Do you find that the boundaries between faculty and students have burred too much? How do you serve students’ needs while preserving a professional relationship? What is unique about this generation of students, and what are perennial conflicts?

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Status Update: Always Available

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I had an interesting conversation with another academic over the weekend about the challenges of being available all the time for our students/administrators/fellow faculty while trying to not let it take over our lives. Although I often think about work-life technology balance, I do not think I have attained the right balance. A few years ago, at a Labor Day picnic, I checked my email on my phone and then spent the rest of the party obsessed about my overdue assessment reports.

Later, I realized that that was a tipping point: why was I checking my email during a picnic, on a national holiday no less?  I had to admit that the reason was not because I was afraid of being unavailable (no one would expect me to answer questions at this time) but because I was afraid of missing something. Email had become my addiction.

Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood explores the addictive nature of email and other social media and how it negatively influences our ability to live the moment when it comes to parenting. That very day I removed the email app from my phone, and I survived. Though I do not remember any negative fall-out from that period, one day, at an out-of-town conference, I put the email back on the phone, and my addiction had started right up again. 

My friend and I talked about email boundaries. She pointed out that some of her colleagues do not like when others send emails on the weekend because they think it implies that they should reply to those emails over the weekend. And what about texting? Another colleague said that texting someone about work related issues, unless something urgent has come up that needs an immediate answer, is simply rude. I admit that I am guilty of sending weekend emails, though I try to keep texting colleagues at all to a minimum. 

Students are another concern. As a policy, I tell those I hire that they should simply indicate to students their availability during the first days of the semester. If they do not check email on evenings and weekends, then they should just give students a heads-up. The challenge is that my students keep very different hours from me. They tend to start working just as I’m heading to bed, and they always consider themselves in urgent need of a response. They sometimes even check off those red “urgent” flags, which I always find funny because I never prioritize flagged messages. In fact, those little red flags annoy me so much that, if I read your red-flagged message and I didn’t think it was an actual emergency, I might passive aggressively punish you by putting you in the bottom of my email priority. Of course, with my present constantly checking email addiction, that only delays my response by about 15 minutes.

However, pulling the plug on my email addiction scares me. What are the consequences of losing my “always available” status? I like those student evaluation responses that say, “She was always available for me.” I enjoy knowing that I can be counted on for a quick response as an administrator. In fact, I think that’s an expectation for a department chairperson. Yet, there must be a happy medium, no? What limitations do you put on your availability?

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Friends

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I am always thinking about my work-life balance. Typically, I frame it in terms of how to manage my busy academic life with my family life. Recently, however, I have been wondering more often about how to manage friendships.

I was talking with one of my closest friends the other day and realized that, though we do not live that far from each other, I hadn’t seen her in person for months. It occurred to me that she was not the only friend for which this is true. The friends I have unintentionally prioritized are other moms who live nearby and have children that are similar ages as mine. The boredom of a long summer day with lots of kids to entertain unites us in a different kind of friendship. While they may not have the depth and closeness of my long-time friends, these friends can share with me the everyday experiences related to the daily challenges of parenthood. We debate camps and tantrums. We trade discipline and bicycle training tricks (tip: take off the petals of the bike to train them to balance).

Yet, I miss my other friends: friends from childhood who know me inside and out, friends from my first jobs who know the more youthful version of me. I realize that with Facebook, you can still drop in on your friends, but it’s not quite the same. Someone described it to me as knowing what your friends are doing but rarely knowing how they really are feeling. It’s no substitute for physically laughing with them in person.

The problem is, when I think about my daily schedule, I can’t seem to squeeze friendship back in my life any more than I have already. I confided this to another friend, who made the wise observation that I should see friends as coming into, and out of, and back into my life during different periods of time. I like this way of thinking about it. I’m hoping that, when my kids are teenagers and no longer want to hang out with me, my friends might be willing to take me back.

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Parenting in Pop Culture

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I have had some unexpected free time to watch television these last few weeks, so here are some reflections on TV parenting that I have observed. On Tuesday, I was flipping through the channels and landed on the Bachelorette. I watched a woman have an ultrasound on live TV to reveal to the couple, the studio audience, and the viewers at home the sex of her baby (spoiler alert: it was a boy). I’ve been interested in public moments during pregnancy for years (in fact, it was the subject of my book), but it still amazes me to see a fetus have such a public audience for its image.

Since I wrote my book, gender reveal parties have become even more popular for parents. The purpose of this type of party is to invite loved ones and find out the sex of the baby together in a group. This interests me not only because it takes what used to be a private moment and makes it public, but also because there is so much discussion about encouraging more equality between boys and girls and making gender matter less, but here the sex of the baby still attains such a significant moments in people’s lives.

Pregnancy is also taking center state in the new CBS program Extant, in which Halle Berry plays an astronaut who returns to earth after a solo mission and finds that she is pregnant. I tuned in to see how pregnancy would be portrayed on this show, but I actually am more interested in the character of her son. It turns out the son is revealed to be not a human, but an android that mimics human behavior.  The son tries to act human but apparently lacks the ability to respond emotionally. I’m curious how the son will be developed as a character. So many parents and educators are working with children referred to as “on the spectrum.” These children sometimes also have difficulty gauging, mimicking, and responding to emotion.

I also have heard about a new show on Lifetime called The Lottery. In the show, women can no longer become pregnant, and the human species faces extinction. After one hundred embryos are fertilized in a lab, women compete in a lottery to see if they can become a surrogate for one of the embryos. I have not seen the show yet, but I imagine it will showcase the anxiety of impending parenthood.

These programs all seem to reflect a notion of parenting as precious, not completely in our control, and in some cases, just out of our reach. I wonder what cultural, historic, and economic conditions may be contributing to this view of parenting? Have you seen shows lately with similar themes?

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The Work-Life Balance in Childhood

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On our way home from traveling this week, I overheard a conversation among the children in the backseat of the car. They were talking about the occupations they would want to be when they grew up. My son discussed his desire to work at Google and my daughter talked about wanting to work at a restaurant during the day and on weekends at a zoo. My third child wanted to be a doctor. Quickly, the conversation took a turn. My son asked my daughter how she was going to spend time with her children while working two jobs. My daughter responded that she would only work until 4 p.m. during the week and on weekends her kids could come to the zoo. My son said that he decided that his work would keep him too busy to have children and pointed out that a doctor gets very busy. 

This conversation made me think about how the children perceive the challenges of the work-life balance at such an early age. My parents both worked full-time when I was growing up but I can’t remember ever spending any time thinking about how they juggled these jobs. They were always just around and when they weren’t, we watched ourselves.  Today, though, work-life balance is an everyday conversation and encompasses more than just balancing family. I wonder that with children so over-scheduled in activities that a side benefit may be that children are learning at a young age that they have to make choices to fit all their components of their life together. I hear parents complaining about the problem of too much homework but I’m wondering whether this also gives children a chance to figure out the complexity of choosing how to balance their time.

Children have always had a different understanding of time than adults but I’m wondering whether that is changing as well. The other day my youngest child spent the day playing with her dolls. When I was putting her to sleep, I asked her if she had a great day. She turned to me and sighed, “Yes, but all I did all day long was just play babies. That’s all I did the WHOLE day.” All I could think of was that the luxury of doing one thing all day is wasted on and no longer appreciated by the youth.

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The Work-Life Balance <br>in Childhood

The Munchkin Dilemma

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Yesterday, I was commuting to work on an express bus when my phone vibrated. The number of my children’s school appeared on the screen. I worriedly answered and was surprised to hear my son on the phone. 

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Mom, it’s Ethan.”

“I know who it is. The question is, why are you calling?” 

Then, I heard the dreaded words: “It’s my ‘un-birthday’ today, and I need the munchkins here by 11:00am.”

It took awhile for me to decipher this, especially as I was whispering to hide the fact that I was breaking the social commuting rule of talking on a cell phone on an express bus before 8:00am. Apparently, children who do not have birthdays during the school year get to celebrate them during the last week of school.

I’m getting concerned about this generation. I mean, it’s one thing to have everyone win a trophy, but everyone gets to celebrate their birthday, even when it’s not their birthday? It just doesn’t even make any sense to me; it contradicts the entire morphology of the word birthday.

Outrage aside, it wasn’t really the time to explain all this to my nine-year old (although, I guess, today we are pretending he’s ten). Anyway, I tried to explain work-life balance and how his father is on jury duty and I am on my way to work and these kinds of requests need at least 24-hours notice. At this moment, none of these issues matter. He just wants his munchkins.

Is 9 (10?) years old the time when kids need to learn responsibility through disappointment? Have I failed already? In previous generations, he’d probably be responsible for a whole section of the family farm. My son can’t even remember to brig his clarinet (a phone call my husband received a couple of months ago--does the school let all kids have this kind of access to the office phone, or is my child particularly persuasive?).

The millennial generation seems to be the customer service generation, treated as important and getting what they ask for. Why should I be the bad cop here? Despite his lack of advanced planning that led to this call, I saw this little sign of independence. It was the first time he had ever called me.

After I got off the phone, the other commuters around me waited for my decision. Would I teach him a tough lesson, or would I contribute to the catered generation?

I called his nana, who agreed to take on this project. My fellow bus riders smiled and went back to sleep. This generation may grow up thinking each one of them is special and people will serve their needs, but there’s something to be said for knowing how to get what you want.

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Test Prep Guilt

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Recently, I heard a report on WNYC about New York City’s Gifted and Talented Test. Four-year-olds can take this test to be considered for gifted and talented public school kindergarten classes. Apparently, so many kids are being prepped for these tests that the results now are meaningless. Parents are worrying that helping their children get into these classes may not mean the kids are ready for an accelerated program.  Many critique the ethics of gaming the system, particularly the effect on children who cannot afford the specialized test prepping services. 

I wonder what type of “gaming” of the system I am engaging in.  My son had to take the 4th grade state tests this year. These tests are used to assess teachers, the school, my son, and also studied by the middle school for entry into a 6th grade honors program there. By my own assessment, my son seemed like he would likely do fine on the math but needed some assistance on his writing. His tendency to digress could be seen by test scorers as an ability to develop a coherent line of argument. I started working with him myself. Of course, ever prepared, I immediately sought out various test prep books and writing samples. By the way, I have recently read a study that indicates that parents should not help their children with their homework (but I digress). My attempts at tutoring did not work out for either of us. I became frustrated and every fantastic teaching tool I have as a professor was gone and we were left shouting at each other.  I moved then to hire a tutor. The tutor was amazing. He loved meeting her each week, they had a great rapport, and he improved his writing.  He took the test a couple of months ago but we will not learn the results until late summer.  While I would like him to get a good enough score to be considered for the honors middle program, it’s more important to me that he learned how to write better. 

Should I be worried though, that if he does get into an honors program, was it only because of the edge he had with the tutoring? A few months ago, I met another mother at the school whose son was having more serious writing problems than my child. I suggested using our tutor. Her answer surprised me. She said her son was too embarrassed to even consider tutoring. While for me, tutoring was just a form of enrichment, for her family, it was a stigma. I also wonder whether it is her child’s difficulty or her socioeconomic status as working class may have influenced this view.

What about all the children who struggled but did not have access to the resources I have? Have I started a spiral of needing to hire tutors for the remaining years of his education? Does this doom me to be one of those moms “helping” her child write her college paper? My professor self thinks about all those questions but my mom self just wants to be able to help him when I can. I don’t approve of teaching to the test in a theoretical sense but my child lives in the everyday reality that this is an integral part of his schooling. Should I just ignore that?  How far should we go to prepare our children?

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Ring the Bell

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When I wanted to play as a child, I simply headed out the front door, rang the bell of a neighbor, and we would start a kickball game. Today, in order for my child to play with a friend, play dates have to be arranged. When did playing become so scheduled?  Has the drop-in play date disappeared? Is it because children’s time is over-planned? Are families too busy? Or is it that we are so used to mediated technology that showing up unannounced is simply not done anymore? 

Arranging play dates, though, seems to involve its own set of rules and codes that I’m still learning. A friend of mine told me how she reached out to another mother via text for a play date and didn’t hear back until a few weeks later, when the other woman texted her availability for the following day. My friend said she purposely waited a few hours to respond because she didn’t want to look too available. She felt like she’d been thrust back into the dating world.

I’ve had many a play date go wrong. At the request of my daughter, I invited one woman and her daughter over to our house, and the woman seemed horrified by my dry erase board listing our detailed meals planned out for the week (I don’t understand: doesn’t everyone have one of these?). She never returned my calls after that. Was I too neurotic for her daughter? Some parents, rather than dropping off their children, stay during the play date. This makes for awkward conversation, in which I try to avoid revealing too much information, not unlike a first date. As a working mom of children who take the bus to school, I feel I’m at a distinct disadvantage, because most play dates are arranged during the school pick-up. I am so disconnected from that social network.

I wonder what this group of children with parents who are so involved in their social interaction will be like when I have them as college students in another ten years. Once, children met their friends via their physical proximity, the neighborhood. You learned how to hang out with those around you. Now, will over-scheduled play dates with children that are pre-screened by parents encourage kids to seek out more tailored matches? What happens when they enter college and are thrust into the proximity model again? Or, will administrators and new computer programs mimic the tailored play date experience for choosing roommates / suitemates / classmates?  Sometimes, I miss just ringing the bell.
 

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Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Fleeting Moments?

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A colleague of mine, having just returned from a conference, questioned what she saw as a new commonplace practice: audience members taking pictures of the Powerpoint presentations of conference participants during sessions. We debated the advantages and potential problems of this latest trend. On the one hand, it is helpful for the participant to have access to a key slide or data point for later recall. On the other hand, my colleague pointed out that much of what is on the slides is unpublished material, and presenters may not be ready for their data to go public beyond the room. This may be more important in science fields, where sometimes the methods and protocols that set up a study are valuable in and of themselves. I would also imagine that it is distracting to try to present while having much of the audience look at you through the lens of their cell phone's cameras.

This conversation made me think about my classes, where students may want to snap pictures of my presentations or class board notes rather than copying them down. How is snapping a picture in either case different than taking notes? For my students, I am concerned about their learning process. In my experience, taking good notes leads to better recall of course material than simply having images to look at later. But, is my own personal leaning enough to ban the practice for the entire class? Should my students be allowed to make their own decisions about this?  Maybe Google and other search engines are transitioning us away from a note-taking culture, since people can find anything, anytime, later. Have we become an image-stockpiling society, scooping up information in a dragnet fashion to ensure later access?

In my home life, I notice other parents at my children's events who are snapping pictures and recording videos instead of enjoying the live event. It seems that the magic of the moment is being displaced in favor of the ability to watch the recorded moment many times later. Surely I am not the only one who can't imagine people going home and watching my son's band concert again? It was fun the first time, but my child's part was less than a couple of minutes, and I don't want to have footage that could put me in a position of having to watch other people's children play their instruments over and over again.

Mobile smartphone technology seems to be erasing the notion of fleeting moments, whether they are at conference presentations, in class, or at performances. Yet, is the easy access of taking pictures discouraging us from having accountability to the present in a variety of ways?

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Is a Picture Worth <br>a Thousand Fleeting Moments?

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