What’s N a Word?

Last week, while reading a passage from Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, I saw a student’s jaw drop out of the corner of my eye. “Dr. E,” she said when I completed the passage. “You used the hard -er.”

I had indeed. The quote from the play reads, “Cal, if I catch a nigger in this town going shooting, you know what’s going to happen.” The character who says it is a coward and a thief–and a racist. His use of that word confirms the play’s dim view of his actions and his politics. I explained to the student that I do my best to read in character; that I read things the way they’re written; and that I don’t expect students to do the same if there are phrases that offend them.

However, that moment in class opened the door for a broader discussion of the n-word: how should we deal with its history? how do we place it in context? who can use it? who can’t? why isn’t it always offensive–or is it? what’s the difference between the hard -er and an -a?

The ensuing discussion kept even the droopiest eyelids wide open, but it hardly proved conclusive. If you’d like to present your ideas about the questions above, feel free to do so. Be forewarned, though, that you must employ a respectful tone. You should also know that there’s one particular train of thought that many in the class found immediately objectionable: that if a word can be used by one group of people, then it should be used by all. Finally, don’t be afraid to link research or other commentary in your posts.

Posted in Education, Pop Culture, Race in Mississippi | 29 Comments

This Mortal Coil

“Sleep is for wimps.”

“You have a long time to sleep when you’re dead.”

“What’s more important: giving in, or getting things done?”

I admit it: I’ve said all these things in reference to sleep. My own sleep habits have been terrible since birth. My mother says it’s a miracle she didn’t simply smother me to keep me from crying in the crib–she doesn’t think she slept for more than four hours at a time for the first two years of my life. (My mother, on the other hand, could be a professional sleeper, and takes great joy in a good night’s rest or a two-hour nap.)

At MSMS, of course, despite my efforts at levity, sleep deprivation is no laughing matter. Students regularly burn the candle at both ends in their efforts to earn the scores they want in classes, participate in extra-curricular activities, and maintain something of a social life. I’m not sure how to measure the cost to their physical health and mental well-being. However, I recently dipped into the subject of sleep studies and found evidence that the price is high

Sleep scientists have for years advocated starting school later in the day to accommodate the hormonal changes in teens’ bodies. That may work well for teens; it may not work so well for the adults charged with educating them. It may also be appropriate to rethink the “school-life” balance. Is it possible to have students do less and achieve more? 

Posted in Education, Science | 30 Comments

To Exempt, or Not to Exempt

Like lots of other schools, the school my kids attend offers exam exemptions for students who have an A average before the final, or who sell certain numbers of magazines, raffle tickets, etc. 

At first glance, the academic strengths and traditions of MSMS would seem to discount exam exemptions as a possibility. But I’ll ask anyway: are there circumstances that would open the door for exams to be exempted? Would granting them adversely affect the school’s reputation?

Posted in Education | 42 Comments

The Toughest Compromise

After I complained to my fourth period class that they agree with each other too much, and that I find that stifling, they requested a chance to blog on something more controversial. “Like what?” I asked.

“Abortion,” they said.

I suspect that people will be discussing the legal and moral implications of abortion more often now that Pres. Trump has placed two justices on the Supreme Court. Consider this, dear bloggers, an opportunity to contemplate a perennially divisive topic in a civil forum. However, I do have one rule: that discussions aim to produce a compromise between pro-life and pro-choice factions. How can we craft laws that respect the reproductive rights of women, and what should those rights be? At what point should the government recognize the legal rights of a fetus, and what should those rights be?

Posted in Gender Issues, Politics | 45 Comments


This year’s seniors have no memory of life without America maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan. Results from last month’s elections in that country won’t be certified until December, but fears concerning fraud and coercion already threaten to bring escalating levels of discontent and violence once they are announced. Some Western governments, including the United States, don’t want to negotiate with the Taliban until it stops using violence as a means to legitimize its rule; the Taliban insists it won’t stop using violence until it is recognized as legitimate. We seem to be at a decades-long impasse.

U.S.-trained Afghan forces have again proved less than effective in deterring the Taliban, much less defeating it in combat. This in turn emboldens the Taliban–not to mention Islamic State advocates. Add this to the current administration’s strained relationships with Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, and the specter another decade of ideological war-by-proxy looms.

So my question, dear bloggers, is this: at what point do we simply throw up our hands and say enough? Should we worry about a graceful exit at this point? Does pulling out of Middle Eastern conflicts produce a good end, or further destabilize an area where atrocities run rampant? What moral obligations might we have to that region after seventeen years of military conflict?

Posted in Politics | 26 Comments

Another Admissions Wrinkle

Advocates for MSMS have long described it as the most diverse city block in Mississippi. However, a lawsuit against Harvard University, brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, challenges the assumption that diversity enriches an educational experience. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that Harvard has violated their rights by using a quota system for admissions. Oral arguments ended last week, and observers expect the Supreme Court, which has taken a turn to the right with the appointments of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, to reshape the ways that schools can use race and identity in the admissions process.

What I’ve learned about admissions suggests that it is more an art than a science. Should a well-rounded student–a nice person with a letter of recommendation from both research mentor and the school’s custodian–be selected over somebody with higher standardized test scores and grades? How should we measure an 18-year-old’s preparedness for college? It all depends on the college, and on the way it wants to be perceived. 

However, “it all depends” doesn’t exactly satisfy plaintiffs in cases like these. They want a standards and formulas; they want certainty. This strikes me as somewhat ironic, as there are few things less certain than the directions in which a college freshman’s life will go. Perhaps the larger issue posed by this lawsuit involves how it will result in broader changes to affirmative action.

Posted in Education, Politics | 31 Comments

Ideals and alleles

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s often mocked claim that she is Native American re-entered the national news last week when she released DNA test results that showed she is about 1% Native American. She promptly called on Pres. Trump to fulfill a promise that he would donate a million dollars to charity if she could prove such a bloodline. He demurred. Predictable outrage followed.

Discussion of their exchanges prompted me to wonder if we are finally seeing a shift away from identity politics, which may broadly be defined as the tendency of people from a similar demographic to support the same causes. In Mississippi, and I presume elsewhere, this has resulted in glorified tribalism. (You may call this “intersectionality” if you wish to be generous.)

I dislike identity politics because I try to “privilege” ideas over appearance. I don’t always succeed in this endeavor. However, I believe in its worthiness because it encourages people to work together in the name of a common cause regardless of their demographics. Sen. Warren should have realized long ago that her progressive ideals mean more to her constituents than one percent of her bloodline.

So the question I put to you, dear bloggers, involves the future you see for identity politics. Will it continue to shape political parties? Will it affect the outcome of next week’s election? Of the statewide elections in Mississippi next year?

Posted in Politics, Race in Mississippi | 21 Comments

The Cheapest Renovation

One of these days, the legislature will see the wisdom of fully funding all of MSMS’ dreams. Until then, I suspect that the least expensive way to improve MSMS involves its mental landscapes–that is, changing its curriculum. Our school currently meets or exceeds the requirements for Carnegie units necessary for admission to Mississippi’s four-year colleges. As a result, the breadth of an MSMS is impressive.

However, I’ve heard colleagues toy with the idea that we spread students too thin–that it may be beneficial to ask students to reduce the breadth of their content and to focus on specific topics during their senior years. This would only be possible if we completely revised the curriculum. What would happen if students were required to take a semester each of biology, chemistry, and physics instead of a year each? A year of English at MSMS instead of two? Would students be well-served to focus on their specific research interests during their senior years instead of taking courses across the curriculum?

Posted in Education | 27 Comments

#Metoo meanderings

Last week’s Kavanaugh hearings ripped the band-aid off the sores of senatorial civility. Writers for the cold open for Saturday Night Live didn’t have to modify transcripts of the hearings much to get thirteen minutes of material. It was hard to know whether we should laugh or cry.

The most heated part of the week, of course, came when Dr. Christine Blassey Ford testified that Mr. Kavanaugh had assaulted her while the two were in high school. One Mississippi state representative, Greg Snowden (R-Meridian), was so captivated by it that he wrecked his car because he tried to drive and keep track of his news feed at the same time.

Unless this week’s FBI investigation produces a revelation that at least one Senator to change from a “yes” to a “no” vote, Mr. Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the highest court in the land. As such, the confirmation hearings may ultimately be remembered as a crystallization of the #meetoo movement in American politics. 

That movement has been viewed with great suspicion and great admiration. The founders of the movement describe it this way:

The me too movement has built a community of survivors from all walks of life. By bringing vital conversations about sexual violence into the mainstream, we’re helping to de-stigmatize survivors by highlighting the breadth and impact sexual violence has on thousands of women, and we’re helping those who need it to find entry points to healing. Ultimately, with survivors at the forefront of this movement, we’re aiding the fight to end sexual violence. We want to uplift radical community healing as a social justice issue and are committed to disrupting all systems that allow sexual violence to flourish.

One critic, Camille Paglia, has a different point of view

The big question is whether the present wave of revelations, often consisting of unsubstantiated allegations from decades ago, will aid women’s ambitions in the long run or whether it is already creating further problems by reviving ancient stereotypes of women as hysterical, volatile and vindictive.

My philosophy of equity feminism demands removal of all barriers to women’s advancement in the political and professional realms. However, I oppose special protections for women in the workplace. Treating women as more vulnerable, virtuous or credible than men is reactionary, regressive and ultimately counterproductive.

Complaints to the Human Resources department after the fact are no substitute for women themselves drawing the line against offensive behavior — on the spot and in the moment. Working-class women are often so dependent on their jobs that they cannot fight back, but there is no excuse for well-educated, middle-class women to elevate career advantage or fear of social embarrassment over their own dignity and self-respect as human beings. Speak up now, or shut up later! Modern democracy is predicated on principles of due process and the presumption of innocence.

Does either perspective appeal to students more? Is there a better way to articulate what the #meetoo movement will mean in their everyday lives?

Posted in Gender Issues, National Politics, Politics | 14 Comments

A Different Kind of Economy

When John Bel Edwards became governor of Louisiana in 2015, the economy was so bad that he floated the idea of shutting down the football programs at public universities.

That got people’s attention. As the result of eight years of tax cuts under the previous governor, Bobby Jindal, the state faced a mid-year shortfall of $850 million. Gov. Edwards convinced the state legislature to approve a 1% increase in the sales tax, and to rescind some of Jindal’s cuts, as a means of making the government solvent. Results have been good–although a sunset clause in the sales tax will result in another massive shortfall if it isn’t brought back in the next session.

Nonetheless, Gov. Edwards has a gift for seeing what his citizens want, prioritizing space in the budget for those things, and making them realities. It cost significant political capital, but he made sure that Louisiana expanded Medicaid. He has done what he can to make Louisiana’s major industries better stewards of the environment. Most recently, he announced that the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, would have funding for a $27 million dormitory that can house approximately 370 students.

I am delighted for my alma mater. I’m also extremely jealous. I wonder what it would take for Mississippi to make a similar investment in the well-being of MSMS. Hooper hasn’t been given more than ad hoc repairs since my arrival in 2004. Return vents are clogged with two decades of grit; ceiling tiles are discolored; central air and heat are as suspect here as they are in the dorms. And the dorms, of course, are in worse shape. Not Mary Wilson bad, perhaps, but bad nonetheless. Isn’t it ironic that the best school in the state–the sixth-best in the nation–has a smaller budget than many C- and D-rated districts around the state?

Last week, we learned that LSMSA had seven national merit semi-finalists–not quite half the number we had at MSMS. Perhaps Mississippi should commit $54 million to the renovations we need so desperately. One could make the argument that we’ve accomplished twice as much.

So, here’s my question for student bloggers: other than getting legislators to (try to) sleep in your dorms or pass one of your classes, how can we get them to prioritize the needs that we have?

Posted in Education, Politics | 24 Comments