Teach-in changes perspectives on work/family dynamic

(Assignments from professor Starobin's Basic Photography class highlighted students' families. By Tessa Jillson )

By Andrew Willoughby

Arts & Features Editor

By Tessa Jillson

Asst. Arts & Features Editor


Approximately 70 classes at FSU participated in a campus-wide teach-in from Nov. 7 to Dec. 15 discussing themes of family diversity and change based on the photography exhibition, Showing (work x family).

The foundation Working Assumptions debuted its 28-foot, six-screen photography exhibition in the Mazmanian Gallery, opening the FSU community to participate in an active discussion about the interplay of private and public responsibilities centered around workforce and family life.  

The teach-in was choreographed in part by Framingham State Sociology Professor Virginia Rutter and History Professor Bridget Sheridan, who worked closely with Jane Gottesman, the director of Working Assumptions, to coordinate a multidisciplinary six-week series of events at the University. 

Sheridan said she and Rutter have been working on and organizing both the Mazmanian Gallery event and the teach-in for approximately 18 months. 

Sheridan said Rutter had “seen a prototype of the exhibit in Washington, D.C.” in the summer of 2016. She brought the idea back to Framingham and the two immediately started “talks” with Working Assumptions about bringing the exhibition to FSU.

According to Rutter, the teach-in cost the university around $5,000, which is relatively cheap compared to its “high impact.”  The University paid for the travel of Working Assumptions experts, poster printing and catering. The installation was fully funded by the foundation.  

Rutter said her goal is “to help people notice that their struggles are connected to overarching social structures” and not just them personally.

On Dec. 6 FSU hosted a #ThisIsHumanities inaugural and culminating event for the Family Diversity and Change teach-in, giving faculty, staff and students the opportunity to share their research and reveal what they have learned about work and family diversity.

Professors from many disciplinary fields presented the findings of their research that coincided with the topic of the teach-in.

As a mother of twin 3-year-olds, Chemistry Professor Ishara Mills-Henry focused on “doing science while doing family.”

She also studied the importance of gender diversity within STEM fields. She said the presence of women in STEM is on the rise, as women make up over 60 percent of all undergrad biomed students.

She said the initial absence of women in STEM was caused by three factors – gender-based stereotypes, biases and workplace environments.

Mills-Henry said it’s important to “get girls involved in STEM early” and praised programs such as The Girl Scouts coding badges.

“When I looked at this exhibit, I thought ‘this is my life.’ It made me realize that what is often realized from these conversations is on how to improve work/life balance is our own narratives,” said Mills-Henry.

Psychology professor Robert Donohue discussed how life experiences can change our DNA and the way people are genetically disposed to react to stress. He related how stress caused by the workplace in conjunction with family and homelife can be passed down genetically.

Donohue is also president of the Framingham chapter of the MSCA. He related the stress caused by working a non-union job to these genetic changes as he led a “new rallying call for increasing the percentage of U.S. workers who are in unions: ‘What do we want?’ ‘A reduction in stress-induced epigenetic changes that alter the brain’s chemistry.’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now.’”

Economics professor Luis D. Rosero immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago and based his research for the teach-in on how immigrant families are affected by the work/family dynamic.

He said the family is “under attack by the marketplace.”

According to Rosero, the average woman is makes 79 cents for every $1 the average man makes. On the other hand, the average “immigrant woman” makes 65 cents for every $1 the average “native man” makes.

He added, the poverty rate for immigrant families with children is 23.3 percent while the poverty rate for “native families” with children is 16.6 percent.

Sheridan’s research focused on Louise Bourgeois, a midwife who served Henry IV and his wife. She was also responsible for the care of Henry IV’s son, Louis XIII, all while caring for her own child.

Sheridan called this situation a “strikingly modern notion” of “work/life struggles.”

Many students at the event were concerned about financial debt and how their debt can influence the way they make family decisions.

Rutter said, financial debt influences what careers students choose and the way they think about work in general. “In no way shape or form is your financial debt about you personally and yet you feel it personally.”

Senior Abigail MacDonald said she has to re-evaluate grad school because of her student debt. “I feel like my dreams just kind of got chucked out the window.”

She added, “I feel like that is a situation a lot of people in my generation have now. … We’ve been told from a very young age be whatever you want, do whatever you want to do, but the reality of the situation is, that we can’t.”

Senior and Council on Contemporary Families intern Eunice Owusu said people go to school to make money with family goals in mind. “You’re doing these things to have children, pass on your wealth and stuff like that, but what wealth am I going to pass on if I don’t have it in the first place?”

Hedda Monaghan, FSU’s part-time reference librarian, said she is concerned about elder care and is worried that one day she will not be able to support children because of her student debt.

“Between student debt and worrying about taking care of my parents, how am I going to have children?” she asked. 

Senior and Council on Contemporary Families intern Luigi Gonzalez said, “We see college as a mouse trap. It shows you cheese, and once you try to get that cheese, the trap snaps and you can’t get out, and it keeps going and going and going.”

Rutter said it is important to recognize work and family together in order to “recognize our shared humanity.”

Over the past six weeks, professors from diverse departments have incorporated the Showing (work x family) exhibition into their courses, discussing different topics surrounding family stereotypes, economic life, work structures and socialization theories. 

Physics professor Vandana Singh implemented the teach-in topic in her course, Physics, Nature and Society.

Singh said she had her students visit the exhibition and respond to what they saw in writing. Then they studied climate change’s contribution to “recent extreme weather events, with the focus on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Students investigated the impact of the disaster on everyday life.”

She said her students primarily focused on three aspects – “the extent of the devastation, the resilience of the people despite inadequate help, and the global and long-term context.”

The class created a large banner presenting its findings and observations, which was displayed at the Dec. 6 culminating event. 

Education professor James Cressey partnered with families that are part of the special education parent advisory council (SAPAC) and local public school districts to create a webinar, or an online panel discussion, about the special education process in Massachusetts schools, through BlackBoard Collaborate Ultra.

Webinar participants included Cressey’s Early Childhood Curriculum with Field Study III (Special Needs) class, six panelists, parents, educators, future educators and anyone interested who had questions about special needs education. Participants, panelists and students were scattered into three separate rooms and interacted through an online chat. Some of Cressey’s Field Study III students, including senior Julia Downey and senior Victoria Gibbs worked one-on-one with the panelists.

Gibbs said the goal of the webinar was for educators and teachers to “relay their personal experiences, because no two experiences are the same.”

Downey said the webinar allowed her to see first-hand different parent perspectives about disabilities.

She said it’s important to understand families and their everyday experiences because it makes teachers more “empathetic” and “knowledgeable on what [students with disabilities] go through.”

Cressey hopes to develop a family and educator resource center on campus, supporting the educational pathways of children with different abilities.

“We hope to do many more webinars as well as traditional panel discussions on campus, professional development for teachers and support for families,” he said.

Art Professor Tim McDonald thought the teach-in was a nice opportunity for his drawing fundamental students to “not only engage with a notion of a portrait, but to also engage in the ideas around a portrait.

“We had lots of conversations about what’s the nature of a portrait, what does it tell us, what does it reveal and what’s its purpose for the viewer but also for the maker,” he said.

To get his students used to drawing a face, McDonald instructed his students to take a photo of a close family member or friend and then draw a grid on the photograph to manipulate the photo into a drawing, Chuck Close style. After, the students were to draw a portrait of whomever they photographed onto a 20-25 feet by 3-feet high scroll using charcoal, pencil, markers, etc. The scroll drawings took the students over two full class periods or about six hours to complete.

McDonald said, “I think what [the teach-in] shows me is oftentimes we don’t bring content into the foundation classes, as far as ideas and stuff like that, because there’s so much of the skills we have to teach, but I think that this [teach-in] shows that we can bring the content in along with the skills.”

Chinese Professor Fei Yu implemented the teach-in in her class, Through the Dragon’s Eyes: Modern China’s Cultures and Traditions.

Yu said, “Family is the home where a group of family members live together in a relationship of interdependence. The choices and actions of one family member often influence the other family members.”

She used this definition of family in relation to a unit of her class on the Chinese Spring Festival which includes a “family reunion dinner.” Yu had her class examine the traditional Chinese family and compare it to the “concept [of family] in their own culture.”

“Through the teach-in, students … realized the differences between Chinese family values and the family values in their own culture,” said Yu.

Criminology Professor Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz asked his Intimate Partner Violence and Criminological Theory classes to examine the exhibit. Each class discussed different aspects of family life and dynamics based on theories and social issues related to the course.

“It adds a new perspective in looking at everyday life as exemplifying our theories and our topics,” he said.

Guadalupe-Diaz said his Criminological Theory class interpreted the photographs within the context of gender-based theories, family socialization and patriarchal family structures to show “critical aspects of our culture that might facilitate patterns of aggression or violent behavior or crime.”

In Guadalupe-Diaz’s Intimate Partner Violence class, students examined the photos and drew parallels to patterns discussed in class such as intimacy issues, partner violence and privacy problems. Students in this course looked at the exhibit as a public display of intimate and private life which, according to Guadalupe-Diaz, is “very much in the same way we think about partner violence as both this kind of personal and intimate experience.”

Intimate Partner Violence student and senior Emmett Prescott defined intimate partner violence as violence between partners, he said it looks “deeply” at family and household dynamics. “We looked at different types of abusers and some people are ‘family-only’ abusers, so they only express their violent and abusive tendencies within the household and not to the general public,” he said. 

He added, “We also saw that pregnancy was a big theme. … Children was a topic we kept coming back to, because when there are children involved, things tend to get muddier – because now the best interest of the child can cloud over the best interest of the victim.”

Since incorporating the teach-in into his courses, Guadalupe-Diaz said his class will often come across an image and “reconnect a current topic with something that they saw in the exhibit.

“So in that way,” he said, “it’s been kind of this constant thing in the background.”

Rutter said she found the teach-in to be “more of an ongoing conversation” than she expected.  She said people will walk up to her and start conversations about the function of photography, the function of position space and even converse about “the ways in which their own families are subject to policies like DACA.”

Rutter often finds her students connecting personally to the big ideas presented during the teach-in.

“Connecting personally doesn’t mean that it’s anecdotal. … Personal stories connect to big ideas or experiences in ways that can advance the arguments,” she said.

Rutter has integrated the teach-in into two of her classes – Sociological Theory and Sociology of Families.

In Rutter’s Sociological Theory class, students read texts from Marx about economic hegemony, contemporary work from John Schmitt and articles studying family inequality. Rutter said discussion focused on how families are presented and how Marx and Schmitt would view this presentation of families.

The Sociology of Families, an online course, focused on how families were constructed, epistemology and normativity, said Rutter. 

Communication Arts professor Leslie Starobin had her Basic Photography students take photos of family members for the teach-in.

“I would do this assignment again even without the exhibition,” she said. “I may do it next semester because there’s a major exhibition about the family opening at the Museum of Fine Arts. I might continue this exercise and tie it in with the MFA show.”

Senior Jennie Kush said she takes her grandmother who has dementia to Dunkin’ Donuts once a week. She was inspired to photograph their outings. She said, she “had to ask my family members about my grandmother, and I got to learn a lot of things that after 21 years I didn’t know about her.”

She said, “The class in general and that specific assignment made me realize to ask more questions.

“You know its just funny how you can see one image or see something going on and not really know the whole background story on things. So, I think our class got really close with these sorts of assignments.”