January 20, 2014
I’ve been asked to speak at Siena Heights University’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day. I am to speak for 5-10 minutes and comment upon what King has meant to me. Here’s what I will say:
I am very honored to have been asked to share some thoughts on the importance and legacy of Martin Luther King.
As a teacher I often include King’s speeches and essays in my classes. Whenever I teach my students about King I am reminded that he was a self-described “extremist for love.” I want to talk about what that means—what it means to be an extremist for love—and then touch on how King’s example inspires me. To understand all of this, I think we need to understand the strategies King employed in attempting to enact social change and the exceptional courage and pride he carried within himself and awoke within others. Throughout this brief talk I will quote from King’s very powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
A little historical background. By the mid-1950s, Jim Crow Segregation had been in effect for over sixty years. While the NAACP had done much to challenge and slowly dismantle these laws, many African-Americans had begun to lose patience with the long arc of history and its slow movement towards justice. Centuries of economic abuses had left African-American communities impoverished; and, perhaps more significantly, physical violence and a culture which dehumanized African-Americans left many “living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next […] plagued with inner fears and outer resentments […] forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’” By the mid-1950s, many African-Americans had reached the point where “the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
In 1955 Martin Luther King was a twenty-six year old Baptist minister in Montgomery Alabama. After being brought in to help coordinate the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King found himself thrust into the national leadership of a new civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rather than continue to wait and suffer the dehumanization and violence of American racism, King and SCLC embraced a strategy of non-violent direct action.
It is important that we remember how radical this strategy was—and that it was this strategy that made King and the SCLC “extremists for love.” While their campaigns began with and sought to engage in advocacy and negotiation, King and the SCLC were prepared for the fact that white Southerners were unlikely to admit that there was a problem or engage in honest dialogue with African-American activists. When dialogue and negotiation fell apart and white Southerners proved once again that they were unwilling to see African-Americans as fully human, King and the SCLC would engage in direct-action campaigns—sit-ins, marches, boycotts—which sought to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which ha[d] constantly refused to negotiate [would be] forced to confront the issue.” Well aware that these actions would be met with violence and arrest, King and the SCLC were careful to pray and engage in self-purification so that they would be prepared to “present [their] very bodies as means of laying [their] case before the conscience of the local and national community.”
This took immense courage and immense faith. King and his associates would directly face down segregationists and were threatened with very real violence; many of them were assaulted and some were even killed for standing up against American racism. But, through his abiding faith in both Christ and the American dream, King found within himself a truly awesome reserve of strength, conviction, and pride. It was this strength, conviction, and pride that enabled him to stand up to the face of injustice and peacefully face down violence and brutality. This strength and conviction also lay at the core of his written work and the very eloquent and personal testimonies that have served as inspiration to others who sought, and continue to seek, a more Christian, democratic nation.
By 1965 King and the SCLC had experienced considerable success. Their direct action campaigns had successfully pushed the federal government to enact laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to consider laws that would be folded into the Civil Rights Act of 1968. These laws helped dismantle many of the harshest Jim Crow laws and helped speed the nation towards fuller racial equality. But King’s work was not done. In the last years of his life he turned his attention to poverty, fair housing, and an end to war. I think we far too often focus on King’s dream of a color-blind society and forget that this dream was only possible if all people were freed from the oppressive, dehumanizing effects of poverty, poor housing, and poorer education. So, in his final years, King turned his attention to this structural inequalities which shackled people of all races.
Now, how does this part of King’s work, his status as a self-proclaimed “extremist for love,” influence me? I have not had to face injustices as severe as those faced by King and his associates. I am very aware of the fact that the relative comfort and ease of my life would not be possible if Martin Luther King and others had not so courageously faced down forces of discrimination and dehumanization and in the process made our world more just and more free.
But, these forces continue to exist—we still live in a time in which poverty, unfair housing, and unevenly distributed educational opportunities prevent many from reaching the promises of the American dream. King’s work can continue. Not only through the continued striving for an end to racial discrimination but also through a struggle for fair housing, equitable education, and economic freedom for all. King once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I hope that we all leave here today inspired to speak out against injustice and to devote ourselves, through our prayer and study but also through our time and energy, to making sure our nation continues on a path towards a time and place in which the dignity and humanity of all is respected, honored, and celebrated. We might not be called to place our bodies and freedom on the line, as King and his associates did. And, we might not be called to travel the country, as King did. But here in Adrian we can devote our time and energy to organizations like Habit for Humanity, the United Way, the Adrian Rea Literacy Center, or many of the other opportunities coordinated through Siena Serves. And, even when we are not directly working to end injustice, we can see as King did, from a place of empathy for all people, and speak as King did, calling out for fuller freedom and justice.
November 26, 2013
After a multi-year absence, I’ve decided to return to this spot and see what happens.
In part, my return is prompted by three other returns I made last week: I went to ASA (I missed last year) which was in DC (a rare visit home!) and on one evening played hooky and headed out to a small venue to see Bonnie “Prince” Billy (although it might have been Will Oldham).
ASA 2013 (or, #2013ASA) has garnered substantial attention for its hotly debated proposed cultural and academic boycott of Israel. It’s also been mocked for the heavy jargon and overtly political nature of the conference theme and the papers presented. Tenured Radical Claire Potter has addressed both. Jonathan Marks finds lots to mock. More on this in a second.
I largely enjoyed the conference and found the dialogue stimulating. I saw some great panels. At a sound studies panel on sampling and covering I learned about John Coltrane covering Rodgers & Hammerstein, memory and loss in the sampling techniques of the RZA and DJ Premier, among other topics. An Appalachian studies panel on the “hillbilly” helped me see how Appalachia is the south’s other (while the south is, of course, the nation’s other) and, in Cari Massey’s sharp analysis of Lynddie England in visual culture, the textual and visual construction of the hillbilly as it intersects with gender, sexuality, nation. Lastly, the panel I chaired was an exciting mix of work in memory studies, almost all of it by graduate students. The papers explored traditional subjects of memory studies: Rosie Uyola of Rutgers-Newark on commemorations of the 1967 Newark riots and Kathleen Hulser of the New School on walking tours and radical feminist history in Greenwich Village. Bryan Walsh of IU Bloomington presented a sharp, cogent theorization of toxic waste and U.S. military installations. Walsh’s paper exposed the legacy of waste at bases within the national borders and argued that this legacy must be understood as an act of violence perpetrated by the U.S. military. This analysis of how we under stand the “nation” resonated with Robyn Schroeder’s (Brown) analysis of the place of the nation state and federalism in disaster narratives on TV (Jericho, Revolution, and The Walking Dead). Lastly, Katie Bausch of York presented an analysis of SDS activists’ appropriation of SNCC activists’ strategies for performing racialized masculinities. Bausch’s paper was smart and very eloquently written.
All in all, I enjoyed the conference. I learned things I didn’t know; I left rethinking things I thought I already understood. I was exposed, often in individual papers, to sharp analyses of U.S. history and culture (literature, popular culture, media, political culture). That is was ASA does better than any conference I know of: thorough, truly interdisciplinary analysis and critique of the U.S.
The recent critiques of ASA posted in CHE’s website seem to have two major bones to pick: the field doesn’t look like what American Studies seems it should be; and the BDS boycott of Israel. I’m not sure that I know enough or have thought enough about the boycott to comment on it. But, as to the concern that ASA doesn’t look like American Studies… well, its current iteration certainly doesn’t look like to America Studies of Henry Nash Smith. Or Leo Mark. Or even Patricia Nelson Limerick. American Studies has evolved rapidly and constantly. It is always in flux. Unlike the fields to which it is most closely related (English and History), American Studies doesn’t have a core subject (texts, the past) or a core method (close reading, historiography). Rather, it’s core subjects are the U.S. and, I would argue, itself. It’s core method is one of critique and analysis. As the bulk of the participants in ASA are suspicious of the nation state and reject any notion of American exceptionalism, ASA’s analysis of the US quickly turns towards an analysis and critique of the field itself. Thus, it is a field which is always in existential crisis.
Certainly, ASA hosts outstanding and important research. Oftentimes its participants are also doing excellent work in other, more traditional fields of study. Just as often, it provides an institutional basis for scholars in fields which are less stable, especially Women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, and Ethnic studies. And, ASA’s impact on scholarly work may be most apparent by the recognition that traditional fields of study (English and History, but also Communications, Sociology, Anthropology, and Geology) now often include work which is very similar to the American Studies of the 1970s and 1980s. American Studies has been the experimental lab for these larger, more conservative fields.
I’ve been reading Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Culture Studies by Jon Smith. It’s a challenging, pointed, and oftentimes funny critique of both American Studies and traditional southern studies. Smith’s critique of American studies and ASA seems to have three main points: its overuse and oversimplification of Birmingham CCCS approach to subcultures; its shallow and often empty appeals to social justice, which are rooted in a boomer-oriented mindset; and its unwillingness and inability to engage rural America. I may have inverted the important points in item two. Perhaps his critique is of a boomer mindset, which leads to a shallow and empty appeal to social justice. Using Lacan and Zizek, he unpacks ASA’s drive and the pleasure derived from that process. It’s a smart critique with much to admire. I think he is especially right that ASA is dominated by urban academics from one of the coasts (as for non-coastal institutions which have heavy presences at ASA… Michigan and Minnesota could be considered “north coast” and Texas might be considered “south coast.” That doesn’t really work, but whatever). This leads to a disengagement from, disinterest in, and discomfort with the rural, especially the rural west and the rural south. The excellent panel I attend on Appalachia was the only panel on the program listed under “regionalism.” As an ASA-based scholar who thinks about the South (as opposed to a SHA- or SSSL-based scholar who sporadically attends ASA), I’ve often felt far out of place within American Studies (although, that hypothetical denizen of SHA or SSSL would feel even more out of touch at ASA than I do at ASA, SHA, or SSSL).
The ASA program made some mention of its 2013 meeting space: Dupont Circle in DC. ASA seems to be in DC once every four years, usually a year after a presidential election–in this millennium it has met there in 2001, 2005, 2009, and again in 2013. In years past ASA was housed at the DC Marriot on Mt. Vernon Square. This year it moved to the Hilton between Dupont Circle and Kalorama circle. The new location was an improvement. The hotel has a better layout for conferences; and Dupont is an actual neighborhood with a nightlife. However, Mt. Vernon Square is far easier to get to; it’s right by Union Station and right off the Red and Yellow lines, which will get one around DC our out to National Airport. The biggest drawback of Mt. Vernon Square is that it is in the middle of a business district and felt less real and lived-in. Mt. Vernon Square is closer to the great waves of gentrification which have crashed out of the federal district and out through Capitol Hill and along H Street. Right now, the area around Mt. Vernon Square seems to have little to offer unless one is interested in NHL/NBA games or eating at an ESPN Zone restaurant. Dupont Circle is a lovelier, livelier neighborhood. Of course, Dupont is the product of older waves of gentrification. There were some panels devoted to DC and screenings of films about social justice issues in and around the district. I wish there’d been more dialogue about the actual location of the conference and our joy about being in a lovely neighborhood and happiness to have left behind a boring corporate neighborhood. Because, as I see it, today the US has more areas like Mt. Vernon Square than it does Dupont Circle. We’d do well to spend more time inhabiting and critiquing those neighborhoods.
Friday night of the conference two friends and I played hooky and walked two miles to Georgetown where we saw Bonnie “Prince” Billy perform a solo set. He had been conducting a residency at GU, working with music students mostly. The performance lasted over two hours and featured a few early songs (“Idle Hands are the Devil’s Plaything” “Riding” “West Palm Beach” “Pushkin” and “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” and heavy doses of songs from Master and Everyone, Superwolf, The Letting Go, and Ease Down the Road. Nothing from the Pitchfork favorite Viva Last Blues and only “Another Day Full of Dread” and “Nomadic Revelry” from I See a Darkness. And, very little from his recent collaborations with Emmett Kelly. I suppose that given their intricacies, the Kelly collaborations don’t work well for a solo performance. Perhaps he tires of playing “New Partner” and “I See a Darkness” (when people insisted on requesting “I See a Darkness” he said no, that it was “no fun to play alone.”) I was overjoyed to hear so many songs from Ease Down the Road, one of my favorite records. He played solo acoustic guitar with a single mic picking up his voice and guitar. His guitar playing has evolved into very solid rhythm playing. His voice, especially over the past ten years, has evolved into a confident, full, commanding voice. He’s a much surer, richer singer than he was twenty years ago.
I’ve seen Oldham a number of times, usually with a full band. But, it’d been nine years since the last performance I’d seen. That was a 2004 show at the DIA. During that show Oldham played two sets in the Diego Rivera room. For one set he played an autoharp, for the other an electric guitar. During that 2004 show and others he was fairly terse and seemed slightly uncomfortable on stage.
At Georgetown Oldham was the most gregarious and chatty I’d ever seen him. He told stories about the songs, told funny rambling jokes about his career. I was moved to laughter by the stories as often I was moved to awe by his voice. It was a heck of a performance.
Oldham is a dangerously and infamously slippery artist. He’s a difficult interview subject and can cause writers fits with his orneriness. Musically, his roots are in country traditions–there’s a lot of George Jones and Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn in his songs. But, he’s also heavily indebted to punk and post-punk. He has close personal ties to Slint, Tortoise, PJ Harvey. The Mekons seem to be his truest musical forebears.
At GU Oldham referenced a few of his influences. He cited The Mekons as an influence for an entire record but also acknowledge that the record in question is rife with Emily Dickinson references (The Letting Go). He covered George Jones’s “Little Boy Blue” but slowed it down, made it into a sweet love song.
Classic Nashville came up again when he explained that his song “After I Made Love to You” was written with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn in mind. Makes sense to me.
Most interesting, though, was his explanation that “Master and Everyone” is based on two sources. The lyrics come from his reading of a friend’s explanation of the emotional impact a Verdi opera had on her; the music is Oldham’s interpretation of the Indonesian songs “Fajar Di Atas Awan” by Suarasama. Who knew?
Oldham is a fascinating subject. He’s a hell of a songwriter and a phenomenal singer. He has an ambivalent relationship to the south and is worthy of further consideration as a liminal southerner. I’ve done two ASA presentations which dealt with Oldham. I wish more folks in American Studies and Southern Studies engaged him. He’s as interesting as Johnny Cash or Sun Ra and possibly as important.
He’s also a slippery Southern. Kentucky-born and bred, he seems resistant to being marked as “southern” but also relishes the opportunity to use “the southerner” as a performance which allows him creative space and independence.
I won’t go to ASA next year. LA is simply too far of a journey. But, the theme, “the fun and the fury,” is interesting. If I went I’d do a paper on “The Other Side of This Life” and the transition from beat/folk culture to hippie culture. There’s something interesting about Fred Neil’s melancholic celebration of the wayfaring life transforming into Jefferson Airplane’s high-speed, intricate celebration of, well, LSD I think. And, the topic fits perfectly with the boomer-mindset that dominates the field.
January 16, 2011
Just a note that this blog has been on indefinite hiatus since May, 2010. In the past eight months I’ve seen my family expand from a trio to a quartet, and have started my first permanent academic position as an Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University. I am not sure if I will ever revive this blog, but I do have ambitious writing plans for the summer and may use this space to post notes and ideas on those projects. In the meantime, check out my bare-bones home page for links to my course websites and other places I frequent on the internet. Thanks.
April 27, 2010
Ron Resenbaum’s recent piece in Slate articulates well what I find so deeply troubling and unsettling about what passes for political dialogue in the U.S. The historical amnesia and victimization in most heated political rhetoric minimalizes the expansive and institutionalized realities of historical inequality and polarizes the electorate.
And, as a recent essay on Emmett Till by Myissha Priest in American Quarterly so powerfully demonstrates, the pain and violence inflicted upon black bodies has historically been used as a site for the articulation of whiteness and an inspiration for anti-racist activism. I suspect that the victimization which is so central to whiteness is an articulation of whiteness’s need for attention and its need for the denial of black identities.
As a white man who teaches African-American and comparative Ethnic studies, I am constantly aware of the ways my social location and my body can frustrate and stimulate student engagement and dialogue within the classroom. To put it simply, my physical presence can intimidate and frustrate students who are understandably suspicious of whiteness. But, if I am able to demonstrate my compassion and command of the material without co-opting identities which are not my own I can empower my students to engage critically and productively the knowledges attached to identity.
It is with all of this in mind that I cautiously and pointedly bring my students face-to-face with the histories of American racial violence. Although I run the risk of fetishizing violence or traumatizing students, I see a great value in having students confront the stark physical and emotional histories of racism. For example, one of my classes is currently wrapping up a unit in which we considered the violence of the Jim Crow era primarily by looking at images and reading first hand accounts of lynching, racialized sexual assault, and the daily humiliations of Jim Crow. Among many goals, this unit is designed to have students confront the past and to consider its lasting impact and resonances and, ideally, thereby counter the toxic rhetorics that structure so much political discourse.
One of the challenges I face in teaching this material is that students tend to view American racial violence as an African-American issue which is only incidentally significant to American history. Obviously, I incorporate into this unit a discussion of the privileges afforded to whiteness because of racial violence. And, I guide to students to see the ways violence has historically led to outrage and activism which, ultimately, leads to positive change. I try to draw students’ attention to the ways lynching and other forms of Jim Crow violence influenced and hastened the African-American freedom struggle.
Perhaps the most productive approach, though, is to adopt a truly comparative ethnic studies orientation and place violence enacted upon African-American bodies in dialogue with other forms of violence and, thereby, situate the victims of lynching alongside other victims of American capitalist violence. To show students that Jim Crow violence was linked to U.S. expansion into the Southwest, American imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, and the organized violence of strike-breaking and the daily violences of sharecropping and American industrialism.
This is a difficult orientation to adopt, especially when students are accustomed to learning history piecemeal and are encouraged to see identities as fixed and isolated constructions. And, to be frank, it was not until a chance sequence of events brought me face to face with the victims of American neoliberalism that I completely understood the liberating empowerment that comes from understanding the intimate yet obscured unity of violence of the United States.
In March, 2009 I had to leave town for a job interview. I set up in-class activities and film-screenings for my students to complete in my absence. My upper-level course, which was then considering institutionalized racism and the effects of poverty and residential segregation, watched the first two hours of Spike Lee’s When the Levee’s Broke in my absence. That section ends with a ten-minute montage of abandoned bodies that littered New Orleans.
And, so, I left with the knowledge that my students were facing raw pain and I wended my way through the airport with the images the dead left behind in the wake of Katrina, men and women simply left to suffer as we turned our backs on New Orleans, men and women who died not because of an overt act of violence but because of the more insidious violences of decades of neglect. When we reached cruising altitude the captain mentioned that a member of the armed services was returning from Iraq aboard our flight and that out of respect he requested that we wait until this person was off the plane before disembarking in St. Louis. At first I presumed he meant the uniformed naval officer I had seen escorted onto the plane with the flight crew; but as he explained the situation, it became apparent that the service member in question was a deceased sailor or marine whose body was in a coffin in the cargo hold of our plane. As luck would have it, my window seat was immediately above the cargo hold doors and when we reached the gate I watched closely as members of the ground crew removed the coffin from the plane. The coffin was stored in a cardboard box printed to look like an American flag and many of my fellow passengers ignored the captain’s request and hurried off of the plane.
I sat back dizzied by the mental juxtaposition of the exposed, ignored black bodies and the cloaked yet half-heartedly celebrated body of an anonymous soldier thrust into a neo-colonialist endeavor. It was only at this moment that I could see the union between the victims of neoliberal governance in New Orleans and the victims of neoliberal invasion in Iraq. Though the conditions of their death and the treatment of their bodies made clear the stark differences in citizenship, they remained victims of the same historical movements, the same historical forces.
If our nation is to have a constructive political discourse and remain committed to its democratic ideals we need to identify and elucidate the ways our history is a history of shared pains and shared burdens and not the contest of victimization and cooption that has been a defining feature of our culture. Our work, then, should be designed to push students to moments at which these interconnections and moments of interethnic unity are most clear.
April 16, 2010
Aristocracy and Political Culture
Many have seen the rightward turn of Virginia’s government as a rebuke of the Obama administration. Although Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win Virginia since 1948, his 2008 win and Mark Warner’s ascent to the Senate were followed by the 2009 election of conservatives to state offices, most importantly governor and attorney general. Before getting excited or depressed, it is useful to remember recent history: Virginia elects its governors the year after presidential elections; for thirty years the party which won the presidency has gone on to lose the gubernatorial campaign. McDonnell’s victory is no more a rebuke of Obama than Doug Wilder’s 1985 win was a rebuke of Reagan’s ’84 landslide victory.
There are many possible reasons for this unique factoid of Virginia politics. Maybe (and I’m contradicting myself here) it is related to backlash; but then the backlash would happen with every single election. Perhaps it is related to excitement: many Obama supporters were “worn out” from 2008 did not come out to support Deeds in 20009, while McCain backers were worked up over the 2008 loss and came out for McDonnell.
I think, however, that to understand these shifts you have to look at Virginia’s political culture and the performance of leadership in The Old Dominion. Historically, Virginia has favored political leaders who project an aristocratic bearing and connect themselves to Virginia’s memorial culture of genteel manners and purpose all the while embracing a business-friendly political agenda.
Perhaps the most successful performance of aristocracy comes from Doug Wilder. The grandchild of slaves, a child of Jim Crow, and the first African-American to be elected governor of a U.S. state, Wilder presented himself as mannered and almost aristocratic leader. This often put him at odds with Richmond’s African-American community, a tension which was most visible when he worked in local government in the 1970s and 1980s and was often at odds with local Civil Rights leaders on grounds that stretched from the political to the personal and often included criticisms rooted in the class divisions of African-American identity. This public performance of elitism was married to a fiscally conservative agenda which Wilder cultivated in the 1960s, when he worked outside the civil rights group The Richmond Crusade for Voters and alongside the Chamber of Commerce group Richmond Forward. As a “post-racial” conservative Democrat, Wilder anticipated and then flourished under neoliberalism, an economic logic which has long found a clear articulation in Virginia.
Of course, Wilder is but one example of Virginia’s political leadership. The Republican politician George Allen has cut a similar though divergent path. Allen is a prime example of the conflicted performance of Southern aristocracy that has marked Virginia’s contemporary political culture. Allen is not Virginian by birth; he moved to Northern Virginia from Los Angeles as a teenager (his father was a successful coach of D.C.’s NFL franchise). Much like George W. Bush, another Republican transplant to the South, Allen’s political rise was defined by a cultivated performance of “country” identities: cowboy boots, big hats, horse-riding, good-ole-boy charm. He married this faux-folksy charm to an agenda which was marketed as “compassionate conservatism” but which is perhaps more correctly extreme neoliberalism. He was very much a rising star of the Republican party and, in many circles, was seen as an ideal candidate for the White House. But, behind this veneer lay a more problematic identity: at a 2006 reelection event Allen was caught on tape using an obscure slur to describe a man of South Asian descent; in the wake of this event stories began to arise which described Allen’s past use of similar slurs, his display of Confederate battle flags and nooses in his legal office and the Governor’s office, and, on occasion, his clear articulation of bigoted sentiments. These accusations enabled Jim Webb to seize momentum and take Allen’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
We have in Virginia two models for post-racial, neoliberal leadership, both of which stress Southern masculinities. Wilder succeeded by presenting himself as an aristocratic and admonishing the working class members of his coalition. Allen succeeded by merging that aristocratic identity with a good-ole-boy charm. His immediate and swift decline came when he broke the codes of political conduct and engaged directly in the kinds of race-baiting and antagonism which have long been suspect in Virginia. Although the home of the Confederacy and long a bastion of Southern “values”, Virginia has historically defined itself as the most gentle and benign of Southern states. The history of Virginia is a history of positioning against the harsh, violent, and dangerous slavery of the deep South and the cold, calculating industrial might of the North. The types of race-baiting and racial antagonism and overt violence common to the Jim Crow south was not as widely accepted in Virginia, or other upper-South states. Rather, its harshly segregated society was built upon subtle codes of conduct and masculinity and a military culture of aristocratic leadership. Former Senator John Warner is a fine example of the removed, aristocratic manner and military bearing of the Virginia aristocracy. Allen, I suspect, fell from grace because he was seen to be a bigot in the most grace-less manner.
At the same time, I suspect that Allen’s loss has much to do with the man against whom he was running for re-election. Jim Webb is a remarkable figure for his record of military service and his accomplishments as a writer and politician. He is not the only exceptional military veteran in the U.S. Senate. But, unlike John McCain or John Kerry, he has never sought out or carried the trappings of wealth or prestige. Although an officer who served in high civilian positions in Reagan’s Department of Defense, he has consistently and effectively presented himself as a soldier. This is not merely performance—he doesn’t simply don a jumpsuit and lead pep rallies on aircraft carriers. Rather, Webb is a military man through and through who has the bearing and intelligence common to officers of high rank. Why does this matter? Well, I suspect that Allen’s fall came about because the mask he had chosen, that of a good-ole-boy, was pulled aside and he was exposed an imposter who used a folksy demeanor to push through policies which benefited the wealthy at the expense of the working class. Webb, however, was legitimately a descendent of Virginia’s Appalachian Scots-Irish immigrants who was committed to working class values and concerns.
While Virginia’s senators are both Democrats—Webb is joined by the moderate, technocrat Mark Warner—its visible political leadership includes McDonnell and Representative Eric Cantor. Cantor, interestingly, is the lone Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill and a Chamber of Commerce-type who, as Dana Milbank put it, has to “ride the tiger” of culture warriors who are often anti-Semitic. And, McDonnell was elected to office by downplaying his extremist social views on gender and sexuality. Both dance the thin line between aristocracy and populist rage.
Aristocracy, Populism and Virginia Heritage
My central concern and frustration with this revivification of Confederate Heritage Month is that it ignores the realities of modern Virginia and speaks to a subset of the population. There has been ample, thoughtful coverage of the declaration. I especially like Jon Meachem’s piece from the New York Times for its clear explanation of the historical uses of Confederate heritage as a cultural tool for white supremacy. I would add that in these many historical instances, Virginia’s brand of historical identity leaned to heroic and mythic forms and avoided the overt populism of Southern Heritage in the Deep South. To cite one, minor example, during the Civil War Centennial many Southern states ceremonially flew the Confederate Battle Flag in official settings; in some states, it was simply left up at the end of the centennial and became entrenched—for a rich explanation of this history in South Carolina see K. Michael Prince’s Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys; for a general history see John M. Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag. In Virginia, however, the centennial was marked by the display of the Confederate national flag, or the Stars and Bars, a much less recognizable emblem which many mistake for the Texas state flag. [EDITED ON TUESDAY APRIL 27TH REMOVING MISSTATEMENTS/MISTAKES. PLEASE SEE COMMENTS SECTION]
Additionally, Eugene Robinson’s recent editorial is a strong and powerful articulation of the absurdity of Haley Barbour’s defense of McDonnell. As both pieces point out, McDonnell’s initial statement endorsed an outdated view of the Confederacy which emboldens separatist ideologies and white identity politics which are inherently and historically anti-Black. In its insensitivity and its inducement to a false heritage, McDonnell has engaged in the subtle race-baiting common to Virginia history; he has not overtly endorses Confederate Heritage as white heritage; he maligns Black history with a nod to whiteness.
But while Confederate Heritage month is divisive and offensive to all of us who are sensitive to the histories of slavery, Jim Crow and the African-American freedom struggle, it is equally, if not more, problematic and divisive for how very removed it is from the lives of the vast majority of Virginians. Celebrating the Confederacy without exploring and acknowledging slavery is not only lazy and bad history which offends a significant portion of Virginians; it places at the heart of communal, memorial identity a moment and a conflict which is far removed from Virginia’s dynamic, global economy and society and which builds upon and exacerbates Virginia’s commitment to aristocratic, military identity.
Despite the South’s mythic and historical agrarian past, the South is today a suburbanized, sprawling, global space. Like most of the South, Virginia is dominated by its metropolitan centers. In terms of population and economy, Northern Virginia is the preeminent region within the state; and, the connected sprawls of Norfolk, Richmond, and Charlottesville constitute a second, closely linked urban conglomerate. In both spaces military, government, and high-tech industries drive the economies and attract diverse populations with roots in other regions of the U.S. and, more importantly, other regions of the World. The Confederacy and the Civil War are in many ways completely irrelevant to the lives of technocrats or bureaucrats in Alexandria, Dominican or Salvadorian communities in Arlington, or Vietnamese and Korean communities in Fairfax.
Just as significantly, the coded political message of celebrating the Confederacy—the enshrinement of states’ rights—strikes me as at best irrelevant and more likely totally hypocritical to a state which so mightily depends upon the federal government. Perhaps only Maryland has a higher percentage of federal employees or contractors among its residents. And, Virginia is, quite literally, home to some of the most important and most respected of American’s military installations. The state is intimately connected to the nation state, its founding myths, and its modern political economy. It is simply asinine to presume that secession would be a viable or attractive option in a state so dependent upon the federal government and in which so many serve their nation with honor and distinction.
It is important to point out that Virginia has a proud military heritage which is reflected in the state’s official commemorative culture. The Pentagon is, of course, adjacent to Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery. And, though Arlington is a relic of the Confederacy and the Civil War it is, along with Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial, at the heart of a commemorative network which enshrines national reunification and the emancipation of slaves. Arlington, of course, was built on the grounds of a plantation which had been owned by the Lee and Custis families and, as such, has ties to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, who have long been the twin pillars of Virginia traditionalism. That traditionalism obscured their status as slaveholders and emphasized their aristocratic, principled leadership and their commitment to the common good. The myth of Washington depends equally upon his heroism as a soldier and the modesty he exhibited in guiding the U.S. into republican, not oligarchic, government. And, Lee’s mythology emphasizes his leadership, his aristocratic identity, and, most importantly, his work in building a peace to repair the nation. These myths tragically ignore their slaveholding and gloss over the reaffirmation of whiteness and masculinity as standards for citizenship which they did so much to defend. More importantly, Lee and Washington are celebrated as aristocratic models of masculinity. Their cults, thus, have historically articulated the rightness and justness of a social order in which aristocratic leaders wisely and bravely guide the masses. On the other side of this narrative are the melancholic and lyrical images of the honorable, if meager, lives of common soldiers. This mythic evocation of heroic leadership and honorable soldiers which obscures or ignores the realities of slavery depends upon and furthers constructions of citizenship in which the most important border is the imaginary border drawn around whiteness, not the material and economic border between the working class and the landed gentry. Not only did Washington and Lee own slaves; they were leaders from a select privileged class of landowners and other economic elites who profited from the labor of and took advantage of the white working class.
Reforming Virginia Heritage
Let me quite clear: as a child of Virginia and a cultural historian, I have an immense respect for and admiration of the riches of Virginia’s past. But, for that heritage to speak inclusively and productively to all Virginians it needs to be reformed away from simplistic notions of Confederate and colonial heritage; and, it must recognize the state’s great cultural and temporal diversity. Certainly, a starting point is an increased recognition of the role slavery and the removal of Native Americans played in Virginia’s early history; along with that shift in emphasis, the lives of African-Americans, Native-Americans and working class whites needs to be a component of any space for Virginia history. This inclusion of social history has long informed the site museum at Colonial Williamsburg and other heritage spaces. It should be the standard.
More importantly, Virginia could revolutionize national heritage by moving away from narratives of American (and Southern and Virginian) exceptionalism. Colonial sites could and should locate the Virginia Colony within the First British Empire. Spaces dedicated to slavery could and should emphasize Virginia’s place in the Black Atlantic and its ties to other plantation colonies. And, though the Old Dominion has a rich 18th and 19th century heritage to build on, there is no reason narratives of Virginia heritage cannot celebrate other moments in its past. For example, Northern Virginia has much to celebrate in its recent acceptance and celebration of immigrant communities, many of them made up of refuges. Arlington was not just Lee’s home and the site of a military cemetery; it is also the place in which many Vietnamese found refuge in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
April 7, 2010
Later today I am participating on a panel discussion as part of Defiance College’s McMaster’s Symposium. The conference theme is “Democracy and Education in the Face of Rural Change.” I will be giving a short overview of my academic perspective on the theme; I’ve elected to simply reflect on Ethnic Studies and Composition as tools for community empowerment and democracy. This is merely a sketch:
My academic home is divided between American Ethnic Studies and composition. And, while these fields are rather divergent, I think that many of the tools and orientations enacted in Ethnic Studies can powerfully contribute to the teaching of effective, constructive discourse in the composition classroom; and this can prove crucial to our identities as citizens and foster cohesive bonds which are essential to a democratic society.
Ethnic Studies is largely concerned with the social and historical construction of race, though, as we will see, it is also concerned with gender, sexuality, and class. Ethnic Studies is not the only academic discipline which examines race and ethnicity. The social sciences often examine race as a factor in human behavior and community; and the humanities take multiculturalism very seriously.
What sets Ethnic Studies apart are its academic orientations, its research methods, and its goals. First and foremost, Ethnic Studies examines the social and historical construction of race by adopting an emic or insider approach—it recognizes and validates the experiences of individuals and societies who have experienced and lived racial constructions. It then orients itself among these multiple experiences by placing ethnic identities within the matrix of race, class, gender, sexuality and, more recently, place. By listening to human experiences with race and racism and then reading those experiences as intersecting with other social constructions, Ethnic Studies works to develop an intricate, evolving portrait of the ways race is lived in the U.S. This sympathetic, intersectional approach to identity is then enacted in research which is often community-based and self-empowering and is always designed to combat inequality.
In order to clarify what Ethnic Studies is and does, we could consider how Ethnic Studies might help us better understand a community like Defiance. Ethnic Studies research into social change and cultural identity in Defiance would not simply chart the causes and effects deindustrialization, globalization, and suburbanization. Rather, it would examine the ways residents of Defiance have negotiated and influenced this process; a major goal would be examining the ways Defiance residents have been active participants, not simply pawns, in rural change. Moreover, this research would be inherently comparative and would seek out commonalities and divergences among the diverse populations of Defiance, with an emphasis on intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and place. A major project would be considering the role race and racial difference and processes like immigration, both recent and historic, have had on Defiance and placing those discussions in communication with other forms of identification, most especially class. Lastly, although inherent locally, this ethnography would seek out broader patterns and work to place Defiance in communication with other communities, both those nearby, like Bryan and Napoleon, but also Fort Wayne, Toledo, and Detroit, and those far away, including locations outside the U.S. which are connected to Defiance through networks of human or capital.
The orientation of this research—localized with a sensitivity to comparative and intersectional experiences—and its methods are designed to foster community empowerment and community engagement. By listening to and documenting the agency of its subjects, Ethnic Studies helps encourage and empower its subjects; and, by tracing community dimensions and comparative cases, Ethnic Studies can point out fault lines and sources of strength that can be used by civic leaders and community activists.
So far I’ve tried to explain Ethnic Studies and its application to a community like Defiance. But, I am also a composition teacher and I think our work in the writing classroom can positively interact with the community empowerment of Ethnic Studies.
Obviously, the first and foremost goal of any writing class is the cultivation of capable, confident writers. Our first job is to teach the foundational skills and conventions of academic writing. To achieve those goals, I take as a guiding principle the centrality of process. On the one hand, I organize my classes around the writing process and structure assignments and the semester around teaching students to explore, draft, and revise.
On the other hand, I emphasize to my students that writing, like all cognitive skills, is a life-long process which begins with our earliest acquisition of language as babies and doesn’t stop until our final breath. By taking this long view students can, hopefully, see that writing is not something to be learned and mastered in one semester; it is a skill and a craft to be consciously cultivated over their lifetime.
By orienting ourselves thusly, I and my students can better recognize and account for the diversity of writers we have within our classrooms. Any single writing class will have outstanding, accomplished writers and students who have basic literacy problems, not to mention all those other students who fall somewhere between these two extremes. By taking the long view, I can help my accomplished students see that they have further to go and I can empower the weaker writers in my class by reminding them that though they have a long way to go, they can succeed as writers. And, by helping students see this about themselves and each other, I can ideally help build a community of writers which is comfortable with difference, confident in its cohesion, and committed to better all its members.
It is this last point which brings us back to Ethnic Studies’ orientations and goals and, in a roundabout way, to democracy. I believe strongly in cultivating communities; and, I believe strongly in cultivating constructive, community-oriented discourses. By embracing the insider perspective and community empowerment of Ethnic Studies and marrying it to a process-oriented writing classroom in which community and constructive discourse are emphasized we can, I hope, foster a better awareness of our own identities and, more importantly, a sensitivity to the locations, experiences, and perspectives of others. And, if we are more aware of our interrelations and are more practiced in constructive, sensitive dialogue we can rebuild the communal ties which are essential to a functioning democracy.
Locating Privilege as a Pedagogic Practice
I have spent nearly half of my teaching career and all of my scholarly career working in American Studies and Ethnic Studies. Both fields, like the allied fields of Women’s/Gender and Sexuality Studies, take seriously the importance of social location as a component of identity formation and critical pedagogy. Striking a middle ground between essentialism and relativism, these fields of study recognize that a component of our identity formation and our intellectual progress are the interlocking social experiences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and ability. They hold firm that we are not reducible or defined by our phenotypes; yet that we are impacted by the social expectations and performances associated with them. The understanding of race as a social construction stands at the heart of Ethnic and American Studies and is a central thesis in the anti-racist work of those fields, which orient themselves towards unpacking and dismantling racial formations and ideologies through critical analyses of history, culture, and society. Moreover, these fields often work to counter racial ideologies by encouraging that students examine and investigate their own social location. Whether explicitly-in a family history project or personal writing–or implicitly, Ethnic and American Studies can often be challenging and uncomfortable work not only for the complexity of the concepts and ideas, but because those concepts and ideas run counter to what we commonly understand about our culture and ourselves.
In my experience (and as my friend Gavin hinted at in a comment on my previous essay) this discomfort is perhaps most common among students whose awareness of privilege is complicated by their embrace of identities associated with ideals of meritocracy. This is most evident among middle-class, white, male students who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the advantages they are afforded by a patriarchal, racist society because those realities run counter to the reality that they (or, more commonly, their families) have struggled to overcome economic and social hardships. Many are first-generation college students; and the majority comes from communities deeply impacted by deindustrialization and globalization. As such, my white students tend to have experienced or to have identified with some degree of economic marginalization and are disinclined or unable to acknowledge that they are afforded any advantages or privileges because of their race and gender.
Resistant students are the rule rather than the exception in Ethnic Studies and American Studies. I suspect there is a similar trend in Women’s Studies. However, based on my observations of and conversations with my colleagues in these fields, I have had to deal with far less visible, vocal resistance than is the norm. Only on rare occasion do students openly confront or challenge me or the subject matter. When discussing the realities of white privilege I have never been laughed at, yelled at, or called a “war criminal” or a “f***ing bigot,” as some of my colleagues have. And, in addition to not having to face open resistance or violence, I am often successful in reaching reluctant students who are hesitant or wary of the material.
Why? Well it is not that I am smarter or a better teacher. Rather, it has everything to do with who I am. As a white man I fit the most common and popular conceptions of authority. I look and sound like a professor is expected to look or sound. Moreover, I am a tall and big man; in part, my students take me seriously because I am physically imposing. In any classroom, I would command authority that other colleagues can easily command simply because of their race and/or gender. But this is especially true in Ethnic Studies and American Studies, fields which demand a critical investigation of privilege and power. Although some students are initially resistant to the idea that a white man could teach a class on race and ethnicity, my location is more often an asset because students presume I can discuss racism and privilege objectively, especially when I implicitly or explicitly implicate myself as an inheritor or beneficiary of racism and patriarchy.
And, through my actions in class I can play a critical role in helping students develop a more critical and inclusive discursive community. I am able to use my position of authority in the classroom and my social location and the authority inherent therein to cultivate a more inclusive dialogue and thereby advocate for underrepresented or silenced groups. As I think many of us know, mediating class discussion is often most challenging when there are a few effusive or dominating students. This dynamic is made more complicated when the effusive or dominating students are openly or vocally resistant to course topics and then clash with students over course topics. Because our public discourse is so quickly swayed or sidelined by men who yell loudly, students are accustomed to letting vocal bullies hold sway in class. I have had many classes in which an individual, resistant student attempted to sidetrack conversation or intimidate their classmates. Or, more often, I have had classes in which the most insightful students were uncomfortable raising their voice because their voices were so often silenced. In those moments my job is to mediate conversation, to open up space for the silenced or ignored voices. I have to use the authority granted by my privilege to create space for those who do not have the same privileges.
I do not want to give the impression that my work in Ethnic Studies and American Studies is spent fighting evil white men and saving students of color and women. In fact, I see much of my work as defined by reaching out to and working with my male students, especially my white male students. Although many are resistant to the ideas presented in my class, I find many male students are receptive to discussing power and privilege and need the space and community to critical engage their own experiences; and, quite frankly, many male students need a masculine role model or mentor. I do not have space to explore this dynamic in depth, but I have found that by opening up and discussing my own location and my own privilege, I encourage male students to see me as a possible mentor or confidant.
(The physical nature of my authority because quite clear to me over this past summer when I taught an online class. In nine years of classroom teaching I have had four or maybe five students complain about the grades they received; in all of those cases the students were rather polite and reserved in broaching the subject. But, in my six-week online class, I had seven students aggressively complain about their grades. In all but one case, the students had either failed to complete or submit an assignment but attempted to lay the blame on me. And, in all cases the students were aggressive and belligerent in demanding that I change the grade; many of the male students became openly hostile and threatening. I can only presume that the students in the online environment felt free to bully and threaten because they had not met me in person. Either the anonymity of e-mail or the lack of a physical presence or, more likely, a combination of the two, enabled the students in their resistance and reluctance to do fair work.)
I have, as I believe this essay indicates, spent a fair amount of time investigating my own location and considering how I can use it to be a better teacher. A large component of this is recognizing that my identity is one with which many of my students are comfortable. I am able to reach resistant students who may not respond to other faculty members. I recognize that a goal of Ethnic Studies and American Studies should be the cultivation of faculty of color and women faculty. As an ally of those groups, I take seriously the work I can do cultivating diversity within the academy; and a large component of that work can be seen as creating space for critical dialogue across the curriculum. Through my work in Ethnic Studies I can help students become more comfortable with diversity and help them build a vocabulary to participate in inclusive discursive communities. And, by consciously using my authority and ability to dominate to counter the ability of others to dominate, I can thereby create space for marginalized, silenced, or intimidated students to raise their voices.
In my next essay I plan on addressing masculinity and pedagogy with a few specific examples from recent courses. I hope to use those examples to discuss the challenging yet crucial role teachers serve as witnesses to pain and violence.
September 4, 2009
The vehemence and viciousness of the health care debate and the onset of the academic year have colluded to raise my typical elevated levels of anxiety and tension to unknown heights. Part of this concern is rooted in the foggy financial outlook: my vocation is threatened with extinction as my access to health care and my family’s security are both facing severe challenges. It’s hard enough to be an under-employed, highly educated father; it’s worse when I am constantly reminded that many of my fellow citizens view my security and health as a liability, as a risk to what they perceive to be their freedoms.
This underlying anxiety and frustration is sadly exacerbated by the viciousness of my brethren, my teachers-in-arms. Perhaps viciousness is the wrong word. Pettiness? Cruelty? I’m not sure the appropriate term, but the return of students to college campuses and the ugliness of public discourse have given my colleagues plenty of opportunity to display a stunning lack of sympathy for the very populations we are expected to help.
Illiteracy and Ignorance;Coping and Compassion
While I cannot speak for all teachers, I would venture that most of us still experience back-to-school jitters. The nervous excitement of the impending new year so common to all of us from our schooldays memories continues to haunt and excite teachers. Even though we relish the summer lull, I think most teachers anticipate the new school year, the excitement of interpreting an old routine for a new audience. It’s exciting to meet new students, try our new lesson plans, and, yes, to be back in school, back in the hallways full of fresh young faces, the names and styles changing, but the experiences and desires and intelligences so very similar. We may work long, hard hours and our rewards may be small, marginal and fleeting; but the joy of teaching is intoxicating and its high is most palpable around Labor Day.
Although teachers are idealistic to a fault, the return of the new academic year also opens the door for the cynical humunculous that sits nittering and chattering in our ears. Teachers can be a nasty lot, full of vinegar brimming out of our frustrated hearts. Much of this meanness is rooted in the legitimate frustrations teachers have with administrators, trustees, and communities. We are asked to do incredible work for mediocre pay and are often have little power over the very communities which are dependent upon our abilities and our hard work. While I cannot and will not address this frustration here, I want to be clear that I share these frustrations and am doing my part to improve the academic workplace.
My subject here is the negativity with which some teachers greet their students, especially students of varying skill levels and levels of engagement. The excitement of the new semester is quickly tempered by the realization that our students are inadequately prepared for the work we expect them to complete. While neither I nor any of my colleagues have had a fully illiterate student, it is not uncommon for students to lack basic critical thinking, reading and writing skills. I am often shocked at the pathetic writing skills of my students.
Perhaps more frustrating is the disregard students often have for required coursework. In my Ethnic and American Studies courses I often grappled with students who clearly did not want to be in class and made their feelings visible through body language and, at times, open challenges of my qualifications or the importance of the material at hand. I know this is a common frustration among my fellow teachers. We know that material we teach is vital and we enjoy it; but we are met with aggressive, at times vicious disregard for the material and our classroom.
I understand my many of my fellow teachers feel disheartened by their work. I understand why many of us become cynical. But what pains me is the easiness with which some teachers allow our frustrations and cynicism to boil over into contempt and nastiness for our students. The return of the school year has brought the annual chorus of teachers lamenting the stupidity, meanness, and vileness of our students; the mockery of student writing or ideas; and the general dismissal of students’ needs.
Like the rare full solar eclipse, this seasonal frustration has come into life just as the irregular, occasional vicious culture wars have come to dominate the political landscapes. This blog was occasioned by my frustration with the level of discourse surrounding the debates over healthcare reform and I am generally disheartened and disgusted by the viciousness with which the extreme fringes of the right wing launch salvos in this latest culture war battle. Within my frustrations with national discourses is a deeper disappointment with the retrograde motion of our collective response to these larger cycles.
In the past few days a number of friends have recommended an online album of pictures of anti-Government and anti-Obama protesters. Posted on Facebook, the images are accessible only if you have a Facebook account. I was able to find an example of the images and a link to the album, which is called “Morons Holding Signs.” The images are troubling. They are evidence of the violent and vicious paranoia that has long defined America and Americans, especially in regards to race and sexuality. And, I think it is important that teachers, especially those of us in composition and American and Ethnic studies work to counter the viciousness and divisiveness of discourse of which these images are but symptoms.
Perhaps it was the simultaneity of this viral photo album and the return of the academic year, but my frustration with these images pales in comparison to my anger at the ways in which those around me have responded to them. The appeal of these images has little to do with the viciousness of sentiments and everything to do with the ignorance and illiteracy of the expression of those sentiments. Based on observing activity on Facebook, the general feedback to these images has been to laugh at and poke fun at the protesters. Because the majority of the photos are of protesters holding signs with poor spelling, poorer grammar, and questionable grasp of basic literacy, most comments on the album ridicule the protesters are ignorant, stupid, uneducated, or simply moronic.
Let me stress that I am deeply troubled by the sentiments presented by these images, just as I am troubled by the woeful preparation our students are given in High School. But it is my firm conviction that we cannot counter the vicious and violent paranoia of our national culture and that we will fail as teachers if we respond to these frustrating circumstances with derision and mockery. Laughing at our students writing may make us feel better in the short run; but it is evidence of an eroded trust and a shallow commitment on our part. And making fun of illiterate protesters may sooth our anger at the direction of discourse; but it will only serve to drive us further and further away from the communities which we serve and for whom we must feel compassion.
Before I move on, let me confess that I am very guilty of the crimes I have just described. I have been known to mock student writing. I have been known to laugh at the beliefs of the fringes of our polity, both the r0ght-wing and left wing extremes. I have given into laughter and bitching as coping mechanisms. This essay is an attempt to correct a behavior in which I am fully implicated. It’s confession and penance.
Community and Compassion go to the Fair and the Banquet Hall
A few weeks ago I went with my family to the Wood County Fair, which is held just a few blocks from my house. We went earlier in the day, before the rides and games had begun, and strolled the midway looking at farm animals and eating the satisfyingly unhealthy food available only at a country fair. While I look forward to some parts of the fair–the milkshakes the local 4-H students make are great; I always like looking at goats and sheep–I usually do not enjoy myself. I am very much a child of the sub/urban landscapes of Arlington, Virginia and I’d much rather walk along a city street than visit the barns and rides of a county fair. I just don’t feel comfortable in such settings
This sense of displacement was heightened by the fact that at the very center of the fair grounds a vendor had set up his portable shop from which he sold car decorations. The selection was mostly made up of stickers for car bumpers and truck windows; the vast majority were pro-gun, pro-rural, anti-urban, and anti-liberal. The vendor’s trailer was easy to find because he had two large Confederate flags flying.
(I won’t digress and follow the obvious tangent:why the hell would someone in Ohio, birthplace of Sherman, Sheridan and Grant, fly Confederate flags?).
Simply understand that I felt very out of place and grumpy with the almost wholly-white crowd at the country fair. This grumpiness was verging into anger when we sat down to rest on a bench underneath a small tree. We were close to the goat barn and a small crowd was dispersing. We had just missed the judging of goats raised by FFA students. As we sat out of the heat, I noticed a young man, a boy really, no older than 12 or 13, who was walking out of the barn leading a goat. The boy had one athletic shoes that looked a size or two too large; black jeans which had been hemmed and were cinched around his waist by an old belt; and a white dress shirt that was 10-12 years out of style. He had a short buzz cut and carried a huge red ribbon in his hand. He’d done well in the show; he hadn’t won first place, but he’d placed. And when his family saw him and began cheering, he stood still as a huge smile came over his face. Whatever his station in life, the poverty of his dress or the provincialism of his community, he had worked hard. And his family’s pride in his success nearly made me cry.
The last time I had that sensation was the summer I taught a class for BGSU’s Upward Bound program. An intensive immersion into college life and academics, Upward Bound is a program for students from underrepresented groups, usually racial/ethnic minorities or people living below the poverty line, who have a chance of being first generation college students. My students that summer were all students in Toledo Public Schools and all but two of them were African-American. At the end of the summer we had a banquet with the parents, at which the students displayed examples of the work they had completed that summer. One group of students had taken a journalism class and had made a small newspaper to demonstrate their writing and editorial skills. I was showing the newspaper to my wife when one of my students came up with her parents. The student was one of my favorites; a kind, hard-working, intelligent young woman who was both very large, though not particularly overweight, and unable to afford new clothes that adequately fit her frame. Her brightness was often overshadowed by the meagerness of her circumstances and the other students discounted her as slow and poor. That night at the banquet, dressed in her nicest clothes, she introduced me to her folks and then showed them her article in the newspaper. And they were oh so proud of her.
The joy and pride her parents clearly felt at their daughter’s work and my students happiness in her parents’ praise were all echoed in the moment outside the goat barn. In both cases, young people who were been born into poverty or near-poverty were given a chance to outshine their meager circumstances and their ill-fitting thrift-store clotes. And their parents, who presumably couldn’t offer much, were so clearly proud of their child.
In many ways, these two young people have little in common. And, in many respects, they bear many of the faults that awaken cynicism in teachers. And, while the social and cultural distance from rural Wood County to urban Toledo is far greater than the 20 geographic miles which seperate them, these two young people face the same economic challenges. Their families and immediate communities are impacted by the same social and economic forces which affect all of Northwest Ohio. And, in their moments of pride, these young people worked through similar paths. Boththecounty fair and Upward Bound are government sponsored and supported programs and without the crucial work of the government neither of these kids would have had the same opportunities.
In both cases, it would be easy to dismiss these kids, to laugh at the paucity of their intellegence, their ignorance. But in doing so, we simply prevent ourselves from feeling compassion for them. And it is compassion that can help us see the commanility that cuts across our communities and find the grounds with which to reform our teaching and improve discourse.
(Unfortunately, we see the differences between them and go on to encourage them to see each other as different. And, while the subject of creating community through diversity training is a subject for another post, it is important to point outthat we ought to consider the ways we teach the histories of race and racialization impact our students.)
What troubles about the cynicism of so many teachers and the cynicism and nastiness of our current discourse is the fundamental lack of compassion, that we fail to see each other as members of one community. I know the temptation to look around and presume I am surrounded by enemies and threats, to presume that my students come from Confederate flag-waving rural enclaves or failing urban schools. But, ever if they do, I need to see within them the same humanity I ask them to see in me. And, until teachers can have the patience to treat their students compassionately, we will be unable to teach our students the same values.
August 29, 2009
The recession’s impact on higher education has been far and wide. As state budgets crumble and personal savings are threatened, the funding for universities and colleges have been hit alongside a reorientation of student and faculty resources. Like many of my fellow aspiring academics, job options have become fewer and further between while class-sizes and professional development funds have withered. And so I find myself with a strong C.V. and only marginal employment. I’ve gone from a comfortable non-tenure track position in an exciting department to working part-time in an equally exciting program. While I couldn’t be happier with my teaching, I am frustrated by my professional station. This frustration has been complicated as I’ve watched close friends and colleagues move on to greener pastures in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Texas. It’s been challenging to tread water while cheering on those who swim away. Or get in a boat and paddle away. No, speed away. In a rocket-shaped motor boat. Made of gold. Am I mixing metaphors?
Regretting Patrick Rothfuss
Watching my good friends’ recent successes pales in comparison to admiration and confusion that has marked rediscovering a friend with whom I had lost touch. In the Spring I reconnected with Pat Rothfuss, a fellow I met in 2000 when we both entered the MA in Literature program in the English Department at Washington State University. Pat came to the Palouse from central Wisconsin and was a site to behold. A solid man of remarkable posture with a beard that was perpetually stuck between close-shaven and wizardly, Pat had spent years as an undergrad studying anything and everything that struck his fancy. To be completely frank, I found him a bit puzzling and rather, well, geeky. He was happy delving into the minutiae of the fantastical and the fey and in our first semester was enthused by a course on Alchemical and Hermetic traditions in Renaissance literature. He saw no reason we couldn’t discuss Tolkien and other fantasist writers in our other seminars and I remember well a seminar in Early American Lit. and his excitement to talk about narratives of first contact through the fantastic. And I, well I had come to grad school to study Hawthorne or John Barth, high on cultural theory and the power of the past. Frankly, I was a little puffed up and failed to see that my own condescension to Pat’s interests masked my own arrogance.
There was also this: Pat brewed mead. He didn’t drink, not that ever saw. He wasn’t a teetotaler; I believe he just didn’t care much for alcohol. But he certainly brewed mead and would happily fill empty wine bottles with his concoctions. He gave me a bottle and I took it home to Virginia to share with my brother over the Christmas holidays. It was rather good and I enjoyed drinking it. I’d like to have a bottle now, in fact. But I had never know a sober person who brewed their own alcohol, especially alcohol as archaic and Teutonic as mead.
There was also this: Pat wrote fantasty novels. When we started grad school he proudly shared that he was working on a huge novel which he might break into a trilogy. Of course, most of the folks in our graduate program had some creative aspirations. I read awful poetry at open mic nights and toyed with an idea for a farcical historical novel. But only Pat openly and confidently described himself as a novelist and only Pat comfortably embraced genre fiction. Pat asked if I’d like to read his novel in progress and, in a decision that I have come to regret for its arrogance, meanness, and confidence, I told him no. I did not think it would be worth my time because, after all, it was a fantasy novel.
This is not to say Pat and I were not friends. In hindsight, he was one of the kindest people I knew in Pullman and I have many fond memories associated with him. But we were not particularly close and we parted ways after graduation, when I returned to Virginia to teach and apply to Ph.D. programs and Pat went back to Wisconsin to teach and write.
When we parted ways Pat he told me that a short excerpt from his novel had won a prize through the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. This minor detail popped into my head when we reconnected on Facebook this past Spring. That prize had opened doors and Pat found an agent and a publisher. And, upon checking out his Facebook page, I learned that the first volume in his trilogy, The Name of the Wind had made the New York Times best-seller list and had been praised by Ursula K. Le Guin, among others.
I was, to be quite frank, flummoxed and confused. “How the hell did Pat get on the Times best-seller list?” I asked myself. “How did he get fancy blurbs and great reviews and legions of fans who come out to see him give readings? And not just in the midwest, but across the nation and in Europe!?” To be quite clear, I was and am very happy for Pat. He is a kind, intellegent and funny man. His success, though, was frustrating.
I convinced myself that Pat had only done so well because he worked in genre fiction. His book might be a great fantasy novel, but it surely isn’t that great.
This summer I found myself in a book store and decided to buy a copy of The Name of the Wind. As I was in the midst of another, longer book and couldn’t tackle it right away I passed it on to my wife. She devoured it in four days and hectored me to read it as soon as possible. I opened it on a Friday afternoon and by Sunday evening had finished. And my lord, is it a good book. It’s a finely told story with a rich sense of the traditions of heroic literature. The narrative devices, the comedic and romantic devices, and the richly detailed and fully realized universe of the narrative reminded me books I have long loved, especially The Sot-Weed Factor and some of John Fowles novels, particularly The Magus and A Maggot. I know little about fantasy or speculative fiction (outside of a childhood love of Star Wars) and so I cannot comment upon its place within those genres. But it is easily one of the most enjoyable books I have read in years.
My respect for and pride in Pat’s accomplishments mask the discomfort and chagrin that have haunted me since I read his novel. When we studied together I had discounted Pat’s ambitions. While I had never openly mocked him I am sure that my disregard for his work was evident. And, surely, his aspirations had been dismissed or mocked by countless friends, teachers, colleagues and acquanitances. “How did Pat do it,” I asked myself.
Well, I can only assume he did it–that he continues doing it–through a combination of persistence and ego. I recall now an autobiographical essay in which John Barth describes his years fresh out of grad school when he taught composition at Penn State and struggled to feed his growing family. In those years he was surrounded by aspiring novelists, friends from Johns Hopkins and colleagues at Penn State, the majority of whom never made it as writers. In accounting for his success and their failure Barth observes that he wasn’t better, smarter or more talented. He simply wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote so more. He kept at it and the persistence paid off. [I ought to have a citation here, but I haven’t one. If memoery serves, the essay is in either The Friday Book or Further Fridays. Barth may make this observation in one of his later, autobigraphically-inclined novels.]
Pat wrote. While most of our cohort, myself included, spent our weekends and some weeknights at the local tavern, Pat was at home writing. And, I presume, he had the same steady work ethic before he came to the Palouse and when he returned to Wisconsin. He was persistent.
And Pat had, and presumably still has, an ego. I do not mean to say he is arrogant. He is kind and convivial and forthcoming. What I mean is that he had a clear sense of himself and his abilities. When I dismissed his work I presume he shrugged it off. He had faith in himself and his abilities and he persisted in his task. My personal fondness for Pat and his novel have become shaded with a deep respect for his persistence and his ego. I regret not getting to know him better and not reading early drafts of his novel when I had the chance. I might have learned something about persistence and ego. And, who knows, he might have named a wool merchant after me.
Complicating Persistence and Ego
I am lucky to have other models of persistence and ego, many within my own family. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother both overcame childhood poverty through strong work-ethics and great faith in themselves. My grandfather was one of six children born to an uneducated Irish-American bricklayer in Washington, D.C. He went on to have a long career in the State Department and the U.S. Navy. His brothers had equally succesful careers as members of the Jesuit order and and in the Foreign Service. My grandmother was born in rural South Carolina and at a young age moved to North Carolina to work in a cotton mill. She was a single-mother who raised six children, among them my father who left their mill house and became a respected administrator at D.C. are prep schools. My grandfather and my grandmother had a firm sense of themselves, a strong ego, and were persistent in improving their lives. My material comfort and my education are possible because of their persistence.
But, as they both raedily admit, my grandfather and grandmother did not simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps. My grandfather had a supportive, caring family and a loving wife. And, as he often pointed out to me, his education would have been impossible without the religious order that ran his parochial school or the encouragement and financial support of the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School and Georgetown University and its law school. And, as a long-serving member of the Naval reserve, my grandfather had access to services and benefits given to veterans of the armed services. Similarly, my grandmother has always pointed to the support offered by the owners of the mill at which she worked; the company provided affordable housing and offered support children of millworkers who went on to college. More importantly, my grandmother credits the spiritual and material supported offered to her by the Baptist church. And although I never heard them acknowledge it, my grandparents benefitted from the historical and economic privileges of whiteness.
Frank Brew was a persistent man with a strong, healthy ego. At ninety years, Flossie Barbee is as strong-willed and proud as she was when she had to scrape together spare change to feed her children. But those strong personal qualities were formed through social support. They were products of their community. And, from what I can gather from his novel and his website, Pat is earnest in his praise for all those who helped him in his path.
Persistence and Ego in the Composition Classroom
I have been thinking a lot about persistence and ego and their value within academia. And while much of this consideration has focused on their impact on my own academic career, I would here like to offer a few thoughts on their place within the composition classroom.
I am fortunate enough to work at a school where the students seem to be hard-working and curious. In the first week of classes I was impressed with my students willingness to take on difficult tasks, to ask hard and toughtful questions, and their general good cheer throughout. In this, I am fortunate.
While the primary mission of my class is to teach students the fundamental practices and processes of academic writing, I hope that I can infuse this work with a commitment to raising students’ senses of persistence and ego. Why do these values matter? In the immediate spaces of academic writing, it is important to teach students to persevere, to work through the challenges of writing and to employ constructively the criticism offered by me and their classmates. The writing process is nothing more than persistence in the face of a composition. Additionally, a healthy ego is important. To become strong writers students must have faith in themselves and their skills. And, they need to know their own weaknesses and learn how to work through them.
But outside the basic tasks of the writing, it strikes me that composition classrooms can be a space in which to form healthy work habits which will translate to persistence and ego in students personal and civic existences. If my students learn to fail and then struggle onward with their essays, they can translate those skills to their lives and, hopefully, their communities. And in developing a sense of their writerly egos they may develop a better sense of how the self operates within society and how crucial it can be for citizens to know themselves and have faith in themselves as citizens.
It is in this last point that the lessons of American and Ethnic Studies comes to bear on my composition classroom. In addition to teaching students about the diversity of social and cultural experiences within and without the U.S., American and Ethnic Studies also teaches them to see how our existences are socially constructed. American and Ethnic Studies (and, I ought to add, Women’s/Gender Studies) take seriously the elucidation of social location as central to individual experience. While the composition classroom cannot focus on the histories and present states of justice and injustice, they can take the ethos of A/E/W/G studies and apply them to the way we teach writing. By teaching students to see writing as part of larger processes and to teach students to work collectively, we may be able to help students have persistence and healthy egos, which can make them stronger citizens committed to building their communities.
Disinclined by temperment from public displays of political or cultural emotion and painfully aware of the repurcussions that can be visited upon those who place themselves in a public setting, yet fundamentally disturbed and endlessly frustrated by the state of public and private discourse across our nation, I begin this journal with both trepidation and purpose. And while the viciousness of our national discourse, especially those discourses surrounding important political and cultural issues, discourages me from raising my voice, it is this very viciousness that I will attempt to address and work against.
My immediate reference for this introductory post is the ongoing spectacle of impassioned, violent dissent foisted at Democratic representatives and senators during “Town Hall” meetings. While I support healthcare reform and hope we achieve a healthcare system which meets the needs of all regardless of their income or citizenship status, my dismay at the ongoing spectacle of the Town Halls is not the presence of dissent nor is it the quickness with which so many dismiss any public or socialized option for vital services such as healthcare. Dissent is protected and ought to be respected and we need a full airing of the costs and challenges of healthcare reform.
What disturbs me, chills me, and shakes me awake at night is the negativity of the discourse, the violence and isolating quality of so much that is offered forth in public venues. I do not mean to suggest that we need bury our passions in a public setting. Nor do I expect that public discourse be a dry recitation of facts and figures.
Far too often public discourse employs phantoms of dissent and flames of passion to incite spectacles which reassure us of the intractablity of the situation. And these spectacles are most visible when memes resonate in contradictory ways and driving us into stolidity or vehement agression. There are countless examples of destructive gestures made in Town Halls with which we are all example. The jokes about “lynching” the democrats. The evocation of Nazism and the Holocaust. The parading of guns and the whispering of death threats. These moments freeze me, shock me, disturb me. They make me shake with anger as a heavy weight of fear and frustration overcomes me. I lose the ability or the patience to speak clearly and constructively. I lose sight of my beleifs and my patience. I cease being a contributer to or dissenter within discourse and either shut down or flame anew with angered passion, feeding the spectacle.
I recognize, of course, that polemic and agitprop are deployed to elicit that reaction, among others. I get angry and froth. Other become excited, energized, the base awakens. And, I am fully aware that some form of polemic will exist and needs to exist.
My underlying frustration, however, is the seepage of rancorous, divisive rhetorics into most public discourse. We’ve lost the ability to solve problems–to move forward in positive, constructive ways–because we have lost the ability to talk with each other.
How can we reshape discourse and thereby move society forward to a place in which the common good is both the ways, the means, and end purpose of our decision making? More importantly, how can our educational institutions help craft a more inclusive community and a more inclusive discourse? I want to use this space to consider how we can respond to and refashion public discourse through education, specifically how we can use the spaces of the composition and cultural/American studies classroom to form stronger, more inclusive discursive communities.
Although I have strong feelings regarding political economy, I do not structure this space as a venue for left/liberal proselytizing or organizing. Rather, I want to take seriously inclusive, productive discourse which solves problems by hearing the voices of all and serves the common good. I have named this space “For the Commonweal” and would like to use this forum to offer commentary and invite dialogue which will seek to examine and pursue an inclusive, progressive discourse in which the greater good is the motivating force and the purposive end.
This will not be a “political” blog. That is, it will not be concerned with public policy or economic challenges. Nor will it be a social blog. I will not be considering or engaging in armchair social speculation. Rather, this will be a blog rooted in and often about pedagogy. My entries will draw heavily from my observations of public and mediated discourse and will consider them as evidence of the discourses which impact our students and our classrooms, to say nothing of ourselves. More importantly, it will reflect upon and reference my own work in the classroom teaching composition and American Studies as well as my work researching race and communal identity in the cultures of the postwar U.S. South.
A small point of clarification: I recognize that Commonweal is the name of a longstanding Roman Catholic publication. While the importance of Commonweal’s liberal voice in the church community merits my admiration in equal measure to my respect for the Catholic faith in which I was raised and the deep commitment to social and environmental justice of many Catholics, including those in religious orders and lay people, I do not mean to suggest affiliation or attachment to the journal.