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

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.

 

Escaping ASA

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.

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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.

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.

Looking Ahead

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.

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.

Confession; Penance

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.

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.