Latest Event Updates
I’m here, in Philadelphia, attending sessions and noticing the way even the most micro discussions are informed by the wider historical moment. And I’m interested in the way we need to think at both levels as scholars—we need to spend time figuring out what we do on an everyday basis and why we do it. And we need to figure out how we affect and are affected by the most pressing issues of the day.
On the micro-level, we parse out our everyday professional behaviors:
What do we teach in a particular class? How do we teach? What’s the meaning of a particular text? What does it mean to be a scholar?
Slightly larger points of conversation address departmental identities:
What is the relationship between literary studies and writing studies? What about cultural studies, media studies, digital humanities, and so on? What kind of curriculum makes sense?
And still larger concerns center on universities, where we are fighting for survival:
Where have all the English majors gone? How do we get them back? How do we resist the defunding of the humanities? How do we support contingent faculty?
And then there are the national concerns:
What’s happening with the delegitimization of the humanities? The election of Trump? The censoring of faculty? Racism? sexism? anti-immigrant rhetoric? gay rights? (this list goes on…)
And the international:
The movement to the right in the U.S. and beyond. The boycott of Israeli universities, which was not supported by the MLA Delegate Assembly.
And the most pressing, the global:
It all matters. Some of it matters more urgently [climate change].
Even the seemingly tiniest questions about what a text means implicate the ways we understand the world and the ways we behave.
An analogous way of saying it: The issue of climate change trumps Trump. But we gotta pay attention to Trump because his election is bound up with climate change & SO MUCH MORE. The same is true of what we read, write, teach, say, don’t say. It’s all bound up.
We consistently wonder if we are rearranging the deck chairs. Perhaps. It may also be that, together, we are taking up oars, directing ourselves and others away from the iceberg.
And it is more likely that neither metaphor is apt. It may be that we are doing what we will inevitably do because we’re human. We do our best with the situation as we experience it, and we may not understand the urgency until the sinking is upon us. We may act in time, or we may not. Some will fall. Hopefully not all.
When I say, “some will fall,” I’m talking about scholars who will not find sustainable careers, majors that will be discontinued, departments that will be underfunded or disbanded, universities that will close. And I’m also talking about entire communities of people who will fall as we fail to address climate change.
As we—scholars here at the MLA—move forward, listening to one another and pausing to consider what we believe, what we teach, how we do it, and why we do it—it’s not everything. But it is something. At the very least, our smallest questions are consistently engaged with the most pressing issues of our time. We will not solve it all. But we will try try try to do a small piece of it.
The driveway stretches from the garage to the street
my trudging for shovel
for the best way to begin
I scoop from the garage, close to the right side of the drive,
feeling with the shovel’s blade
for the place where blacktop meets grass.
I uncover the edge of the path—narrow,
the width of two shovel horizons,
leading around the side of the house.
I turn my back on the driveway, let the repetition
lead me until I’ve cleared my way to the recycle bin
and turn back.
From the garage, moving outward,
crossing the driveway in short diagonals:
Arms, legs, shoulders, back—I bend,
lift, push out or flip over—
again and again, pausing to strategize, to see the
white, the mounds, the distance, the work.
I measure what I’ve done, what I’ve left to do.
Relish the challenge.
Ignore the layer of white hiding the rectangle of black that I already cleared,
ignore the startling snowflakes,
ignore the stark trees in stoic relief,
try to ignore the guilt I feel
but it comes to me in metaphors
If I don’t shovel now, it will be more difficult later.
The day will warm, the rain will come, the snow will grow heavy.
And it feels good—to lift, to move, to see what I’ve done, even though there’s always more to do.
I head inside, open my laptop, and
write a poem when I should be grading.
But I’ve written the path to the recycle bin now, am ready to head back to the drive,
to clear my way to the street, telling myself to relish
the startling snowflakes, the stark trees, the work.
at Idlewild Amusement Park with my young daughter
Callie and I start with the Spider.
Our first twisty-spin-and-sudden-dip around,
my body remembers this feeling and relaxes
into the wild ride and the wide blue sky.
But Callie is a crunched “C” atop the seat,
back forward, head down, fists clenched
around the safety bar, arms and legs
braced rigid against the movement.
My right arm finds its way around her in the
swooping chaos, draws her to me;
my left hand releases the safety
bar loosely grasped and holds her
left arm firmly.
I am an out of control cocoon.
Spin madly with me, my Monkey Girl.
Laugh and scream with me in
Feel my arms around you and feel safe.
Don’t notice that I’m holding onto nothing—
Nothing except you.
first drafted July 2010
I wrote up my reaction to the presidential election from my perspective as a mom of two politically-aware teens, but my response to the entire election season has been shaped just as much—or more—by my work as a teacher.
Trump and his campaign betray the values I hold most dear as a teacher.
The values are simple.
- I care about careful research, evidence-based arguments, and appropriate communication.
- I care that every student in my class is treated with respect and knows that their voice matters—that there is room for each and every one of them to speak and to be heard.
During the election season, I saw both values betrayed on an everyday basis, and every time each of these values was betrayed, I felt like a failure. I felt like my vocation was meaningless. I felt like the work I try to do every time I interact with students was not valued by anyone outside of campus. I might as well be moving an ocean a spoonful of water at a time.
Often, I couldn’t even articulate why I was so full of angst and frustration and anger. I just felt it, over and over, in debate after debate after debate after debate (there were a lot of them! I’ve been paying attention since the primary debates: Yikes.); in Facebook post after Facebook post; in news report after news report.
I still feel betrayed and frustrated and disappointed.
But I have to be fair and tell the other side of it. Do you know what has come of me working to hear students? It’s been a privilege. They have taught me so much.
One of my students told me after the semester was over that she had been homeless. I have become a kinder person since then because I learned that I could never really know what was going on in another person’s life.
I’ve had students tell me about sexual assault and eating disorders and escaping from a cult. Each and every story shaped the way I think and respond to others. I’ve learned from students who are funny and wise and sarcastic. One student loved awkward situations, and I still enjoy my awkward moments a bit more because of listening to her.
Have you noticed that I haven’t even mentioned paper topics? Oh, if you had the opportunity to read all the ideas I have read—it’s tough to imagine if you’re not a teacher yourself! but I have learned about so many topics that my students have spent time researching that my brain is overly full and I don’t blame myself at all when I cannot remember a single thing anymore without writing it down.
And then there are the backgrounds. My former students are from so many parts of the world that I cannot even name them all. And I haven’t even taught in diverse schools. Even in the mostly-white universities where I have taught, I encounter people who are so different from me that I feel privileged to learn with them, to laugh with them, to grow with them.
When I feel angry about this election season, it’s partly because values I hold dear have been betrayed. And it’s also because these students—and these former students—whom I respect and often love have also been betrayed. I read about their fear on social media. I read their stories of their children. I read their activist calls to do better and stand strong.
I wonder about the people who post about immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims or poor people or transgender people or black criminals. Yes, I am connected with many people on Facebook who post things I consider offensive. I wonder: Do these people simply not know people from diverse backgrounds? I cannot imagine that they would say such things if they knew my students, even if they knew them a little bit. I don’t unfriend these people because I want to hear what they think. Sometimes I address their offensive remarks. Sometimes I have been unable to do so, usually because I am so angry that I do not know how to speak effectively.
So. On that note.
As I move forward into this post-election world, I cannot remain silent in the face of decision-making that is bigoted and oppressive. I cannot sacrifice the people I care about in that way. But I will try to speak up in ways that are respectful of others—even others with whom I disagree—and I will work to find common ground. That’s not because I’m patient or understanding, because right now I’m not. It’s because I think it’s the only kind of communication that actually has integrity and hope attached to it.
I will also speak up against decisions that ignore careful research and clear evidence. (Climate change, I’m talking to you!) We gotta be vigilant about addressing global environmental issues. We can’t be lazy or rely on the manipulative propaganda that populates so much of our news feeds. We gotta do the work and hear the answers, even when they’re tough to hear, even when they challenge us to change in ways that might be uncomfortable.
There’s more. I know there’s more. But that’s what I’ve processed so far. I know who I am as an educator. And for me, the classroom has never been about walls.
On the morning of Tuesday, 8 November 2016, I put on a symbolic outfit and posted my #ImWithHer enthusiasm on Twitter and Facebook.
But the rest of the day was characterized more by worry than excitement. After work, I stopped at home for my voting card and brought my daughter Callie with me to the polling place, but my jubilance from the morning had disappeared. I was physically sore from tension, and a headache was threatening to fully invade at any moment.
I went to bed earlier than my teen kids, both of whom are very politically aware. Jace, age 14, is a fan of Paul Ryan, and in this election he hoped for a Clinton win because he couldn’t support Trump. Callie, age 17, fully supported Clinton as I did.
I woke at midnight to a text from Jace:
I went into Jace’s room and told him it wasn’t over yet. I looked at the results at that point and I held out hope, but Jace is on top of things, and he knew that Trump was going to win before I did. He punched his bed frame in anger at the American populace and vowed that he would run for office one day. I reassured him that it would all be okay and he went to sleep.
An hour later, I was holding Callie as she cried and worried about Roe v. Wade. She’s 17. She wants to own her own body. I don’t fucking blame her. And I puzzle at the women I know who had abortions—who supported their friends through abortions—and voted Republican.
I promised Callie that, no matter what, it would be all right.
As I spoke to my kids, I wasn’t sure if I was lying to them, but I knew 2 things.
- My kids have far less to worry about than many do. They really will be all right.
- They would never be “all right” again. In this moment, they were experiencing a terrible awakening. They were recognizing that the world sometimes completely sucks. They saw that someone who repeatedly said mean things and lied publicly could be fully supported by a huge percentage of the population. And because they are the kids they are—very well-informed and with strong opinions—they saw far more in the election results, and it was all disappointing.
I told my husband Scot that he needed to be good to the kids because they were upset, and I told him I was also devastated. Scot is conservative, and he didn’t tell me how he voted, but he did not support Clinton and probably voted for Trump. He gave me space to grieve.
I went downstairs and stayed awake until 4:00am falling apart by myself.
Before I fell back asleep, I knew what I would say to Callie and Jace. I decided they needed to hear about my life philosophy, developed when I was a teen when I suddenly realized that there was more pain in the world—sometimes more pain in a single person’s life—than could ever be addressed adequately. And I wasn’t even thinking about pain that results from natural causes. Thinking only about the pain of what people do to other people….it’s overwhelming.
I don’t know what sparked this awareness way back when I was a teen. But it made me wonder:
How do I respond?
If I couldn’t fix things and couldn’t take away the pain, I saw only two possible choices. I could either lie down and mourn or I could stand up and do my best to experience joy and be kind despite the pain.
I chose the latter, of course, and I really do enjoy an incredible amount of life, like singing in the car with the sunroof open and rolling down hills and eating dark chocolate with salted caramel (but not all those at the same time, which would be both weird and dangerous).
I try to be kind. Kindness is an interpersonal thing, but it’s also about activism—it’s about standing up for others. And I also admit that I cry on a regular basis, maybe because the pain is always there.
I told this to the kids in some form or another, though I might’ve left out the part about why I cry so easily.
I don’t think they even paid much attention when I was able to talk with them. They are probably sorting out election disillusionment in their own ways, and their ways are probably smarter and wiser than mine.
But knowing what I would tell them was healthy for me. My election-day headache returns whenever I think too much about what is coming because I feel powerless and frustrated and worried. But I cannot remain in that space consistently.
There are only two choices. Dwell in the place of overwhelming pain, which helps no one. Or stand up and go on despite the pain, which doesn’t make everything better for everyone all the time. But it does make some things better, for some people, for some of the time.
So, mostly, I stand.
Background (you can skip this & scroll down if want to quickly see what the students got up to)
As I watched the election results roll in and found myself unable to sleep in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I worked on preparing my Wednesday night class for a course called Gender, Race, and Class. We were finishing the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave and students were beginning to work on creative projects.
And in the face of the election, I knew I needed to give these students opportunities to engage the ideas of Little Bee (and the ideas of the whole course, really) without relying solely on class discussion. I needed to give the opportunities to be creators during our class, to respond actively, to have the power to interpret and to express.
I didn’t really articulate those ideas to myself at the time. It was just instinct. But I thought about a lesson plan I learned from Dr. Lauren Esposito and decided that would work for a good chunk of the class, and the students thought it would be good to share what they did online, so here I am. (They really want Chris Cleave to see their work because he retweeted me when I quoted from Little Bee on election night. But I’m glad if others see the student work as well!)
What the students did: The process (you can still scroll down more if you’re all about the tableaux…)
- Each person in class reread the same passage and marked words or phrases that contributed to the impact of the scene.The passage is fairly early in the book. The child, Charlie, is dressed in a Batman
costume and jumps into the grave of his father and desperately tries to pull open the coffin. Charlie’s mom, Sarah, narrates this part of the novel, and she is held back when her instinct is to go to her son. It is a dramatic scene because both characters break in some way at this point.
- The students gathered in groups of 4 or 5 and shared what they underlined in order to develop a single sentence that would get at the heart of the passage.
- The students found a way to enact the sentence by creating a tableau—a still scene—in which everyone participated, either as a narrator of the sentence or as part of the scene.
- Each group had a turn to share the tableau and read the “caption”—that is, the group’s sentence about the scene. The rest of the class then interpreted the scene by identifying figures and emotions and the significance of certain body postures. The group enacting the tableau added to the interpretive work of the rest of the class if necessary.
- The class had a discussion about how this activity either helped or hindered us in processing the novel. The overwhelming response was that it helped. Students appreciated the way their individual interpretations of the passage grew and stretched in a variety of directions as they talked with small-group members and then with the entire class via the tableaux.Students made connections to ways the themes in this scene played out in other parts of the novel. And these connections were brilliant, far beyond what I could’ve anticipated—acting versus holding back, the battle between one’s own priorities and societal expectations, looking at what is difficult to look at, hearing another’s anguish, feeling powerless, responding to another’s pain.
The experience was richer than what I expected. I don’t think the tableaux and captions below capture the class very well, actually, because so much of the richness was in the conversations that took place before and after these enactments. But maybe it was the enactments that allowed the conversations to happen.
What the students did: The tableaux
It is hard to be the first to help with something as complex as a child first experiencing death.
As one continues life, it becomes harder to overcome challenges and one loses grasp of one’s own world and gains the cold truth of reality.
The discovery of death by a child invokes horror, takes away innocence and invincibility, is worse than death itself, and can break your heart for the rest of your life.