Wednesday, May 10, 2017

English Majors Save the World!

The following blog is my address at the English major’s honors convocation at the University of Tennessee on May 10, 2017. If you had seen them, if you had taught them, if you knew them, I believe you would agree with me that English majors will save the world. For the record, all the English majors answered yes to the first poll question, and in response to the second, all the devoted parents laughed nervously and only one raised her hand. This only made me love them more. I got a little verkempt at the end.
In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator imagines defending her own readers against the charge that they are wasting their time reading novels:
“And what are you reading, Miss?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.”
I teach Jane Austen, and I also work on Restoration and 18th-century literature, but I have recently spent a little more time doing research in the 21st century as a way to help me understand what to tell my fantastic students about what we are all doing here. Specifically, how and what do English majors do in the world? And the news is good. But first, let me ask, how many people here have been teased about being an English major, including having to answer the question “so what are you going to do? Teach?”* And how many parents here were at least a little concerned when your student “came out” to you as an English major?** Yes, yes, it is true, we like big books and we just can’t lie. And yes, it’s true that we know the difference between their, they’re, and there. (That’s not as good a joke as Derrida’s infamous “différance” address, in which he told his French audience that meaning in language comes from both difference and deferral, which sound exactly the same in French, but still, I know you get it.) And yes, sometimes we have been silently correcting your grammar. All joking aside, though, I’m here to tell you that all those people who were teasing you about being an English major were wrong. Very wrong. Just a few years out from graduation, English majors do as well in overall employment stats as math and computer science majors, and better than business majors, according to a Georgetown survey of recent college graduates. We also know that English majors get jobs that can’t be outsourced, jobs based around human interactions, critical thinking, and communication. CEOs like Bracken Darrell of Logitech are pleading for more English majors. Law schools love you all. And the journalism firmament is full of English major stars: Barbara Walters, Grant Tinker, Bob Woodward, and Andrea Mitchell, to name a few. And we win, because, Emma Watson.
So congratulations! Congratulations for seeing beyond the STEM mania of our age, which has been with most of you from the cradle. Congratulations on taking the time to read deeply and broadly, to cultivate yourselves as writers, and to engage with the astonishing array of human experience available to us through novels, essays, poems, blogs, and plays. By spending your B.A. this way, you just made one of the most economically savvy decisions you could have made in an age when we have to seek “robot-proof” jobs. You all have the soft skills that employers want. You’ll start companies we haven’t even thought of yet. You’ll write the scripts, video games, business plans, web sites, and novels of the future. And yes, hopefully sooner rather than later, you will get paid for it!
But wait, there’s more. You may not have thought about it this way, but by being an English major, you are also participating in one of the most urgent, life-giving, and promising projects of our age, something that goes beyond employment or financial success. I’m calling it the project of deep literacy. It involves listening carefully, thinking clearly, and writing with grace and honesty. As my students will tell you, I believe that English majors are going to save the world. I say it often, unapologetically, and without irony. And with the rest of my time today, I’m going to tell you exactly how English majors are going to save the world. Feel free to tweet the instructions at #utkenglish.
English majors will save the world because they write beautifully. Writerly elegance—the capacity to take someone’s breath away with a beautiful phrase, which Alexander Pope described as the ability to say “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”—is not about being decorative. It’s about bringing clarity, truth, and grace to the act of communication. It’s also about being honest. George Orwell argued in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Euphemism, phraseology, and inflated style, he argues, defend the indefensible by distracting us from matters of great concern. Orwell believed that thought could corrupt language, and that language could corrupt thought. In an age of “alternative facts,” it’s hard to disagree. But the creative and honest use of language creates the conditions for what Benedict Anderson called an imagined community, a group of people who share common dreams, who talk about the future, who communicate. In our age of fracture, when talking heads shout from their virtual boxes, we know we have a crisis on our hands. Political scientists may be able to tell us what went wrong, but it’s up to the poets, the essayists, the screenwriters, and all of us who care about clear, meaningful communication to give us some stories we can share, to model meaningful conversations, to check our facts and then speak the truth in love. Who knows? Maybe some linguist in this room will find a way to communicate with actual aliens and change the course of human history; or, maybe the movie Arrival was a parable about the transformational act of reading and listening well, the everyday miracle of language that can bring parties from the brink of war to the path of understanding.
Next, English majors will save the world because they are cultivating their capacity for empathy. Every time you read a novel, a poem, an essay, or a play, you engage with the idea of another consciousness, which serves as a cognitive spur to the radical idea Eve Sedgwick made her first axiom: that people are different from one another. Blakey Vermule recently argued in a book called Why We Care About Literary Characters that fictional characters
are the greatest practical-reasoning schemes ever invented. We use them to sort out basic moral problems or to practice new emotional situations. We use them to cut through masses of ambient cultural information. Our eternally premodern brains have simply not caught up to the speed and complexity of the vast moving world—so we use them in place of statistics as tools to muddle through.
The different reactions, choices, and feelings to which we become privy as readers don’t lead us to despair about our differences. Instead, we learn to celebrate them as what makes the story. That Iago is not Othello, that Gulliver is not Emma, that Sula is not Beowulf, and that Plath is not Wordsworth are all wonderful things to realize. And once we do realize it, we would not level their differences. Instead, we extend ourselves to meet them, not to strip out their complexities but to revel in them. And I realize I am breaking that first law of the New Criticism, treating a fictional character like a real person, identifying with them, imagining myself to be them. But this unwritten law, like the Prime Directive on Star Trek, was a rule meant to be broken. That imaginative identification turns out to be better than an HR course. It trains us to relate to people, to sort inferences, reactions, motivations, and choices. It is also the gateway to taking joy in our shared humanity, joy in the wonder of communication.
Finally, English majors will save the world because they are the masters of time. In the musical Hamilton, characters repeatedly ask Alexander Hamilton “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” English majors write like they’re running out of time, but they read like they own mountains of the stuff. You have rediscovered slow time in an age of instant gratification because you read. And by reading, you have cultivated your powers of attention, your patience, your own interiority. You know how to code-switch; you are digital natives who think fast, who move between tasks, and who are quite literally wired differently than people 50 years your senior. Critic Katherine Hayles argues that you can manage both “hyper and deep attention” in your reading and cognitive styles. You know how to concentrate, slow down, and read for details, but you also know how to meme, recombine, and think about networks of relations. These hard-won skills mean that you have the chance to live a life in the digital age that is not consumed by digital distraction. And here, I must confess my own susceptibility to the imbalance that faces us all, which my students already know, after watching me screech into my classroom, especially this semester, while I was also working on the CBT’s The Busy Body, a 1709 comedy by Susanna Centlivre that could have been named for me. I was often fresh from the email avalanche, or from my own online search for a video clip to show you, or from skimming a new essay from an online journal, or conferring on skype with my co-editors, or after getting a little lost in the digital Jane Austen manuscript archive. I get it; we live in a world that’s not paced for long 18th-century novels. But on the days when my digital distraction threatened to overcome my better angels and that precious, kairotic orientation to slow time, you all saved me. You did it by reading with me, by parsing lines of Rochester’s scandalous rage at authority, or by admiring the cool calculation of John Dryden’s couplets (Dryden who, according to Samuel Johnson, found the English language brick and left it marble). You did it by opening Pride and Prejudice to marvel at the precision of Elizabeth Bennet’s comebacks to Lady Catherine, that “obstinate, headstrong girl’s” refusal to be intimidated. Together, we got lost in it, and we watched the literary Davids of the world slay Goliaths with a few well-aimed words.
Inscribed on the tombstone of John Keats, the great Romantic poet, is the sentence: “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats captured the ephemeral nature of our existence. We do not live forever; we will pass and be forgotten with the rest; we are mortal. But we also have words, and, with them, we leave our mark on the world in more ways that we will ever know; in Keats’s case, those words about the liquid impermanence of life were written in stone. Perhaps it was a twee, precious joke, but it worked. The sentence is still there. And the world knows his name, as it does Alexander Hamilton’s, Virginia Woolf’s, Ta-Nehisi Coat’s, William Shakespeare’s. Maybe soon, it will know your name, too. Write your way out.
Again, congratulations. Congratulations on making your life a powerful counter-argument to the cynical and demoralizing voices of our age, and congratulations on finding each other along the way. I am so, so glad to know that you are heading out there. History has its eyes on you.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Really Bad Friday


Good Friday, the Christian holiday with the searingly ironic name, is a theatrical affair in my church. We sit in an ever-darkening sanctuary, reading aloud the story of how a political radical, a teacher, and a pacifist in an age of empire got caught between his enemies and the state, faced a show trial, and then a grisly torture death. Crucifixion was a punishment Rome regularly used against political foes as well as petty criminals. It always flummoxes me when Christians emphasize the exceptionalism of Jesus’s crucifixion. In fact, it was a common-as-dirt strategy used by the empire to publicly humiliate challengers. Much like lynching, it instilled fear, divided communities, and drew crowds.
So on Good Friday, we tell the story of one particular crucifixion that happened during one particular Passover. It includes the shame of those whom fear overwhelmed into betrayal; those who traded their decency for the illusion of more power and safety; those who abused their offices and those who encouraged them to do so; and those left to watch it all through their tears, feeling helpless before the military regime now occupying their home. This is our liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, which means public service. We tell stories in public as a public service. Stories that remind us just how terrible people can be when they are anxious about their place in the power structure. Good Friday stories are not about winning; they are about loss, division, scapegoating, and being driven by fear. And as we tell them, the lights go out. First those already dimmed overhead; then, one by one, the candles; then the last pillar, the Christ candle, marched out by a somber priest who slams the back door so hard it makes everyone jump. But this is not a drill. It is not a rehearsal. It is happening.
I haven’t blogged since right before the election (“Dear …..”), my 11th-hour reach across the aisle bid to consider relationships beyond the blue and red feed. See how well that worked? After, when I tried to write, my pen only poured out anger and pain until the ink gathered into pools of despair. I didn’t know what to do, but I was pretty sure we didn’t need any more of that on the interwebs. Besides, I didn’t know what story to tell, or how to make sense of the story I found myself in. The Friday after the election at the grocery store, I felt like I was in a zombie movie. To each face I wondered “are you…?” Would you hurt me for your gain? Lock me up? Betray? Exterminate? Crucify? I was a stranger in my own country, living in occupied territory. I stumbled through 2016, alternately cursing my naiveté and hoping I’d wake up from the nightmare. I found little things: a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” t-shirt; an “I Can’t Keep Quiet” pickup choir; de rigueur FaceBook venting; my students, who give me hope every day; putting my representatives on speed dial. I changed grocery stores and now make a point of small talk and hugging cashiers. Then, I threw myself into making a play (already on the schedule when Meryl told us what to do with our broken hearts). For me, it was equal parts research, escape, survival, therapy, and public service. The Busy Body, a 1709 comedy by the now mostly unknown Susanna Centlivre, gave us all some desperately needed laughs, many at the expense of Sir Francis Gripe, a grabby, greedy, oversexed old man with big hair. Sometimes, history falls in your lap. It was glorious.
But sometimes, the story gets dark, and you can’t just ignore it. People and reefs and species die and they don’t come back from the dead. This year, for me, Easter, particularly in its commercialized, pastel, sticky-sweet form, feels too much like what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, distracting us with an empty “It’s phenomenal; you’re going to love it.” Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis a month before their regime fell, believed in resurrection and the power of Easter, but I think this year he’d be on my side. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still holding out for rebirth, spring, new life. But the darkness around us is deep.
 After Jesus was on the cross but not yet dead, the same mob that had just colluded with the authorities to get him up there wanted to make a correction. They asked Pilate to change the sign above his head (allegedly written in 3 languages) from “king of the Jews” to “He who said he was king of the Jews.” Pilate’s reply, “what I have written, I have written,” was both nonchalant and exactly to the point. You see, Pilate didn’t give a shit about what they wanted because he didn’t have to. The Romans already controlled the discourse: what got written, which bodies lived or died, which would suffer and which would luxuriate. They were the champions of law and order, the leaders of Western civilization, and they made the rules. Jerusalem was their town now, and they didn’t have to put up with some radical riling up the masses. They could just crucify him and shut him up. It was all perfectly legal, a trial and everything. Besides, no one will ever remember, and his rattled, loser followers will never get their story together.
The scale of the struggle over who tells the American story is overwhelming, more than any one person can manage, so I’m focusing on the stories about higher education, vouchers, and education funding. The carefully scripted and stoked rage at government in general and public education in particular (“broken,” “crooks,” “failing”) was crafted by those in power who do not want people to ask too many questions. A well-educated electorate might begin to parse their news sources and notice how they’re being played by a system fed (for now) by low wages and crushing personal debt; by oil executives looking at profits over public welfare; or by powerful insurance companies whose incentive is money, not healing. Those with less or a lesser education also tend not to vote. Civics at the high school level, dubbed the “quiet crisis in education” by the not-exactly-liberal Sandra Day O’Connor, has been all but ignored; consider whose interests this neglect and cynicism serves. Furthermore, if you twist the story of America to say that corporations are people, and that their rights are violated by campaign finance reform, environmental protections, or banking regulations; that American values are only those of capital and that greed is good; that immigrants and poor people are the problem; if you make the bottom line sacred and self-evident, you might get people to identify with the empire and betray themselves and their children’s futures. In this landscape, racism, misogyny, and homophobia are easy triggers, and scapegoats are plentiful. Who wants to be identified with weakness, especially when the powerful mock it? By contrast, an education broadens views, recovers disappeared histories, encourages empathy, and fosters critical thinking in ways that are inconvenient for those in power. The history of slavery in the U.S; the scientific reality of melting ice caps; the alarming consolidation of wealth in the hands of the very few—these stories may not serve the current empire, but they are true and the fight to tell them is coming to a school board or legislature near you. You better get down there. This is not a drill.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

#Calmdownhaveacookie

Christmas under attack at UT?! Christmas parties outlawed?!? This would be alarming, if any of it were true. Recently, right wing pundits and elected officials have been making hay out of a backwater section of the UT website, trolled by a student reporter at the University of Notre Dame and then falsely reported out to Fox News as university “policy.”

I can’t emphasize enough how much of a non-issue this was on campus before outside muckraking groups made it one. As a matter of reading comprehension, it’s worth noting that the website page begins with the sentence “The university does not have an official policy regarding religious and cultural décor and celebration in the workplace.” The website subsequently offers suggestions on how to handle the beautiful desire many of us have to celebrate with our colleagues at official UT functions at the end of the year when we know that not everyone is Christian. The guidelines are about workplace (note, workplace) parties that need to include folks in departments and units who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and of many other faiths.  If I were working in Abu-Dhabi or Jerusalem and my office had an end-of-year party that was all about Ramadan or Hannukah, or if my office sent out Ramadan or Hannukah greeting cards, I might feel a little awkward or unwelcome, even if it was the dominant tradition there. An office party is very different from being invited to a party at someone’s home, church, or other organization. It should be welcoming to all, a laudable goal in an age of threats, profiling, refugees, and mistrust. What if, for one day out of the year, we could leave that all behind?

So, here’s a little quiz.  True or false:
  1. UT made Christmas parties illegal.  FALSE.  The University, and I quote, “does not have an official policy regarding religious and cultural décor and celebration in the workplace.”  That is a fact. 
  2. No one can have a Christmas party at UT.  FALSE. A short list of officially recognized groups that recently had Christmas parties includes Tyson House Lutheran/Episcopal Campus Ministry, Beta Upsilon Chi, AOII, Kappa Delta, Kappa Sig, Gamma Sigma Sigma (and most Greeks, I think), and plenty of others.
  3. You get in trouble for wishing someone Merry Christmas at UT.  FALSE. In fact, I routinely wish people Merry Christmas, I was wished “Merry Christmas” at the door of the Clarence Brown Theatre, on my way in to see one of the TWO Christmas shows UT is currently performing (get tickets while you can), and I see “Merry Christmas” signs up in many places.
  4. Student organizations and other groups routinely host Christmas parties.  TRUE. Joyfully, absolutely, demonstrably true.  See. #2. Ask someone who is actually at UT.
  5. The University is currently performing two Christmas plays, has light string Christmas trees on top of buildings, UT-themed Christmas ornaments, and Christmas trees in many offices, including the office of  Chancellor Cheek and the Vice-Chancellor for Diversity. TRUE.  Just come down and take a look.

You might, at this point, justifiably ask why all the fuss? What is going on? My best guess is the amygdala.  Let me explain. The amygdala is part of the brain (the limbic system, to be more specific) that regulates a few different responses, but especially, fear. It’s pretty fascinating. The amygdala tends to be larger in males (congratulations, guys) and definitely can be conditioned to respond with more and more of the fight or flight response, which is very useful if you are fighting a saber-toothed tiger but not so useful when your hard drive crashes or you are being manipulated by a news network trying for ratings in a 24/7 news cycle. Unfortunately, when it starts firing, our higher cognitive functions, the part of the reasoning brain that keeps us grounded, can start to go “offline,” a process that neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel explains in this article and video. Once this happens, we literally can’t think straight; we flip our lids.

We live in anxious, troubled times. There are real threats to our collective safety, food supply, and general well-being. But the problem with our fear response is that once something has triggered it, our brains are wired to attach that feeling to something, anything, and to do it fast, whether or not it has anything to do with the actual problem. The more we fear, well, the more we fear. The internet, especially Facebook, Twitter, but also 24/7 news, encourage quick, knee-jerk responses. Considered judgments and thoughtful civil conversation, which might lead us to better solutions, literally become harder to have as our fear response is manipulated more and more, carving those grooves in our brains, until we are permanently alarmed and terrifyingly susceptible to suggestion.

Which brings me to Christmas. Christmas is, at this point in Western history, both a religious and a secular holiday. Let’s face it, people who don’t go to church still celebrate Christmas. I happen to be one of the people who still goes to church, but I welcome all comers to Christmas, even if it is more of an idea for them than a particular moment in the Christian calendar, which, not to be pedantic, we have not yet reached (it’s still Advent, designated as a season of penitence and preparation). I think the reason that Christmas has become so important to many otherwise non-religious people is that signifies peace, joy, and fellowship, all of which are desperately needed and powerful counters to the dark force of fear. Most of us work, live, and even play in a non-stop, 24 hour culture of activity. Sleep deprivation is a national epidemic (I know, I’ve been there), American families get less time with each other as jobs demand more for flat or falling wages, and a culture of competition whispers in our collective ear that we have not done enough. Christmas, at its best, is to be a time of peace, of rest, of simple joys, and much-needed fellowship with the ones we know and love. For Christians, it’s the coming into the world of  gentleness itself in the form of a baby.  Even when in fact it’s a frantic season, people still want that gentleness, rest, joy, and fellowship that too often eludes us. The ironic thing is that when we don't get these things, we begin to feel anxious, fearful, and defensive. This can lead to irrational outbursts, like people claiming that there is a “war on Christmas,” that red Starbucks cups are an assault on Christmas, or that a university with Christmas trees up all over the place and dozens of campus Christian groups is hostile to Christians. It doesn’t make sense, unless you can step back and see how tired everyone is, a fact that is exacerbated by how much overpriced coffee they are drinking out of red cups.

As an antidote to fear, then, and very much in the spirit of Christmas, Tyson House, one of the many Christian organizations on campus, suggests that everyone calm down and have a cookie. We actually invited the Tennessee legislature to our Advent worship and Christmas caroling party, on the UT campus, where we worship freely and openly every Sunday evening of the semester. We wanted them to see for themselves that Christmas is just fine at UT and to allay some of their fears. Unfortunately, none of the legislators came. We know they are busy and we welcome any of them to join us any time.

My hope is that the legislators were resting. I think we all need rest, with or without cookies, and a little more time to gather our thoughts and spirits; to think about what is worth our energy; what needs in the world we can help meet; how we can connect with each other in the midst of chaos. If we did, maybe we could see that, at least for one day out of the year, we should put aside differences and embrace one another in our diversity and shared humanity, without one group, religious tradition, or nationality having to be dominant. Now that would be a miracle indeed, calm and bright.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What Are You Going To Do About It?


On September 18th, I took my English class to McClung Museum in the hopes of better illustrating literary history; what happened, however, left me with my heart hanging out. We had been reading Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, a novella from 1688 about an African prince from Corimantien (now modern Ghana) taken in slavery and sold to a plantation in South America. I’ve taught this important piece of literature for years, but I had never connected the class to the museum resources, and it seemed like a good way to keep the students engaged, especially on a Friday morning, with paper deadlines looming. Little did I know. Robert Rennie at the museum had assembled for us some eighteenth-century maps of Africa, some drawings, and three devastating objects from the museum’s collection: a gun from 1702, a ball and chain shackle from a South Carolina plantation (circa 1706) and a copy of The Wealth of Nations owned by an ancestor of Frank McClung, “Chaz.” McClung. The gun, clearly owned by a wealthy person, was probably used on a colonial plantation; the shackle most certainly was. Rennie told the students to touch the shackle, and in fact to pass the ball and chain around the room. He then pointed out that the reader of The Wealth of Nations (white, wealthy, and educated) could talk about the global economy in intellectual, disembodied, macroeconomic terms because he didn’t have to confront the reality of the shackle; he literally didn’t have to see it. But we did. 

I could see my students doing the complex work of synthesizing their cognitive understanding of the story and these objects with a more corporeal encounter that was happening to all of us. It was in their eyes.  What would mean for an individual to muster the psychological, physical, and material resources to resist being a slave? Hard teaching indeed, but history wasn’t done with us. Dr. Amadou Sall from Africana studies was with us for the class and talked to us about other cases of royal family members who were enslaved in the eighteenth century.  As he finished, he challenged us with the claim that slavery is far from over, not just in other countries but in the U.S. as well. Long after the Emancipation Proclamation, Knoxville is a hub of modern human trafficking, largely due to the highway system and a web-based trade that supplies johns with victims on demand, at large sporting events, conventions, and motels. Stunned by all of this information, Dr. Sall turned his observation into challenge: “now that you know this, what are you going to do about it?”

I realize that “British Literature, 1660-1740” is hardly a course title that conjures images of immediate application, ethical challenge, or activism. I didn’t take my students into the archive for that purpose. But this is what the humanities will do when we take the human experience seriously.  I have been teaching this novella for years now and for many reasons.  It’s an important achievement in the history of the novel; it became a significant abolitionist piece of literature, though Behn’s original politics have more to do with her own royalism; and it blurs the lines between travel narrative, biography, fiction, and romance in ways that landmark novels after it, such as Robinson Crusoe, would also do. But I have never been asked what I am going to do about it.

Paul Ricoeur has talked about historical memory as the confrontation between the body as object and the body as lived. To understand that other bodies have been made objects is a known fact, part of what we know to be history, but to confront the present tense of that process, bringing our own lived experiences into the equation is to realize that history makes demands on us; we can’t “unknow” this knowledge, and while we can try to forget it or repress it, we know it will be back. The history of race relations in this country is punctuated by those returns, the unfinished lessons we thought we could skip over because they made people uncomfortable. Modern human trafficking, both of sex workers and of general workers who are held captive in a variety of ways, raises new notes of urgency, along with a temptation to despair before such evidence of the human capacity for inhumanity or how, as Rochester put it, “savage man alone does man betray.”

So Monday morning, my students brought the question back to me: Dr. Anderson, what do you do about it? My answer was embarrassingly thin, so I promised to learn more about the situation right here in Knoxville and to report back.  Since then, we have learned about the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT.org), which is providing us with more information resources and some opportunities for action: an Oct. 15th fundraiser, a January 30th 5K “Run for their Lives” to raise awareness and funds; and the possibilities for other kinds of creative resource collaborations with UT.  It’s a small organization doing all it can to make connections between victims and other agencies, to help agencies coordinate with each other, even to train installers from the cable company (who might be allowed in a house with trafficked girls) to recognize the signs. You can learn more about those signs and the state of sex trafficking in the U.S. from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Something happened in our class, which has been spending time in UT archives all year long, archives which fortunately were not all as traumatizing as this one. Some of our time has been with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books in Hodges Special Collections, carefully selected by Chris Caldwell, where we’ve discovered some kinder, gentler messages: handwritten marginalia, a young reader practicing his signature, a pressed flower from 325 years ago. Together, we’ve been getting our hands dirty. We felt a shared sense of obligation at the discovery that people are being trafficked right here in Knoxville, and we decided collectively not to ignore it; we are working out our collective and individual responses as we are able. One student is now taking this topic on as her final project for the class on the long history of representations of slavery, connecting it to the horrifying scale of human trafficking in east Tennessee, much of it involving minors. She is organizing her entire dorm and planning an education event for this semester. There’s some talk of a gallery show of these and other McClung artifacts in conjunction with next semester’s screening and discussion of Traces of the Trade. Others are thinking about training themselves to work in museums and archives where we can preserve and begin to read the traces of human history. I am in awe of so much in this picture: the museum and library staff and archivists like Robert Rennie, Lindsay Wainright, Chris Caldwell, and Louisa Trott who make this kind of class possible. I am also in awe of my students and their open-hearted responses to history. The archive opens to our slightest touch, our curiosity about the past. What are you going to do about it?

Belated update: on Tuesday, November 17th, 2015, my students hosted a teach-in event at the Howard Baker Center, with Kate Trudell of the CCAHT, Cynthia Deitle of the FBI, and Jonathan Scoonover, CCAHT Board President. Over 330 people attended, with standing room only for most of them. Students donated hundreds of volunteer hours at an inVOLvment fair just after the presenation, and thanks to Sarah Primm and South Carrick Hall, we made a donation of $500 to CCAHT (these are students, mind you, who sold T-shirts to raise the money), with the hope of more on the way. I could not be more honored to be their professor. They are already changing the world.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Just Say Vol

I was caught up short by the recent kerfuffle at the University of Tennessee over the suggested gender-neutral pronouns, in part because it seemed to make the national news before I heard any local discussion. You may have heard of it by now: ze, xe, hir, zir, etc. as replacements for the gendered pronouns. The folks who posted the rubric wanted, if I understand correctly, to explain some of the terms preferred by those who feel the gender binary (she/he, her/him, hers/his) doesn't represent them. Note that there is a big difference between "suggested" and "mandated," a distinction that was either lost on or misreported to many. Summer Awad wrote a fantastic column about it in the Daily Beacon. Well, the university decided we'd had quite enough time to talk about that and, on Friday, September 4, took the rubric down.

Even though these guidelines have been adopted at Ohio University, Harvard, and the University of Vermont, among others, I must admit I didn’t react so well when I saw them. If I'm being completely honest with myself, maybe I was miffed that the advocates of gender-neutral language didn't come to the English department first. I know we get a bad rap as the grammar police, which, believe me, was not the job I thought I was signing up for, as you may have surmised by my use of a dangling preposition just now. But I've had this exchange too many times to ignore the fact that the world does not see me as I see myself.  As in:
        "So what do you do?"
        "I'm an English professor."
         "Oh gosh, I better watch my grammar around you."
I get misrecognized all the time. What I want to explain to all those strangers suddenly stressing out about subjects and objects is that what I do is all about stories, people, and the love of teaching. Throw in a lot of history as well. These are the endlessly fascinating and inspiring things to me and to most of my colleagues in English near and far, who include dictionary-makers, thousands of nerd literary historians, and yes, grammarians. As a tribe, we are actually pretty open to sociolinguistic change. We celebrate the new words entering the dictionary each year; I am especially fond of "winethirty" and "awesomesauce." two joyful signs that our language is alive and growing. I relish both the novelty and the vintage materials of these neologisms. But more years of study than I care to remember have yielded this insight: language rarely changes by fiat (anyone out there remember Esperanto?). However, it does, thanke ye olde Lorde in the Firmaement above our heades, change. So if there was a shared flaw in the plan of the the folks who proposed the pronouns and the administrators who pulled them down, perhaps it was this paradox: language comes from usage. It is the currency in our exchanges of thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and we are coining and recoining the stuff all the time in the ways we talk to one another.

Which brings me to the south.  Yes, I am a southerner, complicated as that relationship is most days. When the south and I are both on our best behavior, I revel in the fact that this is where I am from (a feeling which demands another dangling preposition), and I can only hope that the south kind of likes me too. So it seems perfectly meet, right, and salutary that in my Tennessee home, sometime around winethirty, as I was agonizing about this language kerfuffle, I had an epiphany. The south has always embraced a gender-neutral pronoun: y'all. The south's own second person pronoun has been around for ages, like the French "vous," but so much sweeter--utterly welcoming, informal, and the embodiment of the embrace of the self in the world. It's like Martin Buber's "I-thou" relation had a grammatical love child with Emmanuel Levinas' "face-to-face" encounter, and the little tyke is introducing everyone to everyone in your living room, where all your friends and crazy relatives are coming and going, just like we do in the south.  Y'all come over here. Y’all know Fred? Y'all need anything? Y'all come back now, y'hear?

This last line, the signature of southern send-ups and actual southerners alike, is where we have to get serious about our intentions. Who is welcome, and in whose home? And where this all goes down, folks, is in the third person, something that “y’all” does not entirely cover. Him/her, he/she, his/hers: these are the pronouns who live their lives haunted by the same ghost, "it." And “it” is the category where people hurt and get hurt. When we think in the third person, we can be tempted by our lesser selves to throw away someone's humanity because they don't fit the gender match-game that assures so many of their place in this scary world. If you are one of the folks who aren't so easily matched, it is much worse. Scary is a euphemism for how that space can feel. We are constantly faced with this choice in a broad array of encounters: theologian Miraslov Volf called it "exclusion and embrace." In our best moments, humans have affirmed each other across boundaries of every imaginable sort: the note slipped under a jail cell from Amnesty International that says "you are not alone"; Gentiles smuggling Jews out of Amsterdam and Berlin; Muslims shielding their Christian neighbors; the kid everywhere who stands up to the bully on the playground everywhere and says "no, you're not getting this one--not today." And then, there are are the not so shining moments. I don't have to go on.  Just turn each one of these scenes around.

So yes, I am all for language that makes more people feel welcome, language that connects, affirms, and embraces. But since it takes a while for language to shift, maybe we can look closer to home for a temporary solution. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years branding UT and the “VOL” name for use by its sports teams, but also initiatives (VOLVision, Hire-a-VOL, VOLmail) and various activities that signal welcome (VOLsconnect. The InVOLvement Fair, VOL Talks and Walks). We seem to have a new VOL campaign every week. The message is that UT Vols are connected to each other, that they share a community and a vision, that they embrace the stranger from abroad (I-VOL) and the little stranger at home applying for admission (Become a VOL). We have some pretty extensive rhetorical work invested in the project of making this recognizable monosyllable the welcome mat of our big orange house. As such, it provides the perfect pronoun:
          I-----Y'all---Vol.
It's an elegant and decidedly home-grown solution, raised right here on good ol’ Rocky Top.  It showcases my home team at its best and gives them a chance to show what they know about southern hospitality, beginning with the invitation spoken in a language that unites rather than divides Team VOL. It also has a grammatically simplifying effect—one-stop shopping for your third-person pronouns:  
         Who went to the store? Vol went to the store!
          To whom do you want to send that letter? I want to send it to vol.
          Whose Diet Coke is that? It's vol's, and you better not touch it!
You may never have to worry about the subjective, objective, or possessive case again. Hallelujah!

When we say that we are Vols, we are claiming a family identity that is southern culture at its best. To share this identity is to invite each other into the room with our language, calling each other by name, without exclusion and with the full embrace of words we share, use, and shape with our attitudes, desires, hopes, and imagination. George Takei started a revolution a few years ago when he offered his name as a loving, humorous shield to those who felt vulnerable. John Wesley started a revolution when he embraced the name that others were using to insult his little band of believers, the Methodists, otherwise known as the freaks of the eighteenth-century religious world. We have an opportunity here to go much deeper than university branding, which has done us the righteous favor of putting this term front and center at the intersection of history, language, and our better natures. This could be a chance to tell people who we really are and what it means to be a Tennessee Vol. If we mean it. So, what are y'all afraid of? Just say vol.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Here I Stand

Unperson. Thoughtcrime. De-tenure. The first two words of this list are from the novelist George Orwell's 1984; the last is from the University of Tennessee's "advocacy" page, reporting on the most recent Board of Trustees meeting. Though Chancellor Jimmy Cheek reported to the Faculty Senate Monday afternoon that the term was a "typo" and the website issued a correction that made it disappear from the record faster than an Orwellian "unperson," it lingers in the air, as does the content of its context, which was item 6 in a list of cost-saving or revenue-generating procedures proposed by President Joe Di Pietro. The university has current procedures for firing tenured professors, by the way, for cause, including misconduct, low performance reviews, financial exigency, and program consolidation, procedures which have been endorsed by the faculty and the administration, as is appropriate to the model of shared governance that is supposed to be a part of university life. These procedures take a while, as I believe they should, in order to guard against witch hunts or personality conflicts unfairly eliminating someone who spent close to 10 years (after the B.A.) training for their degree, competed with between 50 and 120 other qualified candidates in their particular field to get the job, and then another 6 to 7 publishing, teaching, and serving well enough to be awarded tenure. With tenurable professorships so precious, believe me, "no one wants to see ineffective faculty members at UT" (a direct quote from my colleague Mary McAlpin); we have procedures for removing them.

So let's be clear about the set-up in the proposal: the 6-point proposal presents the (false) spectre of so many lazy faculty members growing fat on the University's dime that the category is a target for cost savings. This spectre panders to the worst of legislators' and Tennesseans' attitudes about higher education and in no way reflects the dedication, productivity, and downright selflessness to which I have been witness pretty much every day of my 19 years of teaching at UT. Even more importantly, it is a red herring, distracting us from the larger picture and the men and women behind the curtain. The fact is that the University has already been getting rid of tenure by slowly outsourcing the profession through the use of adjuncts, many of whom are full-time and most of whom shoulder high teaching loads while making less than your postal carrier or a beginning teacher in the K-12 school system. In my department, my lecturer colleagues hold a Ph.D. in English and attempt to continue their research because they love it and they know it enriches their classrooms; however, they remain ineligible for tenure. Their jobs are not structured like mine because the outsourcing of the professoriate has happened across the country over the last 20 years, reducing the number of tenure-track jobs drastically. The dismantling of the job of professor into more lecturer positions and fewer of the conventional "professorships," in other words, has already seriously eroded the principle of tenure. Let me be clear: I do not think that tenure means a job for life. It's about academic freedom, free speech, and the autonomy of the university as an institution of higher learning. I've now seen for myself how much that academic freedom matters when half of my colleagues fear for their jobs if they speak out in committees on issues about instruction, if they don't get positive student reviews (in themselves increasingly problematic surveys of what students "liked"), or if they teach material that challenges students.

The academic freedom I enjoy as a tenured professor at UT is first defined by one's responsibility
to use the freedom of his or her office in an honest, courageous, and persistent effort to search out and communicate the truth that lies in the area of his or her competence.
What, then, is the expertise I invoke here? That of an English professor, a lover of the word and seeker of truth through it, like Orwell. Orwell's passion for good writing grew from a sense of citizenship.  His 1946 "Politics and the English Language" is as chilling a read as 1984 for someone in my line of work. Orwell declares "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity." He then supports his declaration with examples of that insincerity, including the description of air-strikes on rural villages as "pacification," as well as sloppy usage, cliches, and the bloated phraseology of political and business propaganda.  I've fought and lost some of the lesser assaults on the language, like the use of "impacted." Molars are impacted; you are not "impacted" by a movie unless, somehow, the seating arrangement is so horrible that either the Jaws of Life or a gigantic dentist is necessary to get you out of your chair afterward. But I've given up on that one. "De-tenure," however, is worth fighting because of what it attempts to mask. Tenure is already on the ropes at UT, as at so many other places, because so many faculty already don't have it. My lecturer colleagues know that their employment with the university is designed to be "flexible," another Orwellian term for easy to fire.  Our situation, like most American workers in the "mobile," "lean and mean" labor force toiling beneath better "business models," is tenuous, and the message is: don't unpack. In an era of "do more with less," all this means that lecturers teach more, while tenure-line faculty are asked to publish more, provide more service to the university, and advise more students to justify their allegedly easier jobs. What I note is that both of these hamsters are running awfully fast in their wheels.

At the same time, the number of administrators, most of them much more highly paid than any faculty member, has blossomed in an era of better "business models" for universities. The organizational charts from the three main divisions of UT (the President's staff, the Chancellor's staff, and the Provost's staff) are dizzying in their complexity and do not fully represent the number of associate deans and other administrators for each of the Colleges and other units. The same Board meeting that broached the removal of tenure as a cost-saving measure began (after the invocation) with Di Pietro putting forward a statement about a new Vice President of Development and Alumni Affairs (actually, a promotion) at a salary of $307,000, before benefits, moving expenses, and an additional "non-accountable expense allowance." That figure would hire 5-6 assistant professors or 8-9 lecturers in English, depending on how you do the math, probably with change left over. Development folks are supposed to raise funds, I understand, but I have my concerns about how much of the university's resources now go to them. I also have concerns about the effectiveness of their approach, which actually cost the English department money (another story for another day). My main point is that higher administrators make great salaries, usually 3 or 4 times what tenured faculty members make and 8 to 10 times what full-time lecturers make, and their numbers and roles seem to be growing with more calls for "review," "accountability," "making hard decisions," and "better management." Call it the spread of Vice. New initiatives justify new administrators, who usually create more work (and anxiety) for teaching faculty already struggling to find the time to see to their increased responsibilities, take care of more students, and stay on top of new developments in the field.  These administrators are also no longer (as they once were) subject to any faculty oversight or review, though we do get the occasional survey about whether we "like" what they're doing.  The teaching faculty carry on, like Orwell's Boxer from Animal Farm, determined to work harder, while we await the withering away of the state. That's why listing the removal of tenure in the context of a list of money-saving and revenue-generating proposals sounded so ominous to many of us. Even if "de-tenure" was truly a typo, it was a revealing one.

Mark Burstein, President of Lawrence University and also the recipient of an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, has a thoughtful piece on the limits of "business model" thinking for higher education, in which he reflects on the ways he sees business model thinking "directly at odds" with the college experience and even the "core values" of higher education. I would like to see our administration be as thoughtful about the limits and dangers of this approach, and to look at the burden that the sprawling 3-system administrative staff places on the University budget. Let me also add that I can write this post because I have tenure. I believe it guarantees my right to speak without fear of reprisal (a right not enjoyed by many of my colleagues), and I have come to a much clearer understanding of its importance in these strange times. Here I stand; I can do no other. I boldly take issue not just with the term "de-tenure" (even though it was swiftly disappeared from the website) but with the ideas behind it: the placement of post-tenure review as an item under cost savings and, further, with the "business model" approach to higher education. If you want to find the money to finance higher education, don't look down at those who do the teaching, mentoring, service, and research, good people; look up.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bare

One of the more amazing things about being a professor is getting an occasional glimpse of the world to come, the world that will be made by my students. Granted, sometimes I get a little apocalyptic (and apoplectic) when I think that this could be a world without the Oxford comma, proper use of the objective case, and actual books, but that's usually a sign that I need to stop grading papers and walk the dog. Sometimes, however, I experience that other sense of the term apocalypse, an unveiling. In those moments, the stars begin to fall, the planets seem to realign, and what was formerly impossible pulls up a chair, smiles, and says "guess what? That just happened." Last night, that happened. A young man named Ethan, whom I am fortunate to call my student, directed and starred in Bare: A Pop Opera, a production that is also his honors project. Written in 1999, Bare unfolds in a Catholic boarding school, where two boys have fallen in love and carry on a clandestine romance until one, Peter, decides he is no longer willing to live in the closet. The other, Jason, the school's golden boy, scared and confused, refuses to embrace their love in public and the consequences are tragic. Jason has a fling with the sexy but insecure Ivy that results in a pregnancy. Then, he ODs during a school production of Romeo and Juliet, another play about forbidden love and hidden lives that animates this one. This summary doesn't do justice to Ethan's production, but it's a sketch of what unfolded in song, American sign language, and the 15 heart-out, passionate, Katy-bar-the-door performances that simultaneously gave the play its sense of urgency and, paradoxically, marked it as a play set in the past. Faulkner once observed that the past is never dead; it's never even the past. I've always thought that insight needs the ballast of Tony Kushner's prophetic assertion that the world only spins forward. Both halves of this equation are true; without Faulkner's insight, we would be blind to the histories shape us, and without Kushner's, how would we keep going? Faulkner reminds us to honor the parts of the past that are honorable; Kushner reminds us that it's OK to ask for more.

Last night, the stars began to fall, at least in my neck of the woods. The past met the present and shook hands with the future. Let me explain. Just before the play, I was celebrating the news that a dear friend had been accepted to seminary and was in line for a substantial scholarship. Toasts would be in order under any circumstances, but this friend is gay, out, and seeking ordination in a mainline Protestant (OK, since you asked, Lutheran) tradition. Earlier that day, the Supreme Court agreed to hear cases from 4 states in the 6th Circuit, including cases from Tennessee, which will likely lead to the legal clarification of the right to marriage equality on a national scale. That means that by April of 2015, the court should hear the cases, and the issue should be resolved in June. Of this year. So as I sprang up from dinner's joyous conversation to make it to Ethan's play, the sense of moment, of history lurching forward, electrified me. During the passionate talkback after Bare, I sat next to Carol Mayo-Jenkins, whom I am honored and continually flabbergasted to call my colleague. Carol played Sherwood, the sharp, caring, dulcet-toned English teacher on Fame, and she's in my personal pantheon of real and imaginary teachers who made me want to do what I do. I pinch myself whenever I stop to think about the fact that we inhabit the same office building and dote on the same students. Together, we listened to these young actors talk about why this show mattered so much to them, how close their own stories were to their characters', how they struggled to believe that they could be loved by God when their churches rejected them, how many of their parents refused to come to the show, how intertwined we are in the past, and how we can taste the future.

My own high school years in the early 80s were days in which, even in a relatively artsy high school, people weren't "out." It was a far cry from the 50s, which kept the likes of Rock Hudson in the closet, but it was still a world before Gay-Straight Alliances, PFLAG, and trans awareness. What we had in that post-Stonewall, pre-ACT UP moment were the arts, and shows on TV like Fame, which let us dream about moving to New York, attending a school for the arts, living, dancing, singing, and writing with fiery passion. It gave us (all of us--kids who were gay, straight, who knows yet?) a glimpse into a world that looked more tolerant, more creative, and more open-minded than the one we inhabited, one in which we might be loved and appreciated for our freaky gifts and quirks. Fame did, in reality, lead to the creation of hundreds of schools for the arts across the country. Oscar Wilde got his revenge: more often than we realize, life imitates art. My mundane south Florida public high school, an architectural wasteland further scarred by portable classrooms, overcrowding, and double sessions, had none of the charm of the 46th St. High School for the Performing Arts, but at least we had a chorus room and a tiny drama program to bring together the odd ducks, smart kids, and performative types. That last group included several boys who knew or came to realize later that they were gay. And I loved them--great prom dates, fantastic singers, hilarious, affectionate, classy, but, alas for me, not straight. Some made it through, and some we lost in the 90s to the scourge of AIDS. In the middle of those in-between times, though, in 1983 (and thereabouts), we had chorus, The Music Man, and our shared passion for making the most beautiful and meaningful disposable art we could, being as honest and brave as we could, and knowing something more about ourselves and each other as a result.

For many of the kids I knew, the arts were what saved them. And that's likely to remain true, even if the Supreme Court affirms the right to marry that 36 states now recognize. Bare was about the urgent need for the arts and especially for theatre as a space of imagining what we can't yet fully realize, for encountering ideas and issues with an audience that otherwise might not be willing or able to have that conversation, and for glorying in the painful, beautiful, complicated process of being and loving in this imperfect world. These kids were leaning in to their own futures, and sitting next to one of my childhood idols who mapped out territory that helped give my friends hope, territory I would later claim as my own when I decided to teach, I knew that their work mattered. Bless them for it. As sister Chantelle sings in the show, God don't make no trash. Sing loud, lead on, and don't ever apologize for who you are. Non-judgment day is coming.