le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fabians and Glenn Beck

As posted earlier, I'm doing some Glenn Beck research. I found a transcript of the program in which he discusses Fabian socialism; I've been reading it and struggling to understand Beck's point. [Note: I decided to do this as a break from reading freshman comp essays. I understand Beck is speaking, not writing, but his abuse of pronouns and his general incoherence on the structural level is far below what I would consider acceptable from my freshmen]

So he starts off by talking about "they" and "them," and shows clips from British television, neither of which are contextualized. I am thoroughly unclear about who "they" and "them" are. He uses a number of categories to describe potential "them"s [environmentalists, progressives, liberals] but is not specific about which he's referencing at what point.

Beck goes on to quote from a number of news sources (which, to his credit, he documents) which themselves quote a variety of persons (Robert Kennedy Jr, a NASA employee, etc) asking questions like "when do we jail global warning deniers?" and asserting that denying global warming is treasonous.
I don't have time - or, frankly, interest - fact-check every single one of these quotes. I'm willing to go along with Glenn on this one and say: "golly, these are overblown responses." Sometimes, I like moderation.
But then things get weird.

Beck says, and this comes from the foxnews transcript itself:
Where did these ideas come from? Well, you can find them all from the same place — progressivism here in America, Marxism overseas and Fabian socialism in Australia, New Zealand, England and Europe. They are all the same thing. They are all the same stock of people.
I've talked to you a lot about progressives and Marxists, but Fabian socialists — look them up. You will be astounded what you find. It's all the same pool of people."
Never mind that political or ideological positions aren't really a "place." I'm creeped out by Beck's use of phrases like "stock of people" and "pool of people" - it just feels a little (a LITTLE) like the language of early eugenics-movement proponents. I guess it's "stock of people," which makes my mind immediately leap to racial stock, or genetic stock. This is very likely my own personal bias; I doubt very much that Glenn Beck is a eugenicist, unconsciously or otherwise.
Now we get some history about the Fabians, a topic about which I know more than the average schmuck because of my decade-long scholarly interest in Edith Nesbit. Just this summer I checked out a gazillion library books on Fabianism for my dissertation.

But Fabian Socialists was a society that was founded in January of 1884. The members sought to influence public opinion on socialism. But what they — what made them unique was, at the time, if you wanted to be a socialist, you needed a mass revolution. Well, they preferred the selective education — selective education. You've seen it here beginning under the Woodrow Wilson administration. It was the education of the powerful few, especially those in government and the media who could lead reforms in government.
It is why our media is so screwed up. And they all think alike.
Their strategy is called doctrine of inevitability of gradualism. What does that mean? The doctrine of inevitability of gradualism.
 Oh Glenn. I'm going to treat this like a student paper.
First we get the assertion that you need a mass revolution if you want to be a socialist. I don't deny revolution and socialist reformers go together (reformers want change, after all), but Beck's got it backwards: it's your socialist beliefs that lead you to want mass revolution, not the other way round. You don't start with revolution. It's where you end up.
Now, onto selective education (which I think is how Beck ends up with his anti-media line, which lacks transitional phrases surrounding it, and thus is simply tossed into the mix here almost at random).
Here's the thing: late 19th century social reformers (ie, the Fabians) were intensely interested in helping the poor and lower classes. They believed the best way to do this was through education. Socialists of all stripes, including Fabians, were founders and proponents of educational centers, often referred to as workingmen's institutes, where workers (and others) could go hear lectures, see performances, read periodicals and newspapers, read books. Yes, there was political content to some of this, but not all of it.
I don't know about you, but Victorian laborers have never struck ME as belonging to the "powerful few." The powerful few, who have existed in every culture across every nation and every age, are almost always already well educated. And since we know that, even late in the 19th century, there were more workers/lower-class folks than wealthy, any drive to educate the poor is by definition not selective, nor does it target the few.

Now onto the "inevitability of gradualism."
Beck later describes this as "baby steps," and to an extent he's correct. My reading notes from a biography of Nesbit references either Beatrice or Sidney Webb (founders-in-chief of Fabian Society) as believing that "dawning conscience and increased social intelligence" would convince people of the rightness of the Fabian cause - not revolution. My copy of part of an article on the history of fabianism leads with a quote that states that their aim was "to help in the reconstruction of society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities." It was a slow campaign of rational persuasion. So, Beck is wrong again: to be the Fabian kind of socialist, you needed to eschew revolution, not embrace it.

Next up, the origin of the Fabians' name:
Beck says:
"OK. Now why the name "Fabian" — the Fabian society? Well, this is after General Quintus Fabius Maximus. He had a brilliant strategy. He advanced in his battles not through front-on battles, but instead through harassment and attrition.
The early Fabian Society adopted as its motto "when I strike, I strike hard." Their logo, their mascot, was the tortoise. The tortoise.
Quintus Fabius was known, initially derisively, then with approbation, as "Cunctator," which means "delayer." Fabius's military strategy of delay was deployed during the attempted invasion of Rome by Hannibal, when Hannibal's forces far outnumbered the Romans.
And Beck is right: the strategy of Fabius depended on indirect actions, harassment, preventing the opponent from obtaining supplies; essentially, on everything BUT direct engagement.
Beck makes a weird and kind of pointless analogy to rebuilding a carburetor in the living room, and then says "Gosh, is it becoming inevitable that we just can't get out of this debt bubble? A little step at a time?"

This one is inexplicable. I have NO idea what he's trying to say here. Again, if this was a student paper, I'd write "Transitions needed? What is the connection between this and your previous statements?"

And finally, Beck gets on to running down old George Bernard Shaw. He plays a clip of Shaw espousing some of his eugenicist beliefs. He mentions that Shaw received an Oscar and the "Nobel Peace Prize." [at which, after the world's shortest google search, one can see clearly that Shaw - primarily a playwright - was in fact awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Big difference, Mr Beck, especially when you're going to toss around the eugenics accusations].

Fact: In the early 20th century, eugenics was part of medical science. It was not a creepy racist fringe belief, practiced by evil maniacs. G. Stanley Hall, the man who practically invented the category of adolescence, a man who pioneered both psychology and education in the United States, was a eugenicist. Francis Galton, who coined the term "eugenics," was a British eccentric and polymath whose work gave us the techniques and uses of fingerprinting as a method of identification. 
It really isn't until the 1930s - right around the time the Nazis get their hands on it - that eugenics begins to decline and experience a backlash. This after forced sterilization programs in countries like Belgium and the United States - primarily targeted were mentally ill patients, criminals and persons of undesirable nature (prostitutes, alcoholics, the undeserving poor). 

Beck's discussion of Shaw just gets weird, and he wanders way off course - again, frankly, I don't know what he's saying. He calls out George Soros, he rants against secular humanists, he invokes God God God repeatedly. He tells us that George Bernard Shaw invented the gas chambers (this seems to be untrue. I think Shaw was probably busy having affairs and writing plays, not inventing death devices).

And on and on. And then winds up railing against the environmentalists again.  And perpetuating some of the most revolting abuse to pronouns that I have seen in a long time. Beck winds down with this:
When you think the way they do, you tend to dehumanize individual situations. Suddenly, you're convinced that it's OK to kill one person or two in order to save thousands or end suffering for either thousands or for one.
Erm, good sir, this is precisely the reasoning that led to the dropping of the bombs are Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder if Beck argues against that?
And it's also, if I'm not mistaken, part of the reasoning behind the "doctrine" of preemptive strikes created by that wacky Marxist socialist liberal madman, George W. Bush. 
It's a thorny moral decision, really: if you knew that killing ten people could save 10,000, what would you do?
But this is a complex question and Beck doesn't deal in complexities.

After this delightful exercise, I will never again attempt to read and analyze anything said by Glenn Beck. It's more exhausting and infuriating than grading terrible student papers.

But I could not let slurs against the Fabians go unchecked, even weird, vague, inaccurate slurs. E. Nesbit is one of my absolute favorite writers, and she's one-third of my dissertation. People - Glenn Beck or anyone else - can't just throw around anti-Fabian remarks. The sloppy misuse of "history," too, is a big problem. My students do this too - they give "evidence" in the form of huge generalizations with NO context and NO supporting documentation. I mark off for that.

So, Glenn Beck, your grade for this assignment is an: Unsatisfactory, with the additional comment of "see me." At which point I will recommend you go to the writing center for some intensive remediation, because you're unfit to go forward with your speaking/writing career.

to be investigated: fabian socialism & glenn beck

I've checked in periodically with the livestream of the "rally for sanity" via comedy central. Stephen Colbert just showed a montage of fear-mongering, name-calling from a variety of tv "news presenters."

and one clip - just a few seconds - was of Glenn Beck, standing in front of his confounded blackboard, saying - in grim, serious, ominous overtones: "FABIAN SOCIALISM."


I need to do some digging and find that clip and see why on earth Glenn Beck was talking about fabianism, on fox news, circa 2010.

Fabian Socialism - the Fabian society - was founded in the late 19th century, in England, by a group of particularly earnest and intellectual reformers, including (and this is why I know anything about it at all) Edith Nesbit. I've written about the Fabians for grad seminars, and very likely will have at least a footnote about them in my dissertation. And - like many other 19th century British reform movements - it had limited efficacy. The Fabians still exist, but in altered form. They are not, at least unless things have changed dramatically, a hugely powerful group.

What Fabianism has to do with Glenn Beck is a mystery I will attempt to solve later on, since i have no real time for it today. But it is a mystery that baffles me endlessly, so it MUST BE SOLVED. I'll get Nancy Drew on the case.

Monday, October 25, 2010

adolescence, again

Book orders for the spring semester are due in a week, and I'm teaching Representing Adolescence again. Because I like to mix it up, and because it feels a little shocking to me to teach the same syllabus twice in a row (like cheating, somehow), I'm going to do a mostly new booklist.


So far, the only title I have settled on for sure is Justine Larbalestier's LIAR.

But what else would be good? I haven't organized a theme or anything yet, I just know that I need to teach Liar.  I'm contemplating Courtney Summers' Cracked Up to Be and/or Peter Cameron's Someday this pain will be useful to you, because they are books I like a lot, but I'm not quite sure that I really know what to do with them.

I'd like to stick to mainly realist fiction, novels or films. I may do some TV again - some Glee, perhaps, maybe some bowing to the inevitable and some Freaks & Geeks.
But the books are the essential, and I'm just not sure which to choose. The course, after all, is about representing adolescence, so the books need to lend themselves to thinking about the ways in which adolescence is represented, regulated, etc.

Any suggestions? I'm vaguely tempted to do some of the books I have real problems with: Twilight, 13 Reasons Why, Like the Red Panda because I think they'd provide good discussion. At the same time, do I really want to read any of those books again?


Thursday, October 21, 2010

international reading: booking through thursday

This week's Booking Through Thursday:
Name a book (or books) from a country other than your own that you love. Or aren’t there any?

Well, OF COURSE there are!
The easy answer here is British literature, which is really where my heart is. My favorites are largely British: Dickens, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, everything by Diana Wynne Jones. Lately, I've been zipping through Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, as well.
Dylan Thomas (Welsh) and J.M. Barrie (Scottish) are also high on my list.
And recently I fell head-over-heels for Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, which brings Australia into the Anglophone favorites list.

But these are all still Anglo/English language, so I'm going to look further afield.

Non-Anglophone favorites:
Petersburg, by Andrei Bely (Russian)
Crime & Punishment, Dostoevsky (Russian)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (Colombia)
Wind-up Bird Chronicle  and Kafka on the Shore, both by Haruki Murakami (Japan)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (France)
If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino (Italian)

This is in no way a comprehensive list, just a few highlights. But it's a sad truth that most of my reading is solidly Anglophone; it's just not as easy to find great non-Anglo books as it is to find great Anglo ones. It isn't especially difficult to come by the non-Anglo titles - searching out Nobel Literature winners' titles, for instance, is pretty easy. But the majority of what's placed on ready offer, in conspicuous locations, is Anglo - British or American. Even Canadian and Australian titles are more obscure. This is unfortunate, because the rest of the world surely does have great writers and great things to say. Language is limiting in ways that are maddening.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

a place holder: walter pater & kids these days

James Kincaid gave a brilliant kaleidoscopic talk at school on Tuesday. My head is still swirling with it - he did that wondrous academic thing I love, of taking a number of textual examples and ideas that seem mostly unrelated, throwing them together into a big pot, then letting them marinate with brilliance and insight until, finally, there's some kind of stew of genius.

I'm still thinking it all over, and suspecting I missed more than a few crucial pieces of information (listening to the mostly-faculty audience loudly singing "Big Rock Candy Mountains" overrode most of my other intellectual capabilities), but I want to note one thing that leapt out at me.
Kincaid quotes Walter Pater, a man whose work is mostly unfamiliar to me, except for the brief snippets I skimmed in my history & theory of criticism class ages ago. My ignorance about Pater is one of the newest bits of solid evidence suggesting that I really am not, in fact, a Victorianist at all. But never mind that academic identity crisis.

The Pater that was quoted, and discussed, is from the conclusion to his Renaissance book, where Pater writes that "not the fruits of the experience, but the experience itself" is what is important.
He's saying - foreshadowing, setting up, whatever - what Kerouac writes in the beginning of On the Road  - that the way to live is to burn burn burn like a Roman candle.

That what you take away from an experience - the fruits - isn't the point; it's the experience itself.
This makes me think of my Kids These Days...angst, which is really about people and technology, and the problem of constant documentation of things, rather than engaging in things themselves.

and a million other things, also arising from both Pater and Kincaid's talk.
But those are for another time when my brain is less fogged from grading, a head cold that won't leave, and sleepiness.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

discomfort in the classroom

I'm thinking about the uses of discomfort in the classroom lately.

One of the very excellent grad student teachers in our department has, as a standard clause in her syllabi, that uncomfortableness will happen in her classes. That discomfort is part of the critical learning process. This instructor, who is BRILLIANT, is a person whose gender is not readily obvious, and who in fact doesn't fully occupy either side of the (false) gender binary. This - along with the content of the courses - is part of the discomfort.

She was one of the instructors and mentors we had as first-year teachers, and I vastly admired her position on this - it reminded me in certain ways of a strand of New College-esque "fuck shit up" attitude that pervaded a number of my classes there. From the queer activist perspective, shifting and dodging and denying binary identifications and categories is all part of the plan for disrupting those binaries. It forces the undergrads to confront categories that they may never even have considered before. Discomfort is a good thing.

This week, I have been teaching the extraordinarily smart (and now, depressingly, canceled) ABCFamily show HUGE.  In conjunction with the three episodes I selected for viewing, I also asked my class to read Marilyn Wann's "Foreward" to The Fat Studies Reader (2009).

One of the first comments a student made about HUGE is that watching it made her somewhat uncomfortable, but that she grew to like it and in fact ended up watching all 10 or 11 episodes over the weekend.
I asked them to consider the opening scene of the pilot episode - an overhead camera shot of the kids on the first day at Camp Victory (the so-called "fat camp") where the show is set, milling around and waiting for their turn at the weigh-in. The camera slowly moves in and down, panning across the kids standing around in pairs, in awkward knots, as individuals who don't yet know each other.

All of the kids are wearing bathing suits.

All of the kids are fat (in varying degrees).

It's dis-comforting. We're not used to seeing images of large groups of mostly-unclothed fat people. We're not used to seeing fat people without either the fuzzy black bar of shame obscuring their faces (in stories about the OBESITY EPIDEMIC!!!) or the punchline of a mostly-cruel joke at the fat person's expense (sometimes told by the fat person herself).

When Will, the main protagonist, played wonderfully by Nikki Blonsky, finally takes of her shorts and t-shirt, mimicking a striptease right in front of the camp director - intentionally aimed at the director - we get lingering shots of Will's body in all its fat glory, in relatively close-up, well-lighted shots.

Both Wann's foreward, and HUGE, ask us to reconsider, or consider at all, a number of things we're mostly used to ignoring. Wann does it more stridently, more explicitly, and more forcefully; HUGE does it more subtly, more emotionally. But both say: LOOK.
Wann makes the great observation that all one can diagnose from looking at a fat person is one's own level of prejudice and stereotyping. The act of looking at another can - and often does - tell us vastly more about ourselves than it does about that other person. This is not a new or original idea; it's part of what makes the critical concept of "the Other" circulate so frequently and potently through almost every kind of subaltern studies that exist. Looking at the Other is a way of looking at the Self. If your gaze is properly calibrated - say, by reading Marilyn Wann, or by watching a show clearly framed through a fat-positive, queer sensibility - this Other/Self looking can be revelatory and positive for both parties.
Examining your own life of privileges and oppressions is essential, Wann argues, for critical work in the field of fat studies.
But this is the case in all fields, in all areas of life: ignoring or failing to properly address one's own privilege and oppression makes it almost impossible to speak well and convincingly about anyone's privilege and oppression.

But to look at yourself, to say "I experience these privileges every day, because I am thin/beautiful/male/young/straight/affluent/healthy/white/etc" is hard. It's even harder to say "I experience these privileges at the expense of people who are not thin/beautiful/male/young/etc." It's hard - though maybe less hard? - to say "I experience those oppressions because I am fat/plain/female/old/differently-abled/poor/brown/etc."
It's even harder to realize that you can exist in both privilege and oppression simultaneously: Wann points out that the very thin anorexic knows as much about fat-shame and oppression as does the very fat person.

But seeing one's own privilege, when before it always appeared simply as "the way life is" - THAT is uncomfortable. Having to look where before we looked away, or were simply not shown something - THAT is uncomfortable. Having to address our uncomfortableness - THAT is uncomfortable.

It's also learning. It's education, it's critical thinking, it's cracking open your brain and your perspective. It's like being given glasses that allow you to see a whole new color in the spectrum, one you never even knew existed. And now that you know about it, you can never unsee it, or forget it. Even if the glasses are taken away, your mind and memory retain the impression of that new, unexpected, unlooked-for, color.

It feels sometimes like I'm being lazy in the classroom, that I'm not actually actively teaching anything. I felt like this last year, over Octavian Nothing: Kingdom on the Waves. The ways in which my students responded to that book - what they focused on, how they reacted, what confused, upset, pleased them - all had to do with the content of the book, not specifically with anything I said in some brilliant lecture [I don't lecture, to begin with]. Same with Marilyn Wann, and watching HUGE - the moment they saw that opening scene of all those fat kids in their bathing suits, the work of discomfort and learning began. I didn't do anything except provide a context, and choose the texts.

Is this even teaching?
But perhaps that is a question for another day, another post.

Meanwhile, discomfort reigns in my classroom, and I am making us all continue to stare at it, to live in discomfort - at least for one more day.  

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

thank a teacher

sunday night, I read the (now-removed, soon to be reposted) story of an amazing english teacher who fought the good fight for good YA books and lost to an unsupportive administration who caved to parental book-banning pressure. It was a remarkable story, even before the book-banning appeared to give the story a dark turn; this english teacher got her students reading: in class, in a book club that swelled to over 100 members. these students, in turn, demonstrated the benefits of reading books you like by performing better on standardized tests.
Somewhere online, I came across a mention of National Teachers' Day, and got to thinking about teachers (again, as always, big surprise).

I'm a pedigreed teacher: both my parents taught in public schools. Both hold masters degrees in education. I, of course, teach the mostly-privileged at a university. I was raised to be respectful and appreciative of my teachers, a thing that probably would have occurred anyway, because I loved school. so, a brief ode to some great teachers, and some thoughts on queer teachers.

Second grade, Mrs Eva Chapman, teacher extraordinaire. Evidently reported to my parents, during a parent-teacher conference, that I was "perfect." [I only learned this much, much later, like late in college. no swelled heads in our family]. What was perfect was Mrs Chapman's teaching, which introduced to our second-grade classroom classics of art and music (I learned about Van Gogh and Renoire and Haydn in her room, as well as Don MacLean and The Marvelettes). We were told the story of "The Elephant's Child" via feltboard; I pestered immediately for my own copy of the Just-So Stories. We learned about winnie-the-pooh, accompanied by shepherdesque stuffed animal friends. We learned nursery rhymes and coloring, we learned about breeds of dogs, we put on an Extravaganza of singing and dancing (that, in retrospect, should have warmed the little flamboyant hearts of any babygays in the class). I learned to be curious in her classroom, or rather, learned that my curiosity had a place in school, in education, in the world. And that the payoffs to following my curiosity could be fantastic - i mean, Van Gogh! what a light at the end of the tunnel of learning....

There were some lean years of uninspiring teachers, but in highschool, my history teachers more than made up for it. Mr Bogey, AP European teacher, filled my notebooks and my brain with details and information and stories that still crop up from time to time. A few years back, in one of the last classes I took in the PhD program here, the subject of Italy's unification came up, and I, without even thinking, murmured the crucial dates and names. AP Euro was a lot of wars and dates and names, but there were also a lot of stories, and ideas: there was art and architecture, there were all those philosophers and thinkers and writers.

Mr Neubauer was THE teacher, though, in my junior and senior years. AP American History, AP Government & Politics, respectively. The knowledge acquired in those classes is also still handily tucked away in some fold of my brain. but more than that, mr neubauer gave us power. he taught us some fundamentally important Supreme Court cases dealing with free speech and expression. He taught us that West Virginia v. Barnett meant that we could not be compelled to pledge allegiance to the flag. he encouraged us to ask questions, to argue, to debate. He ran his classes like the best seminars I ever had at new college, and he did it with a bunch of relatively close-minded teenagers from very affluent, conservative families. He let me be the oddball outspoken lefty liberal and somehow, quietly encouraged me to feel like it was right and good and okay to be that person. he laughed sympathetically, commiserating when I came into class freezing cold with sopping wet hair from swimming in gym class. he let me, and a few of my cronies, sit on the window ledge during class, not in desks (initially, i began sitting on the window ledge to try to absorb what little heat i could from the heat vent on the ledge - see wet hair, above, for more details).

His class was the "radicalizing" moment of my life, I guess. We had to write about controversial topics, choose a side and argue it, and somehow, I can't remember why, I picked gay marriage as my topic. I really don't know how I came to choose it, but this was fall of 1996, and anti-gay feeling was free-floating in the world. And I picked it and - because we had to - made public my pro-gay attitudes, which somehow led to a whole slew of other things, including an effort at forming a gay-straight alliance in our high school (though we didn't know to call it that; it was just a before-school meeting of a very few gay kids and their very few allies, in the office of the district social worker, who, it turned out, was sticking her neck WAY out for us).
We caused a commotion, somehow, without necessarily meaning to; we weren't allowed to put up posters about our little group. We couldn't "recruit," as it were. We couldn't let the closeted queer kids in our school know that there were friends and allies and other queer kids, and that we were all there to help each other. Yet the Christian Prayer group was allowed to meet in the school building, with announcements on the PA, praying publicly around the flagpole in the mornings. It was gross and appalling discrimination, and Mr Neubauer made sure we had the intellectual tools we needed. He couldn't or wouldn't join the fight, for reasons I grudgingly accept and understand, but he taught us what we needed to know to go to law books, to do research and articulate our (lost) cause.
We failed in forming a lasting group. We were forbidden from posting signs or making announcements about our "diversity" or "tolerance" group. I came home after the final meeting with the principal, and burst into tears at the injustice of it. That we were right - legally, morally, ethically RIGHT - and still lost was an unbelievably bitter pill to swallow. It still sticks in my throat, to remember that feeling.

Our district social worker was threatened with being fired or disciplined for her support of our group. She stuck with us.

After school ended - our senior year - we had a little picnic in the park. The queer kids and their allies (all eight of us, I think - it was a small group) met up and had snacks and picnic food and pondered the future.
And a teacher from our school came, and brought her partner.
This was not a teacher I ever had, or knew; she had been almost silently instrumental in the forming of the group. She had spoken to the social worker after several of the queer kids (and their friends) wrote or mentioned the desire for a place to talk about being gay in a gay-unfriendly environment. There were NO openly gay kids at our school until that year, until two boys whose courage I can't even begin to truly emulate, came out. One of them was in this teacher's class, and was one of the students who wrote about the issue.

I was impressed at the time that this teacher would attend the picnic and bring her partner, but it wasn't until years later that I actually realized what an amazing thing she did. In the town I grew up in, there simply were NO visible gay people. The gym-teacher-lesbian jokes circulated, and occasional other, similarly unkind rumors - but there were NO out queers in that school or that community. And, as evidenced by the attitudes of other students and the principal, when we attempted to go public with our nascent GSA, it was an environment that was extremely hostile to gay people. At a bare minimum, it was grossly, offensively ignorant of the needs of gay students; the ever-delightful principal said "i can't have a support group for every kid who gets a pimple," as if that was the equivalent of being queer.

In a town where very conservative religious people dominated the scene (Mr Neubauer said - and I don't think it was a joke - that our town was the only one in New York to carry Goldwater in that election year), being an out queer teacher must have been an impossibility. To say, publicly, that you, a teacher, were also a lesbian - that was a very dangerous proposition. I don't know what would have happened if it became known throughout the community that an actual lesbian!!! was teaching Our Children!!! but I can imagine, and none of my imaginings are very nice.

So for this teacher to voluntarily attend our sad little picnic, with her partner, after being closeted for who knows how long - my god! what a thing to do! what a gift to give your students, some of whom weren't even really her students.
And how crushingly sad, to have to live and work and teach for years and years while hiding. One of the "It gets better" project videos is a silent one, from two queer teachers who keep their faces hidden and who hold up cards with text on it. It's heartbreaking to see these women saying "it gets better," even while hiding their faces. But they are saying: We are here for you. We, your teachers, are here to help you.
And this teacher, who wasn't my teacher, did a herculean job of this. She went to the social worker and said: these kids, my students, have a need. they need a safe space and safe people to talk with about being gay in a place where gays are erased. they need help. they need more than i can give them, because my position is tenuous. but they need help.
and we got it. she made that happen. she said, silently, through what she did: I am here for you. I know how you feel, more than you can possibly imagine. and at that picnic she said: I trust you enough to bring my partner. I trust you enough to be fully myself with you.
It's an expression of care that blows my mind to think of now.
I wonder what it felt like, for her, to walk with her partner across the lawn to the picnic tables where we sat, a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds preoccupied with boys and girls and college and the end of school and ourselves and our own lives.  I wonder if she was scared, or proud, or if her partner was scared, or proud, or bored. Not bored; I can't think bored was in it.
I wonder if that teacher knew, or knows, what she did for us all, and how much it mattered.
The courage and actions of quiet everyday people, in their quiet, everyday lives, can sometimes make a world of difference. It's not heroic, it's not grandstanding, it may not even be noble or proud; but very often, teachers provide us with a safe space in which to be ourselves, which is one of the biggest gifts anyone can ever give.
It's what Fred Rogers did, essentially, except it's squads of teachers, saying and doing (in dozens of ways): "you're okay." and the good teachers, these teachers who say and do and make meaning in all these many ways, these good teachers hold the world at bay for a short while for us, while giving us the information and tools and knowledge we need  to carve out our own safe spaces. 
Some teachers sacrifice a lot, like the english teacher who ended up leaving her position after her books were banned. Some teachers risk a lot, like my not-my-teacher, coming with her partner to a silly little picnic. Others don't take obvious risks but, like Mr Neubauer, solidly, stolidly provide the tools and ability and confidence needed to make revolution happen, knowing exactly what it is they're doing, and why.

I am grateful to these teachers, and to all the teachers who were never my teachers, but who did for their students what mine did for me. The teachers who fought, quietly and loudly; who protected their students and gave their students the ability to build their own defenses; who made it clear that, though they may give grades and write hall passes and assign detentions and scold you for talking too loudly in study hall - who made it clear that, for all that, they were on our side.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Why Mister Rogers Matters

A lot of academics spend a great deal of time trying to explain why their scholarly work matters. I know I spent a lot of time - and still do - trying to justify my ivory-tower life: what does reading and writing have to do with anything in the Real World? How is this not a relentlessly selfish pursuit?

First: because I teach. The activist angle of teaching was first made clear to me at Georgetown, by my brilliant and wonderful advisor. She said: "yes, these kids are privileged [and at Georgetown, almost quadruply so] but they are also the people who will be in charge of corporations and companies. They'll be in politics and positions of power. And if you can introduce to them now some of these ideas [any activist/progressive/radical ideas], it may affect the way they do their business in future."

Teaching is, or can be, activism, and my teaching often is. This is good, and it's the main thing I do, day in and day out, to make sure my work actually does something.

The second thing I do - and what I'm writing about now - is scholarly work on things that matter. Things that can actually make a difference in the way people understand themselves, or others, or the world around them. I made a decision in my first year in Pittsburgh that I was going to consciously write in clear, legible prose; I jettisoned the obfuscating and tortured jargon and construction of so many literary theorists. If a roomful of PhD students can't make sense of a phrase from Frederic Jameson, how in gods name can the "workers," the disenfranchised, the disaffected, make sense of it? And if it's all just babble to the elite, how can it be anything but condescending, self-congratulatory largesse?

So structurally, linguistically, theoretically, I choose the pragmatic and readable.
The topics are even more important.
My dissertation is, ostensibly, about imaginary/imaginative play spaces in children's media, and the way these spaces enable and encourage radical play, difference and experimentation (specifically with gender and sexuality, but with other aspects of life as well).
Really, though, what I'm writing about are places where it's okay - even great, even better - to be different. To be yourself. Places where you, in whatever form you feel like expressing yourself, are safe and loved and admired and respected.
The ultimate of these is Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a show which seems to have made worlds of difference in the lives of scores of children (and their families). I've spent considerable time in the archives, reading viewer mail, and the love and affirmation these kids (and adults) feel for and from Mr Rogers is staggering. Almost every letter is a tearjerker. Almost every letter mentions, at least once, Mister Rogers' mantra of "I like you just exactly the way you are."

How rarely are we told this?

Lesley Kinzel, the astute and incisive writer of Fatshionista, writes back in response to the appalling burst of suicides from young gay kids in recent weeks - the most dramatic and spectacular of these, of course, being the death of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. Lesley writes, in an effort to support those kids who are bullied and hurt and abused and sad and lonely:
So instead, I’ve written what I would have liked to hear, back then, in my darkest adolescent moments. I am touched by people every day who tell me that the things I write here — even the things I am convinced no one will relate to, that I believe are too specific or too raw or too me — that these things help them. That hearing it helps people to know that they’re not alone. Thus, I’m hoping that this will likewise speak to some of you.
You are okay.

She's doing the work of Fred Rogers here, whether she means to or not. We should all be doing the work of Fred Rogers: reminding each other that yes, YOU are likable and lovable; that you make each day a special day but just your being you; that there is no one else in this world exactly like you, and that that adds to the glorious variety of the world. That I like you just the way you are.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is off the air in most districts now, except perhaps on weekends; in Pittsburgh, home of the program and Fred Rogers, it's still on daily. It's dated, sure; there are no cellphones, no iPods, no laptops. No networking, except through Mr McFeely's speedy deliveries. No Facebook, except all the real friends who visit each other, both in Mr Rogers' neighborhood, and in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

There's nothing like this on tv now, where educational children's television is all about skills acquisition, and not about emotion.  There's no Mister Rogers, showing up every day at the same time - as he promises at the end of every episode - to say "Hi neighbor. I like you!"

The letters in the archive come from parents, from children of all ages, from adults, from the very elderly. Everyone you can imagine writes to Mister Rogers, and they all say, in varying ways, the same thing: we love you, Mister Rogers, because you love us. We need someone to tell us, every day, that we're okay, and mean it. We feel better about our abilities and disabilities, as children, as mothers, as friends, as siblings, as fathers, as retirees, as very elderly single women with no families, because of you. We are able, because of you, to go out into our worlds as happier, more confident people, willing and able and actively doing things to make the world a better more interesting place.
So writing about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for me, is activism. It's me saying: LOOK! Look how much we needed Fred Rogers. Look how much he - just one guy, on a low-budget public tv show - was able to do, for so, so many people. Look how little he had to do, to do so very much.
It's saying, Fred Rogers wasn't a saint. He was a very, very good man with powerful motivation and a message that we all need, that we all know we need. If he could do it, so can we all. There's nothing so extraordinary, after all, in that show: bringing in something new to look at and think about. Going on a visit to an everyday place: a music shop, a restaurant, a dance studio, a potter's workshop, a shoe factory. Saying: sometimes it's really hard, isn't it? and you get angry, or sad, or confused, or scared. And that's okay, because I like you when you're angry, or sad, or confused, or scared. Because I like you, just exactly as you are.
Because you make every day a special day, by just your being you.

Because every one of us is important and meaningful and real and human. Always, every day, even when you're scared, or angry, or confused, or hurt, or sad. And you contribute to the infinite variety on this planet, the infinite variety that makes the world so very interesting and fun and curious and amazing. Losing even one person from that huge mosaic of difference makes the whole thing a tiny bit less bright and shiny.

It's so incredibly easy, to do what Fred Rogers did. To listen, to be there, to say: I like you, just as exactly as you are. To say, with words and actions: I care about you, because you're you, you're a person who is unlike anyone else in this world world.

To say, and mean it, that You make every day a special day, by just your being you.

and that's why i'm writing my dissertation.