Tag Archives: scholarly praxis

Power of Words

On Writing and Selling Out

“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion explains in the opening pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. These words clawed at me days after reading them in December. Now months later, the words still scratch at me when I begin to write.

Didion’s words give me pause as I start new columns and projects. Do writers, implicitly or purposefully, sell out those we write about? Do we craft the stories of others for our own purposes whether it be fame, money, or bylines?

Didion’s insight could just as easily be applied to academic writing as well. Do academics sell out the people we research, analyze, and write? Sometimes, I fear that we do. When we turn people into our objects of study, we stake a claim about what kind of people are studied and what kind of people do the studying. Those demarcations contain judgment that makes me uneasy because I’m complicit too.

Writing is always our crafting of their stories; the author/scholar decides what becomes significant, what we need to learn, and what is valuable.  I, then, wonder about writing’s relationship with the telling the truth. With journalism, there’s an assumption of “just the facts, Ma’am” as a method to truth (of which I’m skeptical). Non-fiction writing seems to be about making the best of narratives that we are given. Familiar stories surface. They are repeated and sometimes contested. Certain narrative rhythms catch our attentions. They lull us into repetition, and repetition gives a ring of truth. Yet, we all lie too.

Who do we sell out?

typewriter-hemingway

When It Hurts To Write

Almost all of my scholarly life, I’ve researched, written, and taught about depressing topics: the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, doomsday prophets, apocalypticism, religious intolerance, horror, and zombies. I spent more than six years of my life analyzing Klan newspapers; too many hours to count making myself familiar with the construction, deployment, and privilege of white supremacy.

Friends, acquaintances, and random strangers ask how I managed to write about people that unsettle us. I shrugged the question off with a smile and a flip comment about my sense of humor and inflated sense of optimism. Sometimes, I would say with conviction: “I write about these people and these topics because someone has to.” This was a burden I claimed to demonstrate the importance of my work. The research was unpleasant, but it was also intellectually stimulating.  I needed to figure out why the Klan appealed to white men and women. I could bracket my own discomfort for my research projects.

My students wondered about my mental health because of my areas of research. “You’re so pleasant and friendly,” more than one of them noted. My affect didn’t match my scholarly interests. I explained to my students that we don’t just study that which comforts us. Instead, we need to look at what unsettles us and why. Much of my pedagogy rests on confronting students with things, topics, and people they find unseemly to show that history and religious studies is as much as about horror, violence, depravity, and harm as they are about anything else.  We can’t fix our world unless we confront what haunts and horrifies. Looking away doesn’t solve any problems.

I work on depressing topics; it is my niche, I guess.

It is terribly unsurprising, then, that I now write about sexism in academia for Chronicle Vitae. By pointing out gender bias (explicit and implicit) in higher education, I hoped I could do something to make the academy a kinder place for women.  I started this new project wondering how much data I would find about gender bias. Soon, I was overwhelmed by the evidence of bias against women. I ended up with a huge stack of articles, studies, and opinion pieces. Originally, I feared my column would run dry after six months. Now, I fear that it might never end: pay gaps, citation gaps, mommy bias, leaky pipeline, sexual harassment, rape, hazing and bullying, rescinded offers, contingent labor, enlightened sexism, implicit bias, and uneven mentoring and recommendation letters. The list could go on and on.

I didn’t realize the extent of the problem and its enormity. The portrait of women in academia appears bleak. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and sad. There is too much to cover. Too much to dwell on. Too much that makes me want to cry.

What I quickly learned is that researching and writing about sexism in higher ed hurts me.

Do Babies Matter?  proved to be my tipping point. It sort of broke me because I couldn’t read it without reflecting upon my stalled academic career. My life appeared in its pages. I became just another data point about how marriage and children impact the careers of women academics. Chapter after chapter, I became convinced that I was doomed from the start of graduate school without ever realizing it. I read and cried. I was sad, frustrated, and angry. This book was too much, so I had to put it down.

My visceral response startled me. I write about depressing topics all the time without too much mental anguish. My reaction to sexism should have been no different than my reaction to white supremacy, right? No topic ruffles me, or so I thought.

Yet, sexism in higher ed hits too close to home. I don’t have the luxury of distance from my topic. I see myself in every damn study, and it hurts. This research is like salt in a raw wound. It stings, burns, and irritates. Mostly, it forces me to think about some of my most unpleasant experiences in higher ed. I get to relive things I would rather forget every time I work on a column for Sexism Ed.  It makes me weary. I feel hopeless.

But, I can’t stop writing either. Column by column, I document sexism, misogyny, and gender bias in the academy because someone has to. I can’t stop writing. I just wish it hurt a little less.

theforbiddengames-1

Genre Fiction Saved My Life

I gave up many things for graduate school, and popular fiction was one of them. Training to be a religious historian meant that reading became my job rather than my beloved hobby. I only had time to read the 30 plus books assigned for seminars each semester. I’ve never read so much in my life as I did then. History, theory, methods, and studies of gender and race crowded my book shelves and took over my dining room table. Reading for pleasure no longer fit neatly into my schedule. Instead, I trudged through the books that now defined my life. If I read anything beyond the assigned, I found it necessary to read things labeled serious or literary. At parties, faculty and students would chat about the author of the moment, that critical darling reviewed by NPR or the New York Times. I would nod at appropriate moments. Literary fiction was the only fiction appropriate for scholars in training. Most of what I liked to read was not deemed literary. Trade paperbacks seemed less than serious. Intriguingly, the Harry Potter books were allowed, so I could discuss them without tarnishing my serious image.

I abandoned the books that kept me company from childhood to fledgling adulthood. I loved romance, horror, and that whole genre now labeled young adult fiction. I followed the girls of Sweet Valley High through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, and social strivings. I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, even though I was ambivalent about other children. I devoured anything written by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith. I first gained awareness of reincarnation via Pike, and garbage disposals still scare me of Stine. I worked my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated world of hobbits, elves, humans, and dwarves, though it took many attempts. I read and reread Smith’s Forbidden Game and Dark Visions books. Their covers creased and fell apart. The pages were dog-eared and torn. These books materialized my rough-handed devotion. (I’m still hard on books.) Smith’s books were my favorites. The strength and angst of the female protagonists resonated with me. These were girls who seemed ordinary, but were anything but. They were flawed but heroic. In Smith’s book worlds, the supernatural creeped unexpectedly into our lives, and no one was ever the same.

More importantly, the universes of these young adult books made sense. You could figure out the heroes and the villains (mostly), though sometimes the villains would redeem themselves through profound sacrifice. For me, they were beautiful escapism. These books permitted me to step away from the constant shuffle of life as a divorced kid. My week parceled between my mom and dad. I moved back and forth between two families. Tuesday, Friday, and every other weekend was my dad’s time; the other days went to my mom. Different houses, different rooms, different family members, and different responsibilities. The trade paperbacks moved to and fro with me. I tucked them in my backpack, or purse, before school at one house and read them in the evenings at another. They offered escape from the fraught complexity of living in two places, but never quite feeling at home. I could dwell in realms of extra-sensory perception, vampires, witches, and killer teenagers to avoid the emotional work of being one person who was actually two daughters. Fiction gave me purchase in entertaining simplicity; it allowed me to remove myself from the painful work of being the remnant of a failed marriage.

It should be no surprise that horror emerged as my favorite genre. By my teenage years, I had a firm grasp on how terrible people could be to one another; horror confirmed my bias. Characters harmed and killed one another. They broke down from the weight of the world, and sometimes they escaped terrible situations. I always knew that the monsters were the least of our worries. It is no surprise that I transitioned to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Tami Hoag, and Patricia Cornwell. Thrillers, mysteries, and horror showcased the seedier side of humanity, and I couldn’t seem to get enough. The clear cut morality of these genres also appealed. It was easy to predict what would happen. Popular fiction soothed me as it entertained me. King remains one of my favorites because he knows that horror is about losing who you love. His books tell us something we don’t want to think about: the capacity to love opens us to the experience of horror. (There’s a reason I’m so fascinated with zombies.)

I lost something important, then, when I gave up reading familiar books for serious scholarly pursuit. I would occasionally consume a tale of horror when I couldn’t stand to read another academic monograph, but I always felt guilty and anxious. What if someone found out? When I submitted my dissertation to my advisor, my response was to read the Twilight series. This is not quite the celebration I imagined I would have. I routinely scoured the shelves of the local bookstores to find anything with a supernatural edge. I finally felt free to read whatever I wanted, so I binged on popular fiction. I flew through Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, which I read again and again. I picked up books by Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Cassandra Clare, Rachel Caine, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Holly Black, and Devon Monk.

I uncovered a swoony love for urban fantasy as I rediscovered my love of science fiction. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels and John Scalzi’s Old Man War series are my favorites for escapism. I found that I love some books as much for their particularities and their flaws as I do their triumphs. I like the smart-ass characters that Scalzi specializes in, and I wish I were an unrepentant badass like the mercenary Kate Daniels. When I read Scalzi’s Red Shirts and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing, I ponder tha narrative structure of our lives and our various attempts to make our own stories fit into limited molds. These books let me dream and imagine. They also help me think. I hunker down with books when I need time to process what’s happening in my own life. Books give me the space to breathe.

Yet, I read on my Kindle now, so I can’t see the wear of each book from every rereading. No more torn covers or dog-eared pages. My books no longer fall apart before my eyes. I do see the passages I highlighted that spoke to me, and I wonder what it was about each passage that caused me to mark it. The lines that seemed so important in one reading become less pressing in another. My transition out of academia could be narrated by the books I read and the books I refuse to read. I missed popular fiction. I needed it. Maybe we all do.

cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey-fox-poster

Look, I made Gawker!

I’m not kidding. Really. I made it onto the site.

No, I’m not all of a sudden a celebrity, nor did I do something distasteful enough to be noticed (much to the relief of my family).

Instead, it is the fault of Neil deGrasse Tyson, or rather, it is the fault of my recent piece on how Tyson should be an example for humanist engagement with the public.  Here’s a quick sample of the piece:

We need to puncture the silly public misperceptions of professors as characters straight out of Dead Poets Society (get off your desks now). Yes, I know we are engaged, but apparently the public doesn’t. So we’d better proclaim more loudly and clearly what our work actually entails—including research and teaching, its value and relevance to society, and the conditions we labor under.

Frankly, I think we should all take a page from science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-regarded astrophysicist who directs the Hayden Planetarium, writes popular science books, regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and is the new host of an updated version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on television. Tyson is a rock star. He can explain the complexities of science, and he can banter back and forth with Jon Stewart.

Listening to him describe the cosmos makes me yearn to be a scientist. (Sorry, Neil, I’m a humanist.) He’s a key advocate of the centrality of science to both a well-rounded education and a more informed public. Imagine if more humanities scholars emulated his example and explained our studies’ relevance without sacrificing analysis and complexity.

Gawker writer Adam Weinstein kindly included a synopsis of my article in his fabulous “Where Is the Humanities Neil deGrasse Tyson?”* He argues compelling that the humanities need folks like Tyson to bring public interest to our discipline. Obviously, I couldn’t agree more.  Adam writes:

Imagine if a philosopher or historian or literature professor could show mass-TV audiences the inner workings of things that are not science—from the assumptions of economics to the greatness of the great books to the sociocultural complications of canon-building to the cultural coding of Duck Dynasty. Imagine if they factchecked movies like Spiderman and Gravity for ethical and intellectual lapses with the geeky gusto that Tyson displays in factchecking the films’ scientific content. Imagine if we live-tweeted these professors’ lively, decidedly untraditional lectures and Q&As and documentaries the way we did with Tyson’s.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the article, there’s an addendum about my piece, which is pretty darn cool.

*A hearty thank you to Liana Silva Ford for pointing out Adam’s article and to Vim, PhD for putting us in conversation. This is why Twitter is my favorite form of social media.

18870-the-walking-dead-the-walking-dead

On Chomsky and Zombies

It’s only a field of study if recognized by Chomsky.
Image by Chris Baker.

Recently, a contributor to the Daily Kos noted that Noam Chomsky, the “legendary linguist/philosopher,” analyzed the zombie apocalypse for a group of students in a Skype session. What students? What kind of class? Where? (There’s no mention of these salient facts). A student asked Chomsky about the current preoccupation with zombies and the apocalypse in American culture, and the philosopher responded that these shambling monsters seem to represent “fear” in “an unusually frightened country.”

Most of Chomsky’s off-the-cuff response centers on H. Bruce Franklin’s work, War Stars (2008), about manifestations of fear in popular culture, though Franklin appears to be primarily interested in superweapons. Chomsky explains that chosen enemies differ in particular time periods. Anxiety about Native Americans overrun the colonial era, slave revolts terrified antebellum slave owners, and Red Dawn fantasies of teenagers as our only hope (please, let this not be true) against Communists resonated in the 1980s. In 2012, this cinematic fantasy was updated to replace Russians with North Korean soldiers. Americans, we learn, are very afraid and paranoid too. I feel like I’ve heard this before.

Chomsky explains:

I suspect that what you’re bringing up is part of that.  I think it’s, much of it is kind of just a recognition, at some level of the psyche, that if you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, there’s something wrong.  And that the people you’re oppressing may rise up and defend themselves, and then you’re in trouble.  And another is strange properties the country has always had of fear of invented dangers.  There is a kind of paranoid streak in the culture that’s pretty unusual. (Emphasis mine.)

 Zombies become the newest outlet for our multitude of fears. His analysis is pretty good considering the randomness of the student’s question. I mean, really, how often do you think he fields questions about zombies? (Rarely would be my guess.) Chomsky lays out histories of oppression and fears of retribution by channeling another scholar’s work. He’s quotable. After all, he’s Noam Chomsky. When he speaks about any topic, suddenly the discussion has new gravitas. By the mere act of speaking, he makes the news (here and here). He’s not just a linguist or philosopher, he’s a LEGENDARY linguist and philosopher. The implication should be clear: When he talks, we all should listen.

Okay, Chomsky, I’m listening but not willingly.

Continue reading