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Category Archives: Higher Education

Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.


Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.


Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

Kinds of Help

Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?

There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.

Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.

First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.

I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.

Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.

You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.

“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)

So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.

Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.

When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”

When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”

I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.

He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.

“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”

In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)

The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.

But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.

My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.

We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.

These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.

Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.

I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?

I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.

I Am Not a Number!

Re-encountering the bureaucracy after time on one’s own is always a bit of a shock to the system, and one thing it has produced in me the past couple of weeks is a vague nostalgia for episodes of the 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner.

Not that I am a particular devotee. I didn’t watch The Prisoner until I was in college in the early 1980s, and then only in a passel of bodies sprawled together on a mattress in a dorm mate’s room. I didn’t follow it coherently through the entire series, nor did I spend a lot of time in later years looking it up again. In fact, until I sought out video clips for this post, I recalled incorrectly that it was filmed in black-and-white. Probably my friend (if you can call him that) in the dorm only had a black-and-white TV. The guys were all fascinated with it, and we girls were fascinated with the guys.

I wouldn’t really relate to that sense of being trapped in social conformism for decades to come. But I certainly do now, and sometimes Patrick MaGoohan’s voice echoes in my head, shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Number Six’s struggle to retain his sense of individuality, and the inevitable white bubbles that would trap and suffocate those who attempted to escape have stuck with me over all these years.

I also have strangely fond memories of one of the first loves of my life, who was part of the gang that sometimes gathered to watch The Prisoner. He had the habit of parting company with the words “Be seeing you”—and I think he learned all of the panache he had from listening to Patrick MaGoohan say this line. In the show it’s a creepy, ambiguous line—a reminder of how undetermined all superficial social interaction is. When we long for someone’s company, it’s a statement that feels like a promise of a future encounter, but it can also indicate a stalker-like Big Brother threat of surveillance. Sometimes in life, as in The Prisoner, it is hard to tell the difference.

One of the things this chain of associations led me to is that realization of loneliness in the busy-ness. I think this is the common result of people’s individuality not being recognized and of a lack of trust due to a culture in which everyone is out for “number one.”

Ironically, this is, of course, at the root of the very difference that President Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention–the difference between a “you’re-on-your-own society” and a “we’re-all-in-this-together society,” and it’s one reason why I will vote Democrat in the upcoming election. There is no way that one can truly support democracy without a belief in the value and rights of every individual. This is what democracy is about–collective individualism–not socialism and not the extreme isolationist individualism of the current right-wing. Individuality is only a positive value when everyone has an opportunity and ability to use it, not just the ones in charge who so often try to turn the rest of us into drones.

All too often these days, however, I see a kind of instrumentalism that goes way beyond the Repubicans. I recently started re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and early on she mentions both “what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or obstacle to one’s own plans” and “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

I do believe that the humanities can help us with these endeavors, but not when it becomes a world driven by the old quid pro quo and rampant careerism. The values of the humanities are unfortunately too often betrayed by those in the humanities. I see this very kind of instrumentalism on a daily level even among many of my so-called liberal and progressive colleagues and acquaintances. Too many of us are so busy trying to claw our way to the top of some heap that we lose focus on anything else. It sometimes feels impossible to resist–it’s what we are trained to do by numerous forces in society today. In universities, this creates enormous cognitive dissonance–democratic and critical thinking skills that we believe in except when they apply to the system we’re embedded in. Our work is seldom gauged on its own merits–just by numbers–how many thesis projects you’ve supervised (not how well), how many butts in seats (not whether the students have been engaged or recognized themselves), how many committees you’ve served on (not whether you have created anything meaningful or have merely destroyed work that came before), and most of all how many publications you have (not whether you got them by trading favors, not whether they are of any quality). This is a societal sea-change, and to me it is a fearsome change, an infiltration of everything by those who have a vision of the world as an uncooperative and dog-eat-dog place. Not even progressives are immune.

I long for that kind of community where people recognize each other respectfully as individuals rather than as mere stepping stones on the way to success (or mediocrity, which is usually where this stuff ends up). I give and get some of this recognition in bits and pieces—friends and colleagues for whom I am truly grateful—but there is not nearly enough to go around these days. I know, I know–utopian thinking. Still, I take comfort in repeating the mantra that I am not a number, and I try not to treat others that way either.

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Gratuitous Violence About Fiction

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Louis Bouquet, La Mort d’Orphee, 1925-1939. Orpheus, torn to shreds by the Bacchantes, a sad symbol of what havoc jealousies and distractions can wreak on artists.

My apologies, readers: I had scheduled my next three posts to automatically appear while Bruce and I were visiting Germany, but, alas, something went wrong with my understanding of WordPress. I’ll try to catch up over the next few days. Maybe by now you all can bear another long post about clubby creative writing battles. I hope it doesn’t bore my non-writer readers. As this indicates, I am bored too, but my OCD side compels me to speak when readers of the New York Times have devolved into this kind of bickering. Friend Harold made me realize in a comment about last week’s manifesto about not restricting myself to creative writing that I nonetheless often do focus on these narrow issues. I promise to get away from this again soon, but it’s been an artsy month for me.

The New York Times is following in the footsteps of the tabloids, attempting to ratchet up controversy to get readers, at least that’s how it seems in this instance. The Times recently published a collection of articles in its Room for Debate series under the collective heading of “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” Six very short articles then assaulted us with their inevitably epigrammatic brevity in attempting to answer the headline question.

The writers of these answers—six men and one woman in the finest discriminatory tradition of the major publications—can’t possibly win. Answering this question in the 300 words each was apparently given is an impossibility. But they try, mostly intelligently with perhaps one or two notable exceptions that I’ll save for last. One or two of them even make interesting points, bless them.

Still, the entire atmosphere around these mini-essays is one of contention and rivalry, with a plethora of nastiness directed all over the place, including at the poor authors themselves. Here’s a sampling of the befuddling attacks and counter-attacks in their mini-essays and mostly in the online comments that follow [with my observations in brackets]:

Comments on Jane Smiley’s “An Exercise in Empathy”

“While the quantity of books has increased there is certainly a decrease in the percentage of great novels being written.” Chris Wilson, Boston [Um, has he read them all? How does he know this with such certainty? Did this comment have anything to do with what Smiley said? Um, no.]

In response to a commentator who noted (albeit incorrectly) the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the panel of writers, this diatribe: “Get over it… no wonder there is racism. Because people like you insert it into every possible situation, whether it belongs or not, which in this case it most certainly does not.” Kafen ebell, Los Angeles [Again, I marvel at this person’s prescience, in this case the ability to know whether or not racism influences this situation. It certainly seems to have influenced this remark.]

“Fiction creates empathy in a way that nonfiction cannot. It places the reader in the head of someone else, feeling their feelings.” Anniken Davenport, Harrisburg [What an odd way to characterize the supposed superiority of fiction—by attacking just the quality that memoir is known for.]

“Truth is, our present-day writers, most of them urban liberals, have effectively repelled the sort of readers who used to admire Steinbeck, Wolfe, Faulkner, Algren, et. al. Really, could anything be more objectionable than, for example, the sort of Manhattan-approved good thinker who confesses that while Iowa might be all right (barely) for children, yet it remains so horribly provincial, don’t you know, for more elevated souls.” Tito Perdue reactionary novelist, ‘Bama [Huh? Talk about a comment that comes not from the article but from a predetermined, always-present agenda. This is prime.]

Comments on Robin Sloan’s “Welcome ‘The Sopranos’ and Twitter”

“I checked out the excerpt from Mr. Sloan’s novel, and it expresses everything one needs to know about the current strain of reductive techno-cheerleading infesting our culture. I highly recommend he stick to ‘inventing media,’ whatever that might mean.” Ilya Leybovich, Brooklyn, NY [While I agree that I was not sucked into Mr. Sloan’s opening page, I’m not sure that Ilya’s position represents anything but some vague resentment at techies, even though he seems to be a news editor for an online PR magazine, hardly the purest or most art-obsessed role in life. Perhaps he is also a frustrated novelist.]

“Today’s ‘novel’ has become the pointless snippets people post of their daily lives on social networking sites.” Evan Lockport, IL [All of them?]

“Such slapdoodle, the very kind of thinking these superficial media encourage.” An Ordinary American, Prague [I don’t disagree with this person, just perhaps with his/her harshness. But I had to include this one because of the use of the wonderful word “slapdoodle” and because of the combination of “an ordinary American” and the location of Prague, where all ordinary Americans no doubt hang out.]

Comments on Matt de la Peña’s “Novels Have Become an Escape”

De la Peña’s piece is an anti-positive psychology note in itself, and was my favorite of the six for that very fact. Perhaps for that reason, he received by far the most commentary on his article. But, of course, the comments became an argument between those who insist life is indeed sad and those who insist it isn’t. Of course, it is both, and some commenters acknowledged that well, but I quote here some of the deniers and other nasties, my point being that discussions on the internet so often devolve into this oppositional absurdity.

“why are multiple posters quoting this same kafka phrase/ did the nytimes include a quote in their assignment? is this high school English class?” j, LIC, NY

“So far, the only living American novelist with anything to say is Corum McCarthy [whoever that is, or, I mean, sic]. The rest is filtered out by the agent-seeking-money people and the bean-counters-seeking-money from the publisher’s financial group headquarters. Most of your commenters sound like they recently got theit [sic] writing MFA which teaches lots about technique to those with not much to relate.” anonymot, CT [Another MFA basher, and I hope he/she does have something to say since there’s no expressed need here to say it well or to even give any evidence for claims. Some people just have to get the MFA-blame into whatever they say.]

“Although I disagree with Mr. de la Peña, I can forgive an intelligent young man who has enough intelligent-young-man arrogance to think his [sic] has enough perspective to judge his own time against what came before.” J, R [Funny, he never really says what he disagrees about per se. Oh, well, a put-down is always effective, right? The condescension blew me away.]

“only in genre fiction can the half-stereotypes we all rely on be explored safely, because lit fiction, which is supposed to be addressing these, is only interested in one side” John, Brooklyn, NY [I’m pretty sure this is not what Mr. de la Peña meant. In other words, John is always looking for an opportunity to say what is already on his mind, no matter what.]

“I think you mistake a few elites for an entire ‘audience.’ Jane Austin [sic] and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Oscar Wilde and others were popular because they were entertaining not because they were literary.” ro, nyc [Etc. etc. with “ro” and “anonymot” dissing the “elite” “decision-makers” who unfortunately promote “serious” writing. Totally incoherent, really, but the readers and writers of junk fiction are always aggrieved, by golly. They get all the money in wide sales, but that’s not enough for them. They want also the literary recognition that they trash so much.]

“A session with current fiction, even an extended one, turning thinly-worded [sic] post-modern pages requires that we reach for the next while the current one is coming to a close. They’re pills in paper back.” mm, albuquerque [Again, I think that the commenter is blaming books that de la Peña doesn’t mean to blame.]

“Life is not sad. It is what you make of it…. Yes, we are all going to die but that is not what is important here. What’s important is living a life that serves each one of us.” Susannah, France [I’m glad she knows what’s important for all of us.]

“People do care. They are not always hiding. I think this is a good thing and invite you into a positive world.” Jack R. Williams, Atlantic Beach, NC [Because, of course, this very successful young writer must be in a bad way just because he points out the contemporary aversion to life’s hard side. This private citizen would like to give him advice about his life. Does that seem fitting to anyone?]

“What a load of waffle.” TV, CT

“Agree that intellectual challenge has downshifted, but strongly disagree regarding sadness and self reflection, the preoccupation with which seems to have become pandemic. Also, the memoir, an exaltation of self if ever there was one, may be supplanting the novel as a popular idyll.” marymary, Washington, DC [OMG, let’s beat up the memoir again. Who cares that the subject here is the novel, some people just have to bash the memoir.]

“as a person who suffers from clinical depression, the idea that bouts of melancholy can be ‘beneficial’ makes me want to throw my laptop through the window. Where does the Times find these people?” gobot90, new york [De la Peña distinguished what he was talking about from clinical depression, but this person just missed it, I guess.]

“The idea that the novel should be ‘serious’ is a 20th century invention, as James Gunn points out. Mr. de la Peña needs to study his literary history.” gobot90, new york [Above, he notes that the Times gets unqualified people to write these, but only after he has here cited one of the other panelists—with far fewer credentials as a writer—as a better expert. In other words, the popular fiction folks are angry again. I can just never figure out why.]

Comments on Thomas Glave’s “Stories and Readers Change Together”

This piece garnered only 3 comments, all rather disconnected from what he wrote.

“A well crafted novel has the potential to tell far more truth than non-fiction and, in an aesthetic manner. Art goes farther than imitating life—it can capture its essence.” David Chowes, New York City [Another hobbyhorse inserted willy-nilly: the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. Boring, boring, boring.]

The next two articles I found in themselves objectionable. As scholar-critics rather than writers, they felt a need to pass judgments that seemed to me ill-founded.

Objectionable quotes from William Deresiewicz’s “New Forms, but People Will Always Read”

* “As for political fiction, Sozhenitsyn and Steinbeck were important figures, but they weren’t necessarily good novelists.” [At least he talks about specific novels, but this is ill-advised in a column where you have no space to define exactly what you mean.]

* “’The Jungle’ may have sparked reform, but I daresay ‘Mrs. Dalloway has changed more people’s lives.” [Unfounded speculation.]

* “Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of modernist greats: the novel’s facing headwinds, as it surely always has.” [Deresiewicz is, of course, a former literature professor at Yale and Columbia, now turned essayist, but basically a scholar and critic, so, of course, he has to slip in that the influence of writing programs is “questionable.” The MFA canard again.]

Comments on Deresiewicz

“To suggest that Mrs. Dalloway ‘changed more lives’ than The Jungle is wishful thinking at best. The Jungle resulted in reform that affected millions of people over decades whereas if Mrs. Dalloway was read even by 20,000 people I would be surprised. The market for Lit Fic is miniscule and supported mostly by libraries without which, the ‘genre’ of Lit Fic would collapse. ECW, Forreston, IL [The scholars hate the creative writers, even those of a literary bent, but the popular fiction aficionados hate both the scholars and the literary writers. Go figure.]

“[H]is conclusion is pure evidence-avoiding pollyanna.” Dudley, Saunders [I don’t disagree, but, still, the invective.]

“In the cities, on public transportation, in parks and restaurants, people can read what they really like without the fear of public censure once they abandon the lurid covers of conventional publishing and enjoy the anonymity of e-readers. Unless one is right on top of the e-reader, they can read whatever crap they want without having to suffer the smirk of social critics. On the other hand, it’s hard to attract that special someone on the bus when they can’t see the pretentious tome you are pretending to read.” richard kopperdahl, new york city [This one wins the award for a paranoid sense of aggrievement. I mean, really, since when did people hide their popular fiction? Really, it’s a funny thought.]

Objectionable quotes from James Gunn’s “Look to the Fringes of Fiction”

Another critic, who must pass judgment, but this time it’s a former English professor who no doubt felt that his research on science fiction wasn’t taken seriously enough in the academy. So he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has a huge axe to grind. I should just paste his whole little diatribe here, but I will select only a portion.

* “A century ago H. G. Wells had a public debate with Henry James about the uses of the novel. Wells, ever the pragmatist, thought the novel was a device to make an emphatic point about life or society or human nature. James, ever the esthete, maintained that the only purpose of the novel was aesthetic. James prevailed, according to the critics, and the literary novel has been judged ever since on aesthetic grounds…. Wells is still read…; James, not so much.” [Of course, he has to set this up in oppositional fashion, and he has to base his entire argument on something he can’t prove. The greatest novels, of course, both make a point about “life or society or human nature” and also pay attention to aesthetic issues. It’s not as though The Turn of the Screw says nothing about human nature. Yeesh.]

* “[T]he literary novel has never been a place to look for social or political protest, and the writers who dealt in such matters—Dickens, Sinclair, Wells, Stowe, Zola, Orwell—were never considered ‘serious’ writers in their own times.” [Really? And what about Morrison, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Gaskell, etc. etc.?]

* “The most effective social documents these days are genre novels—crime novels, for instance, but particularly science-fiction novels.” [I know the stupid 300-word form creates a tendency for the unsupported generalization, but isn’t this just an example of self-justification? It’s just so easy to trot out numerous counter-examples on every side of this issue—“serious literary” fiction that does take up social issues and science-fiction that doesn’t question the status quo at all. Just another angry devotee of popular fiction, wanting what he ostensibly despises.]

Comments on Gunn

Thus ensued in the comments a debate about the relative merits of Wells and James more than anything else, with the added current of “science-fiction is underappreciated.” Um-hm, yup, that’s why so many people read it and almost all university English departments teach it. Um-hm.

I couldn’t agree more with one commenter on Gunn’s post who referred to the entire endeavor this way:

“So wrongheaded! But what can one expect? These Room for Debate features seem to parade ‘experts’ who have bizarrely random claims to the title—you’d want to say they therefore spoke for an interestingly random sampling of views if they didn’t mostly seem to have some very particular axe to grind. – So this guy was chosen as the pro-sci-fi, non-canonical view? But why should that view be helpful or interesting (especially when he makes such blatantly incorrect factual assertions, as if James has been relegated to the dustheap while Wells has become widely embraced and beloved)? The topics for these Debates are so large, and the response pieces so frustratingly narrow, brief, and thin (based on opinion or assertion rather than fact), that the whole thing just becomes an exercise in head scratching rather than debate.” sd, ct

George Cruikshank, Old Blucher Beating the Corsican Big Drum, 1814. Gebhard von Blucher, a Prussian field marshal, carried an irrational degree of hatred for the French and over and over again flogged the populace and its leaders to go to war.

In fact, I find that these four childish battles are a large part of what’s wrong with writing and reading these days:

* MFA vs. no academic support for writers

* popular and genre fiction vs. literary fiction

* entertainment vs. “serious” fiction

* fiction vs. non-fiction, especially memoir

These are indeed shibboleths and hackneyed distractions, and I am sick of them. I wish we could move our discussions of literature and writing beyond them. Surely, there is something more interesting about what we do than these hobbyhorses that repeat themselves ad infinitum in the press. In spite of the fact that bifurcation is almost never a smart way of thinking, people keep these oppositions alive, perhaps because they are easy and draw “controversy.”

I hereby declare that there is no controversy on these topics. In spite of the continuing echoes of irrationality, the jury is in:

* The MFA does not harm writers. It has its pros and its cons, and it is not all things to all people. But it helps some writers find a way, and it supports many others. This is a good thing. That so many people want to study writing is also our best hope for a continuing culture of reading and writing and our best hope against an illiterate society.

* Neither the genre aficionados nor the literary aficionados should trash the other. There should be room for both in the world. That the publishing industry is shutting off the oxygen to literary writers is true, and I decry this, but other opportunities in small press publishing and inexpensive online literary venues are going to keep the literary alive. The fucking genre people have no complaint, and they need to give up feeling discriminated against. Once upon a time they might have had a legitimate issue, having been subject to the disdain of critics, but they don’t any more, and truly great work in science-fiction and other genres regularly is attended to with literary awe. People read it, too, and its popularity is secure. So, what’s the problem?

* Serious fiction, however, is indeed different from a lot of popular fiction. Some of us are even “entertained” by something more serious than formulaic fare. But there is no hard and fast line between them. We need to get used to this and debate only the merits of individual texts, not entire categories. The categories do not serve writers, and barely serve readers—they are largely enforced by the publishing companies, bookstores, reviewers, and critics, who are all classifiers at heart. Their classifications are convenient for all of us sometimes, but they are not sacrosanct.

* Likewise with the ridiculous claim that fiction is always and necessarily superior to non-fiction and that memoir is a degraded form. This is just patently false and almost always asserted out of self-promotion or some other slightly less obvious self-serving belief. There are bad novels just as there are bad memoirs. And there are good in both genres. If you want to start a tally list and go through all of literature to demonstrate otherwise in any convincing way, then, as my mother used to say, “Go ahead, gourd head.”

Would that the squabblers would hear my song.

Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus, 1894. Orpheus before everyone started fighting over him. Better days, no doubt.

A Year in the Blogosphere

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Joyous Crybaby has readied me to keep my eyes on that horizon while I plow that soil. (Photo by Lisa Wild for the Geograph Project [].)

Actually, it’s more like 13 months in the blogosphere now, and I’ve been thinking since I passed the one-year anniversary that I should post another reflection on this endeavor. Thinking about it at the six-month mark helped me further define my purposes and bask in an admittedly self-satisfied glow that I had kept it up that long.

In the next few months, I’ll be facing new challenges as a blogger—the end of sabbatical, a return to full-time teaching, and deadlines for a major book project. I remain uncertain of the continuing viability of Joyous Crybaby, even though the reasons are shifting and even though I feel all the more devoted to her. I still feel as though she’s doing me good.

She’s not a work project, though, and I am employed in a demanding field where I’m not supposed to spend much time doing anything but what will further my career. Academia more and more is judged by business models, and this involves an increasing obsession with quantifiable results and quantifiable justifications. Every year, we are required to turn in the dreaded document called a Faculty Annual Report, and each department chair is required to turn in the larger version that supposedly proves quality and intellectual achievement by the number of grant dollars, publications, and “seats in butts” (or student credit hours) that we have produced, collectively and individually. Our departmental budgets and our individual merit raises are determined by such numbers (not that the raises offset the pay cuts we are experiencing via means such as lower retirement contributions). Whether institutions with such a myriad of purposes and such a myriad of considerations is best served by this constant quantification is debatable, of course, but it’s a fact of almost any academic’s life these days. Here’s one great write-up of a blogging academic who kept track of his work time.

Therefore, every week, day, half-day, or hour I spend writing a blog post—and finding supporting resources, references, and appropriate copyright-free illustrations, and then formatting and linking everything on the blog itself—I wonder what the heck I am doing spending so much time on it.

I’ve also had occasion to wonder why I didn’t at least focus my blog on creative writing—my area of professional expertise. There are many academics who do gain some credit for their profession-related blogs and who at least spread the word that they are experts in their fields by narrowly focusing on a professional sensibility in a more or less narrow field. In other words, though they may practice a more general-reader style, their blog personas directly reflect their professorial research. Mostly they are not very personal. There are indeed many such blogs in the world of creative writing—almost all literary magazines these days have a large web presence, many literary magazines are fully online and function as community blogs with selection requirements, and there are dozens if not hundreds of blogs about the writing life, craft, “how I became a writer,” publishing tips and advice at both magazine and book level, finding an agent, various genres and styles of writing, and so on. Some of these blogs and online literary venues are fabulous, and I read a lot of them avidly if not regularly.

Maybe the sheer plethora of existing creative writing blogs made me choose instead a wider focus and one rooted in issues in another field entirely (my starting point of my negative reaction to positive psychology bromides). However, as the year has passed, I’ve had to justify this choice to myself.

There are many reasons I’ve thought about, but perhaps the most important is that I wanted to engage with the wider world.

Another characteristic of a life in academia is a great deal of specialization. You’re not just a chemical engineer, you are a chemical engineer specializing in air pollution modeling and incineration. You’re not just a professor of Italian, but you specialize in Italian travel and immigration literature with a focus on Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, Mario Soldali, and Emilio Cecchi. (Two real examples from the UCF website.)

I have already bucked this trend to a certain degree by working across the creative writing v. scholarly writing divide and by writing in not just one creative genre, but in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. (And my undergraduate degree was in studio art.) This has had its downside, and it may be true that I am a master of none of these forms. So, I understand why my peers in academia often focus much more narrowly than I do in their work. It’s a habit that is rewarded in the system, and it suits some people just fine.

I believe, however, that writers do have a responsibility to respond to the world beyond the confines of narrow specialties. It’s a different point than the one that I criticized Marjorie Perloff for making about academia rendering writers’ work repetitive and mediocre, though it is related. (It’s also a point that I would apply to all those in academia, even more so to many scholars compared to many of the creative writers.)

This all leads me to another influence on my blog choices—that we live in a time when being a “professional” writer often seems to involve more time tending to the business of writing than to writing itself. At six months, I mentioned how I felt a need to get back to my own roots as a writer exploring the world rather than as a writer being an expert. I needed to find my way back to “beginner’s mind,” as the Zen Buddhists call it. As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki is often quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

And I do have to admit some boredom with a lot of creative writing blogs. It’s not because the content isn’t often useful, even insightful. What in a professional sense is no doubt seen as “focus” or “coherence,” however, frequently becomes too self-reflexive and insular for my taste. Even though some creative writing blogs go beyond the purpose of promoting a given writer’s publications, reviews, and lectures to include discussion of issues in the field, they all seem to me cut off from the rest of the world. These blogs remind me of the kind of creative writing workshops where a focus on “craft” does not include any concern with intelligence, personality, or soul (admittedly difficult things to “teach” and touchy to even discuss). Even though I have a passionate interest in many of the issues they raise, I need to embrace a wider horizon.

Is that a strong enough statement to be considered a manifesto? I’m not sure, but I mean it as one. Graduate school for me opened new universes, but over the past few years in the academic grind, I have been engaged in a battle for my own soul and self—to keep from becoming what I consider too narrowed by academia. For a long time, I was losing that battle, shriveling, becoming bitter, obsessing daily about fundamentally trivial things, wearying of it all. Though I had gained tenure and a wonderful husband, I had lost involvement in politics, gardening, cooking, animal rescue, friendships, family relationships, the great outdoors, exercise, and my own health.

Joyous Crybaby has been part of a multi-faceted process that I hope will help me face the next academic year and my return to the classroom with a sense that maybe I can keep my eyes up even as I labor with my fingers in the dirt of the academic field. As an alter ego, she provides me with a reminder that I need: that no profession—and no other person—defines me. All too often, we forget even ourselves beyond the surface judgments, caught up as we are in what others think of us. JC has been a great lesson in character beyond stereotype. It seems to me that this sense of mystery about what comprises human beings is vital to the writing endeavor, not to mention the endeavor of being a decent human being.

Rita Dove, Marjorie Perloff, and the Failure of Success

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The “Poem Tree,” carved in England by Joseph Tubbs in the 1840s.

I apologize for the length of this post, my longest one yet. Sometimes it takes longer to examine what’s underneath an argument than to make one in the first place. As long as this post is, I kept it relatively short by focusing on this latest attack on Rita Dove’s anthology rather than Helen Vendler’s earlier one in the New York Review of Books. Dove very handily dealt with Vendler already and she chose to address primarily the racism and mischaracterization exhibited by Vendler, rather than another subject that Vendler veils even more than Perloff but one they both must see as another key culprit in the inclusion of the “many, rather than, few” poets: the MFA program and the presence of creative writers within the academy. Scholars have lost this battle, and creative writing is now well established in academia, so it seems that subject has sunk just below the surface. But it is never far below, and I believe we still need to address it directly.

Everybody Is a Poet

You know something is really wrong when someone mourns the success of a field she purports to love. Maybe love is the wrong word, so let me rephrase. You know something is really wrong when someone mourns the success of a field she has made her life’s work. The first line of Marjorie Perloff’s recent “Poetry on the Brink” in the Boston Review is “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?”

First, you would think that all lovers of literature and the arts would be jubilantly celebrating in the streets. I mean, my god, the novel may be dead, and support for the arts may be at an all-time low, but EVERYBODY has become a poet!!! How grand and unexpected an outcome is that?

But, no, according to Perloff, the popularity of poetry is a bad thing that ensures its mediocrity, or, as she puts it, “moderation and safety.”

Now, let me back up a minute. Is it true even that everybody is a poet these days? Obviously, in any literal sense of the word “everybody,” this is ridiculously untrue. Perloff bases her sense that everyone is now a poet on numbers provided in a lecture by poet and University of Georgia professor Jed Rasula: colleges and universities now employ 1,800 faculty in graduate programs, and that is only at the 177 graduate-degree-offering ones of the 458 institutions that teach creative writing, which “swells” the number of faculty teaching creative writing (now not just poetry) to 20,000. OMG, in a nation of 312 million, there are 20,000 employed teacher-writers. At least, thank god, their teaching keeps them busy a lot of the time, so they aren’t writing even more poems.

However, my next-door neighbors on either side don’t write poetry: the nurse, the retired engineer, the paralegal, and the fellow who owns a car dealership. None of them write poetry, and as far as I know, none of them read it either. When my undergraduates arrive in our introductory creative writing classrooms here at UCF, most of them have never read a poem by a living poet, and, though some of them may have written shortened lines of anguish in their online journals, or even in a notebook they keep under their pillows, they do not consider themselves poets. Their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and aunts don’t write poems, and the first time they venture to call some words they’ve written down a poem, they don’t feel safe at all. That is even more generally true for the F-school elementary students and the ex-cons and the nursing home residents that my friend Terry encounters in the Literary Arts Partnership she directs.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes grow exhausted by the number of would-be writers I encounter in everyday life. Just about every week I do meet someone who wants to be a writer. The first I recall was a psychology professor who ran a fellowship program I was in during grad school—he became very insulted when I declined to read his novel manuscript. Then there was a stranger in a meditation class I took, who brought me rafts of poetry that I didn’t have the time or inclination to read. My hair dresser wants to write, as does the wife of a physician I worked with in the medical humanities. The Buddhist monk who ran the meditation retreat I attended a few weeks ago is working on a book. Every freaking doctor or nurse seems to want to write a book, except my next-door neighbor. (The plethora of medical writers is a post for another day.) At least once a semester, I get an email from a random person who has found my faculty website and who hopes that I will “edit” his or her manuscript for him or her for free, out of a “love of writing.” I don’t do it, but this is not out of any sense that none of these people has a story worth telling or a poem worth shaping. It is not out of a sense that they shouldn’t be trying to write. I celebrate their attempts, though it’s beyond my capacity to help them all, just as I imagine a doctor or a lawyer recognizes the legitimate health and legal concerns of many in the population without offering to treat or represent them all.

I’m also from a family of writers, some professional, some not, and I can say with certainty that the richness of that background has led me where I am today—not a famous writer, perhaps not even a particularly memorable one, but one who makes her living by the word. The many writers in my family—from my great-grandfather the journalist who published two books of natural history through my grandmother with her religious verses through my amateur-novelist parents (both of them!) and my long-time blogger brother—have not detracted from my own modest accomplishments, but made them possible.

Perhaps it is for that reason that I don’t think that a large number of poets in society is a bad thing, to the extent we even do have a large number of poets. I think, in fact, that it makes the likelihood of great poetry emerging out of the plethora of mediocrity all the greater. Even if most of the poetry today is basically compost, it creates a rich soil for a much wider possibility of poets.

I would like to point out, in fact, that even with the numbers that Rasula cites, we are talking about 0.0064% of the population making a living as writer-teachers. Hardly everybody, even if we trust his numbers, and I’m not sure if I trust the numbers of someone who equates 0.0064% with “everybody.”

That teeny-tiny percentage also includes writers who write primarily in genres other than poetry, but it doesn’t include the many published writers (especially those many in literary journalism and genre fiction) who don’t also support themselves by teaching. It isn’t those independent writers, however, that concern Perloff and Rasula, only writers who also try to survive the academic gauntlet and are thereby rendered “safe” and predictable as writers.

Note that Perloff is not arguing against the kinds of standards that she seems to think force creative writers in academia to become safe and mediocre. She is not suggesting that tenure for such writers in academia should be judged in some way other than the number of awards they’ve won or the number of poems they have published in journals any more than she is arguing that scholars of American literature should be judged by a standard other than the number of awards they’ve won or the number of articles they’ve published in academic journals, in spite of the fact that the readership of scholarly journals of criticism is lower and the percentage of work accepted also generally higher than in most creative writing journals. She is simply arguing that not so many of these writers should exist.

She is also not arguing that academia has produced a corrupted uniformity and mediocrity in literary criticism, which, if the logic holds, would also be the result of the tenure and publication process therein. Perhaps we should entertain the idea that all critics are dulled by academia and need to make their way as reviewers. There are certainly those in our state legislatures these days who aren’t sure that our public universities need so many of them.

Can you imagine a physician coming out with a public statement decrying the general population’s attempts to eat better or exercise or get vaccinations? Can you imagine a lawyer who would discourage folks from using an inexpensive online will-document or living-will service if they couldn’t afford a private attorney? Can you imagine a doctor noting that nurses are valueless just because they have R.N. degrees instead of M.D.s?

It strikes me as very strange indeed for someone like Marjorie Perloff—professor emerita at Stanford and the author of numerous books and articles from the academic press—to imply that the academic environment corrupts poetry. Jed Rasula, too—a full professor at the University of Georgia, whose publication career includes both scholarly work and a couple of books of small poetry from small presses—seems to have benefitted from the support of academia. (This is a point I will come back to later.)

The Ivory Tower, this one a castle built c. 1780s in Neath, Wales, and no doubt fought over until a ruin.

The Struggle Over Academic Territory

People, this is not about “everybody” becoming a writer. It’s a power-struggle over academic territory. Reading between the lines, what I find in Perloff’s lament are the following:

1) The idea that if you can’t be somewhere as illustrious as she is, then you shouldn’t be messing with poetry. If fewer people did it, then discussions of poetry would remain “lively and engaging debates about the nature of poetry and poetics,” as she thinks they were in the 1960s, even in the 1980s. (I don’t recall the former, of course, but the latter seems to me to have been just as full of territorialism.) Maybe it is okay to democratize engineering, but not poetry. It should still be an elite endeavor, protected from popularity and the masses of would-be writers.

2) The idea that the kind of poetry that Perloff promotes—“language” or “experimental” poetry—is the only truly innovative kind, even though that type of poetry is more linked to the institutions of learning that support it than any other kind. Though it is academia that she thinks supports a mediocre poetry, the poetry that has a better chance of popular success and survival outside of academia is, in fact, the “lyric” poetry that she finds so abhorrent. It is not Jed Rasula or even Charles Bernstein that sells poems outside of a narrow academic audience, but the likes of Billy Collins or, yes, Rita Dove, who comes in for such a beating from Perloff.

3) So, it’s not that Perloff doesn’t think there should be writers in academia or that academia should not support some writers. It’s that somehow academia isn’t only or primarily supporting the more “elite” kind of poetry that she supports—that is, poetry that has its roots in theory and intellectual ideas about language as opposed to what she considers banal imagery and feeling.

4) In other words, Perloff is doing what academics do, especially in times like these when resources are shrinking—she is conducting a turf war, an argument about what should be taught in the academy, and she is arguing for the styles she personally favors. Period.

The truth about this is that most (and I don’t mean all) “language” or “experimental” or “Conceptual” poets come out of a scholarly background. They came to writing via literary history and theory. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and most writers I know have nothing against the pursuit of this kind of writing by those drawn to it. However, the resentment that exists in English departments between the scholarly (PhD) people and the creative writer (MFA) types abounds. It always has. I guess, alas, it always will. The likes of Marjorie Perloff cannot be satisfied unless literary theory and intellectual debates about the nature of language come to dominate the creative writing parts of English departments. They do not see the success of creative writing (as it currently exists) as part of a shared success of the field of English studies, though I think they should, especially during times when many elements of our political world would like to eliminate the study of the humanities almost entirely. Instead, the rise of MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs threatens their hegemony and dominance.

The cover of one of my great-grandfather’s books, Rhymes, Roughly Rendered by T. J. Campbell, 1902.

The Place I Speak From

I feel I can legitimately speak to this because of my own liminality, not to mention my own lack of importance. I have an MFA in creative writing, and I have a PhD in American literature (a regular English PhD, not one with a creative-writing dissertation and a few extra lit courses). I even did one of my comprehensive exams on the subject of literary theory. I feel a great appreciation for and protectiveness of both of these veins of study, though it is true that my career has focused on creative writing. But you just don’t get MFA faculty attacking the very existence of the scholarly study of literature the way you get scholars attacking the creative writing endeavor. A few snide comments, sure, but mostly defensive ones. Occasionally these rise to invective, as in my former MFA mentor, the inestimable (and, for the record, entirely “experimental”) Paul West referring to scholars as “corpse-fuckers.” But nothing like the continual, in-print, organized, and elaborate attack on the existence of mere writers in the academy. Our muddling along as untheorized observers of the world, illuminators of the “small epiphany,” and explorers of intimate sensitivities is often (though thankfully not always) anathema to some (but thankfully not all) of our scholarly colleagues.

Trust me, I see many problems in the arena of academic creative writing. I am nauseated by the insularity of the prizes, the clubbyness of professional organizations, the back-scratching that so often is what leads to publication. I despair over the continued sexism and white dominance in spite of the “identity politics” that Perloff thinks produces only slight variation. (See, for example, evidence in the VIDA count and a recent report by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.) I could write expose after expose, rant after rant, bitch-fest after bitch-fest about the limits and bad advice that have been imposed on me and those I know within the tenure system, not to mention the disintegrating publishing industry.

Instead, I end up reading over and over again these disses against MFA programs, from within the academy, sometimes even from within MFA programs themselves..

I think of a conversation I had with my neurologist a few weeks ago, after it became clear that he had originally misdiagnosed a problem I was having. I like him—he had made the referral to the Mayo Clinic that finally resulted in a different diagnosis, because he recognized his own uncertainty, and he was modestly apologetic. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wish I were an orthopedist. I could say, ‘Oh, you have a broken bone.’ It’s clear and direct. Neurology is more complicated.” Maybe an orthopedist would disagree with this characterization, but seldom would one of these specialists be enough of a foolish ass to aver that the other kind shouldn’t exist.

Yet just that kind of thing is common in English departments and in online and print publications that are responsible for carrying on discussion of our literary culture.

The Adoration of the Magi by the Master of the Llangattock Epiphany from the 1450s, back when epiphanies could be large.

Perloff’s Complaints About Contemporary Poets

In this case, I find the following a selection of questionable assertions in the first half of Perloff’s essay:

* In Perloff’s outline of the three characteristics of contemporary poetry of which she disapproves, she notes “irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself.” This is an outlandish claim, and I know of no poets who think or teach little to nothing about lineation. How can she even say that? Of course, she bothers to give exactly no evidence or example. Free verse, of course, means that lineation must be constantly and individually attended to, not formulaic.

* She claims that another characteristic is “graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor.” The adjectives here, of course, are simply a matter of taste and debate, so what she is objecting to is the foregrounding of imagery and metaphor in themselves, which are indeed key elements of most poetry. If one takes out the adjectives, one sees that Perloff must, then, be arguing against their use. Go ahead, I want to say, see where that gets you.

* What it gets us to is the third characteristic that Perloff dislikes, the “expression of a profound thought or small epiphany” that I mentioned before. Usually, Perloff notes, this is “based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.” I suppose Perloff would rather us celebrate or forget those things. At least, they are so trivial as to be beneath her. And it is here that Perloff really begins to show her own imperialist tendencies, but more on that in a minute.

* Perloff also claims that “[w]hereas scholars gain cultural capital as they move up the academic ladder and can—by the time they become full professors—feel relatively comfortable in their careers, poets are always being displaced by younger poets.” This statement made me laugh out loud. First, as so often with this article, I think that the fabric here contains only the thinnest thread of truth. If Marjorie Perloff doesn’t think she bears any threat from younger scholars, then she should be careful about how many times she hails the 1960s and the 1980s as a fabulously superior time to ours. Granted, perhaps it is so that youthful sexiness is more vaunted by the commercial publishing industry where creative writers hope to place their work than by the university presses that publish the scholars. Indeed, author photos do not hold the same sway in the scholarly world as in the creative. Indeed, even when a creative writer places a book with a large publisher, if sales are not meteoric, it may get harder to publish subsequent books, whereas scholarly presses accept a very modest definition of popularity and will often therefore continue to publish a scholar who is hardly a bestseller. But this is one thing that poets (as opposed to novelists and creative nonfiction writers) have in common with the scholarly writers—modest expectations of sales of books has led to long careers. Donald Hall, who Perloff mentions, for instance, has published 22 books of poems (plus numerous books of biography, short fiction, memoirs, and textbooks) since 1952, the most recent in 2011. Robert Pack has published 15 books of poetry and 6 of prose since 1955, with again the most recent in 2011. Perloff disproves her own remarks in this regard, perhaps out of some sense that poets should not ever become full professors. I hate to break it to her, but they do with regularity these days. If their publishing challenges are so much greater for them than the scholars, all the more reason to admire them.

* Perloff cites this insecurity in aging poets’ careers not as a lament, but as an excuse to note that they write the same basic thing over and over again in their books, that “somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets less attention.” “Ezra Pound’s ‘Make it New’ has come to refer,” Perloff sorrows, “not to a set of new poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.” Ironies abound here.

Perhaps paramount is the utter repetitive nature of Marjorie Perloff’s work itself or that of almost any scholar in academia today, where we are trained not to be generalists (for better or for worse). Perloff has commented on an impressive array of modernist poets’ work and she has pounded in a variety of ways about the banality of lyric forms of poetry, but does her work really range more widely than that of most contemporary poets? Does her focus on the rhythmic and metrical, on the language aspects of modern and post-modern poetry really encompass that much wider a world view or strategy?

But, also, Perloff cites Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” as a rebuke to current poets for not being innovative enough and then goes on to note that statements about emerging hybrids between experimental and narrative poetry “don’t quite carry conviction” because “’an avant-garde mandate’ is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.” I know that Perloff has read Pound, and I am sure that she knows her Pound far better than I do. But we all also know that rebellion from the status quo and reverence for the forms and insights of the past were both key to Pound’s work. Perloff contrasts Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg (those committed to “the emotional spectra of lived existence”) with Pound’s “collage mode.” So it seems to me that Perloff confounds two issues here: 1) age and tradition and 2) “feeling” versus “collage,” the latter meaning text sources of inspiration.

Any given poem and its construction beforehand is a struggle between all these forces or, perhaps, on a good day, a beautiful dance between them. This does not, as Perloff insists, mean that the choices are arbitrary or that they have nothing to do with the historical moment or the cultural context. Individually, they certainly do. But that does not mean that they cannot all coexist with the field of poetry or even within a single poet. It is not a war where there need be a battle to the death.

The cover of Rita Dove’s anthology.

The Meat: Perloff’s Complaints About Rita Dove’s Anthology

After this, Perloff gets to what it is that seems to have recently set her off: the publication of the new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. A long chastisement follows, in which Perloff takes issue with the omission of Random House poets that Dove and Penguin chose not to include because of prohibitive copyright costs. Dove has recently explained this decision in an AWP Writer’s Chronicle article, as well as in the introduction of the new anthology, but Perloff is not buying it and places the blame firmly on Penguin. “How,” she asks, “could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose?” She does not mention that Dove has indeed explained this quite fully in print elsewhere.

Aside from whose fault the omissions are, this issue is a dodge that allows Perloff to critique the selections Dove has made, as well as her sense of literary history. Perloff claims that “one evidently wants to read her anthology not to learn about American poetry of the twentieth century but about her likes and dislikes.” In other words, Dove’s tastes are not adequate for the job, at least not in Perloff’s view, because Dove has not made the same selections that Perloff would have made.

At least not past the modernist era—Perloff notes that “however individual and intuitive Dove’s judgments on contemporary poetry, her Modernist canon… is more or less everybody’s Modernist canon.” Here is where Marjorie really begins to sound old. Here is where she returns to her earlier hint that she mourns the loss of a simpler time when everyone supposedly held a consensus about who the great poets were. She notes that before World War II everyone agreed on what the canon was. Alas, however, “the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology.”

Her lament about what Dove includes is then exemplified by Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Hot Combs.” Perhaps the oddest thing about Perloff’s reading of this poem is that, based on Trethewey’s own mixed-race heritage, Perloff assumes that the narrator of the poem is the poet herself. She complains that the poem, with its “easy conclusion that beauty is born of suffering, would seem to place this poem somewhere in the 1960s or ‘70s” but that it was published in 2000. Yet, Trethewey is known for combining her own personal experience with historical settings, including in her 2002 book Bellocq’s Ophelia, about a fictional prostitute living in the early 1900s. Perloff seems to willfully misread or oversimplify her reading of Trethewey’s poem.

But Perloff also makes another strange move here. She claims that “Hot Combs” exemplifies the three typical (and inadequate) characteristics she has noted above in the mediocre contemporary lyric poetry she is criticizing (no attention to line or word per se, prose syntax filled with imagery and metaphor, and the presence of a small epiphany. But only one of the the numbered list she gives in attacking this poem matches her list above in her second paragraph. Instead, she lists: 1) a present-time stimulus, 2) a memory, and 3) an epiphany (only this one matches). She does mention “prose syntax” and she insults Trethewey’s diction by putting “literary” in quotation marks before reciting a few of her descriptive phrases. But there is no coherence to the argument here. It’s just that Perloff doesn’t like this particular poem.

An example of “experimental” concrete poetry by Vasily Kameysky, 1914.

Perloff Turns to Supporting the Few

In the second half of her essay, Perloff goes on to write a manifesto about “a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo” with “what is now called Conceptualism.” The phrase “what is now called” seems to me to imply that she is simply talking about a different kind of status quo or tradition—in a direct line from the “language” and “experimental” poets of the past several decades. It also strikes me that somehow the fact that this is a “growing” group is used here to legitimize these poets, whereas the increasing size of the group of lyric poets somehow delegitimizes them. Go figure.

Perloff notes that the “main complaint against Conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people’s words negates the essence of lyric poetry.” She goes on to restate that Conceptual poetry is accused of having “no unique emotional input,” and that the question asked about it is, “If the words used are not my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric?” As usual, Perloff doesn’t cite any examples of this argument, and perhaps it is true that some people have said this kind of thing. But most poets, even the lyric poets that Perloff seems to think are utterly stupid, are not that naïve. They don’t claim that the words they use have never been used before, and they often pay homage to other poets in their work. In fact, they often themselves produce mash-ups, and many of the literary magazines that Perloff suggest contribute to a uniform mediocrity send out calls for poems that do just that (For instance, here’s one from Crazyhorse: Cross-Off Contest). It is part of the conversation that is literature, no matter the style.

Perloff then asserts that the musicality used by John Cage in his re-working of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is “absent in most contemporary poetry,” a slam that literally stuns me. She chooses one example “at random” (I doubt it) that she then turns into prose and notes that Cage’s poem “cannot be turned into prose” because of its “very formatting.” Well, really, I could turn it into prose, but, given that the Cage lines are further from usual prose syntax than the lines she quotes from Dove’s anthology, is Perloff really suggesting that prose can have no musicality? And has she read the same contemporary poetry that I have? Plenty of it is musical and rhythmic, and if some of it is less so, why should poetry have to conform to a formula of musicality any more than a formula of tripartite “observation—triggering memory—insight” or the 14-line form of a sonnet?

For example, these few lines from “The Golden Shovel,” written by a young poet I’ve recently discovered, Terrance Hayes:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight.

[from Lighthead, Penguin, 2010]

To describe this work, and work like it, as having no musicality requires an unimaginably deaf ear. I know Marjorie Perloff cannot have such a deaf ear. So why does she make such an enormous, vague, insupportable claim? She seems to me to be grasping at some kind of legitimacy for poetry she feels is unappreciated, and she goes on to analyze the work of four poets she likes.

Death is a common subject in many styles: The Death of Henry VII represented in a medieval miniature.

Perloff’s Four Poets

First, she discusses That This by Susan Howe, who she notes was not included in Dove’s anthology but who nonetheless “would not call herself a Conceptual poet.” In addition, Howe’s book focuses on the sudden death of Howe’s husband, Peter Hare, that subject matter of “personal tragedy” that Perloff earlier criticized in lyric poetry. The difference is that Howe reconstructs her poems out of fragments from other sources.

Don’t get me wrong—Howe’s work sounds fascinating to me, and I fully plan on looking it up. Perloff is at her best when she writes passionately in support of work that she finds interesting. She convinces me that Howe’s work is worth a look.

* Likewise with another set of poems that Perloff analyzes in some depth—from another poet she characterizes as “not primarily a Conceptualist”—Srikanth Reddy’s re-working of the memoirs of former Nazi and president of Austria Kurt Waldheim into a work Reddy calls Voyager. And again Reddy seems to partake of a subject matter that Perloff has criticized—sensitivity of feeling about “our imperialist wars.” Reddy’s work is different not just because he has re-worked an earlier source, but because his poems are “free of all moralizing or invective on the poet’s part.” I understand that there are shades here, but I am not sure how Reddy’s “critique” of Waldheim’s hypocrisy and of “political mendacity in general” is free of moralizing. His project and its outcomes seem inherently (and appropriately) moralizing to me.

Both of these books also sounds as though they need to be seen in their entireties—in book form—to be fully understood and appreciated, something that it’s difficult to present in an anthology. Perloff even says this herself: “Like Howe’s” book, Reddy’s “has to be understood as a poetic book rather than a book of individual poems.” How, then, would she suggest that Dove anthologize them?

* Recognizing this issue, Perloff then turns to recent short work by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein, she notes, has been criticized for becoming “easier” in his more recent work, but she argues that the trickiness of assessing Bernstein’s tone in such lines as the following renders his work still compelling:

No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again

Bernstein, Perloff notes, is posing the question of “how to come to terms with this embarrassing bathos.” That makes the bathos interesting, though, of course, it is not an excuse that is allowed the “status quo” poets that she criticizes.

* Perloff’s last example of a poet she deems worthy is Peter Gizzi, who has written a collection called Threshold Songs “in response to a series of deaths—his mother’s, his brother’s, one of his closest friends—so overwhelming they can hardly be processed.” Again, because it “avoids the unsayable by its appropriation of other voices,” Perloff believes that Gizzi has written a more legitimate series of poems about his own personal tragedies than people who write more directly from their experience.

Ron Stillman’s neon sculpture “From Northern Soul (Bury Neon),” Greater Manchester, England, 2011.

Concluding the Inconclusive

Perloff ends her essay rather suddenly by noting that, “Increasingly, the ‘true voice of feeling’ is the one you discover with an inspired, if sometimes accidental click.”

Honestly, I don’t even know what she means by this last statement. Does she mean poets themselves or readers of poetry? And, while I guess she’s been making the case for a particular mash-up strategy of writing, she seems to have lost the point of arguing against the tradition of lyric poetry. Surely, she doesn’t mean that the only legitimate way to write poetry is to re-write other texts?

And for someone who is here to champion hard-core experimental and Conceptual work, Perloff has now given us examples from two people who don’t consider themselves Conceptualists and two examples of Conceptualists, one who has softened the Conceptual line around his work, and another who has taken up the lyric subject of his own personal tragedy. Does she really believe, then, that hybridity is impossible and an unconvincing storyline as she asserted early in the essay when she briefly mentioned Cole Swensen and David St. John’s anthology, American Hybrid? Her own examples seem to me to prove its healthy existence.

I do, however, agree that, as Perloff states early on, “Formal choices are never without ideological implications.” I believe that Perloff’s choices certainly have them, and that her ideology most clearly supports an elite of the elite. Writers and readers of poetry are quite an elite all on their own, and when you sift out the grandmother-amateur-poets, they are even moreso. But Perloff seems to me determined that poetry will also remain shuttered from lived experience, centered in the halls of intellectual academe, and upper crust, if not essentially white and male (Reddy, of Indian descent, attended Harvard and the University of Iowa). She does not celebrate the vernacular found in poetry she would call unmusical, nor in the actual experience of loss or suffering, only in sublimated versions. A poetry based in the middle class or the working class must be anathema to her, just as any but the most intellectualized ideas about poetry are.

I want to make clear that I do not think that debates about quality are not relevant or appropriate. But what I see in Perloff’s essay is fundamentally a grasping to preserve the values of a time long past—a pre-World War II era when scholars defined quality, when poets themselves were largely excluded from the academy, before they had infiltrated it in creative writing programs and had begun to find the platform to assert their own definitions of quality that were often at odds with their more theoretical scholarly colleagues. Perloff notes indignantly that Rita Dove’s anthology “depends not on … its capacity to satisfyingly delineate a poetic canon or make some claim about the nature of poetry in a certain time or place—but on the prestige of its editor.” It seems outrageous to her that Dove is “prestigious” in spite of her 13 books.

It is entirely possible that Dove has made selections for this anthology based more on a creative writing sensibility and pedagogy than that of a scholarly literary one. Indeed, the delineation of a canon or the examination of the cultural and historical aspects of poetry is often not the focus in creative writing courses, though creative writing students are always required to take numerous literature courses in which they are. It is also true that creative writing pedagogy and traditions often function with a more idiosyncratic and artisanal model of teaching and learning than do scholarly ones. Perloff clearly believes that this is wrong-headed, as do many in the scholarly literary field, and she insults these methods by stating that she wonders if the intended audience of Dove’s anthology is “junior high students.” It is true that creative writing pedagogy in the wrong hands can be too easy and indulgent, but in the right ones it can be rigorously powerful and empowering. There are many variables that contribute to particular outcomes. I just wish that Perloff would admit that what she is doing is longing for a time before creative writers per se had a place at the table of deciding what poetry has merit. She wishes it were only the scholars and the few scholar-poets who had the kind of “prestige” that Dove now shares.

If Dove has constructed an anthology suited to her own reading and teaching preferences, what is wrong with that? Is it not the same method that Perloff herself uses when she edits anthologies and decides what works she will include on syllabi? As Rasula notes, in academia, we are trained to be “specialists,” and Perloff herself is not asked to teach courses in the Victorian novel. I can fairly safely assume that she has never included a Rita Dove poem on her syllabus in spite of the fact that Dove has published more books and has been more widely read than some of the post-modernist poets that Perloff favors. It is probably true that most poets teaching in academia weight their teaching toward the lyric, and even poets in that tradition (such as Carolyn Forché) have worked to open it beyond the personal to a more political consciousness. But these poets have asked that the door be opened, not that another door be closed.

The second half of Perloff’s essay, though not particularly logically consistent, nonetheless serves a valuable purpose: supporting four poets whose work she finds compelling. I am all for that.

Yet I must point out that Peter Gizzi is a full professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Charles Bernstein a named professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Srikanth Reddy an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, and Susan Howe retired as a named chair at the University of Buffalo (formerly SUNY Buffalo). Of the four poets that she mentions early on that she feels were neglected in Dove’s anthology—Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, C. S. Giscombe, and John Yau—all but one has a full professorship at a prestigious university, and even the one (Alexander) has taught in several places while making the choice to remain in his native L.A. All of them, in spite of some of their and Perloff’s protests, have successful careers legitimized within the very academy Perloff wants to blame otherwise for the mediocrity of contemporary poetry. They are all also writers whose work is deeply connected to the scholarly, theoretical, and historical tradition.

Academic historians and theoreticians of music and the visual arts can’t so easily cast out the practitioners of music and art—their media require a different kind of technical facility than the scholars have. But when the medium of art is language, too often the scholars don’t believe they need anyone but themselves.

And this turns me again back to the first half of Perloff’s essay, which seems to me an unacceptable diatribe about MFA programs in creative writing and the influence of academia on poetry, that is, on poets within academia who do not toe her rarefied intellectual line. I do believe that we can debate the merits of specific poems—and the Trethewey poem that Perloff critiques will likely never be one of my favorites. I agree that we can debate what the most important elements are in poetry, too. But this kind of hand-waving, overgeneralized dismissal of MFA programs and lyric poetry is less than we deserve from our well-known public intellectuals in the field. I am a relative nobody, with no doubt a less lofty education and certainly fewer credentials on which to stand than Perloff and her Harvard and Berkeley cronies, and even I can think beyond this.

We need to celebrate in the streets—and in print–the rise of creative writing’s popularity in the public imagination and in our colleges and universities, or else we really could end up dancing on the grave of poetry one day soon. Just about 99.9936% of the population may not even notice.

Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

People Connections: Facebook Reprise

Bruce and I recently watched The Social Network. We’d put it off for quite a while because we’d heard that it was full of jerks, and indeed it was. The filmmakers were fascinatingly successful at rendering Mark Zuckerberg sympathetic by making it seem as though the other jerks were worse than he was. Poor little lonely rich guy.

Several things struck me about the movie. One was how much college has changed. My brother graduated from Harvard in 1980, where Facebook got its start 20+ years later, and I attended another “elite” college, though not in the Ivy League. As I watched The Social Network, I couldn’t help thinking about the way money has come to be the vastly dominant value in our culture. I don’t mean to trot out that “when I was your age, we had to walk to school two miles through the snow.” But I have virtually no recollections of talking about plans to get rich when I was in college, and I don’t think my brother had many either. Yes, both of us knew obnoxious rich kids, the silver spoon jock types. It might be an odd thing to celebrate those fellows’ 1970s and 80s obsession with drugs and sex, rather than intellectual learning, but—hey—at least it wasn’t an obsession with reaffirming their privilege and expanding even further their financial advantages in the world. I’m sure financial plotting was there; it just wasn’t so bald in my youth.

It was no doubt more prominent at Harvard than at Carleton—I remember the much stiffer and status-conscious atmosphere from when I visited my brother there, and I remember being amazed that Harvard allowed those dinner clubs to exist in our day and age. In fact, one of the reasons why I had chosen Carleton was that it had absolutely no fraternities or sororities. I believed that such things were a throw-back—like debutante balls and country clubs. How could universities open their doors to women and people of color and different backgrounds, thus asserting that the right to higher education was not a birthright, and then turn around and allow these clubs to perpetuate the discriminatory privileges that their admissions policies no longer supported?

Of course, instead of dying out, secret societies, country clubs, and fraternities and sororities have made a huge comeback. On our recent visit to Knoxville, Bruce and I asked my dad about an enormous new construction project near the UT campus, and he informed us that the university is now pouring money into a project to build sorority houses. “To fix the gender inequity,” he said, and sighed. I find the idea of sorority houses addressing an inequity hilarious. One kind lessened for more of another kind. That they’re now building sorority houses instead of demolishing fraternity houses shocks me.

As we watched The Social Network, I thought a lot about the exclusive origins of Facebook. I recall that when I was first encouraged by friends to sign up for a social networking account, I was told that the Facebook membership was better educated than that of MySpace. I didn’t realize for a long time that Facebook had originated at Harvard, that it had been built on the concept of exclusivity. First it opened to other Ivy League schools, then expanded to university students with “edu” email suffixes, then (I suppose when some of them started graduating) to people at certain companies, and then, finally, to all over the age of 13.

In some ways then, Facebook has been democratized. Yet I wonder if it doesn’t remain tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction and created by a fellow who imbued it with a barely-beyond-high-school sense of social values. I think a lot of us—even those of us who use it enthusiastically—have deep ambivalence about it because of some of these remnants.

On the one hand, I really enjoy Facebook. It’s rather miraculous to be in touch with people I would likely never have heard of again had Facebook not come on the scene. I no longer live in either of my hometowns, and I have never received an invitation to a high school reunion, nor have I ever attended a college one. When you have had the rather peripatetic life that I’ve had, it’s also a miracle to see so many different parts of your life gathered in one spot. Weird sometimes, but cool, too.

There’s my brother, of course, whom I’ve known since birth, but close on his heels is Sharon, whose parents played bridge with my parents when I was a toddler; Lisa, who I met in elementary school and who introduced me over the years to both s’mores and Spin the Bottle at her parties; William, who played basketball with my brother but who was closer to me in age and stayed my good friend and correspondent all through college. There are high school friends mixed in with college friends mixed in with grad school friends mixed in with colleagues and recent friends mixed in with former students. When on Facebook I often miss my friends who don’t use it at all or much. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that there are some continuities in my fragmented life, even if it is just that a lot of my friends like cats and dogs.

Facebook was also great immediately after my brain hemorrhage last year—it made things easier for everyone, including me. Hospitals have changed—I can remember when they took everything away from you as soon as you were admitted. Now they leave you with your iPhone in peace. I had music, I had Scrabble, I had email, I had the ability to make calls, but I also had the ability to not have to make calls. I just posted on Facebook, and the messages of concern and affection came rushing in like rain on the windowsill—it was outside, but I knew it was there, warm and life-affirming.

Obviously, these purposes now go beyond the college-student hook-up site that Mark Zuckerberg originally envisioned. Facebook, as we all know, has helped to create entire political movements and to help locate lost teenagers. Wikipedia even reports that in February 2011, a newborn in Egypt was named “Facebook” to honor the role that it played in that country’s revolution.

On the other hand, Facebook in my health crisis situation was a little deceptive because serious illness is a demand, both physical and emotional. Some people in your life are going to meet that kind of demand and others won’t, and there are even some people you shouldn’t ask. Facebook lumps everyone together, though now in response to Google+’s circles it allows for different “lists.” Still, the effect of Facebook is a kind of superficiality—a kind of one-night-stand of support rather than something more sustaining. Three people—one colleague, one former mentor, and one dear friend—rather brutally abandoned me in the immediate aftermath of my brain hemorrhage, and Facebook has made this doubly weird.

It’s not that these betrayals wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the brain hemorrhage—at least one of them definitely would have, as the ground for it was laid by my colleague long before her final coup. My brain hemorrhage was in that case used as a convenient excuse for side-lining me, and this extended to the betrayal by my former mentor as well. In both of these cases, I was discredited partly because I was ill and therefore “weak.” This is a common and well-documented reaction to serious illness, outlined long ago by Irving Goffman in his work on stigma. The friend who abandoned me is another matter, and one that I’m at a loss to explain. Explanations and excuses are seldom forthcoming in such situations, and certainly friendships sometimes end without major illness as a factor. But I will say that such abandonments in times of illness seem cruel, far more so than when you’re well.

And it’s not as though these betrayals wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. It’s just that Facebook takes you back to the kind of public rejection that we’re all likely to have had in junior high and high school. One of the people who betrayed me in 2011 also “unfriended” me on Facebook in a good indication of her own guilt and self-loathing, just like the junior high girl who steals someone else’s boy and calls her former friend names.

The other two are still my “friends” on Facebook. One of them is probably completely unaware that I feel betrayed by her; I grant her the benefit of the doubt because I know she was misled by others. We are still polite to one another, but I feel a bit like a teenage girl who thought she was the favorite of the football team captain only to find he’s dropped her for a cheerleader. The one who was my friend simply sits there, just as her image does in my wedding photos, a cypher, like the former close pal whispering with her new buddies at the school lockers.

I feel no particular antipathy toward any of these people, though it is odd to see them on Facebook (and I do see even the one who “unfriended” me because we have numerous “friends” in common). I suppose that’s an indication that my emotional life has matured since high school even if the structure of Facebook shapes us in that h.s. mode. This has all pointed out to me concretely how Facebook is not so much about friendship as it is about something else, the wider social network indeed—or the appearance of community, but not community itself.

We all know this, of course—it’s particularly obvious among writers and academics where so many of us use it as a tool of self-promotion. I do this myself, to the extent I link my blog to it and post publications sometimes. There are those who use this aspect lightly, though, and those who use it heavily. There are those who do so unrelentingly, and there are those whose Facebook pages are strangely unreal, surreal even. Watching The Social Network, I thought it no wonder that Facebook is so commonly used this way, considering its founders and their original intentions of getting ahead.

Being “friends” is, after all, not the same as being friends. I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg has known this from the very beginning since his main motivation for his creation seems to have been revenge and social climbing. In other words, this may be a “duh” moment. But I still think about it a lot, in love as I am with both the simulacrum and the real world and still trying to parse out what differences Facebook makes, positive and negative.

Sandusky and the Democratic Need to Speak Out

You might not think that the Penn State child abuse scandal and Occupy Wall Street have much in common. But maybe I can explain why I will celebrate OWS every day until they are smashed completely by those who don’t want to hear it. It’s not just because they have a point, but also that they are willing to make it.

I spent 14 years in State College, Pennsylvania, first working at Penn State and then earning two graduate degrees there. I never met Jerry Sandusky, met Joe Paterno only once briefly, and only met Graham Spanier a handful of times, though I worked for his wife as a research assistant for a year and sometimes filed papers in their presidential home.

In spite of many claims circulating these days, a devotion to football is not required for membership in the Penn State community. I attended one football game in all my years there, and I left at half time, though I was sitting on the fifty-yard line in the company of a member of the Board of Trustees who was much older and more important than me. This latter was a situation chock full of a low-level sexual harassment that I managed to deflect, but I remember how it felt to say no to a person vastly more powerful than me. Maybe those connections cause me to want to comment on the recent scandal, or maybe it’s just my status as a human being.

Certainly the internet has been lit up with outrage about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior and about possible cover-ups that occurred in the Penn State football program and beyond. I participate fully in some of this outrage—we should assuredly feel it when any child (or adult, for that matter) is sexually assaulted —much less numerous ones over years. Certainly we should expect that all people who witness such a situation, directly or indirectly, should find it worth their trouble to do all in their power to stop it.

But when we expect the latter, we are hoping for people to break an ingrained habit that we usually approve of and take for granted in other situations, a habit that is generally rewarded. Granted, a crime, particularly of a heinous nature, should call for the setting aside of politeness and self-interest. But why is it that so often it doesn’t?

When, in fact, was the last time that you or I looked the other way and didn’t speak up in the face of an injustice, wrong, or lie? Probably yesterday if not today. So I agree that much with neoconservative columnist David Brooks’s recent opinion. I don’t, however, believe it’s because we’re all just inevitably sinful. As Daily Kos blogger Frederick Clarkson pointed out, that’s a dodge. Instead, I believe that, especially in many of our places of employment, we are trained in an anti-democratic obedience that is a hard habit to break. It takes a lot to rehabilitate Pitt bulls that are trained to fight; most humane associations euthanize them rather than ever expect them to recover. Like Pitt bulls trained to fight, people trained to be yes-men and yes-women have a hard time overcoming the pattern.

I also agree with much of what Michael Berube said recently in the New York Times about the Paternos’ academic heritage remaining intact. I wonder, however, whether greater faculty involvement in the governance of Penn State would have made a huge difference, as he claims. Faculty are not fundamentally different from anyone else, and they are no strangers to politics that favor yes-men and yes-women. Faculty are no strangers to pumping up numbers for the image of a program when the reality is not so keen. Faculty are no strangers to unfair practices, and many faculty have never spoken out about even the less drastic (and less risky-to-reveal) wrongs they might witness in their daily work. What Berube suggests would only help this kind of situation if it were one in which faculty themselves did not have to fear repercussions from those more powerful than they.

This is by no means exclusive to universities with football programs. Even though laws that protect them somewhat have been on the rise since the late 1980s, whistleblowers from all walks of life report the high price they often have to pay for their honesty, even when the behavior they report is criminal. (Just type “whistleblowers pay a price” into Google for 2,960,000 hits. Or read this other New York Times column by Alina Tugend who traces psychological research into why this is.) People lose their jobs, entire careers, their marriages, their homes, sometimes even end up on welfare waiting for cases to be resolved. Even in a best case scenario, people who blow the whistle look forward to years of punishment.

There’s another complication here as well, and I finally figured this one out after reading Sara Ganim’s Patriot-News account of conflicting testimony about reported incidents with Sandusky. The article does a great job of laying out all the different indications there were that something seriously wrong was going on. Yet, I didn’t quite agree with its last statement that, “everyone cannot be telling the truth.”

What the litany of reports reminded me of was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the reports by the Rogers Commission that came out afterward analyzing how on earth NASA could have launched a mission with a combination of factors almost certain to bring the ship down and kill its seven crew members.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant at Penn State, in fact, we used the Space Shuttle Challenger as a prime example in composition classes of why clear and honest communication is important. We used it as a case study of how communication can go wrong. Engineers knew that the Challenger was likely to fail, but the authoritarian culture of NASA and the media pressure due to the inclusion of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe on the flight made those engineers afraid to assert what they knew in no uncertain terms. As the warnings went up the chain of command, they were repeatedly weakened until they became completely vague euphemisms that did not indicate the extent of the danger. Thus, the fatal decision to launch in spite of low temperatures for which the O-rings had never been tested and were unable to hold.

Here’s how the evolution happened at Penn State, as well laid out by the Patriot-News article:

McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room.

It’s like a game of Telephone, only the scrambling isn’t random; rather, the message remains coherent, just weaker and weaker.

It is also, Tracy Clark-Flory notes on Alternet (originally Salon), very common for child sexual abuse to be overlooked, ignored, or covered up. By no means are McQueary, Curley, Schultz, Paterno, and Spanier alone in their inability or unwillingness to face up to what was going on.

None of that excuses what happened at Penn State, either the abuse perpetrated by Sandusky or the failure to stop it by others. It does, however, make surprise about it somewhat disingenuous.

And, in spite of my disagreement with David Brooks’s “original sin” kind of thinking, it also means that one of the many places we should look in the aftermath is within ourselves. We can hope that each of us would have the decency to stop and report far and wide such events and suffer the counter-accusations, the damage or complete destruction of our own careers, and the necessarily long, perhaps public, involvement in attempts to rectify something dirty and disturbing. I hope for myself personally that I would have the nerve, and I think I would. Still, while most of us may not be sick or criminal in the vein of Sandusky, we are a lot more like the others than we would like to admit.

So it disturbs me that most of the “attempts to heal” that I’ve seen focus on this false question, “How could it happen?” rather than “How can I prepare myself never to fail in this way?” Externalizing all the blame is inappropriate. We need instead to create different habits in ourselves: habits of telling the truth and speaking out.

Even when we have perfectly good reasons for speaking out, we may be discouraged from doing so. There are kinds of damage less than losing an entire career. There is damage that isn’t even as clear as pepper spray in the face of a protester.

I myself was told by an administrator at my university that in order to make my way in the face of certain manipulative and back-stabbing behavior I just need to get more “strategic” myself. I told him I would rather fail completely than become devious and dishonest. And there’s a very good chance that I will fail by a certain set of standards. In some ways I already have.

Recently a colleague of mine in another place has been sidelined from a program she developed precisely because she criticized the performance of a senior-level administrator for some serious errors. Now an additional faculty member has been added to help further the program and, now that there’s potentially someone else to run it, that senior administrator is saying that she won’t approve of the next phase (investing the resources to create an international center likely to have some renown) unless my colleague be excluded from having anything to do with the program she created. All because the administrator doesn’t like this person.

I also have an acquaintance who was sexually assaulted by an employee of the college where she worked. Because there was no “proof” the institution refused to act on her complaint, and her colleagues wanted her to shut up about it so as not to damage the institution’s reputation. She became—in my eyes, undeservedly—a pariah and eventually left for another, lesser job.

None of these situations is as clear as the issue of speaking out about a child being raped, of course. But I do believe that those of us who are in the habit of speaking out about lesser wrongs are more likely to speak out about greater wrongs. We know how to bear the anger. Some know how to withstand the pepper spray and tear gas.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s very hard to tell the difference between a truth-teller and a mere trouble-maker or even an asshole. For those of us who are not complete corporate or university sell-outs—yes-men and -women who have consciously prioritized getting ahead—the main quandary is how to create the habits in ourselves of telling the truth without becoming simply obnoxious.

We all know the types that everyone avoids, whose sense of what is wrong in the world may be paranoid or self-serving or just plain crazy. We know the ones who are just angry all the time and who will lash out at anyone with an accusation.

In order to try to prevent my own corruption in this regard, I have to always remember that other people see things differently and have a perfect right to do so, that I should say what I think but be ready for the (sometimes legitimate) push-back, and that I will never, ever be popular. Even accepting all that is no guarantee I won’t end up either fudging the truth sometime to get ahead or obsessing about something others see differently. All of us can only try to remain aware.

Beyond myself, I grieve a societal structure that is based to such an extent on a false meritocracy. The belief that greatness necessarily rises to the top poisons a lot of our professional interactions. This, too, is a difficult issue for me. As a teacher, I do indeed want my students to grant me the respect and authority accorded by my education and experience. Fundamentally, though, I don’t want anyone to think they are ultimately inferior or superior to me. I squirm within a university hierarchy in which individuals are expected to show constant deference to those in higher positions and where any questioning, no matter how polite, is considered disrespectful.

Hierarchies are based in the idea that some people are superior to others. This should be in a limited and role-based way at best. But too often, the skinny woman just thinks she’s a better person than the fat one. Too often, people believe that the wealthy deserve it. Too often, the boss sees himself as having a God-ordained entitlement. And in situations like the one in which Michael McQueary witnessed his “superior” doing something terrible, he responded with the assumption that others were in charge, others were responsible, others knew better than he did. We are asked to respond this way almost all the time.

On the other hand, I have in my mind’s eye an image of Myles Horton, one of the co-founders of the Highlander Folk School in East Tennessee that became a training ground for labor and Civil Rights leaders in the 1940s and continues social justice work today. Horton came to speak at my undergrad institution in Minnesota one spring in the early 1980s, an old man who still had a lot to say. I was dating a boy who was interested in Horton’s politics, but I went to see him partly because I was homesick for the gentle rising East Tennessee spring while I sat in a snowbound Minnesota April. He kindly spoke to me about the mud and the unfurling of the bright green, baby leaves and the redbud blossoms, and then he turned to the larger audience and announced, “Democracy is not efficient.”

There is a way of thinking about democracy that means “equal opportunity” to scramble to the “top” with those at the top necessarily defined as deserving. And there is another way to think about democracy, which is that no matter where on the ladder one is, one is an equal as a human being and has rights. Though there is no party or political persuasion that is without its spin, euphemism, power dynamics, even sexual misconduct, I lean left because I think the left’s vision of democracy is closer to the latter than the former definition.

No, democracy is not efficient. If all the managers, administrators, and bosses in the world had to listen and respect others, it might be a boatload of extra work for them. I watch, in fact, as my husband tries to chair a department this way, and it’s hard. He comes home exhausted by the sometimes heated arguments of his department members. I always tell him that they are truly better off because people are willing to put it out there, in contrast to my own department, where it is all under the surface and uglier for it. So, that’s not an easy prospect. But deep and abiding democratic values, practiced daily, might be the best bet against silences that harm and kill.

The Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was first popularized at the Highlander Folk School.