A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Friday, December 30, 2016

What Scares Me

Years ago, when I was still a Ph.D. student, I was teaching a first year writing course. I'd assigned students to write a "position paper," in which students were to take a position on a contemporary issue and argue for that position. Most papers made familiar arguments on topics that 18 year olds are invested in--violent video games don't make people more violent, schools should eliminate standardized tests, etc. But one student's paper--conveniently, the bottom paper of the stack, which I read late into a long evening of grading before returning the papers the following morning--was an argument that opposed covering birth control under the Affordable Care Act. This was during the height of debate over the ACA, and unbeknownst to me before reading this paper, this particular student was a deeply conservative Catholic. His paper was an utter mess--though initially framed as an argument about the need for religious exemptions to birth control coverage, the paper quickly descended into a unfocused rant about the evils of contraception, highly confrontational and lacking any coherent organization. Trying to control my own offense at the paper's tone, I gave the paper a low C (which felt generous), and provided a brief, carefully worded end note about the paper's tonal and organizational issues. A few days later, the student came to my office hours to discuss his grade, though it was unclear whether his intent was to get a better grade, or further litigate his argument. Repeatedly, I would attempt to turn the conversation to the rhetorical and analytical content of the essay, only to get pulled into an argument about contraception itself. I could feel that I was being cast in the role of the stereotypical liberal university teacher; the conversation was an exercise in trolling more than a discussion of academic writing. But the sad thing is, I genuinely sensed that the student didn't realize there was a difference; to this 18-year-old, argument was argument.

I eventually let the student rewrite the paper on a different topic and raised his grade slightly, an outcome motivated by exhaustion rather than a sense of fairness--he had successfully worn me down, and as a grad student it wasn't worth it for me to fight for him to keep his C. This would not be the last time that I would feel like I've failed as an educator to adequately confront a student's ideological entrenchment--the student who, when asked to bring an example reading to class, picked a 10-year-old climate change denying editorial from a right wing magazine; the student who wrote a paper critical of Western medicine whose only sources were anti-vaxxer websites; the student who, in a discussion of violence at Trump rallies, insisted, "to be fair, there's been violence on both sides"--these examples all stick with me for the way they've left me feeling blindsided.

I don't believe teaching can or should be an ideologically neutral act. However, nothing in my training as a teacher of writing and literature has prepared me to handle overt ideological conflict. I've acquired some basic skills on my own, but for the most part, the material that I cover as a humanities teacher presupposes a certain amount of common ground, and I no longer believe we can or should assume that such common ground exists.

Here's what scares me: I know that a year from now, or two years from now, there will be college students citing Milo Yiannopoulos's new book as if it is an academic text, citing statements from the new president as if they are authoritative truths, and many of the people on the front lines in confronting those ideas--the teaching assistants and writing instructors--will be ill equipped to handle it, just as I was and largely still am. We train instructors on how teach evaluating sources, we train instructors on how to teach rhetoric, but we don't train instructors on how to teach ideology. At least not directly--certainly, by training instructors on how to teach sources and rhetoric, we are indirectly training on the teaching of ideology, but I don't believe we can afford to be so indirect in the future. Teachers need the equipment to confront racism, misogyny, homophobia, and science denialism when and where it shows up in their classrooms--to confront it with the compassion, empathy, and respect befitting an educator, but to confront it nonetheless. I have decent improvisational skills, but I need more concrete strategies--we all do.

Of course, resources providing these strategies already exist, but they're more important than ever before. Here are a few questions I've been mulling over, pertaining to specific teaching scenarios that I've encountered in the past that I suspect will become more common in the future:

  • How do you grade and comment on a paper when the fundamental problem with its argument isn't the rhetoric or the sources or anything you covered in class, so much as it is the first premises from which the paper is arguing, e.g., an unexamined assumption about biological race?
  • How do you diffuse an encounter with a confrontational student in office hours?
  • Is there such a thing as a student who is a "lost cause"? That is, how do we identify and deal with students along a spectrum of ideological entrenchment, from those who simply have never examined their problematic beliefs before, to those so steadfast in their bigotry that there is little to nothing productive we can do with them in the course of a semester?
  • What role do facts play in an ideological discussion, and how should an instructor handle a situation where they don't have the relevant facts at hand? If one student peddles false or misleading information in a classroom discussion, but the instructor doesn't have the resources to fact check in the moment, how can the instructor effectively debunk the misinformation while maintaining authority?
  • How do you manage sensitive discussions in an ideologically diverse classroom? That is, in a hypothetical classroom comprised of 2 or 3 students from vulnerable populations (e.g. queer or POC students), 5 or 6 students who consider themselves allies, a dozen or so indifferent or politically disengaged students, 5 or 6 international students without the same background in American political discourse, and 1 or 2 right wing students who might be inclined to be more confrontational, how does an instructor manage conversation so as to provide an education to everyone at once (this is, in my anecdotal experience, a fairly common demographic breakdown of a ~25 person class at Michigan)?

Obviously, no two scenarios will ever be the same, so none of these questions have easy or universally applicable answers, which makes ongoing teacher training that much more important. I honestly don't even know if I'll still be teaching in a year or two, but I'll still be in academia in some capacity or another, and whatever I end up doing, I hope I'll have a network of colleagues with whom to explore these questions. We'll need each other as resources now more than ever.

We also need institutional backing, since those on the front lines are also those with the greatest professional vulnerability: graduate students and non-tenure track faculty. We shouldn't have to risk our jobs confronting ignorance and bigotry, but if we don't confront the ignorance and bigotry, I don't believe it's a job worth having in the first place.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Premature Death of a Course: A Glimpse into how Universities Value the People they Pay to Teach

Last Fall I saw a Facebook post from a former student of mine from Shanghai who is now studying at the University of Michigan. In the post, he commented on Ann Arbor's air quality and expressed sadness and concern for his parents living in Beijing, for whom he'd just bought a new air filter. Coincidentally, directly below that post, Facebook showed me this meme, which had been shared by a history professor acquaintance of mine:
The juxtaposition of my former student's post and the professor's post got me thinking about the language of abjection with which we talk about pollution in China, and Beijing specifically, and about how air pollution constitutes a kind of Faustian bargain with the mephistophelean forces of industrialization and modernization. And it got me thinking about the history of that Faustian bargain--how it started in Europe, moved westward across the Atlantic, and now had moved westward across the Pacific.

These thoughts stuck in my brain for a few months, and by January I had come up with an idea for a course that I wanted to teach examining the history of urban air pollution. The course would consist of three units: one on nineteenth century London, one on twentieth century Los Angeles, and one on twenty-first century Beijing. The course would be interdisciplinary; within each unit we would examine scientific questions (chemically speaking, what was the air pollution in each of these cities, where did it come from, how was it measured, and how did it affect human's health and the environment?), humanistic questions (how did artists and activists work to make the air pollution visible and represent its effects?), and sociopolitical questions (how did politicians and regulators address the problem of air pollution?). The course would begin with Oscar Wilde's observation in "The Decay of Lying" that painters were responsible for making London's fog visible:
Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art.
And it would end with the artist Nut Brother's recent work, creating a brick out of Beijing's air pollution:
I talked to several professors about the course, and they recommended that I propose teaching it for U-M's Program in the Environment (PitE). I wrote up a proposal and in April I met with the program's director, who happened to be a former professor of mine. He loved the idea, and wanted me to teach it as a 300-level PitE course in Winter 2017.

There was just one complication.

As I've documented on this blog, I've been a contingent faculty member at the University of Michigan since I completed my Ph.D. in 2013. My rank is Lecturer 1. U-M has four levels of Lecturer, Lec 1 being the lowest. In my experience over the past three years, the most frustrating thing about being a Lec 1 has been the instability--I'm hired from semester to semester, and never know whether I will be teaching, and if so, what classes I will be assigned, until the last minute. Twice I've been laid off for lack of work: in the Winter 2014 semester I had to take a temp job at the library to pay the bills, and in Winter 2016 I was fired from the English Department and the writing center, only to get a last minute partial appointment at the Honors College.

This past year, fed up with this uncertainty and seeing the hopes of a more stable faculty position rapidly dwindling, I decided to make a transition into academic libraries. I had already applied to and come close to being hired by several academic libraries; I decided to go back to school for a Master of Science in Information (MSI) to increase my chances of securing a good position in that field. This would have the added benefit of giving me something to do in Ann Arbor for the next two years while my wife finished her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology. We could then go on the job market together with several career options between the two of us.

I had initially hoped to pay for the MSI degree by applying to become a University Library Associate (ULA), but, as luck would have it, the ULA program was discontinued for the upcoming school year. My backup plan was to pay for the degree by teaching as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI). And that's where the PitE course comes in.

PitE has offered me a position for Winter 2017, but they have offered it to me at the rank of Lec 1. Now, previously, it had been the instability that frustrated me about work as a Lec 1, but now, from the vantage point of someone who is going back to graduate school, the disparity in financial compensation is coming into sharp relief. It's important to note that at U-M, a Lec 1 and a GSI can do essentially the same work: they can both be hired as a the instructor of record, teaching their own course, or they can be hired to lead discussion sections for a Professor's large lecture class, like a "teaching assistant" (though we don't use the term TA here in any official way). However, according to the standard contracts for a GSI and a Lec 1, the work looks very different in terms of how we are compensated. Let's look at a side-by-side of what a GSI might get for teaching one course vs. what a Lec 1 might get for teaching the same course:

Lec 1
% appointment?
Tuition waiver?
Full tuition waiver, the value of which can vary depending on the school. For the School of Information it is $10,000 per semester.
No compensation equivalent to the tuition waiver.
Approximately $10,000
Approximately $6,000
Health care?
Only for appointments over 50%

Now, I should note that GSIs only teach one course per semester, and because Lecturers usually are hired at a 100% appointment (three courses per semester), they typically do receive health care and their take home pay is substantially higher than graduate students. I should also note that, compared to many universities, these rates of compensation are something U-M should be proud of, and are the result of hard work on the part of the graduate students' union, GEO, and the lecturers' union, LEO. But still, looking at this information side by side, it's striking to note the disparity in how two ranks of university employees are compensated for doing the same work, especially considering that GSIs, almost my definition, are inexperienced instructors without advanced degrees, while Lec 1s are experienced teachers with MFAs or PhDs. I think this disparity speaks rather clearly to the university's priorities, which lie more with cultivating future scholars than with compensating professional teachers. The sad irony is that those future scholars are more likely to end up in a job that looks like a Lec 1 position than one that looks like a tenure track professorship.

I haven't yet decided whether to accept PitE's offer to teach the course in Winter 2017 as a Lec 1 with a 33% appointment, or to see if I can find a GSI position with another department. PhD programs at U-M typically guarantee GSI positions to their students--I had ten semesters of support as a GSI during my PhD program--but the School of Information offers its MSI students no such guarantee, meaning I have to apply to positions one at a time. There are few GSI positions in the School of Information, and positions in other departments are difficult to obtain for applicants outside of the department. For the Fall semester, I applied for over 20 positions in different departments and only last week received an offer to teach discussion sections for a class in the Screen Arts and Cultures Department. It's a gamble, but right now I'm inclined to let the PitE course die a premature death.

The urban air pollution course is a passion project of mine, and such being the case I have been willing to put in the extra work of building the course from scratch. But passion won't pay my tuition, or my rent, or my grocery bills, or my doctor's bills.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Colonial Adventure Narrative

There's a genre descriptor that I often find useful, the "Colonial Adventure Narrative." I use it, generally speaking, to refer to those stories where a colonized land serves as the site of adventure for one or more of the colonizers. It's a capacious genre encompassing a variety of story settings and formulas. The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes are obvious examples; perhaps less obvious are Cowboys-and-Indians Western stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's a genre most commonly associated with the Victorian period, but it's as old as colonialism and is still going strong. And while no one story element is necessary or sufficient for a story to fall under the umbrella category of the colonial adventure narrative, the genre is associated with a fair share of negative tropes, such as the noble savage and white man's burden. Generally speaking, the colonial adventure narrative is deeply entrenched in the perspective of the colonizers' culture, envisioning the colonized land as a site of unique opportunities and unique dangers. These dangers and opportunities are seen as coming from nature itself, and unlike the "civilized" culture of the colonizers, the colonized people are typically figured as a part of that natural landscape. It's easy to see how these narratives generate and reinforce a whole host of dehumanizing stereotypes, but it's also easy to see how that dehumanization is somewhat complicated. When writers like Rudyard Kipling depict indigenous people as having special skills or a closer relationship with nature, they often do so with earnest admiration, and on a practical level, these were traits to admire, even as their framing perpetuated untruths and reinforced the colonists' power over the colonized.

Now, I'm very far from being an expert on colonialism, and there's a whole host of historical and literary scholarship on the subject with which I have only a passing familiarity. What I am an expert on is science fiction, and science fiction (indeed, all pulp genres in one way or another) owes a lot to the colonial adventure narrative. To the genre's credit, its anti-colonial roots run as deep as its colonialism; both Mary Shelly and H.G. Wells, often called the genre's mother and father, were staunch critics of colonialism whose fiction frequently employed the conventions of the colonial adventure narrative in ways that challenged dominant ideologies. But many works in the genre, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Barsoom" series (which in many ways is Tarzan on Mars) to Dune (in which the son of a duke becomes a mighty whitey and leads an indigenous people in their fight against an empire) to even Star Trek (which Gene Roddenberry initially described as a "wagon train to the stars") evince classic patterns of the colonialist mentality.

Colonialism runs deep in pop culture's DNA. It's leapt from pulp magazines to radio dramas to comic books to TV to movies, and it's no wonder why--these stories are tremendously fun! Colonialism's legacy of racism can't be denied, but neither can the excitement that comes with these stories of exotic exploration and cultural contact.

In the past 30 years or so, storytellers have explored a few different options for how to resolve this tension. One option has been to follow in the tradition of H.G. Wells and try to subvert the genre. That, I would argue, is what George R.R. Martin attempts to do with the colonialist undertones of traditional high fantasy, exposing narratives about chivalry and white saviorhood to be a lie.
Whether that subversion succeeds is debatable.
Another option has been to simply ignore the old stories altogether. Despite the seemingly endless adaptations and remakes Hollywood provides us with, I think there's a reason we haven't seen an Alan Quatermain on the big screen in 30 years.
This doesn't count.
Yet another option is to get postmodern--to show a self-awareness about the genre traditions you are engaging with that creates some distance, even if you are not explicitly critiquing those traditions. That's what Steven Spielberg attempts to do with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and what Alan Moore does with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
No, not that one.
A fourth option is to change characters' races--when adapting a story, make one or more of the white characters people of color, or when telling an original story that fits within the framework of the colonial adventure narrative, make the typically white hero a character of color.
Quentin Tarantino kind of tries to do all of the above.
Of course, a fifth option is "none of the above." Which brings me to the trailer for Doctor Strange:
This trailer looks undeniably badass. It also looks sadly familiar. Ever since Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, it's been at the vanguard of the trend embracing more sophisticated and spectacular superhero movies, and, consequently, it's been the leader of the pop culture landscape more generally. But their success has been built on two sensibilities that, I think, are coming into conflict here: (1) a willingness to tell new stories unlike what superhero films and TV shows have done in the past (like Captain America: Winter Soldier and A.K.A. Jessica Jones) and (2) a faithfulness to the pulp attributes of comic book storytelling that previous filmmakers have eschewed (Christopher Nolan) or treated as pure camp (Joel Schumacher). Guardians of the Galaxy's earnest embrace of comic-bookiness is what made it possibly the best Marvel movie, but I fear that that same embrace might be this movie's biggest limitation.

The comic books of the 1930s-1970s were inheriting the sensibilities of the pulp magazines of the 1890s-1950s, which themselves inherited the colonialist sensibilities of the 19th century. That means that a lot of the classic comic book narratives predate the various modes of interrogating the colonial adventure narrative that I described above. Doctor Strange's acquisition of mystical powers from the orient, first told in comic books in the 1960s, is a classic example.

I've heard others criticize Doctor Strange for "whitewashing." It is true that Tilda Swinton's character, "The Ancient One," is typically portrayed as Asian. However, it is also true that Baron Mordo, a typically white character, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor--as they had previously shown by casting black actors to play Nick Fury and Heimdall, Marvel is not afraid to cast black actors in substantial supporting roles that were originally written as white. It's also true that casting Tilda Swinton to play a role typically portrayed as a male represents an increase in female representation as well.

Whitewashing is part of the issue here. It's worth noting we've seen numerous traditionally Asian characters being played by white actors in recent years, including Liam Neeson as Ras Al Ghul in Batman Begins, Ben Kingsley as the fake Mandarin in Marvel's Iron Man 3, and Benedict Cumberbatch himself as Khan in Star Trek. Thinking about the representational politics of their casting choices would have probably been the easiest way Marvel could have interrogated the genre traditions it was entering into. I was a big fan of the idea of casting Chilean actor Pedro Pascal as Doctor Strange back when the movie had first been announced. This film seemed like the perfect opportunity to give its protagonist a race lift. Instead, it will be the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a white protagonist.

But the problem isn't simply one of whitewashing--there are patterns and structures at play. Notice how two of the three movies I listed above, Batman Begins and Iron Man 3, feature a white villain (Liam Neeson's Ras in Batman Begins, Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3) hiding behind Asian personae (Ken Watanabe as the fake Ras in Batman Begins, Kingsley as the fake Mandaran in Iron Man 3). In both cases the simple storytelling structure--uncovering the villain behind the villain--serves to affirm white supremacy. And notice the similarity between the Doctor Strange trailer and Batman Begins, both figuring the orient as the place where the white protagonist gains special knowledge. These colonialist tropes make some sense in a 1960s comic book, or an 1860s novel, but they're out of place in a 21st century film.

Representation is important, but I would argue that there is a deeper issue here. Marvel's commitment to remaining faithful to its source material is causing it to abdicate any interrogation of the centuries-old mentalities embedded in the genres that it is drawing on.