Why Sweet Briar College Matters

This past week, I have felt the closure of Sweet Briar College pressing on me like some great, invisible weight, always present yet never quite tangible.  I spend at least an hour a day scrolling through the results on Google, trying desperately (and usually unsuccessfully) to find an article, a think piece, something to help me make sense of what has happened, to provide me with commentary that will help me work through this event.  For the most part, nothing has, as each piece seems so facile, so superficial, basically regurgitating the same set of facts without really adding any substantive to our collective understanding of this event.

On one level, all of this seems slightly strange.  After all, I am a cis-gender man who graduated from a state school and now attend a large private university in a doctoral program.  I know only a few graduates of Sweet Briar, and I do not have any other meaningful connections to the school  No family attended, and to be quite frank I had only distantly heard of it before the dramatic announcement of its closure swept through the internet like a brush fire on March 6.  Why, then, am I so obsessed with it?  Why do I feel this peculiar melancholia creeping over me any time I think of it?

A great deal of, I’ve come to realize, stems from two things.  First is my absolute commitment to the importance of a liberal arts education, of a focus on cultivating critical thinking in all fields, from English to biology, from physics to business.  As more and more colleges (and high schools!) forsake the humanities in favour of technical education and other more “job-friendly” foci, liberal arts colleges seem like a holdout against the inexorable forces of the capitalist university system, struggling against a tide that eats away at all aspects of their existence every year.  Because I have long fostered the hope of teaching at one of these smaller schools, the closing of Sweet Briar and, perhaps more importantly, the reasons behind it, send a chill through me at the thought that the liberal arts school may be an endangered species.

Secondly, I still adamantly believe that women’s colleges have a vital part to play in our higher education landscape.  As Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, put it at the Huffington Post, there are still many women, particularly women of color, who struggle to attain the same educational opportunities that many white and middle-class women have come to take for granted.  For them, a women’s only college can often provide a mountain of opportunities not available elsewhere.  Her statement on the matter is worth quoting at length:

More important, recognize that women who have never enjoyed the camaraderie of other women, never had faculty members boosting their success (especially in math and science), never knew the true joy of presenting their own creative work to an appreciative audience, never thought they could really go on to graduate school, get that prized job or earn the praise and recognition of peers and community leaders alike — all women deserve such a chance, and such chances exist still on the campuses of today’s women’s colleges.

Her words help us to understand what we are losing with Sweet Briar, and what we stand to lose if, as some have thought likely, the closing of this one college is a harbinger of things to come.  In order to understand what we have lost, we have to understand what institutions like Sweet Briar have to offer.

The closing of Sweet Briar College is, without a doubt, a tremendous blow to any who continue to hold on to the value of a liberal arts education, who see such a pedagogical project as absolutely vital to the continued healthy functioning of our society.  However, it should serve as a call to arms.  If we want parents, students, lawmakers, pundits, and all the rest who constantly question the value of the liberal arts to see and understand the value in what we do, we have to continue to find more effective ways to communicate with them.  We need to fight against this tide, even though it might seem overwhelming.  Our future as a culture, a society, and maybe even as a species relies on our ability to think critically and to engage with the world around us.

That is what the why the closing of Sweet Briar matters to me.

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Weekly Rant: Russell Tovey, Misogynists, and Small College Closings

I’ve decided to implement a weekly place where I get to rant about all the things in the news that upset me in a given week.  Hopefully, this will serve as an impetus for me to get back into regular blogging, but even if it doesn’t, I’m still going to log on here to complain about all of the things that bug me in a week’s news.  Given that this has been an incredibly stressful news week, it seemed like an appropriate time to set out and spread the angry word (and, since Twitter limits me to 140 characters, my good ol’ blog will allow me to go on at length).

To start with…Russell Tovey.  What can I even say?  To hear one of the stars of a fairly well-respected, if somewhat pedestrian, gay drama so blatantly disavow, nay disparage, effeminacy–and, by extension, gay men who dare to act effeminate–is, to put it mildly, disheartening.  To say what I really feel, however, I think it is utterly, unequivocally disgraceful and harmful, perpetuating exactly the kind of gendered policing that we as a community (whether imagined or not) should be rigorously, consistently, and vociferously fighting against.  I’m sure that Mr. Tovey would be gratified to know that it was exactly the effeminate men that he so eagerly and flippantly dismisses who made it possible for him and his fellow “straight acting/masc” lads to live their lives outside the shadow of homophobia, both through their flaming activism and, to be quite honest, because they are the ones that have to take the most flack from society at large for their unwillingness to adopt “gender appropriate behavior.”  The alleged appeal he has, rather than being based in his self-touted “flexibility” as an actor, is in fact based in gay men’s continued destructive fetishizizing of masculine rough trade at the expense of any other type of gay experience.  To add insult to injury, his “sorry/not sorry” tweet, full of smarmy self-congratulation, was enough to make me throw up in my mouth.

Of course, Tovey isn’t the only nodal point of latent misogyny percolating in the commentary-sphere this week.  Nico Lang’s fantastic article about male privilege and the touching of women’s bodies, published at Salon, invited the typical comments-section drivel spouted out by thinly-disguised MRAs touting their own objectification.  Comment after comment went on and on about how the commenter, as a man, was subject to the unwarranted of women.  Two comments are in order here.  One:  GUESS WHAT MEN, IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT YOU.  Two:  Women and men occupy VASTLY DIFFERENT power positions in society, meaning that who has access to who’s body means very different things depending on the gender of the people involved.  I’m not saying that makes it okay for women to have unfettered access to men’s bodies; I’m just saying that we don’t have to always make it about men.  We can, instead, say, “You know what?  Why don’t WE ALL become more conscious about personal space and integrity?”  Of course not, because that’s obviously too fucking much to ask.

And, lest we forget that the realm of higher education is a shark tank ready to devour the “weak” and the “unprofitable,” the private, women’s only, liberal-arts oriented Sweet Briar College announced that it will be closing its doors.  This is disheartening for so many reasons:  the fact that a bastion of liberal arts education can’t remain sustainable is sad enough, but it’s compounded by the rhetoric of entitlement that surrounds it.  Students are upset because of their lack of access to a Starbucks (apparently the nearest one is~wait for it~30 MINUTES AWAY).  Gods forbid that students learn in a rural environment, or anything outside of a major urban center.  Or worse still that they be seen to enroll in a school emphasizing the skills inculcated in a liberal arts curriculum.  This is, I fear, just the first of many such closings, as the relentless machine of capitalism grinds up these smaller institutions into so much grist for the MOOC, STEM, and trade school machines that universities and colleges everywhere are fast becoming.  So much for diversity in the field of higher education, eh?

So, there you have it, my rants for the week.  Agree?  Disagree?  Both?  Sound off in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Teaching Tolkien: Biographical, Textual, and Historical Approaches

Though I have not yet had the chance to teach an entire course on Tolkien, his works, and his legacy, I have still given a lot of thought to the numerous ways in which I might do so, as well as what aspects would be most fruitful pedagogically. As it happens, his is an immensely rich ouvre, and there are numerous ways one can use his work to address a wide variety of reading and interpretive practices key to the study of various aspects of literature and culture.

One could, of course, teach a course on Tolkien as an author. I’m thinking here not just of a biographical study (though Humphrey Carpenter and Michael White have both written compelling biographies of Tolkien), but also of a nuanced and careful consideration of those things that most influenced his writing.  Tom Shippey has made a compelling case for reading Tolkien in the context of his scholarship and academic works (in both Tolkien:  Author of the Century and, to a greater extent, in his very learned The Road to Middle-earth).  Indeed, one of the richest courses I took on Tolkien in undergrad was titled “Tolkien in Context.”   Such a course, I think, would almost certainly have to include Tolkien’s noteworthy translations, and we are very fortunate that Christopher Tolkien has provided us at last with his father’s translation of Beowulf, as well as the already in-print collection of Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Pearl.  However, I would also include such works as The Elder Edda in a course such as this, and I might even consider throwing in some of the work by other Inklings such as C.S. Lewis (though probably not The Chronicles of Narnia, both because I think it is far inferior to LoTR and because Tolkien was known to have hated it).  This course would,  I think, enable students to get a really nuanced and complex sense of who Tolkien was an author, as well as the various contexts and frames within which he wrote as both an author of fiction and a well-respected academic.

Likewise, I would also love to teach a course on the textual history on Tolkien’s work.  Shippey has shed a great deal of light on the ways in which Tolkien often used his fiction to fill in gaps in various Old English works, and it would be fascinating to do a literary archaeology of Tolkien.  Again, Christopher has done a great service by publishing the magisterial History of Middle-earth (and John D. Rateliff has done the same for The Hobbit), and it would be a really compelling class to look through both the works themselves and their respective histories.

More interesting, perhaps, would be a course on Tolkien’s cultural influence, the ways in which his works, including but not limited to The Hobbit and LoTR, have had an effect on 20th and 21st Century culture. One could have units devoted to fandom, film adaptations, and appropriation by the meme culture of the Internet (it’s hard to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and not chuckle at either “One does not simply walk into Mordor” or “You shall not pass!)  This could, of course, be part of a larger course discussion on the adaptation of beloved literary works to film (and the hotly debated status of Jackson’s The Hobbit films would make for some very fiery class discussions), as well as the ways in which fans can exert a measure of ownership over their chosen text (which is one of the ways in which I have used Tolkien in my own courses on popular culture and popular appropriation).  Or, one could even have an entire course devoted to his (substantial) influence on the fantasy genre, looking at authors such as Terry Brooks and even George R.R. Martin (seeing A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, as a sort of commentary/homage to Tolkien).

Of course, some of these ideas would probably never make it to the light of day in the standard English curriculum, but they do show how rewarding and compelling teaching Tolkien can be.  What’s more, I think a lot of these ideas could be adapted to appeal to a more general audience, one that does not necessarily have the investment in Tolkien that an avowed fan might have.  That, for me, is one of the most compelling things about bringing Tolkien into the classroom; his works, with all of their density and richness, provide a number of ways to think about fantasy literature and its relevance and inclusion in the larger field of literary study.  Hopefully, Tolkien’s literary reputation will continue to grow and many more generations can come to appreciate the beauty of his works, while also learning the invaluable skills associated with critical and thoughtful engagement and critique of texts.

Syracuse University’s Identity Crisis

It seems like Syracuse University has been in the news a lot lately, and not in a good way.  First there was the announcement that we are the nation’s #1 “Party School,” then the Advocacy Center was closed in the shadiest manner possible, igniting student protests, and now there is news that Chancellor Syverud is slashing funding to the Posse program, which provides underprivileged students funding opportunities to attend our university.  While it might be tempting to see these as discrete events, they are in fact connected, all part of SU’s identity crisis, as it struggles with how it wants to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

This crisis is itself part of a larger cultural debate about how we think about a college education, what that actually means, and how we even understand the university as an institution.  At stake, I would argue, is also the fact that, beneath all of these arguments and hand-wringing over SU’s academic identity is a belief (held by unfortunately too many) that underprivileged students just aren’t cut out for the academic life.  How dare they (these voices seem to imply) drag down our lofty academic standards with their unpreparedness (after all, how can students from poorer and ethnic neighborhoods POSSIBLY be prepared for the rigours of a private school like Syracuse)?  And beneath that, a more sinister question:  how dare they seek to use the university for social betterment?

As a graduate student here at Syracuse, I have seen this battle over our identity coming for a long while.  Even when I served on the University Senate back in 2011, there was a small but vocal group of faculty protesting that Chancellor Cantor’s efforts to throw open the university’s doors to various minority groups was a serious threat to the school’s academic integrity, as if somehow these students would damage SU’s precarious claim to a prestige on league with the Ivies.  Of course, the obvious racism and classism was carefully obscured behind carefully chosen language, but it was there for those who had learned the hard way to expect it.

At the heart of this, it seems to me, is a struggle within the university about what image Syracuse wants to project  to the outside world.  Do they/we want to be seen as on par with the Ivies (with all of the problems that entails), or do they/we want to be seen as a university that is showing what the Academy can accomplish when it finally frees itself of the shackles of racism and classism that haunt its origins and, as this incident reveals, its current worldview?

For me, at least, the answer is an easy one.  Rather than continuing to cling to outmoded ways of evaluating the worth of a college education (I’m looking at you, U.S. News and World Report), we should start thinking about the social mission that the university should embrace.  This isn’t to downplay the importance of research (since that is important, in all fields), but to suggest instead that, when twinned with a social justice mission, research and a rigourous approach to teaching and pedagogy can lay the foundations for a more just society.  Syracuse University has the potential to lead the charge, if only the leadership will start making the right choices, leading us into the future instead of clinging to a hopeless past.