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.

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.

Teaching Outrage

In my course on reading popular culture, I spend several weeks teaching students how to discern the ideologies at work in popular culture texts, focusing each week on a particular reading method.  After several weeks of vigorous and intellectually engaged discussion about the vexing nature of popular media, one of my students asked, “So, what do we do, now that we’ve learned how to read texts in this way?”  At first, I was somewhat flummoxed, as this is not normally a question that arises in my lower-level undergraduate courses; I was quite pleasantly surprised to see my students thinking at such a high level.

And, to be honest, I didn’t know how to answer at first, simply because this remains a question with which I also struggle on a daily basis.  However, as I ended up telling my student, we can do a great deal with the outrage we feel at the vexing representational strategies utilized by the popular media.  We can blog, we can write letters, we can even become involved in the production of texts ourselves and reclaim the narratives that have been hijacked and used as weapons against us.  For those who remain politically and socially disenfranchised, gaining a vocabulary in which to express moral and political outrage, as well as what to do with that outrage, can become a solid means of effecting political and social change.

That remains one of the most challenging aspects of teaching the reading of texts.  How to get students to see the stakes of their critical reading strategies?  After all, we live in a culture that routinely tells us to stop over-reading and overreacting to incidents of micro-aggression, to simply sit back and enjoy the entertainment value of popular culture.  Indeed, this impulse to dismiss any critical approach to everyday life–including the “basest” or “dumbest” forms of entertainment–as over-reading is itself a function of a society and a culture that stubbornly refuses (in the main) to engage in self-critical evaluation.  Part of our jobs, as critics and as educators–and I would like to stress that I see the two functions as inextricably linked–is to encourage students to break away from those habits of thought that let these elements of our culture remain unexamined and uncommented upon.  This can be quite challenging, as being critical often gets coded as being a killjoy, as bringing down the life and the energy of the cultural party.

The job of the cultural critic and educator, I argue, is to guide students so that they can see not only the ways in which media propagate and draw upon existing ideologies and systems of power, but also learn how those representations can have real-world effects on shaping and reinforcing existing patterns of thought.  Once they realize how even the most seemingly banal and “entertaining” texts are part of a larger set of discourses that are themselves dependent upon intertwining systems of power, it becomes easier to see why it matters, for example, that Game of Thrones utilizes existing racial stereotypes in its presentation of the Dothraki wedding, or why Looking can be seen as an example of the mainstreaming and commercialization of queer sexualities.  Further, they can also realize that they, as the consumer of these texts, can also have power over them rather than being controlled by them.

This, I think, is one of the great things about teaching in the humanities.  Contrary to what Arthur Krystal claims in his recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is still a great deal at stake for those who engage in the rigorous and sustained study of texts (especially for those who still occupy a marginalized or denigrated corner of our culture).  We live, after all, in a culture that is hyper-saturated with images and narratives that our students, and we ourselves, have to interpret every single day of our lives.  As a teacher of media, I remain absolutely committed to teaching students not only how and why they should be outraged at what appears in popular culture, but also what is at stake in their outrage.  As I stress again and again, I do not believe in “mere entertainment” or “pure escapism.”  I do, however, believe in pleasures, and the power that can come with both resistant pleasures (as my insistence on queer pleasures demonstrates) and the pleasure of the act of critical engagement.  It’s time that we stop seeing (and stop encouraging our students to see) critical engagement as a chore.  Instead, we need to encourage them to see the pleasure, and the power, of critical outrage.

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.

In Defense of the Academy

I know I’m going to take some flack for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to go through with it anyway.  Despite all of the hand-writing over the decline of the humanities, despite the call from some corners for humanities Ph.D.s (if anyone is so foolish or masochistic to go into that calling) to flee to non-academic jobs, despite the ways in which the American university system is indeed plagued by a myriad of difficulties and inherent problems that threaten to drag it down into oblivion, I still support the existence of the Academy.  I still support the existence of a space in which scholars and those devoted to the much-maligned “life of the mind” can engage with the pressing issues facing our society and our culture, while also advocating for a more engaged type of humanities scholarship that works to bring the Academy into the university and vice versa.

When I see humanities scholars and writers so flippantly and easily abandon the systematic study of the humanities, I can’t help but feel a heady mix of emotions:  anger, frustration, and (perhaps shamefully) a little joy that someone is finally being brave enough to say the unsayable.  However, I also worry that, in throwing in the towel, we are actually precipitating the very thing that we claim to be mourning, namely, the death of the humanities as a meaningful intellectual pursuit.

Like most social problems facing our late capitalist, heavily globalized, and technology-glutted society, there is no easy solution to the myriad problems facing the American Academy.  However, does that mean we should just give up on it?  What if we said the same thing about the many other social problems, about bullying of queer youth for example, or the increasingly violent and war-prone world in which we live?  Though the problems themselves seem insurmountable in their complexity, it is precisely this complexity that makes our engagement not only significant, but necessary.

Rather than throwing away what we have, perhaps we should start encouraging our non-academic friends to speak up on our behalf when it matters, i.e. during election time.  If we truly believe that what we do is meaningful and important (and I, for one, do), then it is also our responsibility to continue fighting the good fight (incidentally, I realize that this sounds very trite and cliche, but sometimes that’s the only way I can find to express my philosophy on these things).  We need to explain to our friends, our families, and even our students why what we do is important.  Of course, in order to do that, we need to be able to articulate to ourselves why what we do matters.  Our reasons for this may be as varied as our individual interests, but we need to be more vocal and active about making them intelligible to those who do not speak our academic language.  At the very least, we must invest more of our energy in doing everything possible to ensure that those who are not trained in the esoteric language of the Academy have at least a measure of appreciation for not only what we do, but why.

All of this is not to suggest that I am blind to the gross inequalities that currently construct the Academy and that are, in many ways, built into its DNA.  Nor is it to suggest that non-academic jobs are in some way inferior; indeed, I see them as another part of a multi-pronged approach to make the humanities vibrant and present in American society and culture.  However, I remain unconvinced that abolishing the systematic and sustained study of the humanities–including the production and education of Ph.D.s!–is the solution.  It is, in my mind, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  However, I do want to add my voice to the chorus currently calling for some real change in the Academy, but that call comes out of a love of what we do and what we can do, if we but keep up the fight.

What are your thoughts?  Is the Academy salvageable?  Or should it just be dispensed with?  Is there still a place and a purpose for sustained scholarly study of the humanities?  Sound off in the comments below!

The Perils and Promise of Queer Pedagogy

I recently had the pleasure of co-coordinating a session on creating safer classroom space.  In the process, I designed a skit that presented a scenario in which a student is not comfortable discussing LGBT issues as a result of his religious convictions and upbringing.  In the two sessions that occurred, a number of significant points were raised, including the fact that, while racism and sexism are commonly called out for rebuke, homophobia, often in the guise of religious belief or devotion, is excused or tolerated.  Of course, such duplicity occurs not only in the classroom, as the recent political discourse about religious business’s freedom to decline services to LGBT people makes amply clear.

This tension between tolerance for religious difference and acceptance of LGBT equality and dignity poses significant questions for educators at all levels, but especially at the college and university level, where courses dealing with both of these issues are common.  Whose rights deserve more respect and tolerance?  Does the student whose faith precludes or forbids tolerance for LGBT people (as well as other sexual minorities) need to be sternly rebuked in the classroom or the office?  How do we as educators work with such students to engage in meaningful dialogue, rather than just shutting them down?  I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but they do need to be asked by those of us who have an investment in promoting social justice for sexual and gender minorities, no matter how difficult the answers might be.

Furthermore, designing and performing this sketch, as well as engaging in and sometimes answering questions about it, brought home to me just how much I take for granted as a teacher at private institution in New York that, typically, offers significant institutional support for LGBT issues, faculty, and students.  It may not be a perfect school, but it’s far better than many state and private schools in other parts of the country, including my own Appalachia, as well as in other parts of New York State.  Whether or not we want to realize it, those of us that are pursuing doctoral degrees in prestigious schools in urban centers, especially in the northeast, may one day find ourselves in those geographical spaces where there is not an assumed support for matters LGBT.  As terrifying as that prospect is for some people, we also need to recognize that it is precisely people who live in those areas–both those who share our beliefs and those who don’t–who are most in need of pedagogical experience and investment in engaging with the tough questions raised by the intersections and conflicts between religion and human sexuality.  Furthermore, we need to develop strategies for coping not just with students, but also with administrators that do not support LGBT issues.

I have long thought that it is a mistake for LGBT theorists and thinkers to simply assume that people in rural America should flee their intolerant small town and country environs and escape to the welcoming embrace of the big city.  There is a lot about rural queer identity, and rural live in general, that is worthy of celebration, even if it is sometimes tainted with the idiocy of those who espouse bigoted views.  If we want to effect meaningful social change for people in all parts of the country, we need to start engaging in meaningful and sustained dialogue with those with whom we most vehemently disagree.

There are, of course, no easy or simple answers when it comes to this issue.  Or at least there shouldn’t be.  As tempting as it might be to simply state that homophobia, no matter how fancily dressed it may be in its garments of religious devotion, has no place in our contemporary society, the reality is that things are far more complex.  If we, as educators, want to fulfill our mission of opening up minds and fostering critical engagement with today’s pressing political issues, including those that directly affect gender and sexual minorities, we have to be able to engage with even the most religiously devout of our students in deep and meaningful ways.  This is not going to be an easy task, but it is one that many of us will have to confront as we begin to enter the profession.  We would do well to start engaging in that conversation with our students, with ourselves, and especially with those who don’t agree with us.  And we should do so as soon as possible.