Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Because I am involved in mankind...

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.
--John Donne,  Meditation XVII from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

This semester I'm teaching a seminar on John Donne. My students and I are reading a significant selection of his poetry and prose (from the inadequate Modern Library edition), so we have spent the fall with the lusty young Donne of the "Songs and Sonets," the self-righteous Donne of the "Satyrs," and the grieving Donne of the "Epicedes and Obsequies." Today we encountered the sick Donne of the Devotions.

As I was re-reading to prepare for class, the famous passage from Meditation XVII took on new resonance, especially in light of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending World War I and the massing of troops at the US border immediately before the election to "harden the border" before the arrival of refugees from South America. 

I realized that this Donne is not just the sick Donne, or the pious Donne; it is the ethical and empathetic Donne, who sees himself "involved in mankind," who recognizes himself in his fellow human beings. 

And that led me to contemplate, as I do every morning, what seems to have gone wrong in our society--we have failed to be "involved in mankind," to recognize ourselves in others. We see it in our language describing the dead soldiers of World War I or the refugees on their desparate migration northward. Today, the Los Angeles Times reports that Customs and Border Patrol plans “to install and pre-position port hardening infrastructure equipment in preparation for the migrant caravan,” at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego. 

A collocates search on the NOW Corpus suggests just how "dehumanized" the word "caravan" is. Among the top 500 collocates, we see words suggesting national identity (Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican) and words suggesting political status (asylum-seekers, migrant), but not one word that focuses on the shared humanity of the migrants (men, women, children). While we can't rely on collocation patterns to reveal exactly what people believe, we can rely on them to suggest speech patterns across large text sets. 

When we talk about the people migrating toward the US border with Mexico, we don't talk about them as people. I think that John Donne, across the centuries, encourages us to become "involved in mankind" and take "upon us the misery of our neighbours." 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

On Globalism

globalism, n.
Pronunciation:  Brit.        /ˈɡləʊbəlɪz(ə)m/, /ˈɡləʊbl̩ɪz(ə)m/,  U.S. /ˈɡloʊbəˌlɪz(ə)m/
Origin: Formed within English, by derivation; modelled on a French lexical item. Etymons: global adj., -ism suffix.

Etymology: < global adj. + -ism suffix, perhaps after French globalisme (1923) Compare slightly later globalist n.

  The belief, theory, or practice of adopting or pursuing a political course, economic system, etc., based on global rather than national principles; an outlook that reflects an awareness of global scale, issues, or implications; spec. the fact or process of large businesses, organizations, etc., operating and having an influence on a worldwide scale, globalization.

Other, wiser minds, like Matthew Yglesias and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat have written about the anti-Semitic connotations of the term "globalist," so I won't rehearse them here. 

My goal in this short blog post is to suggest something different: we all need to be globalists. At a moment when our planet faces unprecedented environmental devastation that we have brought on largely through extractive capitalism and its reliance on fossil fuels for the last three hundred years, we need to have a global vision. Isolationism, nationalism, and fascism won't protect us from the consequences of environmental catastrophe. Moreover, we have a responsibility to our fellow humans to alleviate the suffering that we have all contributed to. We need "an outlook that reflects an awareness of global scale." We need to recognize that many of the refugees migrating to safety around the world are refugees from climate disasters. And refusing to define them as such will not change their circumstances. 

Perhaps the best way to reject White Supremacist dog-whistles like "Globalist" is to say, "Of course we're Globalists. We live or die on the Globe. And we should choose to live--together."

Friday, October 26, 2018

Teaching with differing abilities

It's been two years since I have used this space to record my thoughts or to set myself any kind of schedule for writing. Like many people, a great deal of cognitive space has been devoted to our political landscape. You may have seen the piece about post-election PTSD among students. While I know that I've felt a great deal of despair and expended a great deal of energy as I've watched our civil institutions decay, I resist using PTSD--a medical diagnosis we should reserve to characterize disability brought on by trauma--to describe how I'm feeling.

But as a college instructor, I'm aware of the ways that I need to structure my classes and my instruction to accommodate my students differing abilities. While fifteen years ago, I had more students with hearing or vision impairments that affected my delivery of instruction, today I'm encountering students who have attentional and executive function differences, sometimes brought on by persistent--and often under-treated--mental illness, particularly anxiety. Of course, the inverse question also troubles me: where have the students with hearing and vision loss gone? Why are we not seeing them in the English major?

As someone who has battled most of my life with generalized anxiety disorder and resulting depression, I contemplate how to make my struggles of use to my students. In private conversations, I've shared the short version with students who struggle, mainly so that I can convince them to seek care and to help remove the stigma against mental illness. I don't know, however, how to bring insights from my own struggle into explicit  consideration in the classroom. In the coming days, I'm going to be thinking about this, largely because I am considering John Donne's struggle with depression in his poetry and prose.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Crunching the numbers from the election

I can't talk about the election with my students in class. It's not directly relevant to my subject matter in any way that would justify it. Instead, I put these numbers up on the board:

Voting Eligible Persons in the US: 231,556,662
Registered Voters in the US: 200,081,377
Registered Voters as a percentage of eligible voters: 86%
Presidential Ballots Cast: 131,043,000
Presidential ballots cast as a percentage of eligible voters: 56%
As a percentage of registered voters: 65%
Clinton Voters: 60,122,876
Trump Voters: 59,821,874
Clinton Voters as a percentage of the registered voters in the US: 29.9%
Trump Voters as a percentage of the registered voters in the US: 29.8%
Clinton voters as a percentage of eligible voters: 25.8%
Trump voters as a percentage of eligible voters: 25.78%

That's all I put on the board. Then I said, "we have elections all the time. If you vote, make sure everyone you know is registered. Make sure everyone you know who is registered votes."

But let us put these numbers in greater context:

Clinton voters in the primaries as a percentage of eligible voters: 7.3%
Trump voters in the primaries as a percentage of eligible voters: 5.74%

If we presume that the percentage of Trump voters in the primaries (the real die-hard Trump-enthusiasts) were to remain constant over the whole population of the US (324,118,787), we would have 18,604,418. This is less than the population of Texas or Florida. It is less than the population of New York City.

Let us reframe how we talk about the violence we see unfolding in pockets across the country. It is not the fault of "half the people in the country." At worst, it is the fault of 5% of the country who suddenly think that they are 50% of the country.  And since there are 195 million white folks in this country, it's not even ten percent of that group (and I don't presume they're all white, although my guess would be they are likely "white-identified").

So here is my question: I'm seeing all sorts of media convulsions about how these folks were ignored. Perhaps what we need to ask is what middle ground do we all have once we exclude this 5% from our reckonings. For example, one of my friends from Arizona posted a link to a Christian apologist who thinks very much the same way about literature that I do. And I know that many of the Marxist critics that I know believe in objective truth (many of the same objective truths) that Christian writers do.

I'm all for building common ground between us. I want to build common ground among the 95% of us who reject bigotry rather than trying to find common ground with the 5% who sees it as their animating drive.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

It's mo(u)rning in America...

So here is what we should do today, rather than play the victim or blame anyone (or even indulge in conspiracy theories too long): find the women in your communities who know how to get shit done. The women who run local festivals, who run after school programs, who coach softball teams, who run community gardens. Those women--we know them. We know the grandmothers who never let a child go hungry or go without a coat when it gets cold. Put a bug in their ears. Get them to a party meeting (I'm not going to miss mine the first week of December, no matter how tired or sick or overwhelmed I am by work or by my own struggles with anxiety or depression.) Convince them to run for office in your town, or your school board, or your state legislature. Contact the women already serving on your state legislatures, and support their candidacy for the House of Representatives. And in two years, work like hell to get them elected. And two years from then, elect a president who represents the best this country has to offer. And if you want to support a third party, great, but that means joining a party on the local level--going to meetings, writing checks, going door-to-door, calling strangers. And one other thing: remember that you vote every day. You vote with your attention, you vote with your money, you vote with your smiles, with your love. If you want to end racism, stop being racist. If you want to end homophobia, don't be homophobic. If you want to end classism, don't be classist. But that will take work, and it will hurt.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Style, Humor, and Class (both sociological and LNG 201)

A student asked me this question through our electronic question and answer system, Piazza, earlier today:

This subject of "indexical meaning" is confusing me. The definition in the book is that its meaning is derived from its direct association with context. However, I am still unsure about how exactly to use it. The example of "here" in the book helps, but are there any others that may clarify more?

So I responded thusly:

I think one reason you are confused is that you just learned to talk about words like "here" differently.  In the semantics chapter, you learned that words like "here" and "there" are examples of "spatial deixis." These words point to referents that may shift depending upon the context in which they are used. Now, what the authors are talking about with the term "indexical meaning," has to do with the concept of "style," which will (I hope) be illuminated somewhat by coming conversations about language in communities in upcoming weeks.

I think sometimes that the best ways of illustrating "style" (in its sociological sense) comes from humor, because often what we think of as humorous is that which invites us to contemplate the slippages of meaning as a result of social context. When the authors say that "Style has indexical meaning," that means that "style" (features of speech associated with particular social organizations--classrooms vs. "gossip sessions" or "church language") has meaning indexed to context--not necessarily the explicit referents the words have.

Consider this skit from Saturday Night Live a week or so ago: "Black Jeopardy" with Tom Hanks:

So the skit opens with Tom Hanks (decked out in Trump-Nation gear--hat and eagle/flag t-shirt and denim as far as the eye can see) greeting the host--Darnell--by saying "How are you doing, sir." His greeting deviates considerably from the "style" of greeting we have seen from the other characters. He even uses a "catch phrase" associated with "rednecks": "Get 'er done" (popularized by the comedian known as "Larry the Cable Guy." Now his costume and his speech set us up to assume that the ideologies to which he subscribes will be radically--perhaps even dangerously--different from the two African American women on the panel.

A couple of rounds of questions go by before he answers a question, but when he does, the other participants respond very enthusiastically. Initially, they respond to his sentiments, then to his style. In answer to the question, "They say the iPhone wants your thumbprint for your protection," he says, "I don't think so. That's how they get you." In effect, the writers have suggested that both "black folks" (as characterized by this recurring segment) and white working class folks both share a suspicion of things that suggest government surveillance.

When he responds to the question from the category "Big Girls," that says "Skinny girls can do this for you," with the answer, "What is not a damn thing," he has suddenly employed a style the other characters recognize.

Now, from my perspective, this sketch sets up a very interesting idea: that working class folks from any ethnic group will have more in common than they realize. But its modeling of the concept of style is also quite compelling. When Doug reverts back to stylistic features associated with ideologies of white supremacy, the good will of the other participants evaporates. Although they give him "a pass this time" when he says "You people," they do not when he says (in response to the "final jeopardy category" "Lives that Matter"): "You know, I got a lot to say about this" (which seems to be the formulaic preface to every "all lives matter") response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What am I voting for on November 8?

We keep reading and hearing about emails, Russian spy efforts, and pending litigation. I thought I would take a moment and share with you what I am voting FOR on November 8, rather than enumerating all the reasons I am voting AGAINST Donald Trump.

1) I am voting for workers rights and the right to unionize.
Right now, Philadelphia and the surrounding region is immobilized by a transit strike. Harvard food service workers have just ended their strike. I'm still working without a contract, along with all of my colleagues. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party are committed to the continued right to unionize, to workers' rights, and to supporting workers during this massive technology upheaval that we are facing. Kim Pearson constantly reminds us, wisely, that tomorrow's economy will not look like today's or yesterday's.

Hillary Clinton understands this in a way that Donald Trump, and the Republican Party, does not. The GOP opposes unionization and continues to support the industries of the past, particularly fossil fuels. That said, I know that the Obama administration just signed off on additional pipelines. Nonetheless, I am much more confident that progressives can exert moral authority in a Democratically controlled Senate and in a HRC administration than in a Trump one.

2) I am voting for national parks.

The Republican platform explicitly targets public ownership and seeks to privatize national parks. The fact that the GOP seeks to undo one of the greatest achievements of one of the greatest American presidents nauseates and angers me. Roosevelt is very angry somewhere. I hope his "big stick" has a cosmic dimension.

3) I am voting for my daughters' right to their bodies and their own healthcare decisions.

We know how Donald Trump feels about women's bodies. He feels that men are entitled to them; that they are objects; that women do not have the same status as sentient subjects as he does. We know that he sees himself as a person in relationship to a number of objects. African-Americans are "his African Americans." He can "grab" what he wants to. When he "sees beautiful" he can't stop himself. I don't need to bother to link any of these, you already know them.

But I am more concerned about the Republican platform and a potential "President Pence." The Republican platform continues to advocate for the most dangerous elements of the patriarchy. It denies a woman's right to choose her reproductive future; it denies the legitimacy of same sex marriage; it denies a woman's existence as an autonomous being outside of family structures. And Mike Pence has presented himself to the Republican base as a tireless advocate for a future that bears altogether too much relationship to Margaret Atwood's "Gilead"--as a theocrat rather than as a Republican.

My daughters can not yet vote, and I lost my mother and my aunt last year, so they can not vote. So I am voting for them. I hope four other people help me out so that we aren't down three when it comes to women's rights.

These three reasons are why I am voting for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.