Archive for Education

Unregulated, untrained, unsafe: campus carry at K-State (in the K-State Collegian)

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityIn addition to increasing the risk of suicide and fatal accident, armed students make other students uncomfortable and squelch debate. A university should be a safe place where students can discuss important but uncomfortable subjects, where they can engage in vigorous exchanges of ideas. Campus carry changes this dynamic: when every student is a student with a potential gun, an unspoken threat revokes the safety that sustains freedom of speech.

— me, from my op-ed in today’s K-State Collegian

I would also add this: without freedom of speech, the university ceases to function as a university. So, if you’ve an interest in Kansas State University continuing to be a university,… VOTE!  In the November elections, support candidates who oppose campus carry, and who are willing to either repeal or amend the so-called Personal and Family Protection Act (which would more accurately be described as the Guns! Guns! Everywhere! Act).

[The title of this blog post is the title under which I submitted the piece. It was published as “Permitting guns on campus is unsafe, disruptive to learning.”]

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Armed and Unsafe: Why Kansas Universities Must Reject and Not Adapt to Weaponized Campuses

As of July 1, 2017, the Kansas legislature is forcing all state universities to admit guns onto their campuses — classrooms, offices, laboratories, libraries, student unions, dormitories, counseling services. Everywhere. The Weapons Advisory Work Group has drafted a “University Weapons Policy,” and we have been invited to comment. If you’re employed by or attending Kansas State University, please submit your comments.  In case you need some inspiration, here is what I wrote.


No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityDear Weapons Advisory Work Group,

Thank you for the time you’ve spent crafting the University Weapons Policy — a thankless job with an unachievable goal. Thanks also for granting us the opportunity to review the draft of this policy.

The key problem — as you likely realized, while drafting this — is the state’s (sarcastically named?) Personal and Family Protection Act is impossible to implement safely. For instance, the University Weapons Policy states, “There are no University locations that have been designated as prohibiting concealed carry with permanent adequate security measures” (p. 3).  None?  Not even the nuclear reactor?  Or labs with volatile chemicals?

Yes, the “adequate security measures” written into the law are prohibitively expensive to implement. Those who drafted the law deliberately defined the “adequate security measures” in precisely this way. According to the law, buildings equipped with metal detectors and armed guards are the only locations where guns may be prohibited. To secure all buildings at Kansas State University (including Vet Med and the athletics buildings) would cost $110,419,000. The state of Kansas’ annual contribution to the university’s budget is approximately $160,000,000. In other words, only by devoting 69% of the state’s contribution to “adequate security measures” could the university legally secure entrances to all buildings. That’s unlikely to happen, and the legislators who voted for this bill know that.

No guns (sign)Perhaps the expense is why you’ve marked stadiums as an exception to the state’s campus carry policy: “To the extent adequate security measures are used to prohibit concealed carry into stadiums, arenas and other large venues that require tickets for admission, the tickets shall state that concealed carry will be prohibited at that event. Signs will be posted as appropriate” (p. 6). It’s a great idea to attempt to protect people from lethal weapons at football games. But could we not extend this language to the places where the business of the university actually gets done? If we’re willing craft such an exemption for the stadiums, then why not issue “no concealed carry” tickets for labs, classrooms, libraries, and offices?

I am also puzzled as to how the university will enforce this new weapons policy.  In Kansas, anyone over the age of 21 can legally conceal-carry without a permit, without training, and without a background check. As a result, the policy — while well-intentioned — does little to maintain the safety of the university’s students, faculty, and staff. For example, I appreciate the University’s attempt to provide guidelines for “Carrying and Storing Handguns” (p. 4) and for “Storage” (p. 5). But how will these guidelines be enforced?  The sanctions are a start: “Any individual who violates one or more provisions of this policy may be issued a lawful directive to leave campus with the weapon immediately” (6). But what would stop the individual from coming back another day?  And how will we discover that the Weapons Policy’s provisions have been violated?  The individual starts shooting people?  A gun goes off accidentally, and kills a classmate?  Also, if there is no Campus Police officer in my classroom (and there is almost never a Campus Police officer in my classroom), what actions should I take when confronting a student or faculty member who has begun shooting people?  If a shooter threatens my classroom, what might I do to minimize the carnage?

The problem here is that the law — and the University Weapons Policy it has inspired — still allows students to bring guns into classrooms, dormitories, dining facilities, counseling services, and faculty offices.  It’s great to stipulate (as the university policy does) that students & faculty cannot store guns in classrooms and faculty offices, but… guns can still be brought into classrooms and faculty offices.

So, if a student has a grade dispute, am I allowed to ask if he’s armed before making an appointment to meet him in my office?  Or would it be safer to just give him whatever grade he asks for?  For that matter, if all of us can carry weapons, under what conditions are we allowed to fire them?  If a student is acting in a way that makes an armed faculty member feel the need to defend himself or herself, when would the faculty member be justified in opening fire?  The weapons policy says that when “necessary for self-defense,” one can “openly display any lawfully possessed concealed carry handgun while on campus” (p. 3).  OK, but what’s the criteria for “necessary” here?  If we are armed (and, for the record, I do not plan to arm myself), when would it be acceptable to shoot?  Similarly, under what conditions would the shooting of a faculty member or staff member would be justified?  If we’re allowing guns on campus, then guns will be used on campus. We need to establish clear criteria for their use: “necessary for self-defense” is dangerously vague.

What provisions will the university be implementing for those who are particularly at risk? For instance, a student goes to Counseling Services: she’s feeling traumatized, after being raped by a weapons enthusiast who is also a fellow student. What will the university do to ensure that she feels safe in Counseling Services, in her dorm, or in her classes?  What provisions does the University Weapons Policy have for her?  I would also be interested to learn how the university plans to protect those classes in which students have necessarily uncomfortable discussions about subjects that elicit strong responses: racism, genocide, sexism, transphobia. How will the University Weapons Policy ensure that classrooms are a safe space to explore difficult subjects?  How will the policy address the fact that, when any classmate can potentially be carrying a weapon, we — students, teachers — are less likely to talk about challenging subjects? A university is supposed to encourage the free and open exchange of ideas, but concealed carry makes this exchange less free and less open. Where does the policy addresses this problem?

Indeed, why does the University Weapons Policy not mandate a warning on the university’s website?  People (students, faculty, staff) who are both armed and untrained pose a threat to the safety of those who study and work at the university. All should be warned that entering Kansas State University’s campus after July 1, 2017 is dangerous.  The university posts advisories for other hazards — thunderstorms, tornados, and the recent “boil advisory,” when a power failure compromised the town’s water supply. Why not an advisory for the increased risk of gun violence?

Advisories: Campus Carry KSU

I understand why the weapons policy has been drafted, but it is insufficient. I realize that your mandate has been to comply with this law, even though the law itself poses a risk to the safety of all who work and study here. However, there are times when, given an absurd and dangerous task, you are morally obliged to question what you have been asked to accomplish instead of simply surrendering to its absurdity. Apply the critical thinking we teach here to the task of creating a University Weapons Policy. The university’s response to Kansas’ “Personal and Family Protection Act” should be: “No. We cannot both comply with this law and ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff. Indeed, inviting guns onto campus is incompatible with the mission of this university. With the exception of campus security or research involving weapons, guns have no place on campus.  Period.”

Sincerely yours,

 

Philip Nel

University Distinguished Professor

Director, Program in Children’s Literature

Department of English


Kansas State University

Guns in Higher Education

General Resources

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For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014


Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


Notes:

  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

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Just a Shot Away (in Inside Higher Ed)

When the state legislature decides to weaponize our classrooms, how do we respond? What should we do when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy?

Inside Higher Ed logoI tackle these questions in “Just a Shot Away,” published today in Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s the opening:

        Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State — and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was, and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.

Students, faculty members, and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it — until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015), or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, fifteen wounded, May 2014). Then, we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.

As I say, the rest is over at Inside Higher Ed. No subscription required.


Further resources that may be of interest:

In Higher Education

Gun Control

Activism Against Campus Carry in Kansas

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Why Campus Carry Threatens Higher Education

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityToday, I’m joining other members of K-SAFE (K-Staters Against Fatal Encounters) and the KCGFC (Kansas Coalition for a Gun-Free Campus) at the statehouse, in Topeka.  There, we’ll hand out flyers that — we hope — will show our legislators the grave danger the “Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act.” Yes, this is really the name of the act that invites guns into dormitories, classrooms, counseling services, lecture halls, football stadiums, and faculty offices — and that will go into effect on July 1, 2017.

Here is a pdf of the flyer I’ve brought.

Below, the text of the flyer.


Why Campus Carry Threatens Higher Education

  • According to legislation passed by the Kansas Legislature in 2013, state and municipal bodies cannot ban any legal gun owner from carrying concealed handguns on their campuses and public spaces, beginning in July 2017.
  • The 2015 Kansas Legislature amended the law to drop any requirements for firearm or permit training for carrying concealed weapons.

These moves are currently supported by the Kansas Board of Regents, who are legally charged with the safety of all Regents institutions.

Guns will be permitted on all university property:

  • Dormitories
  • Dining facilities
  • Classrooms
  • Laboratories
  • Libraries
  • Tutoring centers
  • Test-taking locations
  • Lecture halls
  • Recreational facilities
  • Student Union meeting rooms
  • Counseling Services
  • Sporting event venues (football and basketball stadiums, etc.)
  • Faculty offices

70 percent of state university employees in Kansas oppose campus carry.

— survey conducted by the non-partisan Docking Institute of Public Affairs (2016)

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings”

— Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008)

“Concealed carry does not transform ordinary citizens into superheroes. Rather, it compounds the risks to innocent lives”

New York Times, 26 Oct. 2015

Concealed carry threatens free speech. A faculty working group a the University of Houston has advised its professors: “Be careful discussing sensitive topics.” “Drop certain topics from your curriculum.” “Don’t ‘go there’ if you sense anger.”

The Atlantic, 4 March 2016

K-SAFE: K-Staters Against Fatal Encounters


Kansas Coalition for a Gun-Free Campus: #FailCampusCarry


Further resources that may be of interest:

In Higher Education

Gun Control

Kansas

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Guns vs. Schools

No guns (sign)The National Rifle Association is working to force guns into lecture halls, libraries, offices, dormitories, and stadiums. Their efforts to weaponize college campuses are succeeding.

At the time of the Virginia Tech massacre (32 people killed, 2007), only one state university system (Utah) required colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.  Following the mass slaughter at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University (5 people killed, 2008), you might think that the NRA would have begun backing sensible gun regulation. Instead, the NRA proposed a bill requiring colleges and universities to have guns on campus. Thanks to the NRA’s support and ALEC’s advocacy, there are now 8 states that have adopted a version of this bill, allowing guns on campus: 2 of those for concealed-carry permit holders (Colorado, Utah), and 6 guns in some circumstances (Idaho, Minn., Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Wisconsin). As of July 1, 2017, Kansas will join these states.

Since I teach at a state university in Kansas, and since I rather enjoy being alive, I hope that our state legislature will repeal its so-called “Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act” or that the Kansas Board of Regents will grant state universities an exemption. As of right now, I do not see conclusive evidence that either will happen. That’s one reason I joined 39 other Kansas State University Distinguished Professors in calling for a change in state gun policy.  As our letter says,

There is no evidence that increased gun presence has decreased death or injury by guns on campuses. Whether on campuses or elsewhere, private citizens have had no appreciable success in preventing deaths by intentional shooters, accidental shooters, or suicidal individuals. Beyond the boundaries of universities, the evidence is that the presence of guns in homes increases the likelihood of death or injury by gunshot. We believe our community is safest without guns in our midst, except in the hands of on-duty law enforcement officials.

And:

We are dedicated teachers, mentors, researchers, and colleagues. We believe that the unrestricted presence of guns in our classrooms, offices, lecture halls and other spaces will make us and our students feel less safe. It will compromise the open door policy many of us maintain, in which students and others are free to drop by our offices to consult or converse. It will make students less open to working together with others whom they may not know well, and will adversely affect their educational experience. We believe that by compromising the safety of our community members, sanctioning guns on campus goes against the mission of the university.

We are not the only educators opposing state legislatures’ attempts to endanger the lives of students, faculty, and staff. I’ve been encouraged to see other organizations and individuals speaking out against the false notion — promoted by the NRA and their legislators — that making it possible for more people to kill other people somehow magically increases the safety of all people.

In its statement opposing “campus carry” laws, the American Association of University Professors says, “State legislative bodies must refrain from interfering with decisions that are properly the responsibility of the academic community.” 29 scholarly societies (including the American Studies Association) issued their own statement against the incursion of guns on campus, saying that Texas’ “Campus Carry law and similar laws in other states introduce serious safety threats on college campuses with a resulting harmful effect on students and professors.”

Will state legislatures actually listen to the people who work in the field of education?  Or will they instead flood campuses with guns, increasing the likelihood that students, teachers, and staff will get added to the next sad, inevitable list of the dead?  Also, if bringing guns into the workplace is such a great idea, then why don’t legislatures allow guns in their workplaces?  (The Kansas legislature, for example, grants itself an exemption from its law.)

As of the middle of October 2015, there had been 25 shootings on American college campuses this year, resulting in 23 dead and 25 injured. These include mass shootings, accidental shootings, and murder-suicides. (Suicide is a leading cause of death for college-aged people and guns are used in the majority of these deaths.) I haven’t checked the statistics as of today (December 2nd), but I know there have been others since mid-October and fully expect there to be more before the end of the year.

Here’s hoping that I’m wrong.

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When will I be shot dead?

GunAs we read the news of yet another shooting at a school (the 17th on a college campus this yearthe 45th school shooting shooting this year*), I cannot help but wonder: when will I be among those murdered?  Earlier this year, a roving gunman had the campus of Kansas State University (where I teach) on lockdown. Fortunately, no one was shot, and — since the lockdown began very early in the morning — few people were on campus at the time. But each time I hear of another massacre, I wonder when I will be among the dead. 

Our governor and legislature have eliminated even the most minimal gun safety laws. In Kansas, all you need to get a gun is a heartbeat and a credit card. I’m not kidding. Our wise leaders have even removed the requirement that aspiring gun owners learn how to use their firearms.  In Kansas as in much of America, it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver’s license or to adopt a child.  Think about that.  There are no obstacles to buying a device designed for killing other living creatures.  In the U.S., the right to kill is valued more highly than the right to live.

If there were evidence that increased gun ownership made society more safe (as weapons enthusiasts insist there is), then we could rejoice in the indiscriminate proliferation of firearms. However, the evidence is quite the opposite. Guns in the home do not make that home safer; instead, they increase the risk of homicide. Ordinary citizens wandering around with guns do not make the streets more safe. More guns increase the risk of firearm-related deaths. Period.

Contrary to the claims of gun aficionados, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not say “Every man, woman and child should be armed to the teeth!”  It actually says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I’d be willing to make an exception to this for, say, hunters, or people who enjoy target shooting. That seems fair. But even that exceeds what the amendment itself allows. According to the Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” because a free state requires a “well regulated militia.” Guns are for the militia. Indeed, the amendment covers only the militia.  The clause modifying the word “right” is “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state.”  That right is therefore accorded to members of this militia.

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityAt the moment, people are not supposed to bring guns into campus buildings.  Our buildings even have signage to that effect.  However, the conspicuous absence of full-body scanners and security guards in the doorways of each building suggests that it would not be difficult to bring guns into a campus building.  In any case, it’s not clear how long even this restriction will hold: our legislature wants guns everywhere. To their credit, the Kansas Board of Regents, though dismissive of faculty and staff’s right to free speech, does seem to want us to remain alive.  They’ve supported an exemption for state universities. The sign you see at left (from the building my office is in) is a result.

And so I wonder: when will an armed white man enter my classroom and begin spraying the room with bullets?  (The shooter is usually a white man, but it could be a non-white man, or — very rarely — a woman.  Since a white man is statistically the most likely, that’s what my imaginary shooter always is.)  How will I react?  Can I stop him by talking to him, perhaps buying myself and the students some time?  If not, will I have time to duck?  And will ducking save me?  Perhaps his weapon will jam or he will have to reload, and one of us can intervene in time.  Perhaps not.

I know that, should this day come, the responsible parties will include: Governor Sam Brownback, the members of the Kansas legislature who abdicated their responsibility by supporting these dangerous laws, members of the US Congress and Senate who oppose sensible gun policy, and, of course, the National Rifle Association.  All of these people will be accessories to my murder.  I don’t imagine that they can be prosecuted for their role in the crime, but they should be.  And I would ask those who cared about me to send all responsible (the governor, legislature, congress, the NRA) a photo of my bloody corpse so that the responsible parties can appreciate the results of their handiwork.  Indeed, I would invite people working towards sensible gun laws to use photos of me (alive or dead or both) to support their cause.

I hope that I somehow evade the violent death that reckless American gun laws (and their advocates) have prepared for us all. However, should I be found among the dead, I want my family and friends to know that I love them, and that I’m sorry our time together had to end so soon.

__________

* And over 142 school shootings since the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Correction, 2 Oct. 2015, 8:20 am: Changed the parenthetical in the first sentence. It was the 45th school shooting of 2015, not the 45th mass shooting (as I initially stated).  So far, there have been 294 mass shootings in the US this year.

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On Reading the Expurgated Huck Finn; or, Why We Should Teach Offensive Novels

NewSouth's Bowdlerized edition of Mark TwainAs you may recall, three years ago NewSouth Books published an edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which editor Alan Gribben replaced the n-word with “slave,” and the in-word (“Injun”) with “Indian.” Many (including yours truly) criticized Gribben’s decision, and most critics focused on Huckleberry Finn. But who actually read his edition? As I write a chapter on Bowdlerized children’s literature, I decided to read Gribben’s expurgated Huck Finn. My central questions were: What’s the effect of Bowdlerizing this novel? How does it change? How doesn’t it change? Does it approach Gribben’s goal of creating a book that “can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages” (12)?

These are my answers. (Trigger warning: the n-word appears multiple times below. I’ve included it because it’s offensive, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the novel’s offensiveness without using the offending term.)

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (Norton Critical Edition)1. Reading an expurgated edition heightens one’s awareness of what has been changed. When listening to the radio and I hear a word that has been bleeped, silenced, or (more typically) electronically garbed, the omission stands out more than if it had not been altered. If I know the unexpurgated version of the song, my brain instinctively fills in the missing word; if I don’t know it, then the absent rhyme prompts my brain to produce an uncensored version of the lyric. The same is true with “slave” in the NewSouth Edition of Huck Finn: each time I encounter the word “slave,” I first think “Is that an expurgated n-word?”  I assume that it is, but always verify my assumption by checking my Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn. In its many omissions, the NewSouth edition actually made me more aware of the 219 instances of the word “nigger” in Huck Finn.

2. Gribben insists that this edition “is emphatically not intended for academic scholars” (16). I take his point, and would not assume that younger readers would be reading (as I was) with a non-Bowdlerized edition on hand. However, racism is the central theme of Huck Finn. Not only is it impossible to create an “authentic” version of the novel without the n-word, but presenting this text to young readers as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn perpetuates structural racism. Using “slave” instead of “nigger” naturalizes the racism in Huck’s caricature of Jim. Retaining the n-word makes us pay closer attention to Huck’s racism: though he is less racist than some of the other characters in the book, our narrator casually slings around the n-word, too. Gribben downplays the profound significance of removing this word: “Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers” (13).

The problem is: the caustic sting is the point. Enduring the repeated offensiveness of the n-word is a core experience of reading Huckleberry Finn. Since I am neither a nineteenth-century Americanist nor a Twain scholar, I take the edition’s back cover at its word when it describes Professor Gribben as a “Twain scholar,” and notes that he “co-founded the Mark Twain Circle of America,” and “compiled Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction.” I wonder, however, if Twain scholars still think of Gribben as a Twain scholar? To claim (as Gribben does) that Huck Finn can be both “authentic” and free of its racial slurs is preposterous.

Alan Gribben3. If I am correct in identifying the pink-faced Gribben on the back cover as white, then the NewSouth edition is also a telling example of how white privilege conceals itself from itself. Gribben tries to dilute Huck’s and Twain’s racism in order to preserve a classic American novel, obscuring the ways in which (as Toni Morrison has argued) the predominantly white American canon depends upon not just blackness but upon racism. Gribben colludes in the partial erasure of racism from American literary history, perpetuating a kind of “racism lite” — what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Though Huck, Tom, the King, the Duke, and Uncle Silas all treat Jim as less than fully human because of his race, they never once — in the NewSouth edition — use the n-word when doing so. But changing the word does not change the stereotype. In the NewSouth edition, Jim may be called a slave, but the book still caricatures him as a nigger.

Even when Twain’s novel tries to assert Jim’s humanity, such as the scene in which he remembers his deaf daughter Elizabeth, it still calls him “nigger” and represents him as one. Just paragraphs prior to the Elizabeth scene, Huck hears Jim talking in his sleep about “his wife and his children,” feeling “low and homesick.” He then observes, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so…. He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was” (125). Changing that line to “He was a might good slave, Jim was” (393) not only softens Huck’s racist condescension towards Jim, but conflates racial category (“nigger”) with job description (“slave”) — and there are moments (in Twain’s novel) when Huck distinguishes between slave and nigger. For example, at the beginning of Huck’s crisis of conscience, he makes the distinction: “Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave” (168). When this passage appears in the NewSouth edition (as it does, unchanged), there’s no way of knowing that Huck is making this lexical distinction between the two terms because NewSouth replaces all instances of the n-word with “slave.”

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884)4. The distinction is important because Twain’s characters suffer from varying degrees of racism. Though he makes liberal use of the n-word, Huck is actually less racist than (for example) his father. On some (though certainly not all) of the occasions Huck uses the n-word, he is reflecting the judgment of the community. During that same crisis-of-conscience scene, he says, “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom” (168). In conveying others’ imagined evaluation of his behavior, he echoes their style of speech: in context, the n-word could be read as Twain’s criticism of those who think that people of color should be enslaved. In contrast, Huck’s father consistently denies the humanity of people of color. Pap’s use of the n-word not only offers some indication of where Huck may have learned to deploy the term so frequently, but allows readers to make a moral distinction between father and son. Pap describes “a free nigger,” a “mulatter, most as white as a white man” who is a “p’fessor in a college and could talk all kinds of languages,” and then rails against the man’s right to vote: “when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again” (27). In changing the word “nigger” to “slave,” NewSouth not only partly obscures where Huck learned his racist language, but also diminishes the full violence of Pap’s hatred.

5. Reading the word “nigger” should make you at least uncomfortable, and at most angry. Since Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is also satirical, a key emotional experience of reading is the collision between anger and humor. On the one hand, the novel has lots of satirical targets — romantic adventure narratives, religion, human gullibility, superstition in general, and (in particular) superstition in “niggers.” Its attempts at humor bump uncomfortably into its racism. The novel invites us to laugh at the superstitions of Nat (the slave who feeds Jim, on Uncle Silas’s plantation), and of Jim himself. Yet, because it presents both characters — especially Nat — as racial caricatures, the jokes aren’t funny. (Well, racists may find them funny, but other people are less likely to laugh.) Other jokes — the mocking of the King and the Duke’s con-artistry, Emmeline Grangerford’s morbid poetry — work much better. The different affective tones make for an unsettling read.

Young people should learn to read uncomfortably, to be able to cope with experiences that upset them. Huck Finn’s mix of comedy and bigotry offers an ideal occasion to do just that. In its attempts to sanitize the novel’s bigotry, Gribben’s NewSouth edition makes it harder to have that conversation.

6. Though his efforts were well-intentioned, Alan Gribben, in his NewSouth edition, attempts to conceal racism’s history and pervasiveness in American culture, while enshrining as a classic one of the books that perpetuates racism — and, in some ways, critiques racism. (I’ve dwelled on the novel’s shortcomings here, but it’s fair to call Twain a racial progressive in nineteenth-century America. Despite and because of that, it’s also fair to call both Twain and the novel racist.)

7. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American novel and a racist American novel. Indeed, its racism can not be separated from its genius. These twin qualities provide two excellent reasons to teach it in American high schools and colleges. White Americans need to confront America’s racist past so that they can stop perpetuating that racism in the present. People of color need to learn about America’s racist past so that they can survive in America’s racist present.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"8. There will be those who, upon reading this, say: You’re judging a nineteenth-century novel by twenty-first century standards. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend an essay by Robin Bernstein:

  • “Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde’s Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children,” The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1.1 (Spring 2013): 97-119.

If you lack access to it, I will send you a pdf (my email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s”). In it, she makes the excellent point that the “that’s what everyone thought back then” argument is a weak one: “In the 1850s, some people held radically egalitarian beliefs, while others espoused white supremacy. The same is true today. What has changed is less the array of thinkable thoughts than the proportion of people espousing each belief. … But the full set of racial beliefs has remained relatively stable” (97-98). As she notes, this “relative stability of the range of racial beliefs is important because it refutes a narrative of history that falsely implies that progress is inevitable” (98). In Mark Twain’s time, all people did not hold the same beliefs. To defend Huck Finn’s racism on the grounds that they did colludes with a white supremacist understanding of history, excusing past bigotry without acknowledging the damage inflicted upon real people both past and present.

9. Gribben’s NewSouth edition not only fails to achieve its stated goals. It does real harm to those who read it. Lying to young readers is not educating them. Racist literature should of course be taught alongside other fiction and non-fiction that provide students with more accurate visions of history, allowing them to evaluate critically what they read. But lying via omission is a poor — indeed, a dangerous — solution to dealing with racism.

10. I hope it goes without saying that I welcome criticism of my analysis, above. This chapter is a work in progress. Furthermore, like Alan Gribben (if I’ve read his photo correctly), I am a white male. In the U.S., my skin color and gender allow me not only to evade the daily pain of racism, but also to benefit from it (see “white privilege” in no. 3, above). So, while I hope I’m discussing race and racism with nuance and sensitivity, I know that my own privilege may blind me to the ways I which I’m failing to do so. Where you see me failing, please call me to task. I want to know what I’m getting wrong. Thank you.

Indeed, if you’ll be at the American Studies Association conference next month, elements of the above will appear in my paper — which also addresses Doctor Dolittle, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the role of affect in teaching about all three of these novels. I’d welcome your criticism and comments there, too. The session (no. 408) is Sunday at 12 noon. And, if you’re able to come, you’ll also be treated to three much wiser panelists: Brigitte Fielder, Lori L. Brooks, and Melissa Adams-Campbell.

Related posts on this blog:

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Ferguson: Response & Resources

This post has two parts: my response and some resources for teaching about Ferguson. Feel free to skip ahead to the resources section.


My Response

Watts 1965 & Ferguson 2014For two weeks now, I have been wanting to write something about the state-sponsored terrorism in Ferguson — and all that it represents (structural racism, police brutality, militarized cops, etc.). But it makes me so angry. And depressed. And fills me with despair. (Indeed, Ferguson is one reason I’ve kept a lower profile on social media lately. The horrors of the world have been too overwhelming.)

Also, where does one begin? Can’t exactly open with a joke. Q: What’s the Ferguson police’s motto? A: To protect and to serve… white supremacy.  And NO, this isn’t funny. It’s simultaneously sad and infuriating. I mean, surely I am not the only person wondering why the entire Ferguson police force has not been disarmed and dismissed? Yes, after the establishment of a competent police chief and responsible hiring practices, ex-officers would be welcome to reapply for their former jobs. But, at present, the police force there inspires no confidence whatsoever, and represents an ongoing threat to public safety. Indeed, in my fantasy solution, the United Nations sends in peacekeepers to Ferguson. I picture Canadian soldiers wearing those baby-blue UN helmets. They could protect the citizens from the local cops, until Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri get their act together — which, frankly, means that the UN troops would be in Missouri for a long time.

Michael Brown (1996-2014)You see? I start to write, and then that turns, first, into a rant against the corrupt cops who delayed naming the officer who murdered Michael Brown for jaywalking, in order to grant themselves time to construct an implausible alibi — an alibi that quickly unraveled (because Darren Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery at the time he killed Brown). Second, it turns into an anguish I cannot articulate. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. But also…. James Byrd Jr. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Medgar Evers. Emmett Till.  And less well-known people like Recy Taylor. And the many, many other victims of American racism — an institution as old as the republic itself.

Emmett Till & Trayvon Martin

The myth of America is that it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. The truth is that, for most of its history, America has been a white supremacist police state. Most people have bought into the American myth so thoroughly that when you confront them with this fact, they refuse to acknowledge it. So, let me rephrase this: for most of American history, people of color have had no rights that white Americans were bound to respect. For the sake of argument, let us make the provisional (and demonstrably false) claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 “ended” racism. Were that true (and it is not true), then we would have 50 years in which African Americans had rights — well, sort of. Or more rights than before 1964 — um, usually. The common date for the United States’ founding is either 1789 (adoption of US Constitution) or 1776 (Declaration of Independence), but we could also use 1619 (first enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown) or 1492 (when Columbus “discovered” a continent where people already lived, and so helped kill them via smallpox-infected blankets). So, let’s do some math for each date. The percentage at the end represents the amount of American history during which people of color have had some (although certainly not full) civil rights in the U.S.

  • 1789: 50 years out of 225. 22%
  • 1776: 50 years out of 238. 21%
  • 1619: 50 years out of 395. 13%
  • 1492: 50 years out of 522. 10%

50 years of partial civil rights — or what we might call “racism lite” — is a piss-poor record for a nation that promotes itself as the world’s greatest exemplar of democracy.

What’s more, President Obama’s election seems to have inspired a renaissance in American racism. He gets elected, and then all the racists come out in full force. There’s the structural kind of racism, such as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, or the fake “Voter Fraud” laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, or Stand Your Ground laws (applied unequally to white gun-owners and black gun-owners). And then there’s the more personal kind, like the many racial caricatures of Obama or, yeah, whites who murder blacks and get off scot-free.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaI don’t mean to suggest that Obama’s election and re-election indicate no progress whatsoever since the founding of the republic or even since 1964-1965. Even when he won the presidency in 2008, the notion of a president of color was literally unimaginable to many people — and that’s people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. I know liberals who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries because Americans would never elect a black president. Instead, I mean to suggest that the success of Obama has helped usher in a new era of “racism without racists” (to use Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term), in which the successes of a few people of color get used to deflect attention away from the persistence of structural racism — a racism personified by the police force in Ferguson, Missouri.

All of what I’ve said above has been better-articulated by others, I know.  So, now, here is what will I hope be a more useful contribution to the conversation — an aggregation of resources for teaching about Ferguson.


The Resources

I’m sure this is incomplete. Please add your own in the comments, below, and I will do my best to add them to these links.

Teaching Ferguson

Steve Sack, "The Talk," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 16 July 2013

Literature

Clay Bennett, "Community Relations." Chattanooga Times Free Press, 15 Aug. 2014

Children’s & YA Literature

Art

Kevin Siers, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Editorial cartoon. Charlotte Observer, 14 Aug. 2014

Analysis & Context

  • Charles P. Pierce, “They Left the Body in the Street.” Esquire. 22 Aug. 2014. “Dictators leave bodies in the street. Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street. Warlords leave bodies in the street…. A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society.”
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, “Different Rules Apply.”  MZS.  19 Aug. 2014.  “I went home. The other guy didn’t. That’s white privilege.”
  • Adam Serwer, “Eighty Years of Fergusons.” Buzzfeed. 25 Aug. 2014. “We have had 80 years of Fergusons. We may have more. Violence — as harmful and self-destructive as it is — sometimes works.”
  • Michael Denzel Smith, “Strange Fruit in Ferguson.” The Nation. 20 Aug. 2014. “The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…'”
  • St. Louis American‘s Editors. “For the sake of Michael Brown.”  St Louis American. 14 Aug. 2014. “We can’t bring Michael Brown back. But we can insist on a prompt, credible, transparent investigation – under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice, we urge – and that his killer be brought to justice. The officer should receive the constitutionally guaranteed due process he did not give to his victim.”
  • Jesse Washington, “Trayvon Martin, My Son, and the Black Male Code.” Huffington Post. 24 March 2012. Not on Ferguson in particular but on the separate-but-unequal treatment of young black men: “Across the country this week, parents were talking to their children, especially their black sons, about the Code. It’s a talk the black community has passed down for generations, an evolving oral tradition from the days when an errant remark could easily cost black people their job, their freedom, or sometimes their life.” Thanks to Sarah Park Dahlen.
  • Janee Woods, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People.” The Root 19 Aug. 2014. “White people who hate racism should work hard to become white allies. Here are some ways for a white person to become engaged, thoughtfully and critically, in examining the crisis in Ferguson and systemic racism in America.”

Primary Resources

Jim Morin, "911? I'm being followed by a stranger, and I'm scared...." Editorial cartoon. Miami Herald, 1

Activism

As I said above, I’m sure I’ve omitted useful resources.  Please let me know, and I’ll add them. (I’ve not followed this as closely as some of you have, I know. As noted at the very beginning of this blog post, the news lately has been rather overwhelming & so I’ve had to retreat a bit from social media. Ferguson. Gaza. Ukraine. Robin Williams’ suicide. Too much to take.)

Thanks to everyone who has shared links via Facebook and Twitter. I’d not have found half of these links without you all.


Update, 3:10 pm, 31 Aug: Added a short, smart response by Robin Bernstein (@RobinMBernstein), and a cartoon by Ben Sargent.

Update, 1:35pm, 29 Aug: With thanks to Kate Slater (@slaterka), added Ezekiel Kweku’s “The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a N*****r Nation” (under “Analysis & Context”); thanks to Julie Danielson (@SevenImp), added a coupe of pieces, including one on a foolish school superintendent who has banned classroom discussion of Ferguson; thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), added the MichaelBrownsCrime tumblr. And a few others…

Update, 9:00 pm, 27 Aug: With thanks to Libby Gruner, added Kia Makarechi’s Vanity Fair piece. Also added a few other pieces, many of which are thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), who — as I note above — is someone you really ought to follow on Twitter (though I think I actually found these pieces [Adam Serwer’s “Eighty Years of Fergusons” & Shaun R. Harper’s “Race Lessons from Ferguson: Back to School, Not Back to Normal.”] via her Facebook feed).

Update, 8:00 pm, 26 Aug: Added the Mary Engelbreit artwork (in “Children’s & YA” section), and a link to related news stories (under “Art”).

Update, 2:40 pm, 26 Aug: Added resources from Sarah Park Dahlen (SarahPark.com), Sophylou (True Stories Backward), Sandy Brehl (@PBWorkshop), & one or two others.

Update, 10:30 am, 25 Aug: I’ve added resources culled from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post.

Update, 10:45 pm, 24 Aug: I will add, tomorrow, some great links from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post. I’ve added a few other links.

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Kansas State University’s NEW Academic Freedom Statement

Uncensor KansasIn response to the Kansas Board of Regents’ draconian, unconstitutional social media policy, a group of concerned faculty and students from Kansas State University drafted an Academic Freedom statement, during this past summer. I was not a member of this group, but I fully endorse their statement, which can be found as no. 3 on Kansas State University’s Optional Syllabi Statements (scroll down).  For your reference, I’ll also reproduce it here:

Academic Freedom Statement

Kansas State University is a community of students, faculty, and staff who work together to discover new knowledge, create new ideas, and share the results of their scholarly inquiry with the wider public. Although new ideas or research results may be controversial or challenge established views, the health and growth of any society requires frank intellectual exchange. Academic freedom protects this type of free exchange and is thus essential to any university’s mission.

Moreover, academic freedom supports collaborative work in the pursuit of truth and the dissemination of knowledge in an environment of inquiry, respectful debate, and professionalism. Academic freedom is not limited to the classroom or to scientific and scholarly research, but extends to the life of the university as well as to larger social and political questions. It is the right and responsibility of the university community to engage with such issues.

I encourage faculty and staff at Kansas State University to adopt this statement, and faculty and staff at other Kansas universities to adopt a similar statement.

Remain Vigilant (small version)I would also encourage all Regents who voted for the Social Media Policy to be swiftly removed from the Kansas Board of Regents, since none of them have any business serving on such a body. But, that, of course, is a subject for another blog post — and has already been covered in great detail on this blog, as well as in the local and national media.

On this blog, see:

Finally, thanks to the group who drafted this statement! (I’m deliberately not naming them in this post because I don’t know if they want to be publicly identified. It’s conceivable that their work might be seen as disloyal, unharmonious, etc.)

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