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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How Do We Stop the Trump on the Stump? The Truth Is in Seuss!

Many have likened Donald Trump to a “schoolyard bully.” Back in September, Mr. Trump even admitted that his own campaign rhetoric had been “a little childish.” To best understand a candidate who addresses voters at a fourth-grade level, we need the stories of one of our most plain-spoken political analysts — Dr. Seuss. These four Seuss books best explain Mr. Trump’s character, and offer insight into how to prevent him from conning his way into the presidency.

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)At first, the Trump on the stump may seem like the Cat in the Hat. He refuses to play by the rules, and disdains the advice of the political establishment (represented by the fish in Seuss’s story), but he’s very entertaining. He knows some new tricks — a lot of good tricks. Perhaps he should not be here, but — wait — he’s going to show us another good game that he knows? And it’s going to be amazing, fantastic, tremendous, hugely classy? The Trump, like the Cat, is disruptive and exciting. However, as Robert Coover’s satirical novella The Cat in the Hat for President (1968) points out, nominating Seuss’s Cat for president would be very risky. While an unpredictable clown can be fun to watch, he’s dangerous to put in charge.

Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches (1961)Of Seuss’s many con-artist characters (the Cat, the Grinch, the Once-Ler), Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the most Trumpish. A businessman, McBean makes his money by exploiting the prejudices of the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. To the excluded Plain-Belly Sneetches, he says: “I’ve heard you’re unhappy. But I can fix that.” He insists, “I have what you need,” and promises “my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!” After the formerly star-less have all paid for stars on their bellies, McBean then turns to the original star-bellied group, and offers to remove their stars. So begins an “Off again! On again!” race in which Sneetches alternately pay to gain and pay to lose stars, until they all run out of money. Seated in a car now overflowing with bags of their cash, McBean drives away laughing.

Like McBean, Trump is adept at exploiting the hatreds of his constituents. According to him, Mexicans are “criminals” but also “good people.” Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. but also are “wonderful people.” Oh, and Islam “hates us.” He flaunts his racism less out of conviction and more because he knows that manipulating people’s prejudices will help him sell himself as the solution.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)As Ezra Klein observes, Donald Trump has “the demagogue’s instinct for finding the angriest voice in the crowd and amplifying it.” This talent makes Trump an ally of the kangaroo from Horton Hears a Who! (1954). While Horton the elephant works to save the Whos, the kangaroo rallies the mob that nearly kills them. Her delight in encouraging violence echoes that of Trump, who has said of one protester “I’d like to punch him in the face.” When two of his followers attacked a homeless man, Trump excused their behavior by noting that his supporters were “very passionate.” At rallies, Trump condones violence against his opponents.

Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle (1958)The kangaroo, the Cat, and McBean all illuminate aspects of the Trump psyche, but, to glimpse a Trump presidency, we need look to Yertle the Turtle, the despotic reptile who loves to brag about all he owns: “I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air! / Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!” If Trump delivered one of his “I’m really rich” speeches in anapestic verse, he would sound just like Yertle. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an anti-fascist parable, in which the turtle king represented Hitler. Trump is not Hitler, but he is an authoritarian bully who scapegoats society’s vulnerable. He rejects democratic institutions — many of his proposals (such as the mass deportation of Muslims) are unconstitutional. Like Yertle, Trump is interested only in his own power, and not in his constituents’ welfare. In Seuss’s book, Yertle quite literally builds his empire on the backs of his citizens. This, too, is how Trump operates, and is what a Trump presidency would look like.

At the end of each Seuss story, the villain either fails or changes. Led by Mack’s revolutionary “burp,” Yertle’s subjects topple their king, freeing themselves and relegating Yertle to “King of the Mud.” In Horton Hears a Who!, the kangaroo changes her mind, recognizes the Whos’ humanity, and vows to protect them. The Sneetches (1961) ends with the Sneetches poorer, but wiser, having learned “that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” But what will be the end of Trump’s story?

Will the Trump on the stump make us all chumps?

Or will people wise up, and send Trump to the dump?

There’s no land of the free in his presidency.

Only anger and threats, bluster and bigotry.

If the Trump’s demagoguery wins in the fall,

Then a new idiocracy threatens us all.


I wrote this about a month ago, & pitched it to Buzzfeed & Politico, but got no response. In one version, I opened with a reference to Jimmy Kimmel’s December 2015 clip, in which he presents an ersatz Seuss children’s book as a commentary on Mr. Trump. I offer it here as a little bonus material.

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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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The Treachery of Images

Perhaps you have also seen these memes drifting through your social media feed. There’s a photo of Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush sharing a hug.

Hillary Clinton & George W. Bush at Nancy Reagan's funeral

This was taken at Nancy Reagan’s funeral earlier this month, but one meme-maker offers the photo as evidence that her politics and policies are identical to those of George W. Bush.

There’s another photo of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, taken at Mr. Trump’s third wedding, in 2005.

The Clintons at Trump's 2005 wedding.

This, too, is supposed to indicate a political alignment between the two presidential candidates.  Indeed, both photos are being shared by supporters of Bernie Sanders, in an effort to persuade you to vote for the Vermont senator.

There are many excellent reasons to vote for Mr. Sanders: a rebuke to Secretary Clinton’s neo-liberalism, or in opposition to Mr. Trump’s neo-fascism, to name but two possibilities.  However, the frequent sharing of these photos suggests that at least some of Senator Sanders’ supporters lack the ability to reason.  Secretary Clinton has spent nearly 40 years in public life. You can find photos of her next to lots of different people, some of whom you may admire, and others of whom you may revile. She shares a human moment with President Bush at a funeral, and accepts a wedding invitation from Mr. Trump (then a major donor to Democratic candidates). Is it not possible to be civil to those with whom you disagree? Indeed, why not read the photos of evidence of civility rather than ideological affiliation?  These photos prove that she is a public figure and a politician. That’s all.

Here is a photo of First Lady Clinton and Mickey Mouse, circa 1993.

Hillary Clinton & Mickey Mouse, c. 1993

Here is a photo of Secretary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, in 2010.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) outside Moscow in Novo-Ogarevo on March 19, 2010. Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images.

Here is a photo of Mrs. Clinton, Tipper Gore, and a stalk of broccoli, in 1992.

Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, & broccoli, 1992

What do these photos prove?  Are they evidence of a nefarious Russian-Disney-broccoli alliance?  Obviously not.  So, yes, debate the merits of Sanders, Clinton, Trump, Cruz, Kasich, and whomever else you like.  There are real policy differences, and a healthy debate is vital for democracy. But deploy convincing arguments, not facile memes.  Please.

Credits: Title of this blog post comes from the painting by René Magritte.  Photos via, respectively, Pro-Labor Alliance on Facebook, CNN, Amber J. Phillips’ website, Newsweek, and Pinterest.

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Seuss on Film

Dr. Seuss Working, c. 1940sAs a famous author whose life spanned the twentieth century, Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) should have been often in newsreels and on TV, right? From time to time, he does appear on camera — but less often than we might expect. In celebration of what would have been his 112th birthday, here’s a brief (but far from complete) collection of Seuss on film!

Below, are four film clips — two from the 1940s, one from 1958, and one from 1964. All are short: Unusual Occupations (1940) is 2 minutes, he’s only in the first 45 seconds of Making SNAFU (c. 1943), To Tell the Truth (1958) is under 8 minutes, and the New Zealand schoolroom (1964) is under 4 minutes.  However, if you’re running short on time, skip ahead to the New Zealand schoolroom.  That’s my favorite of the group.

Two of these (c. 1943, 1958) were already on YouTube, but the other two (1940, 1964) are — as far as I know — making their YouTube debut today. Enjoy!


Unusual Occupations (1940)

The earliest known film footage of Dr. Seuss is in color!  Sadly, there’s no audio. But you do get to see him with the sculptures he was making. He called them “Unorthodox Taxidermy” and sold them via mail.  Though his fourth children’s book (Horton Hatches the Egg) was published the same year as this clip, Seuss’s main occupation at this time was advertising: the “Seuss Navy” line in the narration references his adds for Esso.  Also, though the narrator describes him as a “doctor of literature,” he wasn’t.  He dropped out of his M.A. program, and never pursued the Ph.D.  But he did use “Dr.” for his professional pseudonym.

Horton Hatches the Egg would be Seuss’s last children’s book until 1947. With the World War raging in Europe and the Pacific, Seuss set aside children’s books and “Unorthodox Taxidermy.” Instead, he began working on propaganda — first, political cartoons, and next, educational videos for the U.S. Army.


Making SNAFU (c. 1943)

In April 1941, Theodor Seuss Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — became a political cartoonist for PM, New York’s Popular Front newspaper. Convinced that America would be drawn into the rapidly expanding World War, he feared that isolationism made the United States vulnerable.  As he recalled,

The way I went to work for PM is that I got annoyed with Lindbergh and his America-Firsters. I was already somewhat prominent as a cartoonist, but nobody would print my cartoons against Lindbergh. So I went to work for PM for almost nothing. When the United States got into the war I started receiving a lot of letters saying I was a dirty old man who had helped get us into the war, and I was too old to fight. So I enlisted.

In January 1943, after having written over 400 political cartoons for PM, Geisel left New York and took the train out to Hollywood, California, where he would be a captain in the U.S. Army’s Information and Education Division — “Fort Fox,” headed by Major Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director.

Capra placed Ted Geisel in charge of the animation branch and assigned him to make educational films that would run in the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a biweekly newsreel shown to the troops. Ted Geisel and Phil Eastman (later famous for Go, Dog. Go!, but then an ex-Disney animator) teamed up with directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; vocal impressionist Mel Blanc; composer Carl Stalling; and the other creative minds behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. Exactly who came up with the idea of Private SNAFU is not clear, but the idea itself was simple: Teaching by negative example, Private SNAFU would embody his name, an acronym for (as the first cartoon put it) “Situation Normal All … All Fouled Up.”1

In the clip below, you’ll see Ted Geisel, at the desk on the left (0:15-0:40).  As Jerry Beck says, the clip is “unedited footage shot by the First Motion Picture unit, likely intended to be used for a newsreel or other production.”  They’ve added some of Stalling’s score (from SNAFU shorts) as a soundtrack. Though Beck lists this piece as circa 1944, I think it slightly more likely to have been 1943: once the SNAFU cartoons started being screened (July 1943), they were very popular. By 1944, there would have been no need to create promotional footage. But either date is close enough.


To Tell the Truth (1958)

Up until 1957, Seuss was more famous for his advertising work than his children’s books. Then, he published The Cat in the Hat (spring, 1957) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (fall, 1957) — both of which were very popular and, to this day, remain two of his best-known works. Buoyed by this popularity, he appeared on the April 29, 1958 episode of the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth.


New Zealand TV (1964)

During a book tour in Australia and New Zealand, Seuss visited Auckland’s May Road School, where this film was made. This is my favorite footage of Dr. Seuss because he’s improvising with the children, playfully answering their questions with what he was by then calling “logical nonsense.” I also like it because it refutes the oft-repeated claim that Seuss did not like children. His response to children was similar to his response to adults: he liked some, and not others.


Notes:

  1. All information in this and preceding “Making SNAFU” paragraphs lifted from the opening of my article “Children’s Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, and the Private SNAFU Films (1943-46),” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (June 2007), pp. 468-69. <www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00404.x> (Full text available to subscribers.)

Since it is Seuss’s birthday, you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website design impedes its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.) Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’s being celebrated on Wednesday, March 2nd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

Credit: Photo of Dr. Seuss working from Marcus Ashley Fine Art Gallery.

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Setup Wizard

Setup WizardAttention Harry Potter Fans! While you await Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (script to be published July 31), check out The Setup Wizard, the “Daily Accounts of a Muggle I.T. Guy working at Hogwarts.”  Its premise is that, at Hogwarts, “students and staff alike have finally caved and demanded that their cell phones work on school grounds.” The muggle they hire, Jonathan Dart, having “learned through the grapevine that other magical schools are planning on making the same jump,” decides to write a blog in the hope that his “experiences can help other outsiders down the road.”

This offers him many opportunities to venture into unexplored areas of the Potterverse and consider one of its curious absences — muggle technology. Here’s a sample post:

Have you ever tried to set up wifi under a lake? The damn Slytherin kids almost refused to even let me into their common room until I explained to them what Spotify is and how, with the magical power of the internet, they can stream all the emo music their little hearts could ever desire.

And here’s one more:

If my “improper” spelling of the word ‘color’ hasn’t cued you in, I am originally from the other side of the pond from Hogwarts. Let me tell you, you cannot find a decent cup of coffee anywhere in Hogsmeade. I’m cool with tea, but sometimes a man needs a taste of what singlehandedly got him through his early 20s.

Luckily, I was able to work a Keurig into the budget this month. The Headmaster asked what the device was for and I insisted that it was a flux relay needed to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and maintain the balance of the force of the server’s matrix capacity. Long story short he thinks I’m a technical genius and I have a cup of hazelnut flavored happiness.

To get a sense of the full narrative, I recommend reading the series in order.

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MLA 2017 Call for Papers! Border Conflicts: Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature

Drowned City, The Island, Number the Stars, War — What If?, How I Learned Geography

In September 2015, photos of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi — his corpse washed ashore on a Turkish beach — came to symbolize the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders promised to do more, people debated whether printing the pictures was appropriate, and charities experienced a surge in donations. In children’s literature, the figure of the child as refugee, migrant, or displaced citizen has long been a powerful trope, disrupting the assumed connection between personal identity and national identity, exposing virulent racism and xenophobia, but also awakening compassion and kindness.  As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II, this guaranteed session (sponsored by the Children’s Literature Forum) will examine children’s literature’s response — both contemporary and historical — to refugees, migrants, and members of diasporic communities.

Subjects panelists might consider include (but are not limited to): the ways in which the term “migrant” can dehumanize people, whether persecuted minorities qualify for refugee status in their own countries, the many reasons for displacement (race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality), questions concerning human rights, and how the vulnerable figure of the child brings these questions into sharper focus.

The panel will convene at the Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia, which will be held from January 5 to 8, 2017.

Send 1-page abstracts by March 15, 2016 to Nina Christensen <NC@dac.au.dk> and Philip Nel <philnel@ksu.edu>.

The Arrival, Day of Tears, I Am David, Bamboo People, Inside Out & Back Again

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Running Out of Time

Following a December blog-conversation about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (occasioned in part by her own chemo), my friend Alison Piepmeier asked me to send her a contribution to her blog, Every Little Thing. It appeared there on Monday. I’m reposting it here now.

In case you’re wondering, I got permission from the close relative (named below) to quote her. Then, just after this went live on Alison’s blog, the aforementioned relative — not knowing it had just been published — also gave me permission to name her. (I didn’t, initially, because I wanted to respect her privacy.) I’ve decided to leave her unnamed here, too. If you know me, you’ll know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, you can guess.  Anyway.  Here’s the post.


Dear Alison,

Thanks for the invitation to contribute to your blog. Since our correspondence (via the blog’s comments) occasioned the invite, I’ve decided on an epistolary essay. This is it.

As I write, I’m returning from a conference (MLA!), both longing for the continued fellowship of friends and recognizing the need to face my many (and multiplying) tasks. I want the conference to go on, so that I may continue learning from and enjoying the company of smart people, but I also face classes to plan, proposals to write, manuscripts (my own and others’) to edit, and so on.

I always struggle with that impossible balance between the need to create and the need to think, between ambition and reflection, between ticking off one more item on an ever-expanding “to do” list and succumbing to sleep. I think that you do, also — though I know your struggle is more urgent. Indeed, as I share these thoughts, I’m aware that you’re living in much closer proximity to your mortality than I am to mine. Unless I’m struck down by illness, accident, or gunfire (hey, I do live in America), I should have several decades left. There’s no guarantee, but — at the moment — my long-term prospects look, well, longer than yours do. So, I hope you will forgive my presumption in addressing a subject that you (of necessity) have probably thought about more deeply than I have.

 Photo of Jack Hardman (author’s stepfather), 1990s.Although I don’t have a morbid disposition, mortality has been a lingering companion since my early 30s. There are two reasons, the first of which is my stepfather’s passing. Jack’s death was the cancer equivalent of a train wreck: the diagnosis came in December of 2000, and in January (a little over a month later), he died at the age of 72. For months afterward, I used to talk, silently, to Jack. These conversations became a bedtime ritual. Every night, before sleep, I sent my thoughts in his direction, and hoped that somehow they would arrive in his mind, in the great beyond. Though I knew I was not really reaching him, these imagined communications helped me grieve.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)The second reason was the twelve-year endeavor of writing the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, two (married) children’s writers. This was a race against time. Both were born in the first decade of the twentieth-century, and the people who knew them — especially during their early days — were dying. I narrowly missed talking to Hannah Baker, Johnson’s editor at the newspaper PM, and to Kenneth Koch, the New York School poet who taught Krauss poetry. Many others I interviewed died before I finished the book: Johnson’s sister, Else Frank; children’s writers Syd Hoff and Mary Elting Folsom; artist Antonio Frasconi; and filmmaker Gene Searchinger. Maurice Sendak died four months before the book’s publication. You don’t need to interview people in their 70s and 80s and 90s to learn this truth: the older we get, the more dead people we know.

But how do we face the inevitability of our own deaths? Religion comforts the devout, though I don’t for a moment imagine that it removes all worry. I was recently talking with a close relative of mine who, like me, is essentially agnostic. She faces the certain prospect of irreversible cognitive decline. We don’t know whether it will be a swift descent into oblivion or a slow slide towards confusion and forgetting. We’re hoping for slowness, and she’s doing her best to keep her mind and body active. She knows that Alzheimer’s or dementia (it’s likely one or the other) will claim her, but — as far as she’s concerned — not without a fight!

Recently, discussing her end-of-life plans with those close to her, she said, “I’ve lived three score and fourteen years. I’ve had a good run.”

A relative of my generation asked her, “If you had a heart attack tomorrow, you’d want to be resuscitated, wouldn’t you?”

She replied, “Not necessarily.”

“Wouldn’t you? You don’t know what the future holds.”

“I know what the future holds. A heart attack, whenever it happens, is a good way to go.”

The frankness of her statement gave us all pause. Yes: I, too, would prefer a heart attack to a slog through the thickets of dementia. But I’m struck by her ability to make peace with her own death. She does not want to say goodbye just yet, but she’s prepared to say goodbye when the time comes.

And that is what we need to learn. Or, at least, it’s what I need to learn. During your struggles with the brain tumor, have you figured this out? Have you learned how to say goodbye?

It’s a question that you shouldn’t have to face in your 40s. This may be why I can’t answer it yet, and why my 74-year-old relative can. But I know that the question confronts you, and has been confronting you, throughout your 40s. This is unfair. In fact, it’s unfair of me to expect you to have arrived at a better answer. So, please feel free to ignore this question — or, for that matter, any question I may pose here.

I know that, whenever I die, I will not be finished living. There will be things I have not learned, friends I have not made, books I have not written, places I have not seen, and many obligations unfulfilled. I also know that when my end arrives, I hope to have done more good than harm. I know, too, that I do not wish to suffer: if my prospects look bleak, others should take no extraordinary measures to revive me. Since I am not religious, I also believe that, as my last breaths evaporate and my heart stops, my consciousness will wane, and then I will cease to be. The End. Roll credits.

I do not know whether I’ll have a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, but I know — as what remains of my self dissipates — I’ll miss them. I hope, too, that, if any mark my passing, they do so not through mourning, but through celebrating life. Throw a party. Help yourself to my records, CDs, and books. Hire a caterer. Hire a DJ. Get to know each other better. Sing. Dance. Eat. Have fun.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)Also, since I vigorously oppose the everything-happens-for-a-reason crowd, they are not invited to this party. Everything does not happen for a reason. To suggest that it does trivializes the suffering of others. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. / It takes, and it takes, and it takes. / And we keep living anyway.” This does not mean that we should respond with indifference. Quite the opposite. It means we should engage fully in the struggle of living. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” (71).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (CD, 2015)This awareness makes me want to live as fully and as thoughtfully as I can. It makes me want to work harder, and to take more time off. It makes me want to write more, and to write less — so that I can spend more time with those I love. In other words, this awareness simply amplifies that tension between increased activity and quiet contemplation, between labor and leisure. It heightens awareness of the problem I described early in this letter. This is why I’m always (to borrow again from Hamilton) “writing like I’m running out of time.” It’s also why I want more time to appreciate “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” (Yes, I am currently obsessed with Hamilton. Why do you ask?)

I don’t know how to find this balance, but I know that it will require me to accept limits, to say to myself: “Look, Phil: if you are lucky, you might have twenty to twenty-five productive years left. What do you want to accomplish during those years? And how do you want to live?” In other words, I need to set two types of priorities, for both work and life. Since I am also an academic, the boundary between working and living is (at best) thin and (often) invisible.

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Philosopher Kieran Setiya has what is, I think, at least a partial plan for how to navigate our way through this problem. In his excellent “The Midlife Crisis,” he charts a course by, first, distinguishing between telic and atelic. As he writes, “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12). However, there are also atelic activities, projects that “do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity” (12). Other examples of atelic activities include “hanging out with friends or family,” “studying philosophy,” and “living a decent life.” As he points out, “You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (13): “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This distinction is helpful because (as Setiya argues) the atelic are more fulfilling than the telic. Pursuing goals gives you purpose (which is good), but can ultimately leave you empty because you always have to move on to the next one: “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). So, instead, he suggests, one might pursue telic activities in an atelic fashion: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). Or, put another way, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

These days, this is how I’m trying to approach all projects — I’m seeking atelic joy in telic activities. This means that many of my current efforts are collaborative. For instance, I have just given a paper on allegedly “weird” children’s books, co-written by and co-presented with my friend Nina Christensen. Working on it was fun because, in addition to learning from each other, we could both hang out (on-line, since she lives in Denmark). At the same conference, I chaired a discussion on “Children’s Literature Scholarship and Its Publics”: that was great fun to talk with and learn from smart people whose work I admire. With my friend Eric Reynolds I’m co-editing two more volumes of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby. And so on. All of this labor will result in good work that should (we hope!) be useful to others, but it will also be fun — because it will all be accomplished with friends.

I expect that this partial answer — indeed, this entire letter — tells you little that you don’t already know. As I said earlier, my sense is that facing mortality puts these questions into much sharper focus. So, you will (I imagine) have already arrived at better and more complete answers than I have.

I’d like to conclude here by wishing you a long and full life, but I worry that such optimism contradicts your experience. So, let me instead wish you this: sufficient health to enjoy however many years remain, sufficient time to guide your young daughter into an uncertain future, and sufficient energy to pursue those projects that are important to you.

Yours in the struggle,

 

Phil

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Here’s some news I’ve been itching to share: Oxford University Press will publish my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. Also, this coming Monday, I will be turning in (to Oxford) the complete manuscript of the book. Though it’s too early to confirm a publication date, I’m hoping it will be out by late 2016.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatNo, the entire book is not about the Cat in the Hat, though Seuss’s famous feline features prominently in one chapter. The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children’s books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. The book takes its title from the Seuss chapter (which looks at, among other things, the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat) because several of his works illustrate how racism hides openly — indeed, thrives — in popular culture for young people. Since the hidden racism of children’s literature is my central theme, a Cat-in-the-Hat riff on Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? became the title.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

        Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we have a new civil rights crusade — the Black Lives Matter movement, inspired by the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and galvanized by the 2014 Ferguson protests. Fifty years after Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” article (1965) asked where were the people of color in literature for young readers, the We Need Diverse Books campaign is asking the same questions. These two phenomena are related. America is again entering a period of civil rights activism because racism is resilient, sneaky, and endlessly adaptable. In other words, racism endures because racism is structural: it’s embedded in culture, and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides — and the best place to oppose it — is books for young people.

As the Publishers Weekly blurb says, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is indeed an “attempt… to do for children’s books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system.”

"Nel Walks ‘Cat’ to OUP" (Publishers Weekly)

I realize that this is a tall order: Michelle Alexander’s book is both powerful and beautifully written. But this is indeed my aim. I want not just to get more people thinking about racism’s resilience in children’s literature. I want people to act. I want not merely to recognize the dire need for more children’s and young adult books that better represent the experiences of non-White people. I want people to join the movement for diverse books. So, rather than just conclude, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? ends with a call to action — “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)Finishing this book (on top of teaching, writing other things, grading, editing, and everything else) is one reason this blog has recently been a little quieter than usual. As regular or even irregular readers of Nine Kinds of Pie have likely already guessed, fragments of this work-in-progress have appeared here. My earliest (and admittedly flawed) thinking on what developed into Chapter Two started as “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?” Parts of an autobiographical post appear in the introduction. Indeed, I gave an earlier, article version of the title chapter its own blog post. Scattered here and there across the blog are glimpses of me thinking about racism in children’s literature. Many of these pieces will vanish when the blog does, but others — almost always in a significantly revised form — find their way into the book.

So, a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I’ve presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I’ve learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book’s Acknowledgments!) I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

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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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