Our Hopes and Expectations

I like to think of myself as a cynical idealist: somebody who’s grounded in reality but who’s always looking for hope.

But if you believe academic Twitter these days, our profession as teachers and scholars is completely and utterly fucked.

The humanities? Disrespected. Labor issues within the university? A gaping head wound that the powers that be have refused to address. The academic publishing industry is a boondoggle and, best of all, there’s almost no chance that I’ll be able to land a tenure-track job.

And that’s all true.

But I balance that, in my cynically idealistic head, with the emails I’ve received from a few of my former students in the last few days, students who have taken some of the work we did in my Literature, Medicine, and Culture class this past fall and created something more. They’re going to conferences, applying for internships, looking at scholarships, in an effort to build on conversations we had in class, that they furthered in their own writing.

I am so freaking proud of them all.

Sometimes you just have those classes where the mojo is just good, where the planets or the goddesses align and going to class is a pleasure, plain and simple. My group this fall was just such a one.

For me, what makes that even more remarkable is that there were some major potential roadblocks in place: a class much larger than what I’m used to teaching, full of students from the sciences; my belief going in that I suck at teaching literature; and, oh yes: I was preparing to take my comprehensive exams. All these things together had me nervous before the term even began.

But then a funny thing happened: together, we made it work.

Continue reading “Our Hopes and Expectations”

A La Recherche du Temps Made Up

I went to my neighborhood coffee shop this morning with the best of intentions; I was armed and ready to make revisions to a piece that’s due on Monday. Computer, notes, pen, playlist: I was in.

Then I made the mistake of picking up this weekend’s Wall Street Journal and reading Lee Siegel’s” Who Ruined the Humanities?” and, well. It’s been awhile since something I read reduced me to inarticulate rage. And since throwing chairs is generally frowned upon in public, I’m gonna hurl a few here instead.

On its face, Siegel’s argument is pretty simple: The teaching of literature has ruined the pleasures of reading. Thus, we should eliminate the study of literature from the academy, because [and this is my favorite part] students will flock to the great works on their own.

Indeed, “[l]iterature [he tells us] “is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read…The old books will speak to the oldest parts of us. Young people will read them when they are touched by inexpressible yearnings the way they will eat when they are hungry.”

do what now

Um. What?

Siegel’s core rhetorical strategy is to use his own unhappy experience in studying literature at university as the heart of his evidence, as the engine of exigence for his argument. It’s a very Augustinian move, to use one’s own unhappiness as the means through which to define the ways in which other people should live–and in this case, learn. And hey, why not? We’re still living under the shadow of Augustine’s guilt for banging anything that moved for the first 30 years of his life.

But see, Siegel can’t get outside of his own head, the boundaries of his own experience, and the myoptic nature of that lens leads him to make some freaking amazing assumptions about the students he’s ostensibly trying to liberate.

To be blunt: he assumes they’re male, white, and monied.

How do I know this? Let’s go to the videotape.

Siegel stuffs his piece with 33 nods towards what he identifies as some of the “classics of Western literature”—or, even better, “the old texts”—and what do you know? Only white men write classics, sweetheart.

16 authors, 33 references, and not a woman or person of color among them:

Continue reading “A La Recherche du Temps Made Up”

Real Ugly Like


I am caught up this week in the final, insistant rush that the end of each semester brings, each with its own particular kind of hysteria. This term, the due dates for my final projects are nicely spread out, which is allowing me [in theory] to give myself over to each of them in turn. It’s kind of nice, actually.

Though as Friday’s deadline–the first of two–begins to loom, I’m trying to shake free of the niceness and push myself more aggressively into the Cult of Done, so I can move quickly to the next project, which is due next Wednesday.

And then, of course, my students’ work lies in wait at the end of the tunnel, waiting for assessments that are due next Friday.

So another week or so of this, of this semester, of this first year of a PhD program. And then summer vacation!

But until then, I think I’ll stick to more immediate terms: today, tomorrow, and the next. Otherwise? Things might be looking real ugly-like.

Always Already Possessed

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Writing is a physical thing, for me. The closest thing I get to an aerobic workout.

I spend a lot of time flailing, when I write; gesturing and pointing and dancing along to whatever music I’m listening to, whatever music is stuck in my head.

I talk back, I talk to, I talk out.

I bite my lip a lot.

Try to avoid seeing myself in the screen.

Look away and type. Close my eyes and type. Think faster than I can type.

When it’s too fast, when I can’t catch up, I write things down on paper, shove the pencil across the page and sketch and suggest and get closer than I can on the screen, sometimes.

I shift in my chair. I pet the cats when they hop up, hold the little cat in my lap and poke at the keys with one hand.

I sing.

I watch the screen for signs of email or Facebook or anything that gives me an excuse not to write, right then.

I flip between my story and my paper and my exam–between I want to do, what I am doing, what should already be done.

I curse, when I have to. Cajole the words to come, sometimes. Try to hold them at bay, at others.

I spend a lot of time unconscious, when I write.

My friend asked: “How can you not see this, in this piece? What I see? Didn’t you write it?”

And I said yes, of course I did, but I wasn’t conscious, at the time. Not in the same way.

And that’s when it’s easy to write, times like that, when it’s necessary, when it’s not me. When the text just comes and I have to get out of the way and transcribe, just type, just let the letters form on their own, without me.

It’s awesome, sometimes, and scary. Writing like that. Like muscle memory. An autonomic function that just is. Just does.

So someone watching me write? Might think I was possessed, a little. And they’d be right.

And sometimes I feel as though school–the first 12 years of it, at least–was designed to exorcise those demons, to drive them out and pour clarity, obedience, respect down my throat, into their place.

And those things rested easier, I guess, gave me less of a hard time than the demons that drive my writing did. But wow, was I boring, and shit, was I unhappy, and I think I’ll take possession over that, everytime.

It’s Time For A Check Up

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So my grad program wants to know: what have I accomplished this year?

First, I made a lot of mistakes.

I spent too much time comparing myself to my colleagues, measuring myself against an imaginary standard that I manufactured in my spare time and spoon-fed with paranoia.

I spent too much time listening to certain people in my life, both in academia and not. Wasted too many brain cells trying to apply logic to things they said that made no sense then, that make no sense now, and that ultimately don’t mean a damn thing.

I didn’t spend as much time on some readings as I should have, spend more time on others than they really deserved.

At conferences, I didn’t go to enough panels. Didn’t talk to enough people.

I put myself down too often.

I forgot to press “save” more than once.

Dicked around too much, in general.

Waited until the last minute to start my work when I sure as hell knew better. Not all the time, but at least one too many.

Didn’t talk enough in some classes. Talked too much in others.

I got up too early, too often.

Didn’t spend enough time with my students’ texts or spent far, far too much.

I drank too much coffee. Ate too much bad food. Didn’t take up smoking.

Didn’t drink enough booze.

I wasted too much time not writing.

But then, I made some good choices, too.

I presented at my first conference and managed to write something, to say something, that sounded like me: funny and sarcastic and smart.

Presented at a second and, when the room wasn’t as friendly, that time, I didn’t beat myself up about it.

I said “thank you” when people praised my writing, my thinking, my teaching. Didn’t question or try to talk my way out of the compliment. Just said “thanks.”

I said “thank you” when someone told me “You can do better,” because she was right.

I was a little too honest a little too often and, man, was it good.

I started watching Supernatural.

I started writing slash fic and, damn, has that changed my life.

People I don’t know, will never know except via the internet, read my writing and liked it and even came back for more, even saw more in my texts than I did, than I can, than I could.

I remembered how to learn strategically, how to get what I need from a text and move on to the next.

I became myself, in my teaching.

I discovered porn studies and critical discourse analysis and feminist film theory.

I submitted abstracts without fear because, hey, the worst they can say is “no.”

[Or is that “yes”?]

I had colleagues ask me to submit panels with them and said “yes” instead of “why?”

I had papers accepted at a hardcore feminist conference, at pop culture fests in the US and in Switzerland, at a grad conference, at a regional MLA deal.

I didn’t listen when some people gave me misguided–if well-intentioned–advice about my academics, my career, my once-and-future “marketability.”

I accepted that other people in my academic life might actually mean it when they offer help, or guidance, or direction. And that these people might be good advocates, for me. That they want to be, if I’ll let them.

I interviewed my academic idol, saw the mask fall, and figured out that I have to hack out my own path as a scholar. Figured out that douchebaggery can trap, can take even the best of us.

I embraced my inner Rage Cat and then learned how to let him go.

I said “yes” more than I said “no.”

I wrote a love(d) letter and got back something, someone that I’d lost.

I stopped waiting for someone to give me permission to do what I want to do in my research and just–did it.

I realized that I might have something to say, after all, and that some people might want to listen.

I became a writer.

I became “KT.” Or “CC,” all at once.

I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Give You That “A.”


So my students are working on compare/contrast essays right now. What I’m asking them to do is freaking difficult: find two articles related to their [self-selected] research topic that address the same issue and craft a four-page compare/contrast essay in which they put the two pieces into conversation with each other.

The research part, as usual, is what’s kicked many of them in the ass. And that’s as it should be. Research is HARD. Ok, doing research that uncovers material you can actually use is hard; finding irrelevant crap is easy.

What’s struck me this time is how many students are obsessed with avoiding “bias.” For them, though, “bias” seems to mean having any sort of opinion at all, which, as I try to explain to them, is not humanly possible. There’s a difference, I say, I preach, I suggest, between expressing an uninformed opinion that’s not based on any sort of evidence and in asserting a position in such a way as to ignore any other takes on that issue. In selecting data, in conducting a close reading, in analyzing a text, I tell them, you ARE taking a stance, presenting an argument, but that doesn’t mean that you are biased.

I guess I’m wondering: where does this idea come from, this notion that bias is bad, that “unbiased” is a legitimate and desirable state of being? I’m reminded of a comment that Mike W. Barr made in one of his letter columns in his comic, The Outsiders: “A writer who doesn’t have opinons isn’t writing stories, he’s making pablum” ( The Outsiders 4,  Feb., 1986).

Now, granted, Outsiders is a comic and not a newspaper article or research paper, but Barr’s point cuts to the heart of the issue here: writing is done by people. Period. Not by HAL 9000 or Gerty or Jarvis, but by people. Articles like this one, coupled with my students’ attitude towards bias, suggest that there’s a real desire among some in our society to eliminate the tempramental human from the act of writing. To flatten and silence and eliminate all the noise from “academic” texts, all in the name of the great Straw Man: clarity.

Which is complete and utter bollocks.

But it may explain why there’s a market for a computer program that can grade–not assess, or comment on, or respond to, but grade–writing, especially student writing, which is, in my experience, often the most messily and awesomely human of them all.

What Inspiration Looks Like

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I’m never more productive as a fic writer than when I have other crap that I should be doing: papers to write, student work to comment on, emails to respond to, reading to complete for the coming week. Ho hum.

Something about resistance, about pushing futilely back at what will have to get done, eventually, is really freakin’ inspirational. It’s no mystery as to why I started writing Supernatural fic over Thanksgiving break, or why my Cas/Dean series was born during a period when I was supposed to be prepping papers for two conferences, or why inspiration for my new series has popped up, helpfully, during spring break.

And yet, I can’t neatly separate these two worlds, ’cause they all live in the space in my head, I guess. For example, reading rhetorical theory in concert with writing “Take A Look At Me Now” meant that Cyril Welch’s notion of what “good” writing does—it reflects “what is” and writes towards “what could be”—ended up in Sammy’s mouth; in a very different context, mind you, but still. It wasn’t conscious, which is what I find weird or interesting, I guess. How much of me—or whatever’s rattling around in my brain at a given moment—ends up in my fic.

It’s kind of awesome, actually; writing towards a mirror, like that. Maybe it’s like Lacan says: the image of the other is the figure of desire, the manifestation of what is not us and what we cannot have, but what we spend our lives trying to reach, obtain, make part of ourselves. We want what others tell us we should want, too; our sense of what we should desire is shaped by those around us: our parents, our culture, our peers. So somewhere in my negotiations with the mirror, my attempts to make material something that isn’t me—something I desire, fine, ok [jesus, can you blame me? sheesh.]—some part of me springs into being, or comes into focus.

And wow, does that sound overly earnest and self-absorbed. But it is Lacan, after all. I think that’s like, required.

Taking Pleasure In The Here and Now

The space from which I write, or: how I spent my spring break.

I’m working on a paper for school in which I’m tangling with two scholars’ notions of “good” writing, or what elements or actions or characteristics of writing should be valued, and why.

Tripping through their definitions, their contradictions, their idealism has gotten me wondering, again, about how writing–good or otherwise–can be taught.

Indeed, the more experience that I have in teaching writing, the more I am convinced that writing can’t be taught. Not in a single course, or semester, or even a school year. Rather, I think writing is an accumulation, a collection of ideas or imprints or gestures that build up in the mind over time like shells on the shore that get honed by the waves and bleached by the sun and experience, uncovered and buried and swept away as needed. Refashioned, again and again, piece by piece, instructor by instructor, book by book, blog post by blog post.

Writing defies testing, defies concretization. Deconstruction teaches us that meaning is not fixed; that the world is text; that the writer cannot hope to master language and its infinities of meanings, only to tangle, to temporarily tame, the words with which we are surrounded. So why do we pretend that writing is an act, a series of performative moves, even, that can be “taught” as if they were a universal constant? As if there were agreement over the unstickiness of language and meaning? As if we can even agree over what we mean by “writing.”

People ask me: how did you learn how to write? And I say: I read. Which some writers think is a total fucking copout, a justification for NOT writing. An excuse for why you haven’t written. Okay, I can see that. Maybe it is, sometimes.

I can speak only for myself, then: reading taught me how to write. But it was up to me to actually, you know, write. To do something with that knowledge. Intellectually understanding how words can fit together, what they can do in certain combinations, is all well and good, was all well and good, for me. Even got me to a point where I could “teach” other people how to write. Like painting a wall, or something; where to put the masking tape, how to position the ladder, what kind of brush to use and when.

But it wasn’t until I started writing regularly, for myself and not simply in response to [or in order to resist] an academic assignment or prompt that I started to do writing rather than just talk about it, teach it, dissect it.

So maybe it’s not fair to say that it’s the experience of teaching writing that’s made me question if and how “writing” can be taught. Maybe it’s being a writer. And I don’t ascribe to the romantic Platonic notion of writing being some super-secret gift from the Almighty or something.

But.

But writing isn’t math. It can’t be boiled down to formulas or prescriptions or balanced equations, no matter how often I tell my students that one can figure out what makes a piece work or what undermines its effectiveness. There’s no magic bullet for writing, period. Probably for a lot of other shit, too, but writing’s the only thing I know anything about.

So I don’t acribe any mystical powers to myself, ok? But still, I’m a “good” writer. A distinct one. One with a distinctive voice, anyway, in a couple of different genres. But how did that happen? Where did it come from? And not all of my readers dig the way that I write, the way that my characters–including my academic self–sound; but, by now, I’ve had positive responses from a wide enough variety of readers to buy into my own hype, a little. Temporarily, at least.

My composition theory professor once asked us–aspiring composition teachers all–if we thought that one had to be a “good” writer in order to effectively teach writing. Though she did not say it then–let us argue it out amongst ourselves instead–her answer? Is yes. It was part of the reason that she encouraged me to teach composition: because she thought I was a “good” writer.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand, yet, how that is supposed to translate into the classroom. For the most part, I don’t introduce my students to my writing; this piece, this term, being the rare exception. The only writing of mine to which they are regularly exposed are my comments on their own work. And especially given what I do write, both as a scholar and as a fan, I’m reluctant to even talk about my own writing too much to my kids. If they ask, I’ll tell; otherwise, I’m still squidgy about talking about slash fic with freshmen who are an awesome combination of world-weary and wide-eyed innocents, sometimes.

And yet, as a new-old friend said to me recently: I read your writing because otherwise, how will I know you? Which, exactly. I would agree. So since my students don’t read my writing–nor am I arguing that they should, I don’t think–how does me as a writer get translated into me as an instructor?

Whatever sustained joy I find in writing is newly grown; barely nine months old, yet. And I know, as I ask my students to write multiple drafts, to revise, to talk with others about their writing, that, for many of them–like me–these are motions to be gone through, rhetorical moves to be performed, but, for the moment, they find no value in them, other than they must be done. I’ve been in school–even just graduate school–for a loooong time. I’ve written a lot of shit. Some of it good, some meh, some of it I even liked. But I didn’t have a “writing process”–revise: I didn’t have a stack of writing processes from which to choose–until I started writing for myself. Until I started writing fan fic.

Some would argue, I think, that I am able to craft said processes because I’ve been “trained” in the Writing As A Process model. That the instruction I offer my kids might not be useful to them now, but it will be “in the future.” At some point. Maybe.

But I would say: that’s not good enough. I want to teach them something they can take pleasure in now, that they can have fun with now, that they can re-make for their own purposes now, not in some distant pretend future which may or may not come to pass. Why can’t writing be good to them, for them, in the moment? Because if Godot ain’t coming today, who’s to say that he’ll come on any other tomorrow?

Writing, now, brings me so much joy that I get a little stupid about it, sometimes. As evidenced by this post, perhaps, if given the chance, I will go on and on about my processes, the different ways in which my stories came to be, how I fought them, how they seduced me back to the keyboard, etc.  Because, to me, it’s a freaking miracle. It’s like the baby Jesus springing to life on the screen sometimes; that is, when I look up after an hour and there’s a little fic there, done, completed by me, apparently, it’s like, wow. Where in the hell did that come from?

I used to be really weird about reading my own writing. As in, I wouldn’t, once it was turned in. I’d read any comments that I received, but I’d never look back over the piece as a whole. But now? I read all my stuff multiple times, once it’s “done.” The fic especially, but even my academic pieces. Ok, my papers, I still don’t really read carefully until after I’ve gotten them back from the prof, but my presentations? My research? Hell yeah, I read that stuff. Because I’m good with it, I’m ok with what’s on the page. I take some pleasure in seeing how it works, what didn’t, and why. I genuinely like writing, damn it.

So I want to find a way to bring that into my classroom, that love of practice. But I practice writing, for the most part, on my own terms. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it. My kids, however, aren’t in the same boat, so it’s not as simple, I don’t think, as bringing my practices themselves into the classroom.

Still, I have to acknowledge that, as Della Pollock suggests in her essay “Performing Writing,” “performance, as practice…is never fully in control of its effects” (80). And what is teaching, ultimately, if not a performance? So no matter how much energy I devote to puzzling my way out of this rhetorical paper bag, I cannot claim full control over the effects of my teaching, of my time in the classroom. And that’s ok. I’ve accepted that.

But still. I want my kids–if not all, at least some–to one day [stupid future!] find the love and joy and pleasure in writing that I have, finally, after all these years. I don’t want to create clones of myself–I’m a goddamn mess!–but I do want to open as many door as I can for them, give them as many chances to monkey around in my classroom while they can. And as wishing cannot make it so, I’ve no choice but to keep playing around, to keep testing, rearranging, revising, rewriting in my classes as I do on the page, on the screen.

So for all that angst about “how can we teach writing?,” I end up writing myself back into this job, this calling, into those awesome five hours a week I get to spend in the classroom with my students. There are some traps, I suppose, from which we do not wish to escape.

This Week In Male Hetero Fail (Thus Always To Tyrants Edition)

This is my boomstick! Not my transvaginal probe. Swear to god.

A friend and I were in a local restaurant/bar last night, eating, talking, trying to get some shit for school done. It was pretty quiet, being a Sunday night, I guess, save for one boisterous exception: a group of aggressively moronic dudes playing darts right behind our fucking table.

Now I have no problem with the individual elements here: dudes, darts, and beer. Fine. But this group took the elemental combination to new heights by tossing homophobia into the mix, which. Awesome. They’d divided themselves into two teams for their game, and their team names? The “gays” and the “lesbos.” Yes, in fact, they were so proud of these monikers that they not only repeated them [loudly] at every possible turn but also inscribed them on the wee chalkboard on which one of their ilk was keeping score.

So I don’t know for certain that these men were exclusively hetero; indeed, you could make a pitch for such aggressive posturing as being a cover for some sort of latent anxiety related to their own sexual identity, much less that of others.

Still. I strongly suspect.

So their dickishness [and my inability to formulate any sort of real-time response, vocal or otherwise], got me thinking about all of the male hetero fail that’s swirling around my home state of Virginia these days.

It’s not fair to consign all of heterosexual maledom into a universal. So take that as my caveat. [Indeed, a friend recently rapped my virtual knuckles for referring to him as “hetero” in a way that he took as a bit of an insult, which, ok, it may have been, but only unconsciously so. Hence me performing my bias so openly here.]

However, a handful of white, heterosexual men–many of whom ostensibly represent the fine people of Virginia–have been doing their damnedest over the past few weeks to make that truism harder and harder to uphold. So to speak.

Most of this idiocy centers around our state government’s attempts to pass a law that would have required any woman seeking the LEGAL medical procedure of abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound. Oh, yeah. You’ve surely heard about this by now, thanks to the efforts of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Rachel Maddow Show. Thus always to tyrants, indeed.

Currently, Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion in our fair state. And although the person who drafted the state-mandated penetration bill is a woman, many of the bill’s loudest and most prominent supporters were the white men who dominate Virginia’s House of Delegates and our Senate.  Our right-wing social experimentalist governor, Bob McDonnell, had been touted as a potential running mate for the GOP’s eventual nominee [*cough*Mitt Romney*cough*].

However, once the transvaginal nonsense broke into the mainstream–both in Virginia and in the national press–McDonnell backed down from his heretofore vociferous support for the bill [and its equally insidious cousin, a so-called “personhood” bill that would redefine human life as beginning at conception. Good times!].

Now that the state-mandated penetration bill has been killed and the “personhood” bill has been sent back to committee [effectively tabling it for the rest of this year], you may be asking: of what new male hetero fail do you speak?

I speak, dear reader, of Delegate David Albo, who ostensibly “represents” district 42 in Fairfax, VA. Let me allow the gentleman from Fairfax to speak for himself–and it’s worth quoting in full, via Gawker:

I got Rita [Albo’s wife] some red wine, sat next to her, used my patented cool move. I invented this, it’s a United States patent. I went, “Ohhh, I’m so tired!” I then turn on the TV to find the Redskin channel. I know you think that’s weird, but my wife loves the Redskins more than she loves me. Got my theme music going, my red wine, looking at the Washington Redskins and I start flipping through the channels. And through the channels you have to get through the news stuff. And all the sudden on my big screen TV comes this big thing and a picture of a bill that has “Albo” on it. I went, “Wow! Holy smokes, it’s my name as big as a wall!” And the very next scene was a gentleman from Alexandria’s face as big as my wall going “trans-v-this” and “trans-v-that” and “they hate women!” and “we’re gonna—in that bill—she’s crazy!” And I’m like this with my wife. And the show’s over, and she looks at me, and she goes, “I gotta go to bed.” So if the gentleman’s plan was to make sure there was one less Republican in this world, he did it.

[If you have the stomach for it, you can watch the video of this display of rhetorical impotency here.]

As the commenters on Gawker’s story point out, Albo can’t even SAY THE WORD VAGINA, yet he professes a desire to legislate how and when the state should have access to it.

What’s almost as bad, I think, is his apparent assumption that if he wishes to have sex [shudder–why am I thinking of tentacle porn?!], then his wife should [by right] be in the mood. And I also love his assumption [a peek into his figured world, perhaps?] that it’s the talk of the transvaginal probing legislation that gets his wife “out of the mood,” as if she was already in said mood, given all of his careful preparation for seduction. Hey, at least he recognizes that talk of state-mandated penetration is, you know, less than alluring–as might be, dare I suggest, her knowledge that he supports such legislation of women’s bodies. Might not really make her want to, you know, give you access to her vagina, dude, knowing that you spend all day thinking up way to virtually worm your way into those of women all across the state. Just a thought.

And, to top it off, the Daily Caller website threw a video tantrum today over Rachel Maddow’s coverage of Governor Transvaginal Probe and his buddies. Seems the good people of the Caller don’t like Rachel using the word “vagina” on the TV machine. Loudly. Repeatedly. And in the context of GOP policies. [Also, note the totally squeamish way in which the blogger from the Washington Post presents this video. Can’t even bring himself to comment on it beyond a coy: “That’s as much detail as I’m willing to provide on this affair.” And the use of the word “affair”? No mistake there.]

So let’s add “vagina” and “transvaginal probing” to the list of words with which the dominant discourse is very, very uncomfortable–to the list of words I vow to now repeat early, often, loudly, and occasionally even in context–in a way that’s totally different, I think, from the heebie-jeebies that words like “anal” and “sodomy” give to said discourse.

Freedom’s just another word for liberal dogmatic thought

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Earlier this week, President Obama called once again for all American children to have the opportunity to attend college. This isn’t a new idea for him; it’s one he’s touted in some form since his 2008 campaign, but one to which he’s returned repeatedly since last month’s State of the Union address.

For Obama–for a hell of a lot of other people–education offers freedom.

Unfortunately, in the world where Rick Santorum spins, a world where other people’s sex lives pose a clear and present danger to his own, freedom = slavery to “liberal” ideology, to thoughts that are critical of this country, her leaders, her practices. In a speech in Michigan on Friday, Santorum told an enthusiastic [geriatric] audience that:

President Obama once said that he wants everyone in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor. That’s why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

Yes, that’s right: America needs some of its children not to go to college so that those children can “work hard every day”–which, apparently, people with college degrees–people like Santorum!–do not do. Yup. We just sit around not fixing shit and watching the world go to hell as we stare at our degrees and drink pinot and sing the Marseilles. Man, Rick: you nailed it.

But let’s be clear: for the Vest, giving all Americans–read: black, white, latino, asian, rich, poor, southern, northern, first-generation, seventh generation, christian, muslim, atheist, jew, woman, man, gay, hetero, transgender, bi–the same chance to access higher education is akin to packing these young minds into the rhetorical Amistad and shipping them off to Marxistville. Learning = indoctrination in what Santorum sees as multicultural bullshit, gender equality, and the notion that no idea should be swallowed hook, line, and sinker without critical reflection and inquiry.

You fear ideas, man? You fear exposure to ideas? What does that say about the strength of your own convictions? Oh, that’s right: we’re not talking about what you believe–for you, it’s a given that those ideas are “correct,” grounded in your god’s law or whatever. For you, any idea that doesn’t match your Opus Dei-inscribed view of life, the universe, and everything is “liberal” and therefore dangerous and wrong.

Right.

Also, Rick, my love, you have a very strange understanding of how “teaching” works. I can assure you, as one of those “liberal” professors for whom you express so much contempt, that exposing my students to ideas, to perspectives that are unlike their own, does not automatically cause them to adopt those ideas. Far from it. Students are not obedient little sponges, darlin’–they come in just as resistant, just as married to the ideas they consider their own as any adult. If anything, I think, they are a weird paradox at 18, 19 years old: on the one hand, they’re open and pliant and more receptive to experience than ever before. But on the other, they recognize that openness, this newfound desire to be more than they are and they resist that, push back against their own wills with everything they’ve got; not all the time, not in every instance, but often enough so that their own identity–the one they’ve spend their adolescence and late teen years constructing carefully, so carefully–is not corrupted.

They’re smart, Rick; they’re so much fucking smarter than you give them credit for. And yeah, sometimes they change their minds but they’re the ones that do the changing, not me or any of my colleagues [not all of whom are the liberal bastions of idiomatic thought you seem to imagine].

And that’s what you’re really afraid of, isn’t it, Rick? Of your kids changing their own minds. Having thoughts that you didn’t plant in there with the spade of the Bible. It’s called growing up, man: it’s called becoming a human being. It has less to do with what job the kids end up getting, whether they’re on Wall Street or own a business on Main Street or care for kids with cancer or create their own comic series. It has much more to do with the way that the kids see the world, the epistemology that they fashion for themselves to help them make sense of their own existence and I know I’ve lost you now, baby, because I used the word “epistemology” and if you’re not careful, I’ll point right back to Foucault and that would REALLY piss you off, wouldn’t it, me citing the ideas of a gay French dude, right?

So, Rick, let me bring it back to a place that maybe you can understand, one where you won’t be smelling poppers and dreaming of Donna Summer as you read my text. I used to work for an amazing woman, a university president [stay with me, Vest: take a deep breath] who didn’t just believe that, as our university’s slogan said, “Education Offers Freedom,” she embodied this ideal. Both of her parents and her grandparents: all college graduates. Her parents: both teachers who moved from Chicago back to the South in the 1950s, going back to their family’s roots–to the roots of slavery–to teach those who hadn’t gotten out, not yet. She and her husband: both teachers early in their careers. She: president of a for-profit university [hey, you like that idea, right?] with an on-campus presence that encouraged students, faculty, and staff alike to come to her with concerns, questions, comments. She embodied the potential of education in her DNA, in her everyday actions, and in the genuine love and concern she felt for all of the students, even those she met only in passing, or only on graduation day when she handed them their diploma.

Rick, this woman’s life illustrates the truth of the axiom that education can offer freedom: from poverty, from circumstance, from history, and yes, from ignorance, from fear, from derision. But the key word here is CAN; education isn’t a magic bullet, it’s not the universal means of escape from the dominant ideology. It’s a tool, man, a tool to which all those who want it should have access. This is what the President means when he says that everyone should be able to go to college: everyone should have the chance to see if education is the key to their lock, an answer–never the only answer–to some of their questions.

Your fear precedes you, sir. Your desire to consign others to ignorance all in the name of “freedom” is repugnant and will only hasten your obsolesce as a political and cultural force.