How to Get Published as an Educator

One of the best and most significant changes for me when I moved from high school English teaching to being a college professor was a blossoming of my life as a writer.

In the spring of my first year of college—almost 40 years ago—I had an epiphany: I realized that I was a writer. Much of my life in my twenties while I struggled to develop my professional credibility as a high school teacher, I was also writing poetry, short stories, and even a novel—all of which I religiously cast into the submission pond for publication.

For more than two decades, I dutifully mailed through the postal system 9 x 11 manilla envelopes including my hand-typed manuscripts and another envelope with return postage. Most of that work was returned with terse and impersonal rejections; a few had hand-scribbled notes of encouragement, and a smattering of work was accepted and published in so-called small or literary journals.

I had a couple professional education articles published before I entered my doctoral program in 1995 (Oregon English and English Journal), but I did not begin to recognize my writer life as less than a writer of fiction and more as a scholar and public intellectual until the late 1990s and especially once I left high school teaching and became a professor in 2002.

Since I was mostly a self-taught writer of fiction and poetry (not a part of an MFA program or the “in” circle of writers) and “only” a public school teacher, my efforts at publishing were almost all very discouraging and fruitless.

So here is my first caveat about publishing as an educator: Create a network and make contacts so that your work has a better chance of being considered and thus published.

Since I became a professor, I have published self-authored and edited/co-edited volumes (20+ volumes), about 30 chapters in volumes, and many dozens of scholarly journal articles and public articles and commentaries; as well, I have co-edited state education journals, edited/co-edited columns for 10 years in English Journal, and edited series for education publishers Peter Lang USA and Brill/Sense.

How did this transformation happen?

As I noted above, once in higher education, I gained access to publishing that I had not enjoyed previously. My affiliation with a university opened doors to public commentaries in local, state, and national newspapers and publications, and quite significantly, I made a connection through a colleague with a series editor (Joe Kincheloe) who believed in my work and started my career as a scholar.

Here, I want to emphasize that I was prepared for these opportunities by the years of mostly unproductive work prior; I had spent decades honing my skills as a writer—despite my lack of publications—and I had almost two decades under my belt as a classroom teacher (practitioner expertise) as well as a doctorate (scholarly expertise), including, of course, the powerful experience of completing a dissertation (which I later published).

As a series editor for two education publishers and as an editor/co-editor for columns in English Journal, I have learned a great deal about how to start and develop a career as a published educator; below, then, are some suggestions:

  • Determine the type of writer you are (or want to be). Essentially educators (K-12 or professors) who want to publish are either writers who want to publish scholarship or practitioners/scholars who need to write in order to publish. This recognition is not about being the right kind of writer (there isn’t a right one), but your attitude about the writing and your path to publishing are quite different between the two types.
  • Commit time to the craft of writing. If you want to publish, you must practice writing—including drafting a significant amount of text that will never be submitted or published. Read books on being a writer and writing well; read authors and scholars writing about being writers. But most of all, create writing time and build a reserve of writing that helps you hone your skill, explore the type of writer you want to be (voice, style, and genre/form), and accumulate texts that may serve you once you begin writing pieces targeted for submission and publication.
  • Begin to read professional published work as a writer. My time editing has included a great deal of energy gently responding to submissions that should have never been submitted; the format is unacceptable, or the piece simply does not match the publication or column. Want to publish scholarly articles? Seek out the journals where you would like to publish and read meticulously. What to publish a book? Explore publishers and read the books like the ones you want to write.
  • Do the due diligence of understanding and then conforming to submission guidelines. Well before actually submitting work, study calls for submissions and calls for proposals. Know the expectations for queries, proposals, and submissions. While some standard guidelines exist, almost all publications and publishers have unique requirements that demand you are meticulous and are willingly to honor the time and professionalism of the editors receiving your work; meet format, citation, and word-length requirements.
  • Join professional organizations and attend professional conferences. The most effective “in” to publishing as an educator is the professional organization, and then the professional conference. Professional organizations at the local, state, and national levels allow you to begin and grow a network, but they also often have publishing opportunities that far too few educators explore. Presenting at conferences is also an outstanding first step to having an article to submit—especially if you present with other educators and then co-author the article. Collaboration, in fact, is an excellent initial route to publishing, especially if you can collaborate with a published educator.
  • Create a social media presence (Twitter, etc.) that is mostly professional. Similar to professional organizations, social media can be a great community for entering the conversations you will want to explore as a writer. The key is to focus your social media time (who you follow, and what you share) on a professional community.
  • Identify your are(s) of expertise and then research to see what has been published, what is being published. As an editor and a peer-reviewer, I have very often had to reject work that simply walks well-worn ground or enters a conversation with no clear awareness of the status of that conversation. Being an educator at all levels can be very isolating, but to publish, you must be aware of what the conversation includes, what the research base has already offered (many call this standing on the shoulders of giants). First-time publishing is daunting, but those initial efforts have a much better chance if you commit yourself to knowing your publication, knowing your expertise, knowing your audience, and knowing the historical and current status of the conversation you wish to influence.
  • Recognize that academic/scholarly publishing is not the same as other types of publishing. Publishing as an educator is a subset of publishing in general. In my own career, the submission game for fiction and poetry is quite different than academic publishing. The “I want to publish” comment or urge must be qualified, and once you recognize you want to publish for practitioners and scholars, you need to understand the process for education-oriented journals and publishers. This is mostly the world of other educators and scholars; many journals, for example, are edited by practicing educators and professors (not full-time editors). And even book series are also edited the same way. Publishing as an educator is mostly entering a very distinct community, a community you are already a part of as an educator.
  • Consider blogging as a pathway to more traditional publishing. Nearly as important as the connections and access that moving to higher education afforded me was my deciding to blog, first at open sites and then on my own WordPress blog. Blogging provides for me a way to think through topics and issues, but it also creates a huge reserve of writing that I can cull from for formal submissions. Blogging also motivates me to write nearly daily (in a way that journaling never worked for me). As well, blogging helps you practice entering a conversation in ways that will benefit your formal submissions. Blogging has gained a much better status in recent years, and as I have done, a blog can be established as a place for your professional voice, and an outlet for establishing and developing that voice.
  • Submit your work. Ultimately, you must draft and finalize a manuscript, and then send it out. As I have detailed above, if you make the right efforts before you do this, you have very good odds of that work finding a home—probably in a smaller venue at first, but eventually in places that you have identified as your larger goals. Due diligence, and baby steps.

And this brings me to a final thought that isn’t so much about how to get published as an educator, but something to expect once you do get published: A sudden sense of terror often follows the thrill of acceptance and publication.

For me, publishing has been a powerful, important, and even necessary aspect of being an educator; I simply can’t see doing one without the other. Once you make the same decision, I think you will find a new level of satisfaction that enhances your life and profession.

 

 

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Teacher v. Professor: On Why Anyone Would Be an Educator

While cycling with a new acquaintance, I navigated through the usual questions about how long I have been a professor, and then, after I mentioned that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years before moving to higher education, the follow up about which was easier, or which I preferred.

On this ride and during the conversation, I realized I am quickly approaching the tipping point in my career since I am starting my 17th year as a professor, just one year away from having been a professor for as long as I was a high school teacher—the identity I remain strongly associated with about myself professionally.

Being a writer has held both aspects of my being an educator together, but K-12 teaching and being a professor in higher education (especially my role as a teacher educator) are far more distinct than alike.

However, and most disturbing, K-12 teachers and college professors are increasingly sharing disillusionment with being educators as K-12 teachers are fleeing public education and fewer are majoring/certifying to teach while quit lit has become a phenomenon throughout higher education.

My journey as an educator offers some unique insight since I have nearly two decades in each contexts, K-12 and higher education. As well, my work in higher education remains directly connected to K-12 classroom teaching (I am a teacher educator and spend time observing in public schools as well as having professional and personal relationships with public school teachers).

For a majority of my time as a high school teacher, I was department chair, and several of those years included being a coach. My days were often very long, starting at 7:30 AM and ending on match days as late as 11 PM.

As a high school English teacher, I taught around 100 students or more at a time and had five classes a day, usually 2-3 preps. Since I focused on teaching my students to write, I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journals a year.

In 1995, I entered a doctoral program, an EdD in curriculum and instruction; I continued to work full-time and even maintained my adjunct work at local colleges. The doctorate experience was sobering since every other candidate I encountered was seeking a doctorate to leave the K-12 classroom—except me.

I completed my degree and was still resolute I would teach high school until I retired, and then maybe seek something at the university level. My pay bump for the advanced degree was, in fact, quite good.

The summer of 2002 was not something I planned, but when a position opened at a nearby university (a position held by my former high school teacher and mentor), I applied with no real expectations about making the transition so soon.

After a flurry of on-campus interviewing, and then a disheartening negotiation about salary (the opening offer was a $17,500 pay cut), I agreed to leave my high school job for higher education. The final pay was still $6000 below my public school salary, but the university promised I would have overloads and summer work to make up the difference.

So I sit here this summer about to start my 17th year as a college professor, a full professor with tenure. I have learned a great deal.

First, the prestige and respect shift from K-12 teaching to higher education was stunning, especially since I taught high school for 4 years while I had a doctorate; the degree was not the key factor in how people viewed and treated me.

Professors receive immediate respect and assumptions about our expertise that K-12 teachers never experience. My ability to publish, for example, in local, state, and national newspaper magically appeared once I could list my university instead if my high school when querying.

Next, and related, that respect divide cannot be disassociated from the impact of gender: More than 3 of 4 K-12 teachers are women, but the largest group of professors is men, and that imbalance is even greater at the higher ranks, where men are the majority. The university where I teach, for example, is well over 60% male faculty.

Possibly the greatest differences, however, between K-12 teaching and being a professor are expectations for labor and what counts as your professional obligations.

By the time I left K-12 teaching, I was wearing a wrist brace; my right hand was nearly immobile from marking essays, and to be honest, teaching English as I knew I should [1] was nearly unmanageable against the rest of my responsibilities and having a family or any sort of recreational life.

Burn out is a common term associated with K-12 teaching, but since teaching doesn’t appear to be manual labor (such as construction) or isn’t associated with production (most of us balk at seeing our students as widgets), those who have not taught fail to recognize the physical and psychological wear that comes with teaching.

I joke, though it isn’t funny, that being stared at by 100 or so students per day is stunningly exhausting. But most K-12 teachers have no real time to eat alone (or with only other adults), to go to the restroom, or to do with their work day anything other than grade, respond to student work, plan, or address the never-ending minutia of bureaucracy that is teaching (standards, meetings, paperwork, etc.).

Teaching—even just lasting past the first 3-5 years—two or three decades is a herculean task in surviving a career; too many teachers out of self-preservation learn to work in auto-mode, mailing in a profession because it has simply erased your humanity.

Along with professional respect, I gained a great deal of professional autonomy (which K-12 teachers have almost none) and, most of all, time. A heavy semester for me is teaching several courses three days a week, usually M, W, F and from about early morning to mid-afternoon.

Except for meetings (and higher education has an ugly committee and departmental meetings problem), I have multiple days a week to devote to my professional commitments other than teaching, for me, being a writer.

And as a professor, I have never fretted about going to the bathroom, and making sure I eat, calmly, is nearly never a struggle.

I also teach with almost no direct evaluative surveillance or oversight (which can be a bad thing, of course); this I note because it reduces the unnecessary stress of teaching in a high-stakes accountability environment that allows you no professional autonomy (what it means to be a K-12 teacher).

I must stress that a great deal of pettiness and an inordinate amount of unhealthy practices still plague higher education—the tenure and promotion process along with the faculty evaluation process are steeped in sexism and inequity, for example.

And the cancer that is high-stakes accountability and reducing education to work-preparation is creeping, no galloping, toward and eventually over higher education.

When I first took my university position, I was surprised at how out of touch professors were with K-12 teaching and the negative impact of the standards and high-stakes testing movement. I, in fact, warned my colleagues that the accountability movement would some day come to colleges and universities so it was in their own self-interest to begin fighting the movement in K-12 schools.

But they didn’t listen.

Higher education isn’t called the Ivory Tower for nothing.

So this brings me to why anyone would be an educator—especially in 2018 when the consequences weighed against the rewards for being a K-12 teacher or a college professor are tipping mightily in the wrong direction.

To teach, at any level, for many of us is something like a calling. Just as one day in my first year of college I recognized I am a writer (I did not choose that), I know myself to be a teacher.

Despite my introversion, and my discomfort with people, crowds, I am never more relaxed than in a classroom with students. We are there with common purpose and we mostly are seeking ways to be a community.

These are things I believe in, things I trust about the possibility of humans being better than we have been so far.

To be an educator, then, is not the problem in that the profession itself, whether K-12 or in higher education, is compelling and deeply fulfilling.

The problem is that to be a teacher in the U.S. is colored by the cultural negative attitude toward labor, being a worker, and the power of collective workers against the wishes of corporatism.

Teaching at all levels has continually been corrupted by the urge to reduce public institutions to private entities driven by corporate paradigms.

K-12 teachers have always worked in environments that isolate us, overwork us so that we cannot resist, and have gradually become less and less unionized. Much of higher education (because of the tenure and promotion process as well as departmental politics) has also allowed competition to trump collaboration.

It is not so much why anyone would be an educator, but why those of us who teach at any level have allowed our profession to be dismantled, devalued, and dehumanizing.

And finally, teachers and professors are regularly policed for being political, admonished for being activists. And to that we must ask, in whose interest is this political call for teachers and professors to not be political?

Isolated, silenced, and depoliticized, we educators are failing a profession that deserves better.

In solidarity, raising our voices, and actively exercising our politics, we educators can resurrect one of the most valuable acts of labor humans can embrace.

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” (Franz Kafka)

There is a paradox to my formative years that I vividly recognize but cannot fully understand.

My parents weren’t well educated or prone to intellectualism, and they raised me in some truly toxic ideologies that stunted the human I have been trying to be ever since I recognized those ideologies as toxic.

But my dear parents also—and this remains baffling—allowed and even supported for me an intellectual freedom that completely contradicted everything else about my upbringing.

No book, magazine, film, music, or comedian was ever off limits, denied to me—or banned. In fact, my parents despite out modest working class budget eagerly bought me anything I wanted to read or listen to, including a subscription to Playboy and albums by George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

And because of this great fortune of my youth, I am compelled by all bold art—what some call adult or explicit, even profane—and concurrently, by radical, confrontational ideas. Along side the regrets I feel for much of my early life, this gift from my parents rises above everything else as something for which I could never repay them.

As a voracious reader and a would-be writer as I entered college, I fell in love with Franz Kafka, nearly a cliche for would-be writers, I suppose, but incredibly important for me none the less.

And this has remained a refrain for me since I first discovered Kafka: his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

<||>

My home state, South Carolina, remains too much like the very worst of my early life—notably the coastal city Charleston.

Charleston has a rich but deeply scarred history of racism and economic inequity that remains in many ways today. Charleston is also notorious in contemporary times for the horrific shooting at the Emanuel AME church and a police officer killing Walter Scott.

Yet, like William Faulkner’s Emily, some despite that context persist in clinging to the corpse of race and class bigotry, blinded by James Baldwin’s “rigid refusal”—as in this case highlighting that the fear of books is the fear of ideas that is the fear of Truth:

Two books causing controversy in Charleston County are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. They are on the summer reading list for Wando High School’s English I class.

In The Hate U Give, the main character’s best friend is unarmed, and shot and killed by police. In All American Boys, one of the main characters is brutalized by a police officer after a misunderstanding when the character is falsely accused of stealing. Both books address racism and police brutality which is making some local law enforcement officers upset.

President of the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3, John Blackmon, says, “Whether it be through social media, whether it be through text message, whether it be phone calls, we’ve received an influx of tremendous outrage at the selections by this reading list.”

He says in just the past two days, he has received hundreds of messages from police and community members.

Blackmon says, “Freshmen, they’re at the age where their interactions with law enforcement have been very minimal. They’re not driving yet, they haven’t been stopped for speeding, they don’t have these type of interactions. This is putting in their minds, it’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that.”

<||>

“In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven, I had an abnormal appetite for books,” recalls Carmen Maria Machado. Specifically, she fell in love with Lois Duncan—despite the problem Duncan’s genre created:

Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?

Machado’s story represents the journey of many writers, how falling in love with writers and books combined with an exhilarating freedom to read as one pleases leads to a life of becoming and being a writer.

To a life of unconventional ideas, a life adultexplicit, profane.

For Machado, Duncan appears to have been a doorway into unconventional ideas about gender:

Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders. She writes about folie à deux and mass hysteria, doppelgängers, sociopathy, revenge. She portrays psychic powers and past-life regressions with a kind of realism; she recognized that even a supernatural evil must have a human heart.

In hindsight, Machado realizes:

After that, I re-read “Daughters of Eve,” which had seemed revolutionary when I was eleven. In college, I’d recounted the plot to a friend and started to wonder about its politics. But now it strikes me as a cautionary tale about the potential of radical ideology to empower or destroy, and about the circumstances under which it can take hold. Second-wave, to be sure, and imperfect, of course, but chilling and complicated and uncondescending to its audience. I realized that her books paved the path toward my adult love of novelists such as Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. Some of her plots still show up in my dreams.

What if Machado had continued to be blocked from horror novels, banned for being too frightening for a young girl or too radical in their ideologies?

Like Machado, I bumped against teachers discouraging me from reading comic books and outright barring me from choosing another science fiction book when we had novel choices for class.

Yet, comic books and science fiction are my Lois Duncan.

<||>

“If you read this story out loud” becomes a parenthetical refrain in Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” a story about telling stories (“I have always been a teller of stories,” reveals the narrator) and the horrifying messages in those stories about the fate of girls and women; for example:

The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.

Once you have read about Machado’s early love of Duncan, this story blossoms even from the tips of the many blossoms built into the narrator’s mysterious green ribbon and the interjected brief stories punctuating the main story.

Early, the story is about unconventional ideas, the sexuality of girls, the tension between being fully sexual and “good”:

The boy is not facing me. I see the muscles of his neck and upper back, how he fairly strains out of his button-down shirts. I run slick. It isn’t that I don’t have choices. I am beautiful. I have a pretty mouth. I have a breast that heaves out of my dresses in a way that seems innocent and perverse all at the same time. I am a good girl, from a good family. But he is a little craggy, in that way that men sometimes are, and I want.

It then becomes a story of awakenings, the inevitable demands of men on women, and the brutal consequences of the world for any, or every woman—like the narrator.

I think Machado’s story is brilliant and awesome, in the purest sense of the root “awe,” and I hesitate to dig deeper, share more because much of that awe is in the reading and the very careful unveiling, the lust and the terrifying.

But as a teacher and a teacher of English teachers, I bring this story here because it is the exact sort of story young people should read, must read, but because it is graphic in its depiction of young sexuality, I can hear my former students who now teach high school explain to me that they can’t teach this story.

It is the sort of fiction that is an “axe for the frozen sea inside us”; it is meant to stir our bodies, our souls, and our minds.

And like the novels challenged by police in Charleston, this story is frightening to the social order, the sort of things police, schools, and churches seek to maintain.

Adults with authority, if truth be known, are terrified of young people aroused in mind, body, and spirit.

In one story within the main story, the narrator concludes: “I don’t need to tell you the moral of this story. I think you already know what it is.”

And this is why fiction is frightening; it presents us with inconvenient truth. It isn’t so much that we don’t know it, but that it must not be uttered into reality.

As poet Adrienne Rich has confronted: “The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable” (p. 150).

Fiction is almost always terrifying, and it certainly is far more dangerous than fake news.

Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the police.

Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the dangers a man’s world pose for all women.

Banning books is banning ideas, the very ideas that liberate anyone to recreate the world in the name of justice and human dignity. There simply is no place for banning books among free people.

That, in fact, is yet another paradox: banning books is an unspeakable crime against human dignity.

Why I Am a Humanist (Or, Why I Am Not a Christian, pt. 2)

Some would argue that what makes America America is some sort of enduring quality, or behavior—something like the American character. But, truth be told, that quality or behavior changes with time, and currently, if not the only thing, wallowing in false equivalence is at least a defining characteristic of America.

Proximity in time proves again and again to be too much for mainstream media and so-called public opinion. Consider that the Supreme Court ruled that a bakery could refuse on religious grounds to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, and then, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant based on the moral convictions of the workers.

A same-sex couple on top of a wedding cake at Rossmoor Bakery which operates in Signal Hill. The bakery specializes in custom wedding cakes and creates cakes for same-sex weddings. The LGBT has added them to their directory of friendly businesses for same sex weddings.Photo by Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer

Dear Republicans: You can’t deny your cake and eat where you want too. (credit)

At one level, the cake ruling certainly may set a precedent for business owners to make almost any sorting mechanism for customers as long as they link the sorting to religious convictions.

But at a very important level, these two events are simply not equal since one is about religious dogma and the other about moral or ethical values.

Religious texts and beliefs have been used to justify slavery, beating children, and misogyny. The roots of laws in the U.S.—a so-called free country—that have refused to protect women from marital rape cannot be disassociated from Christian theology that framed women as a lesser copy of men and then the possession of men.

Identifying sex and love between consenting adults who happen to be the same sex as a sin is a manufactured consequence of religion, not an ethical or moral argument.

Religion (especially as it becomes dogma) and philosophy (the exploration of what proves to be moral or ethical) share the problem of objectivity and certainty being elusive; however, religion as dogma often forces Truth and Law while philosophy seeks ways to negotiate between tentative but stabilizing acknowledgements of truth while always appreciating we can and likely will change those truths in some ways.

Something as sacred as life, for the religious even, is never protected under a simplistic dictum; “thou shalt not kill” may be waved during rallies against abortion rights, but those same folk lobby for the death penalty and rush to praise the troops in our never-ending culture of war.

Religion becomes far more dangerous than philosophy, then, because it carries a claim about the Word of God—a threat or a promise that can never be proven or disproven, but carries an ominous weight nonetheless.

A vivid and horrible example in my life time was how many in the conservative religious community framed AIDS as God punishing homosexuality, a distinct narrative during the 1980s when I was teaching high school.

Young people heard this message; it terrified many. The already palpable antagonism toward homosexuality in the South was intensified, scarring, I am sure, many wonderful and kind young people who happened to know they were gay.

This sort of gross and unwarranted Hand-of-God approach to the world was also on display after Hurricane Katrina, when religious leaders again claimed God was punishing sinners.

Human folly is awful enough without the added weight of God.

In fact, given enough time and then allowing enough human voice to be heard, humans can collectively come to positions that are mostly enduring ethical and moral behavior.

Across the U.S., and notably in the South, again with the Bible lurking in the background, people of different races were not allowed to marry—a slap in the face of “freedom” and an inept misunderstanding of race as a social, not biological, construct.

The Supreme Court striking down bans on interracial marriages should never be forgotten as this was a shining moment of hearing the voices of those speaking for the ethical and moral: The Lovings made a very simple plea that as consenting adults they deserved the freedom to love and marry.

When the lawyers were preparing to make their case before the Supreme Court, Richard Loving did not want to speak, but when asked what he wanted the lawyers to say on his behalf, he replied quite emphatically to tell the court he loved his wife.

Writing in A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut explains:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

It is no easy thing to be a human; it is a goddamn overwhelming thing to be a moral, ethical human.

But it isn’t impossible.

The strong must not take advantage of the weak, and if you must invoke God or your religion to hurt the weak, you have made a truly horrible mistake.

You probably should be shunned in public, asked to find your meal somewhere else in fact.

That isn’t discrimination; that’s a community trying its best to behave decently.

Please. Don’t. Stop.

My formative years included a literary heritage that may seem rather low-brow—collecting, reading, and drawing from Marvel comics as well as reading (consuming) every issue of National Lampoon.

Although the Internet has been surprisingly unhelpful for me to verify this, I recall very vividly a Foto Funnies in one issue in which a young woman is being physically propositioned by a young man: Images of him reaching for her, touching her, or forcefully kissing her in a sequence in which she rejects him with “Please!” and then “Don’t!” followed by “Stop!”

The final picture, however, is the couple in the throes of passion, I seem to recall him on top of her and her legs wildly raised, but the key is she is shouting enthusiastically: “Please don’t stop!”

In my adolescence, I found the word play brilliant—a key element of the humor I relished in the magazine each month. But this comic is also another lesson, one taught directly and indirectly to men and women: Men, just wear women down when it comes to sex because women really want it too but must put up the proper resistance at first to protect their reputation.

As I have witnessed the growing #MeToo movement—especially in the many brilliant and disturbing pieces written by women confronting how the male world is all too often misogynistic and rapacious—I have thought more and more about the dynamic captured in the National Lampoon comic and echoed in Richard Dreyfuss’s retort (one shared by many men confronted with their coercive behavior, such as Aziz Ansari) to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.'”

Further, I have grown less comfortable with how we manage consent, a complicated concept that isn’t being investigated as fully or well as it deserves, notably in terms of the dynamic between Bill Clinton (resisting his #MeToo culpability) and Monica Lewinsky, who now has reconsidered if she was capable of consent in the relationship with Clinton.

Bill Clinton as one of many powerful men in the long procession that has brought the U.S. to Donald Trump as president and the most disturbing Teflon celebrity—this is a reckoning about much more than sexual harassment and rape culture.

It is reckoning about men as conditioned sexual predators and women as conditioned sexual prey.

Recreational sex—sex for physical pleasure without romantic intent—has profoundly different consequences for men and women; it is often positive social capital for men and nearly always negative social and personal capital for women.

Sex also remains strongly associated with physical and moral cleanliness—almost entirely as the expense of women who are either clean (sexless) or dirty (sexual).

Professional and personal taboos lend themselves to further eroding healthy relationships and interactions between men and women along the spectrum of platonic to intimate.

In many ways, the response by men—hyperbolic—that they do not know what they can say or do around women in the workplace is ridiculous and disingenuous, but there are real problems being unmasked by the #MeToo movement that these disingenuous responses cannot be allowed to derail.

Intimate relationships must begin at some point, being initiated in some way between people who have to risk asking about what the relationship is, where it may go, and how both people feel. When the context of that risk includes extenuating circumstances—think about the imbalance of power and age between Clinton and Lewinsky, for example—then the margins for those risks, how people interact, become narrower, more precarious, especially for the person with less power (often the woman).

Here, I am most concerned about not just consent, and all the problems with consent such as time and power, but what behaviors and characteristics of men that we reject as well as give a pass.

To many people, I think, Clinton and Ansari are qualitatively different than Harvey Weinstein (charges against whom include violent sexual assault and aggression); Clinton also viewed not as crass as Trump.

Where these distinctions fail, I fear, is not recognizing the ethical failure of men as dishonest sexual predators—the real-world manifestation of the National Lampoon cartoon.

Men who prey on women for sexual pleasure, not seeking romance or relationship, while cloaking their behavior otherwise—here is the behavior needing greater inspection: There is a misogyny and objectification in men who are sexual predators that is just as repulsive as men who commit the more immediate rape or sexual assault.

To extrapolate an analogy from Kurt Vonnegut who wrote that smoking was a socially acceptable form of suicide, sexual predators who wear women down to garner consent are socially acceptable rapists.

And that is why the National Lampoon cartoon haunts me; these are lessons taught to men and women about how we should conduct our sexual lives, our intimacies.

I have been listening very hard to women, coming almost daily to recognize the inordinate weight of being a woman constantly aware of her fragility in a man’s world that seems mostly not to acknowledge any woman’s full humanity.

The existential burden of gender for women parallels the existential burden of being black in the U.S.; these conditions are about existing always in a state of awareness and threat.

Talking with a young woman last night, we were standing on a side walk up the street from a bar. Three young men stumbled by, one guy was big and muscular; they were loud, drunk, and motioning toward us for high-fives.

We quietly stepped aside, and at least one of the guys paused and motioned as if he was offended we were ignoring them. The situation was relatively brief, and we didn’t say anything, but we both knew the event was terrifying for the young woman in a way it could never be for me.

They crossed the street to the hotel; I walked her to her car while watching the three drunk men. We needed them to move on, disappear.

This moment will now rest in a topic we have discussed often: The dilemma women face when guys approach them at bars, offering to buy drinks. For women, even when they genuinely are not out looking for any sort of socializing with these men, refusing the free drinks can be more dangerous than just playing along and trying to extricate themselves later.

We have created a culture in which men physically approaching women must be viewed as predatory, intimidating. We have created a culture in which women are responsible for managing that the world is threatening.

We still haven’t begun to fully hold men responsible for changing that culture, even as we are not demanding that some men take culpability for being sexual predators—such as Clinton.

#MeToo, I think, cannot be about turning our gaze even more intently on the victims and cannot be about rape culture only as a way not to investigate the normalized acceptance of men as sexual predators and demonizing of women who are sexual (consider the standard posing of Stormy Daniels as “porn star” versus Trump still never being held accountable).

In her excellent reflection on John Hughes, Molly Ringwald also turns to National Lampoon, where she confronts the contradictions she feels about Hughes:

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

Ringwald’s looking back and unpacking a “different time” speaks to our own need to admit that very little is different in terms of the dynamics that matter between men as sexual predators and misogynists and women as prey, dehumanized.

I think in most ways I survived the horrible lessons about men, women, and consent—such as the cartoon I once found funny and now find deeply uncomfortable. I was also able to cast off eventually the racism I was taught growing up.

A different world will mean that we all refuse these lessons, of course, but an even better different world will be when we no longer allow the lessons to begin with.

There is nothing funny about a man coercing a woman into consent. There was never anything funny about that.