Can Scholars Be Too Literal in Post-Truth Trumplandia?

Recently, I was invited to join a class discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a local International Baccalaureate (IB) high school class. For many years, I taught the novel in my Advanced Placement course, and in 2007, I published a volume on teaching Atwood’s writing.

During the discussion, one very bright and engaged student eagerly noted that Atwood evokes elements of communism in her novel. The use of the term “communism” prompted me to offer a gentle reframing—that the student probably was recognizing elements of totalitarianism, elements often blurred into the mainstream American pejorative use of the word “communism” (see also “socialism” and “Marxism”).

This is an important moment, I think, in understanding how academia works: Language and the teasing out of ideas are often laborious, if not tedious. While teaching first-year writing especially, but in most of my courses, I stress that college students need disciplinary awareness—how each discipline functions and why—and typically emphasize that academics are prone to carefully defining terms, and then holding everyone to those precise meanings.

Political, media, and public discourse, however, tend along a much different path. Language and terminology are treated with a cavalier disregard for meaning. Misusing a term or making a false claim is quickly glossed over before railing against the initial false claim.

Because of that gap between academia and the so-called real world, some educators and scholars call for the importance of public intellectuals grounded in academia. Public scholarship, however, remains controversial within the academia and tends to be received with disdain and condescension by politicians, the media, and the public.

It is at those last two points that I want to emphasize why Sam Fallon’s The Rise of the Pedantic Professor has been so eagerly embraced by some in the academy and many in the public sphere. At its core, Fallon’s argument poses this:

To read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.

These public humanities scholars, Fallon argues, “tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps,” and are failing their mission with “academic literalism.”

In the traditional norms of the academy, Fallon’s charges reinforce arguments that scholars should remain (somehow) above activism and public engagement, often expectations for being apolitical, objective, or neutral. Fallon also is providing ample fodder for politicians, the media, and the public who marginalize professors and scholars as merely academic, pointy-headed intellectuals making much ado about nothing.

As an educator, scholar, and writer, a career spanning four decades, I have strongly rejected both of these norms, and I have increasingly recognized that public work by scholars is far more important than our traditional scholarship, which is often behind paywalls and read by only inners, if at all.

I think that the gap between the academy and the public not only can be bridged in terms of how we navigate language and ideas, but it must be bridged—especially now that we have entered post-truth Trumplandia.

Consider the current uses and framing of the terms “socialism” and “infanticide.”

The bright IB student mentioned above is a typical example I confront in all of my students, and throughout public debates, especially social media.

While I absolutely recognize that academics can be pedantic, so precise that all meaning and discourse are rendered meaningless to day-to-day existence, I believe Fallon is making a serious mistake of extremes: Academics have obligations to their disciplines and the public, but their public discourse must always remain in any scholar’s lane while balancing the norms of disciplinary discourse with public accessibility.

Do some academics fail at this tightrope act? Of course.

But words matter, and starting with jumbled terms and meanings serves no one well. The public academic is poised to slow down debate while also clarifying what exactly we are saying in terms of cultural ideologies and public policy.

Doesn’t it seem important to confront that a significant numbers of voters in 2016 angrily voted against Obamacare while themselves benefitting from the Affordable Care Act—casting votes grounded in a garbled and self-defeating state of not knowing what terms mean?

Doesn’t it seem dangerous for one political party to drum up fear of infanticide, when infanticide isn’t occurring? Wouldn’t this country benefit from a fact-based (even literal) discussion of women’s health and reproductive rights, prenatal care, and abortion?

I find it troubling that all throughout formal education from K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education, we hold students to higher standards of discourse than we do politicians and the media.

I also have little patience for people who cannot accurately define “socialism,” “communism,” or “Marxism,” but feel compelled to reject these ideologies with unwavering certainty.

It seems, in fact, that no one can be too literal when most public discourse wallows in the mud of being both wrong in the use of language and dishonest in the ideologies and arguments being made for promoting public policy that directly impacts how any of us navigate our lives.

If we need more evidence, the rising public responses to the new tax codes pushed through by Republicans and Trump offer a jumbled and disturbing picture.

Many tax-paying U.S. citizens have a weak understanding of taxes, one oversimplified as the “refund” (let me nudge here: this isn’t any different than oversimplifying and misusing “socialism”).

Many in the U.S. should be angry about the new tax code, but most complaining about the consequences of those changes are doing so in ways that are lazy and simply flawed.

If we backed up this outrage over lower tax refunds, we could have a much more substantive and possibly effective discussion about payroll deductions (most were reduced under the tax changes, thus people received more money per check over the year, which itself would lead to lower refunds), tax burdens among different income brackets, and the needlessly complex industry of preparing and submitting our taxes.

Not unrelated, Republicans have misrepresented calls for 70% marginal tax rates for the very wealthy (about 16,000 Americans out of 127 million households)—again an effective strategy because most people do not understand the literal (and tedious) reality about how marginal tax rates work.

And this brings me back to Atwood’s novel and the class discussion.

Much of Atwood’s work as a writer is about language, the use of language to control and the possibility of language to unmask, to liberate not only ideas but people.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, a few select women control other women through language manipulation. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

But it may be more important here to emphasize Atwood’s examination of how Gilead came about. Offred explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

This is a novel about people being cavalier about language and thus about the human condition. This novel is a call for the dangers of not being literal enough.

Humanities professors wading into the public debate and their “dull litanies of fact” are simply not the problem facing us today.

Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?

O, hell no, and beware anyone who would argue otherwise.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

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Invisible in Plain Sight: On Refusal

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

A few days into my first-year writing seminars, I have begun to guide students toward reading like writers, navigating texts for the what and how of written expression.

As a way to interrogate their misconceptions about the essay (grounded mostly in inauthentic templates), we walk very carefully through the first six paragraphs of James Baldwin’s A Report from Occupied Territory, published 11 July 1966 in The Nation.

The essay exposes students to the historical realities of racial and racist police brutality—which we connect to Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests—as well as Baldwin’s powerful craft as a writer of non-fiction and a more rich and subtle awareness of the essay. This report helps, for example, students re-imagine how effective writer’s create essay openings—not functional single-paragraph introductions with unimaginative thesis sentences.

Each time I explore this essay with first-year students, however, I am reminded of how some of the best elements of the work—Baldwin’s use of “occupied territory” and “a foreign jungle but in the domestic one”—remain mostly invisible to those students.

Baldwin is referencing war, the Vietnam War that was pervasive at the time of the essay, in order to create a critical portrayal of the police as militaristic. Many students are inhibited from recognizing this analogy.

They have a sanitized view of war (contemporary war as drone attacks has been rendered invisible). I grew up in the 1960s watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news.

They are also blinded by their assumptions about authority figures, such as the police.

While not all of my students view the police positively (perspectives among races and social class vary among my students as we explore the NFL protests, for example), they have recently left K-12 education where the norm is that all authority must be respected, where the adults in authority appear mostly uniform in that deference to all authority.

Dominant ideologies, then, have the power to create invisibility in plain sight. Once anything becomes normal, many simply refuse to see what is right their before their eyes.

Consider the dilemma by a woman scholar, Nikki Usher, prompted to cite a scholar she had actively worked to avoid because of his sexism:

And for those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so.

In my first-round submission, instead of mentioning this male professor’s work, I found and cited a half-dozen other scholars who made the points I needed for my theoretical scaffolding, although not in the same foundational articles. But of course the journal reviewers went looking in my manuscript for a citation of the serial sexist’s name and work.

This is a bind that we have yet to account for — how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.

Sexist men scholars not citing women often works invisibly and makes women scholars invisible, when the field refuses to see that, of course.

Scholars taking the faux pose of objectivity (citing the seminal work of men scholars, and claiming not to be endorsing the scholar as a person or his behavior) create another level of invisibility—both of which work to perpetuate disciplinary status simultaneously along with refusing to hold abusive scholars accountable.

Those who refuse to see white and male privilege are complicit in maintaining both as invisible in plain sight.

One problem with invisibility as refusal, however, can be seen in my students reading Baldwin and Usher struggling to manage her own scholarship and status.

That problem is grounded in how the marginalized are often positioned with the responsibility to bring that which has been rendered invisible into the light while also being poised to suffer the greatest consequences for that unmasking.

The student stepping back from idealized views of the police in order to acknowledge Baldwin’s criticism is taking a risk in a context that is mostly authoritarian.

A woman scholar taking ethical stances against the powerful current of her field is assuming risk in a context that maintains a false veneer of objectivity and high rigor.

To focus on Usher’s dilemma, this is a nuanced aspect of the #MeToo movement that itself has been rendered invisible, micro-aggressions of scholarship dominated and controlled by men. There is a pretense here that scholarship is somehow distinct from the personal, the person.

I imagine for those outside of academia, sexist men scholars systematically ignoring women scholars (not citing) seems a pale thing when compared to Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK.

For women, however, the cumulative and ultimate consequences of all types and degrees of sexism and gender-based aggression are similarly erasing, paradoxically creating women as invisible in plain sight.

I think about Margaret Atwood recalling that when she attended an all-male graduate course at Harvard, the professor sent her for coffee—Atwood the woman as scholar was rendered invisible behind her perceived status as servant to men.

Ultimately, those left invisible in plain sight remain trapped by the system that perpetuates itself, as Usher exposes.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man recognizes his invisibility and in the novel’s end has embraced it, reclaimed it, hibernating himself as a sort of resignation.

This too is a paradox, the incredible weight of invisibility, the burden of being erased through refusal.

If we are to experience a revolution of recognition, the leverage of those with privilege is essential, to pry away the cloaking in order to see what has been right their in front of our eyes all along.

“We’ve Done It, Or We’re Doing It, Or We Could Start Doing It Tomorrow”

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Trump rightwing women

(From upper-left to lower-right) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (credit), Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter (credit), Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (credit), and Kellyanne Conway (credit).

Some often muse whether life imitates art or if art imitates life.

For Margaret Atwood, the debate is more nuanced and about genre: “The Handmaid’s Tale…is set in the future,” Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia.” “This conned some people into believing it is science fiction, which, to my mind, it is not.”

What may seem like a trivial distinction—something merely academic—is incredibly important to Atwood, and to anyone reading this novel (or more recently, viewing the Hulu series):

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that it is not already doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia….

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don’t pull up our socks. (pp. 93, 94)

What might these dire warnings entail in 2018 Trumplandia? At least two come to mind: The manipulation of women to control women and the threat of theocracy to a democracy.

“Puritan New England was a theocracy, not a democracy;” Atwood explains, “and the future society proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots” (p. 97).

These words should be echoing in the background each time we hear or read “Make America Great Again” since Atwood warns, “But true dictatorships do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone—anyone—who can take control and promise them better times” (p. 98).

Two aspects of Atwood’s speculative Republic of Gilead should give us pause in fact: “biblical justification” and:

Woman’s place, in the Republic of Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is strictly in the home….How do you get women back in the home, now that they are running around outside the home, having jobs and generally flinging themselves around? Simple. You just close your eyes and take several giant steps back, into the not-so-very-distant past—the nineteenth century, to be exact—deprive them of the right to vote, own property, or hold jobs, and prohibit public prostitution in the bargain, to keep them from hanging out on the street corners, and presto, there they are, back in the home. (p. 99)

And, as Atwood’s dystopia dramatizes, create a hierarchy of women so that they become consumed with controlling and resisting each other—while failing to see the higher hands of men controlling the entire puppet show.

Dire warning?

Like the legitimate and illegitimate women of Gilead, enter the women of Trumplandia: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway—quoting scripture, invoking the sacred nature of Law, and routinely lying with well-manicured hair and the sort of make up rendered illegal in Atwood’s dystopia.

“At the front of The Handmaid’s Tale there are two dedications,” Atwood notes, detailing:

[T]he American Puritans did not come to North America in search of religious toleration, or not what we mean by it. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion, but they were not particularly keen on anyone else practice his or hers. Among their noteworthy achievements were the banishing of so-called heretics, the hanging of Quakers, and the well-known witchcraft trials. I get to say these bad things about them because they are my ancestors—in a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is my book about my ancestors—and the second dedication, to Mary Webster, is indeed to one of these very same ancestors. (pp. 96, 97)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is Atwood’s poetic recreation of Webster’s monologue throughout her being hanged as a witch, an act that, remarkable, ended with her surviving: “Under the law of double jeopardy,” Atwood adds, “you couldn’t execute a person twice for the same crime, so she lived for another fourteen years” (p. 97).

In the poem, Webster narrates:

I was hanged for living alone,
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a sure-fire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.

And then about her hanging:

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turning inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

The men shouting the authority of God attempt to execute Webster—a woman, and poor—while “The bonnets come to stare,/ the dark skirts also.”

Yet Webster implores:

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

Does life imitate art, or art, life? And as Atwood suggests, when art is drawn from life, why do we resist the dire warnings?

Biblical justification and the sacred rule of law by a people shouting “Make America Great Again” over the cries of children behind chain-linked fences after being pulled from their parents’ arms.

Dire warnings we either cannot see or will not see: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

See Also

There’s no reason to believe that women like Kirstjen Nielsen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are more empathetic by virtue of being women, Jessie Daniels

Why I Am Not a Christian

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I have almost six decades of experience with the social anxiety associated with confessing that I am not a Christian.

The paradox of this anxiety, I suppose, is that the particular type of Christianity I have lived among in South Carolina is strongly grounded in witnessing and being very cheerfully public about one’s faith. “Let us pray” not as invitation but as directive.

As a public school teacher for 18 years, I was under the added weight of fearing that I would be outed in ways that threatened me socially and professionally. But when I moved to higher education, I really felt no more comfort in expressing my lack of faith—even as I was often directly asked by students, even though it was a professionally safe place to be honest.

In fact, it has always been far easier to share with students my communist/socialist/Marxist leanings than to say simply, “I am an atheist.”

The personal recognition wasn’t an easy journey, but during college, including reading and re-reading Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” and a significant amount of existential philosophy, I came to terms with ethical and moral groundings as well as being entirely comfortable with those ideals being in no way connected to God or organized religion.

Since my college years overlapped with the rise of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, that disconnect wasn’t even complicated. The most passionately Christian people of my community growing up and then the most vocal Christians in the public and political spheres of the Reagan era confirmed for me that I had zero interest in such anger, hatred, and most of all, hypocrisy.

I have taken comfort instead throughout my adult life in literature—works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which directly interrogate all the ways I find religion, and Christianity, more apt to be a bludgeoning device than a balm.

Religious text as a tool for authority, religion as the opiate of the masses—as Emily Dickson wrote as a contemporary of Karl Marx:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In 2018, with Donald Trump courting and maintaining the passionate support of the religious right, specifically evangelicals across the South, and with the South Carolina summer primaries in which Republicans run aggressive TV ads shouting “100% pro-life” and images of candidates in front of NRA rallies and holding (even shooting) guns, I have never been more confident in why I am not a Christian.

During this time of Trumplandia, as well, one of the most devout and moral people I know happens to be a Muslim—whose faith is routinely and grossly demonized by Trump and his Christian base.

Christianity is rarely about love and charity, but often about tribalism and the calculated use of higher authority to maintain or gain power.

The narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night argues:

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

As I grow older, it becomes more and more imperative that I seek a moral and ethical life—something I equally recognize as incredibly hard to achieve as a mere human among humanity, as we are all so flawed, so fragile, so unwilling to sacrifice and risk in the name of the hypothetical Other, the faceless and nameless human we choose either to treat as our brother/sister or to leave mostly ignored in the basement closet.

Christianity, I fear, too often allows the worst in us to thrive instead of inspiring us to be the loving community we are capable of being.

Love, community, and holding sacred all humans’ dignity—these are what matter to me, and why I am not a Christian.

Liars and Racists

If Thomas Jefferson impregnated his slave, Sally Hemings, as historians claim, Jefferson was a rapist. No slave had the power of sexual consent or rejection; at best, slaves functioned within a repressive culture of “reduced circumstances.” [1]

About Andrew Jackson, Tim Morris explains:

Jackson was an unrepentant slaveholder and the power behind the legislation that forced five peaceful American Indian tribes from their homelands and triggered the Trail of Tears, a 1,000-mile death march that would leave 4,000 of 16,000 Cherokees dead along the way.

Jackson was an virulent racist.

South Carolina’s shame, as Will Moredock writes, Ben Tillman was a racist, terrorist, and murderer:

The then 29-year-old Tillman led the members of the Sweetwater Sabre Club, a.k.a. the Edgefield Redshits, against a local militia group, all black. Several African-American militia men were killed in a pitched battle with red-shirt-wearing white terrorists. After the militia surrendered, five of them were called out by name and executed. A few weeks later, when vigilantes captured a black state senator named Simon Coker, Tillman was present when two of his men executed the prisoner while he was on his knees praying.

In more recent history, Bill Clinton was an adulterer and a liar. His life as a sexual predator is undeniable.

Today, Donald Trump leads the U.S. as a serial liar and a racist. He has a history as a sexual predator and has bragged about sexual assault.

When I was a child and teenager, I was routinely hit and punished for my attitude, my tone—even when what I argued was, in fact, true, valid.

Of the failures by my father I still struggle against, this is one of the worst lessons he taught me: The credibility of what you claim is always secondary to how you make your claims, and you should always defer to authority even when authority is wrong and you are right.

That is the sort of tone policing bullshit that is the refuge of those in authority who realize they have no real right to that authority.

So I now witness the U.S. drift increasingly into the sort of environment I have rejected my whole life.

To call a liar, a liar, especially in jest, is somehow the offensive thing—not the lies and the liar.

To call a racist, a racist, is somehow the source of racial discord—not the racism or the racist.

Those in authority who know they have no real right to that authority are encouraging tone policing as a distraction.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a liar; that is the offensive thing.

Trump is a racist and a liar; that is the offensive thing.

Trump’s support is significantly driven by racism; that is a fact, and the offensive thing.

Let us by vigilant about naming liars and racists.

Let us not be derailed or dissuaded by tone policing.

The offensive thing is the thing itself—never the ones brave enough to name it.


[1] See from Beware the Bastards: On Freedom and Choice:

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (June), the eponymous handmaid of the tale, reveals that “[t]he circumstances have been reduced” (p. 8) for the younger women of Gilead, a post-apocalyptic theocracy of sorts. These seemingly fertile women have become extremely precious for the survival of the white race and paradoxically the embodiment of a perverse slavery for procreation.

Atwood has written at length about being indebted to George Orwell—those who control language control everything and everyone—and that her speculative novel includes a quilting of human actions drawn directly from history, not fabricated by Atwood.

How have humans kept other humans in literal and economic bondage? Often by exploiting token members of the group being exploited.

Thus, in The Handmaid’s Tale, a few women are manipulated to control other women. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

Throughout the novel, readers must navigate how Offred (June) weaves the overlap of her own original ideas and vocabulary as that intersects with the propaganda of Gilead:

Will I ever be in a hotel room again? How I wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen.

Rented license. (p. 50)

“Freedom” and “license” are exposed as bound words, the meanings contextual.

As Offred (June) continues to investigate rooms, she discovers a powerful but foreign phrase:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. (p. 52)

The power to control language includes defining words, but also denying access to language—forbidding reading and writing, literacy, to those in bondage.

And then, Offred (June) explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

And from that previous life of “ignoring” the other since it wasn’t about them, Offred (June) finds herself the procreation slave of a Commander, in “reduced circumstances” where she realizes: “There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (p. 94).

Her previous life of “ignoring” has been replaced by something seemingly more awful, but nearly exactly the same as she explains about the Ceremony: “One detaches oneself” (p. 95).

Even in Gilead, Offred (June) again becomes the other woman, lured into an infidelity characterized by playing Scrabble with the Commander, who reveals to her that Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is slang Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (p. 187).

Adolescent language as rebellion has become a life-or-death slogan for Offred (June).

As her relationship with the Commander becomes increasingly trite and complex, Offred (June) declares, “Freedom, like everything else, is relative” (p. 231).

Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”