More on White Men of Academia: Student and Self Evaluation Follies

“Higher education too can make a fetish out of ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality,'” observes John Warner, confronting specifically The Pitfalls of “Objectivity” in teaching composition.

Warner’s argument is a subset, however, of the larger problem with the white men of academia, as I have examined recently: Concepts and terms such as “objectivity,” “scientific,” “valid,” “reliable,” and “rationality” prove to be extremely powerful in academia and scholarship, yet the great irony of that power is that these concepts and terms are veneer for maintaining white male power—inequity grounded in the racism and sexism that academics are prone to refute in their rhetoric while maintaining in their practices.

“Objectivity,” for example, frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus “objective”), rendering racialized (non-white) and genderized (non-male) subjectivity as the “other,” as lacking credibility.

Explore the history of what research paradigms count, and you confront the bias in favor of quantitative (experimental and quasi-experimental) research (paradigms created by and maintained by men) over qualitative research (paradigms championed by women and racial minorities)—the former is “hard,” “scientific,” and “objective” while the latter is “soft,” “personal,” and “(merely) anecdotal.”

In an institution created by white men, academia, where their claim is that everything is based on empirical evidence filtered through the rarified lens of objectivity, we run into a real conflict when unpacking the evidence—for example, the annual/bi-annual self-evaluation process linked to promotion, tenure, and merit as well as the embedded key element of student evaluations of faculty.

As a tenured full professor, I am currently drafting my bi-annual self-evaluation, a process I have been using as a political document to confront the inherent inequity in both the faculty evaluation process and the traditional use of student opinion surveys.

The self-evaluation is flush with traditional norms about what counts as excellence—peer-reviewed publications, for example, but not public intellectual work. And as is the case at many colleges and universities, student evaluations are central evidence in the entire faculty evaluation process.

We are directed in our self-evaluations to “include numerical results from student opinion survey forms”—the double whammy of quantitative and the ubiquitous student evaluations. The narrative at my small selective liberal arts university is that of the three areas of evaluation—teaching, scholarship, and service—teaching remains primary; therefore, I make my strongest advocacy case (nearly equaled by my argument for valuing my public intellectual writing) about how we determine faculty teaching quality.

My opening to my teaching effectiveness self-evaluation begins, then:

My teaching effectiveness has exceeded [our] high standards for teaching over the past two academic years. As evidence below, I will not refer to student opinion surveys because they have been shown to be biased (against women and faculty of color) and poor indicators of student learning [1]. Since I strongly support concerns raised in our Gender Equity study and FU’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative, I believe use of the student opinion surveys are contradictory to those goals.

If, I argue, our university has gender equity and diversity/inclusion initiatives, then using student opinion surveys contradicts those goals because the evidence is overwhelming that these student surveys are gender and race biased; they serve the interests of white male academics.

Here, then, are some key readings and research to support rejecting and resisting student evaluations of faculty:

As a white man in academia, if my claimed scholarly focus and agenda are grounded in equity, social justice, and not only naming but also dismantling racism, sexism, and white privilege, then I am beholden to both word and action in those pursuits.

In the ideal, yes, academia has the potential to be a model for equity and justice; in reality, academia is more often than not a white man’s world with garnishes of elevated rhetoric.

As Warner concludes in his interrogation of “objectivity,” students deserve a commitment to their “agency that allows them to make space for their ideas in the world,” adding what we can and must extrapolate to all of academia:

In this context, “objectivity” is not a value, but a pose, and one that’s usually sussed out by students as phony. They easily recognize it as a confidence game because it’s a game they’d previously been trying to practice, and during that practice they knew it was a pose.

Too often this pose in higher education is that of a gatekeeper, a position garnered through privilege but flaunted as merit.

If it were only phony, maybe we could brush it aside, but this pose of white male academics is determinant—it shapes, defines, and controls the careers and lives of everyone.

Changing academia in the pursuit of equity must be the work of white men, and two ways to begin that shift is to reimagine faculty evaluations and to end the use of student evaluations of faculty in that process.


[1] The footnote I provide includes the bulleted research and links above.

Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

South Carolina Ranks First in Political Negligence

Based on a U.S. News & World Report ranking, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) announced South Carolina ranks last in education.

South Carolina also ranks first in women being murdered by men.

Rankings are popular in the U.S., but more often than not, terrible ways to understand what is being ranked as well as distracting fodder for both the media and politicians.

Ranking itself is problematic since the act itself requires finding data that supports that ranking, and then by ranking we are ascribing both a range of quality as well as some degree of blame for the relative status.

When saying SC is last in education and first in violence toward women, we must take greater care in clarifying what these rankings mean and where the accountability lies for both outcomes and the causes for those outcomes.

I suspect many would fault SC public schools for the education ranking, but almost no one would blame heterosexual domestic relationships for the inordinate rate of men’s violence toward women in the state.

But even more important here is that both of these rankings reveal something in common nearly entirely ignored: political negligence in SC.

The U.S. News ranking of education is far less about education, in fact, than about socio-economics.

Three of the six data categories to rank states by education are test scores (ACT and NAEP math and reading), and the other three are graduation rates as well as Pre-K quality and preschool enrollment.

At least 60% of test scores prove time and again to be correlated with out-of-school factors. In short, what we routinely label as “education” is in fact more significantly a reflection of poverty and wealth.

And thus, if we are compelled to say SC is last in education, we are actually saying that SC’s social and education policy are utter failures. The key here is that this ranking is about policy, a direct reflection of political will, political negligence.

And SC is easily in competition for elite status in political negligence of education as shown in the twenty years it took for the courts to address the Corridor of Shame, finally admitting that high-poverty schools serving high-poverty communities result in students being doubly disadvantaged by their lives and their school opportunities.

For comparison, consider SC’s violence toward women ranking and the state being one of 13 states that treat marital rape differently than rape of a non-spouse:

Men or women raped by a spouse have just 30 days to report the incident to authorities. For the rape to count, it must have involved “the use or the threat to use a weapon … or physical violence of a high and aggravated nature.” The offense is treated as a felony but has a maximum sentence of 10 years, whereas rape of a non-spouse has a maximum sentence of 30 years.

In both rankings, then, we must ask how policy creates the environments reflected in measurable outcomes—such as test scores and graduation rates or incidences of violence toward women.

There is a political advantage to keep media and public focus on schools with educational rankings; that focus, however, is akin to blaming hospitals for housing the sick.

Schools in SC and across the U.S. reflect the inequities of our communities, the failures of our policies, and as a result, they are ineffective as mechanisms of change.

While we have known for decades that poverty and inequity are the greatest hurdles for children learning, we have committed to decades of changing standards and testing students—and we appear poised to waste time and funding next on school choice scheme.

None of this addresses the root causes of the outcomes we continue to use to rank educational quality, a process that masks, misinforms, and guarantees to maintain the status quo.

Ranking invariably proves to be much ado about nothing because it tends to misrepresent and misinform, especially in terms of why conditions exist and what reforms would improve those conditions.

Policy is at the core of both any state’s educational outcomes and what threatens the safety of women.

Policy reflects what truly matters, and in SC, our rankings in terms of education and violence toward women are commentaries on who we are as a people, who we are willing to ignore and who we are willing to protect.

Ultimately, both of these rankings expose that SC ranks first in political negligence, negligence of equity in the lives and education of children, negligence in the safety of women.

“Something Like Scales”

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.

Acts 9:18 (NIV)

The existential crisis of my youth was my embarrassment and shame for having been raised in ignorance. My redneck past erupted from my mouth in the first weeks of college, and I exposed myself an arrogant fool.

Racist, sexist, brash, and incredibly insensitive to human dignity—I had no sense of community, no humility, little compassion, and no room for anything to replace the incredible callousness that filled my mind, my heart, and my soul.

Many years later in my doctoral program, I discovered Lou LaBrant and was immediately drawn to her warnings about word magic and provincialism, and her faith in progressive education as a path out of ignorance and bigotry:

The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)

In my mid-30s, I had already made significant strides along the journey captured by LaBrant, a journey that was deeply indebted to my reading black and women writers who shook the scales from my eyes and pointed me to the light leading away from the provincialism of my youth.

Concurrent to my passion for fiction and literature was my self-taught commitment to reading existential philosophy, which also resonated with me as I had become aware that every human is a prisoner of her/his own Being.

It was not that I came to know the world through my being white, male, heterosexual, and a non-believer; it was that I made the error of not recognizing those lenses, falling into the trap expressed by Claudia Rankine and James Baldwin.

That trap was to ignore my whiteness and to fail to understand that anything that defines any individual is inseparable from the world around that individual; as Baldwin explains:

White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.

The existential crisis of my first three years of college did not bring me to some miraculous enlightenment. Neither did my doctoral experience in my mid-30s.

As I stumble toward 60, the crisis remains, and the journey continues.

My most recent leg of that journey has been grounded in social media, where I have gathered (especially on Twitter) connections that allow me to listen beyond myself about race, social class, gender, sexuality, ablism, and a whole host of contexts that, as LaBrant confronted, address “our tendency to accept or reject other human beings.”

Over the past few years when I have increased my public writing as well as my presence on social media, I have learned two important lessons.

First—although it has taken me decades to recognize and come to understand better my own struggles with anxiety and introversion—I am a lifelong outsider, a non-joiner.

However, I have experienced a few vicious (and unfounded) attacks directed at me either through a virtual connection only or about my role as a public intellectual.

In these cases, the conflict was grounded entirely (again as LaBrant noted) in how the other person was naming me, especially in terms of how that naming associated me with allegiances I do not have (to organizations, to known personalities, to acquiring financial benefits).

My non-joiner Self has always been rooted in my fidelity to ideas and ideals, not people or organizations. I am perpetually checking if people and organizations share that fidelity, but I cannot pledge allegiance to anyone or any organization.

These conflicts happened, it is important to stress, with both people I consider allies and those who are clearly in different camps than I am.

Just as a broad example, I have felt tension from union members and advocates because, I think, I hold an odd stance of never having been in a union (living my entire life in a right-to-work state) and of criticizing strongly both of the major teachers’ unions and their leaders—all the while being an unapologetic advocate for unionization.

I have also been discounted and discredited among my narrow field of teaching ELA because many within the field misunderstand blogging and academic publishing (neither of which is about making money, by the way).

This first lesson, then, is about how we label each other through association, and as a result, create fractures, angry divisions—much of which is inaccurate, or at least misleading.

Commitments to people and organizations to the exclusion of the ideals those people and organizations claim to be working toward are ultimately counterproductive.

But my second lesson moves beyond the personal and to the wider chasms of the U.S. as a people.

As a perpetual stranger, I am a critical observer, and I have witnessed a powerful and corrosive dynamic captured by the story of Saul’s conversion: “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.”

What I have witnessed is about power and privilege as the scales that blind the powerful and privileged.

From the Bernie Sander’s campaign to Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the accountability education reform resistance—and many other contexts—I have watched as white people with some degree of privilege and power have squandered their good intentions, alienating marginalized people by not listening.

The worst of which has been the tone deaf All Lives Matter (and Blue Lives Matter) response to Black Lives Matter.

In a recent post about rescuing education reform from post-truth, I highlighted that both the reform mindset that public education is a failure and the counter-resistance (that often says public education is not the problem because poverty is) are equally flawed—the latter because it spits in the face of the vulnerable students (black, brown, English language learners, special needs students) who are in fact being cheated by an inadequate K-12 public school system.

I think ultimately the second lesson is about missionary zeal, the bleeding-heart liberal urge to save the world, an urge that ignores (as Baldwin challenges) the arrogance of privilege, the condescension of privilege.

And thus, even as I have framed this with a sight metaphor, when the scales drop from our eyes—when we resist viewing the world through our provincialism, through our necessarily personal biases (and bigotry)—we are freed to listen and to hear with compassion and awareness so that our worlds expand.

Freedom and equity no longer appear to be a zero-sum game.

Ending racism is the responsibility of whites. Ending sexism is the responsibility of men. Ending economic inequity is the responsibility of the wealthy.

Privilege and power control how the U.S. works, for whom it works as well as over whom it plows.

Our country is in desperate need of a conversion such as Saul’s, the scales dropping from our eyes so that we may listen, understand, and act in the service of those we have too long failed to see or hear.

Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.

The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.

Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

What Trumplandia Confirms about Republican Party, Christian Right, and White America

I just want to ask a question:
Who really cares, to save a world in despair?
Who really cares?

“Save the Children,” Marvin Gaye

I was born and have lived my entire life in the cesspool of hypocrisy that is the Bible Belt—where conservative Republicanism and Christian values are thin veneer for hatred, bigotry, sexism, gun-lust, and enduring racism.

That hypocrisy failed me and then as a young adult and throughout my life I have been taught critical love and kindness by great writers and thinkers: Kurt Vonnegut, Eugene V. Debs, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and the greatest witness of all, James Baldwin.

With the election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president, the entire nation has before it this reality: Trumplandia confirms that the Republican Party, Christian Right, and white America have abdicated all rights to any moral authority.

First, despite efforts by mainstream media and pundits to argue otherwise, Trump and his rhetoric are continuations of central efforts by the Republican Party reaching back at least to Reagan: “tough on crime” as code for racist beliefs about blacks and Latinx, “build a wall” as just more xenophobia, and anti-government ranting as code for denying “free” offerings to the “lazy” people of color and “illegal immigrants.”

Trump’s Republicanism is directly in line with Reagan Republicanism. The only real difference is Trump’s outlandish and brash admissions aloud of the very worst of the Republican Party, such as calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. Traditional Republicans only hint at such.

Even more important is that the overwhelming support for Trump by the Christian Right is stunningly damning:

For eight years, Barack Obama and his family—despite a history of being practicing Christians, despite Obama himself offering several eloquent and Christian speeches and hymns in times of tragedy, and despite Obama and his family living essentially good (read: Christian) lives—the Christian Right, and Trump, have refuted Obama’s Christianity and used accusations of his being a Muslim as a slur.

Yet, Trump’s hedonism, adultery, sexual assault, profane discourse, hate speech, sexism, and rapacious behavior as a business man and pseudo-billionaire [1], for the Christian Right, prove to be just fine.

Trumplandia has exposed there is nothing “Christian” or “right” about the Christian Right.

Finally, however, the most damning and least addressed consequence of Trumplandia is what it has exposed about white America, who overwhelmingly supported Trump:

As expected, Trump did best among white voters without a college degree, beating Clinton by the enormous margin of 72 percent to 23 percent. Trump also won among white, non-college women 62 to 34 percent and white college-educated men, 54 to 39 percent. Among white voters, Clinton only won among women with a college degree by a 51 to 45 percent margin. Interestingly, among white voters, there is no evidence in the exit poll that income affected the likelihood that they supported Trump.

The conventional wisdom being promoted by whitewashed mainstream media is that the working and middle class have been abandoned by Democrats and the U.S. government; yet, exit polls show that the two lowest income categories chose Clinton by a slim majority (certainly skewed, however, by people of color over-represented in these groups, revealing how the media is mostly worried about “working class” and “middle class” only as that relates to whites):

Both sets of exit data from CBS and NYT, then, suggest that Trump’s support has more to do with race than disgruntled working class whites being ignored and disenfranchised.

Actually, mainstream media has its argument backward because Trumplandia confirms that white America has abandoned commitments to equity for all—not that any political party or the U.S. government has abandoned white America.

The problem with the hurting working/middle class white argument is that this is racially inequitable America:

And this is racially inequitable America:

The America where race and gender create exponential inequity:

As a powerful contrast to the white male and female support to Trump, note that black women were by far least likely to vote for Trump—and they have the greatest reason to be disenfranchised (the lowest wages at every level of education, above):

The ultimate problem with the suffering working and middle class white argument for Trump’s rise is twofold: (1) white suffering may exist, but by comparison to black/brown suffering and gender suffering, white suffering remains relatively less significant, and (2) if whites are hurting, that fact should have spurred solidarity with historically marginalized groups, not the antagonism being heard from white America.

If white America ever really believed in the melting pot, believed in a country of immigrants, believed in equity for all, that may have existed in some distant and idealized past when white America saw that pot melting disparate whites into one homogenous white: equity for all who look like us (white).

Trumplandia is a white response (whitelash), not from working and middle class suffering, but against rising demands by oppressed groups (#BlackLivesMatter, Colin Kaepernick, gender neutral restrooms, marriage equity, immigration reform, etc.) for equity for all.

The only thing whites are poised to lose is their unearned privilege, but the rise of white support of Trump confirms that whites see their privilege as more important to preserve than equity for all is to attain.

“Make America Great Again” is slogan-as-code for maintaining white (and male) privilege.

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In the tumultuous world faced by Marvin Gaye—especially war torn—he sang:

But who really cares?
Who’s willing to try?
To save our world
To save our sweet world
To save a world
That is destined…to die

Trumplandia is a defiant “Not us” from white America—and efforts to whitewash that callousness as economic angst is further proof that the dirtiest word in the U.S. to utter is “racism” because of the delicate sensibilities of the most powerful people in the country.


[1] Matthew 19:24: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”