Empty Pedestals

Forrest_Park_Memphis_TN_07Like pretty much everyone else in the US, I have an opinion about statues that honor Confederate leaders. At first, I had mixed feelings. After all, tearing down a statue doesn’t erase centuries of oppression. Moreover, the educator in me wondered if placing the statues in context would be a good compromise. For example, I imagined a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded by statues of every person who was killed by the KKK. However, this didn’t satisfy me either. However, when I read historian Kevin M. Levin’s article in The Atlantic, I saw an answer that made sense to me.

Levin echoes my concerns as an educator who used the monuments as classrooms. He saw the potential of using monuments to discuss the legacy of the Civil War, the rise of hate groups, and resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Levin said he once thought that “Monument sites became classrooms where I could teach about the long and difficult history of racism in America. Taking them down seemed to represent the antithesis of my goals as a teacher.” Teaching history means exposing the less savory parts of our journey. The monuments embodied these issues.



19dc-partisan-picks-durham-master675Levin goes on to say that his mind changed.  He shares his experience of traveling to Prague where he “noticed almost immediately the concrete foundations and empty pedestals where monuments to communist leaders once stood.” For Levin, the empty pedestals serve as an equally poignant reminder Soviet oppression. Stalin and Lenin are no longer glorified in bronze, but neither is the reminder of their systemic abuse of the Czech people erased. The pedestals are mute but solid.

Perhaps we can learn from the Czech throughout the South. Memphis hosts a number of Confederate monuments, most notably the grave of Forrest and a park around it. I think we would all feel differently if we walked by an empty pedestal instead of a statute of a racist sitting majestically on his horse.


A Rhetoric of Easter Eggs

When I was a child, I loved painting Easter eggs with my family. For the Polish, egg painting (pisanka) is an art-form and serious business. Crayons and warm colored vinegar washes were inadequate. Like many American Poles, we held on to our traditions. My grandparents, parents, my brother, and I would sit around the table a Pysanky2011couple days before Easter and paint, draw, etch, and yarn over eggs. We painted one another’s names on our eggs and exchanged them at Easter dinner. My grandmother always praised us for their beauty – even when we clumsily combined paint colors or misspelled her name.

My mother was a semi-professional artist, and she fired ceramic eggs that we displayed year after year. We blew the yolks out of eggs, painted them, and stored the delicate shells in tissue paper to reuse. Every Good Friday we opened the box of Easter decorations to see which eggs survived storage.

Now, when I walk into a store and see the racks of garish, plastic eggs I wonder what message we’re sending about Easter. This kind of Easter seems cheap and disposable. For me, a plastic Easter egg has no warmth, family, or pleasure. Easter is pickled beets, lamb-shaped butter, and my grandparents singing in Polish. The celebration and feast after the long sacrifices of Lent cannot be contained in something bought at a store.

Faith and Revolution

In class on Monday, we read The Catechism of the Revolutionary by Sergey Nechayev (1869). Nacheyev opens claiming that the revolutionary is a “doomed man.” Nechayev was willing to kill and die for his revolution.  He was absolutely devoted and believed that his sacrifice would help bring about change. By calling his text a “catechism,” Nechayev draws on the centuries of devotion shown by Christians to their cause. By implication, like people died for early Christianity, or even Christ himself, so should the revolutionary die for his cause.

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Comimo Rosselli’s (1482) Sermon on the Mount – Fresco Sistine Chapel

A catechism is a summary of instructions for initiates or Greek: κατηχέω, “to teach orally.” We often understand catechisms as a call and response or question and answer formats that instruct and reaffirm the faith of the speakers. Or, perhaps less generously, to indoctrinate listeners.  For example, Martin Luther thought the catechism was an important part of developing faith and created simplified versions for parents (fathers) to recite with their children – the Small Catechism. Rather than having the family merely recite the Lord’s Prayer, he turns it into an opportunity to explain and indoctrinate:

Hallowed be Thy name.
What does this mean?
Answer: God’s name is indeed holy in itself; but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.
How is this done?
Answer: When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God also lead holy lives in accordance with it. To this end help us, dear Father in heaven. But he that teaches and lives otherwise than God’s Word teaches profanes the name of God among us. From this preserve us, Heavenly Father.

In other words, catechisms build community and identity by asking congregations to speak in unity.  They affirm that everyone saying these words believes this lesson.

Nechayev’s catechism written in smaller, easily memorized paragraphs.  Did he intend for the document to be read aloud and recited?  Did rooms of Russian revolutionaries recite passages from the text? I can almost see grungy bohemian artists and philosophers whispering in dark corners:

The revolutionary is a dedicated man, merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes; and he can expect no mercy from them. Between him and them there exists, declared or concealed, a relentless and irreconcilable war to the death. He must accustom himself to torture. 

Or, maybe Jesus Christ really is the original revolutionary?  Only the true believers while know.


I Marched

Despite my love of sleeping in on weekends, I woke up early Saturday morning, made myself some coffee, and met up with some friends to attend the Memphis Women’s March.

Me (on the left) with my friends and co-workers.

I’ve read a fair amount of news talking about the futility of demonstrations, but I want to push against this idea. For example, I expected the turn out at the Memphis March to be low and reinforce my distaste for living in a red state. Instead, I walked through downtown with thousands of other people who are dissatisfied with the direction our current administration is leading us. I smiled and talked to strangers. I chanted and clapped about the hope of democracy.

I was motivated to keep up the fight. 

If the demonstrations do nothing else, perhaps they’ve reminded millions of people across the United States and the world that they are not alone. This is power.

Of course, I am too pragmatic to think making as sign and walking a few miles is enough. However, the March has shown us that there are enough of us to make a difference.  If everyone who attended the marches gave $10 to causes, groups, or even politicians, we could create change. We don’t have oil companies or banks on our side. We have numbers.

Free to Teach What I Want

In December 2016, Wisconsin State Assemblyman David Murphy lodged a public complaint about the University of Wisconsin’s decision to allow a course entitled “Problem with Whiteness.”  According to the Washington Post, the goals of the course are to “understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy” and to explore “how race is experienced by white people.” Murphy claims teaching a class at the state’s flagship public university is a waste of taxpayer’s money. Moreover, he called to withhold funding if the class goes through.

In January, Steve Nass criticized UW Madison for a program in which young men voluntarily gather and discuss masculinity. Nass claims that the course categorizes masculinity as another “societal ill.”

Is white masculinity under attack? Or, should classes interrogate social, cultural, or political hegemony?

To answer these questions, we have to understand the role of the university. In many ways, our conception of the university as a bastion of liberal ideals and counterculture is a mostly modern conception. The civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1950-70s were supported by young college students who organized on campuses across the country.

Wisconsin Student Association, United Front, and Madison Area Peace Action Council sponsor indoor anti-war rally at Camp Randall (1971)

However, in the Middle Ages, universities educated the men who ran state and religious bureaucracies. Before the university, education occurred in the home or monasteries. But, less than a century after its founding in 1088, the University of Bologna petitioned  Barbarossa for secular powers; the Authentica habita or Privilegium scholasticum gave scholars the right to travel and learn civil law. Universities were not for the most wealthy  of society, but for second sons and the growing middle class.

The Renaissance and the rise of humanist education saw more students attending universities to help build the solidifying nation states. In England, Henry VIII asked professors from all over Europe to rule on his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In a way, university professors shaped the civic and political history of England and the world.

Universities are not above or outside of politics or corporate interests. They shape and are shaped by politics in that they produce the very people who work and develop policy. Many would argue this is exactly why the university is the ideal place to undermine hegemonic discourses. When we prepare the next generation of law-makers, C-level executives, and teachers, they should be aware of how language and culture shape our ideas of right/wrong, good/bad, smart/dumb.

By interrogating masculinities and whiteness, we can understand the ways that laws, corporate policies, and medicine perpetuate systems that exclude Others. Is it radical to think that a future Senator should be aware of his own privilege when making laws for women or children?







Ain’t No Grammar Judge

Almost every time I tell a stranger that I’m an English professor they get this look… A look I am fairly certain that preachers also get when they share their occupation. People feel judged about the way they communicate, and the English teacher epitomizes this experience.

However, I would argue that most people I know who study language are some of the least

From Hyperbole and a Half

judgmental. Wait, wait, hear me out!

First, people who study language, especially those who study rhetoric, understand that context and audience matter. So, when I’m talking to someone at a party with a beer in my hand, I am not judging your grammar. When a friend texts me, “When U get here?” I don’t judge their grammar. However, when a student submits a formal research essay – grammar matters. In that context, I’m not just a person out in the world.  When I receive an essay, I am teacher whose job is to help students become effective communicators.

Or, prepare them to combat all of the real grammar nazis out there. When I finally left the UP for college, I encountered people who felt the need to correct my grammar. My reading ability outpaced my speaking ability, and I often got things wrong. I felt a deep shame – for my grammar, for my accent, and for the importance we put on speaking well in public.

Like a priest or a minister, I sin too. I am not above making a mistake. So, the next time someone corrects your grammar just paraphrase the Good Book – “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”

The Value of Internships

The professional communications major at my university requires that every senior complete a capstone internship in which the gain experience in the kinds of jobs they may find after graduation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of an internship – both as a commodity, as a cost-savings for companies, and as a cost for our students.  What’s more, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are preparing students to become cogs in the corporate machine.corpmachine

Maybe I’m overstating that? I don’t know. Here are somethings to think about.

1. Students pay for the privilege of doing free labor. The student is paying tuition to to work for a company. The majority of our students’ internships are unpaid. So, when they take them as course credit, they pay an exceptional amount of money to complete free labor.  Some interns have gone so far as to compare their internships to slave labor. Moreover, the students have to pay for their own transportation to and from the internship and in some cases travel to different areas of the city for the organization.  In effect, the students pay for experience.

2. Companies use students for unsavory work. While we do our best to make sure that the students are gaining relevant experience, sometimes they do little more than data entry and phone calls. The organizations use them as cheap labor for the work their employees don’t want to complete. And they get away with it because they can. In many cases, the experience these students acquire is more cultural and than practical, which undermines a lot of the purpose of the internship. Or, at the very least, it begins to prepare them for the levels of exploitation they my encounter in the “real world.”

3. Students aren’t really employees, so they aren’t always protected. In a few cases, my students have recounted experiences of feeling used or having conflicts with other interns. In one case, one of the other interns was overtly racist toward my student. My student noted that she wanted a good reference from this internship and was worried about rocking the boat. She also worries about the employer just asking her to leave.  What could she do?

4. Students aren’t commodities, but this system treats them as such. Universities trade student labor for prestige. Many career services departments love to tout the companies in which the place students – the higher on the Fortune list the better. Students become profit centers for both universities and the companies they intern for.

Are there ways in which even unpaid internships could be done more ethically?

1. Don’t make students pay for them. We could encourage students to still do the internships, but find ways to compensate the faculty/staff who oversee them without making them register for a course.

2. Partner with non-profits and organizations that align with your values. Students can gain a lot of the same experience while also doing good works. Internship programs that focus on helping people rather than profits can be a easy way to make the work of students more meaningful. The work they do for non-profits is volunteering rather than working for free.  This difference is critical.

3. Find on-campus opportunities. I didn’t own a car in college. Requiring an off-campus internship would have been a serious hardship for me. There are ways students can learn and practice their professional skills on campus.  makeitrain1

4. Pay interns – even if it’s only minimum wage. If corporate internships are required, interns should get paid. We need to teach the people who most need internships (women and people of color who don’t have familial connections) that their labor is worth something.

Ultimately, how we conduct internships may need to change. We have to recognize that not all students can afford to spend 100 hours a semester working for nothing.