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.


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.

140 Characters – Censored

Twitter censors content from certain countries.  They creatively call this “country withheld content.” So, if you’re from China and want to post a dissenting tweet, Twitter will delete it and post something like this:


This started in 2012, so I am admittedly a little behind the times (I blame my dissertation).

I bring this up because my students love to claim that Twitter is more free and more fair than other forms of social media. They like to point out something is more “pure” about expressing themselves in 140 characters.

And, while there may be something direct about this compression of expression, this censorship raises questions about the future of social media in protest movements. Is it so far-fetched to think that the Department of Homeland security could decide to target a domestic terror group and censor their tweets?

Pathos and American Politics

From Power & Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World special exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi – Florence

During the most recent debate, a friend texted me: “This is gutter level. Really gross.” I responded, “This is what happens when we base politics on feelings and not logic.” While my text was an in the moment gut reaction, I can’t help but this there’s something to it. The debate often degraded to emotional appeals. Trump appealed to his base using fear of immigrants, lawlessness, and the government. Clinton appealed to her base citing unity and inclusivity.  In either case, I’m not particularly impressed. This is because they depend on pathetic appeals; that is to say, they use pathos to prove to their audience that they are the best candidate.

Both candidates like to use emotion evoking examples to energize their audiences. For example, Trump often cites dangerous terrorists, drug dealers, and rapists who illegally gain entry into this country. His examples are often shadowy specters that menace Americans.  On the other hand, Clinton often uses very specific examples to create an emotional response. She often brings up the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan and Trump’s repeated denigration of American Muslims and later their family. She appeals to any parent who can’t imagine losing a child.

These rhetorical practices can be dangerous. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle warns readers against over-using pathos: “It is not right to pervert the judge [jurymen] by moving him to anger or envy or pity – one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it … They will often have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feeling of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgement obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain” (1.1). In other words, emotion or pathos can warp a person’s ability to make sound decisions.

So, when we listen to the debates, stump speeches, and advertisements, we’re not getting a reasoned, well-articulated argument. We’re not being persuaded through logos or even ethos. It’s all pathos – and well – that’s some gutter level rhetoric.

Undergraduate Research – Just Do It

Admittedly, I wasn’t always the best student.  At the same time, I was interested in writing and research: I double majored in English and Political Science – both research intensive majors; I wrote a senior thesis for honors; and I briefly published an alternative campus

My alma mater – Alma College

newspaper called the Voyeur.

My professors encouraged me to do research and use the library, but I realize that they didn’t really teach me how to conduct research. Nobody clearly articulated the differences between qualitative and quantitative research. And nobody ever explained to me how these research practices could apply to my own writing.

So, when I decided to attend the Naylor Workshop for Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies conference as a mentor, I was a little dubious. I couldn’t really comprehend why we needed two-days to cover my “look in books” undergraduate research education.

Of course, after experiencing this workshop and meeting a bunch of really smart and interesting students, I’ve learned that there’s a lot undergraduate researchers can do.  I’ve listened to students interested in multimodality & ESL writers, code-meshing, supporting working writing-students, and transference. What’s more, this workshop is providing them tools to refine and pursue these research questions.  They’re getting feedback from peers and faculty who want to see them succeed.  It’s been a remarkable privilege.

But, as my mind begins to turn back to Memphis and Christian Brothers University, I realize that I need to redefine the way I teach research to my students. I need to encourage more work outside of books and the classroom. My class design and pedagogy needs to create space for surveys, focus groups, interviews, and corpus analyses. I need to rethink my approach.  As I think more about the ways my classes can engage in public advocacy, it seems more essential that I integrate more research.

Seeing America, Part 4 – Chicago

Whenever I tell people that I love Chicago and that I used to live there, the most common response usually goes something like “Oh, I love the Field Museum / Shedd Aquarium / Art Institute!” or, “You must love going to the Taste of Chicago!” or, “How many time have you been in the Sears (now Willis) Tower?”

However, just like most Memphians never visit Graceland, most people from Chicago rarely go the the Taste and only go to these landmarks when friends or family visit. These attractions attract tourists, but they are not what make Chicago great. Chicago has character.  It’s a tough city with a heart of gold.  It’s the best urbanity and Midwestern work ethic. The Jay Pritzker Pavilon, designed by Frank Gehry is the center of Millennium Park and embodies these contradictions in the way that the rear elevation highlights the support beams necessary for the polished face. Chicago embraces its contradictions – that’s what makes it great.

Jay Pritzker Pavilon – Wikipedia Commons

Really, when I think of why I love Chicago, I always go to its neighborhoods. Even with 2.7 million people in the city and over 9 million in the metro area, your neighborhood can feel like a small town. For example, I used to live in an area called Uptown. The area is known for some of the best music venues in the city: the Aragon Ballroom and the Riveria. Less than a block away sits the Green Mill, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. Al Capone had his own booth, and jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Al Jolson performed there. Only a few block away is Argyle Street, home to some of the best Viet-Thai
restaurants and stories. The best Pho in the city is served by Tank Noodle. I share all of this because when I lived there, it was my home. The baristas at my local coffee shop knew my order. I knew the servers at Tank by name.  To me, that’s Chicago.

The other best feature of Chicago is its lakeshore.  Unlike most industrial midwestern cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit), Chicago did not sacrifice its shoreline to industry. The 1909 Burnham Plan was an ambitious attempt at urban design that preserved this space. Every person who bicycles to work along Lake Michigan and every tourist who walks from museum to museum can thank the legacy of this plan. Other cities emulate Chicago; when I visited Mud Island for the first time, I thought, “Thanks Daniel Burnham.”

Chicago is a great city, but like Memphis it struggles with poverty and crime. Gun and gang violence are rampant in some parts of the city. Chicago has had over 2000 shooting victims this year already. In the last couple years, stories have surfaced about a Chicago Police Department “black site” in which the CPD detained and tortured African American suspects, denying them due process. Violence isn’t new to Chicago. For example, the events in Dallas this week reminded me of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in which someone (perhaps a Pinkerton seeking to discredit protesting laborers) threw a bomb killing protesters and police alike.

In the end, the museums, the lake, the neighborhoods, the racism, and the violence are all part of Chicago. However, when you love something, you love it better when you know its flaws.

Seeing America, Part 2: The Black Hills

I realize now that I had a strange education growing up. In my home and school, we spoke regularly about the history and plight of Native Americans. My family read Black Elk Speaks aloud alongside the Bible and other religious texts. We learned about Ojibwe customs in elementary school. Our Civics teacher taught us the Native American origins for the place names in our community. I had friends who lived on reservations.

When I drove west to the Black Hills, I was thrilled to see the placed I grew up learning about. How would I feel walking in these holy lands? How would I feel as a white interloper among the Lakota? How would I feel when I looked at the monument for the Wounded Knee Massacre?

Crazy Horse National Memorial – Work in Progress (June 2016)

While South Dakota contains some of the largest reservations in the US, their people were nowhere to be found. The presence of Native Americans seems reduced to a byword. Every county, town, and street seemed to bear the names of the Lakota: Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, Cheyenne River, and Lake Oahe. With the exception of the Crazy Horse Memorial and small signs pointing towards reservations, the land seemed conspicuously free of the Lakota. The fields were fenced and filled with cattle. The small towns were full of casinos, motorcycles, and pro-gun t-shirts. People from all over the country visited, but they were mostly white and middle class.   

When I went to the nightly lighting ceremony of Mount Rushmore, the park ranger revealed that the original plan for included portraits of Lewis and Clark and Chief Red Cloud. This seemed more attuned to the spirit of the place – sacred to the Sioux and a symbol of white expansion. It was hard to sit through the twenty-minute long video that glorified George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt when they passively described Native Americans being removed from their land as if no one was at fault. I thought about the fact that months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln allowed the removal of Navajos and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory forcing women and children to march over 450 miles.  I understand, all men, even presidents, have flaws, and that doesn’t eclipse their great works. However, nobody spoke for the Lakota at Mount Rushmore. Nobody asked how the National Park Service acquired lands holy to these people.

The Badlands National Park (June 2016)

Despite my frustration with the lack of insight into much of what I saw in the Black Hills, I was happy I made the trip. America is a vast and beautiful place. The Bandlands took my breath away. Antelope really do play in long prairie grasses. The sky is so blue. The grass is perfectly green. The vistas are almost too wide. In the midst of this beauty, as we appreciate this wonder, we must remember it was stolen.