Friday, March 23, 2018

What's In A Class? A Meditation on Failure

So, following in the steps of several historic developments (*rumps disasterous election, the rise of the far right in the US and Europe, my book release) I decided to spend the Spring of 2017 teaching a class on Comparative Genocide. What can I say? I was pissed after the election, after watching my African American students try to process what living in *rump's America will look like for them, after seeing students cry in class when considering their immigration status. Pissed for myself and everyone else. And, thus, I wanted to do something about it.

Comparative Genocide. That's what I decided to do. I wanted to contextualize the history of 20th century genocides (Armenia, Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda) and use them as warning signs in relation to contemporary world politics. This requires a lot of finesse, to not seem like I'm "just" forcing some sort of worldview on a bunch of Georgia students, which I genuinely don't want to do. I just want them to historicize the current moment in a more sophisticated manner. They should have a better understanding of the gravity and complexity of genocide than our current president, who wrote in Yad Vashem's guest book the following:

This blog is titled a meditation on failure for a reason, naturally, although my students were able to more successfully contextualize politics after taking it. I think. Their portfolios indicated yes, but those are always designed for a particular audience (me!) so they want to suck up a bit.

It was a good class. It was well balanced, contained engaging material, and had a clear focus. That was great. What it was not however, was a good first year composition course. This was an interesting experience for me, as I haven't taught a good class that was also a failure before. I've taught duds of classes to be sure, ones that were accidentally boring, or that were unbalanced, or just plain too much work. Those I accept as failures and move on. But this was a weird combination of success/failure that I haven't experienced before.


Well, a few reasons.

My class was the only section of the first semester composition sequence (1101/1102) offered that spring. The one and only. Students were forced to take a class on genocide even if they had no interest, or were actively hostile towards it. In portfolios I received comments that students felt that way particularly until they realized there were other genocides besides the Holocaust. The Holocaust is old hat from high school, but no one ever learned about Rwanda. Weird. Still, it's a hard topic if you haven't chosen it.

The class was at 9 AM. So students who would normally take afternoon classes, because of night-owl ways or an inability to wake up in the morning, were also forced (within reason, I mean they could delay to the fall, but that probably screws a lot of them up) to get up early. I've never had so many absences at Tech as I did this term.

I like to joke around in class a lot. But that's obviously super hard to do when you're teaching a comparative genocide class. Even joking about myself (which is usually my favorite target) was hard to do in this class. I don't know what kind of charisma you need to rock a genocide class, but I did not have it last spring. Plus, I was so mad. Did I mention I was mad? So mad.

The final book I chose was way too long. I'm not sure what I would do besides We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. It's great, but also full of such good information throughout that it's hard to excerpt. However, teaching the longest book at the end of an intense semester isn't my first suggestion.

I changed the final project at the last minute to an anti-genocide organization PSA and they just were sort of duds. I liked the structure of the other assignments: a genocide infographic, a primary source analysis, and a film review blog. That all worked well, But I would likely have students do a very different oral presentation assignment if I were to teach this using the WOVEN communication model again.

All of this said, after I spent a week at the USHMM completing a Hess Seminar in January 2018, I started considering how I could resurrect this class. First, teach it in fall, not spring. Second, switch my supplemental texts. I liked John Cox's To Kill a People quite a bit. I would keep that and drop Jan Gross' Neighbors, which is just too harsh for first year students. I think I would replace it with something on Roma-Sinti and the Holocaust, since students are familiar with Jewish victims but know very little about others. I would teach a graphic novel about the Armenian Genocide, likely, and Never Fall Down for Cambodia (even though I loved Don't Think I've Forgotten). Then finish with a film rather than book for Rwanda. See, now I'm wondering if I can't bring this class back after all, and create a successful first year comp class out of it.

Hope springs eternal, I guess, even when teaching genocide.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I Wrote a Book

Many years ago at this point I remember turning to my husband and saying, "I think I can write a book someday." It seemed like a bit of a pipe dream, as I was still partway through my PhD program, and hadn't even settled on a dissertation topic.

And yet! Here we are! I wrote both a dissertation and now a book. It took like six years! It's got a title I don't particularly like, but is full of spiffy keywords so people can find it easily when researching. All the more important in the world of eBooks and the inability to browse shelves, I imagine. So, here's Tolerance Discourse and Young Adult Holocaust Literature: Engaging Difference and Identity. 

Pretty! The image is from Rachel Whiteread's Vienna Holocaust Memorial
You can read the official fancy phrasing at the link above, and also hit my author profile, if you go to the Routledge link. However, the quick and dirty description of the book is that tolerance is a rather useless goal for multicultural education, because it gives no actual suggestions for action in the face of discrimination. Tolerance discourse also easily falls apart once power structures no longer encourage it as a behavior or ideal. This is all the more important in Trump's America. It's a book about much more than Holocaust literature, although it also offers suggestions for how to find and analyze books on European Jews, Romani, the Disabled, Gay Men, and Neo-Nazis.

Anyway, I hope you'll consider asking your library to purchase it. There's a discount code now of FLR40 which will give you 20% off.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon Go(es) to Auschwitz

While I think I'm wrapping up my time writing about the Holocaust (final book deadline is 9/21, release date is late 2016 or early 2017) I can't stay away from some stories.

Who remembers the "selfies at Auschwitz" controversy of 2014? Or from 20 years before that the "someone laughed during Schindler's List" controversy? I'm going to touch on these very briefly in order to contextualize the current Pokemon Go kerfuffle. TL:DR is teenagers sometimes act in ways that make their elders all judgy. But for reals, what they're doing isn't that different than what oldsters do. But games are maybe different than selfies.

I've actually long wanted to comment on the incident where "69 students were evicted from the theater because some of them laughed and talked while Holocaust horrors were on screen."  This actually prompted a visit from director Steven Spielberg to the Oakland high school responsible for taking their class to see Schindler's List. There are several good defenses listed in the articles above. The one I want to focus on, however, is the idea of an inappropriate emotional response. Of course, we shouldn't laugh when someone gets shot on screen, right? And extra, extra we shouldn't laugh when it's a Holocaust victim, yes? Well, yes. But that doesn't mean that these students' behavior was worth universal derision. If we think about the ways in which emotional responses are policed within American culture, especially for boys/men, is it really surprising that laughter replaces distress in a moment like this? Particularly in a large group where performing masculinity is essential to one's cultural cache? The argument I want to make here is that both the laughter and the selfies are moments where individuals try to process their emotional experience within (restrictive) cultural norms.

So, flash forward 20 years. Can we have this same discussion when facing the reality that kids take selfies at Auschwitz? What's the emotional response (and record thereof) that is appropriate when visiting a death camp? I want to briefly consider the following images, gathered from a Google image search of various combinations of tourist/picture/portrait/Auschwitz.

A sunny day, a vacation picture, a death camp on the horizon.

A family portrait with crowds of tourists, a location that could be anywhere.

So...are these images acceptable because they are portraits, rather than selfies? Is it the presumed egotism of the selfie that causes the controversy? These groups aren't smiling or making the dreaded duck face. But neither are they clearly expressing shock and distress, the presumed "appropriate" reaction.

Photographer sees you, seeing and photographing Auschwitz.

What about that one time when basically every European major league football team visited Auschwitz while wearing matching uniforms? And were then photographed? Pictured  is team Italy, but you can find pictures of team Sweden and team Germany as well. Not everyone wore warm-up suits, but they did all match, and were clearly there for some promotional learning.

Alamy Stock Photo #G7PBJM
Or how about an Auschwitz stock photo? 

What I'm getting at here is that there isn't a good way to photograph oneself at a place like Auschwitz. The impulse is to track and process our experiences in all of these images, or to imagine and purchase what that experience might be like in the case of the stock photo. How are selfies different?

The one that broke the internet.
The photo above got the most traction, with articles featured in USA Today, The Washington Post, and others. It's actually a perfect storm for those who want to attack one or many of the following: teenagers, young women, social media users, emoji users, tourists, people who like pink. Yet Princess B here is doing nothing so very different than the portraits seen above, tracking, processing, and representing our experience of a terrible place. Teenagers do it differently and more publicly than their predecessors, possibly. But I'm willing to bet there are a slew of photo albums and slide carousels that hold smiling death camp visitors, processing and tracking their experience as well.

This one, including the tag "Arbeit Mach Freiiiiiiiiiiiii" faced its own unique derision
as it came from a group of Israeli teenagers.
The image above looks a little like it could be a boy-band album cover. The faces have been politely blurred (whcih maybe I should have done here as well, but I'm commenting on facial expressions, so...) Yet this doesn't seem that different than many of the images of footballers participating in promotional tours of the death camp. 
In fact, a search of "tourists crying at Auschwitz" produces no significant image results. I'm not surprised. When I was busy crying in one of those reflection areas at the USHMM the last thing I wanted was a picture. Yet I may have photographed myself out front (may have even taken a selfie) before or after the visit, documenting that I was there.

Ah, but what of Pokemon Go at Auschwitz? Or at the USHMM? I don't like it. No, sir, I don't. But I'm trying to figure out why I feel differently about this. Isn't Pokemon just another way of processing the world? How is it different than a selfie?
Pokemon @ Auschwitz 7/11/16
It's not like I can claim "distraction" as the reason why it's bad. After all, posting to social media is in it's own way distracting. Everyone will pretty much take a peek at what their friends are doing if they log in to post a selfie. Our focus slips. away from the space in front of us and towards the world of the interwebs, and friends, and others' selfies. So that's not it.

The mediation of memory is part of it. There's an anonymity to it that feels weird to me in a way that the selfie or uncomfortable laughter at Spielberg doesn't. I think the biggest problem, however, is tucked away in the slogan itself: "Gotta Catch 'Em All." Pokemon Go is an experience you have everywhere. Or can have, or try to have, as you pursue all of them. 

Memorials, by their very nature, are not everywhere spaces. They have been set aside in order to emphasize a particularity of experience. When you take a selfie at a memorial, you're still documenting a place and your relationship to it. When you catch a Pokemon, you mark an experience that you've had at a park, a grocery store, your neighbor's backyard, and then move on to the next one. It's not a process, but a pursuit. The mediation makes them one and the same, coupled with a sense of triumph that feels counterintuitive to the goals of the memorial. 

For the record, I'm not anti-Pokemon. Go forth and triumph. Just maybe not at Auschwitz. 

And because you made it all the way to the end, here's my best duck-face selfie (which is not very good, I kept laughing), in front of a disturbing painting in my living room. Still, while it references slavery and lynchings, my house is not a memorial to those things. So feel free to come catch a Wartorle over here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Book that Became a TV Show

It seems only appropriate that my blog on Outlander, the late 80s romance novel recently revived as a STARZ series, include some moving images and thus, I give you my first GIF blog. May it be as hilarious as the one on 50 Shades of Gray. (Probably not. That's a pretty great review.)

So, the first thing to keep in mind is that when reading Outlander I picture the love interest like this:

Hey, ladies.
In a kilt. With more chest hair, of course. It's 1742 and they haven't invented waxing yet. (Or have they? Book 2 implies yes...) So, this is Jamie in my mind's eye. He's great. He's a romance novel hero! Of course he's great! He's perfect. Just like Thor.

I found Outlander for like $3 on Amazon Kindle, knew some friends who liked it, and decided to give it a try. I did not, at first, know it was a romance novel. I figured this out once I spotted the Outlander Coloring Book at B&N. (Clearly, early in my reading of it, as it becomes completely obvious later.) However, I've read my Janice Radway and know what's up. Romance novels have a lot more to offer than merely repressive patriarchal representations, right?

I read Outlander really quickly, considering it comes in at like 800 pages or something. And here we come to my first issue with the book. This book really needed a much better editor. Gabaldon excuses some of the faults by repeatedly saying she never expected anyone would read the book, and thus, the oddities are only natural (paraphrasing from the interview in the back of my TV tie-in edition). Fair enough. But, that's what editors are for.

Another extended description of Scottish politics? Come on! 
Gabaldon obviously did a lot of research for the book. But research doesn't make up for lack of good plotting. Here's the deal. Your main character is sucked back in time through a crazy ladies only (?) portal, She falls in love so much that she's willing to give up toilets for the rest of her life. And hot baths, which are mentioned much more often.

I mean, I guess I'd give up modern plumbing for this?
However, once she finally tells her 18th Century Scottish now-husband about her time traveling ways it plays out like this "I told him. Told him everything, haltingly but coherently." I mean, come on! This is the most interesting thing that has happened so far, the biggest challenge to their relationship, or trust, or whatever. She tells him "everything," he responds with "Aye, I believe ye, Sassenach" and that's that.

So, you say you were born in 1918, eh? 
Similarly, at the end of the book Clare gets a chance to tell Jamie about the effing wolf she killed with her bare hands. Again: "I told him the things I had had no chance to tell him; about the wolf [...] He pressed my face into his shoulder and rocked me while I sobbed." 

Gabaldon seems to have difficulty deciding if she wants Clare to be a badass or not. And when she gets the chance to show Jamie how she's been a badass in his absence she often fails. Then there's the whole corporal punishment thing. I can't even count how many pages of explanations of Jamie getting beaten by one relative or another I read. It all feels like a giant excuse for the one time he "has" to beat Clare (disobeying orders, endangering others, whatever). At some point someone should have stepped in and been like "look, we get it, already." 

There's also the question of how much pleasure Jamie takes in beating (her words, repeatedly, not mine) Clare.

Gabaldon skirts around the idea of S&M repeatedly, never settling on if she's going to "go there" or not. I don't know. I just felt like there was way too much apology over and over and OVER again for the one scene. Whatever. We get it already. Codes of conduct, Jamie is still a good guy, even if he's just a tiny bit of a sadist. Because maybe he did enjoy it? Or maybe he didn't? Anyway, he promises to never do it again after blah blah blah reasons. 

Of course, the perfect Jamie needs a foil, and thus we have the decisively sadistic Jack Randall. He's everything that Jamie isn't, while packaged in the eerie likeness of Clare's 20th century husband, Frank.

Yeah, I know.
Jack is presented as a sick perverted dude, in no small part because he wants Jamie. I'm quite troubled by Gabaldon's portrayal of Jack's sexual desires as universally repellent, whether they are for his brother, women he wants to traumatize, or just men in general. One of these things is not like the others, and yet they're presented as though they are all of a piece. This is a flaw in the story itself, and one that can't be cleaned up by good editing. There's unsavory ideology at work behind some corners of Outlander, and none of it really has to do with Jamie's 18th century attitudes towards physical punishment. 

Everything needed trimmed, a lot. Less Highland politics, less contextualization of physical punishment, less...stuff.

Witch burning too? Really?
All of this said, I enjoyed Outlander. It was okay, and I can understand why STARZ thought it was a good thing to bring to TV. It's like Game of Thrones lite. There's violence and sex and intrigue, but also cuddles. I tried reading Dragonfly in Amber, but when my library copy was due I didn't bother to renew it. How can a time-travel romance novel be so boring, you may ask? Well, it was mostly missing this: 
More kilt, though. 
I rarely read romance novels (thus my inability to recognize Outlander as one at first!) so I have no real recommendations of what to read instead. But there must be more tightly plotted and inventive books out there, and those with less homophobia and more badassery. Right?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Book by a LGBT Author

Another text that could fulfill a few categories. Longer than 500 pages, one word in the title, and also a LGBT author. Nicola Griffith and Sarah Waters are both known for including lesbian relationships in their work, but it's less central in Hild than in Fingersmith. While I wouldn't, at all, call Fingersmith a book "about" lesbianism/lesbians/lesbian relationships/whatever, that is one of the core elements of the text. I think of it as not as motivating the plot as much as being the underlying heart of the book, if that makes sense. It's always in the background, subtly moving things along while the main scam takes place.

So what is it about? Scams and scam artists. The primary scam is to separate a wealthy heiress from her fortune by first marrying her and then committing her to a madhouse. Two crooks from London's Victorian underbelly, Susan "Smith" and Richard Rivers, plan to separate the innocent Maud from her fortune. Susan will keep 1/3 for the trouble of functioning as a lady's maid while Mr. Rivers woos Maud away from her Uncle's house. And that's all I'm telling you. This isn't a spoiler, as the scam is planned in like the first 30 pages.

This book was addicting. I couldn't really read it before bed because I had such a hard time putting it down once I started. It's got a delicious Gothic feel to it: the crumbling mansion, the horrible Uncle and innocent niece, and the isolation of an English country house. Mean servants, cold rooms, you know the drill. It's also got a lovely Dickensian quality to it with the house full of canny crooks that gives birth to Susan and Mr. Rivers' plot. And did I mention a madhouse? There's one of those too. Anyway, the atmosphere, the growing complexity of the relationship between Maud and Susan, and the tension of the scam all make it so fun. You should absolutely read it. I don't want to say anymore because spoilers. Just go. Read it. Now.

I've read two more of Waters' books since I finished this (hey, I had a book to write, I'm behind on blogging). The Little Stranger and now Affinity which I'm nearly done with. Little Stranger was a bit disappointing. Maybe I read it too closely on the heels of Haunting of Hill House? I find that book terrifying and the ghosts of Little Stranger didn't grab me as effectively. Affinity is enjoyable, but it's no Fingersmith. So my official Waters recommendation will be Fingersmith fo' sho'.  Also, apparently the director of Oldboy, Chan-wook Park is making a Korean adaptation of this. That seems like it will be nuts.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Book with a One Word Title

I'm sneaking this entry in between book writing and reading a zillion things for my World Lit II class. However, if I don't write this up I'll completely forget the book! I read it in January, for Pete's sake.

Here, I'm going with a Book with a One Word Title from my Better Reading Challenge. I've chosen Hild by Nicola Griffith. This could have fulfilled a few categories: book longer than 500 pages, book by a LGBT author, and a book a friend recommended. Don't worry, it's not taking all four categories, I'm not cheating.

Hild is by an author that I like, Nicola Griffith. I've read and enjoyed Ammonite (1993) and Slow River (1995) and hated The Blue Place (1998). Man, that one was terrible. Anyway, the first two novels were science fiction, and felt like Griffith was trying on genres for size. Ammonite was clearly an homage to Le Guin and Slow River was built on Gibson and other Cyberpunk authors. Hild is where I think Griffith really comes into her own.

It's historical fiction, telling the story of the early days of Hild, who later becomes Saint Hilda.  This is the story of the early conversion of England to Christianity and the tenuous role that one young girl plays in that story. Not tenuous because she's not great, merely because there are so many power plays happening that she's always in danger. What I loved about this book was the pacing. It's slow. Very slow. Reading it felt like sinking into a really comfortable bed. (I was going to say warm syrup, but I thought that might gross you all out.) The slowness of the text really gave me a chance to feel like I was in Hild's head. She's a thinker, a planner, as well as a doer. There's something rare about just engaging with a complex thought process that isn't always even tied to action. 

We also get a larger perspective on women's roles in early Britain. (The book is meticulously researched, so I feel as though they aren't terribly exaggerated, but I'm not an Medievalist so buyer beware.) The relationship between female companions was fascinating, the women's roles at court are complex, and women just generally seem like competent members of society. The opposite of what we often expect based on other fantasy novels, as the NPR review notes. As an aside, Terry Jones also teaches this lesson in his Medieval Lives episode on "The Damsel:" 

I highly recommend Hild if you like engaging in popular conceptions of the Medieval era. Give this a chance now that you've read all zillion pages of Game of Thrones, why dontcha? 

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Book Longer than 600 Pages

Yeah, right. 
Another better reading challenge blog post. I certainly won't make 50 this year, but hopefully 10. I've read many more than 10 books so far this year (and, actually, probably more than 50 at this point) but I don't have as much time to write as I'd like. Or, not as much time for pleasure writing.

First, let me introduce everyone to an amazing resource. Amazing! I’m currently teaching World Lit II online. All of our texts are also online, making the “I don't have the book yet” excuse entirely moot. What a pleasure! Anyway, some of the readings were on rather messy webpages, so I went searching for better versions that could be easily downloaded to Kindle (the Project Gutenberg downloads have never worked for me). I came across the University of Adelaide’s eBook program, and it’s great. The books read well on a web page, but are also easily and quickly downloaded to Kindle. In fact, both the readings I reference here are available: Little Women and Vindication on the Rights of Woman. Go forth and find some books! (I also downloaded Collins’ The Moonstone which I’m super psyched to read in conjunction with Waters’ Fingersmith.)

Oof. When I started reading Little Women on my kindle I didn’t really check to see how long it was. I also apparently read both parts, packaged together as Parts I and II by the Adelade eBook website, not realizing they were published as separate books initially. So, some of these impressions are definitely from Good Wives. When I downloaded the book I just figured, “oh, I haven’t read this and it’s a big hole in my children’s lit knowledge, so I should do it.” Little did I know. So many pages! So much "womanly advice!" So much nonsense disguised as sense!
My book's cover was more utilitarian. 
I really disliked this book. I know so many people have fond memories of it from reading it as a child, but as an adult I found the larger message of meek womanhood to be extremely frustrating. In fact, rereading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication I came across this passage:
Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man.
Of course, this is what Wollstonecraft is rallying against in her treatise. Yet it seems exactly the advice that Jo et. al. receive throughout Little Women. Jo is repeatedly advised to hold her anger inside in order to model ideal femininity. While this article from Michigan Quarterly Review suggests one of the most engaging aspects of the story is Marmee's underlying anger, it's still an anger she has learned to quash and encourages her daughters to do the same. Published in 1868, America is 20 years into "first wave" feminism, but the possibilities of that movement are not reflected in the novel. 

The girls are encouraged to be obedient and proper. One of the most nauseating examples, I think, is the chapter where Meg is struggling a bit after the birth of her first child. She no longer is pretty! And endlessly charming! And she’s tired! And frustrated because she never talks to adults! So her husband just quits eating at home and goes to his friend’s house, where there’s a more charming wife. When Mama March finds out she encourages “a puerile kind of propriety,” suggesting Meg be a perfect version of a housewife until she charms her husband back home. Smile pretty, make nice dinners, and your husband will pay attention to you for a few hours a day. Yeesh.

My one word review
I also think Jo should have ended up with Laurie. They challenged each other! I think the lively discussions were good, not bad. I get why Alcott wanted Jo to remain independent, but I'm not sure a marriage to Laurie automatically undermines her autonomy. It does recenter the book around the girls' relationship with each other, but that's also undone by creating the "good wives" of Part II.

Jo's temper just gets totally checked and she meekly marries that old scholar. Plllbbbthhh. I just really have nothing good to say about it. I suppose it's admirable that Jo starts the school for boys, and that she marries for love and not money. Everyone is happily paired off by the end, the girls' having successfully found husbands due to their excellent feminine virtues.

Anyway, keep those happy childhood memories intact if you have them, and by no means give this a nostalgia reread. It’s a miserable and heavy handed book about obedience to your husband and God. Go read Wollstonecraft instead and see how many of her ideas we have yet to realize.