Writing into trouble

Jess Row’s latest book, Your Face in Mine, is about a white man who travels to China to undergo racial reassignment. He comes back to Baltimore as a black man. In an interview, after recounting how his former editor told him not to write this novel because he wouldn’t “want the kind of trouble that book is going to cause [him],” he said the following about writing into trouble:

I wanted to write into trouble as much as I could. There’s a really important difference between writing into trouble and writing to be provocative. I think that’s a crucial distinction for anyone that’s writing about race. It’s a distinction that’s lost on a lot of white writers. When you write yourself into trouble, you’re writing about your own vulnerabilities. You’re willing to risk a kind of raw emotional honesty, being reflective and honest and opening up.

Writing to be provocative is writing from a defensive position. You’re basically saying, “I’m going to say something hurtful or offensive, because that’s the only kind of honesty I can have.” You know what I mean? To be provocative is to create a scenario where your own body is not in question. That was the opposite of what I was trying to do. That’s why I wanted to put the white body first in the novel. Instead of just focusing on the black body, I wanted to make Martin’s white body vulnerable.

I really appreciate the distinction between writing into trouble as becoming/being vulnerable and writing to make trouble as being defensive/evasive/provocative.

Beside/s: Big Questions

Some questions make us curious and invite us to engage or compel us to act while others assume answers, shut down discussion and evade responsibility. How can we develop and pose questions that do the former instead of the latter? As one answer to that question, I want to put an example of the latter (a question that assumes, accuses, evades) beside an example of the former (a set of questions that inspires, invites, compels).

Is There a Right Way to Protest?

During my daily scroll through Facebook this morning I encountered an open letter from DO! (Differences Organized!) about the University of Minnesota’s first event for their new “Big Questions” series: Is There a Right Way to Protest? The open letter, which is addressed to the “complicit, complacent, and the comfortable,” argues that such a question is “fundamentally flawed” because it places “the responsibility of effecting positive social justice squarely on the backs of organizers, while ignoring the role of systems of power and domination that create socially unjust conditions making protest imperative.” It “makes a value judgment,” functions as an “excuse to neglect student protestors demands,” substitutes conversation for actual change, absolves responsibility for creating conditions that necessitate protest, and creates divisions between protestors with different approaches and tactics.

In place of this question, DO! offers some questions of their own:

  • Why is dissent criminalized?
  • Why do we only ask whether the actions of victims and survivors of oppression are “right” when the causes of such protests are so blatantly wrong?
  • Why are the Ethnic Studies departments perpetually underfunded and understaffed?
  • Why do Black and Brown students rarely feel comfortable, safe, and supported on this campus?
  • What message is the University trying to convey to its student body and surrounding community [by the posing of their question]?

As a strong proponent of asking and “feeling the force” of questions that make us curious, unsettle us, and provoke/inspire us to act, I find the questions posed by DO! to be far more compelling and helpful than the U of M’s singular (and designed-to-be-divisive) question.

As a final note, I love DO!’s last line:

we will remain #UMNDrivenToUncover the racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative practices of the University and disrupt said practices until they cease to exist.

#UMNDrivenToUncover Yes!

Follow-up: Here’s an article about the event and DO!’s protest. The article also has a link to a recording of the event.

And here’s an article that discusses the DO! protest and larger concerns about “commodifying diversity” at the U of Minnesota.

The Troubling Hour, Recap

At the beginning of January, I wrote about my daily habit of waking up early and scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds in order to get into “a critically reflective (troubling/troubled) space.” I’m calling this practice, “the troubling hour.” I’m still doing this almost every day, but I haven’t been posting about it.

I’d like to do a better job of documenting this habit. But how? I’m not sure yet; for now, I’ll just offer up a few past ideas, articles, and quotations that have made me curious and critically reflective.

25 January 2016

On January 25th, I found Fear of Screens by Nathan Jurgenson. He offers a great critique of Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation. I read/skimmed her book not too long ago and tried to write about it, but I felt such an overwhelming sense that it was riling me up in unhelpful ways, that I abandoned my post—it’s festering as a draft on the dashboard of this blog as I write these words.

Speaking of drafts, I found the following quotation from Jurgenson’s article in another draft post:

This oversimplification pre-empts her critique, so that she asks not what technology (including language itself) affords or discourages, and how and under what circumstances, but “what do we forget when we talk through machines?” This slanted question elides the issue of how communication is always mediated by power, space, bodies, language, architecture, and other factors as well as by the particular medium through which it occurs. To prescribe one form of media — to privilege speaking over writing over texting — would require deep description and analysis of the context: who is speaking, to what ends, and why. Turkle too often assumes screen-mediated communication comes in only one flavor, which cannot grasp the complexities of our always augmented sociality, to say nothing of how screens are differently used by those with different abilities.

Yes! I’m so glad that Jurgenson wrote this…especially so I didn’t have to. This above quotation articulates a lot of why I am bothered by Turkle. And so does this passage that challenges the privileging of IRL (in real life) conversations:

Each time we say “IRL,” “face-to-face,” or “in person” to mean connection without screens, we frame what is “real” or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness — variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. “Face to face” should mean more than breathing the same air.

And this passage that troubles our need to be mindful of how/when we are connected:

The false sense that your health and humanity are at stake in when and how you look at your screen suggests that we are already too “mindful” about how we are connected. We have too many self-conscious rituals of disconnection. If being mindful means being preoccupied with a phony sense of balance and moderation, anchoring oneself to a fictitious “real” identity, and judging constantly who is normal and who is broken, then we may need something more mindless.

I want to spend some more time with this idea of being too mindful of our practices and of over-scrutinizing them. Even as I promote documenting habits and paying attention to/critically reflecting on them, I’m aware of how unhealthy over-scrutiny can be. I’ve experienced it in my own life and I’m currently bearing witness to its painful effects on my daughter.

9 February 2016

Yesterday, I read The Self-Obliterating Professor by Doug Anderson. In it, Anderson argues that the best teachers train and inspire students in ways that make them (the teacher) no longer necessary. Early on in the essay, Anderson quotes Thomas Davidson who once famously remarked:

The sooner a teacher makes himself useless the better. It is a great fault with some teachers that they may remain always necessary. I do not wish to count among these, but hope to be obliterated.

I like this idea of inspiring/training students to not need the teacher (it’s a nice contrast to Mark Bauerlein’s arrogant argument for students as disciplines in What’s the Point of a Professor?), but I’m extremely wary of calling for the obliteration of the professor.

Obliterate? To remove or destroy all traces. To efface. Expunge. This violent language may be useful for combatting the arrogance of some professors, especially those who fit Lorde’s mythical norm—white, male, tenured, heterosexual, Christian—and who are guaranteed status because of their ability to fit that norm, but what does obliteration do to many (now the majority?) professors whose status (and authority in the classroom and job security in the academy) is tenuous?

I have more to say about these questions. Perhaps I’ll incorporate my thoughts into my undisciplined teaching portfolio?

Early Morning Encounters

For the past year or so, I’ve gotten in the habit of getting up at 6:15 AM, before anyone else in my house is awake. I make my extra strong coffee and sit on the couch, scrolling through my facebook and twitter feeds. Usually I’m looking for something that sparks my curiosity and inspires me to get into a critically reflective (troubling/troubled) space. Somedays I don’t find anything. But usually, there’s at least one item to read, watch or listen to. Today, on my first day back from winter break, I found two things. I’ve decided to archive them here.

The Selfish Side of Gratitude

Barbara Ehrenreich. New York TimesSunday Review. Ehrenreich is great. Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed her critiques of positive thinking. It’s difficult to pick out just a few passages from her brief essay to post here (it’s all good), but I was especially drawn to these two:

Gratitude to those who made your meal possible:

Yet there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

Not Gratitude but Solidarity:

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.

Ehrenreich’s mention of debt reminds me of Eula Bliss and her discussion of White Debt in the NY Times last month.

The Unravelers

Stephanie Danler. Paris Review.

There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel. I am a great unraveler. I can undo years of careful stitching in fifteen gluttonous minutes. It isn’t even a decision, really. Once I see the loose thread, I am undone. It’s over before I have even asked myself the question: Do I actually want to destroy this?

I don’t unravel in the same way as the author, but I like thinking about my practices of undisciplining and unlearning as forms of unraveling bad habits and toxic/unhealthy narratives about myself and the world.