This website has been on a bit of a hiatus for the last several months. Recently, I was in the process of moving for a new job and all of the details that go with that. Now that the move has been made and the job is about to start (yay!) I’ll be back to this website with more frequency.
On Saturday April 2015, the Toledo Police Department was on high alert. An organized protest was set to take place that afternoon. About 30 Neo-Nazis, with proper paperwork in hand, were set to demonstrate near Downtown. A further 200 or so counterprotesters were expected to attend, many with signs and chants, hoping to drown out the hate.
The scene played out like so many others: a group of mostly white men dressed in paramilitary gear, adorned with the many symbols of fascism, facing off against a diverse array of people offering a not insignificant resistance. Somewhere in the middle stood the police. Riot cops, SWAT teams, beat cops, and plainclothes detectives. There were barricades erected (protection for and from whom?) ensuring a reasonable distance between groups.
The day ended without much fanfare. Only one arrest was made – a counterprotester was arrested for “disorderly conduct,” an act which angered the crowd, leading to confrontation between police and “the public” – and much of the afternoon was spent in a predictable back and forth: Nazi leaders would speak, counterprotesters would boo at them (and the police) and the entire thing ended up being a rather unspectacular affairs, likely to the chagrin of the organizers. 
The police were relieved. Whether by choice or by or by luck, the protests never got out of hand. This was not the first such event in Toledo’s recent past. History told them that it could have been much worse.
A decade earlier, in 2005, that’s what the situation was. On two different occasions – one in October and another in December – members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) staged protests at or near City Hall. Espousing messages like “White race, stand up and take back your neighborhood” the NSM hammered the racist, violent, and inflammatory rhetoric of white nationalists across the world. The scene quickly escalated. Bottles, bricks, rocks, and other urban detritus were used as missiles, as counterprotesters battered NSM members and police alike.
From there, things got well and truly out of control. By the end of the day, cars parked near the scene were vandalized, a building was set ablaze, and over 100 people – largely counterprotesters – had been arrested. The Mayor declared a state of emergency and a curfew.
The December rally, a response to the events of October, ended up being rather tame by comparison, with only 63 NSM members in attendance and less than 200 observers or counterprotesters. Fears of a global “white replacement” or “white genocide” wound their way into the speeches and the signs, a fear which could only be cured, they claimed, by violent action (but not so violent that they police force them to disperse, though). The only people arrested were counterprotesters, and the NSM caravan was escorted out by police. 
These events speak to a larger, and longer, history of white nationalism in the Glass City, one which stretches back well before the rise of Trumpism, the new alt-right, and the cascading series of events which grew out of Charlottesville in 2017. Commenting on Charlottesville, Toledo Chief of Police George Kral remarked “I’ve had my fill [of white supremacy riots]…It’s just crazy that we’re having these discussions in 2017. It’s depressing. 
He was talking about 2017 and the rise of Trumpism. He could have easily been talking about Toledo’s history.
Toledo in the Postwar World Toledo, a most Midwestern city, has a long history of urbanization, industrialization, and deindustrialization. It also has the all-too-familiar corresponding race and class tensions that are so often associated with and present in, such historical moments. It seems odd that a city which only sprang onto the national scene in the early twentieth century would get so hot. While Toledo never got as hot as fellow Ohioan Cleveland or upstairs neighbor Detroit, Toledo has a history of white supremacy, systemic racism, and racial violence stretching back decades. In order to understand the simmering anger that emboldened Nazis and Klan members to flock to Toledo, and the anger of the population which showed up and showed out to resist them, we need to understand that history.
Toledo was an industrial city. Industry, irrevocably tied to its identity, framed the way that Toledoans saw themselves and their city, and the way it was perceived by the American public. Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Willys-Overland, Dana-Spicer, Toledo Scale, Electric Auto-Lite; corporations were synonymous with the city, their products, and slogans part of the modern American lexicon. How many people recall the Pink Panther as the mascot for Owens-Corning insulation? Probably the most kid-friendly mascot on a carcinogen not named Joe Camel. (It was found out later that their famous pink Fiberglas insulation was actually giving people cancer, especially those who installed it. Breathing in glass fibers, it seems, is not as safe as they assumed it was. Lawsuits, payments, bad PR, and a declining demand for the product forced Owens-Corning to file for bankruptcy.) 
The corporatization of Toledo’s public image came with baggage. It came into prominence as a union town, due in no small part to its well-known history for radicalism, a reputation earned by major strike incidents such as the Willys-Overland Strike of 1919 and the Electric Auto-Lite Strike of 1934. An active and aware labor force defined Toledo well into the 1960s. Workers struck with increasing frequency, but perhaps less vigor, during the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War.
This isn’t to say that all was harmonious in the Glass City. Far from it. Various voices within the city combated these fanciful notions, whether it was the growing discontent of African Americans over access to jobs and federal housing for defense workers, the rising militancy of workers and the corresponding resistance to racial equality, or the increasing cleavages of the city’s working-class between the AFL and the CIO, Toledo’s working classes actively toed the line between cooperation and disengagement. Black workers, major contributors to the war effort, faced constant resistance. Every time they tried to enter into better-paying union jobs, they encountered new resistance, relegated to jobs that were frequently dangerous, low-paying, or part-time. Sometimes it was all three. 
The alliance of government policy, corporate interests, and managerial unionism eventually merged, forming the Toledo Labor Management Citizens Committee (TLMCC), a first-of-its-kind organization designed to merge the public, the private, and the populace into a bureaucracy aimed at “labor peace.” Neoliberalism personified, the TLMCC ushered in a distrust of unions, more specifically union leadership, that persisted for decades, chipping away at the often painfully won gains of a generation before. A further slap in the face? The TLMCC was passed as an “emergency measure.” Suggesting that organized labor represented a threat similar to the one which labor just helped defeat – that being fascism – would never sit well with the city’s workers. 
Toledo’s highly public campaign for labor peace inspired others across the country to push for the same goal. The failure of this idea and the simultaneous failure of Toledo’s reform class to create substantive change left the city in a perilous position, struggling to find itself. Identity is tied to image and image is a commodity. Like any commodity, image can be bought and sold on the market and was highly mercurial; Toledo was both buyer and seller.
The lofty goals of the TLMCC and its patrons failed to jive with the realities of the moment. You cannot force peace. The deep divisions which separated the city were not going to be overcome by the stroke of a pen and a lot of wishful thinking. Fractured communities, racial tension, industrial strife, and an economy held together by tape made it impossible for any lasting social evolution without wholesale structural change. In looking too much towards tomorrow, Toledo’s elites neglected the present.
It was not long until even the most obtuse city planner could see the obvious truth; the façade of labor peace was shattered. The various ways this came to pass created an animosity which ran both cold and hot. The failure represents one of the critical themes of Toledo’s story in the twentieth century: in whose image would the city be (re)made?
As it turned out, the answer to that question was whoever had both the anger to act and the power behind their anger to make it acceptable. Toledo was never an anti-racist utopia, in practice or in the imagination of immigrants and migrants; no land of hope. Neither was it a national hotbed for racial tensions. Like much of the industrial Midwest, Toledo’s race relations simmered in a constant state of uneasiness. Redlines were more common than fistfights, although no these were no less physically and emotionally damaging.
That would soon change. Racist reactionary forces looking for someone to blame began to thrust themselves into the public conversation. Many of these forces looked to blame those actually responsible, such as politicians, wealthy capitalists, grifters elites of of all types. Others, though, used it as a moment to act on pre-existing animosity, masking it with “concern” over the future. They quickly settled on their targets; Black homeowners in historically white spaces.
Jessie Lott and the Push for Homeownership No case demonstrates the struggle and the danger quite like Jessie Lott’s. In a quiet community between the Maumee River and the Toledo Zoo, about a dozen blocks west of East Toledo and equally far south from Dorr Street – the epicenter of Black Toledo – 1038 Harding Drive was a modest lot in a modest community. In the summer of 1957, Lott purchased the property and almost immediately, the overwhelmingly white neighborhood reacted. A petition was circulated by the other residents on the street, demanding that Lott leave immediately. Lott refused. Soon after, crowds began to form around his property, issuing threats to Lott and some even breaking in.
The escalation brought increased attention. Quickly, the NAACP came in to support Lott. On June 9, the local chapter submitted a resolution to City Hall, including the mayor, chief of police, safety inspector, and city manager. The resolution noted that “Whereas, the City of Toledo is confronted with an emergency measure in the nature of a resident of this city being threatened with great bodily harm and extensive damage to his recently purchased property… wholly and solely by virtue that Jessie Lott is a member of a minority group.” 
In clear and scathingly honest language, they outlined the duties and responsibilities the addressees had to all Toledoans, excoriating any continued inaction as actively supporting those who sought to harm and intimidate. In an attached personal note, local NAACP President Anderson Cheeves noted to Mayor Ollie Czelusta that “I feel that it is not an overstatement to point out the seriousness of this incident and the effect it will have on our good relationship.” 
Forces across the city converged on the Lott case. The Toledo Board of Community Relations, with the assistance of City Council, formally requested a meeting of homeowners on Harding Drive. The committee stated the goal of the committee quite clearly in the proposal, stating its hope “to persuade the neighborhood leadership to give up the idea of buying out Mr. Lott start thinking in terms of accommodating itself to the new situation.” Appearing to side with Lott and the NAACP, this stance reflected an uncommon approach to similar issues. 
Rather quickly though, the committee attempted to cover all bases, asking that Lott “state authoritatively and finally what his plans are for the property (to) alleviate some of the indecisiveness and hesitancy which has encouraged the crowd to threaten Mr. Lott.” Mail carrier Robert J. Thompson, member of the neighborhood coalition against Lott delivered the petition to have Lott removed. According to Thompson, the demand was that Lott sell the property to the community so that they can build a playground for local children. While it is unclear if such plans were in place before Lott purchased the property, the implication, along with the violence, suggest that this altruism was a smokescreen for less charitable motivations. Lott, unmoved, refused to sell. 
Calls for peaceful solutions persisted. Lott eventually was able to keep this property, although it is unknown how long he continued to live there. The result of his case exceeded his residency. As residents noted, the late 1950s was when the local NAACP came to life. Lawyers became activists and the cause of promoting equality began to filter into all walks of life. After being primarily focused on issues with the Black elite, the postwar NAACP began to expand into working-class Black communities.
The Lott case represented a symptom of a great problem, not the problem itself. Housing equality was the barrier. Access to the homes in a given community meant access to the community itself, along with all of the resources therein. A few years later, as a direct continuation of the momentum of the Lott case, the City of Toledo became only the third city in the United States to adopt a Fair Housing Ordinance, a monumental document which guaranteed the right to housing for all, without qualification or exception. Hailed by organizations like the NAACP, AFL-CIO, fraternal organizations, and business leagues, the ordinance represented perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the local NAACP. 
The push for equality was a constant reality in Toledo, a series of ebbs and flows. Victories were often short-lived and often were met with a later defeat. That defeat was quickly confronted and overcome, only for the cycle to continue. As more and more African Americans settled in historically white communities, many white residents, either moved by the moral realization that racism was evil or by resignation to and acceptance of change, soon found themselves with Black neighbors.
The American White National Party Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with whites who maintained their prejudice. White resistance in Toledo remained somewhat disorganized for several years, with incidents like the Jessie Lott case being less frequent. That changed in the 1970s. As physical violence became a harder and less practical route to take, political violence seemed the better alternative. Racism would soon run for office.
No group exemplifies this more than the American White Nationalist Party and its brief but notable entry into Toledo’s politics. Founded by Toledoan Russel R. Veh in 1970, originally as the Ohio White National Party but renamed shortly thereafter, AWNP was headquartered in Toledo. With a slogan of “Free Men Are Not Equal, Equal Men Are Not Free,” the part’s ideology was a sloppy hodgepodge of Klanism, Lost Cause ideology, Neo Nazism, and militant authoritarianism. 
Spearheaded by Veh – who ran a write-in campaign in the 1971 city council elections – AWNP ran on a ticket of open racism. Pushing for lower taxes and “more and better trained police,” Veh asked whether Toledoans had “had enough” of “integration, cop killers, underworld paid politicians, special rights to ‘minority’ groups, and Negro crime.” 
Integration, “Negro crime,” bussing, “more and better trained police”: all of these spoke openly and clearly to an anti-Black racism. As African American communities were being demolishing or scheduled for demolition for Urban Renewal, displaced residents were being forced into other communities. Pressing Black and white residents closer together and into schools and other socio-cultural institutions stoked fears among white workers, a fear Veh and the AWNP looked to exploit.
An undated campaign flyer pushed a language of violence. Sarcastically lamenting the “poor”, underprivileged Black man,” it sharply criticized the Nixon White House and labor unions for opening the door to more Black workers. “Every year they put more Blacks into unions and spend your union dues” it argued, “and it’s going to keep getting worse.” 
In a tone more threat than wishful thinking or conjecture, the campaign asserted that “As White workers get fed up with Black attempts to take their jobs away, more than one arrogant Black is likely to ‘fall’ off a scaffold or get caught in some machinery or have something heavy dropped on his thick skull” a sentiment the AWNP clearly looked for, opening that it was not “such a bad idea.” These thinly-veiled appeals to and threats of violence represented a fringe sentiment within the city to be sure. However, the underlying frustrations and racism were by no means unique, and there were enough talking points, however vague, in his platform to attract some supporters. 
Veh’s campaign was unsuccessful. Having failed to file his campaign, and the late start to it once he tried to get write-in votes, gave him little chance. It is unclear if these organizational and personal failings of Veh – a high school dropout and, by all accounts, failure in most aspects of his personal and professional life – were the sole reason for his failed campaign. Was there a place for an openly white nationalist party in Toledo? Did the message resonate, with its only shortcoming being the lack of structure and planning? The answer is unclear but appears to be no.
Veh made several attempts to spread his message including passing out literature on corners and even giving a speech to 400 students at nearby Bowling Green State University. By 1974, though, Veh and his party were gone. Moving to San Francisco and adopting his party into the existing National Socialist League – a full-bodied embrace of its association and admiration for Nazism – Veh changed the party into one of the nation’s most prominent, if not only, gay fascist organizations.
For much of the next decade, Veh and the league went back and forth between explicitly Nazi behavior (he primarily made money off of his printing business and airing movies like Triumph of the Will) and participating in an emerging gay BDSM subculture. A 1990 article by the Blade revealed a man obsessed with conspiracy theories, specifically Holocaust denial, demonstrating all of the hallmarks of the emerging right-wing terrorism which defined the 90s. 
Understanding a Racist Past, Today It’s hard to tell if there is a direct connection between the AWNP and the NSM. The former is essentially defunct, the latter born out of a resurging white nationalist movement. The rhetoric has remained largely unchanged. What has changed is the means. The digital age has allowed white supremacy to be both mainstream and underground. The Southern poverty Law Center notes the increased number of white supremacy groups across the country – today, these tend to be referred to collectively as “the alt-right” – and their growth within the darker corners of the internet. Racism never went away; it merely swapped Klan halls for chat groups, mailing lists for social media pages. 
What we do know is that the uptick in white nationalism, indeed in fascism (let’s call it what it is) is both a product of this specific moment and a legacy of the past. It’s a tradition, carried from parent to child. White supremacy in the Age of Trump is part-in-parcel to the Age of Trump itself. However, it is not a new phenomenon but a growth on a much older parasite. While it is essential that we understand our current moment on its own terms, it is critical that we don’t forget the connection between our moment and the ones which came before us.
References https://www.toledoblade.com/Police-Fire/2015/04/19/No-violence-at-neo-Nazi-rally.html https://www.adl.org/news/article/neo-nazis-rally-in-toledo-again https://www.toledoblade.com/local/2017/08/14/Toledo-area-no-stranger-to-KKK-Nazi-rallies/stories/20170813248  “Historical timeline of Fiberglas and Owens-Corning,” Owens-Corning, n.d. Box 28 Folder 18. Owens-Corning, MSS-222. University of Toledo Libraries, Ward M. Canaday Center, Manuscript Collection.  Merle Abbott. Interview. Conducted by Dr. Willie L. McKether, May 14, 2000. Edrene Cole African American Oral History Collection. (“Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, The Edrene Cole African American Oral History Collection”), Local History & Genealogy Department, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.  Report of Toledo Central Labor Union, April 29 to May 3, 1945. The Central Labor Union, Toledo, Ohio MS-28. University Box 4 Folder 4. Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University.  “Resolution of the Toledo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” June 9 1957; Letter June 9, 1957, Anderson Cheeves to Ollie Czelusta. Papers of the NAACP, Part 11-B-75: Housing, General, 1957-1961, accessed September 5, 2016, http://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001418-017-0377.  Ibid.  “Meeting Of Neighborhood Leaders Asked In Lott Case,” Toledo Blade, June 11, 1957. Ibid.  Ibid.  Ordinance No. 682-61 of the City of Toledo, “Amending And Supplementing Chapter 3 Article XLI, Of The Toledo Municipal Code By The Addition Thereto Of New Sections 3-41-15 To Section 3-41-18, Both Inclusive And Prohibiting Discrimination In The Sale, Rental And Financing Of Real Property Because Of Race, Color, Religion, Or National Origin.” ibid.  In all of its published materials, it notes that the national headquarters is in Toledo but not address is given, just a P.O. Box  “Lincoln Favored Segregation” pamphlet, n.d. 1971. American White Nationalist Party, Box 1, Folder 21A. Lucas County Politics Collection, Mss, Coll. 40. Local History & Genealogy Department, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.  “Who’s for the WHITE working man?” campaign ad, n.d, ibid.  Ibid  “Former Toledoan finds niche peddling hate,” April 1, 1990, Toledo Blade. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=8_tS2Vw13FcC&dat=19900401&printsec=frontpage&hl=en https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/white-nationalist
I love Post-it notes. Love them. The traditional 3″x3″, slightly yellow (the color of faded wallpaper), are my favorite. I routinely have a stack of 10 pads on my desk (at 100 sheets per pad, that means I usually have 1000 Post-it notes on my desk). I use them for everything. I make my daily To-Do lists on them, relishing as I check off each item – no matter how low-hanging – during the day. I write down things I need to look up for later or things that I need to remember. And, as the name would suggest, I use them to make take notes that don’t make it into the notebook. The organization they provided me was integral to my dissertation process. As I sit here and write this, there are 7 of them stuck to the desk beside my computer. I can’t live without them.
When it comes to being a productive member of society, I can’t function without my rituals. I just can’t. I’ve always been the person who is 15 minutes early to everything, although I suspect no small part of that is a result of doing so many extracurriculars in school and having a job most of my life. I always like to know where we’re going. Typically, I drive when I go somewhere with friends, usually following a general plan that I outlined. I do have unstructured fun, aka “fun,” and I am a big fan of relaxing. But when I need to do something or be somewhere, I make that shit happen. I’m not quite Leslie Knope or Amy Santiago but I’m close.
Rituals keep me grounded. Keep me focused. They give me a sense of security and control in a world completely lacking in rhyme or reason. Knowing that there is some degree of certainty for what is behind me and what lies ahead of me makes it easier for me to find the courage to get out of bed every morning, a prospect that (let’s be honest) gets harder and harder each day as 2020 stretches into infinity.
It’s always been this way, even back to my childhood. Before I knew exactly what kind of compulsive monster I was creating, I was already a fan of repetition. The first serious ritual I formed for myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, revolved around books. Since August of 2000, I’ve been reading The Once and Future King, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, usually finishing right before the school year started. I can’t remember when exactly I got them – I think in 1998? – but I was immediately hooked.
Already a fan of Star Wars, which is equal parts sci-fi and fantasy, the realm of high fantasy was bound to hook me. Tolkien’s Legendarium – the name of his entire canon, which is far more voluminous and intricate than just The Hobbit or LOTR – is easily my favorite and most obsessive universe (nerds know what I’m talking about here) just barely beating out Star Wars, in a 1a and 1b kind of situation. That being said, The Once and Future King is without a doubt the most important thing I’ve ever read. It remains my favorite book to this day, decades later.
I won’t get into a long recap of the book. It’s a classic in the fantasy genre. Simply put, it retells the Arthurian legend, with twists. Merlyn is a kindly old man living backwards through time (our future is his past and vice versa) who transforms a young Arthur into animals to learn about the natural world. King Arthur looks to rein in the chaos and violence of Medieval England (and even continental Europe) in an effort to create a new world. Lancelot is still Arthur’s best friend and best knight, but in this version, he is hideously ugly. Throughout, he is carrying on an affair with Queen Guinevere, in an open secret which becomes the driving plot point later in the novel.
The book is fantastic, going back and forth between farcical comedy and satire to political thriller and epic. It’s a family drama of soap opera proportions while also an immersive retelling/adaptation of a classic myth, rendered in such a way to understand White’s contemporary world (written before, during, and after the Second World War as a series of smaller stories published in 1958 as a single novel). A review on the back of the book calls it “the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad” and that honestly might be the best review of not just this book, but any book ever.
While he does push against the individual, at least in the sense that he outlines why unbridled Id is detrimental to humanity, White simultaneously advocates that we think for ourselves to not simply go along to get along. But then, in his typical fashion, he goes the other way. He tells us how important it is for us to think about how our actions affect the world around us only to immediately bombard us with example after example of how dangerous it can be to simply go along to get along.
I find myself screaming at Arthur; “Open your eyes, man! Your wife and best friend are chelating on you and your illegitimate son is plotting to kill you!” He never hears me; he’s far too busy thinking big thoughts and trying to rationalize his use of force to make peace in a world full of violence.
I HATE Lancelot and Guinevere for not being more careful. Lancelot is as bad as having an affair as Alan Rickman’s character in Love, Actually (seriously dude; you get your mistress jewelry and your wife a CD?!). And Guinevere could not be more obviously and openly disinterested in her husband the entire time. It’s maddening.
Every time I get to the end of the second section, I am convinced that this is the time Merlyn is going to remember to tell Arthur that Morgause is Arthur’s half-sister (by rape, no less) and to not sleep with her. But it always happens. Nothing ever changes. The story always unfolds in exactly the same way.
It’s a fascinatingly complex piece of writing.
I regret not reading it last year. Every time I read this book, I take away something new. The book has had a profound impact on my life. It’s influenced the way I think, the way I see the world. White imbued in me strong dislike of violence and of unfettered power. He instilled in me a deep awareness of and appreciation for the power of words and ideas, of thinking.
Much like history, literature never changes. At least not the actual paces or results of the story. Outcomes are set and the steps along the way are all known. Yet somehow, we still draw a lot of enjoyment from reading, studying, and then rereading the texts. We look for clues, hints, little snippets of information that maybe we missed the first 15 times through but this time, this time, juuust might yield a new truth or insight.
There’s nothing quite like reading a book for the first time. The humor, the horror, the plot, the relationships, the conclusion (OH MY THE CONCLUSION). It’s an experience that we never get to have a second time. Once you’ve read it, that’s it. You know it. You know everything about it and what happens and your dad’s question of “Reading that again? Why? YoU aLrEaDy KnOw WhAt HaPpEnS.” is a totally valid one.
Rereading a book isn’t an effort to rediscover your experience from the first read. It’s not an attempt to rekindle some lost nostalgia. Rereading is really not reading at all. It’s a relationship; a give and take. It gives you something new while you, in return, keep it alive.
Every reading of the book gives you something new, something you didn’t see before. Books, like any form of art, are deeply personal, not just to their creators but to those who experience them. How we experience art is inseparable from the setting. Ever see a big blockbuster movie in theatres, swear it was the most amazing thing ever, and then watch it on home video only to be super disappointed that the effects didn’t hold up on your 32″ Toshiba box TV? That reference is a bit dated, but you get the idea.
More than place, time is the great variable in how we experience art. Something we came to when we were young is going to resonate at an entirely different emotional and intellectual pitch than when we come back to it as an adult. That might seem incredibly obvious – children are different than adults – but the same is true when we look at our adulthood. There are books I read in my early-mid 20s that seemed to speak directly to who I was as a person. I read them now and wonder if was drunk back during that first read. Life, experience, changes the way we view not just the world but art. Not everything is for everyone, which is kind of the entire point of art in the first place, isn’t it?
That’s one of the great things about rereading books, at least for me. Many people much smarter than I have discussed the joys of getting new meaning from the text upon rereading. Finding new meanings based on the circumstances of your life. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a great part of the rereading process. But the real satisfaction I get from the experience is not from seeing how I view the book now, how the book has changed, but how I have changed since the last time I read it.
I’ve talked to other bibliophiles like myself. We may not keep a written record of when we read books (although I have read of people who do that, marking the date of each read on the inside cover) but we are generally quite good at remembering our books, when we got them, when we read them, etc. I can do it with just about every book in my library. It allows me to mentally track my own growth each time I read. If we understand and accept that our experiences with art are often linked to time and place, then remembering those experiences becomes a way for us to glimpse, and maybe even interact with, our past selves.
Seeing the person I was compared to the person I am now is immensely satisfying and enriching. How often do we get to such opportunities in life? Until we invent practical time travel – seriously, what’s taking so long, scientists? – there are only so many ways we can view the past, however imperfect those means may be.
Perhaps my love of rereading books is linked directly to my love of history. Maybe rereading is an extension of my love for researching and writing about the past. It’s definitely possible that I just love a good story and enjoy interacting with art, something which is pretty difficult if you’re not a creative, short of attending a showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Me; I’m not convinced. Perhaps my view of books is a bit too romantic, a bit naïve even, but I think that the time between when I last read something and the next tells as much of a story as do the words on the page.
Growing up in Canton, Ohio, in the 1990s, I was surrounded by country music. Like so many other small cities/big towns in the Midwest, rock and country music were inescapable. The rockin’ and rollin’; the rueful nostalgia and lamenting for yesterday; it all meshes with the atmosphere of these places like a foreclosure sign or a drive-thru liquor store. While by no means my favorite genre, I have many memories of listening to George Strait, Patty Loveless, and Alan Jackson in the living room or riding around town in my dad’s pickup.
Rural and small-town America has a long history with country music. Born out of blues and bluegrass, with elements of Americana and immigrant musical culture, country music has become almost synonymous with working-class white America. A quick look at the charts bears this out, as country songs get significantly more airplay than other genres, on their respective stations, of course.
A lot of attention has been given to modern country – often called “Bro Country” – with its emphasis on cliches, interchangable lyrics, and essentially existing on the same chords and songwriters. Catchy pop beats with generic lyrics pickup trucks, Bud Light, moon light, “lookin’ pretty,” the “big city” and good times with a slice of lime, shot out of a factory somewhere in Nashville or Los Angeles, the substance of country music has largely eroded from Appalachian blues and messages of antiauthoritarian messages into rural and small-town party music.
Now, this piece is not meant to be an indictment on modern country music. That’s been done at length, and honestly, unless you haven’t heard a country song since 2005, you already know what I am talking about. Nor is this going to be the rantings of an old man, wanting country music to “return to it’s roots.” At no point are you going to hear me say “That’s not music” other than just now.
What I want to focus on is where did some of this imagey go, where did it come from, and what explains white America’s love for country music, even for those with only the loosest connections to the imagery and history evoked by the music.
Recently, I was back in Canton, escaping my isolation in Pittsburgh and also my dissertation, at least for a little while. One Friday night my parents decided to have a bonfire, a favorite pastime there.
I should pause here for moment to explain what a typical Midwestern bonfire is like. They usually fall into the following rhythm: – someone tries to light the fire with just paper – that fails; someone gets lighter fluid – one eyebrow later it’s lit – someone procures a large basket of food from seemingly nowhere, usually hotdogs, sausages, beans, chips, cookies, S’mores fixings, dips, and a whole host of other items – an excessive, and I truly mean excessive, amount of beer is consumed
This was COVID, so the night was a bit more tempered. Especially since it was just my parents and me. We were listening to a 90s country music playlist, the kind of stuff I grew up on and could still tolerate. The 90s were a transitional period for country. While the hallmarks of classic country were still there – songs about relationships, authority, and rebelliousness – the door was slowly being pushed open for the party-centric, reductionist music of today.
As we were listening, a song I remembered (and even liked) came on: “Small Town Saturday Night” by Hal Ketchum. Released in 1991, the song was right on the edge of the transition, in terms of when it was released but also its content and sound.
On the face of it, and indeed you can glean some of this from the title, it seems like a a typical “going out for the weekend” song. Long held as the night for letting loose, the one day completely removed from the typical rotation of the 40-hour, Monday-to-Friday work week, Saturday night is the one night of freedom in our weekly Sisyphean slog. The tempo is very upbeat and the song infinitely catchy. It’s easy to sing along, especially the chorus, and the imagery hits very generally, evoking the hum-drum of life in small town. It immediately got stuck in my head all night and the next day.
I’m nothing if not a little compulsive and a lot inquisitive. The kind of qualities that make for good scholarship but make it a nightmare to be me. My mind is never really here, in the moment. I decided to go back the next day and look up the song, listening to the tune and reading the lyrics as I went along.
I was more than a bit amazed.
As I read and listened, I noticed that this song was nothing like it appeared. The tune was as catchy as ever, musically very upbeat. This, I think, was by design, meant to hide lyrical content, which was much darker in its implications that I originally thought. The song is not, as it would appear, a happy play-by-play of a fun weekend night. Rather, when examined only for its lyrics and stripped of the instrumental accompaniment, the songs resembles a sadness, an almost dirge-like resignation and lamentation of a time gone by and an inescapable present.
The lyrics present a bleak message. Characters fueled by regret (” Everybody’s broke, Bobby’s got a buck. Put a dollar’s worth of gas in his pickup truck“); desolation and nihilism (” Bobby told Lucy, “The world ain’t round…Drops off sharp at the edge of town. Lucy, you know the world must be flat, ‘Cause when people leave town, they never come back“); everyone’s life tinged with the bleakness that alcohol fixes and make worse (“Lucy’s got her lipstick on a little too bright. Bobby’s gettin’ drunk and lookin’ for a fight. Liquor on his breath and trouble on his mind. And Lucy’s just a kid, along for the ride.“). (I should point out that I have no idea where the late Hal Ketchum sat on current American politics, and this song way predates Trumpism).
Dressed up in catchy piano riffs and that twangy, crunchy sound of a steel guitar so ubiquitous with country music, the song sounds like an ode to a wild and raucous weekend but is really a dirge to a way of life that no longer exists and the people trapped by what remains.
You see this anywhere you go across the Midwest and the South, two parts of the country that people think they understand but truth be told don’t know shit about.
This piece is not meant to be an apology for the racist-fueled anger that created and sustained Trump’s popular authoritarianism. Those people were racist before Trump; he just gave them an outlet while the Republicans made racism and authoritarianism a viable political ideology.
What this piece is meant to illuminate a little bit is the ideology and nostalgia that sweeps around the small towns that make up a great deal of the country. These ideas came from somewhere, and despite all of the evidence you could imagine that this faux-country neo-yeoman lifestyle never really existed, that it was clearly a phantasm, it has a hold on people that is very real.
Modern century music by no means created the casual misogyny, racism, substance abuse, Christian conservativism of middle America. But you can see those ideas expressed in loving detail in the lyrics and the imagery of an small town Saturday night.
A lot of hay has been made recently about the issue of student loan debt forgiveness. The total debt, the delayed economic power, the cost of college now vs then (any “then” really), and the cost of living now vs then (same). All of that is now painfully apparent. Anyone denying the social and economic effects of student loans at this point is living in the past, something that I, as a historian, am quick to point out for its faultiness.
Discussions over the crippling and servile nature of student loan debt are not the concern of this piece. More than enough has been written there and anyone reading this is likely familiar with the stories, the arguments, and the facts.
In recent weeks the conversation over student loans and loan forgiveness was reinvigorated on Twitter. Damon Linker – “contributing editor for the New Republic and is a Senior Writing Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania,” neoliberal provocateur, and Guy-On-The-Internet – Tweeted: “I think Dems are wildly underestimating the intensity of anger college loan cancelation is going to provoke. Those with college debt will be thrilled, of course. But lots and lots of people who didn’t go to college or who worked to pay off their debts? Gonna be bad.”
It had been awhile since someone had such a poor take on the student loan crisis and the Twitterverse responded, ratio-ing the take into Twitter infamy.
I feel as though I am overly-qualified to weigh in on this issue. Currently, I sit here with about $45-50k in student loan debt (I’m extremely fortunate that all of mine is from undergrad; I did not have to take out any additional loans for my Master’s or my Doctorate). None of that figure has been paid off. TA stipends being what they are, I was able to make enough money to pay bills and live. Paying off loans? 100% out of the question. I haven’t taken any time off since 2008 when I started college, so my loans have been in deferment since then, slowly but deliberately collecting interest.
Additionally, I have been heavily involved in higher education in recent years, specifically regarding graduate and professional school. I am about to wrap up my tenure as the President & CEO of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), currently the largest graduate and professional student organization in the country. While I have not by any means surveyed the entirely of our membership – dozens of universities representing hundreds of thousands of students – and I do not speak on behalf of NAGPS in this statement, only myself, I feel like I can respond to Mr. Linker’s statement:
What the hell are you talking about?
If there is seemingly no basis for his assertion, that’s because there isn’t. This opinion masquerading as potential fact is pulled out of the same place where many hot takes from (I’ll give you a hint; it smells like shit). While widespread data demonstrating how people feel about this does not exist to my knowledge, having been immersed so deeply in higher education – specifically graduate education – for the last few years, I am struggling to come up with a single person in this position who feels this way.
Why is that? I can, if I turn myself completely into an asshole, begin to understand conceptually where he is coming from. If you had to endure a hardship to reach your goal and then the door is opened for others, I can see that…for all of a second.
Paying for college is not the same as having to go through appropriate and logical steps in a process. Forgiving over a trillion of dollars of crippling debt is not the same as, let’s say, getting rid of papers or tests. Papers and tests, while surely rife with problems in their current iterations and applications, are necessary for education. Assessment of comprehension, not of people, is important and there is no getting around that.
Forgiving student loan debt is more like getting rid of doctoral qualifying exams. You will not find many people more critical of DQEs that yours truly. I loathe them. They are a remnant of institutional hazing, an anachronism from a time when everyone with a PhD was going into a tenure track job, back when there were tenure track jobs. They serve no purpose but to cause stress; hoop-jumping for the sake it.
I took DQEs; I was in the last cohort in my department to do so. I have absolutely no ill-will towards the department for canceling them now and none towards the students who no longer have to bear that burden. In point of fact, I am elated. It was a bad system and it should die a painful death.
Student loans are the same. You had to pay off your loans. It took you a long time. It ruined your life. It delayed buying a car, getting a house starting a family. It kept you in a dead-end job that didn’t pay enough, a cycle of underemployment that you endured only because you needed to keep the lights on. Your life was put on hold and many of the bookmarks, the checkpoints of life, and you feel as though you made a tremendous all for nothing.
You really wish that on another person?
Linker’s opinion exists only in a mind devoid of empathy, of sympathy, in a world capitalistic competition where anyone who gains does so at your expense, and where jealousy is the most prominent and prevalent of traits, a Randian nightmare. If you are unable to feel joy for other people, relief for the burden that they no longer have, then I have nothing to say to you other than this:
I am deeply sorry for whoever or whatever hurt you to make you feel this way.
Forgiving student loan debt is not forgiving student borrowers for making a “bad business decision” as some would put it. Rather, it is the first step in a lengthy trek towards righting the criminal wrong that we afflict onto people, whose only crimes were pursuing knowledge, striving for that American Ideal.
The crime wasn’t borrowing money for college; the crimes were making college cost so much (if anything at all) and the extortion that made it so profitable.
This isn’t favoritism. It’s equality. This isn’t unfair. It’s a long-overdue correction. Forgiving student loan debt is to admit that the system was never fair to begin with, and getting rid of it is the morally and ethically right thing to do.
Course evaluations are a waste of time. No way around it; they serve no practical function. They are 100% performative exercises, administrative theatre, put on to provide an illusion of responsiveness by the department, college, and university, and a petty catharsis for frustrated students who want to pretend, for a moment, that someone is actually listening. But they’re not. “On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being a conversation during Thanksgiving dinner with that one uber-conservative uncle and 5 being tacos, how do you think this class went? Keep in mind that this evaluation will not actually get to the TA or professor until next semester – probably late in the semester, too – and by that time, they will have forgotten most of whatever it was that they did not did not do in the class and the feedback will likely lost all utility.” (I should point out that this is all subtextual, of course; a wonderful exercise of reading between the lines).
The only people that will ever see it are a department administrator, maybe some higher-level faculty member – who really only looks for something extreme, either good or bad – then, much much later, the actual instructor or TA. Most students don’t really put any effort into them. Most faculty are not affected by them, barring some major indiscretion or malfeasance (and yes; the bloated, cumbersome, and often ineffective university bureaucracy only really takes note of sustained poor performance or something that could come back to bite them. In general, they do not actually take note of positive reviews).
TAs really aren’t affected either, mostly because we are a cheap labor force that the university gets to exploit so they don’t really care what we do so long as we show up, give grades, and make the effort of going through the motions. It’s the academic version of doing a Zumba class; you get credit enough for simply trying. Or unless we unionize; then they lose their shit. Like I said, it’s all theatre, just like TSA.
While there is really no harm in these evaluations, they have become one more part of the end-of-semester routine:
Step 1) Course evaluations;
Step 2) Frantic studying and writing;
Step 3) Panic attack;
Step 4) Finals;
Step 5) Binge drinking (this last one may be different for other people).
It’s one of the predictable realties of the collegiate experience.
I spent several years only on one side of this process, that of the student. I imagined that it would be dramatically different once I was on the other end. Receiving critical feedback on my teaching seemed interesting and potentially even instructive and rewarding. (I should note here that I was one of those weird exceptions; I wrote big, thoughtful evaluations, really taking the time to give them some substance. I was convinced that my critical remarks would be an epiphany to lackluster professors, my praise validation to those who felt that their hard work was underappreciated).
For those first few years that I was a TA, during my Master’s and my Doctorate, I received a slew of evaluations that were nice but ultimately not very helpful. A lot of “He’s really funny” and “He did a good job of presenting and explaining materials.” There were also negative remarks, often around things that I could not control.
Note: the TA generally does not have any authority over the number of assignments, the types of assignments, the frequency or length of assigned readings, or even the general course policies. We are beholden to the professor and their whims, however tedious or unfair they might be.
These first few years yielded little in the way of constructive feedback on evaluations and, aside from the occasional chuckle, were relatively uneventful.
You can see where this is going.
Spring Semester 2018 I was a TA for a class on the History of Democracy, a class that was all-too topical in that moment. During the Fall of 2017 I had TAd the same class for the same professor so I was fairly confident that I was not the worst TA in the department and might have actually imparted some kind of wisdom onto my students, even if that was just “be on time to class” (something that students still seem to struggle with, mightily). I had tweaked a few of the quizzes and paper prompts from the Fall in an attempt to improve based on what I observed the first time around. I largely approached the class in the same fashion and I felt that while I had done a decent job, it was in no way anything worth writing about (see what I did there?).
It had been a particularly rough semester for me. I was still dealing – or not dealing – with the loss of my beloved grandfather (Papa) a man that was a part of my life in such a pronounced way that his loss, while something that we all knew was coming, was nonetheless devastating. I was single and had been for some time. Recently, I had come out as bisexual (not to my family, though, because that is not a conversation that I want to have, although I am sure some of them might see this. If you do, keep it to yourself, I guess).
I’d always enjoyed a drink or two but this confluence of life events had pushed me passed the point of occasional social drinking and well onto the path of alcohol abuse or something more serious and more dangerous. I was drinking too much. I wasn’t drinking enough. Three or four nights a week I’d go to a bar, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes all day. Three or four mornings a week I woke up smelling of cigarettes and booze. Nothing in life was really going my way and I desperately needed a win.
People like to say that we make our own happiness. I don’t know if that is 100% true and I do not take credit for what happened next. Maybe and maybe not.
One day I went into the main department office to get my mail. In my mailbox were the unmistakable large white office folders that the department always used for our course evaluations. I took the up to my office and started to read them. Most of them were right in line with the kind of responses I mentioned earlier. But one caught my eye.
“Honestly, he was my favorite instructor this semester and this was my favorite class.”
One short but honest sentence. No explanation. No qualifications. Just a simple statement but oh my did it feel great. I never set out looking for validation in the pages of these evaluations. I really don’t expect much of anything. It’s a 10 minute break that will probably yield one or two funny lines that I tell me friends later. But that line made me stop. I had done something right. A tiny, restorative victory in what had been a slew of crushing defeats. A high five after being kicked repeatedly.
I brought it up later that day when I was talking to my mom (Side note: I call my mom several times a week. If you have a good relationship with your mother, call her; she wants to hear from you). She thought it was nice. But in the incredibly wise way that only mothers and video game NPCs seem to have, she made me see the bigger picture. “How nice that you made a difference for that student. Especially since it’s a freshman class; you gave them a good class during a difficult time [the first year of college].”
I’ll be honest; I had kind of overlooked that. In my excitement over my anonymous validation, I stopped to consider the more personal implications; to consider it from their perspective. I was looking for a win in my personal life. Maybe this student was, too. Or had been. Maybe my class was a win for them.
The first year of college is absolutely terrifying. The call your mom crying-eat too much pizza-experiment with drugs and alcohol-try to reinvent yourself-question your own worthiness and quality as a person, kind of terrifying. I hated almost everything about my first year of college. Maybe this student had a hard year. Maybe the intense and incredibly well-documented but generally sidestepped or ignored stress culture had taken a toll on them. Maybe for 50 minutes a week my recitation was a respite, a safe space, a place of laughter (my students almost unanimously report that they find me to be extraordinarily funny) learning and self-affirmation.
Maybe I was able to do for this student a little bit of what one professor did for me.
Fall Semester 2008. 18. Overweight. Nervous. I’m walking on the campus of the University of Toledo for the first time as an actual enrolled student. Toledo is only about two and a half hours from my hometown of Canton but it seemed considerably further. The presence of my older sister on campus (she was close to finishing up her degree and her dorm was only a short walk from mine) did little to alleviate the absolute clusterfuck of emotions that were weighing down my every step.
I was terrified of school. Not specifically the reality of being on my own, although that was occasionally a source of embarrassment. The biggest fear that I had was that of a severe and crippling belief that I was not qualified to be in college. I graduated from an incredibly average high school in an incredibly average town in Ohio. My grades were…below average. I had something like a 2.7 or 2.8 GPA and I think a 26 or 27 on the ACT (I don’t remember exactly; it’s been awhile and all you need to know is that they were not impressive at all).
I was a little confused by my relentless mediocrity. I was always able to test into AP and Honors courses in History, Literature, and Government. In elementary school I always did well and all of my teachers told me I was bright. Middle school and junior high were a four year nightmare (we had a 6th and 7th grade middle school and then and 8th and 9th grade junior high; it made no sense). I took remedial math and science courses in middle school, yet somehow managed to maintain a reputation amongst the faculty as a smart kid. I was called on a lot. My family and teachers complained about my poor academic performance; I was “clearly smart” so I “must just be lazy.”
It’s not a brilliant insight that children are incredibly impressionable. Teenagers and preteens perhaps even more so, in certain ways. I hated being at school so much that I faked being sick, sometimes weekly. The barrage of external dissonance that swept over me on a daily basis was dizzying. “You’re too smart to be doing poorly.” “You need to try harder.” “Why are you so lazy?” “Your friends are all smart and do well; you should be more like them.”
That one really messed me up. Aside from the gross practice of saying “you should be more like someone else” it was true. I had a lot of smart and successful friends. Still do. As a kid, you see your friends as people like you: People you have a lot of things in common with and that generally are more like you than not. My closest friends from school – still some of my closet friends to this day – were all smart kids. AP everything. 4.0+ GPAs. High ACT scores and scholarships galore to schools I never even considered. Loved by teachers and administrators alike. They were the hot fever dreams of parents all over the country.
Because of my association with them I saw myself as one of them. We had a lot of classes together, albeit with occasionally different results. This didn’t matter to me, though, because I saw my friends as just like me.
Parents see the friends of their kids far differently, though. In their eyes, their child’s friends are a reflection of their child. If your son is friends with one fifth of the Academic Top 25 but has almost half of their GPA? He probably doesn’t belong, or is different, or there’s something he’s not doing. Soon, they become curious what behaviors you have that they don’t. They become weirdly obsessive detectives, asking questions. My parents were shocked, absolutely shocked – I cannot emphasize “shocked” enough here – to find out that my best friend had a bedroom that was even messier than mine (I still maintain that mine wasn’t “messy” per se, but rather, “cluttered”). They were convinced that leaving books and clothes on the floor was a sign of something sinister; a deeply-buried secret to my poor school performance that manifested outwardly as a disrespect for room tidiness and decorum. For them, intellectual effort = tidy (it should come as no surprise that my sister, who was very high-achieving in high school, was and is highly OCD).
For years, I had daily conversations with myself, (often at night, because who doesn’t confront all of their fears and insecurities alone in the darkness, am I right?):
“Yea, Brad, what’s up?”
“You’re not stupid, are you?”
“Hmm. I don’t think so, no.”
“Are you lazy?”
“No lazier than any other person who hates doing certain things. I mean, I do read and write a lot. And I like to learn things.”
“So why do you do so poorly in school?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I’m smart. I just…I get to school and I hate it. Everything about it. I sit there, I’m sad, scared, tired, distracted, and before I know it class is over and I didn’t catch a thing that was said, I fail the homework and the quiz and the test and I hate to ask for help because then people look at me like I am stupid and then I want to cry but it’s not OK for big fat guys to cry in school so instead I just look angry and then people don’t want to talk to me…”
“Dude, holy shit, slow it down. You’re talking to yourself, remember?”
This gets all the more interesting based on a conversation I had a few years ago with my parents. I casually mentioned some of the aforementioned issues that I had in school as a kid. Apparently, when I was about 10, the teachers and counselors at my elementary school contacted by parents; they thought that I was struggling occasionally in school – academically but also socially – not because I was a bad student but because I was gifted (they thought). Their theory was that I was not being challenged in school and in turn it was making me disinterested and “lazy.”
My parents met with the director of the gifted education program and decided that I was not a good fit. Their reasoning was that the woman who was the director of the program “was a bit goofy.” I was incensed; of course the person who teaches gifted students is going to be “a bit goofy!” I’d be shocked if that person was not a little bit eccentric.
I don’t hold this against my parents and we’ve talked about this several times. They were doing what they thought was best. And no one, no one, is more insanely proud of me than them (honestly, they BRAG about me, folks, B-R-A-G about their son “the soon-to-be Doctor). And they have been unbelievably supportive of my during my grad school years. But, the result was that for almost a decade, I was convinced that I was actually stupid or lazy. The validation and development that would have come from being in the gifted program would have had a dramatic change on my youth.
So this is who I was when I walked into my first college course at the University of Toledo in Fall 2008. My first ever class was something about using technology in the classroom (I was initially a double major in History and Education). It was an absolute joke. In 2008, classroom tech was basically iMovie (“look; the text crawl effect from Star Wars!”), early iterations of programs like Blackboard (that most schools and universities didn’t adopt right away), and touch boards (basically a giant touchscreen board but with really terrible interfacing). I don’t think they every really caught on, because when I last taught in Spring of 2020, I was in a classroom that still uses an old-fashioned sliding chalkboard (that I openly am in love with).
I’m technologically illiterate. This computer aside, I am analog all the way (I wrote the first draft of this in one of those green book test examination booklets that we all used on exams). To make matters worse, this class used Macs, which I had no experience with at all. I ended up doing OK in the class but it was like pulling teeth, and in those first few weeks, and especially on the first day, I left feeling lost and stupid.
I got back to my dorm room somewhat breathless and more than a little frustrated. I was only through my first day and I was already terrified that college was going to be a repeat of high school, only shorter (in my mind, I was already destined to be a dropout). I felt like crying, but at this point my sense of my own masculinity was so stunted that I just played video games (I didn’t learn how to address my feelings until I was older).
I took a look at my schedule, the one I had no say in making; my next class was English Comp I, a class that everyone in college takes. It’s the class where you invariably read some turgid and miserable “How to Write” textbook (5th Edition, now with more appendices!), write some boring and uninspired essays, and typically serves as a decent chunk of the non-science writing that most undergrads will do in their lives.
At some universities, this class is taught by caffeine-addicted, overworked and underpaid adjuncts or grad students, trying to make ends meet. It is no criticism of the instructor when I say that this course is generally uninspired, forgetful, and one that students tend to discount and more a critique of how badly Humanities and Social Science departments are funded as schools become increasingly fixated on STEM courses.
As someone who teaches and has taught freshmen-level humanities courses, I can tell you that it’s occasionally a struggle. Students frequently don’t care. It’s likely not for their major so they often put in the minimal amount of effort (I know of students who use the syllabus to calculate, before the first assignment, what they can get on every assignment, how many classes they can miss, etc, and still get a certain grade). The material is often dry or at the very least, you did not get to construct.
There is really no incentive to do a good job. Your pay is set and the evaluations you get, as I mentioned, basically mean nothing. Probably not even any kind of acknowledgement. (Sorry; my generation is obsessed with participation trophies. You’ll have to blame our parents for that…since they are the ones that bought us the damn trophies and demanded that we get them. Like 10 year old kids were buying themselves trophies…seriously.)
I used to work in a factory and I can tell you that this kind of work can compete with the assembly line for pure drudgery.
Now a lot of this I learned after the fact, through experience on both sides of the lectern. So I really was not sure what to expect when I came to class. Sitting there with my classmates – all of whom somehow looked considerably older than myself – I was somewhat shocked to see an older woman walk into the room. Jet black dark, glasses, dressed in a way that I’ve now come to think of as “eccentric professor” (you know exactly what I am talking about; don’t pretend you don’t). Dr. Barbara Mann, our instructor, was a tenured professor in the English Department. She’d written several books and actually liked teaching this class.
Given the content and sentiment of all of this, you are probably expecting me to recall that first day in its entirety. A crystal-clear, play-by-play recap of the entire 75 minutes. The exact moment when I realized that this was going to be a huge turning point in my life. Truth is I don’t. Partly because that particular day was not, in any way, remarkable. But also because that’s simply not the way our memories work. Our brains are not so sophisticated. Most people think that our memories work like photo albums; perfectly capturing and distilling snapshots of our lives and putting them into a scrapbook that we can flip through later.
The reality is way less optimistic, so I’ll use a reference that my fellow Millennials will appreciate. Our memories are more like the DNA from Jurassic Park: we have a decent amount stored in there, like a scaffolding, but there a huge chunks that are missing and we fill them in with whatever garbage is close at hand (frog DNA anyone? No? How about Shirtless Jeff Goldblum? Yea, I figured you would like that better).
It’s also why you can never remember which password you used for which account (unless you’re one of those galoots who uses the same password for everything) but you can remember the name, in numerical order, of every single of the original 150 Pokémon.
The specifics of that day do not matter. Neither does the content of the first two assignments that we had, the discussions that we had, or anything else. What I do remember, and what is important, is what happened after those first few weeks.
After our second assignment – the one that didn’t matter – Dr. Mann asked to speak with me after class. I had done really well on the first two assignments and had done my best to contribute to the conversations in class (no one laughed at anything I said that was serious and did laugh at what was supposed to be funny; I considered that an unqualified success).
I was a bit nervous to talk to her. At 18, we are conditioned to be nervous when talking to authority figures. High school teachers were frequently bad enough, but a professors was a nightmare-ish prospect. Movies and TV had painted an image of college professors as angry, taciturn individuals who spoke at you, using last names in an informal “I don’t really care who you are” kind of way, most often walking us carefully and forcefully into some kind of logical or rhetorical trap designed to make us feel small and inadequate. Even though I had no rational reason to think this, I was terrified.
I was thoroughly unprepared for what happened.
Dr. Mann was anything but intimidating. She asked me how I thought I was doing in the course, did I enjoy the class, how was I adapting to college, etc. They seemed like leading questions that ended with my demise. Instead she asked me, point blank; Had I considered the Honors College? I told her truthfully that I had not. I had not heard of t although I had a rough idea of what it was (context clues!). She informed me that it was a program at the university, a distinct college, for students who were high-achieving, gifted, and that it was very intellectually rigorous. Harder, but significantly more interesting, courses were offered to students in the program. For non-Honors courses, I was required to add extra work (for my History courses, I usually had to write an extra or longer paper. I had to maintain a minimum GPA (3.5 I think). And the final piece; I had to write an original senior thesis. She said that she thought I was a good candidate for the college, based on my early class results. Was I interested?
Was I interested?
I was terrified. Elated. Confused. Embarrassed (I was and still am awful at accepting compliments of any kind) proud, nervous, anxious, intimidated, and joyous. Did I mention intimidated and nervous? In that moment I was so completely overwhelmed that I had no idea what to do, what to say.
This was the first time that anyone ever suggested, in a positive way, that I might be capable of more. That I had potential of any kind. And rather than criticize me for not reaching to a potential that no one told me that I had but still expected me to reach, actually appealed to it. She wasn’t upset that I was being “lazy.” She was suggesting the opposite, in a way, that not only was I not lazy but that perhaps I actually needed a challenge.
I immediately said yes.
Just as immediately, the feeling of confidence and self-worth that I had left me, replaced by dread. What if this was going to be like my AP classes in high school, where I only masqueraded as someone who belonged, a facsimile of an intelligent person? It was not until graduate school that I became familiar with the idea of the imposter syndrome. (I laugh at the pithy, lip-service articles, often written by tenured faculty at Ivy League schools with Ivy League degrees, who write about the subject. I understand the concept – that no matter what level of success you attain you feel as though you are not qualified – but if you study or teach at an Ivy League school, which just sounds like humble-bragging or faux-complaining. Get out of here with that).
This feeling is generally not based in reality and is instead just a manifestation of other insecurities that we all have. I’ve noted that the people who suffer from this the most tend to actually be the most competent. And vice versa; the most brash, confident, and annoying individuals are often terrified and trying to get by on bluster. You know, like writing a book on the claim of expertise? Who would ever do that…
Most of this was flooding into and through my brain while I stood there with her. In one of several instances where I felt she was clairvoyant, Dr. Mann told me that she taught in the Honors College and was always looking for students who maybe did not consider the option or who did not have the traditional Honors College credentials coming into college. She felt, based on my work, that I was exactly what they were looking for and that I would be better served transferring.
The term “watershed moment” is frequently overused by historians. Really, just way too much. Actually, academics in general do it. To prove a point, to make a case for the importance of an invention, publication, person, theory, event, moment, they resort to a dualistic way of thinking: “Everything before and after X was qualitatively different.” That being said, I am going to exercise complete subjectivity, extreme personal bias, and an utter lack of perspective and just say that this was a watershed moment in my personal history.
Nothing was ever the same after this.
Shortly after this conversation, I went and had a meeting with another person who would end of being a major influence in my life; Dr. Thomas Barden. Now retired, he was the then Dean of the Honors College and, as fate would have it, my future academic advisor. Bearded, spectacled, and possessing a seemingly perpetual and inexhaustible good-natured optimism, he told me that Dr. Mann had mentioned me to him. We talked about the program some more. He asked me about my interests, personal and academic. He asked me if I wanted to transfer into the college and, if so, if I was free to do so right now.
Right now? Then? That exact moment? Fucking hell that was fast. I barely had any time to think about it. The one concern that crossed my mind was that GPA requirement. That first semester, I was taking Latin, Algebra, and Microeconomics: by the end of the semester my grades in those courses were B-, C+, and D+, respectively. Even at that moment, now 3 weeks into the semester, I was pretty sure that I was going to do quite poorly in at least two of those classes.
I said “Sure why not?”
I immediately dropped English Comp I, much to my disappointment (Dr. Mann was a fabulous professor and I very much enjoyed her class; I was overjoyed a few years later when I was able to take one of her Honors College courses).
Apparently, Dr. Barden was also a mind reader. At that moment he mentioned the GPA requirement: “Don’t worry about the GPA requirement at first; we don’t kick people out because of an off semester. It takes time to get into the swing of things. Just do your best.”
I started off my Honors Classes that next week. There was an immediate and noticeable difference. Not only were the classes more enjoyable, more engaging, and more challenging, but I noticed that for the first time in my life I was enjoying school. I was actually looking forward to organized learning. This seems like a small detail but for me, and I’m guessing for you, this was no small thing. Education is often something that we do, or rather is done to us, with a heavy dose of resignation and reluctance.
The realities of the modern American primary and secondary education systems – exams, grade chasing, standardized tests, expense, stress, massive amounts of homework – means that very few of us enthusiastically, or even functionally, participate in our own learning. After over a decade of feeling hopelessly alone and out of place, I was finally in a situation where not only did people want me to succeed and were willing to help me do that, but I actually felt as though I could. And I wanted to. It is a common misconception that the best quality in an educator us the ability to convey information. And while that is definitely important (let’s even say essential) I would argue that an even more essential quality is being able to help students believe in themselves and to help them enjoy the experience. The best classes are the ones where you walk away with more than just a good grade.
College was so much better from there on. Really, it’s remarkable the difference one person can make. I must have done well enough. As I write this in March 2020 during the great COVID-19 quarantine, I just submitted a draft of Chapter 2 of my dissertation. I have no idea if Dr. Mann is still teaching. Her name appears infrequently on the university website but that seems somewhat meaningless I guess because there are pages on the UT website that list people who I know are not actually still there. So who knows.
Irrespective of where she may or not be, I regret that I ever told her how much I appreciate what she did for me. I suspect, like most great teachers, that she would likely brush off my thanks and my gratitude, saying only that “She was just doing her job.” And it’s entirely possible that is the case; she probably was just doing her job, the best and only way that she knew how, and that it wasn’t really anything personal. I would say that it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that I didn’t believe in myself until someone else saw something in me worth believing in and without her support, I would undoubtedly not be here today. So in a way, it’s really all her fault.