Monday, September 11, 2017

From 9/11 to the Trump Presidency: the Clarifying Power of Difficult Times

Since the election last November I've said a few times that living in the U.S. under Trump is a lot like living through the reaction to 9/11 all over again. On the one hand, both events give one the sense of being surprised by a darkness running deep in the bloodstream of American culture that we might not have been aware of. We had to contend, then as now, with the thought that our ostensible friends and neighbors might be harboring a hostility that we didn't realize was there.

On the one hand, that fall I remember arguing in a public forum with a colleague who essentially bought into the Bush administration's line that the war in Afghanistan was actually about freeing Afghan women who were oppressed by the Taliban. (Faculty on college campuses were by no means immune to government propaganda!)  I stumbled a bit to respond -- I was new in my job and untenured. At a relatively conservative campus and at a time when there was a strong social imperative to be critical of terrorists and supportive of those who oppose them, I was unsure whether I could publicly say what I actually thought: that the Bush administration did not care at all about women in Afghanistan. And that we need to be extremely skeptical of any and all American rationalizations for military action. That particular day, I don't think I quite pulled it off.

That said, so many people were also inspired by the cascade of military and political missteps in 2001-2003 -- from the various excesses of the Patriot Act, to the use of torture at Guantanamo and CIA black sites, to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq -- to become engaged with global current events in a way they hadn't been before.

In contrast to that other colleague I mentioned, another colleague, a (now-retired) Jane Austen specialist whose office was adjacent to mine, was inspired by her commitment to feminism to develop a deep knowledge of groups like RAWA -- and was only too sensitive to the classic Gayatri Spivak conundrum of "white men saving brown women from brown men." She and I had many good conversations in those years about this conundrum, about the complexities of understanding how patriarchy functions in South Asia from a western vantage point, and about the possible roles and limits of western feminism in light of everything else that was going on. I remember marching with this colleague in New York City at the massive anti-war protest in February 2003. Though we did not agree on everything, I was proud to stand with her that day.

So just as it was a terrible and deeply disheartening moment, both in itself and in the social and political reaction it provoked, 9/11 (and now, the Trump Presidency) led many of us to wake up again and assert our commitment to justice -- with all of its complications. Then, we were talking about protecting civil liberties and privacy in light of the Patriot Act, the human rights of prisoners in detention, and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

Today we have to talk about: the plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees, the rise of a new kind of white nationalism, the many ways in which American society seems to deny the humanity of black people, the fundamental dignity and rights of LGBTQ people, the importance of addressing climate change... and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Teaching Resources: Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Resources for Teachers: Links and Documents related to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

These are some texts and resources that might be helpful for people teaching Between the World and Me. While there’s no doubt that this book is an impressive achievement -- as a work of rhetoric, as a thoughtful and learned essay -- it might not be transparently obvious how to teach it to first-year students at Lehigh, especially in coordination with a textbook like They Say / I Say. These resources aren’t designed to be “lesson plans” in and of themselves, but rather focal points that might come in handy for a number of different approaches to situating this book in a composition classroom.

One important starting point to bring in might be the “rhetorical situation” -- Coates wrote this book at a particular point in time and in the midst of a particular conversation about police violence and the contested deaths of (generally unarmed) black men and women in a series of incidents especially in 2014 and 2015. It's important to name that rhetorical situation, and underline for students that virtually every great work of public argument starts with a rhetorical situation, whether it's Lincoln at Gettysburg or King at Birmingham Jail.

Another possible conversation might be connected to the rhetorical positioning Coates uses here -- the second person address (or: the form of the “open letter”). This could be a good opportunity to bring up the Baldwin text that Coates’ book is modeled on (see below). It could also form the basis of a short paper assignment (or even *the* paper for this unit): have students compose an open letter type argument in the second-person. It *might* also be helpful to link the Coates/Baldwin texts to other influential open letters (one thinks of Emile Zola's "J'Accuse" in the Dreyfus Affair in France -- it might be helpful to show students how this form works outside the frame of American history).

Another approach might entail finding the “They Say…” voices inside Coates’ book. Some of these are easily located (such as the allusion to Saul Bellow’s comment about the “Tolstoy of the Zulus”), others are ones we might have to interpolate. If one of the most important ‘scenes’ in Coates’ book is the moment his son learned the news that Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, would not be indicted, in a sense that suggests that the Grand Jury’s finding is itself a kind of statement to which Coates and his son are both responding.

A way to make that interlocutor more concrete might be the statement from Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis prosecuting attorney who made an official statement around the time the decision was reached not to indict Officer Wilson:

There is nothing “racist” in McCulloch’s statement, but perhaps that’s the point. Coates is responding not to individual incidents of racism, but to a pervasive sense that black bodies -- the bodies belonging to Michael Brown, Prince Jones, or his son -- are subject to violence in America. Not only is there no legal recourse for that violence, it’s what the country was founded on. It’s embedded in our “heritage,” our system of laws, and even the “objective” findings of a federal prosecutor. What might it mean if we were to read Coates' book as an oblique response to McCulloch's presentation of the case?

I. Sources / Origins

Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me” (poem, 1935)
This is the poem that gives the book its title. Coates also gives a few lines from it as an epigraph.

James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1962-1963). The Fire Next Time is of course the most immediate source text for Between the World and Me -- Coates models his rhetorical positioning and the idea of the open letter to a younger black man on Baldwin’s open letter to his nephew. Excerpt here:

Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots” (1963)
This is the origin of the quote on p. 35 (“Don’t give up your life…”)

II. Immediate Context

→ Coates names a number of African-American men and women killed by police in 2010-2015: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Marlene Pinnock... He also frequently returns to death of an acquaintance at police hands more than a decade earlier -- Prince Jones. See the essay by Coates on this, “Black and Blue,” indicated below.

John Lewis, “Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the ‘Other America’” The Atlantic, December 15, 2014. Forceful argument by a civil rights pioneer shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner

Nice survey in the LA Times of several fatal police shootings. Published in May 2017, not long after the death of Jordan Edwards:

Black Lives Matter debates:

A conservative critique from July 2016 (shortly after five Dallas police were killed):

Deray McKesson’s response to critiques of BLM -- from that same week:

Interview with Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of BLM, reflecting on how the movement has been mischaracterized. August 2017:

III. Earlier Writings by Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Black and Blue.” Washington Monthly, 2001. This was Coates’ first version of the story of the killing of Prince Jones, a fellow Howard University student and acquaintance of the author in college.

Darryl Pinckney, “The Anger of Ta-Nahisi Coates” New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016.

The review by Pinckney summarizes some of the key points in the story of Coates’ father, which Coates wrote about in The Beautiful Struggle (2008). Students may want to know more about Coates’ family, especially after the reference to the Black Panther Party on p. 30. Also, the review is helpful for acknowledging critiques of Between the World and Me -- specifically the sense that Coates isn’t arguing for “hope” or confident that the world can “change.” (Good instances of “They Say / I Say…”)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

Some of the history of segregation described in Between the World and Me is taken as a given. Practices such as “redlining” are mentioned but not explained. Coates did a deep dive into some of these discriminatory practices -- which occurred in northern cities like Chicago & continued well past the end of “Jim Crow.”

This essay is important because it might show students that “racism” can in fact be “systemic” -- supported by government policies -- not just the product of individual idiosyncrasy. It also gives important context for African American urban poverty.

IV. Historical and Literary References in the book that might be interesting to explore

"A Forgotten History of How the U.S. Government Segregated America." Interview on "Fresh Air" May 2017.

Saul Bellow, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be happy to read them.” This is mentioned on p. 43 of Coates’ book. A helpful account of the controversy Bellow’s statement inspired can be found here (dating from 1994 -- shortly after Bellow made the comment):

Brian Farm, Gettysburg. This is the farm Coates mentions on 101-102. It is part of the historical battlefield of Gettysburg. Interestingly, it was owned by a free black man who fled the farm ahead of the battle fearing that Robert E. Lee might be likely to pull him back into slavery. (This might also index with ongoing debates about the status of Confederate statues)

Solomon Northrup, “12 Years a Slave.” This is mentioned towards the end of Coates’ book

Robert Hayden’s poem “The Middle Passage.” Cited on p. 51 of Coates’ book

V. Police Shootings Data / Statistics

These databases probably need to be scrutinized. If introduced to students, it seems important to frame them thoughtfully. Might also be helpful to have general crime statistics (i.e., crime has been decreasing steadily in the U.S. for twenty years), as well as comparisons to other countries (fatal police shootings in the U.S. are way, way higher than in other countries).

Washington Post, “Fatal Force” Database.


VI. Critiques of the book:

Andre Archie, “The Hopeless Politics of Ta-Nahisi Coates.” The American Conservative.
November 9, 2015.

Nice critique by Melvin Rogers, professor of African American History at Swarthmore College:
Key quote: “But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him.  But interrogation and struggle to what end?

VII. Teaching Resources / Reading Guides at Other Institutions

First-Year Experience Common Read, California State University-Northridge:

Random House's "Freshman Year/ Common Readinng Discussion Guide:

Kansas University Reading Guide -- First-Year Common Book 2016:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Visualizing Modern Poetry : Thematic Tags in First Books by McKay, Pound, H.D. Plath...

(I'll be presenting a more formal version of this work at the Modernist Studies Association in Amsterdam this weekend -- if I ever get there! Flight cancellations, delays, etc.)

One thing I was happy to do this summer was finish the expansion of my Claude McKay project -- it now contains all of McKay's early Jamaican poetry. I also had a chance to look at the Daily Gleaner and Jamaica Times microfilms at the Library of Congress, so I could include most of McKay's early uncollected poetry as well.

Along the way I got interested in the force-directed graphs you can produce in Scalar, which has a customized form of the D3.js visualization library built into the platform. This makes it incredibly easy to generate network diagrams without having to know Javascript or CSVs. The diagrams are interactive and clickable, so they can serve both as visual depictions of digital collections and as site maps through which we access the texts themselves. However, the price of ease-of-use is that the diagrams are constrained by Scalar. (One of my goals for the summer was to learn enough Javascript that I could start building versions of these diagrams outside of Scalar. It's mid August; I'm not there yet.)

Below I'm going to paste screenshots some of the diagrams I've been generating using "first book" collections by several authors: McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson (Bronze), H.D. (Sea Garden), Ezra Pound (Personae), and Sylvia Plath (Colossus, and Other Poems). I had earlier in mind the idea of including W.H. Auden's first proper book ("Poems"), but found it difficult to apply the method I have been developing to that book (Auden's early writing involved poems that were too long and narratively immersive to be readily reducible to "themes"). I have also been working on Tagore's Gitanjali, and might add it to the collection below soon.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Standing Together Against Hate

I was recently asked to give a short statement at an interfaith event in Doylestown, sponsored by Rise Up Doylestown, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and a number of other groups. This is the text of what I presented at that event. 

Statement for “Many Faiths, One Community” Event (June 11, 2017)

When 9/11 happened, I had just moved to this area from North Carolina for my first real teaching job at a university. I was living alone in downtown Bethlehem, near a high school. I was numb from the horror of the attack and from spending a little too long watching the coverage of it on the news.

But I was also afraid for myself. I didn’t go out much that fall and when I did I felt myself under scrutiny. I heard a lot of hostile, even hateful comments. Driving, I was threatened by other motorists. The comments were of a certain stripe: “Osama,” “Taliban,” “Saddam.” Sometimes the harassers tried to sound mean and friendly at the same time: “What’s up, Bin Laden?” When I flew to a conference in Wisconsin that November, the woman sitting next to me on the plane was immediately uncomfortable. She asked to change seats, and the flight attendant agreed. I was horrified, but I understood that this was going to be part of life in America. The country where I had grown up, which I thought of as my country -- my home -- had become something strange and newly hostile. I had to learn to accept those sorts of reactions. And on the whole I was lucky. I faced no physical violence; others in my circle of friends and family did. I didn’t have to worry about my job security or my visa status; others I knew did. And after a couple of years people seemed to calm down and I could begin feel a bit more comfortable in public places. I could start to go on with my American life.

When the 45th President was elected this past November, I couldn’t help but remark to friends and family that it felt a little like 9/11 all over again. I couldn’t understand how so many people thought this man would be good for the country. His comments about planning to ban Muslim immigration in particular seemed unthinkable to me: unconstitutional and just plain wrong. But then he won, partly on the basis of his very racism, xenophobia, and hatred of Muslims. And again, the country that I thought I knew turned out to be something stranger and darker than I had thought.

It is probably important to mention at this point that I am not a Muslim but a Sikh. Beause of my turban and beard we are often confused here in the U.S. Sikhism is a faith based on egalitarianism, a strong sense of social obligation to others, and courage when faced with hostility. In our tradition, we tell the story of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who when the Sikh community was under threat from the Mughal Emperor who ruled India in 1699 established the idea of a distinctive Sikh identity -- the Khalsa. From this point forward every Sikh would be identifiable, even if it made them a target. A fateful decision, but a powerful one.

I don’t regret the hostility that is directed towards me by mistake. I embrace it. Today, when I have been the target of anti-Islamic hate-speech I have always tried to make it a point not to simply say, “I’m not a Muslim” -- because that person is definitely going on to target someone else. The better strategy is to stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters against all such hatred. Because if we are going to stay here in this country -- if we are going to find a way to make it feel like home again -- we have to stand together against intolerance directed against all religious and racial groups. That’s why I also think it’s important to support my Jewish friends who are facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism at present as well. Why we need to support and stand with our LGBTQ friends and allies. And why I think it’s important to say “Black Lives Matter.”

In one sense the election of President #45 hasn’t led to the kind of overnight and blanket hostility people who look like me once faced every time we went outside. But what it has unleashed has been a new mainstreaming of extremely intolerant and hateful speech, not just on the streets, but in the mainstream media and in government. That’s what the so-called “March Against Sharia” that is taking place in cities around the country today is. In response I think it is important not just to stay home and stay inside, but to go out on the streets to do counter-marches, to gather at events like this one. To find allies and support each other as we face the long and dangerous road ahead. Thank you

Monday, May 22, 2017

Slides and Links for LVAIC Scalar Workshop (5/24)

I'll be doing a presentation at Lehigh for an LVAIC workshop later this week. The topic will be an introduction to Scalar. My slides are below. Also below are some links mentioned in the presentation

Google Drive folder for hands-on component.

Scalar website:

Examples of Good Scalar Projects: 

New Media and American Literature:

Black Quotidian: the Everyday in African American Newspapers

Bad Objects 2.0. Games and Gamers

Vimala Pasupath: Writing With Substance

Scalar Projects at Lehigh: 

Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer

Women in Sherlock Holmes

My colleague Michael Kramp and I have been using it for class projects.

My Scalar Projects:

The Kiplings and India:

Harlem Shadows: Claude McKay’s Early Poetry.

Timelines in Scalar:

Google Maps Integration in Scalar

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. I do not know if this post will prove to be as useful, in part because these concepts are considerably more difficult to explain. At any rate, I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" The original version of this essay did not engage very directly with Bhabha himself, and I thought the time was ripe to correct that. 

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Fateh Singh Makkar, 1924-2017

I recently delivered a eulogy for my grandfather, who passed away at the age of 92. This is a slightly edited version, with most names removed to protect my relatives' privacy.

My grandfather and me, at the Air and Space Museum, 1982

Thank you all for coming today to help us remember and honor my grandfather, Doctor Fateh Singh Makkar. (We called him “Bhapaji.”)  Bhapaji passed away in Ludhiana, Punjab last week at the age of 92; my parents were there to be with him in his last few days, as were my father’s sisters. It happened right around the 11th anniversary of the death of my grandmother Bhagwant Kaur, and they had come together in Ludhiana in part as part of the family's annual commemoration of her death.

Bhapaji was a larger-than-life figure for us -- a big man with a huge personality, beloved by four generations in a large family with that is now mostly dispersed over northern India with a couple of branches here in the U.S. Today I'm going to talk for a couple of minutes about his life and give some details that help give a sense of who Bhapaji was with a somewhat historical, documentary angle (others today will speak more "from the heart").

I think of people of Bhapaji's generation -- there are fewer and fewer of them with each passing year -- as a bridge in some ways to our collective history as people of South Asian descent. Bhapaji, born in 1924, lived through the last years of the British Raj, the Partition, and then essentially the whole of postcolonial Indian history up to this point. We don't, I don't think, pay enough attention to the lessons of that history.

Like many Sikhs, our family history started in what is today Pakistan. Bhapaji was born and raised in a Muslim-majority village called Musakhel in a rural part of western Punjab; his own father was a kind of village doctor -- in Indian languages, a Hakim. I once asked him if he remembered anything about his own grandfather. He told me that he too was a hakim -- so the medical tradition goes back a long way in our family (my own father is a doctor). Bhapaji later moved to a village called "Chak Number 90," where my father was born. As much as that area of Punjab was home, politics interceded, and with Partition approaching it became abundantly clear that they couldn't stay. In 1947, the family migrated on foot from Pakistan into India, covering an astonishing 160 miles with a nine month old baby -- my father -- in their arms in the midst of terrible violence.

After a brief time in a refugee camp, the family resettled in the town of Bharatpur, Rajasthan, where Bhapaji set up a medical practice and a dispensary. He soon became known and respected throughout the town. He was the head of the local Sikh Gurdwara society in Bharatpur, but he was so well respected by the local Hindu community that he was also elected head of the Bharatpur Punjabi Hindu temple.

I felt that sense of importance when I would go to visit Bharatpur as a child. It's not an especially nice-looking town; there's an old Mughal fort there, but otherwise it's a forgettable place in the middle of the desert. But when we went there we felt like VIPs. My family had what felt like a huge compound there, with high walls and lots of rooms and pathways. (I haven't been back in many years, so it's possible that it seemed bigger to me as an eight year old than it actually was.) I was in awe of the cavernous main hall where we would play cards and chess for hours, and I was amazed at all the wild animals one would see in the streets and alleys of the town -- pigs, goats, dogs, cows. When we slept on cots on the roof during the hot summer months (no air-conditioning back then), we had to watch out for aggressive monkeys that came out at dawn to harass us poor humans. I was in awe, too, of Bhapaji’s antique shotgun, sometimes used for hunting game, though in the midst of the riots of 1984 Bhapaji had to fire it in the air to dispel a murderous mob that had gathered at the doors of the compound. 

It happened again: a place that felt like home suddenly didn't. The family was shocked by 1984 -- by the sense that neighbors could turn on them without warning -- and decided to move to Punjab for the greater sense of security and belonging. (My mother’s parents did something similar at that time after going through a similar experience, relocating from Delhi to Chandigarh.) Bhapaji and my father's brother settled in Ludhiana, where Chachaji opened up a medical practice of his own.

Even as he seemed to remind us of our past, Bhapaji also enjoyed and embraced modernity -- whether it was modern medicine or modern technology. He enjoyed getting to know young people; I was always impressed by how good he was at sizing people up and debunking the kind of hot air and bloat that Indian men of a certain age are sometimes prone to. I remember one relative at a dinner once bragging about how many Crores of Rupees he was supposedly making in his factory; Bhapaji laughed it off: Bhaisaab, you must be confusing Lakhs for Crores. And when another relative seemed to get a little too carried away reminiscing about the Kulchas that are famous in Amritsar, he gently chided, "You should eat to live, friend; don't live to eat." 

Another sign of his modernity was his respect for women; Punjabi men of his generation tended to be intensely patriarchal. And yes, both of Bhapaji's sons became doctors, but one of his daughters too is a practicing doctor in Lucknow; another is a teacher (now retired). In the 1960s and 70s, it wasn't so common in traditional Punjabi households like ours for daughters to get post-graduate degrees. And more recently Bhapaji showed great respect for the women in the younger generation who are working professionals, including my wife and my brother's wife.  

Bhapaji had six children -- two sons and four daughters. All are thriving, with twelve grandchildren (my generation) as well as, now, eleven great-grandchildren. Of the six children, three ended up in medicine as well -- my father, my father’s sister (my Bhuaji) in Lucknow, and my Chachaji in Ludhiana. In the next generation again (my generation) there are three doctors too. So the long and proud tradition of medical work in our family continues. (And yes, neither my brother nor I went to medical school; perhaps one of my kids will find their way back to the family "line.") 

Many of us in the room are getting older. Bhapaji taught us how to age gracefully and to enjoy life’s later years. He lived healthily in spite of longstanding issues with heart disease -- he had his first heart attack at age 57 and underwent what was then (this was 1982) a rather risky bypass operation. It worked; he went on to live well, by and large, for another 35 years. Even after becoming a widower a decade ago, he continued eating extremely carefully, doing yoga, and going for regular constitutional walks until just the last year of his life, when his health started to falter. That discipline is incredibly impressive. I think of my own struggles to eat healthy and exercise. Bhapaji didn’t need an app or a device to get him to be healthy. He just had the discipline and did it.

Bhapaji was the last of my four grandparents. He was also the grandparent my brother and I knew best, in part because he spoke the best English of any of the four. That said, I had wished many times that my Punjabi was better so I could have experienced the full force of his legendary wit and humor. Bhapaji expressed the desire that my kids and my brother's kids grow up speaking better Punjabi than we did. We’ve been trying to honor that request.

Near the end of his life, Bhapaji and my father went back to Musakhel in Pakistan -- the village he had left behind now more than 70 years ago. The village is still there; the house is still there, and the old folks in that village, remarkably, still remembered Bhapaji. It was remarkable to my father on that trip to see how quickly Bhapaji could reconnect with old childhood friends he hadn't seen in so long; it says something pretty profound about Bhapaji's personality and how well he was loved. But I think it also tells us something about the way time can heal wounds. The bridge between two communities that was broken in 1947 can be mended; it wouldn't be that hard to do. And we can begin to move forward, together. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Forgetting the Famines: the Kiplings and British India

Slide show for a talk at Michigan State University's Global DH Symposium (click read more to see the slide show).

 The text of part of my talk is posted in the "Representing Famine" section on The Kiplings and India.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Historical Footnote: Militant Suffragettes, Forced Feeding, and Class Identity

A brief historical footnote completely unrelated to President Agent Orange.

I've been working with an honors student on her senior thesis this spring. She's interested in the militant suffrage movement in England (1909-1914 roughly); we've been reading memoirs by the Pankhursts, novels like Gertrude Colmore's Suffragette Sally (published in 1910 -- interestingly, there's no digital version of it online anywhere!), the anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower (, and combing through old collections of the London Times and Votes for Women (the weekly newspaper closely affiliated with the WSPU).  We're finding lots of interesting stuff, but since I am not an expert in this area I wanted to put this footnote out there in case readers have suggestions or tips relating to this topic they could share.

We got interested in the depiction of the imprisoned activists who engaged in hunger strikes as a mode of resistance inside prison during the peak of the militant suffrage movement.

One curious discovery my student made was that at first this was seen as linked to class identity. In the early 1900s, the women's prison system in England was structured along strict class lines. First class women prisoners ("political prisoners") could wear their own clothes, order food for delivery in prison, have access to books and writing materials, and even receive visitors. Second class prisoners had more limited rights, and third class prisoners (often prostitutes: women suspected of "moral turpitude") lived in pretty abysmal conditions.

Most of the militant suffragettes, starting with the Pankhursts themselves, were middle class (some of the prominent leaders were also upper-class -- titled women like Lady Constance Lytton). But when imprisoned for various acts, from simply being disruptive in public to actually committing acts of vandalism (breaking windows), and rioting, they were thrown into the third class prison. Initially at least (in 1909-1910) many of the hunger strikes that ensued were oriented towards calling attention to this fact -- the suffragettes thought they deserved to be put in the first class facility as political prisoners, rather than be thrown in with the "common" prisoners.

It's also worth mentioning that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were pretty crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See more here)

Later the hunger strikes morphed into something else -- a much more powerful rhetorical tool for calling attention in general to the Suffragists' claims and cause (as Lytton would later describe it: the hunger strike was a "woman's weapon" against the state). In 1910  Lytton went to prison under a pseudonym, disguising her class background. She went on hunger strike and then was subjected to force-feeding. When she came out, her account of how she'd been treated helped raise mainstream awareness of what was happening to the imprisoned suffragettes. She also asserted her commitment to an egalitarian -- middle and working class -- suffrage movement.

It's probably important to mention also that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were quite crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See a bit more here)

Soon, the government would start putting imprisoned suffragettes in first class women's prisons. They also stopped force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strikes (some continued to do so), but shortly after the beginning of World War I the movement largely went into hibernation, reemerging after the war.

So -- as I mentioned, I'm not an expert in this area, and much of what I describe above is new to me. Do any readers have suggestions about either feminist historians or literary critics they think are particularly insightful on these topics? Favorite suffrage (or anti-suffrage! we're interested in both) novels? Suggestions on digital archives or collections we should look at? 

Friday, February 03, 2017

An Open Letter to Steve Bannon, from a Hyphenated American

Dear Steve Bannon and Friends, 

I'm probably wasting my time writing to you. You know that old internet saying, "Don't Feed the Trolls"? Well for the past couple of years I have mostly thought of you and Donald Trump as basically trolls, more interested in scoring political points and tripping up your opposition than in putting forward a coherent ideology of your own.

But then Donald Trump won the freaking election. Now you and he have the ability to shape policy in some profound ways; you have already begun doing it.

It really does not make sense to dismiss you as trolls any longer, since you run the government. So this is an attempt to talk to you and your "alt right" friends seriously for a moment. My hope is that you can convince me that you're not just trolls who have won the lottery through a crazy and terrible fluke. Can you?

I've been watching what you and President Trump have been doing with the various executive orders and trying to understand it. It started with the Wall, and all the over the top language about illegal immigrants that's behind what is obviously a pretty dumb xenophobic symbol. Then last week we had the Refugee Ban and the seven country visa ban, supposedly to fight terrorism, though we all know that's not the real point of it (*cough* #MuslimBan). There are now reports there will be other orders soon -- you want to change the H-1B rules to make it harder for American companies to hire skilled foreign workers. Apparently Trump is also going to go after immigrants who are poor and who have received help from social welfare programs like CHIP.

Is Trump also going to reduce the number of immigration visas overall? (He promised he would in the campaign.) Is he going to go after birthright citizenship? 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Against the Refugee Ban

Yesterday President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that will freeze the entire U.S. refugee program for several months, while ending the Syrian refugee program indefinitely. Long-term, President Trump plans to cut the total number of refugees admitted annually from around the world by more than half (from a max of 110,000 currently to 50,000 in the future). President Trump has also temporarily banned visitors and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria and Iraq, even though, as many commentators have pointed out, no recent Jihadist terrorist incidents in the U.S. featured individuals originating from any of those countries.  

I have a lot to say about the many things that are wrong with the seven country visitor ban, but I'll save that for another time. Here I want to focus a bit on the history of the Refugee program -- and on Syrian refugees in particular. By freezing the Refugee program and refusing to accept Syrian refugees, the U.S. under President Donald Trump is turning away from a proud history of American hospitality, and disavowing any responsibility for the conditions that have led millions of people to be displaced from their home country. The Refugee Ban will be ineffective at stopping terrorism; it also flies in the face of more than sixty years of policy and experience with refugee resettlement. It suggests we as a people are becoming smaller, morally and politically, based on a rationale that at best is incoherent and worst is just a lie.

While President Trump has never been particularly honest about his own views of the Iraq War, on a few occasions he has correctly alluded to the fact that the roots of the conflict in Syria can be traced back to the destabilization of the region that followed the ill-fated U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moreover, President Obama's encouragement of a popular uprising against Assad, beginning in 2011, helped nudge forward the events that have followed. We did not make the mess in Syria, but we are undoubtedly involved; we helped make the mess, so we should help to fix it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Teaching Notes: Multimodal Assignment (Spring 2016)

I taught two sections of first-year writing in spring 2016 under the overarching theme of "immigration." I assigned some fiction related to the American immigrant experience but spent quite a bit of time talking about issues in immigration policy. Our class was coinciding with the final months of the Republican primaries, and we were also bringing election politics -- the debate about illegal immigration -- into our earlier assignments. I had them read a series of Op-Eds relating to the immigration policy debate and also watch recaps of the primary debates.

For the final month I decided to shift gears and help guide students to a research topic that was focused on a historical issue -- in this case, the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which led to more than 100,000 Cuban "undocumented" immigrants entering the U.S. over the course of a few months. I gave them quite a bit of background on the event and also showed them how to research aspects of it on their own using tools like Lexis-Nexis. We spent time in class workshopping paper topics as they were being developed by students, and then the papers were due in late April.

In this class, I made the decision to give them a relatively tight set of constraints on the research paper – they were all working on a single topic. Within that topic there were many subtopics I charted out for them. Some were designed to appeal to questions about economics and policy (what economic impact did the rapid influx of 125,000 Cuban immigrants have on the Florida economy?) – designed to get the interest of the business majors in the room. Other subtopics were more focused on more cultural issues and issues of social justice. To what extent does it make sense to see Cuban refugees as undocumented immigrants along the lines of the conversation today? What were the experiences of LGBTQ Cuban refugees in the Boatlift like? Students picked out various subtopics, often in small groups, and worked within the broader framework I had selected.

This approach -- where you give students a topic to research rather than let them pick their own -- is not one I would recommend for everyone. For one thing, it's very difficult to pick a topic that's neither too broad nor too narrow. You also don't want to seem that you're imposing your particular hobby-horse or research area on a group of unsuspecting freshmen. The advantage of introducing some degree of constraint is that you can set up a scaffolding for students -- and a base of knowledge they can draw on -- that means they don't have to go out entirely on their own. You also don't put yourself in the position of having to research a topic with which you yourself may not be super-familiar alongside the students. Finally, I wanted to pick a topic that would stimulate genuine debate, and allow students in the room who identify as conservatives as well as liberals to have something to grab onto ethically and intellectually. American conservatives have long supported an open-door policy towards Cubans wanting to emigrate, and Ronald Reagan's administration ultimately gave the vast majority of those immigrants green cards and then citizenship. How does that square with what conservatives think about these topics today? But the event was also seen as a disaster for Jimmy Carter's administration as it was occurring -- it forced Democrats also to reconsider their attitude towards immigration and hospitality and set the stage for the "New Democrats" who would emerge after Reagan (i.e., Bill Clinton).

About two weeks after students submitted their research papers, I asked them to repurpose some of their research for a multimodal assignment. Finally, I asked them to present their multimodal projects live in class (4 minutes to present, 1-2 minutes for feedback and questions). We took two sessions to work through each of the projects. This is not something for everyone either – those two class sessions might have been used for something else. But I also felt there was something of value there, especially for several students in the class who were either shy or were not confident of their English-language presentation skills. Making them present and defend their research orally might be another “mode” in the “multimodal” assignment.

More Resources:

Introductory Lecture Notes on Mariel Boatlift:

Google Docs detailed collaborative timeline of the Mariel Boatlift:

Below is the text of the multimodal assignment I gave my students.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spring 2017 Teaching. "Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India"

I'm teaching a graduate course in spring 2017 called "Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India." 

In addition to regular primary and secondary readings for the course, I'll encourage students to seek out an archival project on a thematic topic related to the intersection of race & gender in Victorian India. This could be an exploration of newspaper archives related to a particular hot-button issue picked out by students, such as the "Rukhmabai" issue relating to Hindu child marriage, debates over laws relating to widow remarriage, issues affecting the mixed-race Eurasian population, etc. Students will be asked to conduct a limited amount of archival research on that topic, and then find a productive way to edit and present those materials online, in a digital format. I will use my work on my digital project, "The Kiplings and India," as a model, though students will not be in any way obliged to contribute to that project. 

Here's the brief course description.

"Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India"

This course will explore 19th and early 20th century texts related to British colonialism with an "intersectional" lens. Broad questions to be considered include: What role did liberal 19th century British feminism play in helping to consolidate -- or critique -- an ideology of British Imperialism? How can we understand the early Indian nationalist movement specifically with regards to the representation of Hindu and Muslim women? How do interracial relationships and cross-cultural structures of desire and intimacy factor into the history of the later unraveling of the British Empire? To address these questions, we will introduce ideas from postcolonial theory and specifically postcolonial feminism, and apply them to a set of primary readings that includes both well-known authors like Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, and E.M. Forster, as well as more marginal figures like Flora Annie Steel and Pandita Ramabai. In addition to primary texts, a portion of the course will introduce students to research methods in order to access archival materials related to the British empire; this archival unit will also entail some digital humanities concepts and methods.

Likely Primary Texts (we may not do *all* of these):

Rudyard Kipling, Early Poems, Indian journalism, select short stories (The Kiplings and India
Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales From the Hills (1900) (Gutenberg version
Flora Annie Steel, On the Face of the Waters  (1897). ( version
Meera Kosambi, Ed., Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter (1889 / translated 2003) 
Krupabai Satthianadhan, Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Life (1894) ( version
Rabindranath Tagore, Chokher Bali  

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868) (Gutenberg version)
Sara Jeannette Duncan, The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893) ( version)
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)
E.M. Forster, Biographical materials and India-related essays
Florence Nightingale, Letter on the Madras Famine of 1876 (5 page famine report)

Secondary Criticism  (Preliminary list -- mostly supplementary/optional reading)
(Excerpts from these available on CouresSite)

Victorian/ Postcolonial 
Patrick Brantlinger, Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies (2009)
Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (2003)
Nathan Hensley, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016)
Tim Watson, "The Colonial Novel" (from The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel)
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

Gender and Race

Indrani Sen, Woman and Empire: Representations in the Writings of British India 1858-1900. (2002) 
Shuchi Kapila, Educating Seeta: The Ango-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule (2010) 
Krupa Shandilya, Intimate Relations: Social Reform and the Late Nineteenth-Century South Asian Novel. (2017) 
LeeAnne Richardson, New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain: Gender, Genre, and Empire. (2006) 
Claire Midgley, Gender and Imperialism (1998) 
Padma Anagol, The Emergence of Feminism in India, 1850-1920 (2005)

Poverty and Famine

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (2002), Chapter 1
Leela Sami, "Starvation, Disease and Death: Explaining Famine Mortality in Madras 1876–1878" (2011) 
Sukanya Banerjee, Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire (2010). Chapter on Dadaji Naoroji's "Poverty and Un-British Rule""
Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine (1997). Chapter 4, "Literature of the Bengal Famine" 
Louise Penner, Victorian Medicine and Social Reform: Florence Nightingale Among the Novelists (2010). Chapter 4: "Engaging the Victorian Reading Public: Nightingale and the Madras Famine of 1876  
Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981). Chapter 6: "The Great Bengal Famine.""Appendix D: Famine Mortality: A Case Study" 
Meghnad Desai, "The Economics of Famine" (in Harrison, Ed. Famine [1988]) 
William Digby, Famine Campaign in Southern India, 1876-1878. (1878). Digital Copy on Hathi Trust 
B.M. Bhatia, Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1963). Chapter 3: "Famines and Famine Relief, 1860-1879"

Rudyard Kipling

Zohreh Sullivan, Narratives of Empire : The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling (1993) 
Charles Allen, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling (2008)
Christopher Hawes, Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India (Chapters 5 and 6)
Jan Montefiore, "Kipling's North Indian Travels" (From In Time's Eye
Harish Trivedi, "Kipling's 'Vernacular': what he knew of it -- and what he made of it" (From In Time's Eye) 
Don Randall, Kipling's Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity (Introduction) 
Thomas Pinney, Kipling's India: Uncollected Sketches 1884-1888. (Introduction)

Flora Annie Steel

Violet Powell, Flora Annie Steel: Novelist of India (1981) 
David Wayne Thomas, "Liberal Legitimation and Communicative Action in British India: Reading Flora Annie Steel's 'On the Face of the Waters'" (ELH 76.1: 2009, pp. 153-187)

E.M. Forster

Jenny Sharpe, "The Unspeakable Limits of Civility: A Passage to India
Benita Parry, Delusions and Discoversies: India in the British Imagination 
P. N. Furbank, E.M. Forster: A Life 
Antony Copley, A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writings of Edward Carpenter, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood 
Parminder Kaur Bakshi, Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E.M. Forster's Fiction.  
Sara Suleri, "Forster's Imperial Erotic." in The Rhetoric of English India

Bagchi, Barnita. "'Because Novels Are True, And Histories Are False': Indian Women Writing Fiction In English, 1860-1918." A History of the Indian Novel in English. 59-72. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Stephen Knight, "The Postcolonial Crime Novel" (from The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Teaching Notes: "Religion and Literature" (Fall 2016)

This fall I taught a course for advanced undergraduates on "Religion and Literature." In it, I assigned Milton's Paradise Lost (the first five books), a substantial selection from William Blake, Iris Murdoch's The Bell, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Overall, a pretty successful class on a topic I have been thinking about for much of my career. The following is a lightly edited version of the opening day lecture I wrote up for my students. 

Let's start with the following poem by William Blake:
“The Garden of Love” (from Songs of Experience)

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys desires.

English and American literature has been deeply connected to debates over religion, going back to the medieval period. Even as Christianity seemed to recede in public life in the modern era, prominent writers continued to write about it, sometimes expressing their passionate dissent from various religious orthodoxies -- as we see in Blake's poem "The Garden of Love" above. For Blake, the formal institution of the Church (represented by the Chapel that's been built in what used to be a garden) is first and foremost an institution of interdiction and denial ("Thou shalt not"). Its principles of self-denial and its championing of suffering are a species of death for Blake. And yet he resists them not in the name of atheism or secular humanism -- but in the name of a much more personal, text-centered interpretation of Christianity. Blake's Christianity was not centered around the idea of Christ's particular suffering on the cross, but on the idea of a divine gift in the form of human prophetic genius in dialectical relationship with the restraints that are placed on it.

For many of Blake's peers, his radical beliefs and personal practices (he refused to enter Churches for much of his adult life!) would actually have placed him outside of Christianity. It’s worth remembering that in England at least, the Church of England was the “Establishment” Church throughout this period: the Monarchy and Parliament were directly connected to the Church. Non-Anglican Christian sects -- Roman Catholics, and Protestant “Dissenters” (Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists…) were banned from holding public office, and there was widespread discrimination against them in many walks of life. It wouldn’t be until 1835, for instance, that Catholics would be allowed to vote or serve as members of Parliament in England. English Jews wouldn't get the same privileges until 1858.

With Milton in the 17th century, through Bunyan, Blake, Defoe, and Swift in the 18th century, and going further through the 19th and 20th centuries there is no shortage of canonical writers who have seriously engaged issues of religion in their works. Books like Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) are thickly saturated with religious references. People often overlook these when they talk about Robinson Crusoe – whose eponymous hero starts off rebelling against religion. His life as a castaway can be interpreted in the novel as punishment for his sins. Later, he has a “conversion” experience; his subsequent rescue might be seen as a reward for that good behavior.

There’s a shift in the approach to religion in the 19th century. During this period, many of the great canonical novelists (especially George Eliot and Thomas Hardy) are preoccupied with the decline in influence of the Church on everyday life. A writer like Eliot agrees with many of the moral ideas of Christianity, but from an early age she rejects organized religion and makes the case to friends and family that the teachings of Christianity should be seen as mythology rather than literal truth. If we had more time together in this course, we could look at novels like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1894), and Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859) – which both show ordinary people turning against the values of the Church in favor of a more common-sense idea of personal morality. The sense of a Church in decline is also very much present in mid-20th century novelists like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. Here we will look at Murdoch’s fascinating novel The Bell (1958), in which the novel’s heroine finds herself on a kind of spiritual quest. Can the Church reassert itself, and can religion/Christianity once again play the defining role in the lives of modern people (and especially: modern women) that we believe it played in the Medieval period?