Public Spheres and Social Media Circles

My deep interest in the comparisons between sociability in 18th century England and social media in 21st century America (and the world, but I live in America) led me to structure my course on 18th century British literature around sociability, scandal, and satire. For the sociability unit, we are discussing coffeehouse culture, reading selections from The Tatler, The Spectator, The Female Spectator, and The Invisible Spy, and discussing public spheres and the formation of public opinion. Today we talked about Nancy Fraser’s essay “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” and applied it to coffeehouse culture and to the culture of social media. 

The class is a wonderful mix of students. Four are traditional undergraduates (three are English majors, one is a communications major), and one is a retired education professor who loves sitting in on classes. We meet in a small seminar room that smells slightly of coffee. Everyone is rather comfortable with each other.

I knew today’s reading would be a bit daunting — the course is a 300-level so not all the students have had Literary Criticism yet. Fraser’s essay also requires at least a basic understanding of Habermas’ concept of an ideal public sphere as well as Althusser’s RSA/ISA/subjecthood philosophies and Foucault’s formulations of power structures. To help with all that, I created a PowerPoint that broke down the concepts a bit and contextualized some of those theories. (PowerPoint is here.)  

We moved through the PowerPoint slides. They took notes for a bit, then we began applying the concepts and that’s when the discussion really began to get going.  We talked about social media and slactivism. Our retired professor is a child of the 60s so she gave us insight into that decade of physical activism. We decided using social media to organize a physical protest or demonstration is the ideal action (i.e. Moral Monday protests and the overnight organizing against the Sharia Law/Motorcycle Vagina bills in North Carolina), but for most people, activism ends with a twibbon. We wondered if a proliferation of individual voices drowns out the message, and talked about how a coalition of public spheres needs to form so that individuals can see themselves as deliberative bodies.  They decided class is the biggest stratified layer of public spheres now, and class issues exclude some voices.  

I’ve used Fraser’s essay in my own work in the past, but only as it applies to literature. Today we applied these ideas to a networked culture that Fraser most likely couldn’t have imagined in 1990 when she wrote the essay. It was so exciting to see theory as a foundation for their thoughts on their own voices, on their participation within a democratic society. I also saw the essay in a new way as I’ve gotten older and have become more active in social justice and feminist policy issues. Good theoretical and critical writing enables people to peek behind the curtain of society, to see the inner workings, and, hopefully, to fix what is broken.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Uncategorized


Tenure Portfolio

In the interest of total transparency, here is the link to my tenure portfolio.


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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Uncategorized


A Love Story

When I was a girl, my mother’s glamorous, beautiful younger cousin fell in love. I remember visiting the dress shop where she worked with my great-aunt and seeing her engagement ring. She wore yellow knee socks and a blouse of some ethereal material and she was sitting in a big chair like a happy queen. But all was not happy. He was Mormon. This was the 80s. Many family members felt they could tell this gorgeous, happy couple that they couldn’t be together. I remember yelling behind closed doors and whispers in public. But they fought for each other and they won. Their wedding was full of yellow flowers.

Tonight, he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. His children, who were the ring bearer and a flower girl in my own wedding, are gathered at his side, his daughter facing the fact that her father won’t be at her wedding in June. 

It was the first love story I knew. It’s always been the most romantic one, the Romeo and Juliet that ended the way it should. But now it’s ending too soon. And all our hearts are breaking.


Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


Of Geekery and Feminism

I had an unexpected free evening so I decided to go see Star Trek [insert colon here] Into Darkness.  I settled in, ready for good popcorn movie fun. But as the movie progressed, my joy in Benedict Cumberbatch and in Kirk and Spock’s bromance began to fade. My immersion in the story ended as I started to realize that this movie was failing the Bechdel test. 

Evidence for that failure and other bits of sexism:

1. Although two women are featured secondary characters, they never speak to each other. And both are defined in relation to men — one through her relationship with a fellow officer, the other through her relationship with her father and through audience awareness of her future relationship with Kirk.

2. The women still wear skimpy dresses with short sleeves and boots while the men wear pants and long-sleeved shirts. At the very least, they are chilly.

3.  Obligatory scene of woman in bra and panties.

4. Woman is allowed on-board the Enterprise not because of her impressive academic credentials, but because Kirk thinks she’s hot.

5. All but one of the senior command of Starfleet are men. 

Sure, the movie is based on a 1960s tv show — isn’t this what we expect? But Star Trek: The Original Series was a forward-thinking program. For a show of the 60s, it was progressive in its explorations of race and culture. The first scripted interracial kiss on television was on Star Trek.  In his determination to remain true to TOS, J.J. Abrams freezes the crew, halts the progressivism. He doesn’t reimagine a crew — he replicates a crew.  Unlike the Battlestar Galactica reboot which recast two major characters as women and depicted a post-feminist world by virtue of a nearly post-human world, Star Trek Into Darkness merely adds loud special effects and lots of lens flare to a world that is basically still 1960s America. Abrams had all the possibilities of the future and he chose to depict the past.

I’m tired of the assumption that geeky action movies are only for men. Half the audience in the theater tonight were middle-aged women. I’m tired of the assumption that men want to see objectified women. Many men are feminists. I wish I had an answer, a solution. I do know that we geeks fight hard. We got a cancelled tv show made into a movie. We brought back Futurama from the dead.  Let’s be geeky about feminism. Let’s demand more shows like BSG, like Firefly, like Buffy. Let’s demand a female Doctor, a female Obi Wan. 

Let’s see what happens when a movie like Star Trek creates female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. And what happens when a big-budget science fiction movie imagines the future and reflects the present.



Posted by on May 18, 2013 in Uncategorized


All That We Are

So I realize I’ve been discussing a lot of what is wrong or what can be better about my profession or myself or my school and not as much about what is good and right. This post is about what is good and right.

On Sunday, I took the members of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society, to Asheville for new member induction.  We usually have a more formal induction on campus with members of the faculty present, but at a recent Coffee and Conversation (biweekly informal chit chat time between English profs and students), we hatched the idea of taking induction on the road to the coolest town in the South. Seven students, Wheeler, and I drove the 90 minutes to Asheville (yes, we are really lucky to live that close) in the pouring rain (our plan to wear cute spring things abandoned) on Sunday and we had a wonderful time.

Lunch at Doc Chey’s, a fabulous Thai place, where we had giant bowls of noodles and real, house-made ginger ale. Induction at Malaprop’s, a wonderful independent bookstore — we recited our vow/pledge in front of a shelf of travel books. Smelling and buying at Asheville Tea and Spice Exchange — we reveled in the smells of tea and salt and sugar and spices. Chocolate and conversation at French Broad Chocolate Lounge — we drank liquid truffles and ate creme brulee and talked and talked.

The whole time these juniors and seniors, the beloved birds of the English department nest, demonstrated, naturally and effortlessly, all the things that we list as objectives and goals for our students. They discussed the Boston Bombings and how terrorism is defined, taking into account race, ethnicity, and religion. They were so happy to be in a town where everything they ate/bought was local, fair trade, and/or organic and they could articulate why fair trade is important to them. They made jokes and told funny stories and talked about wanting wombats and sloths for pets. They are interesting, quirky, thoughtful, knowledgeable critical thinkers.  They are funny and charming and curious about the world. They are, to paraphrase William Joyce, all that we have, all that we are, and all that we will ever be.  And in a week, we will tell some of them goodbye. We’ll watch them leave our nest, and we’ll cry and we’ll miss them.

But we’ll also know they can fly.

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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


Be The Change You Want to See In Your University?

I turn in my tenure portfolio this summer, and my decision is set for February. I really want to get tenure. I want to be tenured so I can be more radical.

I’m a bit worried about radicalism until I have that security of tenure. I’m a bit worried about publishing this blog post. I want to do my part to “be the change,” but I’m afraid, too. (See this recent post on bravery in higher education.)

My radicalism is rather relative, I imagine. I teach at a small, private, Christian university in the South. My radical desires are things taken for granted at a lot of other schools. I want a campus policy against bullying that includes bullying based on sexual orientation, and I want campus-wide Safe Zone training. I want a more comprehensive sexual assault policy that includes an explanation of consent and stickers with numbers and resources in all the bathrooms. And I want mandatory professional development for all professors, tenured and otherwise, through our on-campus Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  (I’ll work on open access issues later.)

Radical Desire #1 — I’ve discussed the origin of Neighbors for Equality in a previous post. Collyn Warner and Tyler McCall taught me the value of activism, the change each of us can make in our communities and in our own lives. After Amendment One passed, Neighbors for Equality switched focus to classrooms — how to address bullying in schools and to get sexual orientation added to non-harassment policies. Additionally, a group of faculty, staff, and a couple of students have founded a group we’re calling the Justice League (a joke that stuck) to tackle issues on campus. We’re working on Safe Zone training, on campus-wide sensitivity training, and on making sure students know about our non-harrassment policy. So far we are underground, but we’re meeting with a program director next week and we hope that leads to some visibility and action.  For now, we made our own Safe Zone signs to put on our office doors and students are responding and talking to us. (One sign made its way to a local coffee shop!)  And we are inviting an alum who is a member of both the religious and LGBT communities to speak in a forum next year.

Radical Desire #2 — People are nice on this campus. We like each other, we’re friendly, we get to know each other. And I think that is a major reason that no one wants to admit that sexual assault happens on our campus. It’s a Christian school — kids don’t get drunk and get assaulted here! But they do. We hear it too often. And victims are afraid to report sexual assault because it often happens at parties. If they admit they were drinking, they will be fined $200 and get a strike on their record. So they don’t report. Our student handbook has tips on avoiding rape, but they are tips that assume that rapes only happen in dark, isolated areas by complete strangers.  The handbook does not outline what constitutes sexual consent. We don’t have those stickers on bathroom mirrors with numbers and resources that other universities have. I know that people care and want to help and want to prevent rape or help those who have been raped. But it’s such a hush-hush culture and rapes are vastly underreported.

Radical Desire #3 — I have been helped so much in my teaching by colleagues, by CETL, by the members of #FYCChat on Twitter. In the past couple of years, I have completely changed the way I teach (see previous post). I couldn’t have done it without great mentors like Gayle Price, Janet Land, Jennifer Buckner, Shana Hartman, and Abby Nance. I couldn’t have done it without resource help from Emily Robertson in CETL. And it’s not done by any means, of course. I plan to meet with Emily several times this summer to change my project-based classes to problem-based classes. I get great ideas every week from #FYCChat led by Lee Skallerup (@readywriting). And I want this to be the norm. I want everyone to want to learn cool and wonderful things, but not everyone wants to do that. I understand that people are stretched thin. We all teach at least a 4/4, many are program directors, most are sponsors of an honor or social organization, all do committee and shared governance work. But universities are in a transition moment, a liminal space. We have the opportunity to be innovative and to restructure ourselves for the 21st century. And that takes professional development and trying something new.

So these are my goals in addition to continuing to improve my classes and to writing a book on imagined communities within 18th century England and on Twitter and to my family responsibilities. And until I have tenure, I’ll write blog posts and work with people underground and surround myself with Justice League and my mentors and colleagues and friends and family. Because when you stand your ground, you don’t always stand alone.

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Posted by on April 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


Found Poetry

In my Composition II class, we’ve been discussing writing. We’ve read bits from Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Georgia Heard’s Writing Toward Home, and we’ve practiced writing using exercise from or inspired by those books. Today we used Georgia Heard’s “Found Poetry” prompt — “Gather books, newspapers, magazines, old journals, and first write down interesting words and sentences, then weave them together to make a found piece of writing.”

There are ten students in the class so we decided to make this a collaborative effort. First we took five minutes to find materials — our own daybooks, textbooks, sheet music plus stuff lying around like newspapers, flyers, discussion question handouts, pamphlets, Bibles. One student even took the Honor Code off the wall and added it to the mix.

Next, we sorted through the materials and found two lines each — some people used lines as they found them and others mashed lines together to make new ones. As each student found lines, he/she wrote them on the board. Finally, we read it and sorted it. They told me how to order the lines. One student typed it, then we added white space.

Here’s the result:

Imperative Act of Vandalism

There was so much energy in the room as we compiled, edited, laughed, negotiated. It was an amazing experience. We talked about where our words had come from and we discussed intellectual property rights. The questions that we work so hard for them to care about in Comp II came to them as natural implications of what we had done. Whose is this? Did we plagiarize? What if we are making art — is it plagiarism then? Do you make a Works Cited page for a found poem?

By the end of class, they wanted to set it up as an art installation — the poem, the materials, the questions about intellectual property — and they wanted to submit the poem to a journal. I left class with my heart thumping. This is why we teach. This is why we slog through grad school and pay student loans. When we throw something at them and they gleefully catch it and run with it — that’s a good day.





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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Uncategorized