In Memoriam

Two dear friends

I’m posting my remarks (including things I forgot to say) from tonight’s session at the Modern Language Association annual convention in memory of Doug Steward, Associate Director of MLA Programs and Director of the Association of Departments of English.


Hi, everyone, and thank you for asking me to take part in this, and thank you, Roldan, for sharing with us. It’s nice to see you all even if I wish it were for some other reason. I have a couple of words I want to share, which I will read at you, because this is MLA.

As part of my work for the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, which I chaired last year and off of which I’ve now cycled, I put together a roundtable for this year’s convention titled “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Library: Access to Research Resources and Academic Freedom.” It’s not really my field, so I initially had a hard time finding people for it, and ended up writing to the committee to see if anybody had any suggestions. Doug—who I knew, if my CV is to be believed, for more than ten years, from a long evening at the bar after the first day of the first ADE Summer Seminar I attended (and the bar part is not on my CV, just to be clear), and with whom I had the pleasure of hanging out at (and after) ten years of summer seminars (where I got to run DGS and DUS preseminar workshops largely because of Doug, though David, if you had anything to do with it, thanks), MLA conventions, and CAFPRR meetings–suggested himself. At the time, I thought of Doug’s doing this as a sign of his deep interest in our committee’s work and also as just him doing me a solid, as we used to say; looking back now on it now, I still think of it in these ways, but I also think of it as indicative of the care with which he approached the institutions, ideas, and people that mattered to him.

I could talk tonight about how that care manifested itself in many areas in which Doug and I intersected—from official things like ADE, where I noticed from my first workshop that his interest lay in helping people running departments do the best they could for their departments not to make them fancier or higher-powered but to make them work better for the people who worked and studied in them, to semi-official things like his quietly making sure a mention of my sons’ band’s album stayed in the minutes of a meeting, to non-official occasions like his inviting me out for dinner (and what turned out to be multiple pitchers of margaritas) with the friend he came out to in college, which meant a lot to me, to our commiseration about the state of the state of Missouri, him as an expat in New York City, me as a transplant from New York City—but instead I’ll just say a word or two about CAFPRR.

From conversations, emails, and meetings, I learned that Doug’s interest in academic freedom and professional rights and responsibilities lay in protecting academic freedom not so individuals could tweet abuse at public officials (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but so the right to freely fulfill their responsibilities—to study and publish and teach—could be protected for all, especially the most vulnerable. He insisted, in a piece in the ADFL Bulletin, that academic freedom was not an individual right but a corporate responsibility—the responsibility of the faculty as a body, one it couldn’t fulfill if it didn’t recognize and support the work of all members equally. In a long piece in the ADE Bulletin from 2007, he wrote movingly about the humanities and especially the study of languages as what he called “the privileged space of academic freedom’s defense and definition,” and I’d like, with your indulgence, to read a (luminous, even) bit from the end of that piece:

“In the age of genocide and terrorism the notion that nothing human could be alien to us as humanists in the world’s sole superpower could not be more relevant. This relevance is exactly what many in the humanities have wanted to engage when they have been accused of impertinent politicking in the classroom: to ask if language can be more adequate to the truth; to ask if history has been recounted truthfully; to discern the alien as human; to learn the language and culture of the other; to explore the history of the inhuman/e in the human/e; to demand an expansion of human rights; to interrogate the border rather than the human being at the border; to discover what rhetorics of language and image mobilize a border around who counts as human; to question who is patrolling the border and with what ends. These questions can only be impious.”

This is the kind of care that Doug showed in his work with our committee and in his concern for the nature of the work we were defending, and it’s something we should all try to remember in the work that we do. There’s a thing that Jewish people say to those who have lost loved ones–“may his memory be a blessing”–that I’m not usually comfortable using myself because I’m not a big blessing person, but it seems appropriate tonight. May his memory be a blessing.

Sitting in Limbo

Today something’s happening that’s not like anything that’s happened in my lifetime. Today we try to get a would-be strongman out of office, knowing he’ll do anything to stay there. He’ll invalidate every ballot, he’ll lie and cheat and this time, instead of a Brooks Brothers Rioter, he’s got a different kind of angry white man, in body armor and an AR-15 instead of a polo shirt*. He’s turned the White House into a bunker. Will he come out shooting or will things end the way they did for a different man in a different bunker? And what will happen to what actually matters–the rest of us, out here?

Today we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen. Today we’re waiting to hear the answer to the eternal question How Low Can They Go. Today we’re listening to Jimmy Cliff, waiting for the tide to flow. We’re not waiting to get into heaven, though following the Latin, we are at the border of something. We’re not ducking under a lowering bar, but we will need to be limber, following the root of that limbo, flexible enough to take what’s coming without breaking. And following the root of limber–a cart that attached to artillery for towing– we may need to be ready for a fight. 

Whatever happens today, and in the next few days, eventually we’re going to need to be flexible enough to not keep fighting, to recognize that we’ve been driven apart by people who don’t care about the wreckage they left behind. We’ve got some time to search our souls. Let’s not give them the satisfaction of being the wreckage.

* though of course you can have both

Farmers for Biden

Block that metaphor

Yesterday, five days before the election, I drove my son to his high school soccer game in Hannibal, Missouri, a river town about two hours northeast of Columbia. We headed due north from Columbia through some extremely flat land, all corn, that after a while became the gently rolling hills that once prompted a professor in Iowa to say to my visiting textbook editor wife, “You all farm on hills down there.”

As we were drove, we talked about politics, which my son has great interest in, though more in government and political philosophy than the politicking side, but even if he didn’t, he couldn’t escape knowing about it in the house he’s grown up in. At one point in the flat early stretch, sparsely dotted with farm houses, silos, and tractors, I said something about how growing up in country like that, I could imagine how big cities and protests and the diversity of parts of America not like that could seem alien and even scary, a feeling the president and his party use to their advantage every day in the way they stoke the fires of resentment and rage about blue states and Democrat-run cities, about looters and rioters and people who want to destroy their way of life.

We saw a bunch of political signs as we drove, with plenty of signs for local candidates; there were more for Biden than we thought we’d see, including some that read Farmers for Biden. As we expected, though, there were more Trump signs, increasing in proportion to the Biden signs the closer we got to Hannibal and coming to include giant Trump flags on the backs of trucks and stuck right in the ground. Some of the giant stiff yard signs, even farther north, were Biden signs, or once had been–somebody had cut out the BIDEN on a few of them, leaving neat rectangular holes above the smaller PRESIDENT. We didn’t see similar editing work done on any Trump signs.

VOTE bracelet by @sallybeadcandy

I’m writing this morning about our trip because what we experienced when we got there was pretty unsettling, and I’m finding it hard not to see it now through the cut-out holes in those signs and through the fact of the difference between the towns the teams were from. Having moved to central Missouri from New York City some sixteen years ago, I’ll never get quite used to having my college town be seen as the big city in other, smaller towns I visit, but the reception the boys and their parents got was clearly colored by that perception. I’ve given some talks at local libraries and historical societies in some very small towns, and have always been warmly received, and even though we weren’t going to have time to hang out in Hannibal, I was looking forward to being there because of the whole Mark Twain’s Hometown thing. So I wasn’t prepared for the Soccer Families of Hannibal.

Illustration from New Yorker accompanying soccer poems; parents yelling at kid fixing sock while ball bounces past
Art by Kris Mukai

I won’t get into the game itself, because I can’t imagine anything people want to read less than a parent’s account of the criminally bad refereeing (it was, really) at his kid’s high school soccer game, or the muttering about my usual not standing up for the anthem (nobody needs to read about that either), but I do want to talk about the anger on the sidelines. I’ve written about the things you hear on soccer sidelines before, and maybe if my fingers hadn’t been frozen I would have turned the things I heard last night into more found soccer poetry, but they weren’t the sort of gently appalling things I’d heard at my sons’ youth games: they were angry. Really angry. And it wasn’t things like the line judge repeatedly telling a man that he was going to have to leave if he didn’t stop yelling at him. Every team has those parents, and ours had a few things to say last night. It was the parents hanging over the fence yelling to their goalkeeper about the boy who was about to take one of the tied-game-deciding penalty kicks against him (ostensibly to the goalie, anyway). Over the course of the game, the Soccer Families of Hannibal imagined a number of fouls against their boys and grew increasingly enraged in their reactions to these mostly uncalled (because mostly imaginary) fouls. They yelled that their boys were going to have to fight back on the field. They yelled that they were going to have to fight for them after the game. A teen girl yelled twice–at the ref? at the few representatives of the Soccer Families of Columbia who’d made the trip, wary of the virus bus?–“We’ll just have to take care of it after the game, then!”

The Hannibal team won the game on penalty kicks, an outcome that seemed to matter a lot to the winners and their fist-pumping parents. It’s hard (and maybe ungenerous) not to wonder whether their joy was informed by their beating the kids from the big city, though apparently the players were talking about it during the game. It’s harder not to wonder whether their rage has some connection to the signage and the season, to the America they’re told we’re living in now, to the deeper affect these things are tapping into, the aggrieved whiteness that people keep trying to excuse as economic anxiety. If my fingers hadn’t been frozen and I’d really wanted to push my luck, I’d have taken pictures of the angry faces and posted them here, and we could have all seen what we want to see in them. What I’m seeing this morning, as I remember them, is the thing I most fear about next Tuesday and next Tuesday’s aftermath: angry white people playing victim, looking for ways to take care of it after the game.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

As I write this, my desktops (literal and digital) are covered with work–Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir Trespasses, from which the essay my Writing about Literature students are reading for Friday, “White Trash Primer,” is drawn; my notes from Jonathan Culler’s chapter “Identity, Identification, and the Subject” in Literary Theory for Wednesday’s class; a video I made for my Careers and English class about their assignment, making what their book (You Majored in What?) calls “possibility maps”; Joan Didion’s novel Democracy, which we’re reading in my graduate seminar this week; a couple of histories of scholarly publishing; a copy of the book I’m helping lead a reading group on tonight, Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.

As I write this, Twitter is crawling with disinformation about the debate (hidden hearing devices, drugs, and dementia) that chaos agents are pouring into the wide-open brains of my compatriots, Facebook fills with anxiety about submitting absentee ballots and the relative merits of phone-banking, text-banking, and sending postcards, and on Instagram, pictures of things people are petting, growing, eating, selling, and contemplating instead of the election unspool.

As I write this, my brain is a stew of my work and my social media feeds and my news media consumption, bubbling over a flame that’s set too high, and everything is starting to melt together, though I doubt the flavors will meld. (And because I’m reading Didion, it seems I have no choice but to overemploy anaphora and enumeratio. The tortured metaphors and vague, creeping dread I come by more honestly.)

holy shit michael beschloss

I alternate between having nothing to say about anything and wanting to share this feeling of all the stories coming together–the stories of America’s white underclass trying to understand what’s happened to it, the stories of settler violence and racial capitalism, the shrinking future my students face, the value of hard thinking and the attacks against it everywhere. And in the background of all this is the voice of a truly freaked-out Michael Beschloss from a few days ago, in the clip above, saying “This is not a drill.”

As Walter Johnson writes, the story of this country full of stories is the story of empire and racial capitalism. As his history of St. Louis points out, it is a story of rich white people making promises to poor white people in order to get them to help push native people and black people out of the way so they can make themselves more money. What was simple when St. Louis was the headquarters of westward expansion and native removal got more complicated as it became the headquarters of freedom suits, munitions manufacture and “urban renewal,” but in many ways it’s the same old story.

And it’s the story of what’s happening right now. Rich white people are making promises to other white people, many poor, and the interests of the former are being served by their convincing the latter that their interests coincide (they don’t), an act–the convincing–made easier in a climate in which a man who doesn’t read anything longer than a chyron can become president and white supremacy is the argument that puts the Q in QED. It’s enough to break your heart.

“White Trash Primer” ends:

Your English professor says you have POTENTIAL and you hold this real close to your heart when you’re walking up to get your diploma and sixteen of your cousins and your aunts and uncles and grandparents on both sides and your two sisters are hooting and hollering from the stands and your mama blows an air horn and your daddy yells your name so loud and true it’s like he’s calling you to come up from the creek bottom. And you hear him calling for some time.

In the video lecture I put up on Canvas for my students to watch before they read “White Trash Primer,” I told them to think about what the title means and what it means to write an essay in the second person, warned them about the sexual violence in the middle, reminded them to try to make connections between the essay and the theories of identity we’ve just read. I also told them it’s okay to cry when you read nonfiction, because the ending can really get you. Maybe it’s just me and the stew in my brain, but rereading it before the video, it really got me. It got me because I want good things to still seem possible, I want a future where the country’s governing institutions–sometimes the only things protecting possibility for everyone who isn’t a rich white man–haven’t been destroyed. Because I need America to listen for once to the people who do the reading. We all need it.

The Varieties of User Experience

or McSweeney’s didn’t want this, so here it is for free

Thanks, Merriam-Webster

Being on Twitter while in online meeting: Zoomscrolling

Being on Twitter, skeptically: Humescrolling

Reading influencers on Twitter, anxiously: Bloomscrolling

Grumbling to yourself about violations of outmoded writing conventions on Twitter: Whomscrolling

Wondering what ever happened to Action Park while on Twitter: Flumescrolling

Eating edamame while on Twitter: Legumescrolling

Scanning Twitter for apocryphal stories of famous meetings: Presumescrolling

Being on Twitter on the high seas: Spumescrolling

Looking on Twitter for references to Márquez and Cortázar: Boomscrolling

Reading Twitter through eye gunk: Rheumscrolling

Spending time on gothic Twitter: Gloomscrolling

Reading Twitter on your phone while walking around Dublin all day in a Homeric sort of way: also Bloomscrolling

Reading wedding Twitter: Groomscrolling

Thinking about high fashion while on Twitter: Klumscrolling

Looking for God on Twitter while also identifying yourself: Blumescrolling

Having your hopes for the future crushed by reading on Twitter about the actions of the attorney general and the president to steal the election until you can longer even blink or wash or feed yourself: the user experience

Merde, Merde, Merde

I have just recorded my first video to insert into my first module for my first online class, which starts next week, and I’m waiting for it to be transcribed so it can have closed captions, and I’m almost finished uploading all of my readings and setting up all of the discussions and assignments and Zoom backgrounds and I remember back in grad school when I was so proud of myself for learning HTML enough to make a very bad web page and this is not what I signed up for.

I am fortunate that I am in a situation where I can teach online this semester, so I’m not complaining; I was on leave last semester and so this is my first go at all of this. And there’s a part of it that’s kind of fun, figuring out the technology, as long as you don’t stop to think about whether doing all of this online instruction–which is unfortunately necessary now and which all campuses should be doing but for various reasons good and mostly not so good are trying not to, at least for a few days–will make it easier for administrations to move more forcefully online once it’s no longer necessary.

But I didn’t come here on the Saturday before classes start to talk about how universities have/should have responded to This Unprecedented Time. I only came here to say good luck to everyone teaching online and off this semester, to remind you to stay safe, to have fun with your Zoom backgrounds, and to remember that a free thinker is Satan’s slave, so let’s get out there and send him a few more.

There’s No Crying on Zoom

A Twitter exchange on John Williams’s Stoner today included a mention of my reading a bit of the novel aloud at a conference a couple of years ago, and it got me thinking about conferences and teaching and my habit of getting choked up in both settings reading things aloud or talking about affecting subjects. I’m never not able to keep teaching or to finish my paper, though there have been times that I’ve had to struggle to pull it together, turning and facing the wall or staring out the window for a moment. It’s a thing that’s always always happened to me as an academic, and though it’s hardly unique to me, I’ve had many academic mentors and colleagues for whom such a display would be unthinkable.

Just tending my garden

But the point of these moments is that they’re not really about thinking, and this Stoner exchange has gotten me thinking just now about their place in my work, and in the work of academics generally, and especially in my teaching, particularly in my teaching next semester, which is going to be entirely online because my department generously allowed me that option. I haven’t figured out how much my classes will be synchronous and how much not, but even when we can all see each other’s faces on our screens, I’m wondering whether those moments will happen. I believe you can learn and teach online, though like most of us it’s not my ideal, but if you teach smallish discussion-based classes, so much happens that I’m worried can’t happen if we’re not sharing the same physical space and (how’s this for an awkward figure of speech) breathing the same air. So what I’m worrying about now–because someone helped me remember the sadly beautiful moment at the end of an English professor’s life when he remembers the overwhelming feeling of joy and terror that the work of reading and thinking and talking had brought him–is whether I and my students will be able to be overcome by words and ideas together.

This is more a reflection than a cry for help, as far as I can tell, but I’ll take help if people have some.


When the Rain Fall

Screen Shot 2020-02-06 at 11.24.15 PM

It’s Bob Marley’s birthday today.

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 10.44.44 AMIt’s also the day that saw Donald Trump attack his political opponents at the National Prayer Breakfast and give a bizarre, despair-inducing speech in the East Wing of the White House. In case you missed it, he called his opponents, including leaders of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House of Representatives and a sitting Senator, “scum” and “sleazebags” and whined about how poorly he had been treated. He invited the audience to stand up and testify to his greatness. Some day we’ll learn the pharmacological details. It’s also the day we learned that the Attorney General now has the right to approve any investigations into anyone running for office. And we heard that the debunked conspiracy theory Trump tried to bribe Ukraine’s president to legitimate–an effort the Senate just yesterday acquitted him of being thrown out of office for–was being pursued for investigation by his supporters. It’s the day, then, that we learned that despite the efforts of good women and men to save us, it’s entirely possible that this administration could continue for another four years. At least.

It’s been enough to make me feel like maybe we’ve lost.

Screen Shot 2020-02-07 at 12.09.18 AMBob Marley and Donald Trump don’t belong in the same universe, much less the same post. I hate even thinking of them on the same day. But around 3 or 4 this afternoon, after spending so much time on Twitter being angry and appalled that someone I know only on Twitter told me nicely to go outside, I remembered something. I wrote some encyclopedia entries when I was in grad school to supplement my teaching, and in reading for one I wrote on Bob Marley, I learned something he said after an attempt was made on his life. The attack happened two days before a free unity concert organized by Jamaica’s prime minister, and it was thought to be intended to keep him from appearing at the concert. Injured, Marley played anyway. When asked why, he said, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

To borrow another line of Marley’s, from his “So Much Things to Say,” “Remember that, when the rain fall/ It don’t fall on one man’s housetop.” It’s raining. The people who are trying to make the world worse are busy. No days off.

Closing Time



I just watched the president* deliver his statement about the recent exchange of hostilities between Iran and the US while taxiing on an O’Hare runway on the way to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. It was something. Now I’m in the air and I can’t stop seeing it play over in my head. During my layover, I had been preoccupied with the conference–a panelist on the roundtables I organized had to pull out at the last second, I still have to figure out who I’m going to be talking to for the book series I edit, I don’t know how I’m supposed to stay awake for 9 p.m. dinners at my advanced age. But this press conference pulled me back into the whirlpool of war worry I’d briefly avoided (skirting that Charybdis for the Scylla of conference scheduling?). It also made me really, really angry.

Screen Shot 2020-01-08 at 11.39.41 AMIt wasn’t just that the man enough people somehow thought was qualified to lead the country was so alarmingly out of it, even more unable to read a teleprompter (let alone to breathe) than usual. It wasn’t just that he seemed like he might have accidentally revealed classified intelligence about new weapons (which I somehow misheard as semisonic rather than hypersonic, reminding me of one of my all-time least favorite songs).  More than anything, it was the dig about the missiles used in Iran’s attack being paid for by the previous administration that stuck in my craw.

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AKA the craw

It stuck in my craw because there are times that it seems that the most important of all the things that make the president* so bad at his job and so bad for the country isn’t his greed, power-hunger, venality, or ignorance, it’s his joyful divisiveness. He’s a divider, not a uniter. The jab at his predecessor in today’s statement is of a piece with everything we know about him from his past as inheritor of his father’s racist renting practices, as rabid accuser of the Central Park Five, as birther, from his campaign’s being built on xenophobia, Islamophobia, and the culture war divides that split this country., and from his behavior as president.

I’m not so naive that I don’t know the US has a long and very distinguished career of division, from its displacements of the many natives who were here before to the deportation of the many we should be welcoming today. The 1619 Project’s partly rhetorical move to install 1619 alongside 1776 is nothing if not a reminder of that. But it also has a long history of being better, or trying to be–alongside the history of institutions, conflicts, and policies built on supremacy, on America First and fuck everybody else (including Americans some in power would rather not count as Americans), there is a history of people working against those things. And there are millions of people like me who are hungry for leaders (and voters) who want to be part of that second history, who believe in the old cliches about a national project in which we are united. (I think it’s one of the reasons so many are wary of the primary’s moments of tensions, in addition to the more practical immediate concerns of what it will mean come the general.)

Screen Shot 2020-01-08 at 12.30.32 PMUnfortunately, the president* isn’t one of those people. In a moment when much of the nation he was elected to serve and the larger world was scared shitless at what might happen next, he could have–as most presidents before him would–reassured us. Instead, he rattled his saber, bragged about the size of his guns, ignored the effects on the people who live outside our borders just like he ignores so many within them, and, because he just couldn’t resist, blamed the whole thing on the man who made fun of him one night at a comedy fundraiser. It went by so fast you could almost miss it. If you did, here’s what he said: “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” Never mind that (as he’s been reminded countless times when returning to the subject of this money) it wasn’t a gift, or that there’s no evidence whatever that that money paid for those missiles: the point is to insinuate that the Democrats are on the bad guys’ side.

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Two days ago Nikki Haley made a similar move. After our armed forces, without any consultation within our government or with whatever allies we might still have, killed a military leader of another country, some wondered whether it had been a good idea. Many national Democratic figures condemned the attack, but not because they thought the victim was a swell guy. Following the same playbook as her president and working toward the same blatantly political end, she said the people running the opposition party and the people running to oppose the president* in the next election were “mourning” his death. See, it’s not just that people disagree with the president: they’re the enemy, they’re not real Americans, they’re evil. It’s from the same playbook out of which Trump pulled his Let’s make Jewishness a nationality move a month ago, and it’s angering for the same reason. The only people who really matter are Trumps. White Christians are the other real Americans, his actions and words say, so he’ll look out for them a little while slipping their wallets out of their pockets as he gives them a manly clap on the shoulder. Everybody else is suspect. The people getting the shoulder claps are happy to hear it, because they think they’re part of the us and not the them. Somehow this shyster and his party of shysters has fooled them into believing it.

I’m somewhere over the Northern plains right now, somebody I don’t know is asleep on my shoulder, there’s a kid two rows up crying in stereo with the kid two rows behind me, and I’m so lonesome I could cry, because that’s how the president* wants me to feel. We all need to be looking over our shoulders at each other, statements like this morning’s tell us, because we’re not in this together. If we can’t stay here, as the song goes, where are we supposed to go home to. If the American project is shuttering its doors, what the hell happens next?