The Existential Itch: “It’s the most human thing we can do”

Hindsight gives those of us with writerly instincts the fodder of a script—as if everything is packaged with intent that falls together like a play or a film with a twist.

It was nearly impossible for me to avoid falling in love with science fiction—first, the blended SF/horror films of the first half of the twentieth century, and then, SF novels, often prompted by films—because of my mother’s influence.

That boyhood romance with a genre blurred into my teenage addiction to comic books, Marvel superheroes; I was mostly unaware that this fascination branched into reading, drawing, and the most powerful heroine of all, collecting.

And then by college, I found myself often sitting alone for hours, in the library or my dorm room, reading existential philosophy.

To me now, approaching 60, that all makes perfect sense, although it likely doesn’t to many others.

Insecurity and low self-esteem mixed generously with searing anxiety—this was my cocktail for a frantic pursuit of who I was since mostly I felt an acute awareness that I was unlike most people, most humans.

Crawling out of the heaping ignorance that was my upbringing, simply the facts of my culture and home norms, I consumed SF, comic books, and then philosophy uncritically. In some ways, this allowed me to fall in love without the pressure of acknowledging all the problems I would come to recognize in these seemingly unrelated texts that shaped me.

Let me work backwards.

Existentialism immediately resonated with me; again, in my ignorance, in my true state of being unlike most humans, I never read existential philosophy as some negative or dark portrayal of the human condition.

In fact, existential explanations for the human condition were a tremendous relief since they echoed how I mostly viewed the world (although in a much cruder way).

To feel passion is to suffer; and thus, to seek a life without suffering is to seek a life without passion. As Sartre dramatized, then, hell is other people.

To love deeply is necessarily to hurt deeply, and this math of being fully human, for me, reinforced my commitment to seek passion and love, to resist the urge to avoid suffering (since it is unavoidable).

Sartre’s No Exit as well as Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger remains powerful texts for what being human means to me.

SF and comic books, I realize now, prepared me for this as they both had been salve for my own struggles with questions about the human condition.

It seems fitting, then, that one of the seminal SF loves of my life was Blade Runner (1982). I was 21, and still naive enough to fall in love with its SF brilliance while not yet critical enough to recognize that, like most SF and comic books (and pop culture or literature), the film presented some real problems about whether or not the work reflected or endorsed sexism, racism, and other regrettable norms of the modern human condition.

I saw Blade Runner in the theater, alone and during the day. Nearly everyone else who attended left during the film, but I sat entranced. I have watched it dozens of times since.

And now, finally, I just viewed Blade Runner 2049, a much delayed sequel.

BR 2049
Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) [Photo by Stephen Vaughan – © 2017 Alcon Entertainment, LLC.]
Both films remain grounded in the ideas of Philip K. Dick without remaining strictly true to Dick’s characters and plot found in Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?

As Dick explained:

The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 depends a great deal on atmosphere, which may allow the casual viewer to ignore some real problems, or at least questions that need to be answered.

Anna Smith reported:

“Blade Runner 2049 has a women problem,” cried the internet this weekend, as the critically praised sci-fi sequel hit cinemas. Tweets and blogs cited the fact that female characters were treated as sex objects, and that the narrative was almost entirely driven by men, including Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunter K and his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Outrage quickly spread, including from those who had not yet seen the film.

Smith later concedes that the film at the very least presents a mixed message:

And, indeed, there are a number of [female] characters. Robin Wright is terrific but underused as K’s slick, strong, black-clad boss, Lieutenant Joshi, and Sylvia Hoeks’s icy baddie Luv is great fun, but in thrall to her male boss (sinister replicant-creator Wallace, played by Jared Leto). Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette shows initial promise as a strong character who can give as good as she gets, but she is also a sex worker who is literally used as a puppet. Visually, sexualised images of women dominate the stunning futuristic cityscapes, from pirouetting ballerinas to giant statues of naked women in heels looming over K as he goes on his journey. Of course, one of the themes of Blade Runner 2049 is a world littered with artifice, from replicants to sexbots – but these mainly seem to cater to heterosexual males. A hint of a woman considering a “pleasure model” is brief and unexplored. Meanwhile Wright’s Joshi appears attracted to K, but she is not permitted to use him for her sexual pleasure. Where is her holographic lover, her Joi?

In the original film, Deckard (Harrison Ford) falls in love with a replicant (and may be one himself); and the sequel introduces “K” (Ryan Gossling) with a hologram girlfriend (one who hires a prostitute, Mariette [Mackenzie Davis], so the hologram and “K” can experience “real” sex).

So these works of SF use android women to make a commentary about idealizing and objectifying women? Or are these works themselves idealizing and objectifying women?

Evidence for the former may be that two women utter directly some of the essential Dick themes of the film:

Mariette: More human than humans.

Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.

Blade Runner 2049 continues the debate about what counts as real and what makes humans human. The sequel includes the rise of replicants, fighting against their slavery in a quest to be “[m]ore human than humans,” and teases out the possibility of androids reproducing.

I recognize this time around the problems with the sequel, ones that occur in the original, but I will come back to this film again and again. I must find a way to resolve for myself why I flinched when “K”‘s hologram girlfriend is destroyed—although I suspect we all want love, and see in those who have it a thing to be treasured.

But this film, and all its existential meanderings, comes as I myself am struggling with an existential itch, trying to reassemble a puzzle that I once held dear, a puzzle scattered and I feared permanently ruined.

After about 13 months of self-exile from one of my passions, road cycling, I am now able to stand back and realize the loss that comes with trying to find ways to avoid suffering.

In the last week, I have ventured back onto the road with my cycling friends. Despite the rides being relatively brief (a couple hours each) and typical winter casual rides, I felt the same elation I may have allowed myself to ignore after thirty-plus years riding, may have been unable to recall after the accident that shook me into admitting I was done with road cycling.

Certainly, life provides no guarantees, and we can seek a life as free of unnecessary suffering as possible; we should be making that true for others (and here Blade Runner 2049 does makes a case for how unnecessarily awful the world is for children and women).

Deckard tells “K,” “Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger,” a confession or justification for never seeing his child with Rachael, his replicant lover.

Later when Deckard is being used to find that child, Niander Wallace offers a key point about Deckard’s quest to avoid his own suffering and the suffering of those he loved: “It was very clever to keep yourself empty of information, and all it cost you was everything.”

To live is to risk everything. To avoid risk is to avoid life. And love.

Maybe few things are more fully human than our need to be reminded of this over and over as long as we are fortunate enough to have the options.

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I, Marxist

It is not for the theater alone, but the theater itself would justify the moment in each class I teach when I out myself as a “communist” (pausing, then clarifying the whole communist-socialist-Marxist mess that most Americans cannot untangle).

And that comes early so that I can punctuate about once a class period a key point with “Here is the communist propaganda of the day.” Eventually, this prods laughter when at first there were silent faces, eyes down, of utter fear.

In almost all of my courses, we back up and reconsider terms such as “theory,” “hypothesis,” “belief,” “objectivity,” and of course the cursed trinity, “communist-socialist-Marxist.” What is interesting as well is that most of my students are as ill-informed about “capitalism,” “democracy,” and “republic” as they are misguided about the Red Scare.

While I remain resistant to any and all labels (see this about my born-again agnostic confession), I am, in fact, more or less a Marxist, with the caveat that the term itself and the ideologies surrounding it are contentious, at best.

I was never an Ayn Rand simpleton (excuse the redundancy), but in my early life as a would-be intellectual/academic (my teens), I was powerfully drawn to American Romanticism’s star-struck gaze on the individual—the stuff of the three-name bullshitters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (for whom I still have some affection, by the way).

But my twenties and thirties included a great awakening that ran through John Dewey (rejecting the either/or thinking of society v. individual) and directly into Paulo Freire, a (the?) patron saint of educational Marxists.

The boy-to-man transition can be a slow one, but I eventually shrugged off my idealizing the individual and demonizing the collective (damned Society), and came to a much more nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical implications (or absence thereof) inherent in the rugged individual myth and the larger consumerism/capitalism norm of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

This transition, I realize, is part of a personal journey to an ethical way of being, and thus, I had to reject rugged individualism and capitalism (consumerism) for their amorality; I had to embrace Marxism for its moral imperative.

Of course, I realize that “moral” and “ethical” are social constructions, not some objective thing handed down by G(g)od; however, I think humans can create norms that seek ways to honor the collective and individual good.

I am still traversing along Dewey’s call to reject the either/or—despite the wealth of post-apocalyptic science/speculative fiction (that I love) grounded in the evil collective assaulting the idealized indivdual. See Winston’s head trapped in the cage under the threat of loosed rats.

Pretty damn hard to resist this warning, but it’s hokum, mostly, especially since this sort of propaganda by Randian capitalists and aimed at demonizing the government is a distortion of a more credible warning about totalitarianism, something more likely when government is corrupted by corporations (not the implied message that government is the inherently corrupt force in the universe).

Thus, my Marxism runs toward the recognition (the paradox) that if we do value individual freedom and the so-call free market (insert sarcastic cough here), the path to those ideals begins with insuring the robustness of the public good first.

Randian capitalists preach that the free market comes first, as the sacred Invisible Hand—while public institutions (gasp) are to be tolerated only and always under a skeptical gaze.

As ideologies, both of these approaches are idealistic, and possibly inherently unattainable.

I remain with the Marxist camp because it is the moral idealism against the amoral idealism of Randian capitalism.

I am willing to concede that having two or three competing pharmacies facing off across the street and corners from each other can work to depress prices—possibly more so than depending on the usually bungled bureaucracy of government to serve the people well (here, read some Kafka).

But the public good will not be served by Walgreens and Ekerd alone in terms of just what pharmaceuticals they sale; in fact, if anything, the U.S. is a horrible parable about the failure of allowing the market to drive the selling of medicine. (Consider Tamiflu, which is mostly sold to create profit for drug companies, but likely is not close to being cost effective or curative for patients).

The free market spawned Viagra and Cialis, we must consider, but cancer is left to private non-profits begging for people to be decent, and, human.

Charity.

So to stand before my students and confess “I, Marxist,” is no mere theater, although it serves that well also.

It is, in fact, an act of confessing my own moral imperative as a teacher, and a human—as flawed as all that is.

It is a defiance in the wake of all the cartoonish Red baiting that has characterized the U.S. for more than a century.

And I persist, although “I’m not sure all these people understand.”

SCCTE 2018: Teaching Writing Beyond “College and Career Ready” and High School

Teaching Writing Beyond “College and Career Ready” and High School

Paul Thomas, Furman University

Session E.9/ 2:50-3:35

Yeamans 2

Teaching high school students to write, traditionally and in the era of “college and career ready,” often fails to prepare students either for college writing or real-world writing. This session will invite a conversation about how students are taught to write in high school English (highlighting AP and test-prep) in the context of disciplinary writing in college as well as so-called authentic writing beyond formal education.

Resources

See PowerPoint HERE

Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

UNC Writing Center Handouts

Writing for Specific Fields

Prompt Analysis for Genre Awareness (A. M. Johns)

Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, Michael A. Caulfield

Why are there so many Different Citation Styles

Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing

Recommended

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

Disciplinary Writing

First-Year Composition

A Year of Loss and the Things that Define Us

People who quit smoking often explain that part of the struggle with quitting is that without smoking they don’t know what to do with their hands.

Smoking often defines the smoker, and quitting is more than an end to smoking; it is a terrifying experiment in redefining the Self.

My parents were both smokers who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s; and they both quit, although on much different terms—Dad quit while I was in high school, and Mom only many years after I had moved out. When my mother died (7 December 2017), the final straw was stage 4 lung cancer.

That was just a bit over five months after my father’s death.

2017 for me was a year of loss that began with the thing that defined me being taken away as well—road cycling—after a senseless car accident on Christmas Eve 2016 that impacted directly four cyclists in a pack of 10, but resonated throughout our entire cycling community as well.

Mountain biking and some running have slipped into the gap where road cycling used to be, but like ex-smokers who don’t know what to do with their hands, I remain often lost without road cycling.

My life as a road cyclist stretched over four decades since the 1980s with some waxing and waning, but from about 2003 until 2016, I was logging around 9,000-10,000 miles a year on the road and leading weekly rides as well as organizing pretty big cycling events.

WBL dec 2015
Social media can be cruel; this image from 2015 captures the thing that defined me that was not a part of my life in 2017. I take a break here at the back of the pack, riding the green Ridley that was destroyed in the car accident.

I was cycling seriously about 4-5 days a week without fail, regardless of weather, regardless of professional and personal obligations.

It was what I did.

It was who I was.

And for the most part, that meant no questions asked by family, friends, or colleagues.

My first class meeting of spring 2018 was my evening course, a new writing/research-intensive offering for my department and university. As students filed in, I arranged the handouts and such on the table at the front of the room, and checked that my smartphone was on vibrate, placing it face-up and in easy view near the piles of papers.

Then it hit me.

My smartphone obsession was in part due to having had infirm parents for many years, always on alert that they could call during class, and if so, it was probably urgent.

That moment was the first time I confronted that part of my life being over since both parents died in 2017.

In that flash of realization, I also thought about the beginning of class in January 2017—when I was barely able to walk, using a cane to counter the limp from a fractured pelvis.

Over the weeks and months of physically healing from the fracture, and looking for ways to regain my athletic life, I was forced to think about the other things that defined me.

Fortunately, as a teacher/professor and writer, those aspects of who I am were mostly unscathed—although all loss reminds us of the fragility of being human, the temporal nature of all that we do, all that defines us.

My journey through my 50s was already haunted by a lingering fear of the end of my cycling life well before the accident. I was riding at very high levels of intensity and with elite cyclists.

No one maintains these physical levels of exertion, I was quite aware, but having that fear turned into reality in a blink, and in a way beyond my control, was far more psychologically scarring than I really would like to admit.

But here, yes, I am admitting that.

When people refer to me professionally, they still tend to say I am an English teacher, even though I have not been one in over 16 years.

When people talk about me as a writer, they mention that I blog—I tend to hear “just a blogger”—and that I am prolific, often a back-handed compliment that carries more than a whiff of brushing aside.

I tend to weather those pretty well, I think, because my teacher/professor-Self and my writer-Self are quite resilient after well over 30 years at both. Those moves have much left to improve, but I have them in pretty good form; people tend to think I do them effortlessly, and that is a testament to all the hard work leading up to now and all the hard work I do when no one is watching.

Teaching and writing are things that define me, and I love them, I cherish them.

I am equally terrified of losing them in the ways road cycling was stripped from my life.

Alzheimer’s. Blindness.

Yesterday in the just-at-freezing midday temperature, I joined two friends, Rob and Wayne, to mountain bike for the third day in a row over the MLK holiday weekend.

Rob and Wayne were close members of my road cycling life—Rob and I mostly about equal in our cycling abilities, and Wayne an elite cyclist who inspired me to keep at it on rides even as I reached my limits.

We planned to ride about 1.5 hours and wanted to head over to a trail we typically avoid due to heavy horse traffic. The trails were muddy from recent rains, but some of that was frozen, making for an interesting day of slipping and plowing over and through sections both slick and solid.

Just a couple years ago, Rob, Wayne, and I were regular members of the so-called A group of area road cyclists. Yesterday, Rob and Wayne simply rode away from me, waiting at intervals as I crept up to them—at one regroup, me tumbling over with a disturbing thud just as I reached them.

Especially after my year of loss, my MTB rides are equal parts bitter frustration and a constant reminder that at least I can ride.

I used to be a fairly accomplished road cyclist, and now I sputter off the back; slip, step off, or crash; and generally flounder as a mountain biker; this simply is not the thing that I want to define me as I approach 60.

I have never been one for arbitrary traditions and things like holidays or celebrating the new year, especially with resolutions.

But with 2017 being a year of loss, and as I age not so gracefully, I feel the tug of a new year, and the allure of having some hope to regain the thing that defines me.

I know I am tired after 2017, psychologically drained and physically weary.

I also know I am tired of sputtering off the back, floundering on mountain bike rides, and too often dreading all of that against the Siren’s song of just riding that I still hear loudly.

Smokers quit for many reasons, I imagine, especially now that public smoking is shunned, but primarily, I think, smokers quit as some sort of very human resistance to death. Not many people inhale a cigarette gleefully expecting to die of cancer.

My last accident on a bicycle involving a car was actually my fourth incident so I must admit that road cycling always confronted me with the specter of death—like a smoker lighting up each time.

I lay in the ER Christmas Eve 2016 realizing all the people I would have to look in the eyes, most of them again, with some anticipation about if or when I would once again pedal along the road. That last time was the first as a grandfather, and I couldn’t shake the weight of those eyes as I thought about the very real likelihood that I would never again be a road cyclist.

It’s been fourteen months since then, and I still don’t know what to do with my hands.

The Outlier Fallacy: Keeping Our Accusatory Gaze on Individuals, and Not Systemic Inequity

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a celebrity—both of which speak to his exceptional talents, especially in the context of being a black man in the U.S.

In many ways, Tyson is the anti-Sheldon (the fictional nerd genius of The Big Bang Theory), and his celebrity as a scientist serves as a powerful model against corrosive racist stereotypes.

I am but a redneck with a doctorate (EdD) that most in the hard sciences, like Tyson, would brush aside, and my scholarship and public work as a social scientist also land me squarely well below the credibility bar against Tyson’s stature as a hard scientist and celebrity.

None the less, I must offer a friendly rebuttal to Tyson on a recent Tweet:

To which I replied:

Despite his status as an astrophysicist, his wealth of knowledge as a scientist, Tyson’s celebrity, I fear (much as is the case with Oprah), has clouded his better sensibilities.

The celebrity class in the U.S. often uses that celebrity to hold forth well beyond their areas of expertise (see as the king of this practice, Bill Gates). And Tyson very well could have good intentions here, and I concede he may not deserve being held liable for the codes of his Tweet (How many read “broken childhoods” as code for “living in poverty” and/or “single-black-parent home”?)

Tyson’s public is rife with those who cling to successful blacks who reinforce their racism: OJ Simpson, Ben Carson, Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Charles Barkley, to name a few.

And so Tyson is holding forth as a Great American Winner, and winners often believe that the primary cause of their success is in their own character and effort; winners, in other words, are apt not to consider the role of the rules in their winning—notably rarely considering that the rules could be unfairly tilted in their favor.

So there are two fundamental flaws in Tyson’s Tweet: First is the implication that in the U.S. we are not already focusing on “those who succeed in spite”; and second, “those who succeed in spite” are outliers, and thus, both in the hard sciences and the social sciences more problematic than the potential source of understanding human behavior.

Tyson’s suggestion is trapped within the rugged individualism/bootstrap myths of the U.S. and then speaks to the same—but coming from Tyson, his argument feeds some nasty racial and racist narratives as well (If only we could inculcate in all blacks the character and effort that the black winners [outliers] have…).

People who succeed have character traits that trump people who fail—goes the narrative. And thus, all we need to do is fix those people who do not succeed.

This outlier fallacy fails as science, but it also keeps the accusatory gaze on individuals. While Tyson suggests we focus on winners instead of losers, either option is flawed in that it allows systemic forces to be ignored even though systemic forces (not individual qualities) are often the primary cause of outcomes.

Let’s recalibrate Tyson’s Tweet just a bit to see the problem: Why don’t we study black men who do not find themselves in the criminal justice system instead of studying black men who are incarcerated to understand criminalization?

This proposal, of course, puts the gaze entirely on black men, and fails to recognize the first level problem—the criminal justice and policing systems in the U.S. are significantly inequitable for black Americans.

If our goal is equity and social justice for people trapped in poverty and for so-called racial minorities in the U.S., as well as seeking ways to support children better who are living broken childhoods, Tyson’s musing ignores how we already are failing both goals and promotes an outlier fallacy driven by the white gaze, something fostered among the winners who cannot allow themselves to question the rules that created their winning.

Especially in this time of Trump, seeking equity and justice cannot afford a celebrity class blinded by its celebrity. “Those who succeed” and “those who don’t succeed” are not the sources of where our gaze should be; those are outcomes driven by a game that is rigged.

Let’s reconsider the rules of that game and not the participants, whether they succeed or not.

NEW: Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Sandra Eckard, editor

Eckard_Comic Connections_Women[1] copy

See my chapter:

Wonder Woman: Reading and Teaching Feminism with an Amazonian Princess in an Era of Jessica Jones, P. L. Thomas

[Sample excerpt from Classroom Connections section]

Women Superhero Costumes and Sexism in Student Dress Codes

“The original Wonder Woman comics included page after page of bondage imagery, scads of cross-dressing villains, and really remarkably unrepressed lesbian eroticism[i],” explains Noah Berlatsky, examining The New 52 reboot of Wonder Woman, adding: “The best Azzarello/Chiang can do, in contrast, is to have their Amazons pose like Playboy models while Eros makes sophomoric cracks about the quest for seminal mortal vessels.”[ii] The tension between the potential for a woman superhero to confront and change corrosive social norms such as sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and objectifying/sexualizing women and the too-often reality of pop culture to reflect and reinforce those norms is throughout Wonder Woman, including how she is physically depicted as a superhero.

While comic books and graphic novels can be effective in classes as ways to reach beyond traditional texts, using Wonder Woman to lead into topics directly relevant to students is also recommended. Consider the controversial issue of dress codes for students as that is dramatized in depictions of Diana Prince and Wonder Woman.

In The New 52 rebooting of Wonder Woman, many have confronted the sexualizing of Wonder Woman in her costume and poses.[iii] These debates about objectification of females as well as slut shaming and body shaming can be introduced through Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman: Blood and the Meredith and David Finch runs before Rebirth), and then, students can research and debate the gender bias often found in school dress codes. Some resources for the latter include:

  • Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code[iv]. This is a documentary by a 17-year-old student, available on YouTube. This could be a text in this unit or a model for documentaries created by students.
  • “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist,” Li Zhou (The Atlantic).[v] This is a well-written work of journalism that covers the topic of sexism in dress codes well and serves as a strong model for public writing that uses hyperlinks as citation.
  • “Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes,” Meredith J. Harbach.[vi] Here, students can examine a scholarly approach to the issues of sexism and dress codes.
  • “The Unspoken Messages of Dress Codes: Uncovering Bias and Power,” Rosalind Wiseman (Anti-Defamation League).[vii] A curriculum resource and excellent overview, this can serve as a guideline for students lobbying for changes to dress codes and/or writing alternative codes that avoid bias.
  • “Baby Woman,” Emily Ratajkowski (Lenny).[viii] Ratajkowski is a contemporary celebrity, model and actress, who takes a strong public position as a feminist, despite her association with provocative and sexualized media (controversial music videos and TV commercials). Her personal narrative is a strong model of the genre, but it also complicates views of feminism and female sexuality as well as objectification.

Using the texts above, students can write persuasive essays, cited essays, and new dress codes; they can participate in formal or informal debates; and they can develop projects around identifying how popular media and culture objectify and shame women based on physical appearance and clothing. A unit on dress code linked to Wonder Woman is a provocative and rich unit that challenges students on many levels.

Finally, in this section on teaching through Wonder Woman, I am listing some additional resources for other units of study:

  • Robert Jones Jr., “Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination,” The Middle Spaces.[ix]
  • Eliana Dockterman, “Wonder Woman Breaks Through,” Time.[x]
  • Christopher J. Hayton, “Evolving Sub-Texts in the Visual Exploitation of the Female Form: Good Girl and Bad Girl Comic Art Pre- and Post-Second Wave Feminism,” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 4 (2014), www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v7_4/hayton/
  • Charlotte E. Howell, “‘Tricky’ Connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor,” Cinema Journal.[xi]
  • Mitra C. Emad, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” The Journal of Popular Culture.[xii]

Kelli E. Stanley, “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios.[xiii]

[i] Noah Berlatsky, “Comic Books Have Always Been Gay,” Slate, June 1, 2012, accessed February 10, 2017, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/06/01/gay_comic_books_have_been_around_since_the_birth_of_wonder_woman.html

[ii] Berlatsky, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act.”

[iii] Ryan, “Wonder Woman Takes a Big Step Back” and Berlatsky, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act.”

[iv] Maggie Sunseri, Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Codes, YouTube, may 29, 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDgAZO_5U_U

[v] Li Zhou, “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist,” The Atlantic, October 20, 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/school-dress-codes-are-problematic/410962/

[vi] Meredith Johnson Harbach, “Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes,” 50 U. Rich. L. Rev. 1039 (2016), access February 10, 2017, http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2275&context=law-faculty-publications

[vii] Rosalind Wiseman, “The Unspoken Messages of Dress Codes: Uncovering Bias and Power,” Anti-Defamation League, September 2014, accessed February 10, 2017, http://www.adl.org/education-outreach/curriculum-resources/c/the-unspoken-language-of-bias-and-power.html

[viii] Emily Ratajkowski, “Baby Woman,” Lenny, February 16, 2016, accessed February 2, 2017, http://www.lennyletter.com/life/a265/baby-woman-emily-ratajkowski/

[ix] Robert Jones Jr., “Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination,” The Middle Spaces, May 10, 2016, accessed February 2, 2017, https://themiddlespaces.com/2016/05/10/bumbling-dc-super-hero-girls/

[x] Eliana Dockterman, “Wonder Woman Breaks Through,” Time, December 26, 2016–January 2, 2017.

[xi] Charlotte E. Howell, “‘Tricky’ Connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor,” Cinema Journal 55.1 (2015, Fall), DOI: 10.1353/cj.2015.0072.

[xii] Mitra C. Emad, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” The Journal of Popular Culture 39.6 (2006).

[xiii] Kelli E. Stanley, “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios 32.2 (2005).

Models, Mentor Texts, and (More) Resisting Rubrics

In the discussion spurred by Ken Lindblom’s adding “interesting to read” to his writing rubrics, Tim Ogburn posed on the soon-to-be retired Teaching and Learning forum at NCTE’s Connected Community: “So, along with rubrics (or not), I wonder how folks use models (or not)?”

Ogburn’s question coincided with my first offering of an upper-level writing/research course at my university: Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education. After the first class meeting, I have been revising and adding to the course guidelines and materials.

Part of that work has been looking carefully at how I can use and expand my materials from my first-year writing seminar, which I have taught in various forms for about a decade now.

To answer Ogburn directly, I want to admit that my teaching writing practices are significantly grounded in using models and mentor texts. But here’s the caveat: My experience and the research base both show that using models is only a weak strategy when teaching writing.

For one example of research, Writing Next ranks using models as the tenth out of eleven effective strategies:

Study of Models (Effect Size = 0.25)

The study of models provides adolescents with good models for each type of writing that is the focus of instruction. Students are encouraged to analyze these examples and to emulate the critical elements, patterns, and forms embodied in the models in their own writing.The effects for all six studies reviewed were positive, though small. It was not possible to draw separate conclusions for low-achieving writers, as none of the studies specifically addressed this population.

None the less, I incorporate models and mentor texts while always seeking ways to increase their effectiveness.

Here, then, is how I use models for my four essay assignments in my first year writing seminar:

Essay Requirements

Essay 1: See our shared prompt HERE.

Examples of personal narratives:

Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby, Barbara Kingsolver

Letter to My Son, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males, Ta-Nehisi Coates

They Can’t Turn Back, James Baldwin

Essay 2: Compose and draft an essay of about 1250-1500 words in blog/online format (see examples below) that offers an expository or argumentative mode for a general public audience from the perspective of expertise. Incorporate images, video, or other media.

SAMPLE submission format.

Examples:

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

[See scholarly version: Can Superhero Comics Defeat Racism?]

There is no debate about hitting children – it’s just wrong

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

Gaiman’s Mythical Folding of Childhood into Adulthood

Essay 3: Compose and draft a substantially cited essay of about 4-6 double-spaced pages that presents a discipline-based examination of a topic or poses a discipline-based argument. Citations must conform to APA style guidelines. [See “Writing for Specific Fields.”]

Examples:

Properly formatted APA sample essay

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene ’s Mystification in Teacher Education

Essay 4: TBD in a conference

And then, how I have adapted that approach in an upper-level writing/research course (as embedded, noted bellow in red, in submission guidelines):

Annotated bibliographies: Submit annotated bibliographies in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “annotated bibliographies” in the subject line. See some guidelines and a sample annotated bibliography here (note APA version). Submit each annotated bibliography as a separate Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., double space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname AB#.docx” (each file numbered from 1 through 8 or 10).

Research project essay: Submit research project cited essay in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “research project essay” in the subject line. See APA guidelines here and a sample APA essay here. Submit essay as a Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., double space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname essay.docx” (as you revise and resubmit, add RW, RW2, RW3, etc., to the file name to designate multiple drafts).

Public commentary: Submit your public commentary in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “public commentary” in the subject line. See a sample public commentary here. Submit essay as a Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., single space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname OpEd.docx” (as you revise and resubmit, add RW, RW2, RW3, etc., to the file name to designate multiple drafts).

Finally, what, then, is the case for models and mentor texts—especially as ways to resist rubrics?

  • Authentic (published) models and mentor texts are powerful alternatives to templates and artificial writing forms such as five-paragraph essays and anchor texts for standardized testing.
  • Models and mentor texts are rich and engaging materials for reading like a writer and other critical reading activities, and thus, offer far more than simply teaching writing.
  • If resisting and not outright rejecting rubrics, teachers and students can mine models and mentor texts in order to develop rubrics and/or guiding questions for composing together.
  • Models and mentor texts are essential for developing genre awareness in students as well as fostering in students a greater understanding of writer purpose, audience, writing forms, conventional expectations (grammar, mechanics, and usage), etc.

As I continue to witness, teaching writing is a journey, and with that concession, using models and mentor texts to teach writing is an excellent example of how we must be neither a slave to nor ignorant of the research base and our own practiced experiences with methods. Grounding the teaching of writing in models and mentor texts proves to be both essential and in some ways inadequate, leaving us with “miles to go before [we] sleep.”