Social-Distance Traveling during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Cycling through the back roads to the south of Horsetooth Reservoir is an annual adventure.

For nearly a decade, I have been taking about a 2-week trip in July or early August for a cycling/brewery vacation. Many of the trips have been to Colorado, but also Asheville, NC and Fayetteville, AR (where I am sitting now).

To insure a good place to stay, reservations must be made many months ahead of this trip; so for the summer of 2020, I had secured and apartment near Old Town in Ft. Collins, CO many weeks before the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic occurred.

Beginning in early to Mid-March, my life has been changed significantly as it has been for most of the world. Also, I and my family as well as close friends have had to make decisions about how to navigate the pandemic in terms of social distancing.

Throughout the first phase of Covid-19, the shut-down phase, and into the phased-in reopening, I have taken a practical approach, recognizing the threat of the pandemic to myself and my communal responsibility.

I have maintained a semi-normal outdoor routine (I am an avid cyclist), but have stopped group riding (riding alone or with one or a very few other cyclists). I have also restricted my “social” activities to outdoor seating or take-out.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the pandemic has been the wearing of masks; yes, I wear a mask for being indoors and especially when being indoors is crowded.

As June slipped by, then, I and a couple friends had to make a decision about the trip to Ft. Collins (which was to include a brief stop in Great Bend, KS and a few days in Fayetteville, AR). Since the U.S. is mostly in a re-opening mode—and since several states such as my home state of SC are handling that badly, with Covid-19 cases increasing at record-setting rates—we decided that a trip while maintaining the same approach to social distancing created only slightly greater risks to ourselves and others.

Our day of hiking at Estes Park was temporarily detoured since park spaces were restricted (and we were unaware) due to Covid-19.

I understand that some would disagree with this decision, and I recognize those arguments certainly have credibility. Here, however, I want to share some thoughts about moving for over about two weeks through South Carolina, Kansas, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Some of the value in taking the trips has been witnesses first-hand the various policy and political/ideological differences of moving across the country. SC has some of the more antagonistic approaches to mask, for example (possibly only outclassed by Georgia), but just before I left the state, many towns were mandating in limited ways the wearing of masks.

Masks were not required in Kansas, and many people were not wearing masks like in SC, but the extreme rurality of Great Bend (very few cases of Covid-19) and the voluntary safety policies of some businesses felt far safer than being in SC.

Great Bend, however, has not moved to expanded outdoor seating as many other states have. The positive consequence of Covid-19 for my hometown, Spartanburg, SC, has been dramatic expansion in outdoor seating, much of which will be permanent (Main Street has been closed off for all restaurants to have open-air seating now).

While we went into the trip committed to outdoor or take-out eating only, the unfortunate result has been a few instances of eating indoors—although in establishments with significant care for safety and social distancing.

A powerful experience for those of us from SC has been to live for several days in areas with strict and clear mask requirements—first in Colorado and then once we arrived in Arkansas (which has just implemented the mask requirement a couple days before we arrived).

New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins required booking seating space online and had a diligent outdoor seating and ordering policy.
Maxline Brewery in Ft. Collins was one of the few places where we sat indoors briefly; this wall art, I think, captures well the need for community as part of our economic and social obligations.

Mandatory mask culture during this pandemic is, despite what detractors suggest, extremely conducive to restarting something like a normal economy and semi-normal public socializing.

While what businesses were open or semi-open has been a challenge for visitors, the mask requirement has clearly facilitated not just businesses reopening but consumer confidence.

As some friends back home have noted, being out of SC has likely been in many ways safer than not traveling. Colorado was refreshing in the clear and consistent messages about and wearing of masks; a couple establishments had very direct and even demanding signs outside about wearing masks and there appeared absolutely no resistance or loss of patronage.

As we headed back toward SC with a few-day stop in Arkansas, I expected a return to the new-normal of SC, but arrived in Fayetteville right as the state mandated masks and many business were just reopening.

We have had trouble finding fully open restaurants, but the practices in Arkansas have been even more diligent and reassuring than Colorado—requiring masks be worn until after ordering (and not once you are seated), for example.

I head back to SC in a couple days, and I also face returning to full-time face-to-face teaching in just 3 weeks. While taking the trip has increased to some unknown level risk, I will be required to much more significantly take daily risks with the start of fall courses.

There is no returning to normal after Covid-19, and “normal” has likely always been an illusion, a mirage. The world changes beneath our feet whether we want it to or not.

In my lifetime, over almost 60 years, many of the ways of the world and life have so dramatically changed I have trouble remembering when some of now’s normal didn’t exist.

Covid-19 has forced us to rethink many things, including how we function in relationship to each other, as communities and not just individuals. That, even more so than expanded outdoor eating spaces, may be the silver lining in this dark cloud of a pandemic—but only if we make the right decisions about being responsible members of a community and not rugged and ruthless individuals.

As John Dewey implored, we humans are not either individuals or part of a community. To be fully human is to navigate our individual selves with out communal selves.

To be free is not license; freedom is not without responsibility or accountability.

Mask requirements are no different than stop signs and lights, markers of taking care to balance our individual behavior with our communal responsibilities that often mute or even trump our individual wants.

Human existence is chaotic and inherently dangerous. To live is to die, and to live with varying degrees of abandon is to flirt with an unnecessary death.

That tenuous reality has a moral imperative in that each of us must live as if our lives are precious while also directing our commitment to the lives of others as equally (if not more) precious.

I did not cavalierly choose to take this trip, but the decision to reach for some tranquility and pleasure is certainly tinged with a degree of selfishness that I do not deny even as I have made the decision with my ethical commitments fully acknowledged.

Covid-19 implores us all to reclaim our communities and intimacies for everyone in ways that sacrifices no one. It is a gross and inexcusable fatalism to suggest that goal is futile.

It is never whether or not humans are capable; it is always whether or not we have the moral will to be fully human.


Canceled?: The Day Comedy Died

Lenny Bruce is not afraid

“Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” R.E.M.

Recently, when I watch standup specials through online services, I think about Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

As I have explained before, a foundational part of my critical Self was established during my teen years through listening to the comedy of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Along with them, The Firesign Theater and Steve Martin also had a profound impact on me, but Carlin and Pryor led me to studying the life and comedy of Lenny Bruce.

Lenny Bruce's Obscenity Trial Challenged First Amendment Rights ...
Lenny Bruce took obscenity to court.

Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor were incredibly important voices for free speech and the power of words, including the power of offensive words and the sacredness of those words.

So there is more than a bit of nuanced irony to the evolution of standup comedy in the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter era, an evolution that looks to me like the death of comedy.

Standup comedians—especially white male comedians—are quite predictable now; they turn immediately or eventually to the anti-cancel culture bandwagon that appears to be mandatory for a standup routine in 2020.

There’s a lot of “Don’t judge me because the line has moved” and “Comedy is a ‘joke,’ right?” kind of laziness in the routines. While contemporary comedians seem to be joining a tradition found in Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor, the ugly truth is that these routines are lazy and angry responses to a mostly mangled and even fabricated message about “cancel culture.”

Comedians have joined a backlash against cancel culture, and these challenges to cancel culture come from people who already have amplified voices, including outsized privilege in those voices as well as histories of skirting by with little to no accountability for their insensitivity and bigotry.

As Michael Hobbes explains:

While the letter itself, published by the magazine Harper’s, doesn’t use the term, the statement represents a bleak apogee in the yearslong, increasingly contentious debate over “cancel culture.” The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.

This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.

The panic over “cancel culture” is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis. The Harper’s statement, like nearly everything else written on this subject, could have been more efficiently summarized in four words: “Get Off My Lawn.”

Along a spectrum from Louise CK to Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, I want to know: Who among these men has been canceled?

Louise CK had his career temporarily interrupted for many years of sexual harassment and inexcusable sexual aggression. Allen hasn’t missed a beat in his career.

And Harvey Weinstein is a convicted sex criminal.

Is a temporary moment of mild accountability “canceled”?

Is rumor, innuendo, and published accounts charging someone with sexual assault “canceled”?

Is being found guilty of sexually violent crimes “canceled”?

The implication about and direct challenges to cancel culture seem to suggest that “cancelling” is unfair, widespread, and poised to end free speech.

This cartoon version of cancel culture is hyperbole, Urban Legend. It suggests a cavalier and indiscriminate assault on good and descent (white and male) people.

None of that is true, however.

As a white male, Louise CK will survive the brief pause to his career with excess wealth and fame; he will likely experience a rehabilitation phase and find a place where people just forget about everything he did.

Allen has never really suffered anything more than the stress of being accused publicly of sexual assault.

And being found guilty of a crime is not some sort of “canceling”; it is justice.

Some of the problems with standup comedy are simply being exposed by the cancel-culture backlash. Smart and culturally critical comedians often perform for audiences less informed or sophisticated than their material.

Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor could never know if their audiences were just cackling like children because of the cultural taboo around “fuck,” for example.

None the less, Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor were using words in order to interrogate not only those words but the failures of humans to interrogate their own biases and blind spots.

And none of these men were perfect; although all of these men faced genuine threats of censorship and career-ending consequences throughout the mid-twentieth century. Those threats, however, were directly about their language and critical comedy, and not about their personal behavior or failure to acknowledge bigotry in their routines.

It is a sad thing. The comedy levee is dry it seems.

We are left with the hollow ring of laziness against the childish laughter of an audience prodded with “Fuck cancel culture.”

Scholars, Educators, and Students as Public Writers

Early in my career as a high school English teacher in the Deep South during the early and mid-1980s, several weeks into the new school year, a tenth grade student became so exasperated that she blurted out in class, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write, read and write!”

In those days, my school system had a grade 7-9 junior high, and then high school was grades 10-12. Sophomores, then, were the transition grade, but for this student, my approach to teaching English was more transition than she could handle.

She had been an “A” student in English throughout junior high, where English had been primarily grammar exercises and vocabulary tests.

This student recognized what remains true throughout my 36-year career, the current second half as a professor of education; all of my courses at their core are writing classes.

While I taught myself how to teach writing throughout my 18 years as a high school English teacher (and soon gained the trust and even respect of my students, parents, and educators for my commitment to writing), I have learned even more over the more recent 18 years, navigating teaching writing as well as writing myself as a scholar and public writer in the context of higher education.

In What Academics Misunderstand About ‘Public Writing,’ Irina Dumitrescu addresses one of the key lessons I have learned working among scholars and academics who must publish and often have to teach writing themselves: “Even as readers, however, scholars tend to misunderstand how public writing — or as the public would call it, ‘writing’ — works, what it’s for, and what makes it good.”

Another distinction I have witnessed is that in higher education, most professors are scholars who must write, and then some are writers who are also scholars/academics. These two groups approach their own writing and the teaching of writing quite differently.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate courses, then, I include some key strategies that address some of the concerns raised by Dumitrescu about scholars but that tend to apply to K-12 educators as well as those in other fields or disciplines (see for example this graduate literacy course, this first-year writing seminar, and this upper-level writing/research course).

One fundamental strategy is requiring different writing assignments that must be submitted in multiple drafts and revised after receiving written feedback and feedback from conferences.

I tend to pair one public commentary assignment with a traditional scholarly essay including formal citation (such as APA or MLA).

These paired assignments help students consider the importance of writer decisions based on an identified audience, establishing the writer’s authority, and navigating the ethical use of evidence.

One very important point made by Dumitrescu is about writing quality between public writing and scholarship: “Academics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their standards do not need to be particularly high when writing for the public.”

In short, public writing and scholarship should both be well written, well supported, and engaging for the intended audience; both approaches to writing are, also, mostly acts of persuasion, making a valid and compelling argument.

However, public writing and scholarship achieve those basic goals in different ways.

To emphasize those differences within the overarching guiding principles above, I provide students these strategies for their public writing:

  • Think of a public commentary as a framed argument; that framing (as opposed to thinking “introduction/conclusion” structures) includes an opening and closing (both multiple paragraphs) that are linked by key terms, a similar image, or a guiding narrative. (See Barbara Kingsolver’s opening and closing paragraphs for an example of framing.)
  • Using personal narrative or nonfiction narrative is a powerful way to engage the reader, establish writer authority, and make an abstract argument concrete.
  • Formatting, writing structure, and citation/use of evidence are all different in public writing versus academic scholarship. For example, I provide students formatting and structure models for preparing a public commentary that addresses line spacing, paragraphing, hyperlinking (instead of formal citation), etc.
  • Public writing also must be vigilant about speaking to an identified audience (not fellow scholars), which impacts diction, style, and selective use of evidence (often focusing on one representative source instead of an overview of scholarship).
  • A tenet of creative fiction writing has long been “Show, don’t tell,” and I find this to be equally as valid in non-fiction writing, especially public commentary. When an expert writer is addressing an audience without expertise, the writer should always be striving to answer this: “How does this look?” In other words, public writing needs to be vivid and concrete so that the argument and evidence are compelling. (Scholars make a writer mistake often by depending on the argument and evidence alone to be compelling, failing to write in compelling and engaging ways.)

“[M]any of the qualities that make for good public essays — clarity, conviction, style — can improve your scholarly writing too,” Dumitrescu concludes. Ultimately, Dumitrescu offers a strong argument for the power of being a public writer if you are a scholar, but as a teacher of writing, I find this argument applies essentially to all contexts of teaching writing.

Having multiple experiences navigating between public and scholarly writing is not just effective but essential for all students as well to develop a nuanced and deep understanding of the complexities of writing.

What White Folk Want




(Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, p. 196)

What do white folk want?

Rigid accountability for other people.

License for “me” (the white view of the world is rugged individualism masking white nationalism/supremacy).

And “whiteness” never to be named, never voiced—only allowed to be embedded as an understood in “human” (“There is only one race, the human race”) or “lives” (“All Lives Matter”).

This last point is vital for the first two, in fact, and appeared recently on a Twitter exchange:

Reich is recognized as a Democrat, a progressive or liberal associated with Bill Clinton.

Yet Reich offers what he intends as a racially woke Tweet, only to expose the power of whiteness not to be named. Reich, of course, means “Black people weren’t even considered people by white people on July 4, 1776,” but omits the white context because in the U.S. whiteness is a given.

Even or maybe especially to, as Martin Luther King Jr. described, the “white liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.”

The mythologies masquerading as history leave out that white people came to the Americas to escape a specific religious persecution of them—in order to establish their own brand of persecution with them in charge.

The eventual rebellion from England, again, was not about universal human freedom, but about restarting white/man dominance on stolen land:

Let’s put our heads together
And start a new country up
Our father’s father’s father tried
Erased the parts he didn’t like (“Cuyahoga,” R.E.M.)

July 4, 1776, represents another independence for white men, the wealthy a bit more free than others. And, like Reich’s Tweet, the Preamble has a glaring omission: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [white] men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That independence for white men begun in the summer of 1776 also included their freedom to enslave humans as well as freedom to rape the enslaved.

But that use of “freedom” is also misleading because with the Declaration we witness a country established in the first two points above—accountability for other people who are not white or male, and license (not freedom) for “me.”

Well into the next century, the U.S. begrudgingly ended enslavement, and not until the next century did women earn the right to vote. Four decades after that, civil rights were acknowledged for Black people (again begrudgingly as well as with violent resistance and symbolic protests often by white political leaders in the South).

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have come quite a bit later and in our recent past for LGBQTIA+ people.

However in 2020, to understand the U.S., as James Baldwin repeated throughout his career, you can still expose whiteness by its relationship to Black people and Blackness; for example, the Reich/Moore Tweets.

What do white folk want?

Black Americans who assimilate into the unspoken whiteness called “American.”

But in that assimilation, there can be no confronting of whiteness. Certainly no dismantling.

White folk want Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, not Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick.

White folk want Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, not Barack Obama (a master assimilator who, however, rose too high).

White folk want the passive radical myth of Martin Luther King Jr., only tolerating MLK until he rose too high and had to be sacrificed to make that myth possible, not Malcolm X or James Baldwin.

White folk want white Jesus, not historical Jesus.

White folk want O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby, not Dave Chappelle.

White folk want Ta-Nehisi Coates, not #BlackLivesMatter.

Fit in to get in but don’t rock the boat.

Along with the unspoken given of whiteness and the essential rugged individualism myth to maintain white privilege comes the need for holding other people accountable and clinging to white license.

The frailty of whiteness has been exposed by Covid-19, in fact, even as the virus disproportionately ravages Black Americans—a painful real-life science fiction allegory of U.S. racial inequity.

The anti-face mask movement is white denial, white privilege, and white fragility in real time acknowledging very little about individual or public health but demonstrating that white folk want license, not universal human freedom.

Driving intoxicated is not freedom, it is license.

Public smoking is not freedom, it is license.

Refusing vaccines is not freedom, it is license.

Not wearing a face mask is not freedom, it is license.

But whiteness requires that the world be seen only as “I” and never “we” because “individual freedom” is a powerful code for white license.

White Americans are panicking because they sense a loss of white privilege, of white license.

The sort of white license that allows you to murder Black people but have your name emblazoned on public buildings, ground your political career in racism but have your name emblazoned on public buildings, lead a military revolt against your country to protect the license to enslave people but have statues built in your honor, or boast about grabbing women by the “pussy” but become president of the U.S.

It is 2020 and what do white folk want?

Rigid accountability for other people.

License for “me.”